Sleep In The Dirt

Climbing in The Grand Canyon

Essays From the Field

30 miles, one sketchy summit, and the joy of a shared meal while climbing in the Grand Canyon.  

As we started down the half icy, half muddy trail that led to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I knew it would be a trip to remember. We’d missed our sunrise start time by a long shot thanks to our group’s insatiable need for “just one more cup of coffee”– and the fact that my friend Jake had forgotten his climbing shoes at home. After achieving caffeine overload and snagging a pair of 1970’s rock shoes from a very kind restaurant employee, it was time to hit the trail. 

Wandering the Grand Canyon for the campsite
Jake following the wandering creek beds (and the rest of our group) en route to our campsite. Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht

If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you’re probably wondering why rock climbing shoes were on the gear list to begin with. This world-famous national park is known for many things, but rock climbing isn’t on the top of the list. However, for those willing to get off the beaten path, the Canyon holds breathtaking towers with summits you won’t soon forget. 

Thanks to my father’s interesting take on “family bonding,” I’ve been backpacking in and out of the Grand Canyon since I was six years old. As the years passed, our routes have begun to wander off to explore trails that rarely see visitors, and our groups have ensnared more than just family. But a few things will never change. There’s always plenty of whiskey, some very sore legs, and a 99% chance that my 71 year old father will beat you to the top of the rim on the hike out. 

On this particular trip, we set out to complete a remote 30+ mile loop with an added objective: climbing the Monument Creek Pinnacle, a crumbly-looking tower that rarely sees ascents.  

Slow morning in the Grand Canyon
Waiting for coffee and enjoying a slow morning at the bottom of the Canyon. Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht

By the end of our first day, we’d clocked 16 long miles. With heavy legs, my husband Felipe and I quickly pitched our TigerWall UL2 tent, boiled some water for a late-night dinner, and dove into our sleeping bags for a long-awaited night of rest. 

The next morning, I reluctantly poked my head out of my Daisy Mae sleeping bag to see our climbing objective towering above us. After breakfast, our group split up for our day’s goals. Myself, Felipe, and our friends Jake and Emily began gearing up to climb, while the rest of our group headed out to our next campsite a few miles down the trail.

Spreading our climbing gear out on my TwisterCane pad, I realized why my back was aching so badly. And, why there aren’t many climbers in the Grand Canyon. Adding ropes, harnesses, and countless pieces of metal gear to your backpack will put an edge on any multi-day trip, especially one like this. Nonetheless, my friends were psyched to climb, and it was contagious. 

Sorting gear on the TwisterCane
The author, Karen, sorting through gear in preparation for a long, heavy hike out. Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht

At the base of the Pinnacle, the rock looked about as bad as we’d expected. But Felipe happily quested up the first, most difficult, pitch of rock. The crack he was following quickly narrowed to a thin seam. This was the “crux,” the hardest part of the climb. With a breath to calm his nerves, Felipe reached for a small edge of rock and was just beginning to pull himself up when –crack– the hold he was using ripped away from the wall. Catching his breath, he looked down and laughed, “I don’t think this is rated 5.11 anymore.” 

Following up behind him, I breathlessly agreed. 

As we climbed, the sun began to sink behind the canyon walls, and the temperature dropped with it. Shivering, I decided to climb with my puffy jacket on. I didn’t think much of it until I saw that our route quickly turned into a chimney-like crack. Shoving my body between the unbelievably rough rock, I winced at the sound of my favorite jacket quickly turning to shreds with every move. It was nothing a little duct tape couldn’t fix, right? 

Monument Creek Pinnacle Grand Canyon
Felipe nearing the start of the crux move on the first pitch of the North Face of Monument Creek Pinnacle (5.11). Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht

We reached the summit just in time to catch the type of sunset that makes any adventure worthwhile. Peachy skies, a 360 degree view of the canyon walls, and a round of high-fives with some of my favorite people made the pain of carrying our climbing gear for so many miles fade away. 

By the time we made it back onto the ground, it was dark. We stumbled back to camp, more tired than the day before. But not too tired to share a few sips of whiskey. Tossing our bodies on the ground, the adrenaline of the day slowly faded away into the sounds of our laughter.  

The next day, our group reunited at our final campsite along the sandy banks of the Colorado River. With nothing to do except enjoy, we swam, stretched, and of course, ate. After all, no trip is complete without a celebratory feast.

Friends at night
Sharing laughs during the last night of yet another successful trip with our motley crew. Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht

My father is notoriously bad at cooking, so for this trip, I’d planned something special for the group. A Jetboil of boiling water and a pre-seasoned mix of dried veggies, refried beans, and Spanish rice later, we toasted each other with plates full of homemade burrito bowls. Down there, they tasted as good as any five-star meal.

As the night wore on, our full stomachs fueled the swapping of stories from our climbing misadventures, all the way back to my dad’s very first trip down to the Canyon in 1971. Watching the dirty, joyful faces surrounding me, I couldn’t help but think that this, too, was one of those moments that makes adventure worthwhile. 

Karen (author) with her dad
A lifetime of adventure in the Grand Canyon between Karen and her dad. Photo: Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht

About the author: Karen Williams is a freelance writer and outdoor chef based in Colorado. When she’s not cooking or writing, you’ll probably find her squeezing her way up a desert crack climb or slowly running along an alpine trail. Her self-proclaimed cooking style, Gritty Gourmet, is a mix between dirtbag gourmet and actual gourmet, with the promise that any recipe she shares is ready for adventure. Follow along on Instagram, or find her recipes and ramblings at www.grittygourmet.com. 

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