Saturday, March 30, 2013

Grand Canyon March 2013

I first visited the Grand Canyon when I was a senior in high school with my family back in 1991. I was blown away by the canyon, and I begged to come back and hike it. That summer, my dad planned out a trip for me and my two brothers, John and Daniel. The four of us braved the intense heat, a menu of Ramen, pancakes, and Gatorade, and a sorry set of borrowed gear and heavy equipment to slog through one of the most beautiful places on earth. Since then, I've returned over 20 times, hiked over 600 miles, and spent almost 2 months of nights in the backcountry of the Grand Canyon with my brothers, dad, friends, and now my wife and kids. For spring break this week, we decided to repeat a trip we'd taken about 4 years ago. Back then, Matt was only 2, and Brandi carried him in a baby carrier. We sent gear down via mules to Phantom Ranch near Bright Angel Campground along the Colorado River. That way, I carried most of the gear, with Annie, Emmy, and James carrying relatively light packs (about 10-15 lbs). This year, we didn't draw our permits, so we arrived at the canyon on Sunday, received a Number at the Backcountry Office, and spent two mornings in a row Monday and Tuesday moving that Number up in line for permits. I showed up at 8 am each day by myself while they slept at the hotel, waited for 5 minutes, got my number, and left. By Tuesday morning, I had moved up from #8 to #1 and got our permits! We spent the first two days on the rim swimming at the hotel, hiking footpaths along the rim, visiting "lookouts," and visiting every building, museum, or visitor's center we could find. By Wednesday morning, we were anxious to get hiking! I forgot our good camera, so all of these pictures were taken by me and Emmy with her little Kodak Playsport.
We dropped down the South Kaibab Trail (which the kids had never done). It's an aggressive trail as it has no water along it's 7 miles from rim to river, and you descend about 4,500 feet. Halfway down, Emmy said, "Hey, why are my legs shaking even when I'm standing still?" I call that the Grand Canyon Shaky Legs we all get somewhere on the descent trails that are like 4 hours of walking down stairs. The weather was clear - a cool 50 degrees on the rim and typically no warmer than 70 at the river. Perfect for the whole trip (though it did spike up to about 77 one day).
 The crew at the start of the South Kaibab Trail. We splurged this year and bought about $1,200 worth of lighter gear (over the years I've gone from carrying 50-60 lb packs down to my 27 lb pack this year). My pack weighed 27 lbs, Brandi's 25 lbs, Annie's 23 lbs, Emmy's 20 lbs, James' 17 lbs, and Matthew's weighed 8 lbs. I bought an adult daypack that fit Matthew well, and it allowed me to stuff it full of food and water and carry it myself on our dayhikes. In Matthew's pack, I placed his sleeping bag, his clothes, and one meal. Annie and Emmy are our superhikers. They zoom ahead all the time. We round a bend, and there they are waiting in a shady spot.
Matthew and his Black Diamond pack. A couple of years ago, I bought two North Face Terra 55 packs that Emmy and James use - youth models. Annie uses an old Kelty pack I bought long ago. I bought Brandi and I lightweight packs made by Osprey this year. They weigh no more than 2-3 lbs. I mention all of this gear stuff because we all wore trail running shoes or very light low-top hikers this year. I wore my Adidas trail running shoes. We had no blisters (except for a couple of small ones on Annie the first day that weren't an issue), and we moved very quickly given their ages and the amount of hiking we did. In 3.5 days, we covered over 30 miles. On Day 1 we hiked 7 miles from rim to river (plus a couple of short excursions that afternoon); Day 2 we hiked 12 miles roundtrip from the river up the North Kaibab Trail to Ribbon Falls and back to the river; Day 3 we hiked 5.5 miles (plus 3 for me and Emmy) from the river up to Indian Gardens; Day 4 we hiked 4.5 miles up to the rim. Carrying lighter packs allowed for better shoes and faster more comfortable hiking. Hiking boots are lame. I've read in several places that a pound on the foot is worth 5 pounds on the back - ditch the boots.
Emmy and Matthew hiking down into the canyon. The kids really did well. I was up half the night Tuesday worrying about the South Kaibab and how they would do on this trail. They were great!
