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AZ: Grand Canyon Crack Baby

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by Ram, Feb 27, 2014.

  1. Ram


    Great canyon. I was on the first descent. Rich Rudow, Guy Smith, Denali Mike, along with filmeister Dan Ranson escorted some folks from Men's health. Dan's footage is wonderful as always and I would be my life that he wasn't responsible for the "Dude" theme within. Still a lot of fun. Click the video

    From the parking lot, the Grand Canyon looks fantastic: colorful layers of geological progression, spectacular reflections of light, and deep, gorgeous valleys along the Colorado River’s serpentine route, which traces this epic wonder’s entire 277-mile wingspan.
    But make no mistake: this honey-hued jewel will kill you. It has enough hazards, booby traps, and surprising twists of terror to fill a Harry Potter novel. It’s not just the white-water river runs or steep canyon walls. It has those for sure, and my recent entry to this natural marvel—i.e., my first hour in the Canyon—almost saw me wiped clean off the face of the earth about 20 times during a 1,200-foot hike down a nearly vertical precipice.
    No, I’m also talking about ridiculous, dry riverbeds filled with huge boulders you traverse as though in a minefield, one at a time, for hours. I’m talking gnarly, saw-toothed ledges that will make mincemeat of your fingers and deadly cactus patches that envelop you so slowly that you don’t realize you’re becoming penned in by lethal foliage. I half-expected those little bastards to start leaning their 4-inch, razor-sharp quills slowly, deliberately in my direction as I wandered deeper into their midst. Then there are the scorpions. Okay, we only saw one of those, and it was a baby, but it certainly didn’t look too worried about us.
    Indeed, the Grand Canyon is, straight-up, one terrifying ordeal after another. It is neither for the feint of heart nor wobbly of ankle. Yet it also holds, deep in its craggy cleavage, an astonishingly varied array of visual treasures that are completely hidden from the North and South Rim parking lots. “The truth is, 99 percent of the people who visit Grand Canyon see only 1 percent of the whole thing,” said canyoneer Rich Rudow, who has logged more than 150 explorations of Grand Canyon slot canyons, the narrow tunnels buried deep below the valley floors. “Some of its greatest treasures are simply inaccessible to cars, so you have to work harder for them. But there are 1.1 million acres of Grand Canyon that people avoid! Those who venture deeper in, and who accept the challenges of this unique environment, can see things that are in many ways even more spectacular than what you get from above.”
    The slot canyons have captivated Rudow and his fellow explorers so much that dozens of their explorations have been first-descents—that is, his teams were likely the first humans to ever set eyes on the sinuous subterranean limestone tunnels. (See more about their obsession at They approach their targets expedition-style, taking three, five, or up to seven days to reach the slots, rappel through them, and then hike back out. They carry everything they need in their specialized canyoneering packs, seek out water to replenish their stores every day, and camp out every night under the stars. (Yes, tents are too big of a hassle—and weight gain—for these bad-asses.)
    The reward he spoke of sounded pretty good to us—rarely-seen slivers of Grand Canyon beauty? Sure! The fact that these treasures are guarded so menacingly promised an experience that would be all the more satisfying. That’s why Men’s Health decided to enlist the help of Rudow and two of his canyoneer comrades, Guy Smith and Mike Schasch, to explore the unseen Grand Canyon, to prove to ourselves that by going a few extra steps, you can have an experience that’s vastly more satisfying than a mere drive-by or raft trip. This is, after all, a series of bucket-list adventures we’re touting here, and if Grand Canyon is on your list, why not do it right? Why not earn it. (Watch for our video of this adventure on this page later this month!)
    Just for kicks, we invited a Men’s Health reader along for the ride, too. We shot out a notice on Facebook for adventure-craving guys who might be up for something special and, of the hundreds of entries we received, Nick Maute’s rose to the surface. The 28-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., hotel business manager hit all the right notes in his submission by describing his personal definition of adventure: “Isolation, survival, and full connection with the elements—being controlled by the environment instead of doing the controlling, and putting yourself in a situation where even a minute into the future is a giant question mark.”
    He jumped at the opportunity, and after weeks of persistent warnings and frightening-sounding waivers, he met me in Las Vegas in late January for our five-day combined training session and slot-canyon exploration. We drove three hours north to a remote gas station just outside of Fredonia, Utah. There, we met with Rudow, Smith, and Schasch. The three guys promptly opened up the back of our rental SUV and schooled us mercilessly in what, precisely, we would not be carrying into the Grand Canyon...
    Grand Canyon adventure, step one: Pack wisely
    For starters, I would not be carrying my giant four-pound binoculars with me. (I'm an astro-geek, and knew the skies deep in the Grand Canyon would be blissfully starry.) They laughed their asses off at those, so back in the car they went. Same with my extra socks, shirts, and underwear. Two each, max. Must be wool or synthetic—no cotton! We both carried base-layers, cushioned socks, and beanie caps from SmartWool. The merino would wick moisture naturally and minimize odor. My extra pair of pants also got chucked, with the assumption that duct tape would come to my rescue if I got a tear. So my Fjallraven trekking pants—a Norwegian brand now showing up in the U.S.—would have to see me through five days of relentless canyoneering.
    So that covered what not to bring. The list of gear we actually did take came straight from Rudow, based on his years of canyoneering experience. We had down-filled jackets from Patagonia, Black Diamond helmets, carabiners, backpacks (the 55-liter Speed 55's), and harnesses, lightweight Therm-A-Rest NeoAir air mattresses, and highly compressible Mountain Hardwear sleeping bags. We had dry-bags, wet suits, and essentials like lip balm, sunblock, and Advil, to reduce inflammation as our bodies struggled against the constant abuse.
    We also had food, enough to provide 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day. We took calorie-dense products like cheese and salami, as well as freeze-dried meals we could heat up with the stove. Oh, and a whole bunch of Red Bull, because deep inside the Grand Canyon isn't a place you want to run out of energy. We tallied up precisely what we'd need for five days, and retired the rest back into the truck.
    The right shoes were the final key element of this trip, particularly given the fact that one of the fiendishly clever ways Grand Canyon can ruin your day is simply claiming your toenails on the way in. "In Grand Canyon the approaches are 10 times harder than other slots, and if you have the wrong shoes, you'll regret it," Rudow said. "When you hike steep downhill sections your foot will slide into the toe box and you will lose your big toenails. Some canyoneering shoes may work extremely well in a lot of places, but in Grand Canyon most will work extremely poorly."
    Duly noted. We scored a few pairs of ultra-sticky Camp Four shoes from Five-Ten, which specializes in pro-grade canyoneering gear. I was amazed by how well the shoes kept me upright while clamoring over steep rock surfaces that would have made quick work of other shoes. Our feet stayed happy the entire trip—though some duct tape did come to my rescue to stave off a blister that had developed on one toe. Given that we would hike about 40 miles over terrain that was maybe 2 percent flat and level, that's pretty good.

