[I will hopefully circle back to finish writing about Europe, but I have actually been doing things here lately. — ed.]
Isis Temple is one of the larger buttes off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, a few miles west of Bright Angel Creek. While I had dayhiked Brahma Temple this past spring, I had little experience scrambling in the Canyon, having mostly hiked on its more- and less-maintained trails. While there is not a lot of information about Isis online, it seemed slightly harder than I would like to scramble. So when my friend Dan, whom I had not seen in a year or two, proposed climbing it with ropes and such, I jumped at the opportunity. November is a bit later than prime Canyon season, with short days, but still fairly comfortable below the rim.
I drove out the day before, sleeping off one of the forest roads outside the park, then drove in to the South Kaibab trailhead before the entrance station opened. (The National Parks are one of the best things our government does, so I am usually happy to support them with an $80 annual pass, but I won’t need one again until next Spring.) This being a holiday weekend at the Canyon, the picnic ground across from the gated road to the Kaibab trailhead was already full, and cars were already filling the shoulders of the rim road in both directions. The park has instituted a sometimes-mandatory shuttle system in the past decade, which I support, but the rules of parking are still odd. There is a central lot at the main shuttle terminal, but parking is also legal in most places where you can pull completely off the pavement without getting stuck. And while the road to Hermit’s Rest is shuttle-only, those with overnight permits receive the gate code, and can park at its end. It all works for now, but I doubt it will last.
Since the picnic area was full, I continued to meet Dan and Paul at the main lot, where we gathered gear before shuttling back to the Kaibab. I had been busy and distracted of late, so my packing was rushed and haphazard. I remembered all of my camping gear plus a 60-meter rope, and brought adequate breakfast and dinner, but badly underpacked my daytime food, with only four sandwiches and ten granola bars (now down to 160 calories each thanks to shrink-flation) for three days. The initial shady switchbacks through the Kaibab were cold, but pleasantly free of snow and ice, and temperatures became fairly comfortable by the time we reached the Hermit Shale rest area. However the entire Southwest was experiencing a cold snap, with highs on the Rim little above 40, so I was still wearing a fleece and gloves until much farther down. We met a number of people backpacking to or from Bright Angel or Phantom Ranch, and even a few runners going rim-to-river, but were there at the wrong time for the likely rim-to-rim hordes, who would have started at or before dawn. I had not, for once, been responsible for doing the research for this trip, so other than downloading some maps and knowing which rock we were supposed to climb, I had no idea where we were going, but fortunately Paul had been out to neighboring Cheops. After refilling on water at the Bright Angel campground, he led us directly to the somewhat obscure trail up out of the canyon to Utah Flats on the Tonto Plateau. The trail was fainter than any of the official trails other than parts of the New Hance, but mostly easy to follow, thanks to canyoneers who come this way to descend the narrow lower Phantom Creek. Other than a bit of boulder-hopping climbing through the Tapeats, it was a straightforward walk. The trail faded on the Tonto, and the best route likely continues along the wash until it is easy to exit. However I bravely took the lead, promptly leading us straight up some more challenging sandstone scrambling. Sandstone seems to get worse as one heads east: Red Rocks’ is compact and often varnished; Zion’s is often gritty, and scary when wet or snowy; the Grand Canyon’s seems one step worse. After a slight delay while the others groveled up a sloping corner, we continued along the plateau, soon finding cairns and bits of trail. The trail led northwest toward the upper, open part of Phantom Creek, passing through a lush cactus-meadow and past Cheops Butte before descending to a healthy creek lined by cottonwoods. We were aiming for something called “Hippie Camp” (remember, I had done no research), so we continued upstream as the short day faded. The canyoneers’ trail had given out, and while we found occasional cairns, we mostly rock-hopped up the streambed, sometimes following faint game trails along either side or thrashing through grass and brush. The stream disappeared and reappeared, but generally became weaker the higher we went. We were therefore questioning the wisdom of continuing when we finally reached Hippie Camp, a flat, sandy spot big enough for a few tents, marked by a small collection of antlers and unusual rocks on a boulder. We collected water to filter from a sorry trickle nearby, then set up camp and cooked dinner just before headlamp time. There would be a lot of that at this time of year, but we at least had a bright moon in the morning to help prepare for our dawn start.
