&Follow SJoin OnSugar

Peter der Abenteurer

(S)p(o)er(l)ambulations, metal shows, crazy reckless backpacking expeditions, irrascible toddlers and other modern adventures

The Nankoweap Chronicles, Part IV: Carry on, Kemosabe

We awoke at first light and cooked up a big scramble to fuel the long traverse that was in store for the day. This would be our first travel along the Tonto platform. This layer is familar to anyone who has hiked the Canyon's inner gorge, since many of the established trails take advantage of its relatively level grade to move from east to west below the rim. The Tonto is a wide and hilly sandy layer formed by the tough layers of Tapeats sandstone overlaying the even tougher inner canyon schist and granite. The layers above it- the Muav limestone and the Bright Angel Shale- are highly susceptible to erosion and weathering, so they crumble and spill onto the Tapeats and form the Tonto's characteristic sloped profile. It's got a very identifiable look from above, a sage-colored and spongy, puffy expanse of endless sandy rubble decked in brush and cacti gardens that sprawl hundreds of feet across.

Travelling atop the Tonto can be a tedious business. "Platform" is a pretty misleading term for what is actually a constantly shifting and undulating set of hills, ridges, gullies, ravines and flutes. Contouring on the Tonto tends to involve a whole lot of meandering following the layer as it wraps around Redwall promontories and all the way back into towards the canyon walls to head a drainage. But then, maddeningly, you traverse/ contour right back the other side, such that, after two hours of travel, you've only traveled less than a mile as the crow flies and can see where you started almost literally (at least at points) a stone's throw across the yawning chasm between you and where you headed in to cross the drainage.

It has a lot of ups and downs too, which add up pretty quickly. Add to that impenetrable cacti gardens, agave spikes that line its expanse like wicked punji stakes, and generally high temperatures due to its low elevation. So while the Tonto is a necessary evil for covering any serious distance within the inner gorge, it's pretty much a drag. Its vexing nature is suggested by some of the unofficial names of the drainages we'd be endlessly contouring that morning, "Disappointment Canyon" and "Double Disappointment Canyon." The Tonto is certainly full of disappointments. You'll reach the end of an agonizingly protracted, undulating, circuitous contour, round a huge bend that takes 45 minutes to cross, and see that you're only halfway around a map feature that you thought you'd finished already. Crossing the Tonto, I often find myself muttering to myself incredulously in that sort of Sorority Girl sarcastic interrogative lilt, "REEEEEA-LY!!??!!"

We left the Bright Angel pools around 5am and quickly reached the Muav layer and headed into the Vishnu narrows. These were moody and spooky, with thickly textured and stratified walls and lots of banded pools and striations that reminded me of the Deer Creek area downriver.

Following useful route beta from Dave Marcus, we climbed up out of the narrows and headed up a break in the Tapeats to access the Tonto platform. We scrambled up a couple of short avalanche slopes, and soon rounded the lip of the Tonto and started trending west. Views opened up over the lower Vishnu drainage and across the river to Horseshoe Mesa and the scalloped bays of Grapevine, Cottonwood and Lone Tree Creeks cutting through the corresponding Tonto layer across the river. The views were so distracting that I stumbled across a Muav ledge and jammed one of my fingers into a rock outcrop, raising a major blood blister. This was a bonus of having a firefighter in our crew: we had an Emergency Medical Technician and Advanced Pre-Hospital Life Support on call. Colin sprung into action, lancing the blister and field dressing the finger with a butterfly closure and tape.

I could have avoided this minor injury had I followed Jonas' example and worn a pair of white goatskin mechanics' gloves at all times. A few years back, Jonas was walking along the Tonto and absentmindedly tripped right into a cluster of huge barrel cacti. Barrel cacti defend themselves with a coat of long, stiff, needle sharp spines that are as tough as kevlar. One of these spines buried itself into the tip of his thumb a good 3/4 of the way down into the meat then snapped off at the base. Three quarters of an inch of barrel cactus spine buried to the hilt in one's thumb is bad news, needless to say. Barrel cactus spines have tiny micro barbs which make it more or less impossible to pull them out. Later in that trip, along the Colorado, Jonas ran into a rafting party with a surgeon, who tried to remove it with a needle and scalpel, but to no avail. It ended up lodged in there for months before finally wiggling out while Jonas was swimming in Baja (the salt water had softened the tissue enough for the barbs to finally let go, allowing him to squeeze it out). You can still see the ghostly outline of a deep scar buried under his thumbprint. Ever since, he wears a pair of thick, white goatskin gloves when heading below the rim, and it's a smart Canyon hiking practice that I'll definitely be adopting for future trips down there.

We saddled up and kept moving to the west. We'd read about a shortcut in Disappointment that involved crossing the drainage early across a band of Hakatai shale. It was a pretty clear decision. Hakatai shale can be nasty stuff, hard and slick shale terraces overlain with flaky shale marbles that resemble ball bearings and which can be anywhere from frustrating to terrifying, depending on the slope and exposure of the terrain. But this was a pretty clear line that cut directly across mid-drainage, which probably spared us from more than an hour of tedious Tontan wandering in the upper reaches. We descended a well-defined vein of dark coffee-colored shale and rode ridges to the drainage bottom, and then worked our way up the talus jumble on the opposite wall to climb back up to the Tapeats rim. There was a short bit of climbing with an exposed corner move that was a little "sporting" (another favorite Butchart-ian euphemism for "terror-inducing"), but soon enough, we regained the Tonto and continued the long, rambling contour towards the west and 83-Mile Creek.

The heat was oppressive, and shade was scant to non-existent with the direct southern exposure past midday. We squeezed into a narrow ledge underneath an overhang that provided a thin sliver of mottled shade. We looked over the map and GPS and assessed our progress. I was actually surprised to learn our precise location; in the middle of all of the navigating, I'd lost track of the number of corners we'd rounded and had mistakenly assumed we were rounding Disappointment, when we had already crossed that whole arm, had passed Hall and Dunn Buttes and Double Disappointment, and were about to start the turn around Hawkins Butte into 83-Mile. This boosted my morale considerably and we climbed out from the overhang and back into the Stygian heat of the Tonto midday.

While crossing into 83-Mile, my left wrist brushed against a thorny stiff bush that had some sort of stinging, urticating bristles and thorns, and the wrist immediately developed two watery pustules. Over the next hour, my left hand and wrist swelled up to twice their size. It wasn't really painful, but was a little alarming. My wrist looked like the Martin Short character in "Pure Luck" post bee sting. I took an antihistamine which seemed to help, and we kept moving.

83-mile presented us with a bunch of options, none of them particularly attractive. We needed to make it to Clear Creek. But all of the route descriptions and guides advised against following the Tonto the whole length, and looking over the map, you could see that it was good advice. To make it to Clear Creek staying on the Tonto would mean at least five more major bays to cross, hooking all the way around Howlands Butte and then still having to make our way down side chutes into Clear Creek proper. The general consensus among the routefinding gurus was that we'd be better off finding a way into the bed of 83-Mile Creek and then following that drainage all the way down to the Colorado river. It would mean a big drop, at least 1800 vertical feet down, but once at the river, a) we'd have certain water, and; b) it would theoretically be a pretty easy walk up Clear Creek following Zoroaster ridge up to pick up the Clear Creek trail the next morning.

Steck describes a "slump" that comes up to within 20 feet of the Tapeats rim (just exactly how one is supposed to bridge that space of 20 feet is unclear in his description). By now, Steck's stock and credibility was in a precipitous freefall among our party (especially with Anna and Colin, who categorically distrusted any Steck description that mentioned belays and lowered packs). We decided to cross over to the west arm and head to the rear of the drainage and try our luck there, common wisdom among the authorities being that the further back one went into the drainage, the easier it would be to make our way to the bottom. We traveled nearly the whole length before we found anything we were willing to even attempt down climbing We finally reached a cliffy avalanche slope that looked do-able if sketchy, and we carefully made our way down, Colin heading across to the left down a zigzag boulder scramble, and Jonas, Anna and I picking our way down a narrow chimney into a scree gully system that eventually became more managable. Soon, we reached the floor and started our way down the canyon floor to pick up the Steck route again.

We were all relieved to be down in the bed and past the slope, but I had a vague sense that we weren't yet homefree. "Let's not start sucking each others' dicks just yet, Gentlemen!!!" We looked over the descriptions. Steck's was characteristically understated, talking about climbing up to the base of the Tapeats and dropping to the west, and then down to the river. Our other descriptions allowed that there were difficulties; "normal climbing obstacles" and "boulder challenges." Whatever. We climbed up a break in the schist and regained the Tapeats.

"Are you fucking KIDDING me?" queried Colin.

The view from the Tapeats was definitely sobering. Steep, wicked knife-edged chutes of crumbling schist plunged down steep cliff-lined ravines between dual ridges and dropped into thin air, below which one could make out the chute we were supposed to pick up, and, way, waaaaaaay further below that, a thin strip of deep aquamarine blue which one had to assume was the Colorado. Just getting to the start of the chute would be terrifying. We'd have to traverse the rims of four extremely steep side drainages, with crumbling loose rock kicking out from under our feet with every step. We started across. I was losing the psychological battle and wasn't afraid to let my fellow travelers know it.

"I do not like this one FUCKING bit!!!"

"Yeah, we know Spoerl. Keep moving. We're gonna get through this."

We picked our way across to a little overlook campsite set amongst a perimeter of Stonehenge-like boulders . If we'd had even a little more water, it would have made for an incredible campsite (since it was already 8pm and dusk was rapidly transitioning into full on darkness). But we were still a good 1000 vertical feet off the deck, nearly out of water, and there wasn't really any choice but to press on and continue down the steep talus field to pick up the drainage that would lead all the way to the river. We'd have to hope that it wouldn't present us with insurmountable obstacles.

We finally reached the lip of that draw and headed down the narrow defile into a steep ravine that dropped rapidly. A few hundred feet down, you could immediately see that this wasn't going to be a trivial walk in the park. The bed frequently cliffed out or became completely occluded with large boulders and chockstones, requiring us to traverse out on the steep, scree dusted sidewalls and slide down below the obstacle or around an unforgiving rock face. At one point, we reached a major set of dry falls, at least 50 vertical feet of nearly sheer cliff lined with scrubby trees and roots with a couple of sketchy handholds and aggregate peeking out, and no way to traverse around it. We debated about whether to set up a handline, or possibly a rappel, but it wasn't configured well for either option. We settled on dropping the packs one by one and then downclimbing by turning around to face the cliff wall and following instructions from the people at the bottom, since, at numerous points, you couldn't really see the next move for your feet. I used braille, sonar and prayer to piece my way down, and we talked Anna through it move by move.

