Backpacking in Grand Canyon

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 4)

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

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The preceding night’s long sleep, the day’s light exertion and even the nap didn’t prevent us from hitting the sack soon after early nightfall.  Not only did  our creaky bodies crave extra rest since the big descent, living outdoors increased synchronization between the anatomical clock and the seasonal one.  Drifting off to sleep felt like hibernating–to conserve and store energy, and also to continue a winter journey into the underworld.

Two days earlier the permit-checking ranger had said that we’d be in for a change in the weather Saturday, and the morning sky seemed to confirm her warning.  Our itinerary called only for a five mile hike today, mostly on a good trail, with no great altitude changes, so we dallied at the river, adding stewed dried fruit to our outmeal, brewing an extra pot of coffee, further exploring the little oasis and gawking at dancing patterns of light and shadow projected on the canyon’s  walls  by thick fast moving clouds.




Relieved of unnecessary weight and the straps better adjusted, on the way  up through Hermit Canyon the pack felt more like a strong hug than a troublesome burden, and the effort to escape gravity while ascending was easier on the joints than resisting it on the way down.


Once back on the Tonto trail heading eastward on the Platform, it was possible for the first time to enter the springy rhythm of forward motion propelled by the momentum of extra weight that for me makes hiking a real sport.  Cruising this wide plateau–continuous across both banks of the inner canyon, which usually hides, but then suddenly gapes at one’s feet with a fifteen hundred foot drop either to the flowing Colorado or the tributary gullies the trail must circumvent by leading back to the base of walls and buttresses and towers that stretch higher overhead with every step–under a sky that transforms momentarily from a limitless expanse of light to a dampening ceiling of fog made walking feel like flight.





Like the canyon itself the trail’s track through space performed tricks with time.  It led a leisurely traverse around the base of Cope Butte, the harshest section of the descent two days ago,  and above the river it provided a retrospect of yesterday’s idyll at Hermit Rapids.



As the afternoon shadows deepened we passed along the edge of Monument Creek’s side canyon eager to find the campsite at its head before dark.  The trail twisted off the Platform down into a tight gully through which we could hear water flowing toward the river.


After debating which of the many surrounding formations above us could be the named Monument, the answer was suddenly obvious looming from below. The top two thirds of the column consisted of brownish fractured sandstone layers, the bottom third of rounded pink lobes.


As the trail dropped into the basement level of rock formation, the colors on the wall beside it became even more unearthly than those in Hermit Canyon.



This campsite offered the succor of perennial creek water that could be purified and harvested to fill our drinking bladders, coffeepot and dehydrated dinner envelops. In addition it provided a toilet conspicuously absent from last night’s where we had to search fruitlessly for a satisfactory place among the rocks for our leavings and make unpleasant acquaintance with the deposits of others.  Like in many other recreational wilderness situations, this is more of a problem than might be expected, and we felt grateful for the stinky and prominent facility here provided.


A large party of backpackers had occupied the marked campsites and so tight was the gully that the sound of their amiable voices boomed around us, so we relocated to a more solitary spot, again unauthorized but well used, to pitch the tent and cook supper in the light of a brilliant sunset and haunting moonrise.



The pole stretching the fly on my two-person tent had become deeply bowed over years of use, and Steve exerted his design skills to straighten it, to great advantage, since in the middle of the night the wind blew and the rain pelted down but inside we stayed cozy and dry.


Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 5)

Monday, December 14th, 2009

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Come rain or  shine this day’s destination was eleven miles along the Tonto trail, so we broke camp early and dressed for rough weather, leaving behind a woman in the large group of hikers whom Steve had provided with  prescription painkillers he had brought just in case.  The night before she was in severe distress because of an injury to her knee, and we expected that she’d either have to be carried the distance by her friends or helicoptered out.  An hour down the  trail, carrying a full pack, Diana passed us with a smile that was still on her face when we met again at the end of our full day’s trek.


The  skies this morning were moody and unstable, reminding me of Powell’s admirable description:

Clouds are playing in the canyon today.  Sometimes they roll in great masses, filling the gorge with gloom; sometimes they hang aloft from wall to wall and cover the canyon with a roof of impending storm, and we can peer long distances up and down this canyon corridor, with its cloud-roof overhead, its walls of black granite, and its river bright with the sheen of broken waters.  Then a gust of wind sweeps down a side gulch and, making a rift in the clouds, reveals the blue heavens, and a stream of sunlight pours in.  Then the clouds drift away into the distance, and hang around the crags and peaks and pinnacles and towers and walls, and cover them with a mantle that lifts from time to time and sets them all into sharp relief.  Then baby clouds creep out of side canyons, glide around points, and creep back again into more distant gorges.  Then clouds arrange in strata across the canyon with intervening vista views to cliffs and rocks beyond.  The clouds are children of the heavens, and when they play among the rocks they lift them to the region above. (p. 256)

Rather than just depicting the landscape, his description recreates it for me. So do the photos  I snapped and later processed, which I see now complemented and enhanced by Powell’s account:





Sitting at my computer two weeks after the trip, reviewing his words to stimulate my own, I feel connected with that heroic voyager in 1870 transcribing and embellishing his watersoaked journal to prepare it for publication.

