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Royal Arch RouteNorthwest, AZ
Northwest, AZ
Backpack avatar Oct 07 2010
Backpack45.00 Miles 4,500 AEG
Backpack45.00 Miles5 Days         
4,500 ft AEG
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Warning: I think this may be the longest trip report ever. It's exhaustive. It's probably boring. But it would take me longer to pare it down than I care to use up right now. Just grab a cup of coffee before you start.

This was with out a doubt one of the most amazing adventures of my admittedly limited lifetime. Okay, sure - so you've seen the aurora borealis over an Alaskan glacier. Alright - you walked barefoot across the burning sands of the Sahara with only a camel for company. And, whatever, you were present for an undersea, unexplained mass sponge migration. But, honestly, have you seen the Royal Arch of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River?

Ha. Didn't think so! (and you exceptions know what I mean...)

This trip has created it's own mythology of a sort. Legends such as "the ledge", "the rappel" and "the rabbit hole" are only the beginning. Razor sharp rocks, precipitous drops, questionable tracks and massive boulders really just make the adventure. Then there was our group lexicon, with place names like "Ohmigawd", "Schisty Rockpile", or "the SAFE route" and coined phrases like "NOPhilosophy" and "Hate Spoon". One for the record books - as long as the record books don't mind the (more than) occasional explicative and some truly off color humor.

Day 0: Half the Adventure is Getting There or How Bad is Your 4-By?

We knew that the big storm that hit AZ in the days before our trip was a mixed blessing. The break from what seemed to be an eternal summer was certainly a boon. No experienced Grand Canyon hiker I've ever met/talked to/hallucinated has ever thought that 11 miles across the Tonto in 100+ heat is "fun". It also meant that water would be much less of a problem than we'd been anticipating. However there was a worry...

>2" of rain + tornadoes north of Flag could = one gnarly ride out to the trailhead. Reports were positive about the state of the road before the storm, but as we were riding in on its coat tails, we had no way of knowing what kind of impact all that wind and rain had. The boys all had 4x4s, and supposedly, they knew how to use them. Mentally and technologically prepared for the worst (mud slicks, downed trees and impassable ruts), we made sure to leave plenty of time to get to the trailhead before dark. Well, we thought we did anyway.

Anyone who's ever wrangled 11 backpackers knows that it's typically about as rewarding as herding cats through a catnip patch. Without going into unnecessary and probably painfully boring detail, I'll sum it up by saying that the Tucson 4 left the Old Pueblo at right around 10am, and we parked the car behind 2 others from Phoenix about an hour after sunset. I have to say, I've never been so glad to not be the trip leader - but poor Jim came out of just the ride with more than his fair share of logistical cat-scratches. Although we encountered some surprisingly deep pools of mud, water and stuff that was both and neither at the same time, the only moment that there was any danger of anyone getting stuck was when they pulled off the road to turn around (only a minor navigational fail).

Content with a belly full of some pumpkin good Pad Thai, and staring at one of the most brilliant star displays ever, I fell asleep on the edge of the Grand Canyon. That right there would be reason to be the happiest girl on earth. But I knew it was only going to get sweeter once that sun came back up.

Day 1: Splendor on the Esplanade or All that Sparkles is Not Gold

Jim tends to hike with the theory that if you've hit the trail just as the sun is coming up, you're running about 15 minutes late. Most of the rest of us, however, seemed to operate more on the "slightly after sun-up" approach. This would likely bite us in the backside later, but as I mentioned earlier in the cat-herding analogy, there were 11 of us, and it just takes a while to get that many people to do anything productive. After much packing, repacking, re-repacking and checking for stuff we weren't sure we'd packed, we were finally ready for the group-trailhead shot a little after 7am. Kent - who'd I only barely met the night before and who had not been a HAZer or an ABCer threw a very symmetrical Wendy in the back. Considering that he no more knew what throwing a Wendy was than he knew that I was that Wendy, I took it as a most fortuitous sign indeed.

To add to my excitement (like it could get better) was that I was finally going to go backpacking with Sirena. Yes, that legendary maven of the mountain, the tripster of the AZ trail, the Italian-Indian-brella-toting-"Sacagawea" of backpacking lore. What a way to start a beautiful friendship than with "one of the toughest established routes on the South Rim". It just seemed fitting. Along for the hike were (in no particular order): Steve, Kent, Paul, Pat, Ron, Jasen, Jim and his son Ryan.

Group photo snapped, we grabbed pack and headed down the first mile and a half of the South Bass Trail.