    We camped the first night above our entry point in a valley called Hack Canyon, and woke early to catch the sunrise. We were lucky—the right mix of clouds and clear sky created a spectacular array of color both in the sky and on the canyon walls. Rudow showed Maute and me the general area of our hike, training session, and target slot. It was all visible in a single view—representing only a modest sliver of Grand Canyon sprawl—but it would take roughly 20 miles of hiking to traverse it all, and another 20 to return. (The area is part of the Kanab Creek Wilderness Area, just a hair outside the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. It’s still very much Grand Canyon, however.)
    We loaded our gear into our packs, averaging about 40 to 50 pounds on each of us, and began our descent. The first phase was tricky—that 1,200-foot drop from our pickup trucks to the canyon floor. It was a harrowing experience, with lots of zig-zagging, gravelly footing, and sheer vertical drop-offs inches from your path. We made it down, and were rewarded by the sight of a small herd of wild horses grazing placidly nearby. But when I looked back up I began to wonder about climbing that monster again on our way out of there.
    “Don’t worry,” Rudow laughed. “It’s actually easier going up.”
    I sensed a huge lie.
    We broke for lunch and then made our way to our next campsite, reaching it after about three hours. I was the group’s anchor—meaning, of course, the dead weight. The last in line. The limiting factor. Rudow, Smith, and Schasch are used to this and tackle any terrain like mountain lions. Maute was younger than my 44 years, fitter, and much better prepped for this than I was. He had been doing stairs for two months with a full pack on to prep for this challenge. I did full-incline treadmill work with a full pack, but that wasn’t nearly as beneficial as Maute’s regimen. The pack and unsteady terrain made me cautious and slow, perhaps a bit excessively. The growing blister exacerbated my discomfort and hesitance.
    I asked Maute how he was holding up.
    “This is great,” he said in his thick southern accent. “I’m loving it. Let’s get there and do this thing! I’m so ready.”
    Punk. So I was indeed alone in my misery—or so it seemed, anyway. But the guys treated my relative sloth with humor, and in truth they only had to give me about 15 minutes of catch-up time in total. Still, it was a humbling experience. But the exertion made for a sensational night’s sleep and recovery later on at our camp site, where, incidentally, we discovered a beautiful Ancient Pueblan panel—rock paintings perfectly preserved on a wall a respectful distance from where we camped. We had our first of many nights under the stars.
    Grand Canyon adventure, step three: Overcome your fear
    The next day was our training session. We went to a slot that had been scouted—that is, seen from above and below—but not explored all the way through. So even though our bigger target canyon had already been first-descended a few years prior by Rudow and a different team, our training canyon would be a legit first descent. Rudow showed us the ropes—literally, of course. It was two hours of this carabiner goes here, this one here, this is your brake, this is your descender, etc. Tie this on like so, lock your descent by tying this here, and in an emergency do this. We would always have safety mechanisms in place, and always have one of the experienced guys below us holding the rope, ready to tighten the slack—thereby arresting the rope’s movement through the friction-controlled descender—if we got into trouble. Nevertheless, it’s still a daunting proposition, hurling yourself off a hard surface and into thin air. We practiced rappelling off a few 15-foot overhangs, and then headed for the slot.
    There was a surprise there—the three rappels included an almost 80-foot free-drop, meaning we didn’t have footing almost the whole way down. It would be just us, the rope, and our wits. Here’s where Maute and I had our first taste of real canyoneering. As Rudow and the other guys assessed the descent and set up their ropes and anchors, Maute and I surveyed the frightening drop, which meant inching closer and closer to the edge of the precipice. We could only see the bottom—and not an inch of what lay between. My stomach tightened. I got butterflies. I wondered how I could get out of this without calling for a chopper. (That’s the problem with canyoneering—once you start, you have to continue all the way to the bottom, since you bring your ropes with you after every rappel. There’s literally no going back.)
    The tension was briefly broken by the presence of a fox that materialized on the same ledge we were navigating. He took one look at us, decided he couldn’t bear to see us all die, and sprinted effortlessly up a 20-foot vertical slope that it had just taken us 45 minutes to climb down. We marveled at his dexterity, and then returned to the task at hand, i.e., not dying. After Schasch, a 28-year-old professional canyon guide, went down to belay us, my turn came. It was a terrifically challenging start, with very little room for error as you go over the edge.
    There’s a point in canyoneering—a transitional moment—where your load shifts from your body to the rope, from your hands and knees grasping at stone to you simply hanging there in free space. You worry in the seconds beforehand that you’ll forget how to brake, or that you’ll freeze, or simply slip and plummet before anybody can do anything to help you. That and more raced through my mind on that ledge. But I had an epiphany: Eventually you have to stop being such a wuss and just go over the damned thing.
    Maute, it turns out, had a similar revelation. “There were many situations we faced that would not have been possible without being at peace with the fact that one wrong move, one minor malfunction could result in serious bodily injury and even death,” he said. “Being okay with that was the only way I was able to push through. Coming to terms with the possibility of being killed, ironically, created the rush and the edge I needed to see past fears and hesitations.”
    I pushed through, as well, dropped myself over the edge, and instantly hung there, completely safe. I rappelled down slowly, savoring the view—the dark limestone and the water-carved curves of the walls around me. It was truly beautiful, and I wondered how the next day’s slot would compare. I became more excited than fearful.
