Don’t Get Too Comfortable

It’s impossible to be comfortable in the Grand Canyon.  A month earlier, I slept under this same nylon mid in 100 degree weather, sweating on my sleeping pad, and praying my tent would make it through the insane monsoon electrical storm that was battering our campsite.  Here again, probably less than 15 nautical miles from where we camped before, I can’t sleep again.  Only there is no violent thunder, no chaotic flashes of bolts striking a few hundred yards away.  This time it’s calm and windless. And goddamn freezing.

“Ransom!  You are missing a phenomenal sunrise!”   Dave and Rich quietly laugh.

“In other words, get your ass out of bed!”

I smile in my bag.  I’m not sleeping.  Haven’t been for the last hour.  The anticipation has me too stoked to keep my eyes closed.  Or is it nervous apprehension?  No matter, we are about to finally start off on an adventure that for me has been more than 6 months in the making.  For Rich, it’s been two and a half years.  It’s been a logistical nightmare.  The route has been scouted.  Twice.  From both rims.  Maps meticulously scanned, contour lines counted, a strong crew assembled, and a 16 hour car shuttle put in place.  It’s time for action.  Finally.

And if it wasn’t 25 degrees outside, I’d have been up by now.  I tug open the zipper on the tent, and thousands of tiny frozen crystals of condensation shower down on me.  The sun is barely rising, the air is crisp and calm, and I remind myself how happy I’ll be for the cool weather after slogging the 10 miles just to get to our rim break.

From where we stand, you’d never even know there was a canyon out here.  Let alone hundreds of canyons, all of which eventually lead to THE canyon.  But today there is only one canyon we are interested in. An interest that for Rich, is bordering on obsession.

In the freezing cold, 10 miles from nowhere, we finish stuffing our packs with insane loads, thanked our friends once again for shuttling the cars, and set off to cross the Grand Canyon by one of the most unusual rim-to-rim routes ever conceived.

Breaking Down

Any description we had of our route was cryptic at best.  About the only explanation Rich was willing to give us was that the coconino break was “sporty.”   Sporty?  Uh, what the hell does that mean?

I know now.  It means don’t slip or you die.  It means we get to traverse 800 yards of bighorn social trail that barely measures 4 inches wide in places, with 400 feet of vertical freefall on the left.  And a 60 degree dirt slope on the right.  In places, the coconino is completely gone.  Here, you get your choice.  Jump across, or trust that loose slide of manky dirt.  I’d have seriously considered turning around, if it wasn’t for the fact our car shuttle was probably already in St. George, and I’d have 60 miles of walking just to get to the nearest paved road.  The traverse delicately wraps in and out of these eroded out bays, and just when you think you’ve got past the worst part, you round the next point only to experience yet another measure of sewing machine leg pucker factor.  (I will parenthetically add that, yes, I’m a total pansy.  I hate unprotected death exposure.  But I’m not exaggerating…)

The place was ridiculous.  If I had to make that traverse again 10 times, I wouldn’t survive 8 of them.   Them bighorn are crazy.

I don’t think any of us were ever more excited to finally get to the break, that standing on it’s own, would’ve been considered tolerable, if not slightly annoying and tedious.  It was not unlike most Grand Canyon breaks.  But to us, it felt like a highway, even if it was 45 degrees of loose talus rock-skiing.  Sure as hell beat the 4 inches of terror we just crossed.

As our shadows lengthened, we finally gained the esplanade, and the easiest walking of the trip.  36 hours of rain had just pummeled the area a day before, so the potholes were tip top full, and camping couldn’t have been better.  We found a fantastic alcove to throw down our packs, and headed for the cliff edge.  Below us would be our first look at the redwall narrows we’ve been obsessed with for so long.  The last rays of sunlight slowly crept up the  the canyon rim, and we retired to our bags stoked for what tomorrow would bring.

The Obsession

Morning of Day 3 brought bright blue skies, and slightly warmer temperatures.  We quickly descended a 170 foot nuisance rappel in the Supai to a nice break that allowed us to walk the rest of the way to the head of the Redwall narrows.  After seeing all the water on the esplanade the day before, we knew we were going to be in for a very wet canyon today, but how wet we had no idea.  The light trickle of water flowing in a few pools in the supai was the first hint that it might actually be flowing, which is a pretty rare treat.  It also typically means some interesting characteristics in the slot.  Sure enough, we reached the first drop and greeting us was the first of countless huge pools.  It was going to be a cold wet descent.