I was so impressed by the quality of this track, that I almost forgot I was supposed to be on a strenuous adventure. Beautifully engineered so that it probably requires less maintenance than many GC trails, it was a pure pleasure to hike. Sirena and I were in constrained-Tibber-mode in the back, so when we came across the Anasazi ruins, we had a moment all to ourselves to take it in. We had a long day in front of us, though, so we pushed on without spending too much time there. In retrospect, that was an oops. You're never really in the mood to check out things just up the hill from the trail when you're hiking out of the Grand Canyon...

We hit the junction at the Esplanade almost exactly an hour after leaving the top. I think this comparatively easy descent lulled a few of us (including yours truly) into a bit of a false sense of confidence. Ah, how the canyon loves to do that. She even throws fun things at you like miles of smooth, fast walking along the lovely slickrock of the Esplanade - dotted with shade and shimmering pools of rainwater. It felt a bit like a fairy land, though I'm not sure fairies would decorate with so much cryptobiotic soil. Although you had to be alert to cairns (ducks) and more conscious than usual of where the route was heading, it really was not difficult to find the track along this stretch. Especially those of us who tend to maintain a slightly slower pace over the long haul seemed to have very little difficulty going from cairn to cairn. Through much of this part of the hike we were able to see the white cap of Mt. Huethawali - giving rise to a battle cry that would mean much more in a few days: "Hooothawaleeeeeee!)

By 10am the track was getting tougher to follow, and the obstacles (boulders, ledges, drainages) were getting more and more substantial. We passed a number of sites that looked to be excellent for camping, and with all the rain water pools, it would have made for an easy overnight. However, I could see how the less-regulated camping in this area has resulted in widespread destruction of the crypto-soil and other delicate ecological features. I certainly hope that people are becoming more and more aware of the practice of finding a campsite instead of making one.

Just after noon the track began to descend through the looser layers of red stone into Royal Arch Canyon. The descent would have seemed tricky if it had been the only tough spot on an otherwise easy trail, but in retrospect it seemed like a breeze. We were in the stream bed by 1pm. While exact point-to-point mileages were hard to calculate since I didn't have a GPS, i think we'd probably covered about 8.5 or 9 miles by this point. It was really the last time we'd me making that kind of speed on this trip, though at the moment, none of us really knew it. We even spent some time at lunch talking big and all about how we could arrange it so we would have a "day-off" - covering more ground in the other days to let us kick our feet up somewhere like Toltec Beach or Copper Canyon. Yeah. Right. :sl:

A half hour later we're faced with our first major pour-off, and after a bit of scouting and much debate (is it "the Ledge"? Is "the Ledge" still to come? Which side is best? Really, is that it? Where's the big deal?) we decided that the most logical route was down around the right side. It involved a bit of scrambling, a touch of butt-hiking (what Sirena delicately calls la Rompage) and just a bit of exposure. Probably not "the Ledge" we'd been fearing, but then sometimes it's so easy to convince yourself that you're miles further along the hike than you really are. Especially when you feel like you might've just conquered something that had you scared for months with barely a drop of sweat.

But as we continued to descend gradually with no sign of the Redwall Limestone approaching, we knew we had only done the warm-up routine. This part of the canyon is simply beautiful, particularly with the amount of water that we found. Short, easy pour-offs separated by nearly flat walking on the slickrock.

The pools started getting more deeper and more sharply incised, and Steve couldn't resist it. He checked the depth of a particularly pretty one in his standard way, bursting back to the surface with a call of "It's like bathwater!". (That's Stevian for 'brisk, refreshing and pretty darned cold). Only about 10 minutes later those of us in the back (the "Lag Group") caught up to the faster/less-photo-obsessed hikers (the "Lead Group"), who were staring over a precipice at the REAL big pour-off. To say it was impressive would be much less an overstatement if we had stopped there, but it's still a pretty substantial drop in a very short distance. And, from standing on the edge and examining the canyon walls on both sides, it is not at all clear how we would safely get ourselves and our gear down that monster.

Ron took one route - the one reported to cross "the Ledge". Kent took the other, which we alternately called "the Bypass" or "the SAFE Route" depending on how we were feeling at the moment. Ron's scouting resulted in pretty much exactly what we thought: the ledge was pretty pumpkin scary lookin' and none of us really wanted any part of that. Kent, who was gone from visual and radio contact for a very long time, returned with better news - though still not great considering the time of day and our general energy level. Close to 10.5 miles of reasonably tough hiking had most of us thinking it was a great time to turn in the towel. I was the one vote for continuing on, mostly because I didn't like the thought of that piece of trail waiting for me all night. That and I had a native Arizonan's natural fear of camping on the bottom of a slick-rock canyon. But, with a little help from my hiking buddies and my good friend Sailor Jerry, I managed to forget all my worries and enjoy yet another stellar night.

Day 2: Raiders of the Royal Arch or Lets Expand Your Lexicon

Again, Jim was itching to be out of camp before most of us had even cleared the condensation from our eyes. With such a magnificent campsite, it was hard to rush things. Sirena and I had set our bags up on a large slab of sandstone, about 3' off the floor of the creek. The crew was scattered about on whatever flat spots were to be found, including one who shall remain nameless for now who thought he was king of the world camping atop a rock that required a 10' climb to reach. Well, sometime during the wee hours, however, Sirena and I both heard a...well..unnatural noise coming from the top of that rock. Without speaking of it, we both decided to keep silent, worried that we may have overheard something indelicate. Little did we know!

Evidently one of the crazy meals of the day before had left one of our crew with some very sudden and very uncomfortable bowel troubles. He wasn't able to negotiate the downclimb from his perch in the dark with said troubles, and so - well - I imagine you've got the picture. Just be careful which rocks you climb when you're above the big pour-off, at least until after the next big rain.

While the rest of us went about our morning rituals, Jim and Pat decided to scout the trail ahead at about 7am. Over the next 45 minutes the group gradually made it's way out of camp and onto the ledge. When one stands on the edge of the falls here and looks left and right, it seems absurd that a trail is located on either face. The fact that the wall on the right is the less scary or safer route would be laughable in just about any normal hiking situation. As Sirena said, you know you're on an adventure when THAT is the SAFE route. Yup.

At first, the going is actually fairly easy. Moderate exposure, which would have freaked me out quite badly several years ago, was easy enough to get past as long as I took my time and watched my feet carefully. The Rabbit Hole as it's fondly called is actually a clever little trick for getting past a very narrow section of ledge by going behind an acacia that seems to be blocking the route. Because the tree is there, it doesn't feel at all exposed, even though the drop off is actually worse than that at the Ledge. After the Rabbit Hole, however, is where things got more nerve-wracking.

We could see from above where the creek entered its narrows in the Redwall. It's clear from here that entry to the creek bed would be nearly impossible from anywhere down stream of that point. Getting down to the portion of the stream bed above the narrows, however, involves getting below two levels of Supai crumble and a lot of jumbled sandstone, limestone and pointy plants. Kent was kind enough to work out a way to lower our packs past the worst of the loose climbing, and though it ate up some time, I think it made my heart beat just a little easier. For all 10 of us to get down from camp to the base of the pouroffs above the narrows took more than 2 hours. It can't be more than 1/4 mile horizontally, and even only about 250 vertical feet. However, I can honestly say that it is doable, even for people with some fear of heights. At the creek bed, I felt an elation come over me that was nearly strong enough to lighten my pack weight. I'd made it! I'd done the part I'd been dreading for so long! From here on out it's a cakewalk!

Yeah. Right again Wendy.

Almost immediately downstream we encountered the first of many minor obstacles that would have been major obstacles on almost any other hike. Chokestones blocking the stream bed, log jams, pools of murky water and rubble piles appeared around every bend of the narrows. Often, we would take off our packs and hand them down so that we could scramble/slide/gracefully-tumble down the often slick rocks. I wasn't taking many photos - between the extreme contrasts of the dark-walled slot and the punishing terrain, it just wasn't happening. But we were still making very slow progress. We went to great lengths to keep our feet dry, sometimes taking almost a half hour to get everyone past a puddle no bigger than my dining room table. After one such painstaking effort, we rounded the corner not 10 yards away to find another pool - and there was no getting around this one.

It's amazing the ideas that come to you when you're trying to keep your feet out of muddy, brown, unknown depths of canyon water. In the end, though, we stripped down, changed shoes, and waded across. Paul went first - it was chest deep where he crossed. Chest deep on Paul is shoulder-deep on me. Goodie. As more and more folks made the crossing, however, a more shallow route was found, and with Steve playing Charon for his, mine and Sirena's packs, I managed to get across without the water getting over my chest. Sure, it was cold, but I needed a bath anyhow! (I respectfully kept my camera in it's case during this parade of men in their undies...but you'll never take away the movie in my mind!)

It took time to gear back on and get hiking again. Around 12:30 we reached an area where one hike description says you can either swim some deep muddy pools (and risk hypothermia it says) or bypass the area up and to the right. As far as I could see, this bypass was less an option than a necessity. The creek flows through an exceedingly narrow and slick channel, the pools look extremely deep, and there are no handholds or ledges to use for handing off gear or climbing into or out of the murky water. I was pretty sure that if I'd tried going that route, I'd have been stuck in some toilet-bowl shaped pool, crying like a trapped kitten for someone to throw me a rope. Instead, I was far above the slick pools, admiring their sculptural beauty and ducking catclaw and hedgehogs. The route wasn't easy, but it was cairned well enough, and the descent back to the sandy creekbed was easier than it looked like it would be.

At the base of that traverse, we paused to check maps and fuel up. We were amazingly tired for the distance we'd covered - we calculated that we couldn't have gone more than 2.5 miles, and we'd been on the trail for 5 hours. We set our sites on the junction with the exit route down canyon, where we would hopefully be able to find water and decent camping. It couldn't be too far, we said. We must've gone further than our GPS units said! :?

Almost two hours of rock scrambling, route finding, bush whacking and ankle turning later the Lag team found the cairn for the exit route. Our GPS's were right. If we made the arch tonight, we would have done less than 6 miles. Insanity! And yet, there we were, heading further down the rock-choked canyon. Over the radios we verified that we were continuing on with our packs. I wouldn't even recommend that my worst enemy camp at the junction - the stream bed here is choked with rocks and spikey plants, and there wasn't even the vaguest sign of drinkable water. When we asked the Lead Team how the hiking was past the junction, their comment was "Well, there's one 'Oh My Gawd', but then it's not so bad". What the pumpkin is an 'Oh My Gawd'. Since all the women folk were in the lag group, communication was disappointingly one-way, so we just pushed ahead.
'Ohmigawd' turned out to be a massive pile of even more massive boulders. There were a number of cairns all over the place, none of which seemed to point to a reasonable way down. We handed packs again, and scrambled through some sketchy stuff, cursing the Lead team for having taken the only rope and left us behind. Oh well, at least we had the rum. The Lead team was a good bit ahead when we got the garbled radio message that they found the spring, and then the arch. We asked - is their good camping? Good water? A therapy bath?

We wove our way down the increasingly rough canyon to the top of the spring. Here, the rubble gave way to a set of beautiful ledges and nearly civilized benches. The Lead team had left their gear there, and it seemed a reasonable if not perfect place to camp the group. All we had to do now was drop our packs and walk the last 1/2 mile down to the arch. Not the easiest of the hardest half mile of the trip, but one we did with a special spring in our steps. I was admittedly just about out of go-juice at that point, but the beautiful, narrow canyon leading up to the final show revived me. For Sirena it was almost a magic elixer. She was bounding ahead like a new woman. I wanted to hate her for it, but it was all just too good to summon even the smallest negative emotion. So, instead I did my best to emulate (you can imagine that it was a pale attempt).

The Lead group passed us on their way out, almost moving like there was a house on fire. We couldn't get them to turn back with us for any amount of bribery (I'd even brought the rum). They were ready to make camp back at the spring, and they were dickens-bent for it. I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn't get a big group Wendy under the arch, but I shrugged it off. Eh, who wants a bunch of grumpy guys in their Wendy anyhow? I'd get the folks I hiked with most of the time, and maybe a cool shot of the arch.

At 3:50 I rounded the corner, and there it was.

The arch is incredible. A couple of the descriptions I'd read said that the arch itself was a let down, or that as arches go it's only mediocre. I'm not sure where these folks hang out, but in my world that spot is pumpkin beyond words. The cascades below it, the monument on its flank, the narrow windows out to the grander canyon beyond, the 200' abrupt drop just downstream... It's impossible to experience it all at once, but it's also impossible to separate any one thing out as above the rest. I've never felt so keenly the embrace of the canyon as I did in that spot. It felt...sacred.

After much cavorting, photographing, splashing and ahhing (that's how I act in my church), it was decided that that the camp above the spring was, in fact, substandard. A place like this couldn't be rushed. We would go back and get our packs and camp under the embrace of the stones. Of course, it was easy to say when your feet are dangling in the refreshing stream. Once we'd hopped and scrambled our way back to the spring, we found the Lead group already firmly settled in for the night. They weren't about to be moved. I almost let my weariness get the best of me, but once again the team pitched in and gave me the extra push I needed to get myself back to the arch - this time with everything I needed for a nice, long stay. It was almost 6pm when Sirena, Ryan, Ron, Paul and I finally dropped our packs for the last time that day and settled into a campsite infinitely more magnificent than the one before it.

The highlight of the night was enjoying a cool Mango-Tango while watching the way the arch eclipsed the starry sky. I fell asleep before I'd even had a chance to tuck myself in. I thought I'd never be quite that tired again. But, then, such underestimations seemed to be another theme on this particular trip.

Day 3: Let Me Tell You a Tale About Toltec or That's a Rap!

We'd agreed to meet the Lead team back at the spring at 7am for the hike out. We managed to almost make it, only to find that most of them had gone off ahead anyhow. We decided we needed a good breakfast and an easy morning - after all, today was supposed to be the "easy day". We radioed ahead for the lead group to stick around long enough to help us with the tricky boulders. And, at around 9am when we arrived back at 'Ohmigawd', they were waiting with as much patience as they could muster. They helped us raise our packs and scramble up the slick rocks. Jim and Pat went ahead again, but evidently were pretty intent on moving quick because they blew right past the big cairn. It didn't take them long to catch up, though, and soon we were pounding up the hill toward what we were sure would be smoother sailing...up out of that rocky creek bed and onto some nice plateau hiking. :?

Again, the route was easy enough to follow as long as you were alert. Cairns, trampled vegetation and tamped soils all combined in a fun little puzzle. The track climbs up out of the canyon and then traverses along it's length until you get to a spot where, with a little off-trail work, you get a view of the arch and the monument from above. I was a little disappointed with this particular vista, though I suppose if I'd been brave enough to get closer to the edge, I might have seen more. But with the morning light where it was, there weren't any decent pictures to be had from that angle, so we didn't tarry long.

However, as you continue around the corner, the wider views of the canyon and the river below really open up. You can see the long, straight shot of Steven's Aisle, and the North Rim which feels like it's about a million miles away. The hiking is rough enough that you get plenty of chances to check out the sites, too. At about 10:30 we caught sight of the survey monument mentioned in one of the trip descriptions. It looks like a really huge cairn - and I think on any other trip I would have felt quite compelled to check it out up close. But, the rappel was getting closer, and I wanted to get that bugger out of the way. So we forged on.

Don't let anyone convince you that the rappel is the worst part of this route. If you survive the Ledge, the Bypass and Ohmigawd, the rappel is just bit of technical work. The approach to the rappel, however. Now that's a whole different story. Razor sharp rocks, wide open exposure and steep, tight downclimbs...yeah, it's a doosey. I managed to get through it on my own (having my sticks put away really helped), but not without a few colorful explicatives. One of those was something about the Schisty rocks. It stuck.

I reached the ledge where the group was preparing to begin the rap at about 11:30. Inching over to the edge, I realized that really, the drop was very small and because of the angle, didn't have the exposure of what I'd just done on the scramble. I dropped my pack and tried to calm my beating heart by humming, talking and taking pictures as the first packs went down. Here, I take my hat off to Kent, Ron and Steve - all three of whom most excellently coached us all down the wall. It wasn't my first rappel, or my biggest, but I'm still a bit uncertain in the ropes. It was nice to have such competent, caring folks helping out. Jim sat at the bottom and took pictures some distant and zoomed-up-close (and oh-so-flattering) shots from behind while Steve got a few with my camera from the top. It was sweet to hit the ground, no doubt, and it was even sweeter to know that we really were past the scary stuff. Sierna followed with even more grace and flare, though I know she was pretty wound up about it too. Afterall, how often do you go rappeling in a place where the closest help is a grueling 18 mile hike away?

Jasen, however, pointed out that I wasn't really done once I was off the ropes. I still had to scramble down another nasty pile of sharp, schisty rocks. Fun fun! Thank goodness I remembered gloves and my yogi breathing techniques. Kent was the last man down the wall (he made it look like kitten play) at about 12:45. It takes a long time to lower 10 people and packs on a couple of ropes. We'd all fueled up while we waited top or bottom, and so we started the descent to Toltec Beach.

Not much to say about this part of the hike besides steep and full of sharp, nasty stuff. The track essentially heads straight down the crumbling slopes, occasionally doing short traverses to avoid the really nasty parts. The lead group was at the beach pretty quickly, but I hung back with Ryan - who was having trouble with an old knee injury. At one point Sirena and Ron tried to radio up to us to take a jog right to avoid a even steeper, looser stretch just above the beach. Of course, where we were standing there was only a sharp cliff to our right. Sometimes the radios just seem like more of a pain in the neck than a help. We debated this right/left thing for way too long, then Ron decided to come up and show us. Ron then took the wrong trail, had to double back, and caught us just as we were getting fed up and started hiking again. He helped Ryan down, and soon we were sliding on smooth beach sand toward Toltec. I was on the sand by about 2pm.

Of all the beaches I've visited in the GC, this one would not be a favorite (unless it was as a place to send my old boss). To add to the luxury, the river was in chocolate-milk stage. This meant that trying to use the stuff as drinking water was a dicey proposition at best. It appeared that there was no water in Toltec drainage either. Add to that, the river was high and there really wasn't much in the way of beach at the waterline. Toltec did, however, have enough spots of cool sand and transient shade to accommodate a few tents and bivies. Thankfully, none of the boaters we'd seen earlier from above had decided to stick around. It might have gotten a little too crowded for that.

Because we were so far behind the remainder of the group, we no more than hit the sand then they were ready to head off to Elves Chasm. I felt good - I'd been moving pretty slow and wanted to step out a bit. So, we gathered up as many water containers as we could find and set off for Toltec. Ryan reluctantly agreed to stay behind with his dad because we had to move fast to make the mile-and-a-half trip out there and back again before sunset. Little did we know that it was actually close to five miles round trip, and all of it just as rough, sharp, and uncertain as what we'd been doing all morning.

I made it about half a mile out before keeping pace with the leggy ones took it's toll. It was hot, I hadn't been drinking enough and they were moving at what I consider a run on that terrain. I started making stupid mistakes like stepping into holes and tripping over roots. Steve asked me how I was doing and later said the he knew there was trouble when I didn't give my usual chipper reply. He made me stop long enough for me to convince myself that it was time to throw in the towel on this one, and if you know me, you know that's not any easy thing to do. He realized he'd left camp without a few of the necessities he'd need for the longer-than-expected hike, so I traded him his small sack for my backpack with additional water bottles and a head lamp. I must've been low - I couldn't even laugh at the sight of 6'3" Steve wearing my little Go-Lite pack (evidently he made a joke later about how it had an adam's apple strap).

I watched until Steve caught up with Sirena and Paul down the trail, then I slowly made my way back to the beach. I was depressed. I was sad. I was going to miss Elves Chasm, and I had failed to live up to the mark the canyon set for me this time. To top it all off, I was sweating like a beast.

I sat on a shady, sandy spot for about 20 minutes before the walls of the canyon once again wooed a smile out of me. I reminded myself: you're at the bottom of the freaking Grand Canyon. There is no failure here! I returned to the beach and slowly recovered my pride and confidence. I explored back further in Toltec drainage, which turned out to be a pretty little canyon, with exposed beds of Zoroaster Granite and Muav Limestone. There was water back there, just a trickle, but it turned out to be quite salty (just ask Sirena about the creek water Jim treated with iodine!). Luckily, it doesn't really matter for bathing. By the time the first of the Away Team came back into camp, I was feeling nearly human and quite cheered. It totally helped that each one of them returned saying only "It was brutal", rather than extolling the virtues of the chasm. Seems like turning back was the right decision after all!

We had a delightful camp, with tequila shots, pina colada tango and lots of geek talk. We were still talking as I gradually got closer and closer to the ground - then laid down on my pad. I think I fell asleep mid-sentence. I barely even woke up when Sirena finally turned in after midnight. It was so warm that I only needed my sleeping bag as a half-quilt. The lullaby of the Colorado was unaffected by the silt in her depths. It was just perfect.

Oh, and by the way, I've completely lost track by this point of how far we've hiked. I figured it's not the mileage on this one, it's the victories!

Day 4: 14 Miles of Flat Hiking or Hi-Ho, Tonto, Away!

Jim really wanted to get an early start on day 4 because of the mileage on the Tonto. This was to be the warmest day yet, and if we wanted to camp at Bass Creek, we were going to need to cover almost 14 miles. We all reassured ourselves that it would be relatively smooth sailing after we reached Garnet Canyon and got onto the Tonto Trail. Just the thought of a developed trail was like an evil tease. We couldn't wait to get there.

Unfortunately, we just didn't have our schist together until about 7am again. Jim and Pat had kept to their pattern of leading ahead, and in no time they were radioing back that they'd passed Garnet Beach. Piece of cake!

With the rest of the group more than 1/2 an hour behind, we left Toltec behind. Ryan's knee had not improved overnight and was so stiff at this point that it was barely usable. He was trying to prevent himself from injuring it further, but as we progressed slowly upstream, it became clear that caution was going to cost him too much time. We radioed ahead, and Jim turned back to help. While we were going back and forth about the logistics, I spotted a big horn ram on the beach below us (the one the boys had thought was Garnet, but was clearly not even close). We stood there long enough for the ram to slowly wander up the side of the canyon to within only a dozen or so yards of us, give us a curious stare, and then proceed further up canyon. He was quite studdley with his impressive - ahem - package, so we dubbed him Maximus. He'd probably had a romantic night at the beach with some sexy ewe, and now he just had the munchies bad. Quite a suitable distraction for the time we needed.

As we wound back and forth from the drainages, we found the going to be rougher than we'd thought (big surprise), but still much easier than what we'd done the day before. Jim caught up with us at about 8am and took some of Ryan's pack weight. The delay would be costly for Jim, though, who really wanted to be almost done hiking by this point in the day.

Once around the bend, we could see the major canyons stacked up ahead of us, which always excites me. Hiking on the Tonto is a bit like getting lost in a space-time warp. Everything seems so times you can talk across the side canyons to hikers on the opposite wall. But it could take you more than an hour of fast hiking to get to the point where they're standing. It's fascinating.

We finally made it to the REAL Garnet Canyon, and up onto the official Tonto Trail at about 9:30. Sirena broke out her best cruise director voice and welcomed us to the magnificent Tonto, where hours of smooth hiking and expansive views awaited. Well, in any case the views were amazing. Many of the stretches were also very smooth and perfect for long, fast steps. However, this part of the Tonto seems to be crumbing quite quickly, and around each bend it would change character into yet another scramble through rockfalls and eroded side canyons. At least the sharp rocks went away!

'Brellas out and big ol' smiles on our face, we practically danced our way along. We were determined to take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and we figured Copper Canyon would be just about the right spot. When the Lead Team radioed that they'd made it to Copper and were continuing on, we laughed about what great time we were all making and took a couple of extra pictures. Jim, who had transferred his extra weight back to Ryan now that his knee was warmed up and the trail had flattened out, started to struggle a bit in the increasing heat. I know Jim really hates hiking in the sun, and that's pretty much the only real dependable commodity on the Tonto.

Miles falling away under our feet, we got to the back of what we thought was Copper Canyon at about 12:30 only to find no real shady spots for siesta. We manufactured our own using our umbrellas, but stopped short of actually napping. We figured that we still had about three or four hours of hiking ahead of us, and we didn't want to be getting in to camp too late. The Lead team was out of radio contact by this time, due to the bluffs and ridges between the canyons. Sirena, Ryan and I had hiked out of our lunch spot and out onto what we thought was Wallace Butte around 2:30 only to get a radio message that the team an hour ahead of us was just leaving Copper. But wait - WE were just leaving Copper. We looked at the map again. We realized our mistake. We weren't half way like we'd hoped, we still had a long ways to go. Just as the realization hit us, we got another garbled message from Jim, who had decided to rest one canyon back. He was just entering what he thought was Copper. Man, oh, man.

We stepped it out as fast as our battered feet would go. Ryan decided to hang back when we finally rounded into the REAL Copper Canyon to wait for Jim. We hit the shady wall of the canyon at about 3:30. Reports said that there was drinkable water in the pools in Copper, but we weren't able yet to get intel on the water condition at Bass. Sirena and I filled up what we could from the rainwater pools at the junction and were back walking by 5pm, but we still had almost 3 miles to go, and only about an hour of usable light. We hoped the Tonto would be kind to us, and give us smooth, easy walking around that next big corner.

Well, the Tonto giveth, and the Tonto taketh away. As we made our way up and out of Copper, we saw Ryan on the opposite canyon wall. We tried to convince him that there was no way he and his dad were going to make Bass canyon before it got dark. With no moon and the often-faint condition of the trail, it seemed unwise to spend much time hiking in the dark. It took a little back-and-forth radio convincing, but eventually they resigned themselves to overnighting at Copper. At least they'd have water and a pretty little campsite. Oh, and each other. That's good too.

Sirena and I raced, but the trail got rough as it followed the steep slope of the Tonto around the arm of Tyndall Dome. Not rough like we'd been doing in the previous days, but certainly not 3mph smooth. We were watching the sun slowly leave the canyon walls as we came to the very point of the canyon. We had enough water, we were just going to have to find a place to camp out here.

It wasn't more than 15 minutes before the angels sang and the most awesomest point campsite ever appeared just below the trail. It was a rock ledge that jutted out on the very tip of the canyon arm, with views straight down to the river, up North Bass Canyon, and east to the impressive ridge. We could see the fire the boat trippers were enjoying on the beach. We could see more stars than you could believe. We literally pulled in on the last few rays of sunlight, and needed our headlamps just to be sure that we didn't set our bedrolls up too close to the edge. I'm pretty sure we set a new world speed record for time from fully trail ready to on our mattresses ready to sleep. We set up everything so that we could cook, eat and clean up without leaving our beds. I'm certain it wasn't 8:00 before we were both soundly asleep. This time, the river's lullaby was echoing off the distant walls. And if I thought I'd been tired the previous nights, they were only rehearsals. I slept like the dead. There might have even been drool involved. It was beyond perfect.

Day 5: Closing the Loop or Baby Got Bass

We were up with the sun and in spite of all of our attempts at alacrity, we still weren't on the trail until almost 6:45am. But, we could see all the way into Bass Canyon, and via Radio we knew that Ryan and Jim were already headed our way. The group ahead of us had broken into two camps: the first took the left fork of the trail into Bass and descended sharply to the creek bed where there was reportedly water. They had warned us that this route was steep and only slightly more fun than poison ivy in your shorts. The second group had followed the Tonto route to the back of the canyon, where there was no water but also no steep slippery sloes to negotiate. Each group had camped where their trails met the creek, so altogether, we'd made 4 separate camps that night.

Upon reaching the Tonto/Bass junction (where trail angel Steve had stashed clean clear water for our hike out), we said a little prayer of thanks to the trail gods for delaying us the night before. This part of Bass Canyon is actually, well, ugly, and would have made for a lousy camp compared to our point. The rest of the boys had already pulled out, so we didn't have any reason to pause beyond the water-up, so we were headed up the Bass Trail by 7:45. Sirena, that amazing crazy person, had to be at Phantom Ranch Cantina by 6:30 for her stew dinner, so we knew we needed to be out and on the road no later than 2. We set our pace and settled in for a beauty little hike out of the canyon.

I'm totally in love with this trail, by the way. Although the stretch of Bass Creek at the Tonto Trail junction is underwhelming, once you start heading back toward the head of the canyon, it's actually quite pretty. Furthermore, as you hike back, you approach a dip in the Redwall which coincides with a pile up of Supai/Hermit stuff, and you actually just sort of float up and above the worst part of most canyon ascents. Then you're treated to this dandy little stretch climbing up the the Esplanade, with views, ledges, and terraces: all of which felt like pure luxury after our experiences of the days before. We were up on the Esplanade by 10:30, and still feeling as fresh as morning dew. While we might not have smelled that fresh, it sure was nice to feel it.

Ryan caught up with us as we crossed the Esplanade. He was hurrying out to get the car key to the guys they were carpooling with. Jim was taking it nice and slow coming out - he didn't have a whole lot of water and even this high it was getting warmer all the time. We stopped at about 11am for a fuel up at the junction we'd passed just a few days before. It felt like a million years ago. As we climbed the last 1,500', we alternately sang songs and recounted our bad jokes from the week. I can't say I set the place a-fire with my speed, but I was proud when we pulled up to the top at 1pm sharp - almost an hour ahead of our self-imposed schedule.

As for the rest, well, it really felt like nothing at all after what we'd done. We drove Sirena over to the South Kaibab Trailhead (man, circulation in that place gets more confusing every year), wished her well and watched as she headed back into the hole she'd just hiked out of a couple of hours before. Then we started the long, long, long drive back to Tucson. In Flagstaff, I called to make sure that Jim had made it out safe, and was relieved to hear that he was comfortably eating a hamburger in Tucsayan. We were, without a doubt, blessed to have everyone safely emerge from a trip that was both every bit as hard as we'd anticipated, and just a little bit more.

Nope. I won't forget this one, not ever. And I take the fact that both Sirena and I are not only eager to hike together again, but that we're eager to do THAT hike again, as a very good sign. Maybe I can start to think of myself as a strong hiker, after all!
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Royal Arch - GCNP Royal Arch Creek
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