A yellow and green snake slithers below my foot. It’s pretty and colourful, but it’s a snake nonetheless. I rewind my steps in slow motion then rapidly retreat.
This is the first hike of many during a week rafting and camping down 300 kilometres of the Colorado River from Marble Canyon to Whitmore Wash, and while we were warned about the snakes and the scorpions of the Grand Canyon, the thrill of coming foot to face with one still has my heart racing.
Calling this a hike is somewhat misleading. Climbing is a more fitting description. We are in the North Canyon clambering over rock debris. It’s a bent-over, hands-on scramble, and natural footholds and nooks are the only help we have to bolster up our bodies. Each exaggerated step strains my groin muscles and tests my flexibility. We are tiny flecks of colour dwarfed by the terracotta-red canyon walls and surrounded by tessellated rock that looks like a stonemason has been busy slicing out blocks to create a giant game of Jenga. Pockets of empty space and teetering rocks are left behind.
At the river, we make camp on a small strip of beach. It’s the first night and somewhat of a culture shock. This trip requires all hands on deck – a raft full of bags, cots, tables, chairs, kitchen, food and water awaits us, and a human production line forms to unload our precious gear. Jeff is our trip leader and swiftly runs through camp set-up, hygiene and etiquette. Washing is limited to wet wipes or a brave wash in the achingly cold river. All peeing must be straight into the river while a fashioned ‘regular’ toilet is set up each night for number-twos only. A tight wiggle in a sleeping bag is our only hope of getting dressed discreetly. We are going to get to know each other intimately, and fast.
A comical scene quickly unfolds as everyone deciphers the knack of erecting a stretcher bed for the first time. Sleeping exposed under the stars is an incredibly peaceful experience – the crammed celestial sky seems almost fictitious and the roar of the rapids drowns out any snoring neighbours.
Jeff gets the camp moving at sunrise with the waft of fresh coffee. We’ve been told to kit up in full wet-weather gear, morphing the group into Michelin men in oversized parachute-like outfits. The week will see us ride through a system of 80 complex rapids and fluctuating water levels. This is one of the few rivers in the world that uses a rating system ranging from one to the highest rating, a Grade 10.
I take lead position on the raft, prepared to cop the full force. I see the slick sinkhole of 23 Mile Rapid and brace myself as the nose of the raft slams down and an icy wall of water smashes overhead. The water outsmarts my gear and snakes a chilly path down my body. Even in the milder rapids, water rebounds off the sides and splashes unexpectedly like a slap across the face with a wet fish.
Travelling just 16 kilometres each hour, we have plenty of time between rapids to lie back and absorb the skyscraper walls as the river winds through a tiny fracture in a vast plateau. It’s a geologist’s heaven. The history behind the formation is baffling and the horizontal layers – each distinct in colour and texture – are unique timestamps. The further we travel, the higher the cliffs rise as the older bedrock base pushes the young layers to the top. The eroded Redwall Limestone creates a fun game of I Spy – we spot the pillared entry of Petra, a game piece from Battleship, the pipes of a church organ and a statue from Angkor Wat ruins. In downtime, we’re entertained with the wonderful concept called the beer bag – a netted bag that drags along in the icy water behind us as a natural esky.
Approaching camp at Main Nankoweap, we see a row of windows cut into the cliff high above us. These granaries of the Ancestral Puebloans date back to 1100 CE and represent quite the impressive feat to protect their stores. A tiny path wiggles up and we naively comment what an arduous hike that would have once been. We don’t have to imagine for long though, as it’s our afternoon activity.
It’s a slow climb up 200 metres with little flat respite to ease the burn. Each taxing step varies in height from a tiny prance to a giant lunge. Several admit defeat along the way, but I pace myself with regular breaks to safely absorb the view. The goat track narrows until we must navigate single file for the last steep pitch along a rubbled switchback ledge. The pain is forgotten immediately upon reaching the granaries as the elevation unveils the immense surroundings juxtaposed against the tiny blue dots of our rafts far below. The cloudy olive river zig-zags through the distinct rift in the deep rock bed. I feel humbly irrelevant.
By day three I’ve lost track of time and regular life has faded away. A new seamless rhythm is in play and a team camaraderie has formed. Being stripped of luxuries and vanity is now liberating. Today’s highlight is Little Colorado River. At the mouth of the joining rivers, contrasting water colours swirl together as if a milk tanker has spilled its load. Calcium carbonate creates creamy glacial blue water and a snow-like frosting along the bank. Compared to the numbing Colorado River temperatures, this offshoot offers a balmy rinse off. Fashioning our life jackets into unflattering jumbo nappies, we slip into the cascading water. Bouncing off the rocks in the fast flow, I’m grateful for my padded ride. Throw in inflatable water toys and adults regress to playful kids who refuse to get out.
From this point we leave Marble Canyon and officially enter the Grand Canyon. The rock surrounding us dates back over a mind-boggling 1.6 billion years. We can now observe the Great Unconformity, a missing supergroup of rock layers representing a 1.2 million year gap in history. You can clearly see the top layer of young Tapeats sandstone sandwiched with the ancient Vishnu Schist, yet no middle layers of time. Where they have gone remains a great natural mystery.
