This is an extraordinarily long triplog, even for someone with a handle of 'writelots'. I'd rather be thorough on this than brief, though, and I'd really rather post the whole thing than a summary and link to an external website that may or may not work in the past. This was an amazing hike, and it deserves and amazing story. So, as the bumper sticker says: climb up, buckle in and hang on!
Trip Report - Grand Canyon Tanner to Grandview 2/2012
Clyde, Steve P., Sara S. and Wendy
This trip was originally supposed to be along the stretch of the Tonto Trail called the Gems, west of the Corridor. We had spent a bunch of time finding and arranging a shuttle to take us out to the South Bass Trailhead - which, because it is over 30 miles of dirt road prone to muddy madness - we didn't trust to be passable multiple times in a month like February. Then we'd hike 58 miles to the Hermit Trailhead where we'd have our own cars waiting. I was psyched.
The canyon, though, doesn't reward the complacent.
My shuttle company waffled and whiffled, changing dates and availability at the last minute. I rearranged the whole trip (including some work stuff that was arranged around it) only to have them once again waver. I reached the point where I just didn't trust them at all and called off their services. After hours of searching for an alternative, we finally decided that it wasn't worth the risk of driving multiple cars on that road in uncertain weather. Getting stuck in mud just isn't the way to start or end a big adventure. Of course, all of this came about over the weekend and the President's Day holiday, so we had no idea what we would be able to do until we drove up on Tuesday morning. This left us with a window of 6 days in the canyon and no clear idea of what we would actually be able to do once we got there. I've never just shown up at the BCO and said 'what you got', so this was going to be a first. Fun!
Lesson Learned: The Wildland Trekking Company are well intentioned but flaky. Not good if you're taking people down into one of the most dangerous places many of them will ever go.
At the Backcountry Office, we discussed a few different options for trip of that length that still made use of only highly accessible trailheads. The two that really floated to the top early were Clear Creek and the Escalante Route. We decided that Clear Creek would be a bit of a waste since the falls were likely not running and the deep north/south canyon would be a cold place to hang out for 3 days. Plus, we'd all done the SK and BA trails recently enough - we wanted some NEW territory! So Escalante it is... we filled up on Mexican food in Tusayan and made our new shuttle plans for the morning.
I debated up until the last moment whether or not to bring my DSLR on the trip. I'd bought a new strap system for it, along with 'camera armor' that meant I did not have to keep in the case while I was hiking. However, it still seemed particularly heavy and loose hanging at my side. I'd been regretting not using the camera more, but my fear of damaging it on these hikes had always held me back. In the end, I decided that it was time to get over my fears and use the equipment in the activity that was my primary reason for getting it in the first place.
I also decided to bring my tent on this trip. My last few Grand Canyon adventures had been completed with a bivy sack. the bivy feels a bit claustrophobic if you end up spending too much time in them, and February weather is notoriously unpredictable in the Canyon. With the nights still being quite long, I just decided that the potential protection and comfort of a tent were worth the few extra pounds, and I threw it in. But now, with the tent, the big camera and 6 days-worth of food, I had a heavier pack than I'd carried in a while.
This is going to be some adventure!
Day 1: Descend to greatness
After leaving Clyde's truck at the Grandview trailhead, we drove out to Lipan Point where we'd catch the Tanner. It was an unexpectedly long drive considering that the hiking distance between the two trails was less than 40 miles. I was surprised, and a bit delighted. Usually it's the other way when you're dealing with the Tonto - and though we only had a short distance to hike on that trail, it was nice to know that we were going to be really making some distance for the miles we hiked! The sun was hiding behind a thin haze above, which we hoped would burn off early. Unfortunately, it didn't and we had a hazy day for most of our hike. There are worse options in the early Spring months, though, so we weren't complaining too loudly.
The Tanner Trail is a real gem as far as I'm concerned. Though the top was somewhat icy as it descended the initial switchbacks through the Kaibab and Coconino, it didn't feel as though it was dangerous at all, as it really is tucked into a nice little drainage most of that way. We got underway a little after 7:30 in the morning, and it was still quite cold, and the ice hadn't really gotten slick yet. The views from the higher points of the trail, down into the wide-expanse of the western canyon and even across the plateau all the way to Navajo Mountain, were fantastic. The massive wall of the Palisades of the Desert was already looking intimidating, though nowhere near as much so as it would from the river. The view just screamed adventure and excitement and sore feet. Now THAT's what we're talking about!
We stayed on the sheltered wall of the canyon much longer than we'd expected. We'd just reach a spot where the sun had successfully melted the snow, and then sure as anything we'd switch-back into the white stuff. A couple of times we were so sure we were done with the snow that Sara and I removed our traction devices. Too soon, though, and we ended up doing a little more slippin-and-slidin' than we'd wanted to.
The small drainage couldn't last forever as a usable trail route, though, and once we made it out to the long ridgeline in the Hermit, we were in the clear (of snow at least). This ridge (Seventy-Five Mile Saddle) was certainly the high point of this trail, at least figuratively. The trail follows it much further out than we expected, with the steep walls of Tanner Canyon and Seventy-Five Mile canyon dropping off on either side into apparent oblivion. A spine of hodoo-like rocks (Bobspixels says they're called Stegosaurus Rocks) along the top of the ridge make for a fun alien-world scenario (another friend told me later she'd played hide-and-seek in them). We kept thinking "this would be the MOST awesome camping spot". Then we'd get down a little further and think "no, THIS is the MOST awesome camping spot". It was good we weren't planning on camping anywhere up there - the options might have rendered us weak in the brain.
We hiked on along the seemingly interminable shoulders of Escalante and Cardenas Buttes. The trail traversed around a small valley which had ample dry camping opportunities - but none as scenic as the Seventy-Five Mile Saddle. A substantial climb (over 100') up to a saddle on the far end of Cardenas Butte felt a little cruel considering how high we still were above our river goal, but we quickly got over it as we rounded the corner and were treated to amazing views up and downriver. A camping spot just above the Redwall descent evoked yet another 'no, THIS is the Most awesome"...I think it might have been the day's winner until just before sunset. The views from this spot went on for miles, including the bends of the river as it winds through the Supergroup below. Not knowing what to expect from the rest of our hike before this moment, my excitement reached new heights. This was going to be awesome!
The Redwall descent on this trail was so much like redwall descents on other off-corridor trails: loose, steep and icky. It was not at all exposed, however, and the massive walls of Tanner Canyon made the view as you descended a real treat. Once the foot-abuse was over, it was time to start some very nice side-slope trail action through the Bright Angel Shale, which treated us with some fun formations and small drainages to cross. Side-slope action would be a reoccurring theme on this trip as never before in my canyon experience. But through here, the slope was quite gentle, and the hiking went fast enough that I had to force myself to stop and take photos.
The final couple of miles of the descent aren't particularly hard hiking, but the grade is relentless, and for tired feet it just seems a bit like torture. As we hiked through the hot Dox sandstone layer, my little doggies were screaming for relief. I got to the junction at the base of the trail, just above the beach, and plopped it all down. A bit of time spent with my feet in the air and my shoes on the ground was just what the foot-doctor ordered. Bliss!
On the way down, we'd talked about whether to camp at Tanner Beach or to continue on the Beamer Trail as far west as we could. Though I knew that the 9 mile stretch between Tanner Beach and the LCR would be too far for me to do as a out-and-back dayhike, I thought if I shaved 4 or 5 miles off it, maybe it would be reachable. Though my feet really wanted to call it quits at Tanner (I was wearing new shoes, and discovered I'd laced them too tightly on my ankles - ouch!), I decided to tough it out and see what kind of progress I could make before sunset.
The Beamer climbs back up into the Dox sandstone almost immediately, as the river level is blocked by a cliff. I think that climb, coupled with some of the exposure and fun trail finding through that stretch, did me in a little. By the time we got back down the river and were walking through the deep sand above Comanche and Espejo Creeks, I was getting pooped again. I suspect that Steve and Sara could have kept going, but Clyde was ready to call it quits for the day, so we headed for a piece of beach at the mouth of Comanche Creek and settled in.
I read for the group the HAZ description of the Beamer trail, and their ambition flagged a bit. The way ahead sounded pretty rough. To put it in perspective, I then read the description of the Tanner we'd just completed. We all agreed that if the Tanner sounded that tough in writing, then the Beamer was doable as well. (We also adopted the phrase "the only reasonably civilized hiking to be found" as our catch-phrase for the hike. From this point on, we would compare every little bit of tough scrambling and way-finding to the Tanner's 'reasonably civilized hiking' stretch).
This beach was a tiny little piece of paradise - a few small mesquites and tammies that might have provided shade if we'd needed it, and a nice quiet rapid that was just enough to sing me to sleep. The impassible wall of the Palisades of the Desert was like a frame to an excellent little sunset. The clouds finally retreated and left us with an amazing star-studded sky, which in this wider portion of the canyon made an amazing show.
Really, only 10 miles today? How come my feet feel as though it were 20?
Day 2: Ravens delight
When the days are so short, I always feel a little guilty about 'sleeping in' when I choose to not get up before the sun. However, considering the lower temperatures and the shorter hiking days we had on this trip, there was no need for me to be beating the sun. I cuddled in my orange down haven perhaps a little longer than I should have, but it was pure bliss after my fitful night of sleep the day before.
Steve already had his breakfast eaten and shoes on when I was just getting myself vertical. I knew he wanted to see if he could make it to the LCR - still over 7 miles away - and back today. I was entirely certain that my feet weren't going to accomplish anything that ambitious. I told him to go solo and stretch those long legs of his, and I had a delightful leisurely morning around camp.
There were a number of rocks right at the river level that were studded with large, old nails. Further, they showed signs of being treated with some sort of putty. It was quite a puzzle considering that this particular spot was not really a high-use camping area. It's still a mystery to me, and who doesn't just love a mystery?
Sara left about half an hour after Steve, also wanting to stretch her legs and see how far she got. Clyde and I dinked around for another hour or so - I had a puncture in one of my bladders that I had to change out - but then we, too, hit the Beamer. Our goal was to get as far as Palisades Creek, at which point the trail description said the trail would climb up onto the Tonto Platform again. Seemed easy enough to get that far.
The trail stayed pretty close to the river until we reached Palisades. There were plenty of pretty little beaches and sand bars to look at long the way. Palisades Creek was much less obvious than we were expecting, largely because of the very broad nature of the river's course through this area. However, we knew once the trail started to climb in earnest that we'd come far enough. Clyde turned around and I kept climbing, wanting to get an idea of how high above the river the route would be further on. The descriptions warned of precipitous 300' drops - and I could certainly see those coming. I stopped about a mile past Palisades, though, in a tiny drainage with a nice flat napping rock and great views. I enjoyed a bit of goat cheese and dates for lunch and watched the canyon's glory go by.
The solitude of this part of the canyon in the winter is staggering. I did see a boat trip earlier in the day, but so far we'd seen no one else on the trails - even at the top. Very few birds were about, and even the lizards were scarce. I felt entirely alone in the stony embrace of the canyon walls, and I felt very safe. It was like my presence and adoration were an acceptable sacrifice to the canyon, who was herself feeling a little lonely and ready for spring.
I hiked back starting a little after 1pm. I'd only come about 3 miles, so I had a lot of time to kill on my way to our little beach. From the trail above Palisades, I'd seen an odd black-paved spot at the base of one of the hills. It seemed easy enough to find from the trail, and after just a bit of off-trail searching, I found it. What appeared to be black from above was actually brilliant white. Salt and mineral crystals carpeted and area about 50yards by 30 yards - a mini playa against a black cliff face. The appearance from the distance must have been a trick of the light reflecting off these black neighbor rocks. I wandered around a bit and played with my camera, but I didn't want to leave too many boot prints, so my stay was brief. It was fun to 'find' something in the canyon, though. Usually, I only discover things that I've already read about in other trip reports and books. This space felt like a whole new spot all my own. Mine were certainly the only footprints I encountered there.
When I got back to camp, I took a little time to soak my feet in the river. They were still quite upset with me, I think for the new shoes as much as the punishing descent of the day before. I wondered if my feet would ever get used to Grand Canyon type hikes, or if complaints from those soldiers are just going to be a part of my life forever.
I went to get myself a snack and discovered that my food, which I had carefully tucked into a rat-sack anchored with some large rocks, had been invaded. My best guess (and I think it's a good one) is ravens - as they're active during the day and the only creatures that I can see being strong enough to break through the metal mesh of the bag. They ripped a 3" hole in the sack and removed a startling amount of food. They completely consumed 5 medium tortillas, 4 complete home-made dehydrated dinners and a bag of Sports Beans. They even broke the foil on the salmon cup and fished out every morsel in there. There were bits of plastic bags and dustings of soup powder everywhere. They were so untidy in their orgy that I couldn't even begin to collect all the little bits and pieces that were flung out in their joy.
My heart sank. I hoped this would not be the end of this trip - so soon! Carefully I began to inventory what was left. 3 packets of peanut butter, 3 packets of jelly - but nothing to put them on. 1 dinner, hot coco, some tabouli and 1 breakfast. I'd carried a few snacks with me, so I had those as well. It wasn't nearly enough food for 4 whole more days on the trail.
As Steve and Sara returned to camp, we took further inventory of the group's stores. It seemed that I'd be able to make due with some creative meal planning and perhaps a little calorie deficit. Even as I tried to clean up, though, the ravens were returning to see if we'd left them any more treats. Those blinking birds.
Steve reported that he'd made it to the LCR, though he'd chosen not to descend all of the way down to the river level at the confluence. Instead he enjoyed the view and turned right back around. I was glad I hadn't tried to keep up - for Steve 8 hours of fast hiking would have meant 10-12 hours for me, and with as little food as I might have to live on the next 4 days, it was better for me to keep the exertion reasonable.
Another night under the gorgeous stars. Clyde shared his soup and tortillas with me, and I made myself some hot coco. Life certainly is good!
Day 3: Straightforward, generally speaking
We got another reasonably late start the third day, as we knew we only had about 6-7 miles of hiking for the day. The write up even said that the hike from Tanner to Cardenas Creek would be straightforward (generally speaking). We found the route over the Dox sandstone that had proven such a challenge two days before to be quite easy when we were fresh - but still with some exposure that would make some quite nervous.
At Tanner we were still alone. We noted that we'd prefer some of the camps that were just past the Tanner junction on the Escalante Route - they seemed like they'd be more private if there were boaters around, and some even had a little shade. With the pit toilet located there, I can only assume that the area sees a fair amount of camping in the high season.
We were just a short ways above Tanner when we saw a small metal boat heading right for us, with some official looking folks on it. My first thought was that they were NPS looking to check our permit, and I was amazed. I mean really? All the way out here in February? However, when I saw them land two guys right on the red sandstone cliffs who then climbed straight up and even past the trail, it was clear something else was going on. Turned out that they were USGS and were servicing the cameras along the river which are recording soil movement in the inner canyon. They were nice guys, and we talked for a bit. When I asked if they had any extra food, one guy reached into his lunch sack and gave me his hamburger and a handful of chocolates. I wanted to tell him I wasn't desperate enough to steal someone's lunch, but I wasn't sure that was the truth at that point. Instead, I accepted graciously (I hope) and they headed off down the river. Their 'barge' was already half way to Phantom - where they'd be sleeping tonight. They told us to expect NPS and more river groups at Cardenas, which is evidently a very popular beach camp.
Sure enough the hiking between Tanner and Cardenas was indeed straightforward. The trail through the long, flat beach area was well marked and easy to follow, though the sand did give us enough of a challenge to make it interesting. On a hot day, this stretch would be torture - without a stitch of shade and all that white sand reflecting the sun back at you. As it was, we were comfortable enough to take our time across the sands and over the small hills to the floor of Cardenas Creek. From there it is just a short walk to the beach. The one short climb gets you to a spot with an amazing view of the bend in the Colorado that happens just below Tanner Rapids. It was one of my favorite views of the whole tip - it hardly felt like the Grand Canyon at all!
When we arrived, there was no one else around - seems the NPS folks had moved on along with the other river trip. We didn't count out the fact that another river group might come by, as we'd seen more on the water than we expected for the time of year. We settled in for lunch (1/2 a pound of cold ground beef on an English Muffin with no condiments...yum!) and generally just enjoyed a long afternoon lounging on the sand. For the folks who'd hiked hard the day before it was a welcome rest. For those of us who were less...aggressive previously, it was just another delightful day on the Colorado.
Just before the sun began to set, we got company. The boat group was very friendly and willing to work around us. They offered beer and other treats (including a dark chocolate with chili - yum!) and were more polite and well behaved than many of the private trips I've seen. They were on night 7 of 21...I was pretty jealous. Then I saw them unloading tons of stuff from their boats and felt a little better. I like the basic simplicity of backpacking - all that stuff would make me feel overwhelmed.
I ate my tabouli with another one of Clyde's tortillas. It satisfied enough on top of the massive meat-fest of lunch. I slept out under the stars in the shelter of a mesquite's branches. It was just like heaven - if only I'd had my hammock
Steve did report that he had completely frozen water bottles and bladders the next morning. Oddly, Cardenas was the coldest camp that we had the whole trip. Maybe it's in a cold pocket somehow, but it certainly is worth mentioning to those who may camp there again.
Day 4: At the Unkar Delta tonight: It's the Supergroup, with special guests, Random Unnamed Drainage!
When we pulled out just before 8am the next morning, I went to wish bon voyage to the boat group (who were spending 2 nights at Cardenas). They were shocked that we were gone already, and were just ready to offer us some breakfast. I had to laugh - boaters never get used to backpacker's schedule. We figured we might see them again before we left the river for good, but wished them a safe journey just the same.
The route out of Cardenas immediately begins climbing up and over another Dox hill. It was a recurring theme throughout the day. Up and over an obstruction, back down to the river. Up, down, up down. If we'd been moving faster, we'd have been at risk for seasickness.
Steve jogged out on a remarkably well trodden path to a campsite on the top of the Dox cliff overlooking the Unkar Delta. Although I was sorry to miss the view, I was glad that Steve blew off a little of the extra energy he'd built up having a rest day. It made him much easier to keep up with the rest of the day, even if he was a tad bit grumpy. I imagine that campsite has got to be one of the best on the whole route - the views are simply incredible.
We were worried about the weather after some of the reports we'd read at the rim said a storm was due to blow in about now, but our worry turned out to be needless. It continued to be beautiful throughout the day. Our goal was to camp along the Neville Rapids and save the climb out of Pueblo Creek for the next morning. It looked doable on the map, but once we got in sight of the massive walls of the shoulders of Escalante Butte I started to doubt myself. It simply didn't look like terrain you could hike on, let alone follow a legitimate trail through. The ragged spine of Tapeats atop the long ridgeline was a very formidable boundary, and below it was an insanely steep slope of soft sandstone and shale. I kept looking ahead and saying 'How on earth do we do this?'.
As it turns out, you go up. And up. And up. We climbed all of the way to the base of the Tapeats to a high saddle. This involved a lot of sideslope walking that from even just a few yards away seemed impossibly precarious. However, the tread of the route was always reasonable when you were on it. It was amazing. There were a number of jumbled landslides to navigate, but being a veteran of two Royal Arch trips, these were kitten play. At least the sandstone here was soft and forgiving, without the evil spines of the limestone we encountered on that trip.
The saddle is 800' above the river according to my GPS. Although it did feel good to climb, there was a bittersweet feeling to that victory as we knew we'd be back at the river in no time. As the trail began to descend into the arms of Escalante Creek, we were faced with much of the same kind of hiking that had gotten us up there in the first place, with some narrow fun creek bed action thrown in at intervals to keep things interesting. Steve stopped briefly to play house at a small campsite on the first arm of the creek - no shade here, but plenty of flat rocks to build furniture out of. He's always fun to hike with because he's never really grown up enough to stop playing at every opportunity. If only I had that kind of energy!
We followed the narrow and bolder-choked creek down to the pour-off, which appeared very suddenly as Grand Canyon pour-offs can. Bypassing it easily, we were back to the river in no time. We all agreed that the descent we'd done did not feel nearly equal to the climb on the other side - certainly a reason to complete the route in this direction. I think the descent into Cardenas would be a bear going the opposite direction.
At the small rapids at the mouth of Escalante Creek, we watched a boat trip run through. One of the members of the group was in an inflatable kayak, and he liked the action so well he portaged back upstream and ran the whole thing a second time. It was fun to talk with him in his post-rapid enthusiasm. Made me really want to try some of those smaller, quieter whitewater sections in a 'yak.
Just below Escalante Creek's mouth is a gorgeous stretch of white beach. The trail is a bit above it, but it seems like it would be easy to access if one wanted to camp in that area. The lagoon created by the rapids is one of the larger I've seen, and would be VERY tempting if the temps were higher!
We weren't on the river more than about 200 yards when we began climbing. Again. This time we were ascending a sloping layer of Shimuno sandstone into Seventy-Five Mile Creek. Yes, the same Seventy-Five Mile creek we'd been at the top of at Stegosaurus Rocks days before. Only here, it's a narrow slot. As we continued up the slope, the canyon got deeper. Though in places it seemed we could jump across, we couldn't see the trail on the other side, try as we might. I promised Steve that if we camped at Neville Rapids that night, he could spend the evening exploring up this amazing slot. I had no idea
We made it to the back of the canyon, where the creek cuts through the Shimuno to make a shelf. We paused for a break and pictures, then began looking for the trail on the other side. It seemed to be just a bunch of dead ends. Any veteran of Tonto hiking knows that pattern, though - you hike up a little (or down) until you get to a spot to cross the drainage, then you skip to the other side and 'Tontour' out again. It just wasn't adding up here, though (which should have sunk in a little more since we weren't ON the Tonto). Finally, I dug out the route description and was amazed that the trail actually followed the bed of the creek back to the river. Though the initial drop into the creekbed seemed unlikely, it was actually quite easy. We lowered our packs with ropes, but in retrospect probably did not need to. The rock is nice and sticky, with lots of hand and foot holds and the slope is less severe than it appears (I think because it is polished white).
I was quite tired when we reached the top of Seventy-Five Mile's slot canyon, but the descent and the fun canyon action below it revived me considerably. I love walkable slot canyons on any day, and surprise trips in walkable slot canyons are rare indeed. Though I've been in narrower, taller and more scenic slots, this one has a special place in my heart for being such an unexpected treat.
We searched the area at the mouth of the creek for camping, but found only thick willow and tammy stands on the beach. Figuring we'd need to head downcanyon anyway the next day, we continued hiking until we found a beautiful, long stretch of beach along Neville Rapids just below the creek's mouth. This area was huge, easily big enough for multiple groups, but we had it all to ourselves. It was much warmer at this spot than it had been at Cardenas, and the sand was sugar sweet. We took special pains to enjoy ourselves at our final river camp - tomorrow we'd be up on the Tonto Plateau and the Colorado would be a distant memory.
Day 5: Easier and harder than you thought
When we started out for the fifth day, some of us were a bit apprehensive. Though the route description repeatedly reassured us that the scramble/climb out of Pueblo Creek was 'doable', it was still an actual climb (rather than a scramble or hike) and was often given as the one reason people didn't even attempt this route. As someone who has struggled with acrophobia my whole life, any time there's a description of climbing, I get agitated. Not that I don't press on - I'm just stubborn enough for that - but I get a bit edgy.
We reached the mouth of Pueblo Creek very early. The hike between the beach at Neville and the confluence was short and sweet, with some fun slab walking directly above the water. It was very clear from the 20' dryfall at the very base of Pueblo Creek that there was no getting around the climbing on the far side. Clyde had been nervous about it as well, and his solution was simply to tackle it straight on and get it over with while the rest of the group was still taking pictures and psyching up.
Once we saw how quickly and easily Clyde made the platform above the falls, we all breathed a bit easier. Okay, I breathed a bit easier. It looked so much less challenging and scary than my mind had anticipated. Though there was one move that I chose to do without my pack, I think most sturdy, long legged hikers could do the whole thing without even removing their packs (this is up, not down. If I were going down this, it would be a very different story). I was concerned about my camera, which was hanging loose for the whole hike. I turned my fleece vest around and zipped it behind me, trapping the camera in a protective wrap against my tummy. I called it my 'camera baby', and found that it was a surprisingly effective method of climbing with the big boy. Easily enough, we climbed and scrambled up to the top of the cliff and enjoyed the downriver views for the 50 or so yards before we caught sight of our next challenge.
The hike description I had says that after the climb at Pueblo, a "a talus filled runnel" allows passage back to the river, and that it's "steep, with lots of big boulders in precarious balance". What it fails to mention is that the "Pueblo Slide" is damn near vertical, looser than a doorway slot and out-of-your-mind scary. As recommended, we went down one at a time, waiting until the first man had cleared the path of any falling rocks before the next proceeded. I hate steep descents on loose rock under the best circumstances, and this was definitely not that. Though it wasn't terribly exposed, a small slip would mean a long and uncomfortable slide down very rough rocks and the occasional cactus and possibly even a dunk into the river directly below. There wasn't room for error. I dug my poles in, hung on for my life, and s l o w l y descended the slope of the rockfall. In what seemed to be an impossible feat of stubbornness over logic, stubbornness won. Again.
Honestly, if I never see that little piece of rockfall again, it'll be years too soon.
But, like so many other miserable bits of hiking - it was over soon and I was happily waiting on a nice, flat piece of dirt about 30' above the river while Steve and Sara took their turns coming down (I might add that they were substantially faster than me, and that I was glad to not have such a long wait as they had).
From there, the trail description makes it sound like a delightful walk in the park - which I suppose it might be in comparison to the mad descent we'd just finished. However, the route along the river between the far side of Pueblo Canyon and Hance Rapids is actually a tricky route balancing on rocks just above the river's surface and very painfully short stretches of sand. Dodging tammies and mesquites, now with the friendly cat-claws thrown in isn't really the 'walk downstream through riparian vegetation' that we were told to enjoy.
Whatever. We made it to Hance Rapids and we knew that the very worst of what we could expect from this hike was behind us. We knew it - but then, we'd been wrong before.
While we were hiking across the river level, we spotted the boat trip that we'd spent the night with at Cardenas coming toward Hance Rapids. They all pulled off on the north side of the river and climbed up to a low bench where they could scout the rapids. I'm no river person, but even I could tell that Hance is a BIG piece of water. We waited on the large rocks near the shore while they debated (it felt like FOREVER), and then finally - one at a time - put in down the rapids. Steve's experience said that they'd either go left or right - he was leaning toward everyone going left, but he hoped he got to watch someone take the route to the right. As it turned out, all of the boats went right, and everyone got through without incident. It looked like fun, but it also looked a little hair-raising. NOT one I'd want to do in a little inflatable for sure! One of the more energetic boaters was running up and down the trail between the top and bottom of the rapids, I assume giving advice as each boat came through. It was fun to watch and a nice way to spend the late-morning (sitting on a rock watching other people work).
