Going Deep

An adventure climbing and packrafting in the wild corners of the Grand Canyon attempts to answer the question—why am I here?

All photos by Timmy O’Neil

Our public lands may not have saved my life, but they definitely have defined it—and my spirit is animated and body agitated with each visit to these wild playgrounds. If you can be reincarnated as a place, I want to come back as the Grand Canyon. Every opportunity to drop out of convention and into the canyon is a chance to surrender to this splendor. And since I was attending the Flagstaff, Arizona, Mountain Film Festival in April, I contacted local Danny Giovale with hopes to go deep. As a “devotee of the desperate,” he views the gorgeous, tortuous terrain as both a testing ground for the products he crafts at Kahtoola, but even more edifyingly, as a concert hall in which to compose a symphony of multiple outdoor disciplines, performed at the highest level. 

As we switchback down the Bright Angel trail, I tap into the rock strata like a third rail, zipping along between epic vistas. I experience visual whiplash as my eyes are pulled from sky-scraping temples down into sinuous side canyons, then back up again. My response to this raw, powerful beauty is the whispered “wow” of the awestruck, appreciative pilgrim. 

Danny and his partner, Myriam, are noticeably more nimble as they are both conditioned trail hounds and resolute gram-shavers.  They are either in the backcountry attempting an audacious link-up or in their garage tinkering on their set-ups, and they seem happiest when they’ve shed the customs and costumes of modern living in exchange for the texture and trappings of life outdoors. 

Since I am not a light and fast disciple, my kit is heavier, but I also opt to carry a book and letter-writing supplies, literally feeling the weight of my words. Our three days of food will stave off starvation, but it’s not enough to keep us from constantly craving more calories—and I won’t be eating my words.

The staccato of our trekking poles and thudding feet tap a joyous morse code of “savor our souls,” and over the nine-mile descent, we pass multi-day hikers and multi-mule trains before finally inflating our packrafts on a sandy beach below Pipe Creek. I am so smitten by the thoughtful assembly of seams and fasteners that my sense of affection for Alpacka’s ingenuity and craftsmanship gives new meaning to the term “love boat.” Less than a river mile later, I run the tumult of Horn Rapid, buoyed by the craft and decades of whitewater experience, just managing to tweeze the line between exploding waves and collapsing holes—a sublime dice roll. 

We deflate, repack, and shoulder a lifetime’s worth of decision making before setting off uphill. I am essentially a personal moving company, having spent the last 30-plus years learning to pack the essentials in the smallest space, to be carried to the next home, which for us will be the edge of Trinity Creek miles above. Our water source that night is a large, stagnant pothole with a chlorophyll hue awhirl with tadpoles. It requires pre-filteriing with a t-shirt. As Danny deals with dusk hydration and Myriam hunkers between boulders to prep dinner, I attempt to erect my tent in gale forces only to snap a pole. 

As the temperature drops, the spitting rain becomes blowing flurries, and I burrow into my bag wearing all my clothes. Under headlamp light, I read a few pages on the craft of writing from 

All photos by Timmy O’Neil

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird then pen a field-note letter to practice the lessons. I dream of falling as sand and grit gust across my face. 

We’re up at first light as dark clouds scud across a gun-metal sky. We stuff calories into our bodies and into our day packs. Myriam’s movements are concise from years of guiding hikes, and she’s always ready before me, contrasting my indiscriminate style of half-finished tasks. Although, once off the line, I’m unwavering in my pursuit of the summit, which is the 7,006-foot-high top of Isis Temple, one of the most technical and physically demanding prominences in the canyon. 

The scale is monstrous and requires an ambitious patience, akin to eating an elephant. I divide the day into geologic chunks, sizing up the steep slopes and vertical walls into discrete “suffer sections.” We are off trail and careful not to tread the ancient, delicate cryptobiotic soil as we wend through a defensive landscape of piercing cacti and sharp rock. A lack of respect or lapse of awareness is taxed with blood and barbs. 

It’s an insistent stair-master class in recon and route finding that requires constant adjustment to the varied conditions underfoot. We cross no-fall sections of hardscrabble peppered with cobbles, like traversing tornado-racked gingerbread houses perched on the edge of oblivion. The consequences dispel false moves and underscore my intention to encounter life and not simply avoid death, with, “…every atom of me in magnificent glow,” as Jack London wrote. 

We flake the rope below vertical fifth class, snap the links, and worm our way via cracks and ledges through a series of layers that require us to corkscrew around the telescoping wedding cake of Supai, Hermit, and Coconino rock formations. On top, we uncover a finely crafted copper box, complete with pencils and sharpener, and sign the guest register. We bathe in full-circle beauty and marvel at the spring leaves far below that fringe a scoured red rock gash reminiscent of a gargantuan earthen centipede with side canyon legs and a yawning mouth open to the Colorado River. We awe-whisper in unison. 

The high point is half way home, and post-high-five embrace, we tuck and turn. Usually the way down is familiar ground, but with no actual trail and landmarks absorbed in the declivity, we start-stop-guess-retrace ahead. At camp, swollen feet and knees telegraph the emotional state of our full hearts, having fully amplified the action in satisfaction. Sleep comes immediately, and I drool upon the page. A creaky morning break,s and Danny and Myriam hoist their packs as I stumble behind into their slipstream. 

A technical canyoneering descent of Trinity Creek beckons, and we hasten to the first of several rappels, donning dry suits, sealing dry bags, and lowering into the chill, turbid water. Lower down, the dynamic duo, like proud parents, present the stacked-rock-deadman, a piece of webbing keyed deep and safe within the mound, built months previously on a reconnaissance mission. The scenery is a pointillist painting of a million interesting details, of rock, plant or perspective; a silent eye-feast. 

All photos by Timmy O’Neil

We return to the river’s edge, inflate our packrafts, and embark on the roiling surface like giddy children atop thousand dollar innertubes. Soon we encounter Granite, another GC mega drop, with a siren call that increases in volume with each stroke. I deposit my pack down stream, run back to my securely stowed craft, then paddle to the point of no return, a silken tongue that leads into the belly of the beast. Upright and ecstatic, I pull into the river-left eddy after dodging explosions and dancing with implosions, a smile from rim to rim. “Dude, amazing line!” yells Danny over the roar of the rapid. “Thanks brother,” I offer humbly, knowing he was there to fish me out if the coin flipped poorly. 

Several hours and 5,000 feet of elevation gain later, we drop our packs at the awaiting car, full circle after one the most wild, inaccessible, adventure-loops of my life. We were put through the paces of 30 miles of gobsmacking wilderness, several miles of hypothermia-inducing water, and 20,000 feet of gasp-inducing elevation gain—not only a glorious summation of the last three decades of my life, but more a loving coalescence of people, place, and purpose. If “Why am I here?” is the question, then the last 72-hour span of exploration, discovery, and joy is the answer. 

Timmy O’Neill is a professional rock climber, first ascensionist, and public speaker. Following early speed ascents of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan, O’Neill has dedicated his time to a life of international exploration and giving back through “adventure impact”—the combination of outdoor adventure and social impact

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