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Ultimate Ski + Backpack
by Barry Dale
Overview: This is an account of a winter cross-country skiing & backpacking adventure which my long time adventuring companion, Dan Muchow, and I did in February 2001. The adventure is simple to state. Wait for a lot of snow to fall on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, go to Jacob Lake, cross-country ski from Jacob Lake south to the North Kaibab trailhead, don your hiking boots, stow your ski boots, skis and poles in your backpack, and hike rim-to-rim. This is about 42 miles of cross-country skiing followed by about 21 miles of hiking (if you come out the South Kaibab trail as we did). Stating the adventure is a bit easier than doing it. In my opinion, this is one of the top ten outdoor adventures in Arizona, but then I have a lot of adventures left to do.
This adventure was published several years ago in one of the outdoor magazines recounting this trip as done by Bruce Babbitt. Dan and I decided to duplicate the Governor's/Secretary's adventure.
Do not let being a novice at cross-country skiing deter you from trying this fine winter wilderness adventure. Neither Dan nor I are accomplished cross-country skiers. We had both cross-country skied maybe twice before. In fact, so old were the ski boots I had intended to use that when my son was wearing them and sliding around the house in the skis about a week or so before the trip he fell down with the boots still in the ski bindings. The boots fell apart. I'm glad my son did this in the warmth of our home rather me finding out about the decrepit condition of my old boots while in the middle of this trip. I bought new boots and bindings. Dan rented his skis, boots and poles. So can you.
Pre Shuttle: The logistics on this trip are a bit complicated. You will want to park somewhere at the South Rim (Bright Angel Lodge for us) and then find a way to get to Jacob Lake. This is the winter. The normal shuttle service that operates between the south and north rim lodges is not operating because the north rim is closed for the winter. The transportation services coordinator at the south rim can arrange a shuttle for you for a hefty price. We paid about $300. Ouch!!
Gear: Another difficulty is transporting your gear. You have two good choices here. Go light, so you can go fast. Or get a sled, so you don't have to go so light, but you can still go fast. I went light (maybe 35 lbs of gear) and fast. Dan opted for the sled, but he went pretty light, too. The sled was marvelous. Dan got it from REI - REI in Alaska that is. You see, these sleds are the smart way to schlep your gear up Denali. So only the REI in Anchorage carries the sled, as far as we could tell. The sled only cost about $15, but then Dan paid another $45 to get it delivered to Phoenix in a couple of days by Fed Ex. Motto - plan ahead and save yourself some bucks. The sled is basically a plastic rectangular basin with a sloping prow and stern. Thread a small diameter rope around the rim of the sled, poking holes to "sew" the rope to the sled if need be. Then extend a length of the rope forward from the prow. Tie the end of the rope to some convenient spot on the rear of your backpack. Then, when you shoulder your pack (which you will need later and can use to store gear you want conveniently accessible), you will be ready to pull your sled. Works great. It proved very easy to haul the sled. This was fortunate for us, as we were to find out later in our trip.
Shuttle: Ok, let's get to the adventure. We left Phoenix at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, February 21, 2001. We arrived at Grand Canyon Village at 11:30 a.m., went to the sporting goods store and bought "in-step crampons". What the heck is that, you ask? Well, you see, from the descriptions we had read of descending the North Kaibab trail in the dead of winter, it seems there is one particularly treacherous spot on the trail. Snow melts during the day and drips off a ledge above the trail and then freezes again, forming a large and very slippery ice mound sloping downward to a cliff. The "in step crampons" are little spiky thing you strap over your boots to dig into the ice as you traverse this ice slide. They only cost a few bucks (and no big shipping charge). We then ate lunch and met our driver at the Bright Angel Lodge at noon. We left for Jacob Lake about 12:30 p.m. and arrived at Jacob Lake Lodge at 4:30 p.m. We checked in and then went out and tested our cross-country skiing ability later that afternoon. We only fell down a couple of times. We had the lodge, such as it is, pretty much to ourselves.
