Backpacking in Grand Canyon

The Man Who Walked Through Time

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

About a month ago Steve E. phoned and said he was traveling down to California in late November and would I want to join him for a hike in the Grand Canyon.  I’d seen the Canyon 44 years ago from the rim on a hot hazy day, surrounded by mobs of tourists, and never had the urge to go back until a recent flight  to Idaho via Phoenix, during which the plane went over it at 30000 feet and I got the point. I was also feeling what Andy called Wilderness Withdrawal since returning from the Yukon and only managing to organize one campout–a night on the Sandspit with Chad. So I jumped at the invitation.

Steve had done preliminary research which indicated that it wouldn’t be easy to get a camping permit even at that time of the year, but since the reservation would have to be sent by mail, I volunteered to negotiate a time and itinerary  from here. The central trail which he had hiked 25 years ago and which had guaranteed supplies of water was unavailable, so I looked for alternate routes on the web and collected books from the Cal Poly library.  Because no large scale map of the canyon showing all the trails was available, this required learning quite a bit of nomenclature—categories of corridor, threshold, primitive and wilderness trails and names of specific trails and campsites and their designations, itineraries where water was available at least every other day, and a sense of the contours and distances inside the canyon.

Following up possible itineraries led to warnings like these:

Extreme care should be taken if you are using this trail during the winter months under icy conditions as at times your are literally walking on the edge of the gorge and one wrong step could be fatal…. Once the trail reaches the head of Travertine Canyon the real fun begins. …The descent is clogged with boulders of all sizes ranging from footballs to small houses. …Most other guide books that I have read actually recommend this trail …I think that the people who wrote these must be out of their collective minds… You end up taking a lot of chances going down something like this and there are some difficult places where you may have to take off your packs and lower them down with ropes.

And this, coming from an independent authority, was mild compared to the warnings stated by the Park Service:

The Boucher challenges even experienced canyon hikers. The trail consists of tough, tedious traverses linked together by knee-destroying descents, with a section of exposed hand and toe climbing thrown in for good measure.

Not an adventure to take on with a partner who has bad knees.

After further immersion in the literature and several amiable conversations with people at the Backcountry Information Center, we were able to come up with what promises to be a reasonable five day loop that wont require the Satellite phone or other unusual backup arrangements. In addition, Peter B. decided to join us, flying into Las Vegas from Vancouver.

Even with the risks diminished, my imagination remained excited by the prospect of exploring a vast landscape different from any other on earth—a place where nature and recreation converges with metaphysics and myth.  I read that although the canyon itself was only 7 million years old, it trenched downward into rocks at the bottom that had been there upwards of two billion years, that the mile-deep descent through layers of strata conducts the hiker back that far on a voyage through time, where the passage of epochs can be followed in the coherent sequence of strata, like the dendrochronology in rings of ancient trees.

This seemed a particularly appealing prospect while I was spending time probing my own past, descending through volumes of journals, trays of slides, albums of photographs, packets of letters, looking for the overall shape and meaning of the story.

A comparable search drives Colin Fletcher, the author of a book written in 1968 entitled The Man Who Walked Through Time. For seventeen years, he planned a solo hike from one end to the other of the two hundred seventeen mile stretch of the Canyon within the National Park.  His account is structured as a vision quest, a passage through exertion, fear, deprivation and ambition toward an unmediated experience that puts him in touch with the nature out there beyond the busy preoccupations of his ego and that helps him understand the relationship between his tiny presence in space and time and the vast expanses of both in which it finds itself.

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 1)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Prelude and background

After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for provisions the day before, Steve and I left San Luis early Wednesday morning and drove  across the Carrizo Plains on Highway 58.  The emptiness of the landscape and the beauty of the road provided a preview of what was to come.  The eight hour trip to Las Vegas over the Tehachapis and through the Mohave desert passed quickly, lightened by easy conversation, favorite music downloaded from my itunes collection and anticipation of the hike.

We met Peter at the airport, avoiding contamination of contact with the city, and headed south on highway 93. At Hoover Dam we encountered a massive traffic jam and got out to join thousands of tourists rubbernecking at the old dam in the spectacular late afternoon desert sunlight.

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Rather than pay the 25 dollar admission to the new 115 million dollar visitor center we admired the art  nouveau mosaics and sculptures ornamenting the 1930’s engineering miracle.

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It’s now dwarfed by a magnificent four lane bridge under construction across the canyon hundreds of feet higher at a cost so far of 250 million dollars.  It will, we are told, alleviate traffic congestion on the road between Phoenix and Las Vegas, even though an alternate Interstate route already exists.

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A good Thai dinner in Kingman Arizona kept us going till arrival at the Holiday Inn Express room I’d reserved a couple of miles outside the park in a dreary new industrial tourism development.

full photoset and slideshow

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 2)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Next morning after early breakfast we drove into the National Park, passing elk wandering the roads. We left the car at the Backcountry Information Center where we had to wait over an hour to buy a map and receive advice to head down the Boucher Trail, which my earlier research alerted me was dangerously erroneous.

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fullsize map and itinerary

Then we took the red bus along the rim road to Hermit’s Rest, where I purchased a copy of John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado and its Canyons,  and followed the Hermit Trail over the edge.

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The hike was ecstatic at first, the canyon more Grand and awe inspiring than any landscape I’ve seen, including Yosemite and Zion: the light and colors of the rock more dramatic, the succession of views on the trail—ahead, behind, across, up, down—more varying, the eye continually arrested by unfamiliarity of shape, texture, and scale.

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The trail was quite busy with hiker traffic in both directions.  Three hours down we came across an attractive young woman sitting on a rock in the sunshine.  She asked to see our permit and then stopped a large party passing by to see theirs.  She told them they were too late to make it all the way to the site at the river where they were registered and signed a change order on the permit allowing them to stay at a closer one.  Then she warned them not to make noise that could disturb others at the campsite.  I told her that Steve was a half mile behind us carrying our permit and asked the penalty for camping somewhere without one.  Two hundred eighty seven dollars she replied without smiling.

I was having extra fun playing with the new camera I had bought for the trip–a two hundred dollar 10x telephoto 10 megapixel hand-sized Canon, which replaced both the point-and-shoot I handed down to my grandson and the bigger but less powerful SLR I’d purchased just two years ago.  At a turn in the trail that brought us for the first time within sight of the inner canyon, I wondered if a little blue dot in the middle of the view was some kind of gondola, and only after I took the picture could I recognize on the screen that it was actually the river.

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fullsize picture

After four hours of carrying my overloaded pack–from excess caution I’d brought along five liters of water in addition to the heavy food, tent and stove—on a trail that got steadily steeper, more fractured and more littered with stones, the fun ended. The splendor of scenery, the invigoration of exercise, the stimulation of good company gave way to pain, fatigue and anxiety.  I ached in the shoulders from the pack straps, in the upper arms from bearing weight with the trekking poles, in the knuckles from gripping them, in the spine from the packs’ rubbing, in the stomach and side and thigh and calf muscles from tensing against the weight, in the hip and knee and ankle and big toe joints from internal friction at every step, in the thickened toenails crushed by my boots, and in the ears jarred by the clank  of poles against rocks.

This was predicted by the well-written Park Service Bulletin about the trail:

The Hermit Trail is unmaintained, the ruins of a pathway that hasnt seen a trail crew in 80 years….The trail runs across an angle of repose slope, crossing high gradient drainages at roughly perpendicular intersections.  …the trail has been badly damaged by the same erosional forces that shaped the larger canyon. Hikers must scramble across chaotic jumbles of rocks washed down or fallen from above every time the trail crosses a gully.  It is possible to lose the trail entirely where breakdown has covered the original route…The uncertain footing as well as the impression of exposure presented here has caused inexperienced canyon walkers to conclude that they are engaged in a truly hazardous enterprise.

The descent becomes unrelenting at Cathedral Stairs.  An endless series of rocky switchbacks eventually leads hikers through the Redwall cliff and down the talus below Cope Butte….

As we made our way down that cirque of Cope Butte toward the more level Tonto Platform, I resorted to the emergency tactic I’d used while hiking with grandkids and Jan: talk distraction.

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I asked Steve his worst hiking experience and he told me of the forty mile walk he took from Gold River to Tahsis and of his hair-raising climb up Bear Tooth, and I told him of my 1962 hike up the mountain in Yellowstone to the fire lookout I was stranded in for three days out of exhaustion.

After a rest stop at the trail junction, some gorp and two more Aleves, I got a second wind, and could again enjoy the sunset light on the buttes across the river. Miraculously, Steve’s wounded knee, a concern for all of us, showed no signs of further injury.

