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Setting a Speed Record Through the Grand Canyon

Lava Falls is one of the most powerful rapids in the canyon and has long thwarted those trying to run it—especially those trying to make it down in record time.

Today, Lava Falls is the biggest obstacle facing teams attempting to set the speed record down the canyon. (Photo: Forest Woodward)
Today, Lava Falls is the biggest obstacle facing teams attempting to set the speed record down the canyon.

Lava Falls—rated Class 10 on the canyon system—is notoriously difficult. In 1869, John Wesley Powell and his team picked up their wooden boats and carried them around these rough waters. Since then, the waves here have trashed boats, broken bones, and taken lives. Today, Lava Falls is the biggest obstacle facing teams attempting to set the speed record (currently 34 hours and two minutes) down the canyon.

The 1983 record was initially set by river guide Kenton Grua and two friends. The team harnessed El Niño flows to rip through the canyon on a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile in 36:38. Their effort was chronicled in Kevin Fedarko’s 2013 book, The Emerald Mile (see Mile 65). That record wasn’t broken until January 2016, when a team of four expedition kayakers brought it down to 35:05. Two days later, kayaker Ben Orkin shaved almost an hour from the record on a solo mission—despite having to bail from his boat after it flipped over at Lava Falls. In January 2017, the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team punctured their custom-built raft when it crashed into a “monstrous wave” at Lava, says Ian Anderson, an athlete who joined the team on its trip. They had to bring their raft onshore to patch a four-inch gash at night and during a storm, ruining their shot at the record.

New records will surely be set, but they’ll likely come as a surprise. “I think the whitewater community doesn’t necessarily talk about their attempts prior to them happening,” Anderson says. “You brag about it afterward.”

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Correction: This article originally misstated the size of the gash that the boat suffered. Outside regrets the error.

Filed To: Whitewater RaftingWatersportsGrand Canyon
Lead Photo: Forest Woodward

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