I Say This For Your Own Good
Let me be perfectly clear: This trip was not for the mani-pedi, dallying in a hammock, mint on your pillow at night set. Though the guides did most of the work of rowing us down the river, keeping the boat upright in the rapids, and keeping us fed, safe, and environmentally correct, we were busy. I took a journal, but I never once cracked the cover because I would have missed out on chores needing doing, or a hike.
Or a nap.
To enjoy this trip, you had to thrive on thrill-seeking, both on water and on land. You had to throw modesty, if not out the window at least into the corner. You had to be willing to be too cold, too hot, dirty, sandy, wet, sore, exhausted, and surrounded by things that bite, sting, stab, and scratch – and still be able to have the most deliriously exhilarating time of your life.
You also had to be willing to completely unplug from the office. That’s 17 days of being totally unreachable by phone, email, FedEx, or carrier pigeon. Think you can do that?
Ready …Fire… Aim
Rafting the Grand Canyon had been my dream for many years, and we made reservations over a year in advance. You would think, having committed to fling myself for over two weeks down a river in a mile-deep canyon with some of the most challenging rapids actually runnable, that with such a long time horizon to prepare I would be ready.
But I wasn’t. Not at all.
There were contracts and release forms to sign, videos to view, reams of informational documents to read, and a packing checklist. A long checklist – and everything including sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and ground tarp had to fit inside two drybags.
Who knew that in a place where three baking hot deserts converge – the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran – on the river in April you might need fleece and neoprene booties? Or that women might want to bring a “feminine urinary device” so they can pee standing up?
Do what? Hello?
At Peter’s instigation, we started going over the list two weeks before departure, pulling out gear we needed, and purchasing what we didn’t have. Like a feminine urinary device. It took a colossal amount of time. Without Peter’s prodding I would never have started soon enough, and as it turned out I used almost every single item I packed, including the…you know.
I believe the right philosophy for entrepreneurs, and for corporate executives driving change, is Ready…Fire…Aim. Don’t worry about making everything perfect. If it’s never been done before, you can count on potholes in the road.
Get ready. Then go for it. You can make it perfect later.
But be sure to get ready. If you are inclined to shoot from the hip, you need someone to make sure your pistols are clean and loaded before you walk into the saloon. Peter has my back.
How to Sell Anything to Anyone
There were 18 of us, plus 6 guides. Going from the Flagstaff hotel where we met to the put-in point at Lee’s Ferry took two vans and several hours. Along the way we stopped at a Native American trading post.
They had every imaginable doodad I hadn’t known I couldn’t live without, from native jewelry and pottery, to feathered bows and arrows, to scorpions encased in Lucite. They didn’t pretend that their products would save our lives, but they were quite persuasive that if we didn’t buy them we would miss out on the “experience” of the Grand Canyon.
There is a reason why crack addicts often make more per day than a Manhattan sales executive, and why third-world merchants equal the best sales people in the world in guts and sheer persistence. For them, it’s not about outdoing the Joneses, it’s about survival.
I escaped unscathed, but only because I bought my coyote skull and pottery vase with spotted salamanders the first time I came this way.
The Making of a Working Team
Our four guides, trip leader Erika, Heather, Scotty, and Rondo have over 80 years’ river experience among them. The baggage boatmen, Andrew, Adam, and Russ, are potential-guides-in-training, practicing reading the river and running the rapids with nothing but equipment at stake if they misjudged. They all knew the river, but not necessarily each other, at the start of the trip.
Then there was us, ranging from 18 people at the start of the trip, 8 for the middle leg from Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Wash, and 10 at the end. Only 2 besides Peter and me made the whole journey from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Meade. Most left at Phantom or came in at Whitmore. Among the 26 passengers along the way we included 9 women, 6 teenagers, a family from New Zealand, U.S. residents originally from Poland, Taiwan, and the Middle East, retirees, and doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. Well maybe no chiefs, but plenty of captains of industry. There were some pretty interesting networking opportunities.
It was up to Erika and a well-oiled but flexible system to meld us into an operating unit that could get us down the river in one piece.
We bonded quickly and worked well together. That made a big difference, because there were times when some felt challenged, physically and mentally way outside their comfort zone, and needed the support and encouragement of the team to soldier on.
The Truth about Leadership
Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, or O.A.R.S, was founded in 1969 by George Wendt and his buddy Ed Gooch. I got to meet George, who joined us for the last leg of our journey. Each and every guide made a point of saying what a great guy George was and how lucky we were to have him join us. As a strategy consultant and executive coach I rarely hear such universal endorsement for the leadership.
George is indeed a kind, articulate, and engaging gentleman, and tells a moving tale of giving up life as a middle school math teacher to devote himself to the rivers and wilderness areas that so inspired him and his friends and students.
We have a tendency to confer credit for business success on one person. We want to believe that one person can single-handedly found a business on their passion and everyone will beat a path to their door. We forget that Thomas Edison was bankrolled by J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. We overlook the fact that it was founding partner Steve Wozniak, not Steve Jobs, who had the programming prowess to create Apple’s distinctive computers. Childhood friend Paul Allen was the one that urged Bill Gates to start Microsoft.
