Alan Dixon's Trip Report from the Grand Canyon

Posted by Michael Martin on

Alan gave me permission to post this here. Sounds like a heck of adventure: and a cautionary tale about choosing one's companions carefully. Alan, basically saved his group, though. I would have been terrified in a similiar situation--my whitewater experience, such as it is, has made me very cautious.


Quick trip report for the Grand Canyon Rafting Trip - December 2012!i=2288838448&k=SRBWZrg

First the best things about the trip--and I can’t stress this enough:

1) I think this is as close as one can come to experience the the Grand Canyon as it must have been when people first started floating the river. In 9 days we saw nobody. Due to the high releases and resulting scouring a few weeks prior, the beaches were pristine. No footprints. Some of the most beautiful campsites of my life. One could easily imagine that nobody had been here. The cold weather and the relative inexperience of our small group created some risk tension for our group. It felt like a wilderness outing--with all the joy, exhilaration and stress that come from one. It combined the best of river trips, with the feeling of a canyoneering trip but on a larger scale--canyons on steroids. While the view from the top is good, IMO the bottom of the canyon is where you want to be.

2) We walked out the Bright Angel trail on Winter Solstice. Hiking the snowy top of the trail under moonlight, the moon glinting off of snowflakes as we walked, the north rim and canyon walls palely illuminated from the moon.

Lesson learned:

KNOW who your fellow adventurers are BEFORE signing up for a high risk expedition. Shame on me for not doing this more thoroughly! I have been hanging out with competent people far too long. I had forgotten that the average person (who claims they are an adventurer) may not actually be all that skilled or competent.

The other members (excluding the trip leader), while having whitewater kayaking or limited rafting experience had little big wilderness experience. Alison had to teach one female member how to pee in the woods, and that was only the start of what they didn't know about being in the cold and wet for a long term backcountry trip. This was an unusually cold trip with lots of precipitation. Most members were having difficulty staying warm and dry for the duration of the trip. Alison and I were doing the vast majority of camp chores, and instructing and advising folks at almost every turn.

The trip leader (private permit holder) told us that we had two very experienced boatmen for the rafts. Alison and I were just supposed to sit on the rafts and provide backcountry expedition expertise fo the group. This turned out not to be the case. This was not fully apparent until were fully committed two days downriver. Our second boatman had run the Colorado only once last summer--and that was his only rafting experience (although he acquitted himself well on the trip--much better than the more "experienced" boatman). Mike, the person that was supposed to be our most experienced boatmen had never run the Colorado before. He ran us into a large hole at mile 24.5, nearly flipping both rafts and sending two members swimming late in the day. After that his health started to deteriorate. At mile 24 I had to take over rowing the 18 foot raft under his guidance (I had a sixth sense that this might be good idea). By this time Mike was unable to walk more than a few feet without being winded. He was having trouble getting up in the morning delaying our starts. We ended up taking a full “layover” day for him to try and recover his strength with no effect [turns out he has a history of cardiac problems going back years]. In the end, Mike woke up one morning unable to stand up and having trouble staying conscious. We medievac’ed Mike that afternoon via NPS chopper but too late in the day to start running rapids.

This left us to run our most difficult stretch of the rapids for the trip with me rowing the largest raft on only two days of experience:

Hance Rapid, mile 76, grade 9

Sockdolager Rapid, mile 78, grade 9

Grapevine Rapid, mile 82, grade 8

I lost some sleep the night before stressing (maybe unduly) about the responsibly of safely piloting the raft through these rapids. I honestly didn't know if I could do it without flipping the raft. Not want to be a hero, just get the raft to Phantom Ranch upright with everybody safe. I want be an old whitewater person, not a bold one.

I had only about 50 oar strokes off the beach before we were plunged down Hance Rapid with an outside temperature of 31 degrees. We had an almost perfect line only glancing off one hydraulic at a 45 degree angle. Made it thru Sockdolager and Grapevine with flawless runs and arrived at Phantom Ranch just after noon. I was grateful to arrive upright un-injured. As they say, G-d protects fools and small children. While stunningly beautiful, the hike up Bright Angel with most of our equipment was arduous after the stress and exertion of packing up the rafts and running the rapids. And not trusting the remaining group's ability to keep our gear dry for the remainder of the trip we schlepped drysuits and everything else we could possibly carry to the top of the rim with us, leaving only one medium dry-bag on the rafts of stuff to be shipped back to us.

All in all it was a fantastic trip that turned out to be more adventure and drama than we had anticipated. But also opportunities. I would not trade piloting a raft to Phantom ranch or hike up Bright Angel in the snow for anything.

I truly love my most capable wife and adventuring companion. Without her double teaming the oars in critical places and helping in so many capacities, the trip could have gone differently. While everybody says that the Grand is forgiving and that if you flip you'll float to the bottom of the rapids and be OK, I certainly did not want to test this theory. It seemed like going upside down in Hance at 31 degrees would not be a good idea. And I have friends that did not fare so well with Horn rapids last summer. Three were injured and one was in the hospital for 6 weeks.

- boatman Alan

BTW our Kokatat drysuits were exceptional pieces of gear. Alison and I both loved them to pieces. -A

MikeVW posted on

It's unfortunate for Alan and his wife that they had to shoulder so much responsibility, as it sounds like it hurt some of their enjoyment on the trip overall. But it also speaks volumes about how good it is to have veteran knowledge on the trail, and one's ability to keep their wits about them even if things go wrong. We may have had a few scares on past trips, but I've always been impressed with this group's ability to work through any hurdles that get tossed up. And, of course, they always make for good campfire stories. [:))]