First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

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kyleGChiker
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First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

For a little context, I've hiked every trail/route on the South Rim (Beamer, Tanner, Escalante, New Hance, Grandview, South Kaibab, Bright Angel, Hermit, Boucher, South Bass, Royal Arch, Point Huitzal, and the entire Tonto), plus the North Kaibab, so I'm no stranger to the Canyon.

I got a permit to do the Tapeats/Deer Creek loop, four day trip, with campsites at Upper Tapeats, Deer Creek, and Surprise Valley. The hike was supposed to be in October, but something came up, so I called the backcountry office and was able to reschedule for Thanksgiving weekend. Our group returned safe and sound last night.

I'll post a triplog separately, but here I want to focus on a few things that went wrong. I knew this time of year, limited daylight would be a #1 enemy, not even cold weather (in fact, the weather ended up being perfect!). In the group was myself, my mom, who has some fear of heights, and my younger sister. We're all in good physical condition and do lots of hiking and backpacking. The first day, we didn't leave the hotel in Kanab soon enough, so we ended up hiking the last half hour to Upper Tapeats campsite using headlamps. Not too big a deal. Day 2 is where things went downhill. Talking to the ranger, there are two routes down Tapeats Creek, the one on the east side of the creek and the one on the west side of the creek. Everyone seems to agree the east route has less exposure, and as long as Tapeats Creek can safely be crossed, it is the preferred route. Of course, Ranger Brian I talked to doesn't have fear of heights, so when he hiked the same route a week ago, he just took the west route the whole way.

So we cross Tapeats Creek right at the large group site, and immediately find the trail on the other side. It's actually a pretty decent trail, although a few sections were washed out and a bit sketchy, but not scary or dangerous. Then after maybe a mile or so, we get to the part where the trail leaves the creek and climbs up high. Both the east and west routes are similar in this regard. So far so good, although my mom was pretty scared of "the ledges" as she called them. While there is some exposure, the trail is flat, and there's a good 10 feet before the actual cliff. Looking across to the west route, which we can see for most of the time, it seems the west route is less wide, and often the cliff is within a few feet of the trail. So far so good, then we are getting very near the Colorado, and it's time for the descent to lower Tapeats camp and the river route over to Deer Creek. We see some cairns that lead to a ~10 foot downclimb. No big deal, I climb down first, then they hand the packs down, then I help them down. We follow a "use path" a short distance more, and then find another ~10 foot downclimb. Did the same thing again. We continued on the use path a short distance more and came to some pretty serious cliffs. I looked out one way and said, "I'm pretty sure that's not how we go, but it could be done." I looked out the other way and said, "that's definitely not how we go."

So I drop my pack and go to investigate. My sister says it only took me 30-40 seconds to downclimb and get to the slope below. The "cliff" was about 50' high, and I would consider it genuine class 4 scrambling. Meaning that there was quite a bit of exposure, and any mistakes would have severe consequences. At this point, I look around and see there there's a nice trail down the rest of the slope to Tapeats Creek, so I head back up. The handholds and footholds were super secure, and I had no fear going up/down it. But I knew my mom would be terrified to attempt something like this. And even if we could get her down, getting the packs down would be another matter. I had a 50 foot small diameter rope, but neither my mom nor sister would be strong enough to be terribly helpful in lowering the packs.

At this point, I start second-guessing whether this is actually the route down. so I climb back up the two 10 foot climbs and start looking for if we missed the route. There are definitely some cairns where we went down, but there's also a trail continuing around the bend. I know time is short, but some scouting is worthwhile, especially if it means we don't have to go down the 50' sketchy section. So I take off jogging that trail and continue for 0.25 to 0.5 mile, and nothing at all is looking promising as a break in the cliffs, so I go back. Then my sister suggests I make sure once we get down the 50' sketchy section, that we can actually get all the way down without any more obstacles. So I go down again and I notice a trail heading in each direction at the bottom. First I take the trail to the right towards Tapeats Creek, and follow that down a nice sloping trail down to the creek. Then I scout the trail that goes to the left upriver. I jog on that trail till it runs out, which is at the next sandy beach area, so I'm assuming this trail is used by river rafters docking before Tapeats Creek, who hike up to Thunder falls, for instance. Nothing looks promising from the bottom side, with no breaks in the cliffs that would present an alternate route down.

After going back up, I talk it over with the family, and had to make the difficult decision to turn around and head back into Tapeats Creek. There was some discussion about maybe trying the west route, but that was an unknown also, and it was late enough in the day we wouldn't have gotten all the way to Deer Creek without doing some of the river route in the dark. So putting safety before rules and regulations, I decided to deviate from our permit and stay at Upper Tapeats a second night. Turns out there was no one there anyway. The rest of the trip continued without a hitch and we enjoyed spending time at Thunder falls and the beautiful Esplanade. So reflecting back on that second day, I'm trying to find answers to these questions:
  • The east route, does it stay on the east side all the way to the Colorado River?
  • Can someone who has done the east route confirm that the 50' scramble is indeed part of the route?
  • When both the east and west routes climb away from the creek, are you supposed to cross back to the west side at this point?
  • If the east route supposedly has less exposure, how bad is the west route?
  • I had never seen any pictures of this 50' sketchy section, so that was part of the reason for second-guessing myself if it was actually the route. And of course I didn't take any pictures myself because I was too busy trying to figure out what our best course of action was. Could someone point me to some pictures of this section?
Thanks!
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joebartels
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by joebartels »

Sorry it didn't go as planned.
kyleGChiker wrote:we are getting very near the Colorado, and it's time for the descent to lower Tapeats camp and the river route over to Deer Creek
The two times I've hiked the loop, we hiked counterclockwise. We hiked the west up until the east-west meet and crossed over and continued up the east(no class 4). With the east route on OpenTopo down to the Colorado, people obviously do it. Perhaps someone that has hiked/scrambled the east all the way to/from the Colorado will respond.
[ Lower Tapeats AW8 ]
- joe
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The_Dude
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by The_Dude »

I hiked both sides of this a few years back on an out and back day just hiking from upper tapeats to the river and back. I took the west route from upper tapeats and it is definitely more exposed and has some very thin trail at points. I recall a few steep down slopes with scree to contend with. I don't have problems with exposure of this sort, but sounds like it would not be good for your mom. I returned on the east bank, and I certainly don't recall a 50' climb. I just had a day pack and some fishing gear so was more mobile, but I feel like I would have remembered that. There were plenty of rock ledges that you had to skirt and climb over, but nothing daunting. I wonder if you may have gotten off track on a social/game trail.
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kyleGChiker
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

The_Dude wrote:I returned on the east bank
So just to clarify, you crossed Tapeats creek "delta" (i.e. where it flows into the Colorado River) to get on the east side, and then went up the east side from there? Do you recall whether there was a steep climb initially to get up on the ledges, or whether you followed a trail at the level of Tapeats Creek?
It's certainly possible we got on a game trail, but cairns don't "just happen". Now whether someone put up some cairns in the wrong spot...anything is possible!
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kyleGChiker
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

@joebartels
Thanks! So it sounds like we should have crossed back over to the west side where east and west meet about half a mile from the Colorado.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by trekkin_gecko »

talk it over with the family, and had to make the difficult decision to turn around and head back
good call
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by big_load »

kyleGChiker wrote:Now whether someone put up some cairns in the wrong spot...anything is possible!
Unfortunately, there seems no shortage of that. Sometimes it's just lost or semi-lost people, but I've begun to wonder how many cairns are erected to mark exits to climbing routes. I've come across several of those in my last few trips.
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kyleGChiker
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

I've searched through many photosets, and found a few photos that show the area, but none showing the exact cliff in question.
[ photo ] . In this photo, taken from the west side, you can see the east side trail in the top left corner. The two ~10 foot sections go through the two white cliff bands, and then the 50' downclimb is through the dark colored rock, but unfortunately on the opposite side, so this picture doesn't actually show it.
[ photo ] . Right about the spot where the cairns indicated to start descending to the Colorado. This photo is on the east side.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by chumley »

@kyleGChiker Google StreetView has photos taken from rafters on the river that might help solve it for you. I've never hiked the east side so I can't say for sure, but after looking at Google Earth historical satellite photos from 2002 and both June and October 2012, it is fairly clear where the route goes. Put that data on the streetview photos and it certainly looks like there's a couple of steep bands to get through. Is there a nice protected route in those upper two cliff bands, or an exposed 50-foot climb? I can't say without having been there in person.
Attachments
approximate route marked as seen by satellite
approximate route marked as seen by satellite
route goes through this notch
route goes through this notch
notch hidden this angle. green and purple mark bands where route is unclear. probably your crux spot.
notch hidden this angle. green and purple mark bands where route is unclear. probably your crux spot.
two scoops!
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kyleGChiker
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

