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Backpacker Magazine – June 2012

Over The Edge

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.

by: John Harlin

(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)
(Photo by: Dan Ransom)

Instinctively, I looked around for an anchor, something from which we could rappel down the first 50-foot drop, but I didn’t see anything that looked safe. Then Lawrence picked up a rock the size of a kiwi. He wrapped a piece of sling around it, and jammed it in a crack. This makeshift chockstone was our rappel anchor. Most climbers would be horrified—I’ve used knots and pebbles like this in desperation, but never as a first choice. Lawrence tested the protection. It failed. But he repositioned the rock, and this time it held.
We dropped one by one into a waist-deep pool. But after the initial water, boulders and broken rocks littered the canyon floor. Soon we discovered why: A massive chockstone blocked the canyon, preventing flash floods from flushing the debris to produce the polished, marble-like floors that make the best slots so elegant. We bypassed this chockstone with a short rappel, hoping to find clean rock below. But smooth stone and reflective pools came few and far between. Mostly we hiked on rubble sandwiched between sheer but unremarkable limestone walls. We imagined greatness. We only got pretty.

But real exploration has no guarantees—especially when it comes to these unknown slots. Sometimes you discover cathedrals painted cherry and gold by sunlight bouncing off limestone walls, with glittering pools overhung by magical rock formations. At those moments, it feels like fairy dust opens the stone as you go. Other times? Well, a canyon can look tantalizing on paper but turn out to be just scrub and dust. True exploration, as John Wesley Powell surely knew, includes the boring as well as the beautiful.

Unfortunately, Plan A yielded more of the former than the latter. At the exit, wetsuits came off and the mood took a downward turn. It was hard not to bemoan the unrewarded effort. On an earlier, similar hump, Aaron Locander, 32, from Phoenix, at least found some dark humor in the struggle. “I don’t actually like canyoneering,” he’d drawled sardonically, his large waterproof camera system thumping against his chest as he stepped over chaparral. “My true passion is carrying scuba gear through the desert.” Now, he remained silent. The others talked of dinner and sleep.

There was good reason to call it a day. It was already late on a winter’s short afternoon (and we’d been up since 4 a.m.). But still, I gave voice to my private hope: “What about Plan B? Maybe that’s the good one. Rich, do you think we could squeeze it in before dark?”

“Probably not before dark,” said Rudow, “but we can find out!” Four of us wanted to give chase. The rest of the group returned to camp.

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