After a night of surprisingly good sleep for me, and little for Dan, we got started around 7:00, picking our way up the wash a bit farther, then climbing a steep dirt-slope to the necessary Redwall break. The route climbs some ledge-y terrain left of a dryfall, then traverses back into the upper streambed. While most of the canyon is gritty sandstone, the Redwall is sticky limestone. However it is no more reassuring, as it is usually fractured and untrustworthy. The climb starts out with some steep, exposed fourth class, which I found somewhat heady being out of practice and on unfamiliar rock. A bit of cautious and exploratory climbing got me through, and Paul did fine as well, but Dan didn’t have the head and/or heart for it. He passed up his harness for me to use (we had two among the three of us), then headed down to poke around the side-canyons. Above the Redwall, the route makes an endless traverse along the lower Supai, eventually crossing a saddle between Isis and Shiva Temples before beginning the climb. While the route up the Redwall from Phantom Creek was tricky, the route down into Trinity Creek on the other side looked straightforward. I believe the normal route to Trinity crosses the Isis-Cheops saddle, but this looks like a viable alternative. Like Brahma, Isis is a Coconino butte, but the crux is actually getting through the lower Supai group, which is a mix of hard and soft, i.e. steep and flat, layers. The route meanders up the west side, surmounting the steep bands through various shenanigans; I was impressed by the first ascenscionists’ persistence and ingenuity.
The crux is a large band lower down, climbed via about 20 meters of arete. Most of the climbing is low fifth class, but the crux move, pulling on a flake while smearing on a gritty slab, feels a bit more serious. There is a piton to protect it, but I was glad not to be soloing it in trail runners. Paul had brought rock shoes, so we dressed up as Real Climbers and he led it ably, pausing for a minute and clipping the old pin before pulling the crux. I followed cleanly, hauling his pack in two stages as I went.Above, we scrambled another short, steep step, then climbed a wide chimney and tunneled behind a giant chockstone to get up the next band. Above, the route wandered back and forth, finding varied weaknesses in the bands. One was a squeeze slot narrow enough to force removing our packs; another was a steep crack/chimney ending in an inconvenient bush. A third was the so-called “belly crawl,” which required climbing a gray arete, traversing a ledge under a bulge, groveling up a short chimney, then making a mantel or wide step-across. Unlike the more famous “belly crawl” on the Owen-Spalding route, this one involved actual crawling, pushing or dragging our packs.
We finally ditched the climbing gear on a broad bench near the top of the Supai, enjoying finally carrying normal day-hiking weight as we traversed around left of the Coconino summit knob. This section was supposed to involve some sketchy hard-packed side-hilling, but recent precipitation had softened the dirt enough to make most of it much easier. After trying one route through the Coconino and backing off, we found our way up another, probably fourth or low fifth class, to reach the summit ridge. From a notch, it was a meandering but easy scramble to the summit.Despite being near midday, it was chilly in the breeze, so we both found ourselves putting on our down jackets as we hung out. The views were predictably grand, from nearby Shiva and Buddha Temples, to Brahma and Zoroaster across Bright Angel Creek and, farther away, Wotan’s Throne and Angel’s Window. As I later found on other Canyon summits, a local has been placing well-made copper register boxes with good Ziploc bags, pencils, and even pencil sharpeners. The Isis register only went back to 2008, showing 1-2 parties per year. We added our names, snacked, then headed back for camp. We had both hoped to get back in time to move camp, to be closer to both water and the trailhead (Dan and Paul had to drive back to Phoenix the next night), but the descent proved almost as time-consuming as the climb. We — or mostly I — repeatedly overshot the subtle breaks in the Supai bands, wasting time looking. I at least partly redeemed myself by quickly locating the correct tree to rappel the crux. The sizable juniper had two old slings, which we replaced with a fresh cord, and an ancient locking biner, which we reused. One free-hanging 20-meter rappel later we were back below the crux, putting away the climbing gear for the long hike back to the Redwall. This dragged on far longer than either of us remembered, and the shadows were long by the time we finally reached the scrambly part of the break. We were both comfortable downclimbing the thing, but there was a fresh piece of cord above the upper part, so we rappeled that before stashing the gear for the last time. The lower downclimb was heads-up in a couple of places, but I was noticeably more comfortable on steep Canyon rock after a day of practice, or at least desensitization. We dragged into camp a bit before dusk to find Dan in his sleeping bag, trying to catch up from the sleepless night before. There was still daylight left, but not enough to make it downstream to a better campsite without a fair helping of headlamp time, so we decided to stay where we were. My dinner was basically the same — a packet of instant potatoes and a tin of sardines — but I had the excitement of “Louisiana hot sauce” flavor instead of “oily jalapeño.” I was briefly grateful for my lack of daytime food, which made me hungry enough to enjoy this.