@chumley
Cool pictures, and those show it exactly! In the third picture, the dashed red line is the 50' section, and the green and purple are the 10' bands.
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kyleGChiker
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

chumley wrote:Google StreetView
I never realized there's StreetView for the whole river. That will be super fun/helpful in the future!
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by chumley »

@kyleGChiker
Looks to be a pretty steep chute, but well-protected and not particularly exposed in there. But photos often don't fully capture things accurately.
two scoops!
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kyleGChiker
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

@chumley
Yeah, a "steep chute" is a better description for it than "cliff." It definitely looks a lot less scary from the bottom, such that psychologically, the route would be much easier going up, especially with packs. Most of it was well-protected (in the chute), but there were a few places the better handholds and footholds were on the exposed face toward the river.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by big_load »

chumley wrote:Looks to be a pretty steep chute, but well-protected and not particularly exposed in there. But photos often don't fully capture things accurately.
I'd rather hike down that than descend the Papago Slide again. However, I definitely understand why it wouldn't be anyone's first choice of route.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by nonot »

I would say nothing went wrong during your trip. In graduating from hiking trails, to hiking routes, you encountered a route that was beyond the level of your party, and you practiced good decision making skills in turning around rather than putting someone from your party into a dangerous situation.

I second Chums suggestion that when graduating from trails to routes, it is wise to spend a lot of time looking at Google Earth views, as well as reading HAZ, hiking books and trip reports. It isn't perfect but can better help understand in advance what you are in for.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by ShatteredArm »

This is from the official NPS literature on the trail, on the NPS.gov website:
Hikers headed for the Colorado River can cross
to the east side of the creek either just below the campsite or about ½ mile downcanyon and continue about two
miles to a second creek crossing back to the west side. A short rope may come in handy to lower packs at a little
downclimb (8 feet) above the lower crossing.
So I'd say the only real mistake mistake was going into a new part of the canyon without having done enough research. The correct trail is on the west side of the Lower Tapeats narrows.
If the east route supposedly has less exposure, how bad is the west route?
When they say the east side is less exposed, they're just talking about the part between the first and second crossing. On that stretch, the west side (high water) route gets very narrow, like the trail is a shoe width wide in places. In the Lower Tapeats narrows section, I always thought the east side route looked much worse (wasn't sure if it even offered river access, I think it's mostly used to get to Stone Creek).
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by The_Dude »

@kyleGChiker
Ok, now my memory is working a bit. There was a second crossing about a half mile or so from the Colorado River. I tend to bet it was not too far from that cliff you mentioned.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by kyleGChiker »

@ShatteredArm
Well now I feel like a fool! I had researched the trip extensively about six months ago, and even had a printed copy of the official trail description, but I never actually read it!

Thanks everyone for the help and feedback!
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by big_load »

kyleGChiker wrote:even had a printed copy of the official trail description, but I never actually read it!
I've done something similar: just glossed over a small point of description about something more consequential than you'd expect from the tone of the writing and the amount of space devoted to the disclosure.
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Re: First unsuccessful Grand Canyon trip...what went wrong?

Post by ddgrunning »

@kyleGChiker
The east route, does it stay on the east side all the way to the Colorado River?

ANSWER: NO--you have to cross back to the west side.

Can someone who has done the east route confirm that the 50' scramble is indeed part of the route?

ANSWER: Definitely not. There is no crazy exposure on the east side, and you never climb up very far from the creek.

When both the east and west routes climb away from the creek, are you supposed to cross back to the west side at this point?

ANSWER: Yup. If you look at my route, you can see the location--I marked it (where we went back and played around in the horseshoe falls and I hiked up part of the west side trail, before we headed further downstream. GPS :: Thunder River &amp Deer Creek Loop The crossing back to the west side is about 60 yards downstream from the obvious "horseshoe" falls that you pass by. [ photo ]

I haven't done the west side (though I did hike back up the west side a bit from where the lower crossing is). The west side seems way more exposed and challenging (a lot more up and down). The east side is a comparative breeze (a couple of easy downclimbs that typically you can do with your pack on, and one washed out section)--and it's in the shade in the morning.

On our trip in October, I came across a group of NPS workers at the lower crossing. They were planning to head up the west side. I suggested they try the east side, which we had just come down. I wonder if one of them was Ranger Brian? :-)
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