A STEP BACK TO LOOK FORWARD: AN ODE TO BACKCOUNTRY PROGRESSION
Words and Photos from Peter Bugg @bugglife
As we gain backcountry knowledge, it can sometimes be difficult to remember what it was like not having years of experience to draw on when making critical decisions about a trip. In the past six years, I’ve spent more than 70 nights below the rim in Grand Canyon National Park, and I’ve also completed almost 70 technical canyons, so I have a lot of reference points when planning, packing, and informing groupmates about what to expect. But that wasn’t always the case. Here are some details on a trip from a few years ago that was a formative step in my outdoorsing progression.
After my first successful Grand Canyon backpacking trip in the fall of 2018, I was excited to receive the book Grand Canyoneering for Christmas. I spent the next year pouring through the itineraries as my bedtime reading, trying to figure out how to build my skillset and attempt some of the more technical adventures outlined in the invaluable tome. I finally took an introduction to canyoneering course in early 2020 and then completed a few day trips over the summer with more experienced friends before we decided we were ready for our first overnight. Our destination was Rider Canyon, 17 river miles down from Lee’s Ferry, where Grand Canyon boating trips begin. We chose this route for a few practical reasons.
• An experienced group could complete the route in a single day, so pursuing it as an overnight felt within reach.
• There is only a single (200’) rappel, so if something went wrong and our rope got stuck, we would still be able to complete the itinerary.
• There are two exit options on the second day. So we could choose how spicy we wanted to get based on energy and morale levels after the first day.
So, permits secured, Bobby, Emery, Marty, and I left Phoenix after work on Friday, driving about 4 hours north, and spent the night cowboy camping off a dirt road in the shadow of the Vermilion Cliffs.
Saturday morning, we woke up to a magnificent sunrise typical of the area and readied our packs, adding helmets, ropes, harnesses, descenders, and other hardware to our regular backpacking items. We all had plenty of desert and backpacking experience and were excited to be adding a new aspect to our adventure. The first 3.5 miles or so was a trailless meander from our parking spot along relatively flat terrain to the head of the canyon and went by pretty quickly. One of the things I’ve learned in my desert travels is that ridges and high points are where to go for panoramic views, but gullies, washes, and low points are where treasures collect, and Rider did not disappoint in terms of interesting finds as we rock hopped, scrambled, and wound through the geological layers. In addition to the physical obstacles we encountered, notable sights along the way included a wildlife camera, a young bighorn sheep skull, a small dead snake, and what I initially thought were dinosaur footprints, but later research indicated that Grand Canyon rocks pre-date the oldest-known dinosaurs, so they were likely tetrapod tracks. All in all, a very good haul of noteworthy objects!
In an attempt to save on weight, we elected not to bring dedicated bags for our rappelling ropes. We made this same decision on multiple trips that followed, but it’s not what I do now. I find that the minor weight savings are negated by the hassle of finagling ropes partly in packing/carrying but mostly in deploying/utilizing. Rope bags help deter tangling, speed up the descending process, and help avoid untying knots while hanging 100 feet off the canyon floor. I roll my eyes at how many times I needed to learn this lesson before it stuck, but it is now solidified in my brain. In this particular instance, it took a little trouble-shooting, but we all made it down safely and were able to pull our ropes without an issue.
With our main technical hurdle behind us, we explored the alcove we found ourselves in while we snacked and repacked and then continued making our way around potholes and along narrow ledges toward our campsite. One interesting and slightly disorienting aspect of the afternoon was that the geometry of the walls combined with the angle of the sun to make it feel much later in the day than it actually was, so I kept checking the time to ensure we had ample daylight to get to the beach. Luckily, it was never truly an issue, and we arrived at our sleep spot with plenty of time to spare about nine miles after we left the car.
We relaxed with our feet in the sand, soaked our sore legs in the cold water, made dinner, and searched out passable nooks that would be somewhat out of the way of the blowing sand. The night passed without incident, and we were in good spirits when we awoke on Sunday morning. We decided on the more adventurous exit option - two miles downstream along the riverbank and then 1,600 vertical feet up to the rim through a horizontal half a mile of scree. The river walking was a combination of bushwhacking through tamarisks and scrambling along rock faces, which I have since learned is pretty par for the course. It’s not what I want all of my hiking to be, but in short bursts, the route-finding and problem-solving can be fun.
When it was time to leave the river behind, we filled up on water and began picking our way through the screen, following the written instructions in the route description. We couldn’t see any breaks through the vertical face at the top of the loose rock, so we held our collective breath, crossed our fingers, and hoped we were headed in the right direction. An hour or two later, at the base of the wall, we were momentarily stymied and dreaded descending what we had just navigated until we realized we were “only” one gully over from where we needed to be. Traversing the talus was much more manageable than completely retracing our steps but challenging enough that we elected to don helmets before our final push to protect against falling rocks.
Once we gained the rim, it was an easy mile back to the car, where cold beers, crunchy potato chips, and fresh baby wipes welcomed us back to the world. At the time, we unanimously agreed that the grueling ascent on the way out was probably a one-and-done experience. But more than three years later, knowing that a neighboring canyon has the same exit is urging me to reconsider. Maybe it will be easier a second time around.
All in all, this trip went relatively smoothly. We picked a good route for our skillset, which pushed us just beyond what we were already comfortable with and allowed us to grow without too many pains. As a group, we had enough overnight backcountry experience that hiking, sleeping, eating, and general comfort were second nature, providing enough mental space for us to focus on the rappelling on Saturday and route-finding on Sunday. Adding canyoneering equipment to our backpacking setups meant slightly-heavier-but-still-manageable packs. The issue that was more important than weight was space. I found that a rope, helmet, and other canyoneering accoutrements (in addition to a full-sized DSLR) took up enough volume that my Southwest 55 was close to max capacity. I have since purchased a Northrim 70 and also downsized my standard kit (shoutout to the Hyperlite quilts), allowing room for packrafting gear and additional sustenance for longer trips.