Nearly 150 years after John Wesley Powell's pioneering trip through the Grand Canyon, the park still conceals remarkable places no humans have ever seen. Contributing editor John Harlin joins a crew of explorers on a journey of discovery.
Rich Rudow has never been trapped in a slot canyon. He’s never had a partner die in one, either. Which should offer some comfort as I watch him construct an anchor by wrapping a rock with a sling, then stuffing it into a water-filled crack at the lip of a 60-foot drop. But it doesn’t. The foot-long chockstone wobbles in its niche as Rudow carefully lowers his full weight onto the sling. I can’t help but remember the last loose rock I tied myself to, during a climb in the Swiss Alps: It exploded from the cliff, and I felt lucky to survive the fall with only two broken feet. As I dangled under a rescue helicopter en route to the hospital, I vowed never to trust another loose rock. But now here I am, eight months later, about to do just that.
Falling is only the most immediate of my concerns. The winter light is fading fast, and we don’t know if we can get through this unnamed and unexplored slot in the Grand Canyon even if the anchor holds. We entered the limestone crack a half hour earlier, at 4:30 p.m., and found a string of glittering pools filling the canyon bottom. At the initial drop, Rudow rappelled 100 feet into waist-deep water. Then he waded to the far side and lowered himself into another pool. At the distant end of the third water crossing, he was about to drop out of sight when he yelled up. “Hey guys, when the rope goes slack, bring the 120-footer down. But don’t pull this one until we know for sure it will go!”
Will it go? Will we be able to descend all the way to the canyon’s exit? The question echoed inside my helmet as I took my own plunge over the first edge. Rudow, who has spent more than 450 nights in the Grand Canyon exploring secret slots like this, has learned to study maps very, very carefully to judge how much rope to bring on a first descent. But the map tells you only the length of the canyon and the elevation of the entrance and exit. What lies between is always a mystery. We know this sharply cut fracture drops a total of 500 feet through the Redwall formation, but we don’t know if the elevation loss comes in a series of stair steps, allowing us to rappel it in stages, or if we’ll encounter a cliff that exceeds our longest rope, a 250-footer. What if it doesn’t reach?
Sliding down that first rappel, I was mesmerized by the glassy smoothness of the limestone, the gem-like quality of the pools, the 100-foot walls squeezing to just five feet wide at the bottom. And struck by the absolute impossibility of climbing back out once we pulled the rope. I could almost feel the quality of the air change as I descended, like the oxygen molecules themselves were buzzing with nervous energy. Good thing I didn’t know, until later, that Rudow himself was experiencing a rare moment of “high anxiety” as we descended into this unknown slot so late on a February day.
When I reached Rudow, he wrapped that chunk of rock to make an anchor for the next rappel. He tested the chockstone, and despite the wobbling it looked like it would hold. I supplied what canyoneers call a “meat backup” (his rope was hooked to me as well, so I could use my body to stop his fall if the anchor failed), then Rudow belly-slid over the edge. He rappelled to a pool, where he disconnected from the rope while treading water, then swam to the edge and continued downcanyon.
A few minutes later, I suppress my misgivings—the anchor held for Rudow—and follow him down the rope. Every yard I descend chips away at my anxiety, but I don’t dawdle. After I complete my own open-water disconnect, I’m left alone, jogging in place to stay warm in my wetsuit. Steep, smooth cliffs pinch the sky above, while sculpted bowls hold water still silty brown from the most recent flood. For the first time, I can stop concentrating on doing and start seeing, and it hits me that only Rudow and I have ever passed these polished gray and coarser red walls. The rock comes alive as I marvel that we’re the first humans to enter this slice in the Grand Canyon’s Redwall formation. Ironically, we’ve dubbed this remarkable canyon Plan B, because it was our second choice for the day. Which is why we’re in such a precarious position at twilight. Looking up, I notice that the sky is growing darker by the minute. Dusk is settling with winter speed. And we still don’t know if it goes. Then I hear a shout from below.