Grand Canyoneering

Upriver from Tanner Beach

Upriver from Tanner Beach


Though I normally associate backpacking with debilitating shin-splints, when Ted proposed a trip to the relatively remote eastern end of the Grand Canyon, I quickly agreed to join him. Though I had hiked and run the main Kaibab and Bright Angel trails over a dozen times, and made numerous day-trips nearby, I had never been to this remote section of the park, or done any desert backpacking for that matter. The plan was a 3-day blitz of the most difficult trails on the South Rim: descend the Tanner Trail, continue on the Beamer Trail to the Little Colorado River confluence, then return along the Escalante Route and climb the New Hance Trail. At 46.5 miles and about 10,000 feet of gain, this seemed like a busy but comfortable itinerary, though it was deemed unreasonable by the NPS permit office.

Classic Grand Canyon view

Classic Grand Canyon view

Taking off mid-day, I drove to Flagstaff, hung out with the winos at the Saddest McDonalds in the World, then drove on to some nice Forest Service camping near the park’s east entrance. Waking up early the next morning, I drove through the unmanned entrance station, met Ted at Moran Point, then rode back with him to Lipan Point and the Tanner trailhead. After some quality time spent mocking Ted’s elaborate array of camera gear and freeze-dried food (potato flakes and sardines for me, thanks), and taking pictures of the Asian tourists taking pictures, I headed over to the north-facing start of the trail.

Lipan Point to the Little Colorado

Starting down Tanner

Starting down Tanner

The rim had seen a significant snowstorm recently, so the first part of the trail was slick with packed snow. After several hundred feet of cautious descent, we found easier and flatter walking to the saddle between Escalante Butte and Lipan Point, above the head of Seventyfive Mile Creek. From here, the trail meanders through the Supai past Cardenas Butte, eventually reaching a break in the Redwall. After another steep descent, more side-hilling leads to the river at Tanner Beach, with the dark cliffs of the Supergroup looming to the north.

Upper Tanner from head of 75-mile Canyon

Upper Tanner from head of 75-mile Canyon

Yum...

Yum…

After lunch, we continued north, following the trail up and across some red sedimentary ledges before descending to a long beach, where the water issues began. The only reliable source of water along our route was the Colorado River, an unpleasant mix of silt, agricultural runoff, giardia, and rafter pee. To combat this, we each had a filter, and Ted had some chlorine tablets. Unfortunately his filter seemed to be clogged for some reason, so after both using mine, we left the beach to make a long traverse along the Bright Angel Shale to the Little Colorado.

Hiking along Beamer

Hiking along Beamer

This section of trail was the best of the trip, traversing narrow ledges with the river hundreds of feet below on the left, and the Palisades rising nearly 3,000 feet above on the right. For some reason the soft Supai Shale, which normally forms a gentle slope, is nearly vertical here, joining the harder Redwall and Coconino to form a near-continuous cliff. As the trail meanders through the many steep washes which end at cliffs well above the river, this section proved slow going, and it was nearly sunset by the time we reached the confluence.

Mixing of the Waters

Mixing of the Waters

After dinner, Ted assembled his equipment for some star photography, while I went down to get some water from the Little Colorado. This proved to be a mistake, as its much siltier water quickly overwhelmed my filter. But that was a problem for the next day, so after some unsuccessful attempts of my own at star photography, I crawled into my unzipped sleeping bag for the night.

Little Colorado to Cardenas Creek

Bathe, but don't drink

Bathe, but don’t drink

Getting a late start the next morning, we retraced our steps along the Palisades to the beach, where we resumed the water wars. Noticing that a large lagoon was less silty than the main river, I forced a couple liters through my semi-clogged filter. Taking a sip, I realized I hadn’t though things through: though the silt may have settled, evaporation also concentrated the salt (and God knows what else) in the lagoon water, so I now had 3 liters of unpleasantly salty water. It was drinkable though, so given my filter’s condition, I kept it. With some more fiddling around, I was able to rinse and squeeze most of the silt out of the filter cartridge, giving it some new life. With this newly-functional filter, we were able to backflow the silt from Ted’s dysfunctional unit, and were now up to two mostly-usable pumps.

Looking back across wasteland to Palisades

Looking back across wasteland to Palisades

Hiking through Tanner Beach once more, we passed an apparent family resting in the shade to avoid the mid-day heat, then left the river to hike across a barren red wasteland to the mouth of Cardenas Creek. At this point the Escalante Route leaves the river and climbs 2,000 feet to avoid cliffs near the Unkar Rapids. Though it was only 4:00, neither of us relished making the long, dry climb up and over in the brutal afternoon heat, so we made an early day, camping at the mouth of the creek.

