December 18, 2013
Three weeks ago, I was in Phoenix giving a presentation and planned a kayak adventure on the side. Diamond Down is a 53-mile section of the Colorado River about 4 hours from Phoenix. It travels through the last stretch of the Grand Canyon and makes for a perfect day trip. It’s also perfect training for the longer 277-mile run of the GC that I have my sites set on for next fall. We actually had to cancel our first trip scheduled for mid-September. The day before departure, my kayaking guide, Harlan Taney, called to tell us about the torrential monsoon rains that had washed out the dirt road to the put-in. So now on our second attempt, weather was looking almost as bad. A storm was predicted to move in and dump five feet of snow in Flagstaff and make for cold miserable conditions on the river. One side of me said to cancel again; kayaking in the cold rain isn’t my idea of fun, but Harlan, who has led 200+ trips down the Grand Canyon, looked at the weather map and he thought there was a chance we might just beat the worst of the storm. Lately I’ve been coaching myself with what I call my, “open mind/open heart policy.” Some of the best gifts of my life have come when I keep my mind and heart open to the possibilities and trust my team. So I bit my lip and responded, “Let’s do it.” The 6:30 a.m. start was a little painful. The temperature was about 45 degrees and raining, so I left the hotel room bundled in fleece and put on my dry suit in the truck. Fred Thevanin, owner of Arizona Raft Adventures came prepared with a full survival suit. Fred, along with his colleague, Dennis Smoldt , would be driving us out of the canyon on the motorboat for the 40 miles of flat water after the end of the 11-mile section of rapids. Harlan brought his kayaking buddy, Roy Lippman, who would be a second safety kayaker, and Skyler Williams would be the third. Diamond Creek rapid is not more than a hundred yards down from the launch. So my shoulders and hips were still tight from the drive into the canyon as it approached. In what seemed like only a few paddle strokes down the river, a big crashing wave caught me by surprise and almost flipped me. I braced right hard and fought the surge of the river, narrowly avoiding going over.
Diamond Down from Erik Weihenmayer on Vimeo. I was trying out a new faster boat that was making my turns a little squirrely, and Harlan was having to give me more directions and corrections than usual over our Neptune BlueWave headsets. This was making me quite nervous as I descended into the bigger rapids of the day. At one point I told Harlan that because I wasn’t used to the new boat, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to do the two more serious rapids, one of them named Killer Fang Falls, for two large rocks that protrude from the water like fangs; the hard Vishnu Schist geology has been carved by the water for eons, producing an exposed rock that is fluted with sharp points and edges. It can easily flip a boat and puncture a blind kayaker. Made worse, this is supposedly where Glen and Bessie Hyde, known as the “honeymoon couple," disappeared without a trace. Harlan wasn’t giving me an easy out, however! When I twice mentioned I might skip the big ones, he repeated calmly, “I think you've got these.” The cold and rain suddenly seemed like the least of my worries. Killer Fang Falls starts with a challenging left to right move narrowly passing the fangs and then across a powerful series of lateral waves crashing into the canyon wall. The water pushes you hard into the wall and then surges back again, creating a turbulent no-man’s area that works hard to flip you before finally flushing you out. Harlan kept me on the perfect line and at the bottom, I was past the fangs, past the crazy laterals, and still upright. Soon I could hear the deep thunder roar of the next rapid ahead as it echoed off the canyon walls. My kayak team always remarks that, at the sound of rapids, my expression perks up and my eyes grow wide. That must have been the case as I floated down the smooth glassy tongue into the onslaught. Crashing waves bombarded me from the right as Harlan weaved me between several rocks. Just when I thought I was through the toughest part, a wave knocked me sideways and instantly I was upside-down. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand . . . The key I knew was to stay calm. On my last river trip in Peru, a wave shoved me sideways and I got knocked over in a similar way. When I tried to roll up, I was in the middle of a big hole and couldn’t get my paddle to the surface. . After trying a couple times unsuccessfully, five one-thousand . . . six one-thousand . . . I pulled my skirt and swam. Later, my team told me if I’d waited another five seconds, I would have been swept out of the turbulence. So this time, I waited until it felt calm above, braced my paddle, and made my roll. To me it felt like an eternity under the water, but Harlan said I rolled up with confidence and kept paddling forward, almost without skipping a beat. After several more big rapids and one more roll, we were through the chaos and into the flat water. My open mind/open heart policy had paid off. For the next three hours we motored the flats as Fred regaled us with stories of Col. Powell, with only one arm, his team battling rapids in clunky wooden boats on the first complete Grand Canyon expedition and almost starving to death along the way. Harlan chimed in with harrowing tales of kayaking steep narrow creeks and 40-foot waterfall drops, and Skyler mimicked an impression of my signature puckered face as I smack into crashing waves. Everyone laughed, and it went back and forth for hours as we shivered away in the cold rain and wind. Thanks to Harlan and the AzRA team for another great adventure.