Ski: There are two basic routes from Jacob Lake Lodge to the North Kaibab trailhead. One route is to ski south on the snow covered paved road (Arizona highway 67). The other is to ski south on the snow covered Forest Service dirt roads, eventually joining the paved road before entering Grand Canyon National Park. We chose to ski the paved road. It was an OK choice. If there is a fresh snow of more than about four inches, the Forest Service dirt roads might be the better choice as it gets some snowmobiling traffic, thus packing down the snow and making for easier skiing conditions. The paved road gets some snowmobiling traffic, but not much. ADOT discourages snowmobilers from using the paved road.
Skiing: Thursday morning we left the lodge at 6:40 a.m. and started skiing at 7:00 a.m. Conditions were good. We encountered snowmobile tracks on the road after the first mile. We skied steadily, taking only minimal breaks. We lost the snowmobile track at the intersection of the paved road with FS Road 212 at about mile 7. Along the way we observed tracks of cougar, dear, bobcat (?) and rabbit. We reached Crane Lake, mile 16.2, in mid-afternoon. We continued on, making steady progress. Some of the road was windswept and clear of snow in Pleasant Valley. It was a pleasant change to take off my skis and walk for a while. Nice to use some different muscles. We camped on a small patch of bare ground in the trees just after exiting the far south end of Pleasant Valley about 5:40 p.m. at about mile 21.2. We had averaged 2.8 mph for the day. We gathered and melted snow for the water to make dinner. This snow melting process takes quite a while. Snow started to fall shortly after we crawled into bed about 8:00 p.m.
On Friday, we awoke about 6:00 a.m. The snow was still falling. About 4 to 6 inches of snow had accumulated in the sheltered area where we had camped. Maybe 8 to 10 inches of snow had accumulated on the road and in open areas. We started skiing about 8:00 a.m. We skied through a moderate winter storm during the morning. Either the newly fallen snow or the wind in our face alone would have been enough to slow us down. They combined together to noticeably impede our progress and make the journey somewhat difficult. We arrived at the (closed for the winter) North Country Store at the Kaibab Lodge area about 11:30 a.m. - only about 3 miles of progress in three and a half hours! We took shelter from the storm under the porch. Looking around for ways to improve our situation, we found that the back door of the snowcat parked near the porch was not locked. Using a shovel we found, we cleared a way through an eight foot drift to the back door, climbed in and holed up in the snowcat while the storm blew over.
More Skiing: We started skiing again about 2:00 p.m. We made better progress, because the wind had slackened, but it was still a slow trek. Part of the problem was that Dan was just not up to his normal self. To speed our pace, I tied his sled on to my pack and pulled it. It slowed me down a little and sped Dan up a little. When you travel as a team, you can only go as fast as the slowest member, so this increased our team pace moderately with no real strain on me. I was actually stunned at how little additional strain hauling his gear (on the sled) in addition to my own gear (in my backpack) put on me. We skied an additional 5.4 miles to the North Rim Entrance Station at about mile 30.9, arriving about 4:30 p.m.
The entrance station is the high point on the road between Jacob Lake and the north rim lodge. The elevation of the entrance station is about 8800 feet. I advocated skiing on for another hour while we still had some daylight so that we could make some needed progress. Dan advocated camping at the entrance station because it offered the prospect of better shelter and we could only hope for another two miles anyway and would just beat ourselves up gaining that additional distance. We decided to camp at the entrance station. Boy, did Dan make the right call! We poked around and found a storage barn that was not locked. In fact, it had a sign on it that read "Close the door when you leave so the porcupines don't get in" or something like that. We read that as an invitation to enter. It certainly was not a prohibition. So we entered this fine bit of taxpayer financed property and camped there. This was luxury accommodations compared to our bivy sacks. We did the dinner gig again, melting a lot of snow for water and using up our remaining fuel. It started to snow again about 6:00 p.m. as the air temperature started to drop and wring the remaining moisture out of the air. We headed for bed as soon as we could. I woke up and crawled out of my sleeping bag about 11:00 p.m. and went outside. The clouds were gone. The sky was clear. The stars as bright and twinkle free as I have ever seen them. I knew it was going to get very cold.
During the night I brought my water into my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. About 5:00 a.m. I also brought my ski boots in my bag and put the toe boxes between my legs to warm them. We got up about 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning. It was bitterly cold. The reported low temperature that morning at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim was 7 degrees F, but that was 1700 feet lower and 20 miles to the south of the north rim entrance station. I estimated our temperature at 0 degrees F.
Keep Skiing: We started skiing about 7:00 a.m. It was difficult to keep my hands warm even wearing my mountaineering mitts, but miraculously my toes were warm because I had used my body heat to warm the toe boxes before donning them. It may have been cold, but it was also clear, with little to no wind. There were three or four inches of new snow. We skied along, observing more animal tracks - rabbit, cougar and deer. We were rested and strong. Our progress was much improved. There were even some downhill stretches where we could gather a little speed! The sun finally rose high enough to clear the trees and shine on and start to warm us. The new snow sparkled. The silence of the forest was wonderful. The setting was unequaled as a wilderness experience. We were in high spirits now.
We skied steadily for the remaining 10.7 miles with occasional short breaks and arrived at the North Kaibab Trailhead about 12:15 p.m. at mile 42. The skiing portion of our adventure had come to an end. Over the entire ski portion of our adventure we had averaged 2.4 mph.
Almost Hiking: We took a break, ate lunch and switched over to hiking mode. We left Dan's trusty sled at the trailhead and were ready to start down the trail about 1:00 p.m. I was now about to face the greatest uncertainty I had harbored about the adventure. There was deep, drifted snow at the trailhead. I had feared that there would be deep snow on the trail and we would repeatedly sink into the snow up to our waists as we descended. This is called postholing. Deep postholing has been inflicted on me in some of my mountain climbing adventures with Dan. To take a step, sink three feet into the snow and then take another step and do the same thing over and over again is incredibly tiring. It also makes for very slow progress. I had considered bringing snowshoes along to overcome this possible obstacle if it presented itself. Eventually I chose to leave the snowshoes at home to minimize pack weight. So I was just going to tromp down the trail in my ski boots.
Dan, being the more adventurous and some what dimmer witted of the two of us, decided he was going to try to ski down the trail! This, of course, is shear lunacy. What about the tight turns on the switchbacks? What about the cliffs? The big drops? The certain death? Undaunted, this novice cross-country skier started skiing down the trail. He crashed at the first switchback. A voice came up from below, stating in a calm and reasoned tone "Skiing down the trail may not be the best way." As if I needed to be told! So away I went, marching down the trail in my ski boots. To my great relief, I suffered only moderate postholing, not much above knees. Furthermore, the elevation drop is so quick and the climate change so abrupt that soon there was no postholing at all. Glad I left my snowshoes back in Phoenix.
Transition: Other than postholing through the snow, the only hazard encountered on the descent was the ice patch in the Redwall alcove on the trail well below the Supai Tunnel and shortly after the bridge. We had purchased the in-step crampons for this obstacle. Neither of us put them on. Dan went through the ice patch using ski poles for stability. I bypassed the ice patch using an easy downclimb to the left of the trail. After one major stop somewhere above the ice patch to change from ski boots into trail runners and to stow warm clothing, we arrived at Bright Angel Creek about 4:00 p.m. We found our first water that we did not have to melt from snow in three days. We drank heavily.
Hiking: We set off at 4:05 p.m. for Phantom Ranch. The plan was that I would race down the trail as fast as I could to make our dinner reservations and make sure they saved some food for Dan. I arrived at 6:25 p.m., just in advance of the 6:30 dinner bell. I had traversed the 14 miles of trail from the North Kaibab trail head to Phantom Ranch in about five and a half hours and the 8 miles from the intersection of the trail with Bright Angel Creek to Phantom Ranch in 2:20. A good meal is a strong motivation. I saved Dan a spot and his share of the food. He arrived about 7:00 p.m. and was able to enjoy a nice dinner also. We spent the night in one of the men's bunk houses.
On Sunday we ate breakfast at Phantom Ranch and started hiking at 8:00 a.m. We went up the South Kaibab Trail and took our time on the way up. We were beat. Many hikers we encountered on the way out were curious about our skis. After all, we were hiking out of a desert with skis strapped to our packs. Some plainly though we were stupid to think we could ski in the canyon. The less geographically challenged ones understood from whence we had come and congratulated us. A few took our pictures, one of them kindly remarking that he was impressed because, as he put it "You guys are no spring chickens." We arrived at the rim about 12:30 p.m. We took the shuttle bus back to Bright Angel Lodge. Our twenty-something driver was very interested in our trip as he was planning a similar one in a few weeks. He carried on a conversation with us over the PA system on the bus to learn all he could about the trip. The other passengers on the bus applauded us when we got off.
The only injury for me was that I had jammed my toes many times on the fast hike down from the North Kaibab trail intersection with Bright Angel Creek to Phantom Ranch. The toenails on big toes were driven into the flesh of the toe behind them and caused internal bleeding in the big toes. They were quite bruised looking and it took more than one year for the discolored toe nails to completely grow out.
Notes: A couple of observations for those of you who might want to do this:
1. The sled was a very good idea. It was quite easy to pull. It did not get out of control on the downhills. I was able to pull Dan's sled with only a moderate additional effort, yet relieving him of the sled speeded him up noticeably.
2. Staying on the paved road worked out fine. The Forest Service roads would have been longer and probably not much faster even though they were likely to have had more snowmobile traffic - hard to say. I have not included a route description of the paved road. You don't need one. Geez! It's a state highway and the route the obvious. The paved road is reasonably level. The elevation of Jacob Lake is about 7900, the elevation of the North Rim Entrance Station (the high point on the road) is about 8800, and the elevation of the North Kaibab trail head is about 8200.
3. Don't worry about the ice patch on the North Kaibab trail. Bypassing it was easy. Forget the in-step crampons.
4. Late February may be an ideal time. If there has been decent snowfall, the snow should last well into late February. The days in February are longer than in January. The snow in February is better than in March.
5. From the time you leave Jacob Lake until you arrive at Bright Angel Creek, your only water is what you started with plus what snow you have melted. Take ample fuel and a stove. We exhausted our fuel.
6. You need to be fit and have cold weather gear and snow camping experience to feel good about doing this adventure. You will be very isolated. You and the rest of your party may be the only humans in several hundred squares miles. Don't count on another party coming along behind you. I doubt this adventure is done most winters.
7. If you go when there is a lot of snow, you may find the postholing a formidable obstacle going down the North Kaibab trail. Babbitt's party did. Take snowshoes if the snow pack is heavy. Do not ski down the trail! (That last warning should not be necessary, but then there are intrepid soles like Dan.)
8. Unlike me, take a camera that works.
9. We took bivy sacks/one man tents for shelter. They are light, but not roomy. A mountaineering tent would be a better choice with a larger party. That way the weight of the tent could be distributed and you could camp anywhere in relative comfort.
10. The National Park Service will give you a permit that warns about the difficulty and danger of hiking from the north rim to the river in one day. That is a 14 mile trip. We did about 25 miles on our third day. Keep the permit as a souvenir.
11. You can find detailed descriptions of the North Kaibab and South Kaibab trails on HAZ if you need them. The elevation of the North Kaibab trail head is about 8200, the elevation of Phantom Ranch is about 2500, and the elevation of the South Kaibab trail head is about 7200.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.
2003-02-08 Barry Dale