How cold can it get in the Grand Canyon? Real cold

  • Flagstaff, morning of Dec. 31, 2014.

    Sarah Gilman
  • Snow had covered our rafts by the morning of our launch.

    Kale Casey
  • First day on the river, Jan. 1, 2015.

    Richard Malcolm
  • Corrine rowing through Marble Canyon on the first day on the river, Jan. 1, 2015.

    Kale Casey
  • Our group scouts Badger rapid on the first day on the river.

    Kale Casey
 

The first entries I made in my journal during a 23-day rafting trip on the Grand Canyon this winter were limited: “Day 1: Cold.” On the second day on the river, I mustered more creativity: “It’s freaking cold,” only I didn’t use the word freaking.

The morning of Dec. 31, our 16-member crew woke in Flagstaff to several inches of snow. More was falling fast; that day, Flagstaff got hammered with 14 inches. I wondered if our driver, who worked for the local outfitter that provided our boats and food, would tell us the conditions were too difficult and we’d have to postpone the trip. Nope, he just kept driving.

Once we arrived at the sandy-snowy put-in, we wildly hauled out our gear, pumped our five deflated boats into life and rigged them for rowing. As more snow accumulated, I looked down at my feet and regretted not bringing winter boots. Most anything would have been better than sandals, sneakers or the worn-out leather shoes that I was wearing. “Dang,” I thought. “What were you thinking?”

Records between 1916 and 2005 show average December snowfall in this area at an inch. Overnight, we had at least six. The river ranger said he and his colleagues had never seen so much snow in Marble Canyon, and other locals said the same.

The following day, fluffy white stuff filled our rafts. We had to massage and pound our frozen rig straps into useable forms. While putting on my Gore-Tex drysuit, I snagged my fingers in the heavy-duty zipper — a surprisingly easy mistake to make when your hands are too numb to register pain — and I kept pulling, bloodying a couple of knuckles. Whoops. (I’d never really been rafting before, so most things were new and challenging, from putting on drysuits to rowing.)

By the time we pushed off, most of us were warm from two hours of tossing and tying down gear. But within 20 minutes, we felt the low-40s chill seep back in. With the shade and wind, it felt even colder. We did calisthenics on the rafts to stay warm; as my friend Kale said, “The last result was the fetal position, or jumping jacks.”

Eight miles in, Badger, our first big rapid, appeared. My raft entered too far to the right and scraped sideways over a boulder and into the deep hole below it. The next thing I knew, a friend and I had bounced into the drink. Upstream in their raft, our friends watched our limbs and oars jerking up from below the rapid’s horizon.

The river tossed me downstream, through the rapid, as I frantically tried to time my breath with the onslaught of wave-trough-wave; I was scared. But by the time I was on shore, having caught a ride from one of our kayakers, I realized I was unscathed and still dry inside my drysuit. Krista, who was at the oars, had the toughest time: The raft flipped on top of her, slamming a metal box into her head. She escaped with a minor concussion and we lost minimal gear, but the upset was no fun.

That night, we revived with warm sleeping bags, a warm fire and warmed hearts. Our suffer-fest taught me in a new way that cold and uncertainty are less of an ordeal if you’re already used to being outside. There’s a calmness that comes with having spent significant time in the backcountry. Our trip leaders, Jesse and Krista, had a lot of that. It’s the feeling that no matter how cold you are and how bleak the weather forecast is, you will be warm (though it might take five hours of rowing first), and the suffering, at least in our case, is unlikely to kill you. In fact, I decided on this trip, it can make the experience of floating a remote canyon even better.

For the next five days, we saw no other big groups. It was just us and the canyon. Part of the reason we rafted the Colorado in so much solitude is because most people are more sensible: They want to run the canyon in the summer, or in any season except the dead of winter.

But here’s what we gained: Stunning views of snow-covered Kaibab limestone cliffs, minimal commercial helicopter flights overhead, and the feeling of being far from civilization. And when we did encounter other rafters, they weren’t competitors for campsites, they were comrades in adventure, trading in summer’s heat for something a little harder, rawer and a lot more wild.

Tay Wiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is the magazine’s online editor in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.