James kept slipping and falling on the first few miles down as he worked to find his "sea legs." He fell into a bush at one point and sliced his finger open pretty deep about an inch long.
Annie, Emmy, and Matt leading the way down a set of switchbacks on the South Kaibab Trail.
Annie the super hiker. I told the girls on the last morning that my record for climbing up the Bright Angel Trail from Indian Gardens to the rim was 2.5 hours. Annie, Emmy, and Brandi took off that morning and raced up - Annie finished in just under 2 hours, Emmy finished in 2:01, and Brandi came in at 2:20 after they rimmed out.
 Grand Canyon guy.
James is a funny hiking companion. He likes to talk - a lot. For much of the hike on Day 2 and Day 4, he and Matthew came up with intricate plans on building kits they would need to build rocket shoes. They kept asking questions about what would fuel them, where the fuel could be stored, how much fuel they would need, what kind of controllers they could use to control them, and so forth. This went on for hours. I spent 90% of the time just listening in fascination.
 I planned out all of our food down to the last granola bar, oatmeal packet, and scoop of hot chocolate. We planned a real break on the trail at every hour where we ate a granola bar, some fruit, or other carb source. The final morning after breakfast and rationing out the granola bars and Tootsie pops for the hike out, I had 6 Ramen packets (my standard emergency ration in case we lose some food to a rodent or other calamity), 3 packets of apple cider, and 4 small jerky sticks. Perfect planning of 4 days of meals for 6 people. After 22 years, it's a science!
The sweeping trail down off the Tonto Platform down into the inner canyon and the Colorado River. The kids are strung out along the trail with Annie in the front and me in the rear.
Matthew during a "hitting the wall" phase of the hike down. He was a trooper, though.
The kids posing on a cliff that drops almost straight down to the Colorado below and Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch (the trees below the and on the right).
 A shady rest stop for snacks.
James stepping around a dead mule. A Grand Canyon first. One of the things I love about the Grand Canyon is there are no roads for any kind of vehicle. All things into Phantom Ranch at Bright Angel Creek are brought in by mule train or, if needed, by NPS helicopter (Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Creek and Indian Gardens are the only permanent structures in the Grand Canyon along its 277 miles - it's very much a wilderness). For the first time, we came across a halted mule train near the bottom of the canyon. This mule had just collapsed and died. The Grand Canyon mules are very well taken care of, and enjoy a comfortable retirement from what I've read, so a death is unexpected and uncommon. The rangers told us later that they helicoptered him out (dead) to have his body autopsied because he was so healthy his death was a mystery. We hiked past him and were just setting up camp an hour later when the helicopter flew by to pick him up.

There are only two bridges across the Colorado River in the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon. They are both foot bridges built long ago that hang suspended within eyesight of one another at Bright Angel Creek. They're pretty exciting to cross - especially at night! We crossed both on this trip, and did both in broad daylight which is less scary.

Looking up Bright Angel Creek into the Cottonwood trees that shade the campsites scattered throughout. I can sit and read and relax in the cool 70 degree air of Bright Angel Campground for days. I love it there. Everyone around you either hiked a very long way or took a very dusty, butt-busting mule ride to get there. You have to work to get down there. And it's this oasis in the desert buried a mile deep inside the earth surrounded by hundreds of miles of canyons and side canyons, buttes, cliffs, and natural wonder. Our two nights there were very peaceful with the constant tumble of the creek drowning out most noise and a light breeze that moved leaves but not limbs and cooled the camp. There isn't a place on earth I'd rather be for a peaceful afternoon of reading, relaxing, and thinking.
Annie lugged down her chosen reading for her high school science class. She picked some rather heavy reading - In the Deserts of This Earth by Uwe George - with chapters titled, "The Origins of Earth and of Life," and "Cosmic Models." She and Emmy are heavy readers. Annie is sitting in a 1 lb camp chair that I bought from REI and added to my pack. My back is so bad that I have to sit in just the right position or it kills me. This chair was the answer. Love it!
