Sunday, December 28, 2014

100 Miles to Christmas - Part 4

This is the fourth and final installment of a four-part trip report.  To start from the beginning, click here.

Day 10:
Personal sunrise 9:10 am
Personal sunset 3:26 pm

The way down Tuna Creek through the Redwall was easy, with a few pleasant bypasses.  Nothing like our climb up out of Flint.  We got down to the Tapeats in two hours, had lunch, then headed out onto the Tonto.  For the first time in the hike, the sun was shining bright, the skies were blue, and there was a pleasant breeze in the air.  I'm usually not a fan of shorts in the desert - there are too many prickly pants, and keeping the sun off of your legs often keeps you cooler.  But this time, I unzipped the legs off of my hiking pants at the first opportunity, and it just felt fantastic.  After 9 days of being confined to the same pair of pants, the feeling of freedom was incredible.  Not even the incessant drone of the helicopter tours could ruin my mood.

Blue skies and a pleasant breeze!
Craig and I have done a lot of contouring on the Tonto in the past, and it's usually a little tedious, but not bad.  This time, I had another complication, which became immediately apparent the moment I started walking the slanted slopes of Bright Angle Shale above the Tapeats.  It turns out that contouring puts a lot of pressure on the inside of the ball of your downward foot, which is exactly where my injury was.

To correct this I tried not to dig into the slope with my right foot, which meant that it was sliding downward quite frequently.  Very frustrating on the steeper side slopes.  I was very glad I had trekking poles to lean on for those parts.  So after a couple hours of this, when it came time to round the point and head into the Crystal drainage, I decided to try and take the high route, heading almost up to the Muav Limestone before heading back down.  This turned out not only to be easier than contouring around below, but also faster.  We headed downhill and found the route down to Crystal that Harvey Butchart alludes to in his book.  An hour or so later we were at Crystal Rapid, back to familiar territory!  We've now been there three times, twice on the North side and once on the South side.

That night we found another solution to canyon insomnia - crashing a party.  There were four kayakers running the canyon, and they invited us to hang out by the fire.  They added the caveat that "We go to bed a little early, like 9:30 or 10".  We burst out laughing at this thought and told them that we've been falling asleep before 8pm almost every night of the trip.  We headed over to their camp after dinner, and it was great to have the warmth of a fire and other people to talk to.  They had a little homemade fire pan that was built to the exact minimum Park Service specifications.  We went to bed around 10:30 or 11 and slept straight through the night, one of the few times that happened.  19 miles to Christmas.

Kayakers scouting Crystal Rapid.
Day 11:

The next day I got an early start so that I could go easier on my foot, and Craig caught up after I was already back on the Tonto.  My foot felt a little better today, but I continued to be cautious, and also continued to follow the strategy of going high around the points and then descending back for the drainages.  And once again, it seemed faster in addition to being better for my foot.  I saw a lot of deer prints and walked on occasional deer trails, so I feel like that's a good sign - if anyone knows the most efficient off-trail route, it's probably the deer.

Walking the Tonto, especially this section we'd already done, puts me in a different headspace than bushwhacking through manzanita did.  Some elements are the same, but it's much less intense, and more forgiving - you don't have to keep your eyes peeled for every potential route all the time, and the worst you're likely to encounter is a patch of prickly pears.  So whereas heavy bushwhacking draws my mind out into the landscape, the Tonto pulls me inward.  It's a time for quiet and reflection.  I thought about a lot of things; life, work, planning other hikes, the possibility of grad school - it really ran the gamut.  Craig even had an imaginary 20-minute interview with Adam Sandler.

Easy walking on the Tonto.
We contoured around into 94 Mile creek, then headed down to the River.  We got there just as the last sun was about to leave the beach, and I took the opportunity to take a quick dip in the river and wash a pair of socks.  The river was silty with flow from the Little Colorado upstream.  Since it was only 3 pm, we filled up with the murky water and headed up to camp on the Tonto.

The River at 94 Mile
Tonto camps are some of our favorites in the winter.  When Arizona is under a bubble of high pressure, the weather is generally predictable: Blue skies, sunshine and calm winds.  What happens at night in these conditions is that the cold air begins to sink down from the rim, through the drainages.  Unless you're camping by the river, drainage camps tend to be freezing cold, and take forever to warm up during the day because of the late sunrise.  In contrast, when camping on the Tonto the temperature will dip briefly during the first hour or so of darkness, but then it'll actually warm up slightly as air from the river rises up and flows gently above you.  This was one of those perfect Tonto nights, one of the warmest of the trip.

I also got to run a science experiment that night - my first try at clarifying water with alum!  Alum is a "flocculating agent", meaning it makes silt particles bind together into clumps, which then settle out of the water.  It's also used to make pickles (I believe it keeps them crisp), so it's perfectly safe to add to water.  I had carried a small vial of alum for many, many Grand Canyon trips, without ever needing to use it until now.  I knew that I only needed a small amount, so I put a pinch in one of my platypus bottles, two pinches in another, and left one of my gatorade bottles untreated as a control group.  I shook the platypus bottles well to distribute the alum.

After two hours, both alum-treated bottles were significantly clearer, and the control group hadn't changed.  I'll definitely keep bringing alum on my trips in the Canyon after that - it was well worth carrying half an ounce all those miles for clear water.  10 miles to Christmas.

