Maps & an Ethical Compass For Grand Canyon Travel

A Master Cartographer Digs Deep to Find the Navigational Skills Needed to Succeed on One of the World’s Most Extreme Thru Hikes

Grand Canyon Backpacking
Which way do we go?

By Clay Wadman, photos by Mike St. Pierre & Clay Wadman

Once I’m oriented, a map is nothing but a close-up of that mental image I form before every trip, an overview if you will, from space. I marvel at how far these maps have come since Major John Wesley Powell first came to the Southwest with pencil and paper and tried to make sense of these great cirques and valleys. To glance up at the cliffs and huge amphitheaters of the Grand Canyon’s Red Wall and then back down to the impossibly high tech orthographic projection of these features I hold in my hand, they are perfect and these images help me see their scale and shape even more clearly.

In this blog post, I recreated notes from the journal I took on the below-the-rim section hike of the Grand that Mike St. Pierre and I embarked on, March 2016. The section we did is part of what Rich Rudow calls, “The Grandest Walk“—a thru hike that traverses the Canyon below the rim. Mike plans on doing it in three sections; he invited me for the second leg of his journey. Though a mapmaker with decades of experience, I dug deep on this adventure. It was one of the most difficult of my life. Strong navigation skills and tools were integral to our success.

Maps, mids and camping deep in the Grand Canyon backcountry.
Maps, mids and camping deep in the Grand Canyon backcountry.

On day four of our trip we awake to grey—grey skies, grey fatigue, a grey attitude like fog from last night’s sand storm and bad water. Everything above the 6,000-foot level is washed in fresh snow, including the rim above us. In the Crystal Creek wash, clear alkaline-poison water laps at our boots. I want to see something good in everything and think to myself: “At least in the weeks to come, the potholes will be full on the Esplanade…” From the streambed, our escape route out of the Crystal is unobvious. We just descended from Shiva Saddle, one of the highest saddles on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and dropped all the way to the river. Now we need to climb back up through five or six of the major geologic groups in the canyon, this time to the Sagittarius Saddle.

If you’ve ever seen a photo looking down on the Grand Canyon from outer space you can see the dark, almost black looking boreal forests that cap one of the biggest “oxbow” bends on the planet. This immense arch stretches from Nankoweep at River Mile 53 all the way to Tapeats at River Mile 137. In the scorching desert of the American Southwest, this part of the geologic up-thrust that created the canyon itself, has become a forest of huge conifers and moisture, rising to an elevation of 10,000’.

I hold onto this mental image as I study the maps of the inner canyon. Not just a random sweep of bends and corners, the river has purpose and direction; from its genesis to its evolution, modern topographical science magically reveals each of its secrets. Read the rest of Wadman’s story.

The Grandest Walk: A 700-Mile Thru Hike Below the Rim

Chris Atwood eyes a fast moving storm from the moonscape near Fishtail Mesa. Photo: Rich Rudow
Chris Atwood eyes a fast moving storm from the moonscape near Fishtail Mesa.

Stories and photos by Rich Rudow

How 2012 Outside Mag “Adventurer of the Year,” Rich Rudow, achieved one of his greatest objectives–a rarely done thru hike of the full length of the Grand Canyon.

More than four thousand people have summited Mt. Everest. Two hundred and fifty people have walked 7,900 miles to complete the triple crown of hiking (walking the PCT, CDT and AT). Twenty-four astronauts left the Earth’s orbit for the moon. But only 12 people have ever walked the length of Grand Canyon in one continuous push. Why? There are no towns for resupply, no base camps for logistics support, and in fact, no trails for the vast majority of the 700 miles. Traversing Grand Canyon is like walking a complex three-dimensional maze with delicate routes that include hundreds of thousands of vertical feet of scrambling and climbing up to low class five terrain. There isn’t a guidebook, and beta is sparse. To most people, this thru hike seems impossible. Fortunately, Dave Nally and Chris Atwood, my hiking partners on this journey, weren’t like most people. They had thousands of Grand Canyon off-trail miles under their belts too, and most importantly, we had hiked together many times on difficult Grand Canyon expeditions. I could count on their judgment, strength and fortitude.

But, I wondered, “Could I do it?” Would my 50-year-old body hold up to the rigors of a thru hike on some of the most difficult terrain on the planet for 57 continuous days? I made sure to cover my bases. We spent a year planning the expedition. We defined a highly detailed day-by-day route, identifying water sources and bailout options. We placed eight caches throughout the length of the Grand to resupply along the way. They contained food, extra approach shoes and hiking poles, first aid supplies, clothes for the changing seasons, a warmer sleeping bag for late Fall, maps for each leg of the route, technical climbing gear, and of course, tequila, coffee and peanut M&M’s. Selecting the right gear was paramount for success. A pack failure would end the trip. A shelter failure could be life threatening. Read on… the Expedition Begins!