“If you break loose here, you can’t stop. You’re going into the abyss,” barks Rich Rudow. Normally he is unflappable, but as he knows too well, this is no place to let down one’s guard. We’re on a cliff roughly 3,500 feet above the Colorado River at the tip of the Great Thumb Mesa, a spectacular formation that thrusts out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon like the bow of an immense ship. It is one of the canyon’s most remote spots, rarely seen even by the most hard-core backpackers. If you come this far out on the Thumb, there is no way to get down to the river without climbing gear, and the dwindling food in your pack won’t allow you to make the eight-day trek back the way you came. You have to move forward.
Just ahead, the ledge that we’ve been walking on for the past several days vanishes into a deep indentation, or bay, in the wall of the canyon. This place is known as Owl Eyes, named for two enormous oval holes punched into the center of the cliff that looms over the middle of the bay. It’s a spooky place. Besides its ominous skull sockets, Owl Eyes is part of a tragic story. Nearly four years earlier, on a sunny February day, a beautiful young woman, a friend of Rudow’s, was crossing this passage when she fell to her death.
Now we’re staring across the same terrain, in far worse conditions. A storm had lumbered in the previous evening and coated the canyon in nine inches of snow. This is not what we’d imagined when we started this venture, an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon.