Saturday, December 27, 2014

100 miles to Christmas - Part 1

From December 13th to December 25th, 2014, my friend Craig and I embarked on the most epic backpacking trip that either of us has done.  100 miles across the Grand Canyon, starting at Hack Canyon in the West and with the goal of reaching Phantom Ranch by Christmas.

The route involves only about 20 miles of official trail between Hack and the Ranch, not counting the South Kaibab at the end.  Most of the rest involved easy route finding, following creeks or contouring on terraces.  There were a couple of sections that were relatively unknown, but we both knew that they would "go" - how easily was another question.

We planned it for nearly a full year, and in October I drove to the North Rim, got the permit, and hiked two food caches in - one off of Point Sublime, and one near the Indian Hollow Trailhead.  In order to ensure that we didn't feed any wildlife we used some very sturdy containers (paint cans for one and an ammo can for the other), so I'll have to make another trip back up there to retrieve the two caches.

The trip went great, despite some bad weather - we even made it to Phantom a day early and hiked out Christmas morning.  We had three major "scenic divides" on the trip, where we crossed over a pass and the landscape changed dramatically.  One at Fishtail Mesa saddle, one at Muav Saddle, and another at the Flint/Tuna Saddle.  I've divided the trip report into sections based on those divides.  This first installment covers from Hack Canyon to Fishtail Mesa Saddle:

We did not carry a GPS, so the track above is an estimate drawn on Caltopo, after the hike.  You could probably add 10-20% to all of our distances to get how far we actually walked.  Among other things, we kept track of "personal sunrise and sunset" - defined by the first and last moment in the day when the sun shines brightly enough for you to cast a distinct shadow.

Day 1:

We were treated to a gorgeous show of light at the South Rim on our drive up.
Our day started by meeting our shuttle driver - my Dad.  We got in our cars and drove to the South Rim, leaving Craig's van at the visitor center, for us to drive back to Flagstaff at the end of the hike.  We got into my Dad's Civic and headed off.  As we drove along the rim road, the canyon treated us with a beautiful show of light, shadow, and snow.  Wonderful to behold, but also ominous for our shuttle - the plan being to drive the Civic as far down Hack Canyon road as it could reasonably go and then hike from there.  We took a brief pause at Moran Point for photos, then got back in and headed off to the uncertainty of Mt. Trumbell Road.

Ominous skies as we turned onto Hack Canyon Road
The road was in good shape, with just a few puddles, and we got to Hack Canyon road without incident.  Again, this storm system gave us a show of dramatic clouds and light. Beautiful and ominous. Hack Canyon Road required us to get out several times and walk along, moving rocks to accommodate the astoundingly low clearance Civic.  But we made it down to the Hack Canyon Mine and said our goodbyes.

Thanks, Dad!
I've never felt as committed to something as that moment, watching my Dad drive out of view, then turning East and imagining the path before us.  I had been to two places on the route between here and Crystal Rapid.  That was 10 days away.  Everything else was new territory for me.  We had all the information we needed, and we new the route would go, but it still felt like it was going to be quite an adventure.

Nothing says commitment like getting dropped off with our packs on a rainy day with no cell service and no vehicle.
We walked through intermittant squalls and sunshine down the Hack Canyon Road and then Trail, passing ephemeral waterfalls when we reached the Supai.  We found a great overhang camp and managed to avoid setting up our tent.  We made simultaneous bets, Price is Right rules, on how many nights we would use the tent.  I guessed 2 and Craig guessed 1.  93 Miles to Christmas.

Day 2:
Personal Sunrise 9:20 am
Personal Sunset 5:05 pm

Kanab Creek - a gentle, flowing stream through the redwall.

This was a long day.  Possibly the most miles either of us has ever walked on a single day of backpacking.  We continued on down Hack Canyon, descending through the Supai.  Out here in the Western Grand Canyon, the top layer of the Supai Group, the Esplanade sandstone, forms large, flat terraces.  This makes it feel a lot like the Needles district at Canyonlands, and Hack had the same feel.  We hit Kanab Creek and turned right.  From here it's 10.5 miles to the confluence with Jumpup Canyon, and we made it in about 3 hours.  Easy, flat walking.  As Kanab descended into the Redwall, it got more and more beautiful.  It's really quite unique in the Grand Canyon - a gentle creek bubbling its way through the grassy bottom of a canyon with towering, straight walls.

