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:
"I'M HOLDING A COLD BEER!!!"
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.