In most successful business ventures, there are at least two driving forces, an innovator and an actuator. Without the actuator, the innovator is a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Without the innovator, the actuator is a wasted talent. But usually only one gets the credit. O.A.R.S. was George’s dream for sure, and he deserves the credit for converting a weekend passion into a multi-million dollar enterprise that now operates throughout the Western Hemisphere and in Fiji. But I’d be willing to bet that his buddy Ed, and George’s wife Pam who entered the partnership when Ed exited, were equally instrumental in creating and growing the company.
And employees like Erika, Scottie, Rondo, and Heather, whose passion, knowledge, humor, and gourmet cooking created such a memorable experience for their guests, bring George’s dream to life every day on the river. The real genius in leadership is to find people who can share your passion, and set them free to perform at their best. This, George has clearly done.
You Gotta Have Rocks in Your Head
The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I hiked for the afternoon along the Kaibab Trail because that was all I had time for.
It was awesome. I vowed to come back.
The second time I went to the Grand Canyon, I hiked for the day along the Bright Angel Trail, out to the edge of the Tonto Plateau because that was all I had time for.
Oh. My. God. I didn’t realize you couldn’t even see the bottom half of the canyon from the rim. I vowed to come back and see everything.
This third trip is the Real Deal. One day at dawn I overheard one of my fellow guests singing America the Beautiful under his breath. When he got to “purple mountains majesty” he stopped, looked up, and exhaled slowly. I knew exactly what he meant. The sun was just beginning to burnish sheer cliffs of red limestone, flaky pastry layers of buff sandstone and multicolored shale, polished and fluted black schist infused with seams of rose colored granite, and so much more.
In a hike up a side canyon I even came across a lavender boulder covered with deep purple polka dots. I am not making this up.
It is impossible to be in the canyon and not be awed by the grandeur of it, which no photograph can remotely convey. It is equally impossible not to be intrigued by the eons of earth’s history laid bare in the rock layers, some of them 1.7 billion years old. As the formations, each a distinct color and texture, rose and fell throughout our journey, their varying susceptibility to erosion changed the landscape dramatically. In some places the river cut a deep, sheer gorge through polished rock. In others the canyon relaxed into wide open vistas of crumbly scree rimmed by terraced mesas. Some layers were riddled with caves, others with fossils or mineral springs, and still others hid ancient petroglyphs and abandoned graineries, evidence of early inhabitants in an unforgiving land.
You Gotta Go With the Flow
In the canyon, the river rules everything. It is freaking freezing (49 degrees) just below Lee’s Ferry, making each rapid an icy drenching, but warms about a degree a day, so that toward the end of the trip a dip was actually pleasant. If quick. Lower spring flow dictates that an April trip takes longer than one in July. Constrictions and barriers create a chute of faster current followed by a stretch where the current meanders and swirls. Including flowing upriver. Behind each obstruction and curve in the river is an eddy where the water runs backwards.
The guides gave me a couple of turns at the oars, but diplomatically took them back when they could see I was getting us nowhere. Reading the current is essential to making headway downstream, letting the river do most of the work. Knowing how to read the river, navigating the rapids without upending the boat on a pour-over rock or the hole behind it, and riding eddies to our landing points but staying out of them otherwise, is harder than it looks.
Homo Sapiens non Urinat in Ventum
A columned portal near the Holland Casino in downtown Amsterdam carries this Latin inscription, which translates roughly as “The wise man does not pee into the wind.” This turns out to be pretty sage advice for wise women on the Colorado River. We camped on small sand beaches flanked by cliffs, and everyone was instructed to pee into the river. Easy enough if you are a man but a, shall we say, complicated matter for the ladies where few stretches of waterfront are private. This was when I discovered the virtues of my feminine urinary device.
Lacking their years of practice, I have to say I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for the talent and nuance guys bring to this. Yet another item to add to my list of things harder to do properly than it looks.
Admit it. You were wondering.
Sand in my Shorts
And in my ears, in my hair, in my sleeping bag, in my coffee cup, in my food, you name it. The worst was flossing out the sand from between my teeth. It gives “Life’s a Beach” a whole new meaning.
Scorpions and Spiders and Snakes, Oh My!
You can know in theory that they’re out there, but you don’t expect actually to see them.
A few days into the trip we got some weather. Peter and I awoke after a chilly, rainy night to discover a black widow hiding from the weather under our fly.
Another day, we discovered a rattlesnake in camp, just a few feet from where I had been hanging laundry. Heather stepped on it, and was nimble enough to hop off again without being bitten. We caught it, put it in a 5 gallon bucket over night for safety, and let it go again the next morning after breaking camp. The guides say if they remove the snakes, the rodent population explodes, and hanta virus is more worrisome than a rattlesnake bite.
Did you know that scorpions glow phosphorescent green under black light? That little factoid is sure to boost your Trivial Pursuits prowess. One of the guides brought a black light out after dark, and used it to show two of the guests that the grassy area where they had set up to sleep under the stars sans tent wasn’t such a good choice. There was a scorpion hiding right next to their gear.
