It’s 5am on April 17, when a Ford F250 pulls into the dark parking lot. Peter Bakwin and I say hello to Elaine, who fills us in on local lore while driving an hour and half out to Pasture Wash, where we are dropped off by an abandoned cabin. We shoulder our packs and navigate straight west across the flat and featureless plateau until the abrupt vertical cliffs. Vertical indeed – it’s 6,000 feet down to the Colorado River – it’s not called the Grand Canyon for nothing. We’re looking for a very interesting way down thru the Toroweap sandstone, called the Point Huitzil route, a hidden route that we turned up while researching on the Internet. This connects with the Royal Arch Loop, way out on the west end of the Park, which I’ve been wanting to do for decades. Then we’re going to walk the Tonto Rim back to Hermits Rest. Total distance: about 70 miles. 2.5 days. We just have to make it the next few hundred meters.
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.”
– John Wesley Powell, 1869
The Point Huitzil route turns out to be fantastic. The whole Grand Canyon area is horizontal strata, so after being cut away by the Colorado River, the cliffs extend unbroken for literally hundreds of miles, which means there are not many places to get down – the few rim to river routes are to be treasured. This one is tricky, requiring finding moki steps (footholds chisled into the steep rock by ancient native people), a lot of zig-zagging, and then a hidden and very unusual slot, which is the only way down a particularly blank section of cliff – one goes back inside the cliff.
Besides the moki steps, we notice two overhangs with roofs blackened from campfire smoke, and I again marvel at the incredible strength, endurance, and adventure of the people who discovered this place long before us. We were each carrying 3 liters of water in lightweight, leak-proof plastic containers – how the heck did they carry water? For that matter, how did they find this passage amidst the immensity of the Grand Canyon?
I have no answers – all I know is Peter and I are regarded as highly adept and experienced backcountry travelers, and yet we are complete couch potatoes compared with those who came before.
Including Powell. He floated the Green and Colorado Rivers, on sight, in handmade boats, carrying 10 months of food. In 1869. With one arm.
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
We successfully make the drop into Royal Arch Creek drainage, and near the bottom encounter that most precious of Grand Canyon discoveries – and no, it’s not the huge views, it’s not the solitude, it’s not a sunset – it’s water. As soon as one leaves the main corridor, strays from the bumper-bumper lines on the Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails, one really, really starts appreciating water. Because there isn’t much of it.
Royal Arch is suitably spectacular, and we stop and take plenty of time to hydrate while also taking in this remarkable situation – gurgling water flowing under a huge natural bridge in the bottom of a deep chasm in the middle of the Grand Canyon. Then it’s time to backtrack out of this canyon, and begin the long traverse that will take us down to the Colorado River. This section has what actually attracted me to this route in the first place: the map calls out a required 20′ rappel. I had never heard of a designated trail in a national park requiring a rappel, so I figured that alone qualified this as an excellent route.
At the River we drop our packs, and backtrack downriver to another classic GC feature, called Elves Chasm. This is actually the lower end of the drainage we were just in, but due to a 300′ vertical cliff in between, we had to leave the creek then spend hours to regain it only a mile below. We hang out in the cool confines of this amazing spot, again filling and drinking from our water bottles continuously, until rafters arrive who gleefully jump in and swim around under the waterfall. Suntan lotion doesn’t taste very good, so time to get going.
Back at the River I go for a swim in the cold water to wash the dirt and gravel off, we fill up once again, and make a long climb out of the Inner Gorge to above the River onto the Tonto Rim (which is a long bench formed by the Tapeats formation). The Tonto Rim will be our route for the next two days.
It’s hot. Of course, it’s supposed to be hot down here, but somehow we didn’t quite expect it, and soon I’m shocked to realize I’m already low on water.
This is annoying. Because there is no water. The River can be seen and even heard right below us, but the continuous 1,000 foot cliff makes getting to it impossible. We can see tiny trees on the Rim above, but the 5,000 feet of cliffs to get up there mean that’s impossible too. So we hike the Tonto Rim, committed to resolutely moving forward toward the next hoped-for water source.
This of course is the whole point – to be in this immense place, that doesn’t care about me or what I think, with no option but to let go and accept the terms nature provides – to be really tiny is to be strong.
We limit speaking as closed mouths lose less moisture. The sun goes down, and later, dusk settles in. The Canyon is huge. We find a flat spot on the trail, groom it by kicking away a few rocks, spread out our kit, and eat dinner. There is no sound, no wind. It’s probably 80 degrees; there’s no need to get inside a sleeping bag. The starlight is enough to illuminate every feature.
That was the first day.
“You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”
Day Two: We hike the Tonto Rim. Garnet Canyon had a tiny tank of water, about 18″ across, which was so salty and bitter even the tiniest taste had to be spit out immediately. Another side canyon had a dirty little pothole which I strained thru my t-shirt then purified – wasn’t real excited about this. Finally we get to Serpentine Canyon, which had a decent trickle, and we fill up. Saved.
This is the pattern: traverse way in on the Rim because some canyon had incised it’s way into the Tapeats, briefly look for potholes, not find anything, decide not to waste time looking, power back out, figuring we’d rather keep moving fast toward the next water source rather than spending time looking and risking not finding anything. There is strategy to Grand Canyon hiking. Others might implement a more conservative strategy.
South Bass is a fairly big trail in a big canyon, so we thought we might find water when we got to that. We didn’t. More strategy: we could follow the trail all the way down to the River for guaranteed water, but we’re ultra runners at heart – we really dislike giving back mileage – we don’t like to amble – we like to go places. Somehow, that’s in our DNA. Being ultra runners means we’re really fit, really tough, and really stupid, so we powered out of Bass completely empty, relying on getting to the next canyon quickly for a fill up. Which we did. Saved again.
Somewhere during this day we encountered the only other people (besides the rafters) we’d see for two days: a Rangerette and her two friends. She was taking a nap on her foam pad in the middle of nowhere – just lying there, on an exposed gravel slope, not so much as a bush in sight.
I gave a cheerful and loud hello; she got up and came over. I immediately asked to take her picture. She immediately refused. This was disappointing, but maybe understandable, as she was covered from head to toe in cloth, like a Bedouin; not an inch of skin was showing. She spoke thru some kind of a face cloth with perforated breathing holes. Even her ponytail was wrapped up. Meanwhile, I was wearing 10 oz running shoes, skimpy running shorts, a tech t-shirt, and wrap-around sunglasses under my UD hat … compared with her, it looked like I stepped off the set of Baywatch. I’m not sure which one of us was weirder.
I was mildly perturbed by this encounter for hours afterward. Partly because I like a good photo, but mostly because she clearly knew many things about this place I did not know. I wanted to learn, to hear her talk, to ask why. But one thing I did know, is she didn’t become a Ranger to help people; she became a Ranger to get away from them.
“We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves agains the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we are but pigmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders.”
Day Three: We’re outta here. I love the Grand Canyon, love to hike, this is a great route, and Peter is a fabulous partner … but we’re ultra runners, so when we smell the barn door, something makes us throw it into another gear.
I’m using a prototype of the Fastpack 30 – I loosely roll up a closed cell pad, put it in the pack, then stuff all my gear inside the pad, which forms a great structure – very comfortable. Peter is testing the Fastpack 20 – he has to strap the pad to the daisy chain on the outside. It still works amazingly well – there is no waistbelt, but somehow the vest design keeps one from being needed. Peter’s usual sleeping pad would have fit inside the 20, but it’s an inflatable, so he decided not to use it – everything in the desert is prickly – it would have popped.
We reach Boucher Creek, the start of the climb out, which also has the best water since Royal Arch Creek – clean and strong-flowing. We drink up but don’t fill,
remembering there is a spring further ahead, and due to our hyper interest in efficiency, we don’t want to carry the weight of water further than necessary. After a very strong power hike up thru the Redwall, we look up and realize there is no spring up here. That was really stupid – after the droughts of the past two days, we still don’t pay attention and hike past the last water source on the whole route, with 8 miles and 2,500 vertical feet left to go. We could of course backtrack, but that would be loathsome, so once again it’s a tactical full-on march forward.
Fortunately for us, it’s a cool day and we even get a bit of rain. This is really good, as I pause to slurp stray teaspoons of rainwater that have collected in the tiny pockets on top of boulders. Going higher we encounter day-hikers coming down from the Rim, including a group of three. I slurp down a tiny pocket while Peter greets them. I’m sort of hoping they will witness this errant behavior and say, “I have plenty of water, would you like some of mine?”, but no such luck. Can’t blame them.
Now the Trail, which for so many miles was nothing more than a cairned social path constructed by footsteps, now becomes very well constructed out of sandstone pavers, and we climb up to Hermit’s Rest. We enjoy putting the hammer down the last three miles – again, I have no idea why – just feels good. We spit out into the parking and in minutes pile into the free Park Service shuttle bus. Many animated voices, different languages, smells of perfume, expensive camera’s, automated instructions on the loudspeaker, stopping at the overlooks. Food and beer await. Suddenly my chin hits my chest – I had fallen asleep in minutes, in the middle of the afternoon, on a crowded bus, after 2 1/2 great days in the Grand Canyon. I look over at Peter, who also appears to be asleep, peaceful, motionless, and eyes closed. Maybe this is the way of all desert creatures: go real hard when you need to, don’t move if you don’t have to.
“Do what you like to do. It’ll probably turn out to be what you do best.”
― Wallace Stegner
What do YOU do best? Going to the Grand Canyon? Your Comments welcome!