Finally, with the boaters back on their journey downriver, it was time for us to hit the Tonto. Given that this was supposed to be an all-Tonto-all-the-time kind of hike to start with, it sure took us enough time to get there! The first mile or so of the Tonto Trail as it left Hance was amazingly like the Escalante Route: same color, same texture, same mixture of beach walking and side-slope climbing. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever get to see the chalky beige dirt that is indicative of the Tonto I know and love.
As the trail climbs up, the walls of the canyon begin to close in and the familiar igneous 'Granite Gorge' begins to appear. It's quite interesting to watch the Great Unconformity appear in this area as the Supergroup pinches into nothing and the Tapeats becomes more massive. Enjoying the geology is a great way to keep your mind off the steady incline. There are a number of rockfalls along this stretch, some of them with boulders the size of trucks balance precariously next to one another that the hiker gets to wind through. It's a magical feeling, and there are a couple of really cool campsites tucked into these rock gardens that would be kind of cool/creepy on a moonlit night.
You can see the tunnel openings and tailings from Hance Mine across the river, and it gives a bit of pause to think of how hard it must have been for those miners to access such a remote worksite.
The trail began to wind into the back of Mineral Canyon, a dry and boulder-choked drainage that looks like an unlikely camping area. However, there were a number of nice sites in the area - I suppose it was close enough to the beach to make hauling water up here not such a big deal. We rested a bit on the floor of Mineral Creek, I think we were all feeling the days of hiking we'd been through and we were reaching the 'silent acceptance' stage. It's a nice place to be, when walking is just walking and you're no longer thinking so much about up, down or other unimportant details.
The trail here was still looking very much like the Escalante Route doing an imitation of the Tonto Trail as we climbed out of Mineral Canyon up to the ridge which I've seen called 'Shady Overhang'. Then we began into an unnamed canyon which was pinching off the last of those deep red layers. At the back of this little drainage, like magic, the Supergroup disappeared almost entirely and the dusty, chalky Tonto Trail appeared. I'm not sure many people would have understood my little dance of elation, but for me it was a victory. I've now walked the first and last steps of the Tonto, and very nearly all the miles in between. I love this trail, so it was quite the reunion! Although there would still be climbing and rockfall dodging, it seemed like the unknown and unexpected would be over.
As we rounded the ridge of Ayer's Point, we could see the gentle slope of the Tonto as it curved way back into the Hance drainage. The wall of Horseshoe Mesa felt like it was still a very long ways away, and as we got to a point where we could see into the depths of Hance Canyon, I appreciated how much work we still had left. Our camp for the night in Hance Creek would be down there somewhere, and way back in this massive cut through the Tonto. Once again, though, the quiet acceptance of walk, walk, walk took over. Finally - THIS is what I call 'relatively civilized hiking'!
As we got deeper into the drainage, it was clear that there was still a considerable amount of snow on the north facing ledges of the South Rim. It was such a surprise considering how hot we'd been much of the hike. In some of the smaller side drainages along the wall of Hance I began to see new plants like junipers and pinon pines. It was a nice change from the saltbush and mesquites of the river bottom, and brought me even closer to a more familiar Grand Canyon experience. We continued around Ayer's Point for over an hour before we saw the worn maze of trails that was the camp at Hance Creek below us. I spotted a hiker in the campsite, and mistakenly thinking it was Steve, whooped and hollered in celebration. It wasn't Steve, and I'm sure I looked like a fool - but considering that they were only the second group of hikers we'd seen in 5 days, I suppose I had a good excuse.
The pair turned out to be a couple of young people who worked for an outfitter in Flag and lead regular hikes with tourists down in the Canyon. This trip was just for them, though, and she'd been hiking in canyon for 28 (!) days, and he for 14. They'd been planning on doing the whole Tonto, and has started at South Bass, intending to pull out at the LCR. However, he'd hurt his ankle (I think), and they were doing a couple-day layover at Hance to determine if they needed to bail out Grandview and avoid further injury (which seemed to be the way they were going). They were trying to eat up their extra stores of food, and gave me a generous Mountain House breakfast to round out my light food pack. We swapped a few stories then went down the creek a little to camp under the giant cottonwood and give the couple the privacy they deserved. It was so nice to see them.
Lesson Learned: The day before a big climb is not the time to try your first freeze-dried pork sausage.
I mention here that we had actually encountered another group on the trail, but I honestly don't recall exactly where. It was a group of 4-5 and they were the most taciturn and honestly unfriendly group I've ever come across in the Grand Canyon. Typically when you meet up with other hikers on one of the more remote backcountry routes, it's a cause to stop, chat, share beta and encourage camaraderie. However, this group was either tired or grumpy or both, and walked past with barely a word to us. I only mention it because I want a complete record. Hopefully they were just on an off day (certainly have had a few of those myself!).