But alongside such misadventures, there were many sightings of bighorn sheep, ewes that had come down to the water’s edge to drop their lambs. Watching the babies scampering up nearly vertical cliffs was great entertainment.
Colder Than a Witch’s…
Most days were pleasant enough, at least off the water, for shorts and a light shirt. But the hardest day mentally wasn’t like that at all. The day after we dropped off more than half our group at Phantom Ranch, in between curtains of rain, we could see snow piling up on the rim. It was 38 degrees on the water, and we were set to run a series of big rapids that day. Even wearing fleece and neoprene under waterproof rain gear, we were getting soaked and chilled to the bone with each one. Erika cut the run short when she could see that some of us were on the verge of hypothermia.
I was fine. Frozen, but fine. I kept reminding myself that I would rather be down here in the cold, than be one of those people who looks over the South rim for five minutes and drives away thinking they’ve seen the Grand Canyon.
So let’s see. I had to contend with sand, scorpions, poisonous snakes, venomous spiders, I almost froze to death, and I had to learn how to pee standing up in semi-public. Sounds like a blast.
What was I doing here?
Scotty was the go-to guide if you wanted a wild ride. He boasted that if you wanted to Go Big, he would show you the real King Kong waves. He delivered, sometimes even beyond his own expectations. He confessed in camp after a day of big rapids that at one point he found his boat in a place where he definitely did not want to be.
“I said a word I don’t often use. It rhymes with Duck,” he mused laughing.
But much to his surprise, he didn’t turn the boat over and no one fell out.
Afterwards, one of our female guests who spoke English as a second language said, “I don’t like riding with Scotty. He goes too deep. And I don’t like those Hong Kong waves. Her words have been immortalized.
I loved being on Scotty’s boat. In the front.
And I also loved hiking. We often stopped where we could hike up to a spot of interest: petroglyphs, abandoned Native American graineries, slot canyons, waterfalls, and test tunnels for the thwarted Grand Canyon dam.
My favorite was an all-day hike up to Thunder Falls, where a river bursts out of a sheer rock face from an underground aquifer. We returned along a trail above Deer Creek, which cuts a long, deep slot canyon before hurling itself over a cliff into the Colorado River. At times our trail was less than a foot wide, hugging a cliff on one side and sloping away over polished rock layers to the lip of the slot on the other.
Here, Erika pointed out pictographs of hands, created by blowing pigment around the palm and outstretched fingers. They were tiny compared to ours and I tried to imagine who might have made them. Erika said the Paiute, who incorporated the canyon within their range over the last few hundred years, used to send their youths here on a walkabout to earn their manhood. One way they were tested was to come to the Deer Creek slot canyon, leave their handprints on the wall, and then jump across the 100 foot-deep slot, a gap of at least 8 or 10 feet.
The thought of it made me shiver, and added a delicious frisson to negotiating the narrow path.
The hike was over 9 miles in total, much of it up and down giant stair steps that challenged me. At the end I was exhausted, and hot, and footsore. And exhilarated. Though I feared they might, my legs never did turn black and fall off.
Black Hole Your Messages
Completely unplugging from the office on vacation is important. You don’t get the full benefit of the time off unless you do. But it’s very hard to give yourself permission and in the past I’ve been as guilty as anyone, even flying back to the office in the middle of a family ski trip to deal with some disaster. Perhaps that’s why I travel each time to a place more and more remote, where commerce can’t find me.
It’s amazing. Somehow the world manages to keep on turning just fine without my personal attention.
But I noticed how many people (including me) started to stress at the end of their trip in anticipation of the piles of email and voicemail waiting for them. Black holing was not brought to my attention until after my trip, but I guarantee you I will be using it from now on. Here’s what you do:
Leave the usual notice that you will be away until such-and-such date and an alternative contact who can be reached if assistance is needed. Here’s what’s different: Leave instructions to contact you again after your return if they really need to speak to you personally. Then delete the incoming message. That’s it.
How cool would that be, to arrive home without 2,500 emails and dozens of phone messages awaiting you? I think it’s brilliant, and I plan to try it soon.
Mandatory Philosophical Musings
Tanzanians say of Mount Kilimanjaro that if you have never climbed the mountain then you will never know what it is like. If you have climbed it once, then you do. If you have climbed it more than once, then there is something wrong with you.
It is possible that people apply the same sort of yardstick to rafting the Grand Canyon: If you go once, you’re bold and adventurous, if you go again you’re cuckoo.
I hope not, because I know I have to go back. I don’t know how many times I wanted to leap off the raft to explore a passing cave or side canyon. Navigating the landscape there is a challenging alchemical process that leaves you a different person than the one who began the journey.
George and I discussed the logistics of putting together a trip dedicated to hikers, with more days in the canyon to free up more time for long hikes. It would be two or three years out, because next year is largely booked, but if I can find enough takers to join me I will probably do it. Let me know if you’re in.
And even if I never set foot in the bottom of the Grand Canyon again, I will be proud for the rest of my life that I did it. Nothing I’ve ever done (or expect to) in business has ever demanded that degree of resilience, flexibility, or adventurous spirit.
Which is a good thing, when you think about it.
Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at http://thecogentexecutive.com/