Just as we were getting ready for our sleeping bags, we saw a couple of headlamps coming up the wash, and met some poor backpackers who were hoping to sleep at Hippie Camp. They could have squeezed in, but I think all of us wanted and expected solitude in this obscure canyon, so they found another spot a short distance up a side-canyon. Their plan for the next day was to climb the Redwall breach we had used, then descend to Trinity Creek and return via the Isis-Cheops saddle. That seemed like a long grind to me, but they were carrying small overnight packs and appeared to know what they were doing.
We woke early again, more because we had to pee and were sick of lying in our bags than because we expected a long day. After the usual morning nutrient glop for me — oats, protein powder, and trail mix — we headed back down Phantom Creek. The others were heading straight out, but had convinced me to make a side-trip to Cheops Butte. It was a short and moderate scramble, but Paul had already done it, and Dan had no interest. At the point where the route leaves the creek, we took a short side-trip to see the start of the slot canyon. There is a waterfall blocking further easy progress, but I found a handline on the right side anchored to a bolt leading down a near-vertical face. It looked old and faded, but was doubled over with regular knots, so I could have easily descended it and perhaps climbed it unaided. We had slings and a 60m rope, but knew nothing about the canyon, and it was probably too cold this time of year anyways. Dan generously gave me some of his food — pop-tarts and potato chips — then we climbed out of the canyon together before parting ways where I would take my side-trip to Cheops. I tanked up on water, shoved my remaining granola bars in a pocket, then took off light and fast up the steep, loose, prickly hillside toward the base of Cheops’ north ridge. I found no trail on this part, but there was an unnecessary cairn at the base of the ridge, and the route was obvious from there. It was mostly short stretches of walking separated by short class 3 steps, and not particularly exposed, but the crux was a bit harder and steeper, and very exposed. Above that, the route crossed a small natural arch to the summit plateau. I checked in at the register, again in a copper box, noted a bit more traffic than Isis, then spent some time exploring the plateau. I found an odd survey marker farther on, embedded in a large steel cylinder filled with and planted in concrete. Clearly someone with a lot of money and helicopter time had had some fun in the Canyon. I continued to the south end, wanting to see the connecting ridge to the lesser Cheops Pyramid. I had faint hopes of traversing it to make a loop, but a quick look convinced me otherwise. The initial downclimb may have been reasonable, and the middle part was frighteningly narrow but doable à cheval, but the final climb looked steep, rotten, and highly exposed. I was not in the mood. Returning to the north ridge, I was surprised by a man just reaching the top. He was wearing shorts, a windbreaker, and approach shoes, and clearly knew what he was doing. In our half-hour conversation I learned that he was one of the people I had seen in Isis’ summit register, and that he had been exploring Isis’ supposedly doable-but-scary southeast ridge, a much more direct route than the standard one we had taken. We parted ways, and I returned to my pack in a bit of a hurry, expecting him to catch me on the long trudge across Utah Flats. However he must have been dawdling, because he did not catch me until I was just about to leave Bright Angel campground. I was carrying an overnight pack with a rope at this point, while he had just a daypack, and I expected him to take off jogging on the grind out, but we ended up hiking together and talking the whole way out. He turned out to be a 20-year local, and to know the Canyon well enough that to me he seemed like a modern-day Harvey Butchart. He had plenty of suggestions for my remaining time in the Canyon, some of which proved excellent, while others I recognized immediately as far too ambitious for the season and my current mindset. As we climbed, I watched a snowstorm descend on the North Rim and upper Phantom Creek. The clouds eventually reached the South Rim, and we felt a few flurries passing through the Supai, but nothing serious enough to stick.
As it turns out, we reached the rim only a few minute after Dan and Paul, so while Pete took off jogging back to his car, I caught up with my companions. After an early dinner at a Mexican place in Tusayan, they began their long drive home, while I drove into the National Forest to sleep. I unpacked as best I could without spreading Canyon sand all over my car, then settled in for a night forecast to reach 20 degrees on the rim. I had the gear to be warm enough, but the long, cold night would sap my ambition for the next day.