A-me-ri-ca, A-me-ri-ca...

A-me-ri-ca, A-me-ri-ca…

We had company: five rafts full of Idahoans, beer, and weed, and a backpacking couple in a spot of bother. The woman had caught some sort of stomach bug that morning, and had apparently spent the day alternately vomiting and lying motionless in the shade. The rafters had evidently made a call on their satellite phone, and as we hung around camp, an NPS helicopter landed on the sand nearby.
NPS to the rescue

NPS to the rescue

I had expected the chopper to extract the woman and leave everything else behind, but they quickly loaded the couple and all their gear into the chopper, stuck her with an IV, and sped off to who-knows-where. Watching her slowly stumble to the chopper, I realized that she had been in worse shape than I thought, and probably could not have hiked out on her own.

Standard dinner

Standard dinner

Excitement over, I rinsed my pump, then filled my water bladder from the river. Tragically, while I flushed the last bits of water from the pump, the handle broke, the 8-year-old plastic overwhelmed by the force required to filter so much silty water. The disgusting prospect of drinking chlorinated river water loomed.

Sunset on Palisades

Sunset on Palisades

After cooking our pathetic hiker-food, we moseyed over to hang out with the rafters as they feasted on fresh vegetables and meat. I was stunned at the luxuries one can carry in a boat: days’ worth of fresh food, cots, chairs, tables, and even a gas-heated shower. Most of the group was from Idaho Falls or southern Idaho — several worked at INL — though I happened to find one state high-pointer from Michigan. After talking until too late around their fire-pit, I forced myself to sleep in anticipation of a long day.

Cardenas Creek to Moran Point

grand-canyon26Unlike the previous day, we got started shortly after dawn, eager to beat the sun on the long climb over to Escalante Creek. We almost made it, the sun hitting us near the top of the long sidehill past Cardenas and Escalante Buttes. Descending into Escalante Creek, we were pleasantly surprised to find a short stream of clear, siltless water. We happily filled all our vessels (using the rest of Ted’s chlorine), saved for awhile from Colorado River water, then continued the descent to the river.

Blessed non-Colorado water

Blessed non-Colorado water

From the mouth of Escalante Creek, the trail immediately climbs again to the Tonto Plateau above Seventyfive Mile Creek, which passes through a sort of slot canyon over 100 feet deep on the way to the river.
Hiking 75-mile Canyon

Hiking 75-mile Canyon

The route follows the rim of this canyon for about half a mile before reaching the creek-bed and following it back to the river. However, we cut off perhaps half this distance via a fun 3rd-class downclimb.

After returning to the river, we followed cairns that climbed up and along Supergroup ledges toward Papago Creek. (Later, we realized that a more efficient route simply follows the beach.) Spotting a group of six high on the creek’s east side, I followed increasingly faint trails to meet them. They turned out to be headed out New Hance as well, though with much larger packs and at a slower pace. They were also wasteful enough to drop goldfish crackers and leave them lying on the ground; I gratefully helped myself to a few. Continuing past them a short distance, I realized that we were off-route; the correct version of this unnecessary high bypass descends to the mouth of Papago Creek.

Idaho passing on day 3

Idaho passing on day 3

Passing some college kids hanging out in the shade in this dry wash, we stopped for lunch, then made another apparently-unnecessary high bypass to the mouth of Hance Creek and the start of the New Hance “Trail.” (It looks easier to boulder-hop along the river from Papago Creek.) While the New Hance connects the rim and river, and is not too hard to follow, an early travel writer quoted in the NPS brochure is not far off:

There may be men who can ride unconcernedly down Hance’s Trail, but I confess I am not one of them. My object in descending made it essential that I should live to tell the tale, and therefore, I mustered up sufficient moral courage to dismount and scramble down the steepest and most awful sections of the path on foot… ‘On foot,’ however, does not express it, but on heels and toes, on hands and knees, and sometimes in the posture assumed by children when they come bumping down the stairs… The path down which we have turned appears impossible… The pitch for the first mile is frightful… and to our dismayed, unaccustomed minds the inclination apparently increases, as if the canyon walls were slowly toppling inwards…

Lower New Hance "Trail"

Lower New Hance “Trail”

The trail, such as it is, starts by following the broad, rocky dry wash of Red Canyon, briefly dodging east to avoid a few jumbles of large rocks. It was early afternoon by now, and brutally hot in the red-walled canyon. The heat was getting to both of us, and we paused in whatever shade we could find. As the canyon narrowed, we found a seasonal stream that emerged from the streambed where it crossed sandstone slabs. Ted wet his shirt, and I my hat, but we opted not to pick up more water, figuring that we had enough to make the rim.

