The gust that slams us is so violent, for a second I can’t tell if we’re at the front end of a flash flood or in the path of a wayward jet.
I’d heard it coming from miles away, a furious roar that peeled off the South Rim, ripping through piñon junipers and plunging down the 1,000-foot-deep chasm of Royal Arch Creek. When it finally blasts us, bending our tent poles and flattening the nylon against our faces, I experience a briefly suffocating reminder of the Grand Canyon’s raw power. Yet strangely, in the momentary disorientation of impact, I feel calm–happy, even–to be in this place. Even the presence of my 11-year-old son, Austin, doesn’t make me rethink my decision to forge on, despite ominous rain clouds and the crushing gusts. After 15 years of scheming, nothing is going to stop me from getting to Royal Arch.
I’ve hiked every trail and established route off the canyon’s South Rim, but I’ve never made it to the Arch. Considered the Hope Diamond of canyon treasures, the largest natural bridge in the park lies amid a flotilla of buttes and spires in the Aztec Amphitheater in the remote central part of the canyon. Just getting to the trailhead involves a brain-rattling drive on a 35-mile-long jeep road. Then it’s 14 miles of expert-level backpacking across an obstacle course of scree slopes and greasy pour-offs.
Those challenges, plus the usual workaday stuff–raising Austin, caring for dying parents, juggling two jobs–had conspired to keep me away. But in October, when Austin hiked the difficult New Hance Trail, I decided he was ready to accompany me to Royal Arch. In November, the plan was set. We would follow a route first charted by Harvey Butchart. From the mid-1940s to the 1980s, Butchart pioneered hundreds of off-trail routes. His discovery of Royal Arch, in 1959, made him an instant guru among Grand Canyon groupies, who later snapped up his guidebooks, Grand Canyon Treks, I, II, and III.
Of course, Butchart’s fanaticism came at a cost: In his quest to explore every inch of the canyon, he all but abandoned his family. Knowing this, my solution for years has been to bring the family along. Austin made his first trek into the canyon before his fifth birthday, and has spent 75 nights below the rim. But I still have some trepidation. On this hike, we’re tackling technical, canyoneering-style difficulties. If Austin breaks a leg or becomes hypothermic, it could take up to three days to get help. He’s comfortable with Grand Canyon terrain, but as the wind kicks up again, sending rocks clattering, I wonder: Have I become so focused on my own checklist that I’d put my son at risk?