A Grand Adventure: Planning and Preparation

For three years I’ve participated in the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.  Twenty-five (or so) artists gather in September for a week of plein air painting at the Grand Canyon, with a show at Kolb studio to finish the week.  When invited to participate, I eagerly accepted, as I felt I needed a rematch with that crazy visual jigsaw puzzle.  Painting the Grand Canyon has, quite literally, sickened me.  In 2010 I had the chance to paint along the south rim.  For an entire day I tried to get something to work, scraping attempt after attempt.  While I drank plenty of water, I didn’t eat a thing.  I was too focused on painting.  Finally, as the sun set, I managed to eke out a not-so-terrible-painting.  With a sigh of relief, I turned in for the night.

I woke in the predawn glow eager to paint the first light, climbed out of the tent, and promptly threw up.  The headache and nausea was like nothing I’d ever experienced.  It was sudden and severe.  Fortunately, my wife had read the park paper, and honed in on one word: hyponatremia.  Basically, low sodium levels in the blood.  It feels like the worst hangover ever.  The remedy?  Pringles and Gatorade.

Suffice to say, I take The Grand Canyon seriously.  It has quite literally brought me to my knees.

At both north and south rims, I’ve found myself wondering what it’s like down below.  I’ve hiked a mile or two down to paint, but that wasn’t enough to satiate my curiosity.  I learned that people hike rim to rim, a distance of 23 miles, with a ridiculous amount of elevation lost and regained.  Could I backpack my easel across the canyon, I wondered?

Though I tried to put the idea out of my mind, it kept returning to pester me, so I finally emailed Kathy Duley, the head of The Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, to see what she thought of the idea.  I really expected a “you want to do what?” response, but to my surprise, she enthusiastically agreed with the proposal.

So the planning began.  My biggest concern was putting together a trek that gave me ample painting time.  To this end, I decided on a six day trek.  On Kathy’s advice I’d start from the North Rim, a starting elevation of about 8200.  Descending the North Kiabab trail, I’d lose about a mile in elevation, bottoming out at about 2,200 feet at the Colorado River.  I’d then start the long climb back out, ascending the Bright Angel Trail to emerge at an elevation of 6,860 at the South Rim on day six.

For preparation I took a three day solo backpacking/painting trip to a mountain lake near my home in Montana.  Really, I just needed to know that I could cover a lot of miles AND get enough painting done to make the trip worthwhile.  Despite some inclement weather, I came home with a pack full of paintings and a determination to hike The Grand Canyon!

My backpacking pastel kit on a test run in the mountains.

My backpacking pastel kit on a test run in the mountains. i.e. another tough day in the office!

Next I had to decide on the length of the trip and put in for permits.  To get geeky, here are the specifics:

  1.  North Kaibab to Cottonwood Camp: 6.7 miles.  8,241 ft. to 4,080 ft. Two nights at Cottonwood.
  2. Cottonwood to Bright Angel Campground: 7.2 miles.  4,080 ft. to 2,480 ft.  Two nights at Bright Angel.
  3. Bright Angel to Indian Garden: 6.3 miles.  2,480 ft. to 3,800 feet.  One night at Indian Garden.
  4. Indian Garden to South Rim: 4.8 miles.  3,800 ft. to 6,860 ft.

Two nights at South Cottonwood and two at Bright Angel would, I hoped, give me more time to paint, as I’d only have to move camp every other day.

Once I got my permits, I began to make a packing list.  Straight off, my art gear weighed fifteen pounds, so I had to plan the rest of the gear carefully if I was going to carry a reasonable load.  Here’s the list:

  1. Sleeping bag
  2. MSR Windboiler Stove (this proved to be the most amazing backpacking stove I’ve ever used, as it boils water in about 2 minutes, is impervious to the wind, and has a pot and bowl built in.  In six days I used less than half a small canister of fuel!)
  3. Solo tent
  4. Lightweight backpacking air mattress.
  5. One change of clothes, three pairs of socks, a fleece sweatshirt, a shell, a wool hat, a sunhat, a pack towel, biodegradable soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
  6. A basic first aid kit and sunscreen.
  7. I hike in trail running shoes.  I find that they are far more comfortable than any hiking boot, even with a heavy pack (and that is with my arthritic ankles!)  I also brought sandals for camp.
  8. A 1.5 liter hydration pack, along with two water bottles.  I find it nice to have a hose to sip on as I hike.  I also brought Gatorade Powder.
  9. A water filter.  Turns out, I didn’t need it, as each camp had water taps.  It was, however, a good backup, as the pipes were broken when I started the trip.

Food (This came out to 15 pounds):

  1. For dinners I use instant Indian Food that comes in foil bags. Though it adds a little weight, it is much tastier and cheaper than the dehydrated backpacking meals.  You can just pop it in boiling water for five minutes and it’s ready to go.  I added tuna and dinner was ready! Tuna now comes in foil packs, so you no longer have to deal with cans!
  2. Lunch was sausage, peanuts, raisins, and energy bars. I usually make my own energy bars, but I ran out of time.  I also had one Gu pack per day- again, I don’t want to get hyponatremia!
  3. Breakfast was low sugar instant oatmeal.

Art Gear:

  1. Sketch book, technical pen and grayscale markers
  2. Strada Easel modified for pastel.  (The pastels are sandwiched between foam)
  3. Mofrotto BeFree tripod- lightweight and compact!
  4. Pastelmat card- this is a wonderful pastel paper made in France.
  5. I sandwich the paper between two sheets of gator foam secured by bulldog clips.  Individual sheets are protected by glassine.  One of the boards acts as a drawing board.  When I finish a pastel I simply tape the glassine over it, put it in the stack, and clip to gator foam back on.
  6. camera with two batteries.

All added up, my pack weighed nearly 60 pounds.  While that is a heavy load, it is no more than what I carry on mountaineering trips.  I should note that I never once took a venture like this lightly.  My biggest worry was the heat- at Bright Angel Campground the temps regularly top out at over 100 degrees.  Also, I would be spending a lot of time out on the trail, as I’d be painting my way from camp to camp.  And, six days is a long time to be self-sustained.  I mention this as a caution- I work out a lot and spend an enormous amount of time in the wild.  This is a trip that I worked up to, and really, I took the planning as seriously as I would any technical mountaineering trip.

Here’s what it all looks like:

My gear for the six day trek. Not pictured are lunch and breakfast food.

My gear for the six day trek. Not pictured are lunch and breakfast food.

If you would like to read more on thoughts and preparation for this trip, I encourage you to check out the great digital article in Plein Air Today.  They really do a great job of explaining my motivation and planning for the trip.

Next post we go down below the rim and begin the adventure!

Categories: Plein Air Painting TripsTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. This is a great start to an intriquing travelogue. You were brave to take pastels! Lesser mortals would have done oils with three or four tubes of paint to save weight. But your past experiences with mountaineering truly gave you an edge. Looking forward to reading more!


  2. My husband hiked it from rim to rim a few years ago and carrying much less. We will be at Tucson. He would share his ventures with you if you are there. Enjoyed reading how you prepared for the trip. Jan Bowman, Auburn, CA


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