The canyon took no time to get good, immediately plunging into the ground, with a deep polished floors and walls, and long winding corridors.  It teased and teased, and we kept expecting it to drop even deeper and get more and more intense.  But it never really happened.  The slot stayed pretty shallow and narrow for about 1/4 mile, which allowed direct sunlight to hit the canyon floor.  The beautiful reflected light often found in deeper canyons wasn’t present here.  As it continued to drop very slowly, and we made more horizontal progress, we worried about where we’d drop all the elevation we needed to get to the river.   A few more short rappels led to a stunning chokestone and pouroff that dropped right into a dark abyss,  70 feet to an olympic sized swimming pool.  Now we’re talking!  Swimming the length of the pool, the canyon curved back to the left and made a huge spherical ballroom, deep enough to get the warm reflected light.  Spectacular!

The Redwall did not disappoint.  But we expected that.  We’d been able to get a pretty good look at it from the North Rim with binoculars, and the aerials confirmed what we suspected.  It was long, super narrow, and sinuous.  All the characteristics you hope to find.  The real question was what the canyon had in store for us below the Redwall, in the Temple Butte and Muav.  There was at least 800 feet of vertical, and at least two big drops to be negotiated.  Erring on the side of caution, we carried a 350 foot rope, hoping it was long enough.  Exiting the Redwall narrows, it took a little bit of hiking to get to the head of the Temple Butte, where we were sure the big drops must start.  From the top, it looked like a nearly vertical gorge that would require multiple rappels to bypass.  But with some ingenious downclimbing, Guy found an improbable route under a giant boulder pile, and we snuck out of that section only using one rap.

From here, you could see the other side of the river, and it looked damn close.  But we still had massive amounts of vertical.  I was a bit nervous.  There had to be some big rappels, and that 350 is starting to sound awful short.  At last, we reached the head of the Muav.  Dave made it out to the edge first, and peered over.  He looked back towards me, and gave me an odd smile.  I inched over to the pourover, but I wasn’t smiling.  This thing is huge.  And mostly freehanging.  Damn!  There is no moment more suspenseful than when you throw the rope bag over a cliff, hoping to hear the sound of it crashing into the bottom.  Fortunately, it hit.  And with a bit of rope to spare.  The final length came in somewhere between 275′ and 300′.  Always a sense of relief when your feet touch the ground again after 5 minutes twirling in space, hanging from an 8mm rope.

The final drop in the Muav was about 100′, and it dropped us right on the sandy banks of the Colorado.  Time to go home!

The Only Way Home

Once again, the day is too short, and we find ourselves in rapidly fading light.  We’ve got about 3.5 miles of packrafting ahead of us to get to our permitted campsite.  The beach almost instantly transforms into a yard sale, with gear scattered everywhere.  Packrafts and paddles out, harnesses and ropes back in.  Within about 15 minutes, we’ve got a little packraft armada, ready to launch.  2 $70 sevylors, 2 flyweight designs, and 2 homemade boats.  Down here, weight is everything.  And boats that weigh 1.5 pounds may not be as comfortable or as maneuverable as their heavier brothers, but they are perfect in the relatively big slow waters of the Grand.  With little more than a few riffles in this stretch, we finally get a chance to relax, let the power of the water take us downriver.  With the south side of the river blocked entirely by native lands, we only have one option to get back out of here.  And that is to exit back to the North.

As the last of navigable light faded, we pulled into a sandy beach, finally swapped the neoprene wetsuits for dry clothes, and made camp in the dark.  Hard to say which feeling was more intense, the satisfaction of finally completing our target slot, or the fatigue from another huge day in the grand canyon.

I woke up refreshed, and ready to get at it.  Our exit canyon, while not technically demanding, would still require most of a day to ascend back to the esplanade, and then a couple hours back to the rim where (hopefully?) our friend would be waiting with the truck and some victory beers.  Our route, once again, was one none of us had ever done, and we heard that in the supai there was another “difficult” climb.  I’ve given up on trying to decipher beta passed by word of mouth in the GC.  You just never know what anyone means.  This climb wasn’t necessarily difficult, but certainly tedious.  We had to bushwack up a nasty slope choked with catclaw and cacti to a small ledge, and then start climbing up in 6 foot steps.  Eventually, the whole series of ledges pinches off, and it requires a 5th class climb/crawl through a horizontal crack in the cliff wall, that leads about 10 feet back to flat ground.  With 50 pounds or so of gear, I think most of us were pretty well sick of this off trail route, and looking to finally be on the esplanade.

Once again, the day drew to a close and we were still working.  We finally crested the last hill on the North Rim just as the sun began to set, and there was Slawa, laughing and smiling, with a mud covered truck waiting to take us home.  Little did we know that little 16 hour car shuttle had turned into a mini-epic in it’s own right, when the truck got stuck in some huge mudholes after last week’s big rain storm.  Luckily, Slawa wasn’t alone and was able to head back and get another vehicle to pull the truck out with.  Another 2 hours of classic GC dirt roads, and we were finally back to pavement.