We moved pretty quickly as the group adrenaline started surging. We were pretty deep into it and really needed to get down. This was not a good place to bivy or set a dry camp, and we were really thirsty. Water was imperative. We broke out our headlamps and started down. We still stood at least 350 vertical feet above the river level, and the bed dropped into the abyss after the next corner. It wasn't at all clear how we'd reach the beach. The group was frazzled and really stressed out. It was nearly dark. We weren't in immediate mortal danger, but there was a growing dread and ever-deepening sense of a progressively fucked up situation that was just one cliff away from a pretty grave emergency.

Colin blazed ahead and ran point. We switchbacked down after him and rounded a gradual bend to the right, where Colin dropped out of sight. After a few minutes, Colin issued his measured report:

"Well there's bad news and good news. We have a problem...but it should go."

The problem was a pair of steep gullies with impossible footing. We basically skied down through these (Anna slid down on her backside), but soon, we reached a more gradual slope that led down through a notch above the beach. From here, we could hear faint voices echoing up the draw. There was a rafting group camped at river's edge. We'd have to crash their party.

After all of the charged atmosphere and anxiety of the past few hours, Colin's next intelligence came as a truly welcome surprise:


The rafters must have been even more surprised to see us than we were to find them on this narrow and remote little beach. Looking back up at the sheer cliff and gully system we'd just descended, it must have seemed like we fell out of the sky.

Our groups sniffed each other out and we made introductions. Normally, Canyon etiquette would dictate that we try to move a bit downriver. Some older members of their group not so subtly encouraged us to do just that. But this was really the only sensible camp in either direction; the narrow strip of sandy beachfront was flanked on either side by sharp fins of schist and rocky headlands. If we were a second rafting group, it might have been different. But all Canyon users have a right to share camp space when it's so limited. Rafters don't own a monopoly on the limited beachfront property down there.

And thankfully, they were a cool crew, a private rafting group from Jackson, Wyoming and Victor, Idaho. They immediately distributed cold beers to the new arrivals and welcomed us stinky and feral looking hikers into their opulent beach compound. They had a full kitchen, camp chairs, a fire pit, and the remains of a serious dinner buffet with burgers, potato salad, baked beans and a full spread of condiments. Colin and I inhaled a couple of their leftover burgers. Anna sat and looked dazed as she caressed her forehead with an unopened can of ice cold beer as beads of condensation rolled down her face. It had been a pretty abrupt change of mood and vibe, but it was definitely a good change.

We gathered around the campfire and unwound from the day's unfolding drama. Jonas picked up Molly's acoustic guitar and strummed out a bunch of blues and jazzy Django Reinhard riffage, making clear that at least these dirty stinky hikers could contribute something to the dinner after all. We traded stories of the Canyon and of loves lost and found.

We introduced ourselves to Ian, a genial bearded dude who had met his wife at Nankoweap on a prior rafting trip. We learned that he and Laura had actually gotten married at Nankoweap a few days earlier in an intimate ceremony among their group. We offered heartfelt congratulations.

All this while, I'd cooked up a plan, and I diffidently broached the subject with Ian. Would they be willing to give us a raft ride down to Phantom? It's not totally kosher to do so (would violate both group's permits), but we were running a day late, Colin's blisters had gotten medieval, and all of our wives and fiancees would be expecting a call from us by Sunday night. A raft stowaway would allow us to catch back up with our itinerary. We could definitely do the extra eight miles ourselves (even keeping on schedule), but with a raft ride, we'd get immediately back on track. We'd already completed the true guts of our route, and the Clear Creek portion was a trail segment that I felt OK skipping if these guys could help us.

Jonas and Anna brokered a deal. The Jackson/Victor crew didn't have enough life preservers themselves, but if we would run downriver early the next morning and the neighboring raft group was willing to loan us their extra PFD's, they'd take us aboard. They had a friendly rivalry with the Utah crew, and we'd be able to get the life preservers back to them at Phantom. We decided that Anna and Jonas would make the most sympathetic emissaries and agreed they'd get up at dawn to make the necessary entreaties.

The rafters were a fun bunch and we enjoyed their company after eight days of total solitude. They treated us to generous helpings of rum-soaked bread pudding cooked over the campfire in a cast iron Dutch oven. Adam (the class clown and apparent leader of their crew) busted out a janky battery-powered Casio electric guitar and serenaded the campfire with a series of river charivari, humorous ballads about the "House Rock Cock Block" ( a lament at having one's amorous inclinations defeated by a woman with superior oar skills) and the "Rapid with No Name" (warning of the danger of nameless riffles along the river, more treacherous than the more notorious rapids named after the Devil's anatomical unspeakables - "I've run through.... the Devil's choad.... but it was the only rapid........ that caused our boat to unload...THE RAPID WITH NO NAME!!!""). Molly sang a really lovely song celebrating Ian and Laura's nuptials and connection. Beer graduated to boxed wine, followed by ill-advised slugs of Jim Beam. We eventually laid down our bedrolls around the fading embers of the campfire and dozed off to the murmuring trills and splashes of the Colorado.


We woke up early the next morning with fuzzy and groggy heads following so much unexpected and alcohol-fueled cameraderie the night before. Anna and Jonas were up at the crack of dawn and made their way downriver (following what Steck describes as a "boaters' trail" but which actually turned out to involve steep scrambling and climbing moves above exposed fins and ledges). The Utah crew were sympathetic and loaned us the extra life preservers. We would get to float to Phantom.

We were again treated to actual food for breakfast, delicious chorizo and egg tacos with fresh fruit and coffee. I had three helpings. We tried to make ourselves useful as the rafters made all the necessary preparations to load up the boats. We did our best to pitch in or at least stay out of the way.

It was a pretty involved process that was basically an anarchic version of a military decampment. They were a pretty well oiled machine. Rafting trips involve a lot of gear and their camp had a lot of systems that needed to be broken down. The dishes were washed in a descending series of Tupperware bins. You relieved yourself in a Port-a-Pottie removed from the camp affectionately named "The Groover." All of this stuff needed to be broken down, group gear stored and lashed down on the huge rubber rafts, ballasts equalized, poop stowed below the poop deck (literally- one of the big boats, skippered by Molly, was the designated ferry for all the human waste). They also had to find a proper place for "Brenda," the inflatable sex doll who served as figurehead for whatever boat led their ragtag armada.

Before leaving, Ian gathered the assembled crew for one of their important morning rituals, the award of the river MVP award. Every morning, their group would get together and the current holder of a track and field medal would nominate and pass on the honor to the next worthy candidate. It was a nice way for foster group cohesion and promote positive vibes. He had well chosen words, also commemorating the departure of Zadie and Robbie, two older crew members who would be leaving the group and hiking out from Phantom. It was a good check-in and definitely a feel-good moment. We were honored to be a part of it.

Our flotilla left in staggered groups, with the two kayakers running ahead to scout rapids and look for holes and rocks ("holes" are hydraulics, features on a whitewater river where the water recirculates and forms backcurrents and underwater eddies that can stop and trap or submerge rafts, canoes, and kayaks. Holes are usually formed on the downstream side of boulders and other obstructions in the water as the water flows over the boulder and rejoins the main flow). Jonas, Colin and I joined Molly on Rosie the poop barge, and Anna jumped on Fletch's boat. We enjoyed a sporting little run down 83-Mile and Zoroaster rapids, lubricated not only by the cold waves splashing on our faces across the bow, but by cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. We found ourselves looking up every rocky, impossibly steep Vishnu drainage along the way and trying to evaluate whether or not it would "go." Molly thought we were nuts and chuckled at our backcountry hiking lunacy.

We beached at Phantom after about a half hour run, returned the life preservers to the Utah group, and gave heartfelt thanks to the Jackson/Victor crew. They earned a lot of river karma to be sure, and I hope they know how much they helped us out. It wasn't that we couldn't have made it to Phantom ourselves; it just made our last day so much more relaxed and enjoyable following the cross-country route's dramatic climax the previous day.

In fact, after all of that drama, the final piece almost felt like something of an epilogue. We mosied into the group campsite at Indian Gardens and cooked up the last of our freeze dried food for lunch. We'd planned well. I had about four dried mangoes, a piece of chocolate, and two trail bars to get me up to the top. We superhydrated at the water pump and crossed the beautiful suspension bridge to start the long, nearly 4800 vertical foot slog up the South Kaibab. We waited until about 2pm to head out in order to avoid the hottest part of the day and headed up through the long, sloping switchbacks up the Vishnu.

It all went pretty fast. Not record time, but after eight days traveling over 30,000 vertical feet up and down, across such nasty and unforgiving terrain, we were really fit, in super aerobic Canyon shape, and we fairly motored up the well-graded Canyon superhighway. But I made myself slow down to stop and sniff the flowers, literally and figuratively.

It was a lovely afternoon, with low, speckled light dropping to the west in a picture perfect sunset, and I wanted to savor the last few hours under the rim. The S. Kaibab affords incredible vistas of Cremation Canyon, the Tonto stretching out to the west, and the Shiva Saddle and Egyptian Temples (The Tower of Ra, the Temple of Set) across the river. We regrouped at Cedar Point and took some group shots, then reluctantly started back up the final switchbacks through the Toroweap.

We all got a little wistful. Anna called out: "Goodbye Grand Canyon!!!" I put on my best Barry White impression and answered in a rumbling baritone: "Goodbye, Anna!!!"

We reached the rim and took the shuttle bus back to Jonas' car in the Backcountry lot. Several Japanese tourists looked aghast at our stench and general funk. The bus driver jokingly suggested that maybe we could leave some clean clothes and a sun shower at the trailhead next time. But he winked as he said it. You could tell he was impressed by our itinerary and really appreciated the magnitude of what we'd just accomplished.

We went to the coin operated showers and went through two full 8 minute cycles each scrubbing off the grime and funk of nine days down in "The Shit." We'd hoped for a fancy dinner at El Tovar, but they were completely booked. We settled on a feast at the Arizona Room, where we each had at least two entrees, soup, salad, bread, and dessert. Then we retired to a motel, where we crashed and sprawled out across two queens and a cot and dropped into deep dreams.


This trip left me with more than a few souvenirs. I brought home a pretty little rock that looked like blooming rose for Elka. I don't usually take anything from National Parks, but this was just a tiny little keepsake, and I think the Grand Canyon is pretty long on rocks.

Most of my souvenirs were physical, etched into my skin and bones. Those thorn pustules left scars on my left wrist that don't look to be going away anytime soon. I was sore for literally weeks afterward, and really only felt like I could get out of bed without audible creaking in my limbs for the first time last week, three full weeks after we exited. I was ravenously hungry for a good week after we reached the rim; I lost seven pounds on the trip, and I guess my body wanted them back.

A souvenir, though, is above all else a memory; that's what the word originally meant in old French. And my memories from this trip still make me smile. Nankoweap-South Kaibab 2012 was truly the trip of a lifetime. It wasn't just the jaw dropping scenery and incredible, life-affirming adventure; what really made this such a spectacularly fun and rewarding trip was our group, the best crew anyone could hope for. We really built a deep 4-square friendship and cameraderie among the quartet. We developed an unshakable esprit de corps, always cooperated and communicated well, and solved every nasty problem the mighty and impassive Canyon hurled our way.

Every member contributed his or her part: Jonas was the scout and master of reconaissance and geological lore, Colin the intrepid jester, Anna the group's voice of reason (and a powerfully effective antidote to excess testosterone), and I was the figurehead leader and The Bear, keeping up the rearguard, roaring at danger and making sure we didn't lose sight of our objectives. Even though this itinerary and the country we were traveling through was no joke, we were pretty much laughing hysterically the whole time. Danger is funny. I love these guys and will go ANYWHERE with them, anytime.

Next up: a complete circumnavigation of the Powell Plateau, October, 2014. Jonas will try and tell you we're doing Tuna-Shinumo, but I'll convince him otherwise. Applications now being accepted.

The Nankoweap Chronicles, Part III: Back in the Saddle(s) Again

We were back to the early AM wake-up schedule, and I woke up literally seconds before Colin called out to the group at 5am that it was time to get moving. The infamous Lava-Unkar saddle loomed above us to the south, and over the past three days, we'd built up a certain mystique around this upcoming segment. With the verdant forest and thick brush lining our approach, Lava-Unkar would be a challenge not only because of the sheer number of vertical feet we had to climb, but also because every one of those feet would be clogged with dense ground cover, scrubby young pinyon and thorn trees, deadfall, and stubborn blackbrush. At least it was a pretty morning, with the pure sparkling morning Canyon sunshine illuminating the side drainages in brilliant lime greens and an irridescent glow.

We moved straight out of camp to the south and stormed up a dry drainage until were thoroughly stymied by a 250 foot high vertical dry waterfall blocking our path. It didn't look promising. This wasn't the kind of obstacle we could reasonably skirt around. Both sides were flanked by sheer cliff bands, impossibly steep ridges and nasty, choked gully systems. If this was the way we were supposed to go, we were in deep trouble. We consulted the maps and GPS and realized we'd made a false start (which, it turns out, Butchart actually specifically warns against in his manuscript. Whoops).

We backtracked and then jogged to the west, located the correct drainage arm, and thrashed headlong up into dense brush. After a brief climb, we saw the Juno Ruin we'd been unable to locate the night before from above across the valley.

The brush thinned out a little and we started a long, steep climb through Tapeats and Muav breaks into a narrowing draw that eventually led to a sloping ridgeline from which we could see our objective, which looked innocent enough from far below.

It got messy quickly though. We dropped to the left into a complicated and densely overgrown tangle of side drainages, which quickly separated our crew as we each took our own lines through a series of brushy, steeply dropping chutes with extremely poor visibility. Communication was complicated by weird acoustics, and strangely ventriloquist cliff walls threw voices around and made it sound like we were impossibly separated from one another. We were actually much closer to one another than we realized, bunched together thrashing down equally overgrown drainage bottoms that were actually immediately next to one another. We regrouped in the bed and licked our wounds. It had been a rough morning for sunglasses; the thick brush and overhang had snatched two pairs from the group. We'd already thrown the extra "emergency" pair of sunglasses into the mix when my pair disintegrated after the first couple of days, so this meant that both Colin and I would have to squint for the rest of the trip. Given how intense the sun was down there, this development was somewhere between a minor bummer and an unmitigated catastrophe. "FORGET IT, IT'S GONE"

We climbed through the broad main drainage and manouevered through boulder-lined streambeds blocked with massive chockstones and dry falls. We finally reached a narrow choke point where the talus slope to the north west looked managable. We convened a routefinding pow-wow, not without its spirited disagreement and debate, but eventually decided that we needed to head up and try our luck in the steep talus gullies that pockmarked the sloped rise to the northeast.

We picked up a steep gully system and followed its bed for a nasty and steeply pitched 600-800 vertical feet, eventually reaching a low and variegated series of cliff bands. There was no obvious route through these, so it was anyone's guess. The brush was pretty unrelenting. Anna and Colin traversed trending to the left, while Jonas had scurried up the opposite direction. I wasn't sure whom to follow. I decided I liked the Jonas line a little more and followed suit traversing to the right flank, but it ended in an exposed set of rock climbing moves above a sprawling boulder basin that still haunt me a little bit. Everyone had reached the far side of the basin at least a half mile away and I was totally alone with my thoughts, doubts, and a pretty unforgiving rock face. It was not super technical, but it was VERY exposed. A fall would have meant a 45 foot head-first pitch into a shale ledge system and a bunch of massive boulders. I gritted my teeth and made the two necessary moves. Soon, I was following deer trails along the base of the Redwall, and traversed to rejoin the group.

The sky had thickened and a light drizzle started to fall, a misty atmospheric rain that reduced visibility and made things even more claustrophobic. The thick brush and choked gullies reduced sight lines to about 10 feet. There was absolutely no view of the saddle; in fact, you couldn't make out anything apart from the narrow boulder chute immediately in front of us.

We were deep into it. There's a kind of cumulative tension and high stakes adrenaline that builds up on mountaineering approaches like this that I definitely started to feel at this point in the climb. It's not any one move, or piece of exposure, or climbing pitch, but the overall level of commitment that having gotten that far represents. You're past a certain point of no return; to go back down or turn around would be every bit as difficult, if not more difficult, than seeing the climb through and reaching your goal. In Grand Canyon, there's the added complication of the need for water. It's an overall Gestalt of the climb kind of deal, and we were committed. We needed to get up this thing.

The route was cramped, steep, unstable, and very slow-going. The footing was loose and shifting, rocks kicked out and succumbed to gravity's pull regularly, and the visibility was reduced to nil. It was impossible to make out any landmarks to gauge how far we'd climbed, or even to hazard a rough estimate of how high we we were in relation to the pass or even just our immediate geological layer, the Redwall. You just had to push on through sliding, nasty scree and loose talus. Anna was climbing about 30 feet above me and kept warning and stopping me to make sure I didn't get brained by the rockfall she kept kicking up.

Immediately after Anna crossed to the east to pick up a high tributary ridge system, I could hear something major dislodge from the slope and start crashing down in my direction.

"Rock!....ROCK!!... ROCK!!! " screamed all three of my party from the other side of the ridgeline.

I hit the ground, ducked and locked my fingers behind the back of my neck and got ready to dodge falling rocks. I could hear the increasing tumble and roar of a pretty significant rockslide crashing down the gully immediately adjacent to me, A huge plume of rock dust rose immediately to my left and sprayed rock and pebbles over the ridge and into my gully, a mere 3-4 feet from my head, as a rockslide sluiced down through the divided draw. I couldn't see anything, but I could feel the nearly seismic impact of several large falling rocks on the opposite gully walls and could literally taste the dust that blew over the rise.


"I'm OK, I'm OK!!!!. Fuuuuuuuuucccccckkk!!!!'

I took a deep breath and kept climbing, finally passing the scene of the rockfall crime and then traversing a series of false summits and finally descending to the true pass. I rejoined the reassembled group, screeched out my very best Steven Tyler imitation, and announced myself "[b]aaaaaack in the saddle again." The crew groaned audibly, possibly from exhaustion at the hands of the Lava-Unkar Saddle or more likely, the screeching shrillness and dorkiness of my Aerosmith falsetto.

I threw off my pack and marveled at the thick layer of thorns, twigs, branch debris and brush fragments and the thick patina of dirt and mud that had stuck to my pack over the course of the morning's bushwhacking. We were a mess. I tried to brush off the loose stuff and hammered (or to employ Steck's preferred term, "inhausted" ) a couple liters of water in huge gulps in the hope of superhydrating.

I may have been dirty, but Colin was FILTHY. Something about his choice of colonial off-whites made him look particularly mangy and grubby. Every once in a while, the three of us would start giggling uncontrollably looking him over from head to toe. He was a dirt magnet and each day kept adding to his buildup of grime. With his sunglasses lost, he started using soot and creosote from the camping stove to improvise eye black, but it mostly just smeared all over his face and made him look feral. He was straight out of Lord of the Flies. We started calling him Pigpen.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Colin's feet were a horror show. He was wearing pretty stiff mountaineering-style leather boots, which provided excellent ankle support but rubbed every square inch of his feet raw as hamburger. The sheer number of blisters he had was horrifying. Every rest stop was a freak show of podiatric gore, during which Colin would spend 10-20 minutes in complicated moleskin triage that would leave both feet looking mummified. His feet looked like a centerfold in Fangoria magazine. He even treated us to a few "pus tricks" (don't ask).

Colin removes his boots for treatment of nagging blisters

The next certain water was likely down the main bed of Unkar. That would involve backtracking to reach Vishnu-Freya, so with Jonas still spry, we decided to split up. Jonas and Anna would blaze ahead and descend to the "U" in Unkar in the USGS map, right above our junction with the drainage leading up to the Vishnu-Freya Saddle. Anna would wait there for us (directly in the bed, so we wouldn't possibly miss her) and Jonas would drop his pack and head down the main arm of Unkar with all available water containers and get enough water for us to camp and then reach Vishnu Creek the next day. So they motored ahead while Colin and I slowly followed them down the drainage. I was really sluggish and tight (lots of lactic acid buildup from the morning's bushwhack) but finally loosened up and started moving faster. On the way down, Colin found a realy cool nautiloid fossil.

Our reconnaissance/ water supply plan was never realized. After about an hour and a half, we caught up with Jonas and Anna, sitting along a creekside ledge and looking concerned. "We've got a problem," Anna informed us. "We think we've worked out a solution, but yeah, we've got a problem." She motioned downstream: "Go check it out. Step carefully."

A few yards further down the bed, the "problem" dropped away precipitously from our feet. The streambed cliffed out pretty dramatically over a set of two dry waterfalls. The first dropped at least 50 feet down slick polished limestone, the second opened into a huge drop that we couldn't see the bottom of. We only had about 60 feet of rope, so a rappel was out of the question. None of the guidebooks mentioned this critical routefinding issue. It's pretty amazing to me that NONE of the authorities on this route mentions this "little" detail.

Jonas had run up the opposite ridgeline to the west and there weren't any solutions over there- the Tapeats cliffs were sheer on all sides. But from the ridgeline, he'd seen a wide break in the cliffs to our south that looked like it might work. So we scrambled up the ridgeline to the east and traversed to the break in the Tapeats, which opened up into a steep and wide avalanche chute overlooking the jagged, sinister form of Vishnu to the south. Our pictures here don't really do this view justice. Massive, 400 foot Tapeats cliffs framed the entire mass of Vishnu, craggy, asperous and pyramidal and looking more Himalayan or like Tolkien's Mt. Doom than Grand Canyon. It truly was the descent into Mordor. It was an awesome and sobering sight, a completely wild and thoroughly initimidating vista with ridicuous scope and scale.

Colin and Jonas roared at the challenge and started down the slope. And soon enough, we picked our way down into the Unkar bed below and looked straight up to lip of the second waterfall nearly 250 foot above.

We scouted a long cactus studded plateau for a possible campsite and finally found a nice clearing amidst a thick grove of tamarisks. Although the rains from earlier had stopped about half way down the Upper Unkar descent, the skies still looked seriously threatening, as if Something Wicked This Way Was Coming. So Colin and I strung the rope between two trees and set up the tarp for the only time of the whole trip. We stil had plenty of water for the night, so we decided that Jonas would head out at the crack of dawn to resupply for the trek to Vishnu Creek the next day. Jonas joined Colin and me under the tarp for a nightcap and we all dozed off shortly thereafter.


Surprisingly, it never rained that night despite the sodden and tumultous skies that blew over us. Jonas awoke at dawn and heroically headed down the main arm of Unkar towards the river to fill up all of our empty water containers. It was a quick round trip, as he only had to travel about a mile and a half downstream before Unkar bubbled up and started flowing. Still, we were all most grateful to Jonas for both the extra beauty sleep and the 16 additional liters of water.

Thusly refreshed and with all the skins topped off, we swung around to the southwest and headed up the drainage towards the Vishnu-Freya Saddle. This was significantly easier than thrashing our way up to Lava Unkar the day before. We did encounter another dry fall obstacle, but there was a pretty straightforward bypass along a steep ridge to the south, and then we contoured and rejoined the bed. Higher up in the Redwall, there was a narrow dihedral that we hoisted packs up (I actually climbed it with my pack on, since the lower part was straightforward, though I did have to traverse a sketchy little ramp and probably should have passed my pack along with the others).

Soon, we reached the nameless saddle dividing Vishnu from Freya. From the notch, we got our first, dramatic views of the south rim, Grandview Point and Horseshoe Mesa across the river. The Vishnu drainage emptied out broadly to the southwest. Jonas and I climbed up to a nice little tree well up high in the cliff bands overlooking the saddle, from which we had an incredible view of the south rim. I busted out my smoked salmon jerky as a treat and we marvelled at how far we'd come (and also, looking out to what we could see of the west, at how much further we still had to cross along the Tonto platform).

We looked over the map and couldn't decide right away how best to get through the Vishnu Redwall. Butchart and Steck both spoke of a "Redwall ramp," and we initially thought of heading west and keeping our elevation before dropping into the unknown on the other side, since it seemed like a possible location for some sort of "ramp." Jonas and I persuaded the others that our route actually lay straight down the gully directly in front of us. It was certainly steep, and very loose, but you could see it drop well through the Redwall and it seemed like the best bet. So we set out straight down the throat of the Redwall formation, switchbacking across steep boulders and talus into the narrowing gulch as it plunged down towards Vishnu.

The drop narrowed even further, steepened, and the echoes and acoustics were incredible. Jonas and Colin were at least 200 feet below in the Redwall, but their voices sounded like they were right next to me.

About half way down the Redwall, the gulch completely cliffed out and we stopped to assess the situation. There was no sign of anything even vaguely resembling a "ramp." To the west, a steeply pitched talus and scree ledge moved around and protruded from the Redwall by about 50 feet. It dropped off to an abrupt edge overlooking a sheer drop of 600 feet into thin air. Jonas headed across it and disappeared around the corner. Ten minutes, fiteen minutes.

"Are we supposed to follow him?" I wondered aloud.

A couple of minutes later, Jonas' distant but unmistakable green light command echoed loud and clear across the Vishnu:


We made our way across the ledge to follow his tracks. With all due respect to Steck and Butchart, this wasn't a "ramp." "Ramp" to me connotes some sort of sloping surface or walkway joining different layers. This was more like a sketchy loose narrow "Redwall ledge" or "Redwall apron." It rounded a portion of the Redwall layer until you reached a long, run-out avalanche slope on the west side of the huge Redwall pillar that spilt the upper reaches of the drainage. It was a very airy traverse with pretty nausea-inducing exposure if you bothered to look down. If you slipped in the loose scree and fell, you'd probably be able to stop yourself before sliding off the edge of the ledge. Probably . But it was a pretty pronated ride, steep in places, and you certainly didn't want to test that theory. The views across the Vishnu drainage were pretty incredible, though.

Finally, after about 15 minutes following this unnerving Stairway to Heaven, a steep and jumbled avalanche slope opened up below us, which fed all the way down into the bed of the west arm of Vishnu. This talus pile was an absolute nightmare. Tedious, loose, endless, exhausting. But we really had to stay frosty. One false step wouldn't mean death, but it would certainly involve a gnarly fall and slide, broken ankles, sprains, broken bones, etc. So it was at once tedious and nerve wracking. I finally reached the bed after nearly half an hour of endless step-by-step tiptoeing down the talus. We were all a little frazzled and started talking shit to the Grand Canyon. ("You call THAT a talus slope??!!??")

We started down the dry creekbed and descended for about another two miles before reaching a lovely set of seasonal pools in the Muav-Bright Angel contact before the bed descended into the brown Tapeats layer. You could tell it was a popular local watering hole, as we found piles of scat from something big right downstream (and later that night, we heard the unmistakable rumble of some sort of large mammal rusting through the reeds across the creek). We made camp on a lovely sculpted deck of shale right next to the pools, with a system of natural "shelving units" along the wall so that each member got his or her own shelves and closets to lay out their gear. I fished the wreckage of my first pair of sunglasses from my garbage bag in the hope of MacGyver-ing them back into service. No go. They were beyond repair.

We enjoyed a lovely evening amidst the reeds, cattails and frogs, and a cool night as stars and planets emerged and were reflected in the placid waters of the pool next to our site. We went to bed early after some creekside yoga in order to get an early start on the long, hot traverse across the Tonto to Clear Creek that was in store for the next day.

The Nankoweap Chronicles, Part II: Famine, Feast, Exhaustion and Recovery

Colin's little Casio watch issued its tinny digital report at 4am, and we all got moving and started gearing up for a long one. We had been pretty sparing in our water use the previous night, and I still had more than nine liters, but we had a looooong stretch of rock to cross before we'd reach Lava Creek at the so-called "Still Spring" site (named for a moonshine and bootlegging/rum-running operation that some bandits set up down there in the Prohibition era; they apparently cooked up the hooch deep in Lava Canyon and then floated it in big barrels across the delta at Lava to waiting couriers on the Beamer-Escalante trail on the other side).

We broke camp around 5am and made the short climb up to Malgosa Crest, then headed down the steeply pitched canyon wall down into the Malgosa drainage. We had to navigate minor cliff bands and downclimb a few boulder obstacles (one involving a corner move around a thorny tree that exacted blood from both me and Colin, in exactly the same spot on the right tricep). Right below that boulder, Jonas almost literally stumbled across a couple of well-preserved pottery shards. It was pretty clearly the rim of a large pottery water jug, with the brown and olive green dyes and glazes still well preserved. These were probably shards of Ancestral Puebloan pottery, dating to sometime between 900-1300 AD, when the Puebloans mysteriously left the Canyon en masse for New Mexico.

I learned on this trip and reading up on it afterwards that the term "Anasazi" is both anthropologically and historically inaccurate and culturally insensitive. Anasazi apparently refers inaccurately to several distinct periods of tribal emergence during the Early Basket Maker II era, and it's disfavored by current day Puebloans, as Anaasází is a Navajo exonym meaning "ancient enemies" (and one can sympathize with a people not wishing to be identified as enemies, though if that's their beef, I'm not sure I understand how it's much better to use another Spanish exonym for "villager" instead of some more etymologically accurate designation).

In all events, it was really neat to handle these artifacts and to try and imagine their history. It wasn't at all hard to picture an ancestral Puebloan woman living in the Malgosa drainage carrying this jug either headed to or back from Kwagunt Creek, the only certain and perrenial water source for miles around (the lower Kwagunt basin was at one point the subject of years of speculation and archeological exploration following a discredited report of a hiker allegedly finding a "30 building settlement"- the one the Colin Fletcher searched for towards the end of The Man Who Walked Through Time - and archeologists have since found a much more modest 4-room outline in the the southeast corner of the lower drainage).

Our discovery put some perspective on the scale of the timeframes we were dealing with down there. I'm 42 years old. I've been exploring the backcountry of the Grand Canyon for 10 years now. These Puebloan pottery shards were probably around 1000 years old. The rocks we were walking on (the Muav layer), and the landscape by association, were probably somewhere in the 515 million year-old range, according to the latest geological paradigm. I felt young again for the first time in years. We placed the shards atop a long sandstone boulder for future trekkers to discover and continued the steep descent.

We reached the dry creek bed and started clambering our way up the opposite wall, an even steeper and more unstable talus nightmare. We flailed onward and tried to trend to the South-Southwest, where a narrow ridgeline snaked its way up towards the Malgosa-Awatubi saddle. I brought up the rearguard as usual (I was typically the last to reach our objectives, at varying lagging intervals). I finally made it to a ridgeline crest stub with clear views across to Atoko, where Colin chivalrously offered to take some of my water weight. "Chivalry" here really meant a calculated but fully rational conclusion on Colin's part that the faster we'd move, the faster we'd get to certain water, which had already become a real concern given our slow progress. So I took him up on the offer, trading his five liters for my eight. And it did allow me to keep up better.

Not entirely, though. For one thing, it's pretty hard to keep up with Jonas, who was like a bird dog on point, constantly cruising out ahead, scouting and performing route reconnaissance. We were in good hands. Even though I introduced Jonas to Grand Canyon backpacking, the apprentice has surely become the master. Over years of extended and increasingly burly canyon trips, Jonas has brought his level of Canyon geekery to hietherto unforeseen levels. He's developed an almost biokinetic understanding of the various geological layers and the efficiencies of movement along the different types of terrain you encounter down there.

He also has an unerring nose for deer and game trails, and appreciates how critical these are to moving efficiently up through the various layers. The animals know what they're doing, after all, and they know the country much better than we do. They always pick the most economical routes through the convoluted and eroded hillsides, even when their decisions seem crazy. Often, for example, a deer trail will be contouring up gently, and all of a sudden, it will veer straight up a gully. Us bipeds like our graded approaches and switchbacks, but you have to trust the deer. If they head straight up something, you should too. Their trail will invariably avoid some obstacle or challenging footing up ahead, and leave you off better (or at least higher). And the deer preserve that hard-won elevation at all costs. They apparently don't like unnecessarily losing elevation any more than we do. In fact, they appear to abhor it.

Jonas also acted as a geological cruise director, pointing out various unconformities and strata, and rhapsodizing and freestyling enthusiastically about "Supergroup" this or "Cardenas basalt" that. We made fun of his geekery mercilessly (Colin would often bust his chops and point out features of the "Chihuahua" and "Shi Tzu" formations), but I think we all learned a lot from him. I've read short geological histories of the Canyon and can generally recognize the major geological layers (it's easiest if you use the Mnemonic device " K now T he C anyon's H istory, S tudy R ocks M ade B y T ime + Vishnu and Supergroup," which leads you to Kaibab, Toroweap,Coconino, Hermit, Supai, Redwall, Muav, Bright Angel, Tapeats, Vishnu and Supergroup), but Jonas was basically conducting an advanced graduate seminar out in the field for anyone who cared to listen. I came away from this Odyssey being better able to intuitively recognize the contact points and transitions, and felt like I could understand and "see" the geological story. We walked through that story in all three dimensions and gradually, you could perceive the temporal fourth dimension, even if the scale of geological time is really hard to wrap your head around.

The descent down into Awatubi was tedious but straightforward. We did get a scare crossing an avalanche field when I dislodged a huge, VW Bug- sized boulder, which tumbled down the hillside and smashed into the opposite gully wall, pulverizing in a huge cloudy explosion of dust and rocky shrapnel. Fortunately, I was lagging far behind the group and they weren't below the fall line anyway, since our route trended at that point along the nose of the ridgeline. It was a really startling moment though, with a loud "BOOM"," and served as a reminder of the ever-present danger of our surroundings.

We stopped for Tolkien's "elevenses" under some scrub trees on the far side of Awatubi and tanked up on electrolytes, followed by judicious dispensation of some of Jonas' sugar-covered gummi bears (AKA The 11th Essential from now on). Then up another steep ridgeline, following game trails up to Awatubi Crest, flanked by the major ski jump formation. Our route notched to the west of the lip of the jump's backside and after about an hour, we crested at the saddle, which was a dramatic spot, a narrow ridgeline with the unmistakable spiked castellations of the ski jump rising to the east. Directly to our south, the view was dominated by the hulking and massive form of Chuar Butte, ringed by a foreboding perimeter of tawny orange and heavily eroded pillars, steep gullies, and cliffbands. The wind was absolutely howling through the draw, and we headed almost due south along the narrow ridgeline, then trended to the southwest and along the spine of rolling narrow ridgeline down steep talus to the bed of 60-Mile.

It was brutally, infernally hot by the time we reached the dry wash at the bottom, probably the hottest point of the whole trip. We crawled under some stingy "Grand Canyon Shade" (a tiny strip of partial shade provided by some scrubby brush in a tributary creek bottom) and contorted and pretzeled our bodies so we'd all fit within the scant shade footprint. After lunch, I walked down to the main bed to "contribute to the local geology" (scatological euphemism of choice for Grand Canyon evacuations) and the heat hit me like a shockwave. It was probably well over 100 degrees, and felt even hotter with all of the conductive rock and the absolutely dead air of the canyon bottom. We were all dreading the long climb up the ravines to the 60-Mile/Carbon saddle, but it was getting late and we still had at least 5 miles, another high pass to traverse, and some tricky navigating through Carbon before we'd reach our next critical water source. We were averaging about a mile an hour at most, often slower in the rough terrain and the heat, and we needed to get moving.

The climb was easier than the first two we'd made that morning, thankfully, heading along the upper edge of the ravine aling well-defined game trails. At one point, we had to weave through and traverse a dodgy set of minor cliff bands, but soon, we attained the crest.

This was a truly spectacular stretch of the trip. Our route basically consisted of three distinct segments- the Horse Thief from Nankoweap to Lava, the Lava Drainage across to Unkar and over to Vishnu, and then a long Tonto traverse fronting the south rim from Vishnu to Phantom Ranch. The views from the ridgeline we'd just reached opened up dramatically, as the ridge represented a sort of fulcrum between the first and second phases of the route. You could see the entire length of the dramatic geology of the Butte Fault tearing its way through innumerable rocky canyons behind us to the north, and to the south, and to the west, the landscape morphed rather rapidly into a more high desert and forested transitional zone. We got our first glimpse of the "Greeks," (Juno, Jupiter, Venus and Apollo), the pyramidal forms and gigantic monuments that crest the divide between Basalt Creek and Ochoa Point and the upper Unkar valley. You could also see a system of really fascinating dunes and sandy, banded landforms in the lower reaches of the Lava Drainage, and the Chuar Drainage cut a huge green swath across all of that arid desert. To the southeast, the heavily stratified layers of Chuar Lava Butte rose up above the mouth of Lava Creek. Overall, the orientation and direction of the landscape seemed to shift noticeably westward, mirroring the sharp turn to the west that the Colorado makes a couple of miles downstream.

From the saddle, rounded ridgelines carried up further to the west. According to the USGS map, it looked as if we needed to head a little west to drop into the East Fork of Carbon Creek. So we kept climbing, probably up another 400 vertical feet towards Galeros Butte. Cresting that ridgeline, though, our line started to seem a little off. We checked the GPS and realized our mistake pretty quickly. We'd climbed nearly to the head of the west arm of the East Fork. We weren't sure if the west arm down into Carbon would go. From where we stood, it looked pretty sketchy, and you couldn't see beyond a narrowing gulch dropping into the unknown. Looking back to the east, you could clearly see the "missing drainage" between Chuar and Temple Buttes, invisible from the crest since it was higher up in a recessed cleft in the canyon wall. We'd spent the last hour unnecessarily climbing up towards Galeros when we should have headed straight down from the saddle. D'oh!!!

We needed to make it back down to the main bed. We could backtrack. But we could see it directly below us, about 500 vertical feet below. The talus slope separating us from it was steep and pretty gnarly-looking, and there was a blind corner around a cliffy section of unknown climbability, but it seemed a lot more appealing than contouring back across countless flutes to make it back to the saddle. Jonas blazed down, we picked our way down tentatively following him, and after about twenty minutes, Jonas rounded the bluff and his distant but triumphant cry echoed up the canyon walls:

"IT GOES!!!!!!!"

Indeed it, went. Soon, we regrouped at the narrows at the start of the East Fork Carbon, and I think we were all relieved to have that sketchy little piece behind us. But we'd learned after a few days of backcountry travel to resist the impulse for premature self-congratulation, that "it aint over 'til it's over." The group had a pretty vulgur and off-color catchphrase for these moments, borrowed from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction . Readers with more delicate sensibilities may wish to skip over the rest of this paragraph. But for those times when we'd find ourselves patting our collective backs before the proverbial fat lady sang, we'd bust out the old Harvey Keitel chestnut: "Let's not start sucking each others dicks quite yet, Gentlemen!"

As it turned out, the Carbon passage was relatively breezy, more or less a straighforward walk down a dry streambed, though we had to downclimb parts of a set of steep narrows at the head, and it still took us at least another hour and a half to reach the lower segments. We passed another rattlesnake, a wee one coiled up in the pebbly wash. We kept a wide berth and moved on. Eventually, we started looking for signs of travel to the southwest (since all of the route descriptions we'd read described making a beeline to the spring near the junction of the two forks, we figured there would be a cairn, or boot tracks, or some sort of obvious gully or break that would allow us to climb out of the bed and up to the ridgeline separting Carbon from Lava). But those signs never materialized and we realized that we had descended a lot further than we'd needed to. By now, it was late, nearly 8:30, and rapidly getting darker. Looking over the detailed contour map, Jonas devised a plan. We'd head up due west into a side drainage, use our GPS unit to closely and actively track our progress up the drainage, and then cut straight across to the south. Theoretically, we should be able to pick up the route we'd originally intended.

And his plan worked, but it took forever. Night fell as we walked up a terraced shale creekbed, through a darkened oxbow feature barely visible in the gloaming, and finally, headed up the sloping ridgeline to the south. We donned our headlamps and struggled through thick brush and across several broad basins, finally reaching the ridge directly overlooking Lava Creek. At least we hoped we had reached that point- it was by now pitch black, we still couldn't hear any water, and more or less took it on faith that the sketchy steep scree slope we started down would eventually culminate in a stream that was actually flowing.

I was exhausted. I can usually hike without complaint for 12 hours or 18-19 miles, whichever comes first, before my body and my mind start to mutiny. It was nearing 10pm and we'd broken Pterodactyl Camp at 5am sharp, with about a half hour for lunch, so we'd been climbing and then descending incredibly challenging terrain in withering and intense heat for at least 16 hours by this point. I was pretty seriously dehydrated (I drank my last sips of water as we climbed out of the oxbow feature); in fact, we were all either completely out of or nearly out of water, and I was really starting to stumble and my legs were seriously dragging. I was getting a little loopy (and lost my trademark engineer's cap and a bandana after taking them off and putting them down somewhere in my half-zombied state). "FORGET IT, IT'S GONE!!!"

Those who have hiked with me enough to have experienced me in similar situations know that under such circumstances, you're likely to encounter The Bear, Ursus Petrus Horribilis . As in, I literally start to growl, starting out with little frustrated gutteral rumbles, and moving to full on snarling ursine roars. Colin was getting bearish himself, though his audible response was more human: he swore like a sailor at every step and at every cactus and rock in his way.

Colin proposed moving to the east and picking up a narrow ravine, which appeared on the map to be a little gentler in the descent. It turned out to be a good call. We had to struggle down steep dry waterfalls and downclimb jumbled boulder fields, but finally, we broke through a wall of blackbrush and thorns and there it was, a broad gurgling stream set amongst a grove of tamarisks. We plopped down on the dusty creekside and collapsed. Colin was on his back immediately (we cracked jokes, that seemed funny at the time, about the "Supine Formation"). Anna rallied and was a complete Camp Angel, pumping water for everyone and cooking dinner for the group. We wolfed down dinner again and discussed options for the next day. We all agreed that we needed a rest day. We were collectively exhausted and decided that to try and make Unkar the next day would push us past reasonable physical limits. It would put us behind schedule, but the idea of getting up in less than five hours to start another 16+ hour marathon simply seemed cruel and unusual. We crawled into our bags and quickly passed out to the songs of frogs.


We slept in late the next day and woke up to pretty radically changed weather. Overnight, a dense cloud layer had moved in and draped the entire Chuar Valley under an eerie, muggy pallor. The valley was bathed in undifferentiated and flat grey light. And there was a palpable humidity to the air. It felt like the skies couldn't decide on whether or not to let the rain loose, and the valley was caught in a sort of meteorological stalemate.

We were all pretty amazed looking up to the landscape to our north. In the full daylight, you could see that we had really threaded the needle and made it down the only plausible exits from a bunch of nasty and technical ravines in the pitch black.

We had a lazy morning and enjoyed several much-needed hours of downtime. Jonas heated up everyone mugs of delicious Aztec drinking chocolate, and we tossed a big southwestern egg scramble together. Colin went back to sleep after finishing his eggs, snoozing under the shade of the big National Geographic map.

Anna dozed under the tarp, we all bathed under a gentle waterfall at the far end of the camp and in a little catchment basin we engineered using rocks and hydrological ingenuity, and Jonas did a yoga routine in the creek. Around 11, Jonas and I explored a little bit and looked for the spring. We found it about a half mile upstream. It was set amidst a lovely fern grotto up a lovely side canyon, an oasis filled with ferns, frogs, maidenhair, monkeyflower and moss-draped logjams.

On our way back, we found the archeological remnants of the bootleggers' operation, with a few barrels, several wood planks, and rusted metal shafts and banding.

We'd decided to start heading upstream by 3pm in order to make it to Juno Ruin, a Pueblan ruin about 3 1/2 miles upstream, where we'd make camp for the night before tackling the Lava-Unkar saddle 2000 feet higher up in the Redwall. We lagged a bit and didn't actually get underway until 3:45. This pissed off Colin. But it was still a mellow and meadering afternoon walk through the lush bottom and past several spirited waterfalls. It was pretty amazing to be in such a watery environment after the incredible desert aridity of the last three days.

We passed a cool, weathered fallen tree that looked like a Mastodon tusk, and as Jonas, Anna and I climbed up to a ridgeline overlooking the upper drainage, we could see an unusual rock formation that looked like the Millenium Falcon spacecraft buried under layers of shale. Jonas also found a somewhat puzzling artifact, a rusted heavy bolt screwed into a rock.

We'd left too late to make it all the way to the ruins by nightfall (Colin would have been vindicated in his pissiness, but it turned out that we ended up right afterall, since Lava actually went dry well before the ruin, as we discovered the next morning). Jonas and Anna had found a really great campsite above a huge, deep pool in the creek, a campsite we dubbed "The Tri-plex" in honor of its three distinct "rooms" up among the pine and juniper trees above the pool.

Over the course of the afternoon, the climate and the country had gradually but noticeably transitioned from desert to high southwestern forest, with juniper, pinyon and gambol oak gradually mixed in with the cottonwoods. The clouds blew past and it actually got chilly in the evening, with cool, crisp air blowing down through the heavily forested glades and draws above us, and even the hoot of an owl as night fell. I took a refreshing shower under the falls leading into the pool. After dinner, we gathered around the pool and pumped water for the early AM bid on Lava Unkar. The moon rose above the pool and illuminated the clearing in mixed umbers and yellows as we mentally prepared ourselves for what was certain to be one of our trip's most challenging days.

The Nankoweap Chronicles, Part I: The Descent, a Rescue, a Reckoning and a Pterodactyl's Roost

It was a trip more than a year in the making. 14 months, to be exact. But the true germ seed of our incredible adventure was planted rather prosaically on Facebook late in 2011. A mutual friend of me and Jonas posted a belated report on their Thunder River-Kanab Creek Route trip. Nick had linked to one of those awesome Grand Canyon pictures that makes your jaw drop. It showed Jonas sitting at the edge of a long canyon arm promontory overlooking Cranberry Creek, eyes turned to regard the spectral golden light of one of THOSE Grand Canyon sunsets. The picture reminded me that; 1) I hadn't talked with my best law school friend and fellow Grand Canyon enthusiast in well over a year, almost dating back to the time of his relocation to New Mexico, and that, 2) I REALLY needed to get back below the Rim. So I reached out and we chatted briefly. Later that week, Jonas sent me a short text, something to the effect of "Tuna-Shinumo. Spring 2012. Think about it."

For those unversed in extreme Grand Canyon backcountry hiking, that cryptic formulation probably means nothing. But to those of us who regard Harvey Butchart's Grand Canyon Treks Vols. I-III and George Steck's Hiking Grand Canyon Loops Vols. I and II as a kind of scripture, "Tuna-Shinumo" is shorthand suggesting a whole universe of incredible geology, adventure, sweat, exertion and sublimely awesome natural beauty. The Tuna-Shinumo Creek loop is one of Steck's "Big 6," the core of the massive loop hikes as described in his cult Grand Canyon nutjob classic, Loop Hikes Vols I and II . It's an ambitious off-trail route he pioneered in the remote northwestern arm of the park complex, in an area with landmarks and place names cribbed from Arthurian legend- the Merlin and Mordred abysses, King Arthur's Castle- and is reputed to involve a seriously challenging 10 days of scrambling and bushwhacking amidst incredible scenery for those who dare.

Both Jonas and I have wanted to check that box off of our Grand Canyon bucket lists for some time now, but it wasn't a good candidate for a Spring 2012 bid. The rim takeoff for that route involves navigating a labyrinth of convoluted Forest Service roads all the way out to Point Sublime. Most of the North Rim of the park is completely inaccessible until mid-June because of lingering snows, the North Rim got a late snow bomb in early April, and the Forest Service roads are typically blocked at numerous points anyway by all of the deadfall and blowdown Ponderosa that comes down under the high winds of the winter season.

We considered the possibilities. We could potentially do a longer loop starting on a South Rim corridor trail and crossing the river at either Phantom Ranch or with a packraft, but that would involve a lot of extra weight, time and logistics. I looked over the N. Kaibab Forest Service road map and remembered dimly that the House Rock road leading down to the Saddle Mountain trailhead is usually open earlier than other North Rim tipoffs. A ranger had once recommended the Nankoweap drainage to me as one that should be on every Canyon aficionado's "to-do" list. And then looking through the guidebooks, I realized that the Nankoweap Creek flats are the starting point for the Horse Thief Route, a legendary cross-country route following the Butte Fault south across numerous traverse valleys and canyons to Lava Creek (whose colorful name, allegedly referring to its use as late 19th Century getaway for equine thieves in southern Utah looking for an unlikely access to Furnace Flats, is generally regarded as somewhat apocryphal- and having now struggled across the interminable ups and downs of this bone-dry roller coaster, I can say it certainly seems like tough country for horses).

One could then conceivably stay in the interior and pass across the Lava-Unkar saddle and drop into Unkar from above, and then cross into the temples (Vishnu, Freya, Wotan's Throne) making up the North Rim frontage across from Grandview Point and traverse the Tonto to Clear Creek. That segment alone would take at least a week. But from Clear Creek, we'd be able to pick up trail to Phantom Ranch, cross the Colorado on the suspension bridge there, and then climb to a corridor South Rim exit. I soon discovered that my connect the dots fantasy was actually an acknowledged route, in fact comprising a little more than half of one of the later Steck monsters. Closer study suggested that this would indeed go, and that it was by far the more interesting half of that Steck loop anyway.


It was time to recruit. This was the kind of trip that would be better with at least four party members, given the extreme remoteness and relative danger of the terrain. A broken leg on this trip, with the possibility of being separated from certain water by miles of challenging, steep, loose, fluted and eroded avalanche slopes, could be a death sentence in the wrong circumstances, even with another person. It was better to have all sorts of options in the event of a medical emergency, and this type of hike (really more of an expedition) needed more personnel.

But they needed to be the right people. Having travelled off-trail in the North Rim pretty extensively, I knew that this trip would demand an unusually deep reservoir of toughness, physical ability, psychological fortitude, bravery and courage, stamina, insanity and perseverance. You could tell just by looking at the sheer number of contour lines involved, even on the big National Geographic park map, that this was an audaciously ambitious trip I'd cooked up. One ill-chosen member could doom the entire trip. I foresaw posible mutinies along the lines of John Wesley Powell's maiden float down the Colorado, when six party members bailed on the one-armed major and improbably made it out of Separation Canyon successfully, only to be unceremoniously scalped by Shivwitz Paiutes on the North Kaibab plateau.

I had two initiates in mind. Anna "Coyote" Harvey is a young engineer from San Francisco. Some years ago, when a bunch of us (including Jonas) had planned to do Steck's Thunder-Kanab, Anna and I ended up doing it as a party of two after everyone else bailed. Anna deserves huge props for even considering heading out into the rugged Grand Canyon backcountry alone with a weird stocky bearded dude 16 years her senior that she had met only once through a hiking group email distribution list. On paper, it reads creepy, and Anna is either brave,incredibly trusting, naive or visionary for having even briefly considered joining me on that route. But it ended up being a legendary trip, and we really made for an improbably dynamic duo. Anna, after all, is super precocious and an old soul. Plus, of course, I'm a little immature. But she's got an incredibly even keel, dogged equanimity, and is as tough as armadillo skin. After eight days together under the Rim (to make no mention of the two additional days in Jacob Lake replacing the 4-Runner's tires), I considered her a good friend and most capable canyoneer. I'd already seen her excel in the crucible of a Steck route and its challenges. She loved the idea and was on board. We were 3.

My step-brother Colin is a tough nut, a barrelchested and stocky tank-like firefighter from Bellingham. I've always enjoyed hanging out with Colin at Thanksgiving and other family get-togethers, and we'd done some pretty wild bushwhacking up in the Queets drainage of the Olympic Mountains back in the Summer of '07. (see this link for great pictures: http://www.nwhikers.net/forums/viewtopic.php?p=298821&highlight=#298821 ). Colin, who so gleefully thrashed headlong into the impossibly tangled and overgrown morass of the Queets drainage, was just the kind of guy I was looking for to round out our group. He wheedled a hall pass out of his wife Stephanie and I sent off a permit application to NPS for a party of four.

Given the challenging nature of our route, I wasn't surprised to get back a request for additional information. In Grand Canyon hiking circles, this communication is generally referred to as the NPS "You're gonna die!!!" letter. It opened rather omniously: "The Park Service is in receipt of your request for a Backcountry Permit to travel from Saddle Mountain to the Bright Angel tralhead from April 22 through April 29th. We have tentatively reserved these spots for you; however, before we can issue the permit, we want to make sure that you are fully aware of the difficulty of the itinerary you are requesting. In our experience, itineraries such as the one you have requested often result in off-itinerary camping, serious injury, search and rescue operations and occasionally even death." We weren't scared off- we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. I sent back a full list of our bona fides and credentials, and our permit request was finally approved. It was officially on and we booked flights and requested time off.

On April 21st, we gathered from our various stations in Washington, California and New Mexico and met up at the South Rim Backcountry Information Office. We enjoyed a brief visit there there from my old friend Steve Brown, who is a professor at Northern Arizona University down in Flagstaff and had kindly agreed to come out to the park to do a dayhike and send us off to see the wizard. (incidentally, our unofficial motto for the Horse Thief Route, which follows an unmistakable geological fault line across the numerous east-west traverse valleys stretching out underneath Atoko Point, was "[f]ollow the fucked-up Yellow Brick road").

We loaded up my 4-Runner with all of the gear and packs (a challenging physical version of Tetris) and made off to the east (actually, we made out to the south, and had to backtrack- the labyrinthian vehicular circuit at the South Rim continues to confound me and spat us out in the wrong direction). But soon enough, we were standing at the edge and looking down into the abyss from Moran Point, from which we could clearly make out the Vishnu-Freya Saddle, Wotan's Throne, the 83-Mile creek drainage, and other landmarks that we'd be traversing over the next week. From Lipan Point, we could see the desolate landscape of Furnace Flats, the Unkar Delta and the "Greeks" (Juno, Apollo, Venus and Jupiter, which punctuate the long sloping crest between Basalt Creek, upper Unkar and the Upper Lava Creek drainage).

We were giddy and excited, but we still had miles to go before we'd sleep. We had to cross the whole park to the east, cross the Little Colorado, head north on 89 to the Vermillion Cliffs, cross 89(A) to Marble Canyon (all of that a three and a half hour drive in itself), and then turn south on the House Rock/ Buffalo Ranch road. This interminably long forest service road has been affectionately described as a "prostate shaker," and it's 29 miles of rattling, rumbling stop and start, alternating between cruising along at 40 MPH and then suddenly stopping to avoid a cavernous pothole or to navigate a dry wash or cattle guard. This stretch really brought home the incredible remoteness of our location. This was truly sprawling and desolate high desert country, total "where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play" territory, scrub brush and cacti for as far as the eye could see in all directions. To the east, a thin strip of rough yellowish brownish light only hinted at the edge of Marble Canyon and the official start of the Grand Canyon, but you couldn't really see much beyond the bare suggestion of geology. The San Francisco peaks of the Flagstaff area were dimly visible to the south.

It's hard to describe the feeling of remoteness that all of the transportation left us with. We had driven for nearly five hours. As the raven flies, we were now probably less than 70 miles from Jonas' Jeep that we'd left back on the South Rim. But having seen what lay between us and the other car from the other side, it felt like we were millions of miles away. We were truly OUT THERE .

Jonas and Colin made like the Dukes of Hazzard and climbed halfway out the windows, hootin' and hollerin' as we made our way south into the night to a mixed soundtrack of Peter Broggs, Queens of the Stone Age and the Alice in Chains "Jar of Flies" EP, which really captured a group mood ("Ahhhhh, AHHHHHHH, eee Ahhhh, want to trav-el SOUTH this yeeee-ear"). Dusk morphed to complete darkness and still we rattled across countless dusty low ridges, scaring up dozens of jackrabbits, who scurried across our path and weaved in and out of our headlights and in and out of the brush. Finally, around 8:30 PM, we reached the Saddle Mountain Trailhead and pulled the truck up into a hunter's campsite, with a firepit and setting rocks arranged amidst scrub juniper. We set up tents (for the rim night- we'd bring tarps on the hike itself) and enjoyed a proper rim party, with whiskey, wine, beers, grilled steaks and portobello mushrooms, and other party favors passed around under the fading embers of a big campfire.

We woke up at dawn and started to organize and pare down to the essentials. Even I took a careful look at everything in the pack. I have always been the anti-ultralight guy. I have a McHale which distributes weight really well, and am a slow moving yak who can nonetheless hike forever. But my usual backpacking philosophy is that you can indeed take it with you. So even my one-night overnight rig (replete with iPod, a bota bag of good red wine, camp shoes, digital camera, MSR Dragonfly and other leaden and decadent luxuries that all the the snooty ultralight zealots would disdain) usually tops out around 45 pounds or so. In my opinion, there's no reason to feel some sort of existential guilt for carrying a few extra pounds. For me, it's totally worth it when I take that first sip of Dry Creek Zinfandel and start sauteeing the shallots.

This was a different kind of trip, though. We'd be carrying our packs across nearly 30,000 feet of elevation change, across uneven talus slopes, avalanche gullies and shale-crusted terraces. So we carefully laid out all of the group gear, eliminated redundancies and consolidated, distributed among the group, and then pared down the dried foods. We each had between 10-14 liters of water carrying capacity. By the time we were finished, our packs were pretty managable. I'm astonished to report that mine wasn't even the heaviest (that honor/dubious distinction went to Colin, mostly on the strength and weight of his patented jerky/old school trail mix blend, which he tried to pawn off on the group relentlessly). But I'd estimate my pack (with 4 1/2 liters of water) weighed around 53 pounds. Not too bad for an eight-day trip.

The packing shuffle revealed one glaring mistake on my part; I'd forgotten my damn camping stove in the garage! Jonas had his MSR Whisperlite, but we were less than impressed with its sputtering debut performance trying to heat up some water for coffee. We were all a bit worried and even starting tossing around the possibility of driving back up to Marble Canyon or Page to see if we could buy a back-up stove (the thought of doing an extra multi-hour round trip on the prostrate-shaking House Rock road disabused us of this idea pretty quickly). Jonas cleaned out the fuel line and tinkered with the shaker jet, and it finally started to act like a normal Whisperlight should.

The stove debacle gave birth to one of the trip's lasting catchphrases, borrowed from the screenplay of James Cameron's 1986 sequel to Alien , the aptly titled Aliens . In the scene when the aliens start coming out of the woodwork and picking off the marines one by one, Ripley finally decides to take charge of a deteriorating situation mishandled by milquetoast Lt. Gorman and crashes their armored space humvee right into the aliens' nest. As they are fighting to escape, Pvt. Drake gets sprayed in the face with some corrosive acid alien blood and falls backward. Vasquez struggles against Cpl. Dwayne Hicks, insisting that Drake will survive, that he can be saved. Cpl. Hicks grabs her by the shoulders, looks her right in the eyes and screams: "FORGET IT, HE'S GONE!!!" Over the years, this phrase has lodged itself in my brain as a sort of "Macro" connoting a need to shake someone out of wistfully clinging to something already lost beyond hope of recovery. I tend to obsess far too long on little things that I've misplaced or lost, in life generally but especially on backpacking trips (and I tend to lose or misplace a lot of things, in life generally but again, especially on my backpacking trips). After several minutes of futzing around looking for the stove (which I'd clearly left in the garage back in Berkeley), I screamed at myself: "FORGET IT, IT'S GONE!!!!"

Reassured by Jonas' fix, we decided that we'd be able to make it work with the one stove and some extra fuel. We saddled up, stashed the car key under some rocks behind a juniper tree, and started out up the Saddle mountain trail up south towards the park boundary along a gently climbing ridgeline draped in pinyon and juniper forest. I think us sea-level folks were a little surprised at how much this climb winded us.

After about a mile, we ran into a group exiting from Nankoweap Creek. They were an older quartet, clearly ultralight evangelicals, apparently pretty grizzled and veteran travelers of the park. To be honest, they were a pretty somber and joyless crew and they gave us bad vibes. I don't think one of them cracked a single smile the entire time we talked. They just nodded their heads gravely and seemed skeptical that our group of overpacked gapers would even be able to make it to the Rim, let alone successfully complete the monster we proposed. We dubbed them the "Gang of Four." They did provide us with memorable sound bites. When Jonas and I ran into their ringleader after they'd talked with Anna and Colin, he shook his head and opined "[t]hat's an ambitious itinerary you guys have got there." and then, cooly sarcastic and dismissively, "Good LUCK with that." Those sentences became a sort of mantra anytime the going got tough (in other words, at least 40-50 times a day) e.g. Jonas: "Spoerl, this is an, um, AMBITIOUS ITINERARY we've got here!" Peter: "Yeah, Jonas, good LUCK with that!"

After about an hour and a half, we crested at the saddle and stopped for snacks overlooking our first glimpse into the canyon. The Nankoweap drainage basin is incredible. The massive, elongated arms of Seiber, Burke and Marion stretch down past Supai terraces and fade into long Redwall buttresses that stretch out forever to the east. You'd reach the edge of one, which would initially look like a minor ridgeline, only to realize that it was another monster tentacle dropping forever eastward. To the south, you could make out the forested rim of the Walhalla Plateau, still dusted with snows in the upper reaches. After a brief rest, we started the descent, heading down through the tilted Supai ledges, trending east toward Marion Point. At one point, we zigged where we should have zagged (losing the trail, which hugged the Supai cliff wall) and we had to bushwhack a little bit through boulder fields to rejoin the trail. We then saw our first rattlesnake of the trip, a little guy who meandered right towards us up the trail and wouldn't yield. We climbed down the bed and moved past his section of trail as he slithered down into some dead leaves and a pebbly bottom. We moved on and let him be. The Supai terraces got sporting and a bit exposed in places, sloping down to massive drops off Redwall cliffs. Colin didn't much care for the exposure but soldiered through it. Soon, we made it to the notch in Marion Point above Tilted Mesa and stopped for lunch.

In the middle of our lunch, a huge swarm of angry bees buzzed its way down the ridgeline and stopped about 20 feet above our heads. This was a pretty terrifying moment. The air was nearly black with insects, swarming and agitated, a cloud at least 250 feet across and opaque with furious movement. Thankfully, they flew on after a couple of minutes, but we were all a little freaked out by the seemingly biblical turn of events. It felt like an omen.

We continued the descent and started down through the Redwall. Along the way, I slipped in some scree and snapped my lone hiking pole in two (as it turned out, only the first of three expensive hiking poles we'd lose to the so-called "carniverous limestone"). "FORGET IT, IT'S GONE!!!"

The "trail" made its way down increasingly steep shale and loose scree gullies, and along steeply canted ridges. From the middle of Titled Mesa, we could clearly see the route that lay before us. The Butte Fault (and East Kaibab Monocline) is a feature formed where one block of layered rocks has been uplifted higher than the adjoining block. In the ensuing geological process, the exposed sedimentary layers ooze like lava and twist and bend, draping across the boundary edge to form striated lines that cut through the canyon walls. Formerly horizontal sedimentary layers are visibly uptilted to form a nearly vertical plane. In places, those bent lines slip and shatter, forming breaks and ruptures. Weather and water erosion further carve side canyons along the fault and monocline, and our route- the Horse Thief- would take advantage of these breaks to traverse Nankoweap, Kwagunt, Malgosa, Awatubi, 60 Mile and Carbon Creeks to gain access to the broad Chuar Valley and Lava Creek above the sharp westerly bend of the Colorado river below.

From our vantage, you could clearly make out the grey and reddish green ramparts of tilted redwall limestone framing the mid-Kwagunt drainage beyond Nankoweap Butte, and follow the bending striations across side ridgelines to a series of signature curved uplifting formations that looked like Martian mountainscapes. We called these uplifts "the Ski Jumps" since they had that sort of curvature. In the distance, you could see the Granddaddy of the Ski Jumps, framing Awatubi Crest. You could pretty clearly see a way to get through the awesome expanse of canyons that lay to our south. The view was at once reassuring and pretty unsettling. On the one hand, it was a relief to so clearly see where we would be headed, and to be able to discern a clear route through such otherwise impassable and dramatic geology. On the other hand, it all looked pretty damn forboding: "We're walking through THAT!!???!!!"

Crossing that series of canyons required us to climb to and then descend from five major passes (generally termed "saddles" in the Grand Canyon route literature), literally thousands of steep and gnarly, hard-won vertical feet, before we'd reach Chuar Valley and its signature mesa. There's a typically understated little sentence fragment in the Butchart route description that we grew to both love and resent: "Map study hardly prepares one for the number of stiff climbs needed to cross the traverse valleys." Jesus, ya think? This stretch was serious work. But more on that later.

Down down down, through the Bright Angel Shale, and down the nose of an incredibly steep ridgeline with skidding shale and loose rock. Colin and Jonas pulled far ahead of me and Anna. Jonas reached a notch in the shale, slipped, and one of his poles snapped in two, not an hour after I had lost mine. "FORGET IT, IT'S GONE!!!"

