Photos: climbing and rafting the Grand Canyon

The Colorado River travels 280 miles through the world-famous Grand Canyon. But is there climbing?

Adventure channel writer Brendan Leonard embarked on what many would consider the adventure of a lifetime – white-water rafting the Grand Canyon, via the Colorado River. 280 miles (450km) over 28 days, down the world's most famous ditch. There's just one little twist: Brendan's not a paddler. He's a climber. His words below.

 

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Bouldering by boat
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Bouldering by boat

Probably no one goes on a Grand Canyon river trip to go bouldering. But there are millions of years of exposed rock there. Millions! We figured some of it had to be climbable. We found exactly that — “some of it” was indeed climbable.

© Forest Woodward
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Grand Kayaking
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Grand Kayaking

The 280 mile-long portion of the Colorado River contains some challenging rapids. A kayaker plays around in a funboat.

© Forest Woodward
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Wet head
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Wet head

Side streams and tributaries offer waterfalls. A boater cools off his head in a small waterfall.

© Forest Woodward
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Shadow wall
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Shadow wall

When the boats stopped for lunch – or to access a side canyon, or for the night – we explored, following our curiosity along a line of handholds, hiking into side canyons to find blocks big enough to boulder, checking to see if the rock was solid, and making up boulder problems and traverses.

© Forest Woodward
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Blue road
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Blue road

The Colorado River is the big show, but it's still worth taking the time to check out the many tributaries like Havasu Creek.

© Forest Woodward
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Ready to raft
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Ready to raft

Multi-day raft trips are monuments to camping, logistical and rigging miracles. “Can I bring...” is always met with “yes,” whether it's 1,600 cans of beer, a guitar, a six-burner stove, several days worth of steaks, multiple dutch ovens, or a crash pad and climbing gear.

© Forest Woodward
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Fallen problems
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Fallen problems

There’s a specific rarity to a boulder problem down here: if you don’t send it, you can’t come back and try it tomorrow – you’ll be 10 or 20 miles downriver. The next week, you’ll be 80 or 100 miles downriver.

© Forest Woodward
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Holes in the wall
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Holes in the wall

The bottom of the canyon is a playground filled with tons of coal and a few diamonds, and when you find a diamond – a fun V2 traverse near a campsite, a V1 problem on a boulder stuck in the middle of the river – you’re overjoyed to be climbing.

© Forest Woodward
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Rapid rafting
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Rapid rafting

As a climber, you float past square mile upon square mile of rock, watching for a seam, a crack, a corner, something that looks good, decent, worth stopping for. The good rock does show up, but not at the most opportune time – often you just have to look away as you pass.

© Forest Woodward
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Pack rats
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Pack rats

Fifteen people living in the backcountry for 28 days require a vast amount of supplies: tents, camp chairs, fire pans, raft pumps, paco pads, tables, a dozen five-gallon water jugs, 25 gallons of propane, a first-aid kit, and nine 8.1-gallon capacity rocket boxes to carry the human waste.

© Forest Woodward
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Under a roof
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Under a roof

There’s almost no information on the climbing at the bottom of the most famous ditch on Earth. No ratings, beta, or expectations. Every so often, we’d find a little chalk, leftover from another climber, weeks or months ago, and we always knew it was someone who arrived like we did – from upriver.

© Forest Woodward
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Spot the climb
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Spot the climb

The next year, your name will be down at the bottom of the list of the bajillion people vying for a Grand Canyon river trip permit. You get one day with a rock climbing route, at best. And that’s if you can find the time between all the things that need to happen to keep a raft trip going.

© Forest Woodward
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Fire at night
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Fire at night

You spend hours each morning and evening building and tearing down camp, and rigging and de-rigging rafts, moving the floating expedition a few miles each day through the most famous canyon in the world.

© Forest Woodward
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Climb anything
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Climb anything

The trip from the put-in at Lee’s Ferry to the takeout at Pearce Ferry is 280 river miles, floating past multi-tiered expanses of rock up to 4500 feet (1,371m) high along both sides of the river. Most of that rock is unclimbable.

© Forest Woodward
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Paradise found
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Paradise found

In the moments we did find climbs, we were kids again, trying whatever we wanted, failing sometimes, breaking off handholds and falling on the ground, rowing rafts up to a midstream boulder, plugging in a cam and tying the boat off to it while we explored the rock for holds.

© Forest Woodward
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