The season for adventure is fast approaching and I am excited to stretch my legs on the trail while exploring one of Austin-Lehman’s amazing trip locations with everyone! I know some of you are curious about what the Austin-Lehman guides do during the off season, so here is an example of the craziness that often occurs when we are set free to explore the world. Although most of my time was spent skiing powder in the great state of Montana this winter, by far the most memorable event of the off season was a personal trip down the Colorado River of the Grand Canyon.
The Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park has been written about, talked about, litigated over and has provided inspiration to river runners for well over 100 years. This journey has been called by many the most incredible journey one can make on this planet. A river trip through Grand Canyon offers us a chance to get outdoors and stay outdoors, day after day, week after week, where we have the potential to see the magic of the world we live in, where we can be reminded about how insignificant we are in the scope of things.
It was a snowy evening in early December at the ski resort I was working at when I opened an email that would present me with an opportunity for one of the most ambitious expeditions I had ever taken on. In order to experience the select whitewater the Colorado River has to offer, paddlers and adventurers must enter a lottery system. The odds are not in anyone’s favor. There are only 270 noncommercial river permits available a year with nearly 5,000 applicants trying to jockey for a spot. Some people have waited an agonizing 20 years to get drawn!
As my body began to shake with excitement, I read on to the point where it said my launch date was set for January 9th. Now I just needed to find a group of people hearty enough to take on such an endeavor in the dead of winter.
A party of ruffians came together soon enough; Bryan, my Austin-Lehman comrade, along with five others. Soon enough, we were migrating from different corners of the country to Flagstaff. None of us had run the Grand Canyon before. It was almost a fairy tale in our minds, we had all heard stories of big water and unmatched vistas. We were headed to the “big ditch” where there was no escape from the wrath of the river for 226 miles once we were enclosed by the canyon walls.
This was the first expedition of my life where I really had no idea what to expect. I found this feeling of the unknown absolutely exhilarating. The aura around our camp on the eve of our trip echoed this feeling.
Launching from Lees Fairy was dreamlike. Yahoo! We were finally doing it! It would take three days before we reached the Grand Canyon proper at which point there is literally no way out besides following the river with walls that reach more than a mile high from the canyon floor.
The grandeur of this place is absolute. Nowhere else on earth have I been in complete awe of an environment. No matter how hard I tried to comprehend this massive world of rock and water, all I could manage to do was look starry eyed with my mouth agape at this place.
It didn’t take long for our party to be humbled by the extreme environment the Grand Canyon presented, especially in the coldest month of the year. Our trip was not a relaxing float down the river. It was a test of endurance. Each day the temperature grew colder, and we had to work hard just to keep our bodies warm and our gear from freezing solid. The party began to work with military efficiency, enduring the cold, day after day. Slowly it worked into our bones, sapping every ounce of energy. We became machines, forcing our bodies out of our warm sleeping bags in the morning, packing up a small city and hitting the river. Cold, combined with water and wind, makes for epic conditions. I came to this realization at one point after navigating a rapid and finding my raft coated in a thin sheet of ice. This was serious, like deadliest-catch-style serious.
One of the best skills I have gained as a guide is learning to become comfortable being uncomfortable. I embraced the cold, the lack of sun, and endless hours of darkness. It was awesome to see our group take on every challenge with a smile, we were operating in extreme whitewater, extreme weather, and extreme backcountry conditions. In the moment it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but reflecting back at the experience, it was intense. One savior we had on the trip was our wood burning stove.
While we rigged for our expedition I was impressed by the amount of gear we would be hauling down river. I was uneasy already about navigating some of the biggest rapids in North America, and when I learned my boat would weigh nearly 2,000 lbs when loaded, I was surprised to say the least. The stove was one of the heaviest items in our boat, and I was reluctant to bring it. This item turned out to be the most precious of all the gear we brought down river. At camp, it was the first thing out of the boat. We needed the heat to thaw our frozen sleeping pads and dry our gear. Plus, in January the sun goes down very early, and we spent a lot of time in complete darkness. If it weren’t for the stove, the expedition would have been a miserable.
Ten days of enduring temperatures averaging 25 degrees with some day’s highs barely reaching the single digits began to wear us down. We found out later that our group pushed through the Grand Canyon in record low temperatures. The party managed to stay positive and mother nature finally decided to give us a break. The golden sun began to warm our souls. Shorts, sandals, and sunscreen became plentiful around camp. With horseshoes and cold beers, we were finally living like kings in a desert oasis.
Our trip began to wind down after successfully running lava falls, the biggest and baddest rapid on the river. This rapid was intimidating. A thunderous roar could be heard from a mile away and as you approached it, the horizon line just dropped like you were about to go over a waterfall. We celebrated on appropriately named tequila beach after cleanly running the rapid. High fives and smiles were passed around, and the party was in high spirits.
Before long, each stroke brought us closer to the end of the journey. We would soon be leaving this alternate world. There is nothing like removing yourself from the constant grind of our society for an extended period of time. It enables you to put life in perspective. Most of all, I found myself bummed that I was leaving this place of wonder. Yeah it was rugged and raw, but I realized that I loved everything about it and had no cravings for the outside world. Life wasn’t so bad out here. It was a hard life, but it was a simple life and, most of all, a satisfying life.
I hope this story gives you a perspective of the life some guides choose. The lifestyle is unique and definitely not for everyone. I am grateful everyday for getting to live the life I do and wouldn’t choose any other way. If anything, I hope this story gets everyone excited for their upcoming adventures this coming season! Austin-Lehman has its best team yet preparing for the guide season, and we are all ready to share the next adventure with you.