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We ambled on to a solid rock campsite several miles short of the one where we were permitted to stay, but safe from the citation-dispensing rangers at this time of night.

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We prepared an easy Thanksgiving meal—two cups of boiling water poured into envelops of dehydrated Turkey Tetrazzini–more than good enough to merit gratitude.  As the sun set, I blew up my Thermarest, crawled into the sleeping bag, rested my head on the unpitched tent and reveled in the sensation of relaxing muscles.

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The stars were clear and the air mild—twenty degrees above the chilly rim four thousand feet overhead. I woke up several times without having to get out of the sleeping bag, following Steve’s suggestion to pee in a water bottle which remained comfortably warm beside me.  The waxing moon flooded the cliffs with light and then disappeared behind them. Three shooting stars flared.

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 3)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

After 12 hours of rest, we awakened in the predawn and packed up quickly to vacate the unauthorized spot.  I wished we’d had coffee.  Before starting out we dutifully stretched,

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and as the light came up we descended into a tight curvy canyon gouged out of the shale strata of the Platform that reminded me of the hike through Zion canyon I’d taken with Joe and Amy in 1995, during which he went off into a side canyon with her and proposed.

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The sound of flowing water echoed as we approached Hermit Creek graced with little cascades and rich vegetation.

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The old trail, originally constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad as part of a luxury resort serviced by a cable tramway from the rim, wound under rock overhangs down to a place where the neat horizontal layers through which we’d descended since yesterday were replaced by swirling shapes of hardened basalt laced with multicolored and multitextured stone.  We were entering the “basement” of the canyon, the deepest portion carved by the river and its tributaries that exposed rocks estimated as two billion years old.  The shale layers directly above them were supposed to be 500 million years younger, making for the “Great Unconformity,” in which the geological record had disappeared.  To mark the change, large clumps of overlying strata had fallen into the canyon on the opposite side of the creek. On the trail side we stopped to marvel at granite embedded with huge flakes of mica interspersed with quartz in bright shades of red, white and black.

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As the canyon straightened near the bottom, we suddenly saw the pillar of Ra flaming above us and heard the roar of the river ahead.

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Then the walls on our side opened to reveal sky and brilliantly colored cliffs upstream and down.  We were at the Hermit Rapids and didn’t have to leave until the following morning!

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We had a choice of empty campsites and picked one in soft, warm sand right on the riverbank surrounded by tamarisks and willows .

Before unpacking and lighting the stove for coffee, we clambered over some large rocks for a look at the rapids themselves and  were joined by a young woman, Ingrid, one of a group of kayakers and rafters on a 27 day journey on the river.

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She was soon surrounded by a crowd of men young and old who charted a course through the fast flowing turbulence.

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They had camped here last night after swamping in Granite Rapids upstream and were just ready to take off.  Regretting the delayed coffee but excited to watch and take pictures of their daredevilry,  we waited beside the clean, green racing river that had carved the masterpiece engulfing us.

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The spectacle was worth the delay.  First came Ingrid and another kayaker in their tiny solo boats.

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Then the rafters, some in twos, some by themselves.

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This was no guided tour; they were all highly experienced River Rats who owned their equipment and lived for the sport, according to Mike P., the grizzled rower who left his email address. Once they had all run the rapids, they assembled in the eddy below and then disappeared around the blind curve ahead.

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We set up our gear, boiled water for coffee and oatmeal, and luxuriated in the prospect of a day of rest and relaxation.  Despite the long sleep the night before and the stimulant, we all napped for a couple of hours, Peter after taking a dip in the icy water that flowed from the bottom of the dam upstream at Glen Canyon.

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In the afternoon we went exploring the creek and beaches and rock formations of this wondrous oasis in the midst of vertical walls that otherwise made the river unapproachable from land.

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I started reading Powell’s enthralling account of his 1869 trip down the river.  He was the one-armed leader of a small expedition of wooden boats, which by the time they had reached here had lost most of their tools and provisions and still had they knew not how far to go and what awaited them ahead.

As I stood munching our lunch of salami and cheese, I looked up at the cliff behind the campsite and saw moving shapes.  Two of the canyon’s legendary mountain sheep were browsing on the low ridge line no more than 200 feet away.  “Get your cameras,” I whispered, pulling mine from its holster.  Eager as any hunter to shoot, we captured the quarry.

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Click last two images for full-size versions