Brandi stuffed her Kindle in her pack to read. She read The Host on this trip. In fact, as I typed this Saturday night upon our return home, she left me to go watch the movie in the theater here in Moab. She tried to get me to go, but I've seen two Stephanie Meyers movies - Twilights - and that was enough for me to avoid Stephanie Meyers at all costs.
On the rim, at Phantom Ranch, and then at Indian Gardens, the boys and Emmy completed the 3 different Junior Ranger program booklets. At Phantom Ranch, they gave them all a patch with a Phantom Ranch rattlesnake on it. Here, the boys work on the books. Emmy bought a blank journal - there on the table - and drew pictures and wrote in it quite a bit during the entire trip.
One of their favorite things to do is go down to the Colorado River and plan on the sandy white beach about 10 minutes from camp. The Black Suspension Bridge is hanging up behind them.
I took along Edward Abbey's book, Desert Solitaire, on this trip. I love his writing about the deserts of the southwest. I have always loved the desert. His chapter on a final trip down Glen Canyon on the Colorado before the government destroyed that natural wonder with Lake Powell is powerful.
 James enjoying the sandy beach.
I bought this Walrus Trekker Tarp years ago, and it has been a great backpacking tool. It weighs only 3 lbs, is supported by two hiking sticks (or any sticks), and sleeps 4 adults easily or 6 in a pinch. It zips open exposing half of the top and can be pitched at ground level or higher up off the ground. I typically pitch it a foot off the ground and keep it halfway open so I can lie out and look at the stars and moon as I wake up periodically during the night. It allows a light breeze through, so you don't get that stuffiness you feel in a tent. You have to get used to the occasional critter on you, though. I don't mind them. One night in the GC, I woke up to a mouse on my chest. I shooed him off and fell back to sleep. On this trip, at this camp, these little green inch warms about half an inch long kept dropping out of the Cottonwood trees throughout the day and night. During the two nights, one would drop on my exposed face about 2-3 times per night. I would wake with a start, grab it and toss it off into the bushes, grab my glasses, and look at the full moon. There's something about sleeping outside under the stars in the wilderness that refreshes a person and helps the senses come alive.
 Matthew buried up to the neck at sandy beach.
The Black Suspension Bridge. Google it. It's story is fascinating - getting the long cables down the trail was a fine feat!
On our "rest day" between nights at Bright Angel Campground, we left our river oasis and hiked up the North Kaibab Trail through the meandering canyon along the creek for 6 miles to Ribbon Falls. I carried the day pack with food and water, so the kids and Brandi hiked without burden. It's relatively easy light uphill traveling on the way up to the falls. My dad took me, John, and Daniel there on that first trip 22 years ago. This is one of those places of oasis in the Grand Canyon - you hike through desert beauty to get to a place so markedly different that the juxtaposition of dry red rock cliffs with moss and growing travertine and misty waters leaves you in wonder. In the picture above, Emmy waded the pond, entered the cave, and crawled up to the window. Six years ago for our 10th wedding anniversary, I brought Brandi here. On that occasion, a small bird - a canyon wren I think - lighted in the window on the moss just behind the curtain of water and rested there for about 20 minutes. On this trip, they discovered a small bird's nest back within the cave near the window. When the wind shifts, the fall shifts, sometimes opening the window completely, and sometimes covered it completely with the running water.
The travertine dome has built up to a height of probably over 40-50 feet. You can hike up on the left side and stand up and behind the dome near the top.
 Emmy in the window with the cave opening below.
 Emmy and Matt within the cave.
Up above the travertine dome at the top. Matt and James looking for frogs and watching the wind shift the curtain of falling water.
Another tool I bought last summer at Brandi's brothers (Boone) suggestion was this Luxury Lite backpacking cot that weighs 2 lbs and breaks down into a kit no larger than your forearm. With a 1 lb NeoAir 2" inflatable sleeping pad (bought one for me and Brandi), it has turned sleepless backpacking nights into restful sleep-filled nights. I also splurged and bought Brandi and I new bags - both Marmot Cloudbreak 30 degree bags. I also bought two very light "liners" that add 8 degrees of warmth. The bags weigh just over 1 lb and stuff down to nothing. But they were very warm on this trip and with the liner, I was comfortable all night without having to wear any heavy clothing or thermals.