I picked my way down slowly (toes by now jamming painfully into the front of the boots), and gradually pulled far ahead of Anna myself. I rolled my right ankle at one point, one of those bum steps where you save yourself from a serious sprain but can feel that you barely missed shattering bone. It was scary, especially as it happened again almost immediately.

We finally reached a long, broad plateau overlooking the drainage of Nankoweap Creek. It was nearly dark. We'd gotten a late start with my somewhat charitable, fast and loose estimates for our descent. It had taken us nearly 11 hours instead of the 6-7 I'd budgeted. But finally, with the sun well behind Otoko Point far above and the stars starting to emerge one by one, I descended into the lush creekbed to a loud chorus of croaking bullfrogs. I walked a bit downstream and found Colin and Jonas, who had lost the trail and traveled straight down a dry tributary, ending up downstream of the actual trail exit.

We'd expected Anna after about 10 minutes, but there was no sign of her. It stretched out to an hour, then an hour and a half, and still no Anna. By that point, we were pretty worried and mobilized to find her. I darted upstream and had another serious ankle tweak on a large boulder move. That one really hurt and I started to really wonder about the future of our trip.

But those worries would have to wait. We needed to find our missing woman. Jonas and Colin started up the Nankoweap bed (in the event she'd mistakenly cut high to the west) and I backtracked up the trail hoping that she was just moving really slowly (and wasn't lost or seriously injured). We had emergency whistles and agreed that several short blasts would call out to Anna, and one long blast meant that the other party had located her. After about 45 minutes of climbing, to my immense relief, I saw a dim headlight far higher up in the Bright Angel. I screamed out Anna's name and heard a faint reply: "Spoerl!!!" "Are you okay!!??" Anna: "I'm fiiiinnnnne!!!" Phew. It turned out that in the fading sunlight, she had lost the trail a few times in the lower Redwall section and decided that with it nearly dark, it made since to set up a bivy and wait to find us in the morning. This was probably a sensible decision, but we were still really relieved to find her. It also made for a much more comfortable night for her, since she was out of water. She would have survived, but it would have been a very uncomfortable and thirsty night. So we packed up her stuff and made our way together through the maze of prickly pear cacti and down to the bed, where we sounded a long single blast of the whistle. We could hear Colin and Jonas whoop in exultation downstream. "WE GOT HER!!!" Everyone was really relieved, and reunited as a quartet, we enjoyed a late but very festive dinner.

As I pumped water along the cool streambed, with the croak of frogs and the rustle of the cottonwood leaves, I carefully removed my boots and looked at my ankle. It looked pretty bad. It was swollen to the size of a pomelo, was very tender to the slightest touch, and I secretly despaired about whether or not to carry on further. We were heading into REALLY rough and rugged country, with uneven rock, contouring along steep and loose avalanche slopes, and I knew I'd need to wedge it in lots of chimneys and cracks during sections of scrambling and rock climbing. I had to admit to myself that a wonky ankle would be a serious liability in this neck of the woods. It made me sort of desperate and really depressed to think about it. It had taken so much time, effort and coordination to make it even this far. I'd spent the last three days alone getting from Berkeley to this point in space. What had we done?

Over slugs of Makers Mark whiskey, we talked over our options frankly. Colin didn't like the look of my ankle one bit. It was a first degree sprain and would probably not get better with extended weight on it. We could possibly abort the whole trip, and just explore Nankoweap and the surrounding area for a few days. At least we'd still be in the Canyon, and get to see the Colorado and the granaries. The very idea made me sick, though. We'd been planning this trip for MONTHS. It wouldn't make sense to forge ahead stupidly of course, or to endanger the rest of my party by making a really dumb decision right at the start of such a crazy journey. But we'd made such plans, arranged such crazy schedules and asked such sacrifices from wives and fiancees- would we really let something as stupid as a wonky ankle prevent us from realizing the dream?

We decided to bombard the ankle with anti-inflammatories and sleep on it. I took a vicodin and a fisful of Naproxen washed down with whiskey and climbed into my down bag. I was physically exhausted and on edge from all of the day's drama and soon drifted into a fitful sleep, with anxious dreams of distant rivers.


We woke up about five hours later to dappled sunlight rising up from the lower Nankoweap. In the full daylight, we could see what a lush and lovely spot we'd picked out in the twilight, bounded by graceful huge Fremont cottonwood trees, reeds and cattails, and sandy braided stream channels. I got up and gingerly tested my ankle. The swelling was still bad, but I could put full weight on it, and even move, rotate and twist it laterally a little bit without serious pain. I tested it with the pack and tried moving it in various angles and it seemed to hold. The moment of reckoning was upon us.

Fuck it, let's do it.

I wrapped my ankle in an Ace Bandage and we worked our way upstream to a side drainage coming down from Nankoweap Butte. It was a slow ascent along the drainage, up through pygmy juniper, stunted pinion pine, and tangled and choked dry drainage bottoms lined with blackbrush and raceme. We passed a lot of fascinating rocks and layered creekbed aggregate sedimentation in this section. This also marked the debut of my Garmin Oregon GPS unit (an MVP candidate of the trip for sure); it aided greatly in deciding which side drainages to head as we worked our way up a sandy gully to the saddle west of Nankoweap Butte and overlooking Kwagunt Valley.

Kwagunt is a huge, broad valley with fascinating geology, bounded to the east by the looming mass of Nankoweap Butte, and walled in by a huge towering band of Cardenas basalt intrusion, with the distant, steeply pitched walls of Marble Canyon lurking in the eastern background. We headed down towards the thin green strip we figured must be Kwagunt Creek, the last certain water we'd have before reaching Lava Creek at some point the next day. With the benefit of hindsight and more time to study the topo maps, it's become clear to me that we made some routefinding mistakes that afternoon. We headed to the southeast down side drainages, rather than keeping to the generally sloping and cresting ridgeline headed straight south. Part of the problem was that during all the paper culling at the trailhead reshuffle, I'd inadvertently taken out my xeroxed copies of the useful route description from Bruce Grubbs from our route beta packet. I recalled that Grubbs described this section pretty well, and was bummed that we didn't have his specific route details at hand. I muttered about them for a few minutes. Oh well. "FORGET IT, IT'S GONE!!!"

The line we ended up taking required dozens of micro route decisions (how to head a drainage, when to contour, when to head abandon badly eroded and loose steep hillsides for a dry drainage bottom, only to have to clamber up the steep opposite side struggling up loose shale and sand to make a ledge on the opposite wall). Jonas also took a pretty serious headlong tumble down a steep and sketchy ridgeline descent in this section. He bruised his wrist pretty badly, but nothing seemed to be broken. Spit on it and get back in the game. Travel was slow and it was a couple more hours before we were splashing around in the pools and tiny waterfalls of Kwagunt Creek.

We enjoyed a restful lunch along the creekside and tanked up on water for our planned dry camp. That's a lot of water, by the way. I had 12 liters, which, at 2.2046 pounds per liter, meant adding 26.46 pounds to an already heavy pack. So it was pretty plodding and slow going climbing out of Kwagunt and up towards the Malgosa Crest. Our permit had us reaching Awatubi that night, but after a few hours heading up towards Malgosa, it was clear that we''d need to recalibrate our expectations for daily progress. A four-saddle day in this terrain was simply too much. It wasn't so much the elevation as how quickly you had to gain it, along eroded shale ledges, up through brush and weaving through beavertail cacti and spiny agave ("FUCKing agave!!!" was a frequent interjection, especially from Colin). Plus there were navigational challenges avoiding cliff bands and finding ways to make it up the ridges using deer and game trails and dogged persistance. "That's an ambitious itinerary you've got there." It would mean a pretty serious day Day 3 (as we'd HAVE to make it to Lava Creek to get water), but we didn't really have too many other choices.

Colin would frequently pose a sort of incredulous rhetorical question: "Are you fucking KIDDING me??!!??" It had two distinct applications. It could express complete disbelief at the steepness of a talus descent, the sketchy quality of rock we had to cross, or the stomach-dropping exposure of a narrow ledge traverse with a yawning 1500 foot abyss gaping on one side of a slope merely 10 scant vertical feet below us. Then there was its more favorable gloss, used to express amazement at the sheer beauty or awe-inspiring vastness of our surroundings. Both valences of the formulation were highly expressive. It was frequently difficult to credit the crazy challenge of the ground we were covering, and how inured we got, very early on, to stuff that you'd normally be very hesitant to walk across. It was also, from start to finish, hard to believe the scale and aesthetic grandeur of the country. It was so beautiful as to almost be a joke. We were surrounded by Leviathan, awesome beauty on a collosal and cosmic/ universal scale.

As the day faded, we had nearly reached Malgosa Crest. We stopped near dark after reaching a lovely dry meadow, a broad and grassy ledge perched high atop the ridgeline just underneath the ramparts of the crest's cockscomb formation. It was a true Crow's Nest, but since we were in the Land of the Lost, we immediately decided that pterodactyls rather than crows would make their nests there. We were surrounded by dramatic scenery on all sides- the drop of the basin back down into Kwagunt, the Yosemite-like parks and terraces of Cochise Butte, Gunther Castle, Jeffords Point and Banta Point near the draw up the upper Kwagunt Valley to the West, the fringe rimmed by the snowy upper reaches of the Walhalla Plateau and the North Rim. "Are you fucking KIDDING me????!!!???" The Pterodactyl's Nest was indeed an incredible campsite and we settled in for the night. We cooked and wolfed down a delicious dinner, finally having regained our appetites after the typical first day's lack of appetite, and fried up pepper jack quesadillas for dessert. We sipped whiskey and watched the waxing new moon slowly arc across the purple sky, with several shooting stars framing the nest in eerie bluish half-light. We settled on a 4am wake up call to start the trek towards Lava and water, laid our bedrolls down in the tall grasses, and fell into deep sleep underneath the setting moon and the sprawl of the Milky Way.

The Nankoweap Chronicles

A week ago last Sunday night, our party of four climbed the up the last
switchbacks of the South Kaibab trail (climbing up out of the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon) under the fading dappled light of a gorgeous Spring canyon sunset and completed an eight-day, very challenging one-way
mountaineering traverse of the northeastern arm of the park, from Marble Canyon
(starting out on the Nankoweap Trail from the Saddle Mountain trailhead),
heading south along the Horse Thief route, up Lava Creek and across the
Lava-Unkar Saddle, then across the Vishnu-Freya Saddle, across the Tonto to
Clear Creek and finally across the Phantom suspension bridge and out the South
Kaibab to the South Rim.

It was an incredible and truly epic adventure, one of the greatest hikes I've
ever been a part of, full of incredible geology and spectacular wilderness,
grueling physical challenges, scary and airy traverses along sketchy ramps and
contour routes, and great camaraderie, cooperation and problem-solving among a
truly stellar group of fellow adventurers. There are good hikes. There are great hikes. And then they are next level hikes.

It was a mammoth journey that had so many layers and subplots that it warrants more than a quick trip report, so over the next week, I'll be blogging the whole crazy adventure in four chapters.