In the late morning as the trail skirted the inner canyon and rounded a turn into the drainage of Salt Creek the sky went threateningly dark. I understood why this section was named on the map as “The Inferno.”  The assemblage of fractured, knife-sharp points and ridges lining the great gash in the earth seemed to drink up light like a black hole, recalling Milton’s description of hell as “darkness visible” or Dante’s prospect of the lowest section of the underworld: “We came to the edge of an enormous sink/Rimmed by a circle of great broken boulders” (Canto XI)


It started to rain hard, but just as I unpacked my waterproof pants, to the south the clouds parted  to produce another metaphysical sign.  It emerged from the depths of the abyss below


and arched from one bank to another of  the side canyon



perfectly framing the Isis Temple on the north side of the river.


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As the sun achieved dominance and its rays illuminated the inner walls, their colorless obscurity took on a rosy-veined glow.


mirroring the pink spines clustered at the center of a barrel cactus.


In the clear afternoon, it felt like The Great Outdoors was beaming on us as we sauntered along, brimming with joy and awe.


But the blessing was also human: my old Lund companions who got these excursions going, and the gear I wore and carried, which allowed me to range comfortably and safe:

  • my Dana Designs packsack that Joe had picked out for me in Moab fourteen years ago
  • my Danner boots from Takkens that I’d just had resoled
  • my Leki trekking poles that saved my knees on the way down and now, as my wrists swiveled in the straps, advanced me from  a two to a four legged creature
  • my pretty REI tent that took five minutes to pitch and had kept the wind and rain out last night
  • my Camelback bladder that taught me the  difference between drinking and hydrating
  • my ancient REI down sleeping bag, now patched with duct tape
  • my Thermarest mattress, easily patched after having been penetrated by a sharp stick while serving as a river raft for grandsons
  • my new Brunton stove, weighing no more than a pound and able to boil a litre and a half of water in three minutes
  • my tiny headlamp that never wore out its cheap batteries but provided enough light to work and read in the dark
  • my Sierra Designs rainshell bought in Powell river in August which had already protected me in four storms
  • my two layers of well used First Lite merino wool underwear that Kenton had sent  last summer
  • my weightless cashmere scarf that Amy made me for Christmas, soft as her voice, warm as her smile

The Platform flattened and widened as we passed the last four-thousand foot buttress between us and our destination of Indian Gardens.  The panorama unfolded: a long reach of the river lined with dozens of brilliantly colored monuments intersected by Bright Angel Canyon, a fifteen-mile perpendicular corridor leading back to the snow-bedecked north rim.

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It was a moment I didn’t want to let pass.  I walked off the trail and sat in the newly washed desert gravel, stared, meditated and played my recorder.

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Then it felt time to go on.  A grove of golden cottonwood trees, incongruous but inviting, beckoned from the creek bed ahead.  The poles of an old telephone line appeared at intervals at the cliff base.  The trail broadened and showed signs of heavy travel and regular maintenance.


We trudged into Indian Gardens campground, admired the stonework of old buildings and walls and the varied assortment of large trees planted a hundred years ago by early tourism developers. We chatted with the voluble ranger who lived here in a house with TV and  power, filled our pots with potable water directly from the tap and ate dinner at a picnic table under a steel-roofed shelter.  Even though on a gentle grade and a good trail, ten hours of hiking left us ready for our sleeping bags before nine p.m.

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 6)

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Awakening and packing on the last day of the hike was accompanied by familiar bittersweet emotions.  The amazing winter light painted a picture to remember of the fantasy world we were leaving, framed by the side canyon’s shadows, and it ignited the sparkling white limestone near the South Rim where we were headed.



On a sign detailing the history of property disputes over control of the trail leading down was taped a notice that it would be closed for some time this morning to facilitate a helicopter salvage operation.


The trail itself was wide enough to accommodate hikers side by side with the pack trains led by central-casting  mule-skinners.


Surfaced with pulverized sandstone that was soft and springy to the feet and decoratively bordered with stable boulders, it snaked at a gentle grade along ledges carved in the pink sandstone.


Travel along it was once again vertical rather than horizontal–the same stretch of canyon above and below dramatically altering as the changing angle of view hid and revealed features.



An hour or so into the ascent, we heard the thumping of a large helicopter, which appeared in the sunlight above the rim, disappeared behind a buttress and soon reappeared dangling a miniscule-looking car from a long cable.


This, the ranger had informed us, was the remains of a vehicle deliberately driven over the edge by a suicide some months earlier. 

As we ascended toward the 7000 foot elevation of the rim, the temperature dropped and the air thinned, requiring regular short pauses for breath.  Nevertheless, greeting the steady flow of daytrippers from above swelled our pride in being grubby veteran adventurers. 

A tunnel bored through the rock just below the edge marked the trail’s end.


While we stood for our portrait to be taken by some polyester-garbed fellow-retirees in the parking lot, Steve chatted with them about the football team fortunes of their shared alma-mater in Cincinnati, Ohio.