Easy walking up Jumpup canyon.

The grass ended when we started up Jumpup, but the walking remained easy.  Our packs were heavy with a week's worth of food, but rainpools were frequent and we weren't carrying much water, so we cruised up to the top of the Redwall and headed into Kwagunt Hollow.  Kwagunt was a way to avoid Steck's "Obstacle Pool" in Indian Hollow - a pool that was certainly full to the brim.  And on the plus side, Kwagunt is a spring-fed canyon in the Supai.  Quite beautiful.  Nearing the last layers of Supai at 4:30, we realized that we could potentially make the Esplanade tonight, and have beautiful views and an earlier sunrise.  So we got a second wind and raced against the clock to arrive on top of the Esplanade right as the sun set.

Just in the nick of time.

Craig and I have done quite a few hikes in the Canyon in the winter, and there's a phenomenon we call Canyon Insomnia.  First, you get to camp and immediately change into every warm layer you have.  The desert loses heat quickly in the winter.  Then you're so tired after dinner that you fall asleep before 8.  But the nights are so long that it's hard to sleep through them, no matter how tired you are.  And it's also pretty much impossible to eat enough at 7pm to last you until the morning.  So my routine is to wake up around midnight, warm a Snickers bar in my sleeping bag, then eat it while I read on my Nook or watch the stars.

This night, however, I had a new method of keeping myself busy - night photography.  I stayed up until about 11pm shooting milky way shots, watching the tail end of the Geminid Meteor Shower, and setting up for a star trails shot.  With the camera set up on my Trailpix tripod, I went to bed and let it kill a battery getting the trails.  I slept straight through the night to the next morning, so I called that a success - unfortunately, this was the only night on the trip with clear skies and a good composition to do much night shooting.  Oh, well.

77 miles to Christmas . . .

Day 3:
Personal sunrise 8:55 am
Personal sunset 5:13 pm

The next morning treated us with a gorgeous sunrise.  Blue skies and full rain pockets cheered our spirits as we traversed the Esplanade towards Fishtail Mesa, doing our best to avoid stepping on Cryptobiotic soil (quite a bit harder to avoid on an off-trail route).  Once again, the whole landscape felt like we were in the Needles, and the full rain pockets just added to the magic.  Rain pocket water is wonderful - unlike rainpools that are in a drainage, the catchment area for an Esplanade pocket is rarely much bigger than the pocket itself.  So, with very little danger of water-borne illness, we filled up frequently, never bothering to treat the water or needing to carry more than a liter at a time.  Sometimes we would just lean down and sip straight out of the pool.

Tributaries of Indian Hollow.
Finally we rounded the tributaries of Kwagunt and Indian Hollow and got into the Indian Hollow drainage itself, just at the top of the Supai.  Indian Hollow heads up to the rim (and to our first cache), but we avoided some scrambling and snow by heading up and over the saddle connecting Fishtail Mesa to the mainland.  The north slope was strenuous but straightforward, and we got to the saddle pretty quickly.  From here, we could see back to Hack Canyon, and ahead to Powell Plateau and Muav Saddle, ominously covered in snow.  We found the descent route down, which was a steep Coconino talus slope.  Back on the sandstone, we contoured until the sun was low, stopping at some water pockets to set up a camp.

At camp we got our first food cache - a giant sized Snickers bar that we special ordered from Mars.  It comes complete with a hard, mouse-resilient exterior and would feed us for the next four days.

Well that's a big Snickers!
This was the first of three major scenic divides on the trip - we said goodbye to the Kanab Creek drainage, Jumpup, Indian Hollow and Kwagunt.  Soon we would say goodbye to the Esplanade altogether, and start making our way over to Muav Saddle.

68 miles to Christmas...

To read Part 2 of the trip report, click here.


Anonymous said...

Do you have the link to where you bought that Snickers?

Nick Smolinske said...

Well, we special ordered it from Mars, but here's a 1-pound version! Who would've thought you could buy "1 pound of satisfaction" on Amazon...