Hance Creek had a pleasant flow, and our evening was a delightful one. The winds had picked up most of the day, and with some high clouds blowing over right at sunset there was some concern that weather might blow in overnight. I put the rainfly on my tent for the first time on the trip, so of course there was not rain at all and the sky was full of bright stars. I think, though, that the 4 nights I did have that full-sky night show were the better ones to enjoy, since this time we were deep in a narrow canyon with only a sliver of sky available to us. I certainly didn't lose any sleep over it!
Day 6: An unexpected luge
Definition: A luge is an object that is designed to be used for racing downhill over snow or ice - English Collins Dictionary
The next morning once again saw temperatures near freezing, which wasn't a surprise as we were camped almost 1,500' higher than the previous nights. Steve had some frozen water and my camera battery, which was already near the end of its charge, froze up. I really wanted a few more shots as we hiked out so I stuck it in my pocket hoping it would warm up enough to snap a few more shots. I got lucky - using only one battery for a six day hike was much more than I'd expected. The trip turned out to be a success for the new SLR setup, and it now has the green light for bigger adventures.
The junction with the Miner's Trail up to Page Spring came faster than we were expecting. I remembered it being a bit vague from my previous trip, but this time it seemed even more obscure. Perhaps a bigger cairn is needed - especially in this area where there are so many animal and casual use trails. We left camp just a little after 8am, and by 9:45 we were up on the mesa. Steve had never visited the Horseshoe Mesa before, so he had lots of fun checking out the old mines on the way up and the relics and ruins on the mesa top. The hike up to that point was as steep as I remembered, though with most all of the food and water out of my pack, it did seem like things were finally getting a little easier.
Just above the mesa we met another hiker coming out. He'd spent several nights below the rim on the Tonto solo. He was quite eager to chat, which was nice, especially since I wanted the little break. He and I played hopscotch for a bit before I finally pulled ahead as he stopped for a longer break.
At first the climb was easy, as it was in an area that got lots of sunshine. However, the trail soon traveled onto the east-facing slope of the break, and we began to encounter long stretches of slick, packed ice. Steve, Sara and Clyde were a good bit ahead of me, but I think the ice slowed us all down. I put on my traction, which helped a lot, but certainly didn't prevent slipping and some feelings of dangerous instability. Sara, unfortunately, had only the instep cleats - which are not only much less effective on hard ice than most other devices, but also make walking across areas without ice nearly impossible. She ended up having to stop repeatedly to apply and remove the cleats as we hiked up, which was not only time consuming but obviously frustrating. The other hiker called up a couple of times jokingly for us to pack it down good, but that was clearly not a problem. In some places, the ice was as hard and slick as a luge track, and we found ourselves occasionally demonstrating poor luge technique with our poles and backpacks. I was glad to be going up rather than down this slick little nightmare, but either way was less than a cakewalk. Luckily, the weather had held all day and it was just a matter of very slowly making out way up the ice to the next short stretch of solid, comforting rock.
It was almost 1:30 by the time we hit the top of the rim. Not surprisingly given the icy conditions, we'd only encountered a couple of day hikers on the final stretch out. However the Grandview Point was quite busy, and there were many ooh's and aaah's about how amazing Sara and I were for hiking down in there. One particularly funny and impressed older gentleman was going on about how the miner's got in and out of there. When I explained to him the route and how I'd hiked in there the last 6 days, his response was simply 'Are you crazy?'.
Well, clearly, I am. But I hope I don't get cured from this crazy!
Clyde and Steve chivalrously drove the truck right up to us and loaded us in. After picking up the shuttle car, it was a quick drive straight to We Cook Pizza for some serious post-hike pig out time. Their salad bar is one of the best things I can imagine after 6 days of dried, packaged food scavenged from ravens. We languished over the pizza and already began inflating our accomplishments into the stuff of legend.
While the rest of the crew headed back for their homes, I went to check in to my lodging for the volunteer project. I got to stay at the Albright Training Center, which are delightful rooms complete with little kitchenettes and huge soft beds. I ran to the General Store and bought myself some beer and a pint of Ben and Jerry's (which I'd promised myself two days before), and sat down for the next 5 hours to read, review maps, check email and pig out on Banana Split. I fell asleep with the light on and awoke at 6am to find over a foot of snow had fallen in the night.
Talk about timing!
The canyon giveth, and the canyon taketh away. But on this trip, I think I came out an big winner! Thanks to everyone for being flexible and positive and for making this another canyon adventure that I'll never forget!