Jon Hamilton’s 1960 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, 1960. Previous attempts to run the rapids in reverse 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 previous unsuccessful upriver attempts.
An unfortunate accident happened on the down run in Lava Falls Rapid. Bill Austin, one of the men that hatched the up river plan, became seriously injured when his boat launched into the air before slamming down hard in the whitewater. A helicopter air lifted him to a hospital due to a compound fracture in his leg. His friend, Phil Smith, the other American who conceived the upriver run, went along to see to his care. Buzz Belknap the youngest member of the crew, was 16 years old and took over driving for Bill Austin. After hearing the bad news, Buzz 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. On July 4th the group launched the first and last successful run of the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River. At Lava Falls Rapid 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 then walk back down to repeat the process.
Lava Falls Rapid
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 swamped with water in Grapevine Rapid and sank. The boats driver, Fireball Young and passenger George Morrison decided to abort the mission by mule at Phantom Ranch. Only seven men completed the up run. Jon Hamilton and Dock Marston ran the Kiwi. Guy Mannering, Bill Belknap and Jim Bechtel rode the Wee Red. Finally Buzz Belknap and Ed I’ Anson piloted the Dock. The run took a total of 10 days with the last major hurdle being Soap Creek Rapid. This would be the last time an upriver run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon was made.