|Backpack||60.00 Miles||5 Days |
|15,400 ft AEG|
|I had loosely been planning a backpacking trip into this area since I got my first taste of the Butte Fault Route last spring. Initially, I had a seven day permit and the plan was to leave from Nankoweap Trailhead, travel along the Butte Fault Route and hopefully make it as far as Hartman Land Bridge and then return the way I came. However, I found out on September 31 that the Nankoweap Trailhead was still closed from the fire in the area and I would have to change my plans. I decided to bank a day on my permit, cut it down to six days and enter the Chuar use area from the Beamer Trail by packrafting across at the mouth of Palisades and Lava Canyon, which is the crossing used for those completing the Horsethief Route. My packrafting experience was non-existent and I had to order it the night that I had to alter my trip, but I figured if the crossing was too intimidating, I had an extra day built into my schedule and I could was as long as one day for a ride across if need be. |
I got a real late from the Tanner Trailhead, but that was by design. I knew the weather was kind of nasty and rushing up there to hike all morning in the rain and then sit in a tent during the rain did not appeal to me. As a result, I did not start hiking until nearly 11 a.m. I still dealt with about 2-3 hours of sporadic rainfall, but nothing overly drenching. The hike down was a bit relentless when carrying a six day pack plus a packraft, paddles and a life jacket, but the section along the river offered a little reprieve. I arrived at my crossing and where I was going to camp for the night, just before it was about to get dark. I was immediately offered a ride across by a very friendly and welcoming commercial boating trip (maybe AZRA). I took the ride with no shame and kept the packraft rolled up. They were a little surprised to see that I had a life jacket when they got across the river. I sheepishly admitted I had a packraft too, but a ride across from them seemed a lot more appealing. The boaters treated me too good. They fed me barbecue chicken for dinner, let me top of my water, gave me "groover" rights and then fed me some nice breakfast sausage in the morning. Their hospitality was so much, I almost felt like I was somehow cheating.
After breakfast and after the boaters pushed off, I set off for my first objective of the day, Lava Butte. I used beta from the Obscure Grand Canyon Summits book and the summit was pretty straightforward. However, some might find the traverse to the southwest corner a little sketchy in spots. There is certainly some exposure along there and its a little steep and loose. The summit offered some great views of an area of the Grand Canyon that is geologically unique and fascinating. However, the highlight may have been doing the first third of the summit climb with a large bighorn sheep, who stayed just above me on the ridgeline as we climbed in the same direction. After Lava, it was on to the Carbon Canyon narrows and then Chuar Lava Hill.
The narrows are a worthy detour if in the area and there is an actually a trail in generally good condition between Lava and Carbon Canyons. After checking out the narrows, I turned around and headed back up canyon to the area where I would scramble out to summit Chuar Lava Hill. C.L.H. was a pretty straightforward summit as well. There is a steep loose area to navigate to reach the final ridgeline of summit, but other than that it is a pretty easy summit by Canyon standards. Camp chores later that day were compounded greatly by the muddy Colorado River. I thought I resolved the problem when I found some clear pools of water near the rapids at the mouth of Lava Canyon, but after filtering three liters of it, I realized it was all very salty tasting. I then remembered someone noting that water at the mouth of Lava tends to be salty in their blog they wrote about completing the Horsethief Route. I was not overly annoyed about dumping out a couple liters of water, but I was annoyed about the 1.5 liters of hard earned water that I had wasted when I mixed a liter of the salt water into my bladder. I ended up filtering only enough water to cook and drink sparingly after that because I had grown so frustrated with the process. I then let three liters of river water set overnight near my campsite and filtered the much clearer water in the morning. I knew three liters was enough to eat breakfast and get up to the perennial section of Lava Creek.
I started off day three by discovering that all of my tracks were gone on Route Scout and the app had completely reset on me. I almost accepted defeat and stayed in the area to practice pack rafting and exploring some things closer to the river, but a voice in my head said, "you have a map, a compass and several definitive landmarks, if you are not able to navigate Lava Creek without a GPS then you probably don't belong out here," nevertheless, I pushed on. It really was not that bad without a GPS, my only concern was taking a feeder canyon on accident, but once the water started flowing, it was pretty easy to determine I was in Lava Creek/Canyon. The hardest part was just not knowing how many miles I had traveled and if I would recognize the area where I wanted to camp and the starting point for a Juno attempt. Although I should note, that I told myself there would be no way that I would be attempting Juno or the redwall break up to Juno without a GPS track. As it turned out, I had some great written directions from a Grand Canyon vet and my next two days would turn out perfectly in upper Lava. I had no problem recognizing the area where I would be camping and making my day trips up to Hartman Land Bridge and "potentially" Juno. After filtering some water at the near by spring, I left my pack under a large overhang and headed up canyon for Hartman. It was a nearly three mile boulder hop up canyon, but the going was never overly difficult. There was also ample water in upper Lava as well and a dripping spring along the way. My first glimpse of the large land bridge was very exciting, however, it also lead to a small moment of defeat, as I realized I had a pretty dicey little scramble to reach the actual bridge. The scramble ended up not being as bad as it initially looked and I was standing under the land bridge in no time. The area was absolutely amazing and almost had a spiritual feel to it. The sky was moody and the lighting was bad, so no amazing pictures, but I still stayed up there for nearly an hour. I simply felt no need to rush away from this spot and kind of just soaked in the solitude of the area and marveled at the sense of remoteness and detachment from the world I was feeling right there. The hike back to camp went quick and before I knew it I was warming up food under a nice overhang shielded from a steady drizzle, as the last slivers of daylight disappeared from the high canyon walls around me. I binge read several pages of, The Man Who Walked Through Time and then went to bed.