A hiker upgraded this sign significantly. At this point, Emmy's camera was dying, but we took the chance anyway and snapped this photo knowing it could be our last.
Picture out of timeline - Emmy entering the cave at Ribbon Falls.
At Indian Gardens Campground - another oasis of sorts, though more busy as it is only 4.5 miles from the rim and has dayhikers cruising through fairly often - there is a small cabin with a "library" that you can check out books about the canyon from. James and Matt spent a couple hours looking at books of canyon animals. Matt was making James read the captions to him.
Brandi taking an afternoon nap on my cot in the cool air. I sat and read while the kids played down at the creek. The day was so fine, I skipped setting up the tarp to keep a constant breeze on us and slept out under the full stars and moon with Emmy and Matt. Brandi shared the 2.5 man tent with James and Annie.
 The kids enjoying a ranger program at Indian Gardens - we all won stickers for correct trivia answers.
In the evening of Day 3, Emmy and I hiked the mile or so out to Plateau Point from Indian Garden. The top rim is the South Rim Grand Canyon Village most visit - the trees at center are Indian Gardens where many like to dayhike down to before returning to the rim.
I forgot our good camera, so we used Emmy's little Kodak Playsport for all of these photos. It doesn't capture the beauty of the purple bloom, deep greens, and lovely red cliffs all mixed throughout Indian Gardens.

On the way out to Plateau Point, we watched a condor play on the canyon currents. I see them often on this hike out. It always strikes me that the afternoon shadow across the Tonto Platform looking out at Plateau Point is in the shape of a condor with unfolded wings in flight.
Emmy and I at Plateau Point - the others were too tired. This is a great place to spend an afternoon or evening right out in the middle of the canyon watching the shadows and colors change as the sun moves across the sky. You are halfway above the river (see below) and halfway down from the rim out in the middle of this vast canyon. The Grand Canyon is stunning to see from the rim, but to stand at this center point, as it were, is even more remarkable. We stop often to point out wildlife, geologic formations, and biology to the kids - and sometimes I will tell them stories from the many books I've read about the canyon's history and it's people, but on this hike out, I had Emmy stop and listen to the quiet - there was absolute silence out there on the trail toward the point. We turned around when I did hear something, and there stood a herd of mule deer feeding on the desert grass between the agave, purple cactus (all along this portion of the trail), and sage.
Plateau Point. I watched a condor sweep back along the cliff edge here floating on an updraft. 6 years ago with Brandi, the condors had landed all over the point and just sat there with us only feet away.
 Emmy working on a junior ranger book at Plateau Point while I explore.
Loaded packs ready for the hike out. We had all dropped a few lbs for this hike out. Emmy and Annie and Brandi zoomed off and finished in around 2 hours. James, Matt, and I finished in about 2:45. As you near the top, you smell more and more perfume, and see more and more designer clothing and the newest fashions of clothes and sunglasses and gelled hair. This always stands out to me when I exit the canyon on one of these "tourist" trails - after only seeing either fellow hikers or nobody at all for days, to see all of this fashion and pomp slipping down into the canyon is always striking as so out of place - not wrong or bad, just so out of place in a curious sort of way. Many of these people remark to me hiking with the two boys, "Those boys hiked down into there?" And they often would tell the boys how "brave," or "strong," or "amazing" they were. After passing these people, Matt and James would turn and ask, "Why did they say I was brave?" or "Why do they think it is amazing." I would explain to them that a lot of people don't do these kinds of things. Most people don't leave the rim of the Grand Canyon. Many people don't explore the wilderness and get inside of it. The boys never said anything in response to this. They just turned and kept hiking - their little brains whirring. Ed Abbey writes that too many people are wrapped in a synthetic world of comfort disassociated with the natural world and that if we would venture into that natural world not afraid to get dirty, to feel uncomfortable, to get some sand in our shorts from time to time, we'd be a much more healthy and well-adjusted people. I'm paraphrasing, of course, and maybe those are my words and not his, but you get the picture. Go. Do. Be.
Matt slept in a knit winter hat outside with me the last night and woke up with Hat Head. He wanted to know if he still looked "cool."
Me and my gal. Cute Brandi.

No comments: