Canyon Commentary: A Canyon Disappearance

Sep 22, 2017

Five years ago, commentator Scott Thybony joined the search for a friend who went missing in the Grand Canyon. He’d been looking for thousand-year-old rock art panels in a remote part of the Canyon … stories from another world. Whether or not he found them remains a mystery because he never returned. Scott Thybony has more in his latest Canyon Commentary. 

The search site in the western Grand Canyon for former river guide Bill Ott.
Credit Scott Thybony

A friend had disappeared somewhere in the western Grand Canyon.  Former river guide Bill Ott left on a solo backpacking trip in the spring of 2012 and failed to return a month later. When the Coconino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team received word, they launched an intensive search and I soon joined them.

Michael Ghiglieri participated in the search for Bill Ott. He co-authored the bestselling book, "Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon."
Credit Scott Thybony

A DPS helicopter shuttled us to a bench on the side of Mohawk Canyon, a long tributary gorge of the main canyon.  Flying over such complex terrain reminded me of what we faced.  Somehow we had to find a lone human, a single pinprick, in an immense expanse of broken rock and sheer cliffs.  The pilot dropped us off where boot prints had been spotted the day before, and EMT Sueanne Kubicek and I began searching our sector.

Bill Ott was an experienced expedition hiker. He had spent 78 days walking the length of Grand Canyon in 1981, becoming the first to complete the traverse on the north side. Now he was missing in a remote, cliff-cut region where he hoped to discover unknown rock art sites. 

Several times Ott had stopped by my office to talk about his passion, a style of otherworldly rock art painted thousands of years ago. The multi-colored pictographs fascinated him, and being hard to find and even harder to reach added to the attraction. I pointed him toward several key panels, and he updated me on his investigations whenever he passed through town. The last time we met he asked, “What areas did you not explore?” 

A search and rescue crew combed the western Grand Canyon area five years ago for missing former river guide Bill Ott.
Credit Scott Thybony

“Across the river on the south side,” I told him. “As far as I know no one has looked there.” But the Hualapai tribe no longer allowed hikers on their lands, so he decided to slip in undetected. That was where he disappeared. 

Sueanne and I followed the probable routes of travel and some improbable ones along a broad platform known as the Esplanade. We checked the most promising overhangs since Ott had planned to use them as base camps. As we covered our sector, other teams were checking different areas. 

Late in the day we waited for the chopper to pick us up, and I tried to sort out what might have happened. The chances he made it past this point were slim. We had found no additional tracks, no camps, and none of the ancient rock art he sought. We also found no water, but conditions were likely wetter a month earlier. Another team picked up a set of boot prints in the bed of Mohawk Canyon, indicating he was exploring areas beyond where the rock art sites normally occur.

On a long trek the previous year Ott suffered an injury causing him to be a week overdue. An accident may have happened this time, or a medical emergency may have kept him from reaching water. If he crawled into the shade of a low overhang or fell into a vertical crack, spotting his body would be extremely difficult. Because his depth of experience would have increased his chance of survival, the search was extended for several days with a follow-up search 10 months later. Few traces of the missing hiker ever turned up, and what happened remains a mystery.  

During his canyon traverse in 1981, Bill Ott kept a journal. “Where is it I walk?” he wrote. “Is this some magical paradise on another world or truly just a dry canyon in Arizona? I am awed again and again, and with more gentle rain it becomes the source of joy I have come to know here … please let there not be an end to this.” His last trip took him below the rim again, drawn back to that other world.