By RYAN STUART
“I don’t know how we’re going to get out of there.” [pause] “Is that a keeper pool?” [pause] “That looks awful!” Three quotes; from three different men — this is not the conversation I want to hear before dropping into an unexplored slot deep in the Grand Canyon. Especially from this crew!
I’m standing at the lip of a 200-foot cliff, a canyoneering obstacle that’ll require a free-hanging rappel. The guys from the quotes above, some of the most experienced canyoneers in the country, are Rich Rudow and Todd Martin, the former (Rudow) is the general manager of the mapping and GPS company Trimble Outdoors. He alone has descended 150+ canyons over the years in the Grand, more than half of which were first descents.
The other guy, Martin, a quiet engineer with a dry wit, wrote the guidebook, literally, on canyoneering in the Grand — “Grand Canyoneering” — which is a 500-page, full-color labor of love released last fall. And the third voice is Dan Ransom, a cameraman who has been following the quirky duo for a few years for a documentary film, “Last of the Great Unknown,” about their obsession with tight spaces and long rappels.
The trio, under Rudow’s leadership, has brought me and two other adventurer/journalists to this point, a plateau near mile 148 on the Colorado River. It is early May, and we’re attempting a first descent of a side canyon. It is a major and uncharted feat. By far, the adventure is already the burliest “press trip” I’ve ever been on — and we haven’t even got to our main objective yet!
The adventure started with a two-hour dirt road drive from the Arizona town of Colorado City. After following Rudow along a maze of ranch roads in the dark — it’s handy having a map wizard in the lead! — we parked our cars in the middle-of-nowhere ranching country on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The first day we worked our way down “SOB,” or 150-Mile Canyon, which goes through distinct rock bands on old ranch trails. Further on, we slipped out of the desert sun and into the narrow confines of a red sandstone canyon. By lunch we were rappelling around huge chock-stones jammed in a gorge.
To save time we skirted some sections of the canyon on bighorn sheep trails, loose bypass routes with the threat of a death fall. Around dinner time, about 10 hours after hitting the trail, we emerged from the canyon on a cliff above the Colorado River. Upset Rapid roared below us as dark clouds skidded overhead.
Scrambling upstream we found a spot to access the river, inflated our pack rafts, and ferried across. We finally made camp just before dark on a limestone ledge 100 feet above the Colorado’s current.
The next morning we made a desert start (5a.m.) and hit the trail heading up-river to Matkat Canyon, a popular stop for rafting trips. We went up the Matkat for several hours, trekking beneath towering walls of red and gray stone. Eventually, we gained enough elevation to scramble up to the top of a layer where wild burrows, long-ago escapees from mining prospectors, had packed parks-grade trails along a rocky shelf.
Fully exposed to the sun, we struck a fast pace and sucked our hydration bladders constantly. The dry air was leaving us parched as soon as we stopped sipping. An hour and liters of water later we stood near our goal, the entrance to the unexplored slot canyon.
The moment of commitment came quickly — after a short scramble down we stood at the lip of a 100-foot rappel through a fluted and narrowing slot. It was sculpted marble-smooth from eons of flash floods. Floating down on the rope was one of the most spectacular rappels of my life. Out of the bright light and into the dark slot we went, once we pulled the rope we were committed to going down.
A couple more short rappels, a swim across a deep pool, and we were at the crux, an overhanging rappel where finding an anchor was not easy. But soon we were set, and with my pack hanging beneath me on tether to make it easier to stay upright, I lowered to the lip and looked down. Far below I could see Martin holding the end of the rope. He looked like an ant.
A few more feet of rope slide through my belay device and I was surrounded by air — free-hanging and slithering down in a deep crack in the Earth. With my belay device hot to the touch I finally landed on solid ground. I then watched my partners do the same, going from a speck of color high above, emerging from a notch to a full-size person 200-feet lower down. Once we’d made the long plunge we pulled the ropes, packed up and started the long hike out down Matkat Canyon to the Colorado again.
That night, as we filtered green-scum pond water and watched the sheer walls above the river shift from yellow to red to brown and finally black, we settled on a name for our first descent, “Dumptruck.” This came from the slot canyon’s abrupt end at the cliff plus the unfortunate effect the frog-pond water (our only choice in the desert!) had had on our systems over two days.
A short night watching the Big Dipper travel across the canyon above. Now all that was left between us and the cars on the rim was a two-mile float of the Colorado and 4,000 vertical feet of scrambling up slabs. We’d ascend fixed ropes and sweat along sketchy bypass trails back up to the North Rim. But after a first descent in the “Dumptruck” slot that didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.
—Ryan Stuart is a contributor to Gear Junkie and the gear editor at Explore magazine. See the website for “Last of the Great Unknown” for further information on Ransom, Rudow and crew’s upcoming canyoneering film.