Day four would be my Unkar Pass, Juno attempt. I got a relatively early start and was heading off for the off trail bushwhack to the saddle by 7:30 a.m. The climb to the saddle and through the redwall went off without a hitch. I did not have an electronic route to follow, but I did have some very detailed, spot on written directions to reference. Everything matched up and fell into place as I slowly made my way to the saddle and honestly I was shocked with how easy it went. From the saddle it was a relatively quick scurry up to the summit of Juno. The summit is protected by cliffs of sandstone, but there is an obvious break that will take you through the cliff bands with relative ease and little real climbing. The summit was gloomy, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the moment. I also had to do the dreaded and checked in with the real world too, as one of the reasons I was running behind on Monday was because of a nasty ear infection on Cup that I wanted to check on and I used the moment of service to download my route to R.S. again. No issues with it the rest of the weekend. It took a couple double takes climbing down from Juno and then I over shot my first layer of muav in the redwall break and cliffed out, but overall the descent back to camp was smooth. I already had my pack packed, so after a little refueling I was on my way back down Lava to the Colorado River.
The plan was to cross the Colorado that night and hike out Friday. I had an extra day in the area, but I had seen what I had wanted to see and the extra day was really only for if I was not feeling good about crossing the river and had to wait for a boat ride. Speaking of feeling good about crossing the river, I am not sure if I felt that good about the crossing when I reached the Colorado. I quickly said to myself, "yup not happening," I'll get a ride from the "chubbers" in the morning, or some other boat crew. However, honestly I did not want that. I did not want to end such an amazing backpack with another cushy ferry ride across the Colorado. I didn't carry a pack raft, paddles and life jacket 12 miles because they looked cool. I came to cross the Colorado in a packraft and that was what I was going to do. Then without even really thinking much about the crossing itself, I just started prepping my raft. I did not allow any doubting thoughts to enter my head, I knew the crossing was good from the boaters and I knew the only thing that would stop me from crossing was my own mind. I simply just started setting up the raft and getting ready to cross only thinking of positive outcomes and reaching the shore on the other side. I didn't even prep my pack, I just sat it in the raft, zipped Kyle's PLB in my rain coat pocket and then nudged the nose in the water a little, where I then sat with the pack and took some practice paddles and made sure they were facing the right way. Then with some major nerves flowing, I shoved the paddles into the mud and nudged myself out to the point where I was fully floating and no longer touching the bank. I now knew it was go time. From that point on, I paddled like my life depended on it (I think technically my life did depend on it). I knew the first half would be the toughest part, there was a clear current visible from shore and it was quick and strong. The first thing I noticed when I hit that current was just how powerless I was against it. My plan A landing site very quickly became an after thought and I was on to plan B further down stream on a little chunk of sand jutting out from the weeds. Most of the short paddle is honestly a blur, but I do remember that as quickly as my mind said there is no way I am going to make it to that shore before the rapids, I was saying oh my God, I am almost there and I was coasting in much slower water to shore. The landing spot could not have been worse and I had to wade in the water along the shore until I got to a temporary sand bar upstream a ways. After reveling in my victory for a minute, I made the poor decision of thinking I could just blast my way through the vegetation along the shore. I probably toiled in there for 15 minutes before actually breaking through and making it up the embankment. It was absolutely diabolical in those trees and tall grasses along that river's shore. I had a ton of adrenaline pumping after my "epic" crossing, but it was quickly tapered by the bushwhack through the jungle and by the fact that the rain had picked up with some intensity. I would set up my tent and not leave it for the rest of the night, apart from sticking my arms out to cook.
Slept in hoping for some sun, but it never came. The hike out seemed like a slog at times. My pack felt as heavy as day one, due to everything being wet and carrying two days worth of extra food. The temperature was nearly perfect though and the views were superb with the dramatic clouds dominating the sky. Rain threatened all day, but I never had to put my rain jacket on.
Having the ability to cross the Colorado River really opens up the Canyon for me. The possibilities are really endless for me now and I am already brainstorming another excursion into this area. Although, not the feat of the century, going a couple of days without a G.P.S. was a nice confidence booster and reaffirmed some feelings of confidence and a certain understanding of the Canyon that I have developed over the last couple of years.
Thank you to @sirena and Jamie C. for the inspiration and beta for that area and thanks @hippy for giving me the best advice, "cinch up your life vest when you cross the river."