Which is how Rudow, Lawrence, Todd Seliga, and I end up attempting a first descent through Plan B, with night falling, relaying messages to each other about when—and if—to pull the rope. Ten minutes after I call up to Lawrence, instructing him to pull our lifeline to the rim, he and Seliga join me and we follow Rudow in the gathering darkness.
We reach a point where the trickling stream plunges over an overhang. In the darkness we can’t see the bottom, but Rudow estimates it’s less than 250 feet—the length of our longest rope—to the talus. But he’s still anxious. “It was wet and cold, we didn’t have bivy gear, and I’ve never rappelled out at night,” he says later. “I didn’t want to get trapped.” Rudow rigs an anchor, this time with a webbing knot jammed into a half-inch-wide crack. This knot will be the anchor for our free-hanging rappel, along with a backup knot-in-a-crack a few feet higher. I want yet another backup. I don’t get one, but at least we tie a line to the rappel rope so three of us can be meat anchors while Rudow tests the system. He goes over the edge. The knots hold.
When it’s my turn for the free rappel, I spin in space. My headlamp stabs first the wall, then reflects off splashing water, then vanishes into the black void. For the first few seconds, I can only think about those knots-for-anchors, my life hanging literally by a thread. But my trust builds the longer I hang there and spin. These guys are real pros, and I’m slowly gaining confidence in their unconventional techniques. As the cycle repeats, I watch the rock come and go. It’s rhythmic, like breathing. I’m reminded of what Rudow calls these secret passages: airways in the Grand Canyon’s lungs.
And something else Rudow said hits me in a new way. As he’s become more skilled at finding and navigating these canyons, he’s been able to focus on the real rewards and less on the technical dangers. As he descends, he says, he mostly just thinks, What’s around the next corner? It sounds simple, but it’s really a sign of true exploration—the kind Powell did almost 150 years ago. And that’s exceedingly rare these days. I’ve pioneered new alpine routes, but mountains can’t hide from cartographers, satellites, and binoculars. Go online, and you can print out a pretty good topo to nearly everywhere on the planet—even zoom in for remarkable photographic details of remote corners of Tibet. Twenty-first-century climbers know the route. The only question is if their ability and gear will get them up it. This is different. This is traveling uncharted terrain. And when a canyon goes—when we come out the other side—we’ve added new territory to the known world.
Over the following two days, we move camp downstream toward the next set of slots on Rudow’s list. After bouncing down thunderous Lava Falls—no spills—it’s party time. Rudow shows up at the riverside celebration in a pink bodysuit and is dubbed Canyonman. The festive atmosphere isn’t just for running the rapids. Lava also marks a transition point where the Colorado River emerges from its constrictive canyon and opens into a broad desert valley. The warming spring air magnifies the sense of openness.
But the change also signals the coming end. We’ve notched 19 slots in 21 days. There are only three virgin canyons left on Rudow’s list. After finding another dud in Indian Creek, the day after running Lava, it’s hard not to wonder if the best is behind us.
It sure feels that way at one of the last camps, which looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Sightseers’ helicopters swarm from the Hualapai Indian Reservation on the south shore of the river. Away from the arid, buzzed-over campsite, the mood improves; after all, this is the Grand Canyon. But the ravine ahead is wide, gravel-bottomed, dry, and hot. Rudow has targeted a sister canyon to this one just a few hundred yards over. How different can it be?