    Yes, let’s do this thing.
    Grand Canyon adventure, step four: Triumph
    Early the following morning, we hiked a solid nine miles along Kanab Creek to our primary target slot. It rained nearly the entire day. We encountered the Cactus Patch of Death, and I stumbled over many, many boulders. Much of the terrain had the consistency of sand, which made it the equivalent of a multi-mile beach hike—that is, hard. (Great workout, though!)
    Fortunately, I was learning to adapt to all this, partly from my hard-won experience, partly from the team’s guidance, and partly from some coaching I’d received before flying to Las Vegas. I had reached out to some guys who know an awful lot about physical challenges, the team of athlete trainers at Red Bull. Per Lundstam, the company’s High Performance Manager, suggested a few areas to focus on when you’re in the middle of a new, particularly grueling challenge. “In this case we really do emphasize the importance of getting good sleep, as part of your recovery from one day and your preparation for the next,” he said. This, he explained, helps your body rebalance its recovery efforts and all its hormonal activities. In terms of muscling through a long day, Lundstam advised paying close attention to nutrition. “You want to slow down the process of breaking down sugars for energy by having a steady protein intake,” he said.
    He was, of course, right: when I proactively managed my nutrition, instead of reacting to what my body seemed to need—that is, when I ate for fuel, rather than recovery—I was consistently better off. The Red Bull in my pack proved to be well worth its weight. I made it through that nine miles with my feet, legs, and psychology intact.
    Maute faced his own challenges at this point. “As we headed to the camp site, my legs began to feel the burn, and fear set in—the voice in my head screaming, ‘You will fail! You are unprepared and undeserving of this, so give up now!’ ” he said. “It hurt to tell myself that, but it would've hurt even more had I listened. I had to work so hard to build the mental toughness to press on. But I had faith in the people around me, who all had blind hope and faith in my ability to make it through a grueling five days. This was the fuel I needed.”
    Finally, the main attraction arrived: Our descent of the major slot canyon. We had an easy hour-long hike early that crisp, sunny morning along the ridge, and arrived at the entry around 10 a.m. We put on wet suits—parts of the canyon were filled with ice-cold water that we’d have to swim through—and harnesses, and slowly began our traversal. The entire slot is only about one-third of a mile long, but it’s a daunting endeavor. Our first rappel took us down a stack of boulders that were clearly deposited from high above the canyon wall, and which had taken up semi-permanent roles plugging the entrance to the slot. Geology in action.
    Our second rappel took us down a sloped wall, and the third, over a modest overhang and into a dark, deep pool of water. The fourth, rappel, however, was the monster: a 100-foot free-rap from a blind, jagged ledge. I got butterflies again. Rudow, Schasch, and Smith again set about assessing the rappel and configuring the rope anchors, while Maute and I helped out where we could. The ledge we had to go over was jagged, sharp, and unsupported from the bottom—so when we went over our feet would instantly start dangling freely. It was a scary proposition. Again, I had to put my training into play: keep my right hand on the brake line, my left hand out from under the rope—lest it be trapped there by my own weight—and just ease myself over. It worked, and again found myself handing securely amid a beautiful, limestone cavern, even more awesome than that in our training slot.
    I again lowered myself slowly, to absorb the scenery around me. It’s a rare opportunity to see something like this not from above or below, but from the middle—to stare into a cavern on equal footing with it, so to speak. I reached the bottom, shouted that I was “off rope,” and watched Maute’s legs appear from over the ledge high above me. He slithered down like a champ, and was equally exhilarated at the bottom. We agreed that not only was this all starting to take hold, but it was actually starting to be … fun.
    We popped out of the slot at around 3 p.m., and after a round of high-fives, a bit of drying off in the sun, and then lunch, we began our return home. We logged nine miles that day on the way back to Hack, then six the next to the base of our 1,200-foot canyon climb-out, where I learned that, indeed, Rudow had lied to me. That final climb is a bitch.
    But when we finally climbed out—exhausted, but intact—Maute and I felt we’d earned our comrade’s approval, as well as, if you like, the Canyon’s. We survived every challenge she threw at us, and were rewarded grandly for our efforts. Later, Maute reflected on the impact of the trip: “For a week, we trekked around, up and down canyons, over large rocks, steep cliff faces, and ancient sandstone. We inhabited caves and canyons once called home by Native Americans, witnessed their artistry and their handiwork first-hand,” he noted. “Time went by slower, the real world I called home didn't matter. Problem-solving and teamwork became our way to success and survival. We trusted each other with our livelihood and we put our lives in the hands of carabiners and rope. We overcame obstacles I knew we were capable of, but that we may not have on our own put ourselves in positions to overcome.”
    Note: Canyoneering requires significant skill, experience, and training. (It also may require a permit, depending on the location.) Do NOT attempt a trip like this without the proper preparation and equipment. This is especially true in Grand Canyon, where canyoneering is currently a controversial activity. The National Park Service is considering limiting access to the Canyon, arguing that the activity could damage the park. Canyoneers, including Rudow, argue that the proper restrictions and oversight can prevent damage and keep the park’s inner beauty accessible to all determined to seek it out. We’re taking Rudow’s side on this one.

