The Man Who Crushed the Grand Canyon Record

The Colorado River speed run stood for three decades, then fell twice in a week. New record holder Ben Orkin tells how he did it.


Lava Falls almost got the last word in speed kayaker Ben Orkin’s record-setting descent of the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon last weekend. Three-quarters of the way into his blast through the Big Ditch—his second attempt after narrowly missing the mark last year due to repairing partner Harrison Rea’s kayak en route—he flipped and swam in the canyon’s most notorious rapid in pitch dark and barely got to shore with his boat.

But he went on to finish and set a new record of 34 hour, 2 minutes, besting the three-decad speed record of 36 hours, 38 minutes, set in 1983 by Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds in a wooden dory named The Emerald Mile and another set just two days earlier by Matt Klema, who knocked it off in 35 hours, 5 minutes. AJ caught up with
Orkin for his take on his swim, the rival group before him, and his new
hand-blistering record.

How’s it feel to have the record after coming so close last year?
It feels great. Unbelievable, actually. I still don’t think it has sunk in. I only wish Harrison was there as well. The effort he put in last year still blows my mind. He was the impetus for the original idea to try and break it.

Did you know Matt’s group had set the record just before you?
I got an e-mail from Ben Luck about an hour and a half before I launched, saying the new time to beat was around 35 hours. I had no idea anyone else was trying to break the record. It was super classy of them to let me know they set the record.

Did you do anything in particular to train beforehand?
I just paddled as much as I could and worked on my cardio. I also tried to build up the callouses on my hands. I spent a few weeks touring on Lake Powell to get ready. I probably should have practiced rolling more though, I guess.

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Which brings up your swim in Lava Falls. How’d that happen…were you tired?
It was terrible. I knew I was going to flip, but I didn’t think I was going to swim. I flipped right after the first entrance wave and was able to roll, but had too much power and did a 360 upside down again. Rather than trying to roll in the midst of the V-wave or Big Kahuna, I decided to tuck up and hold my breath and wait for the rapid to end before trying to roll again. But then I felt myself being pushed up against the Cheese Grater Rock.

Worried I’d have to swim in its little pocket, I felt the boat wash around into the current so I tried to roll again. But I had nothing left so I went for my grab loop. As soon as I pulled, I felt water rushing in through my relief zipper. So I grabbed my boat, closed the zipper and tried to get my bearings in the dark. I ended up swimming a quarter mile past Lower Lava before washing into an eddy on the right. Holding onto the boat was tough, but I knew if I let go my chances of setting the record would disappear and I’d be looking at a helicopter evac after a miserable night. I spent 20 minutes doing laps in the eddy before I could get the boat to shore; I was just about to ditch it when I decided to give it one last go and made it to shore.

Orkin at the end.

Orkin at the end.

Any other tough parts of the trip?
The hardest part mentally was the second night. It got dark around mile 140, about halfway through. The moon wasn’t up yet so it was incredibly dark. Knowing Lava was in just a few hours and it’d be dark for the next 13 was emotionally draining. I was already tired and it’s amazing how a lack of light affects your mood down there. The last five hours from Separation Canyon to Grand Wash Cliffs was also pretty demanding. Every stroke hurt, but I had to paddle harder than I did the preceding 29 hours if I wanted to set the record.

Was paddling in the moonlight cool?
It was incredible. There was way more light than I would have expected. It was super cool to see the canyon walls all lit up. It made it easy enough to see the whitewater features, but trickier to see things like eddylines. I found it easier to not wear my headlamp in the flatwater but I did turn it on in the rapids to see farther downstream.

Any point when you worried you wouldn’t make the record?
Orkin: For the first three hours I wasn’t sure I could keep up the 8 mph pace necessary to break the record. But once I got passed Redwall Cavern, I knew I had it as long as I didn’t swim or mess up too bad. After swimming in Lava I realized I could still break it as long as I got right back in my boat.

After 34 hours, Orkin was so knackered, he had to be helped from his boat.

After 34 hours, Orkin was so knackered, he had to be helped from his boat.

How’d you feel at the end?
It felt great to get past Grand Wash Cliffs. I still had a ton of adrenaline and was super excited to be done. I was also happy I wouldn’t have to try again next year. But by the time I floated down to Pearce Ferry, things had changed. I was exhausted. Everything hurt. I couldn’t stand or get out of my boat and eating and drinking was out of the question. My hands were swollen from my drysuit gaskets and I was cold and wet from my swim. I was glad there were people waiting for me to help get me out of the boat.

What will it take for someone to beat your record?
A huge physical and mental effort and a lot of luck. You could be having the perfect race, but it’s all over if you make even a simple mistake. You don’t really even have a chance at the record until after Lava…and even then, some of those rapids and flatwater could still knock you out of contention. So far the rangers have been super lenient, respectful, and even cooperative with speed runs, but that might change as well. If people start needing rescues or put on at the wrong time or date, we lose the rangers’ cooperation, which is a huge asset.

Photos courtesy Pam Wolfson

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