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.
On February 5 last year, the group gathered at the Lee’s Ferry put-in. The expedition included legendary figures within the tight-knit community of canyoneers—including Tom Jones. The 54-year-old owner of Imlay Canyon Gear and author of Zion: Canyoneering is simply known as The Emperor to canyon aficionados. On his website, he sums up the pursuit like this: “We go down canyons. And find out what is there. And have fabulous adventures. We use ropes, often. Our hands and feet, quite a bit. Our shoulders, elbows, hips, thighs, calves, backsides—also quite a bit. Our cleverness, our wit, our fortitude, our sense of humor, our pluck, our desperation, our relationships with one another, our spirit of adventure—all these at times, we use.”
The team also includes Dale Diulus, 51, who was Rudow’s first Grand Canyon hiking partner. They met in the 1980s, when Rudow was what Diulus describes as a “long-haired, motorcycle-riding, rock- and metal-music-loving young man” who had just married Diulus’s sister. Their backpacking trips went increasingly off-trail and finally down a few canyons, where Rudow discovered his calling. His first slot was Rider Canyon in 1998, which required some aggressive scrambling, but no ropes. Then came longer, steeper drops. “Pretty quickly we were doing short rappels and my wife got very uncomfortable with our trips,” Rudow remembers. “She bought us rock climbing lessons because she was convinced that we had no idea what we were doing.”
Rudow learned how to handle a rope, but he says the technical challenges weren’t what motivated him. “I didn’t really care if rappels were involved or not,” he says. “I was—and still am—fascinated with the beautiful microenvironments and the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting to a place that few people—if any—have seen before.”
In 2006, Rudow met Todd Martin, then 42, who was already an accomplished canyoneer. Martin and Rudow together became the Lewis and Clark of slots in the Grand Canyon. Martin, an engineer and guidebook writer, is tall, thin, and too introverted to join our crew. Rudow, by contrast, is almost short, a fireplug of muscle, and so unabashedly extroverted that he leads our expedition like a benevolently demanding CEO (indeed, he runs Trimble Outdoors, a GPS technology company in Phoenix).
As of last year, at the start of the expedition, Rudow and Martin had descended 117 canyons in the park—about half of them first descents—with another 80 on their ever-growing to-do list. What remains has never been seen. Even Google Earth can’t offer a hint of what lies below the rim. There’s only one way to discover what’s inside one of these narrow gorges: Go in, and hope you can find your way out.
Rudow may downplay the technical side of canyoneering, but you won’t survive long in sheer, wet, slick, cold canyons without becoming an expert at improvising protection. I’m amazed—and ultimately impressed—by what he and his crew do on vertical rock. I’ve been climbing mountains for half a century, and have notched first ascents from the Alps to Tibet, but none of my alpine travels fully prepared me for this. When I first joined the expedition, their ropehandling immediately put me on the exciting edge of trust.
We were on the rim of a slot we dubbed Plan A, because on the topo map it looked long, skinny, and deep—all the earmarks of a five-star slot. Of the two options that day, it was the consensus first choice. The canyon split the ground in front of us, but it was so narrow we couldn’t peer into the blackness until we stood at the rim—and even then we couldn’t see the bottom.