    To learn more about canyoneering in the United States, visit the Coalition of American Canyoneers.
    Men's Health is partnering with Red Bull to help you create your Ultimate Adventure. Visit The Men's Health Bucket List for details.
    Mountaineer, Kevin, rick and 2 others like this.
  2. Mike

    Mike epic blarneys

    BHAM, WA
    Surprised they used the canyon's name in the vid...ha!

    Bunch of great footage went unused. In the first canyon, we had blocked a fox from his exit. He ran through the group and then bounded up a rappel. Amazing.

    Thanks to Dan for keeping us boys in-line, not an easy task.
    Jeremy Freeman likes this.
  3. ratagonia


    Mount Carmel, Utah

    Dang - hope Dan will release a short on Mr. Fox!!

  4. Rich Rudow

    Rich Rudow

    Dan did get a clip of the fox but I'm not sure he can actually release it or if he even has it now. I think he had to turn all of the footage over to Men's Health. For the record, the fox was a solid 5.6 climber and he made that 20' wall look EASY! Makes me want to retire my sticky rubber and test how my toe nails will do on Supai sandstone :)

    Jeremy Freeman, Kevin and ratagonia like this.
  5. Kevin


    Wow, that was SWEET! Thanks for sharing.
  6. Dan Ransom

    Dan Ransom Staff Member

    Salt Lake
    After this experience we named the slot "Starfox."

    Pretty wild little encounter for sure!
  7. Ram


    Very ciool
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