Final blessed water

Final blessed water

Right where the trail leaves the streambed, we found a perfect campsite in the shade of a large rock, near a place where the stream runs above ground. Ted semi-seriously suggested camping for another night, but I was having none of it: I believe in sticking to schedules, and in moving while daylight remains. Unfortunately, as we climbed the baking west-facing slope toward the base of the Redwall, the heat and Ted’s desk job started getting the better of him, and our pace slowed considerably. This would take longer than I had anticipated.

Exiting Red Canyon on New Hance Trail

Exiting Red Canyon on New Hance Trail

The trail traverses the Tonto Plateau, then switchbacks steeply toward Moran Point through a break in the Redwall, passing through a sparse juniper forest that seemed lush after hours spent in a rocky, cactus-spotted wasteland. A group of four we had passed resting at the base of the climb split up, two of them speeding ahead of us while the other two suffered slowly behind. Talking with one of the stragglers, I learned that he had flown down from near Anchorage, where the dry winter had given them “only” 200 inches of snow.

New Hance passing through Redwall

New Hance passing through Redwall

Once through the Redwall, the trail makes a long, undulating rightward traverse, returning to the base of the canyon at the top of the Redwall. The spring feeding the stream is apparently at the base of the Redwall: while there is a healthy cottonwood grove at its base, the canyon is once again bone-dry at the top. Ted continued to suffer on the traverse, and with the sun taking its time setting behind Coronado Butte, the heat remained mildly unpleasant, though nothing like it was 2,000 feet below. We were both running low on water, and the last 1,000 feet promised to be a thirsty slog.

View back toward confluence from near the rim

View back toward confluence from near the rim

As we reached the base of the Coconino, I gave Ted some water and the rest of my food, then mercilessly ditched him. This wasn’t entirely unjustified, as my car was parked at Moran Point, about a mile from the camouflaged “trailhead.” I put the hammer down, grinding up the steep and sometimes confusing trail through the upper white layers, reaching the rim just as the sun sank below the horizon. Fast-walking the trail along the top, I passed the usual trailhead information and “warning you will die” signs well-hidden from the road, then met the two faster members of the party of four, looking bored as they waited for their ride.

Coronado Butte from upper New Hance

Coronado Butte from upper New Hance

Panting and sweating, I mumbled something intended to be friendly smalltalk, dropped my pack, fished my keys out, and took off jogging up the road. Figuring I had some time before Ted summited, I decided to drive into Grand Canyon Village to get some real food and beverages before everything closed. Between traffic and other shoppers, the trip took longer than I had hoped, so Ted had some time to cool his heels next to my pack and get to know the people waiting to pick up the two stragglers. Evidently he moved much faster without my impatient presence looming behind him.

Afterthoughts

I highly recommend a trip to this part of the canyon. Unlike the main corridor trails — the Kaibab and Bright Angel — which are crowded with hikers and befouled by mules, the east-end trails provide some measure of wildness, as well as interestingly-varied scenery as the Supergroup rises away from the river. The Beamer and Tanner trails were apparently part of a horse-smuggling route from southern Utah to Arizona. Starting on the North Rim, this route descended the Nankoweap Trail, then followed the Colorado until it crossed to the Beamer near the confluence. Though this crossing is no longer possible thanks to the steady outflow from the upstream dam, I hope to return and dayhike the Nankoweep sometime.

Prior to this trip, all my backpacking experience was in the mountains. There, clear water is always nearby, and it is rarely necessary to carry more than two liters or to treat water before drinking it. Also, should one become ill or weak, the retreat is usually downhill. Seeing one weakened backpacker helicoptered out, and exhausting our three water treatment options in as many days, made me apprehensive about doing too many of these. Dayhikes and mountains are so much simpler…

2 responses to “Grand Canyoneering

  1. AquaMira works well in desert or glacial silt. No taste either.

    • I wasn’t worried about the water-borne pathogens, but all the disgusting stuff floating in the water (silt, algae, fertilizer). I doubt you could taste the chlorine/iodine/whatever over all of that. Even if I know it’s safe, I’d rather not drink a mud puddle ;-).

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