My favourite part of the day has become lying in bed as camp is stirring, watching the rising sun play across the rock walls. The spotlight moves from just the peaks, then slowly lights each canyon layer with a warm glow.
Water has been released overnight from Glen Canyon Dam. This surge is significant because today is a conveyor belt of big rapids and this extra water just made them a whole lot crazier. Hance Rapid is just past camp and our first grade 10. The roar is heard well before we see the hint of white chop ahead. It’s a tricky weave through the menacing rocks just below the surface. No one is staying dry this morning.
Each rapid has a unique story and naming convention. Some get their label from the adventurer who conquered them (or didn’t), while others from their characteristics. We pass through Sockdolager, a boxing term for a knockout punch; Grapevine, described as more rocks than grapes on a vine; and Horn Creek, known for the steepest drop in the shortest distance. Hermit Rapid is the monster of the day. A nine-metre vertical drop bends our raft like a banana, and the impact lifts my body and deposits me into the lap of my neighbour behind. The roller-coaster continues through a succession of massive dips, a torrent slamming us each time.
I swallow my fair share of water as I’m laughing too hard to shut my mouth. Cheering as the raft is finally spat out, I wish we could do it all again.
Even after 370 river trips under his belt, Jeff still looks tense as we approach certain rapids. No run is ever the same. The rapids are forever changing and unforgiving of a minor mistake. It’s unfathomable to think of the first explorers in vulnerable wooden crafts navigating this river blindly. With these currents there is no reversing. They were 100 per cent committed with no idea of what they faced around each corner. Many explorers abandoned their boats and hiked out instead, but this in itself is dangerous. The river is not to be underestimated, even today.
Big Dune campsite is a long strip of beach bordering a plunging cliff line. We’re now at the 119 Mile point. Jeff creates a makeshift fire out of paper towels and olive oil to congregate around each night. With the wine flowing, a hearty rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ incites a dance party. The sheer rock face becomes the stage backdrop for an impromptu shadow play. Interpretative dance by torchlight, magnified and warped onto the rock, creates surreal entertainment for those watching from bed.
By day five the tree-topped North and South Rims are in clear view, towering nearly 1500 metres above us. The oldest canyon rock, layers of dusky pink Zoroaster granite and polished black Vishnu Schist, weaves down vertically like burrowing tree roots. Millennia of rockfalls have scattered immense boulders, now resting on impossible angles and tipping points. The slightest tremor would completely transform the make-up of the Grand Canyon in a split second.
Today’s hike is to Upper Deer Creek ‘patio’ and not for those with a fear of heights. The escarpment looms straight up from the water and it’s a challenging climb from the get-go. The 44ºC heat radiates off the rocks, singeing hands on contact. The final leg to the waterfall traverses a sketchy ledge. Facing the wall, I gingerly shuffle my hands and feet along like a mime artist’s impression of being trapped in a box. The ledge is boot-width in some places and the drop has no detectable bottom. The pay-off, however, is a refreshing soak as I sit, clothes and all, in the waterfall spa bath.
The extreme temperatures and dry air are taking a toll on our bodies. No amount of water or moisturiser seems to placate my dehydrated system. The fingers of a fellow camper have split like burst sausages.
The plan for our last full day is a long visit to Havasu Falls, but we are side-tracked by an impromptu pit stop at Matkatamiba Canyon. This narrow slot canyon cuts a tight v-shape channel through ribboned rock. The walls resemble the compacted layers of a Flake chocolate and a small stream flows through but is slick with algae slime. The only way up is to pressure climb: a technique of maintaining constant pressure with your body to climb without touching the bottom. Jeff wedges himself between the walls and pulls each of us out of the waist-deep water to start. Digging my backbone into one side, I push hard against the other with my feet. Each move is carefully considered as I inch my way up. It’s the point of no return. A slip is guaranteed to significantly injure not only me, but everyone else below me. Somebody on a previous trip had to be helicoptered off the river after a fall here. At one point I freeze. I’m horizontal across the canyon, painfully pushing my elbows hard into the rock to hold me, but I’m not secure. My adrenaline is racing as I am completely out of my comfort zone. Jeff clambers up and over like my Spiderman hero to provide a higher anchor point. It’s an intense physical and mental test, but the sense of achievement is exhilarating.
After our final camp pack-down, we are taking a seven-minute helicopter shortcut out of the canyon. Downriver at 187 Mile is the Whitmore helipad, in reality is little more than a knoll midway up the cliff. The precision of the helicopter cutting past the canyon walls to land is extraordinary. With the rotors spinning, the pilot hovers on the ground just long enough for us to swiftly buckle in. The scope of this Natural Wonder of the World can only be realised from the aerial view. Our group flies out dishevelled and weary, but bonded by a proud sense of having conquered something quite special. A mere 0.4 per cent of annual visitors experience the Grand Canyon as the adventure we’ve just had. The focus is now firmly on removing the permeating film of grit covering our bodies. I can’t wait for a long hot soak in a bath.
United Airlines flies to Las Vegas from Sydney and Melbourne, via Los Angeles.
Grand Canyon Whitewater picks up all guests staying in Las Vegas from Desert Rose Resort at 4.45am. The company has secured a discounted rate of about US$120 a night for a one-bedroom room, plus you can store excess luggage for free during your trip.