Day 12:

To the Ranch!  Well, today we were actually scheduled to be camped in Trinity, but that seemed unlikely; we were already a little ahead of schedule, despite my foot.  Our water had settled even more overnight, which made me wish I'd waited to treat it until the morning.  Juggling platypus bottles makes that a little tough.  If I'm ever on a trip that requires treating a lot of silty water, I'll bring some sort of collapsible bucket - maybe gallon ziplock freezer bags.

Knowing that we were so close, we got a lazy start, deliberately waiting until the sun hit us to get out of our sleeping bags.  Not starting in the cold was a nice change.  We contoured around until we could get down into the bed of Trinity Creek, then out the other side.  On this section of hiking, as we traveled East, we began to see familiar faces, one after another - the well-known temples of the main canyon, many of which I have climbed.  Isis Temple was first (no relation), followed by the crown jewel Zoroaster, Angel's Gate, and Brahma.  It was good to see my old friends showing up after so many days in unfamiliar territory.  We were now following our memories from last year's trip, when we did Steck's Phantom-Crystal Loop.

Zoroaster and Angel's Gate, visible at last
Once we'd gotten through Trinity it was just a matter of one last bit of contouring before we got up to Utah flats.  We were in the Grand Canyon Supergroup now, a set of rock layers that pops up in a few parts of the canyon.  The Hakatai Shale, one part of the Supergroup, lends itself to steep, ball-bearing hills, with a thin veneer of pebbles covering shattered bedrock.  It is extremely difficult to traverse, and I probably should've avoided it, but I managed to make it all the way across one nasty section.  Well, almost.  Two feet away from the relative stability of a boulder field, I slipped and tore a hole in my pants, and a matching hole in my shin.  Ouch.  The Canyon always gets the last word, I guess.

We made it up the climb to Utah Flats by 4:30, and decided that it was worth heading down to Phantom that night.  It looked like it might rain, and we had friends working for the fish crew that we could hang out with, with the roof of the bunkhouse over our heads.  So we headed on down and got a campsite right before dusk.  Sjores, the veteran volunteer who has lived at the Ranch for 25+ years, was the one walking around checking permits.  He looked at our battered permit, then back at our battered selves, then said "Well, you guys are in civilization now, so you're gonna have to behave a little differently".
Playing peek-a-boo with the Colorado from the top of Utah flats.
After we got set up we headed over to the trail crew bunkhouse and had a great time hanging out with the fish crew.  They were electrically shocking fish in the creek to stun them, then cataloging what they find and removing the invasive species.  The natives recover fully, a minute or so after being stunned.  One of these days I'll do a volunteer trip for the canyon.  Hanging out with the fish crew was a great time, and it was nice to fight off canyon insomnia once again and go to bed late (10 pm).  I slept straight through the night, ready to tackle the South Kaibab the next day - on Christmas!

Day 13:

Christmas morning!  After another lazy start, we headed over to the Cantina to send a couple of postcards and hang out.  Craig had a couple of beers, and a passerby had the quote of the day: "I like your style - it's noon somewhere".  We played an excellent and close game of bananagrams, then headed out on the trail.

Craig and I have a history of hiking the South Kaibab Highway.  We're always trying to speed up it and beat our personal best times.  Last winter Craig did 2:31 and I did 2:36.  A couple of months ago I got the upper hand with a time of 2:15.  I've done a ton of backpacking this year (nearly 60 nights!) and knew that I'm in the best hiking shape of my life - so getting under 2 hours seemed feasible.  I was worried about my foot, however, not to mention worn out from 12 days of hiking.  So I decided to deliberately take it easy, not push my lungs at all, and be careful with every single step that my right foot took.

The canyon left us with the same weather it had greeted us with on the start of the hike - alternating sun, rain and sleet.  As I headed up out of the inner gorge, I looked back at Phantom Ranch and saw a rainbow.  I even took a photo break (unheard of if this was a speed run!) and shot a photo of Zoroaster Temple.  But other than that, I didn't take any breaks, not even to eat - I just ate one Snickers on top of Skeleton Point, without stopping.  Thanks to the cool weather, I also only drank water 2 or 3 times during the climb, for a total of less than a cup.  In the end, I made it out with a time of 2:21.  That just goes to show how important pacing is - I was never super tired or out of breath, but I was consistent and took just one very short break.  Other than that I was constantly on the move.

Zoroaster standing proud.


All I can say is, what a hike!  I've never planned a trip for this long, and never done anything so epic.  I've never been as committed or as remote as we were on this trek.  And I've never been as satisfied after a trip as this one.  It was beautiful and diverse, with wide-ranging scenery and temperatures.  It was full of water and we passed by more springs than I think the rest of my trips here have seen combined.  It was hard, but we were ready for it, and it was rewarding.

And, of course, Craig is a great friend and hiking partner - strong and reliable, with a great sense of humor.  I don't know many people I could hang out with for 13 days straight!

Craig being silly in Kanab Creek


Rob of the WV said...

Here is more info about using alum to clarify murky water. It works even better if you have a collapsible bucket:

Rob of the WV said...

I'll try again to include that link - so when you click on my name, it goes to alum treatment.