Words by Timmy O’Neill, Photos by Steve Fassbinder
The rains didn’t ruin the roads as we feared, but dark thunderheads still threatened in the distance. Danny G, a bright-eyed, kindness conduit wrapped in sinew, was at the wheel, leaving retraceable digital breadcrumbs via a satellite app. He navigated the slippery ruts and the soft metallic tang of bush and branch slapped across the fender, as we drove across a giant flatness that feels at odds with the unfathomable chasm that we know lay ahead.
This was my third canyoneering journey into the Grand Canyon with Danny and, fortunately, just before our departure, we found another demented soul to share the adventure, the fear and the wreck’reation with us. His name was Doom, which summons up the image of a real scythe-and-hood type, and we imagined a rough, dangerous-yet-appealing antihero. We also worried that his was an ominous moniker— days of pelting downpours had over-saturated the ground and the rains could also very well deliver a drowning deluge into the slot canyons we planned on descending. It would be a quick end.
Drops began to splatter the windshield. And Doom sat in the back seat—a joyous slim, shorn-headed six-footer, wearing decidedly non-sinister white Crocs below twill cutoffs, trying to read a day-old newspaper. Our supposed Reaper (and photographer) had an aura of more erratic self-under-employment than certain death.
Preparing for a multiple-discipline, seven-day trip in which you have to carry everything on your back demands that you compare the relative merits of every item you put in your pack with regards to safety and survival: One less carabiner equals two additional Clif Bars, a paperback book replaces ten more degrees of sleeping bag warmth, and convenience never enters into this equation as nothing about these trips is labor-saving.
We had planned an extreme adventure lollipop, from North Rim to a South Rim island of rock and back again. The trip would require canyoneering Mile 150 (a slot some Grand Canyon vets also refer to as S.O.B.) to the mighty Colorado and then paddling to Havasu Canyon, then hiking to and climbing up the Glen Rink exit to Mt Sinyala’s 5,441-foot summit, then walking upriver across and through the Sinyala fault to Olo Canyon, and then canyoneering back to the river before paddling back to Mile 150 and finally ascending and hiking to the car.
Canyoneering in the Grand Canyon provides a house of fun or of horror, depending upon your aggregate of life choices, which in turn inform your ability to experience comfort within the chaos. After enduring a drenching, micro burst, we shouldered our monster packs at the terminus of Mile 150 Canyon and headed off. As we began our descent down the somewhat-defined path, the biggest ever double rainbow appeared above us, an instant classic we dubbed the Insanebow. (Note: This hyperbolic phrase “biggest ever” is tossed around more than salad greens at a vegan pot luck when contemplating the scale of every component of this park, whose first name happens to be Grand.)
Due to the heavy storms, we decided to pick up an inReach satellite text device to receive friend-provided weather reports that would warn us of potential flash floods. We made it down through several layers of rock strata and into the wash before finding a bivy on an elevated rock ledge. We assembled ultra-light tarps using trekking poles, parachute cord and stacked rocks, then heated water to rehydrate those Mylar-bagged two-portion dinners, always consumed by one person. Food is the most coveted resource in The Big Ditch and when you eat meals down here, you tend to sit slightly apart, discreetly consuming your hard-carried fare.
Clouds obscured the nighttime sky, releasing intermittent drops, and I felt as if I were the one of us who was most nervous about a potential flash flood (but that also could have been because we only discussed it silently within our heads). There is something about the Biblical power of those sudden hydraulic onslaughts, the absolute sense of impending obliteration exploding around a canyon bend, that keeps a guy up at night. I didn’t fall sleep for hours.
By mid-morning we were at the first rappel. We excitedly donned our dry suits, helmets and harnesses. Mile 150 is a Grand Canyon classic, and it did not disappoint, serving up numerous rappels, swims in flooded slots, limestone narrows you could stem through and ridiculously exposed bypasses. Making good use of much of our gear, we finally reached the Colorado River at Upset Rapids.
Near the frothing turbulence of Upset—one of the few fearsome rapids to earn a full Grand Canyon rating of 10—we stashed the rappelling hardware, and switched from ropes to pack rafts. Luckily Doom works for Alpacka the leader in pack raft design and we unfurled and inflated the latest and lightest in personal floatation thrill-craft. It’s a technologically magnificent inner tube, worth more than my first car. We snapped slender aluminum tubes to carbon fiber blades assembling preying-mantis-like paddles, blew air into our PFDs as if prepping respiratory time capsules, and set off downstream into turbid, hyper-frigid waters. Gossamer threads glinted in the afternoon sun, a lazy butterfly landed on Doom’s helmet and we laughed like mischievous adolescents.
When the river narrowed due to debris deposited by flooding tributaries, we negotiated the boils and waves and passed wide of churning hydraulics. We considered walking the bigger rapids but opted for paddling through them, drawn on by the river’s current as much as by the gripping slipstream of the hero’s ruination. In the deep down here there exists both the path less taken and the path nonexistent, the latter arising out of thin air and disappearing behind you in swirling water.
Later that night, we sat huddled around the blue gas glow of a Pocket Rocket. We were thrashed, slack-jawed and … exhilarated. It felt like the aftermath of a first date between a rock-slide and a thunder storm. Each one of us were enchanted with a deep connection to the simplicity and boldness of this landscape. But we were also enlivened by our big adventure ambitions down here. And though some might judge us as nothing but adrenaline junkies looking for a fix, I prefer to think we are more akin to courageous, problem-solving addicts in search of sublime wilderness cruxes. The stars moved overhead within the Z-shaped horizon of my cliff-rimmed planetarium.
The following morning we fast-paced over sandy trails through Havasu Canyon. There’s a path-edge symmetry within the chaos of nature here, the straight line of green grass meeting red earth. Many have come to explore these stone sinuosities, a labyrinth as profound and mysterious as the folds of our cerebral cortex, yet only an elite few have discovered the improbable, vertical passageways connecting these geologic layers. The Glen Rink exit is one.
Travel over wild country in the Grand Canyon is an extreme variance through punishing terrain. It’s tough to truly appreciate the somewhat short yet hard-earned distances down here. It’s like comparing today’s dollar with one from the past, when you have to adjust for inflation: The modern-day trails above may take you further but the rough miles below, “walked through time,” are of an even more appreciable value. You really have to earn them.
We hefted pack and body up mammoth terraces that led us into a primal Land of the Lost. This was the start of the 5th class climbing, where a fall would be deadly, so we relied on the ropes we had stuffed in our packs. Even though the climbing was fairly easy, it was still vertical, exposed and exfoliating, with few opportunities to place protection. At one section, I removed my cumbersome backpack, balanced it onto a slight ledge, pulled up enough rope to create a lengthy leash, then climbed up through the tricky headwall.
At a slightly higher ledge, I yarded up my kit, before again properly tying in, shouldering the load and moving upwards. Then we encountered the strangest plant ever. As I belayed from above (I had somehow avoided this botanical oddity), Danny pulled himself up a corner and through the seemingly innocuous green bush, just another general nuisance on one of these Grand Canyoneering bush whacks. As he reached the ledge, I noticed the leaves were laminated onto his clothing and as he started to scream out, we realized in dread that each leaf was a cruel appliqué of a thousand Velcro needles. We dubbed the plant Medusa’s Tongue, an instant horror classic.
Over dinner atop the redwall limestone plateau, camped on a slab with potholes filled with rain water, we shared laughs over stories, the chatter born from what happened that day and what just might happen the next. It felt as if I could spend an entire life living within and talking about this biggest ever canyon, and it was then that I realized the positive paradox of this negative space. It’s made from what’s not there, carved via epic forces over eons. This mighty erosion that reveals impossible beauty and produces unlimited adventure, is a place shared with people thriving with purpose. This incredible nothing embodies my spirit.