Jon Hamilton’s 1960’s Up Run
New Zealander, Jon Hamilton, the son of jet boat inventor Bill Hamilton, led the first successful upstream run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, arriving at Lee’s Ferry with three of the four boats after one sank in Grapevine Rapid, on July 12. Previous attempts had been made to run the rapids in reverse but had been unsuccessful.
First Go Downstream
The boats were 18 feet long and had 185 horsepower, V-8 motors, with two jets each. The group started at Lee’s Ferry and intended to run down the river first to test run rapids and stash fuel along the way for the upriver run. Seasoned river runner “Dock” Marston was among the group of boaters and was familiar with the rapids and able to tell the drivers what to expect at each rapid. He was also a member of some of the previously attempted upriver runs on the Colorado that had failed.
An unfortunate accident happened on the down run in Lava Falls Rapid. Bill Austin, one of the men that hatched the up river plan, was seriously injured when his boat launched into the air and slammed down hard in the whitewater. He had a compound fracture in his leg and had to be air lifted to a hospital. His friend, Phil Smith, the other American who conceived the upriver run, went along to see to his care and couldn’t complete the expedition either. Buzz Belknap the youngest member of the crew, was 16 years old and took over driving for Bill Austin. After hearing the bad news, the young man raced down to Phantom Ranch from the rim, where he joined the others.
After some rest and maintenance at the Lake Mead the party had to depart again. Water levels were dropping fast in the Canyon and they’d be unable to run Soap Creek if the river was too low. So on July 4th the first and last successful run of the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River was launched. The team arrived at Lava Falls Rapid and it took Jon Hamilton, the most experienced jet boat driver on the team, two days to take all four boats up the most challenging rapid on the river. It took him half an hour in some cases to climb up individual standing waves. Jon Hamilton was the only man to navigate the boats up Lava. He would ascend in one boat and afterwards walk back down to the others only to repeat the process three more times.
All four boats; the Kiwi, the Wee Yellow, the Wee Red, and the Dock made it through the raging 16,500 cfs whitewater of Lava Falls Rapid. Upriver, one of the boats, the Wee Yellow was swamped by water in Grapevine Rapid and sank. The boats driver, Fireball Young and passenger George Morrison decided to abort the mission and went out from Phantom Ranch by mule. Only seven men completed the up run; Jon Hamilton and Dock Marston in the Kiwi, Guy Mannering, Bill Belknap and Jim Bechtel in the Wee Red and Buzz Belknap and Ed I’ Anson in the Dock. The up run took a total of 10 days with the party making it through Soap Creek Rapid and arriving at Lee’s Ferry victorious. This would be the last time an upriver run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon was made.