Tuesday, January 12, 2016

100 Miles to New Year's: Part Three of Three (Lava to Phantom)

Note: This is part three of a three-part trip report.  If you'd like to start reading at the beginning, click here.
Our route (blue) and campsites (yellow)
Day 7: 8.7 miles

It's like hiking in a moonscape.  Except if it were an actual moonscape, there'd be no air, and therefore no helicopters.  - Craig

Between Lava Creek and Basalt Creek, along the Colorado River, lies one of the scariest sections of terrain in the whole Grand Canyon.  The Dox sandstone is in the Grand Canyon Supergroup, a group of rocks that only shows up in particular places in the canyon.  When the right part of the Dox shows up, it creates some very rough terrain.  Everything about it is wrong - the rock is too hard to sink your feet into, but loose enough to put dozens of pebbles under your feet.  It lies at a steep angle of repose, often above cliffs, with serious cheese-grating exposure.  The section between Lava and Basalt is often referred to as a "ball bearings traverse".  It has injured several hikers, and the potential for serious harm is real.

We, of course, intended to go nowhere near it.

The classic route to avoid this section of Dox is to go all the way to the headwaters of Lava Creek and head up to the saddle between Juno temple and the North Rim.  We decided not to do that because the section up to the saddle is supposed to be a bit tricky, and was surely covered in at least a bit of snow at the time.  And furthermore, we'd heard about another route from Tom Martin and were interested in trying it.

Lava Creek had water in it as far as we hiked.
So we hiked a short distance up Lava Creek from our campsite and turned left into a wash.  This would take us all the way up to a break in the Tapeats (a 2000 foot elevation gain).  From there, we could continue down the opposing drainage on the other side, which would take us down to Basalt.  From there we could contour over into Unkar, having saved our skins from the treacherous Dox.  It's very easy to find the right drainage, because it's the one that goes up to the saddle between two small buttes above the Tapeats (heights 5136 and 5221 on the USGS 7.5 map).

Our drainage started as a gentle wash, and then things got interesting.  We hit a rock unit that was tilted by about a 20% grade.  The wash had eroded down to the level of the rock unit and created a ramp.  It lasted for at least a quarter mile, and was the easiest way to gain elevation that I've ever seen in the Grand Canyon.  No wasted energy, no slipping feet, no boulders or dryfalls to climb over.  Just a steady stairmaster climb.  The rest of the climbing was relatively easy, and soon we were on top of the Tapeats.

Up, up, up and away!
Once on top, we looked down the drainage opposite and quickly questioned our map reading skills.  Was this really the route that Tom had told us about?  From above, it looked like it ended in an impossible pouroff.  I wish I'd taken a photo.  After consulting our maps we decided that we were right, and that the route down should be directly below us.  We started on down towards the apparent dropoff with some confidence - Grand Canyon routes often look harder from above, so it must not end in a cliff after all.

The "cliff" turned out to be just an easy 10 foot downclimb, and then we were below the Tapeats and on our way.  Now we just had to descend the drainage into the east fork of Basalt creek.  Of course these things are rarely as easy as they seem.  I think we were pretty tired, because it seemed like the chockstones and pouroffs in the drainage would never end.  But in retrospect, I'm not sure it was really that bad.

It was at this point in the day that I concocted another fairy tale of Grand Canyon history.  Back in the great depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a lot of checkdams to control erosion in the arid Southwest.  So I came up with a character called Alexander Porov.  Porov was a Russian immigrant, and he was really good at his job.  In fact, he was such an overachiever that whenever other CCC workers found a really large chockstone in a wash, they would say "looks like another Porov job".  This morphed over time into the commonly used phrase "pouroff" (much like how "duct tape" was originally called "duck tape".  Look it up if you don't believe me).

The upside of coming up with this story was that, when I next encountered a large pouroff or chockstone, I could say "Curse you, Alexander!".  Backcountry humor . . . there's just nothing like it.

Craig descending a small "Porov"
One of the last "Porovs" that we encountered we bypassed with a short climb (20 feet) up a Dox slope.  It was the spiciest moment of the trip, hands down.  Though serious injury was not in the cards, it would've been a very painful fall.  That little taste of the Dox was enough to convince us that a few hours of hard hiking was well worth avoiding the ball bearings traverse.

Looking upriver from the beach at Basalt.  Somewhere in there is the dreaded section of Dox.
We headed down Basalt to the river and made our way over to Unkar.  From Basalt to Unkar we crossed the Dox Formation, but a different part of it than the traverse we avoided.  This section was full of red rock that was soft enough to dig your feet into, so not so scary.  It was an interesting landscape - it had the feel of an alluvial fan deposit, but the drainages had very steep sides because they were actually cut in bedrock.  Very interesting stuff.

Contouring over to Unkar.
Because the drainages were so unusually steep-sided, we found it most efficient to keep contouring higher to head most of them.  This put us farther and farther from the river, so after we headed the final drainage we dropped directly west into Unkar creek a couple miles up.  There was flowing water where we crossed the creekbed, and we found a nice site right on the other side and set up the tent.

Although parts of this day were pretty tough, it felt great to be over my illness.  This was the first day that I really felt good since we started the trip.  We camped that night with a view of Vishnu temple, another potential summit objective.

Day 8: 8.1 miles

Fiery orb of hate during the summer, cute yellow kitten during the winter.
- Craig, remarking on the sun's inability to warm us when faced with the slightest breeze

After our brief return to contouring the day before, today's objective was simple:  hike up Unkar Creek, hang a left to climb to the saddle between Vishnu Temple and Freya Castle, and drop down into Vishnu Creek.

Our route from the day before had put us a couple of miles up Unkar Creek already, so it didn't take long until we hit the left fork that would take us to the saddle.  The hiking was straightforward until we hit a pouroff in the Tapeats.  There was an obvious bypass off to the left that looked easy enough.  Craig decided to head up that way, and reported it to be as easy as it looked.

I, on the other hand, felt a chill in my bones and desperately wanted to get out of the shade.  I took a look at the right side and thought I spied a route that would be 3 chili peppers at the most.  Maybe a bit exposed, but pretty easy.  And most importantly, basking in the morning sun!  I picked my way up the route, deer prints lifting my spirits, and sure enough it went.  There was just one spicy, yet easy, traverse on a Tapeats ledge.

The spicy part of my Tapeats route.  Totally worth it to get some sunshine.
After that it was pretty easy going on top of the Tonto.  My sunshine didn't last long and soon enough I met back up with Craig on the creek bottom, in the shade.  Brr.  It was straightforward boulder-hopping for a while, until we got near the top of the Redwall.  Here the possible routes split again and there were a couple of choices.  And again, Craig chose the left and I chose the right, although sunshine was not the reason this time.  I just thought the right side looked like more secure climbing.

My choice of the two Redwall gulleys.  I'm always most comfortable climbing in a crack or a chimney so this felt pretty secure to me.
For this one, our webbing came out and we hauled packs.  Well, I actually climbed my route with my pack on and just hauled up Craig's.  I'm not sure if that's indicative of the ease of the route, my skill at climbing, or just my stubbornness, not wanting to deal with hauling my pack.  I think the stubbornness played a pretty big role.

After that it was a short walk to the Vishnu/Freya saddle.  We had lunch while we briefly contemplated climbing Vishnu.  Both of us were feeling really beat up, and Craig had started to feel a bit sick as well, so it was an easy decision to postpone that adventure for another time.  Plus, there was snow all over the route.  Craig has a history of bailing on GC summits (doesn't everyone?), so he walked over to the first little cliff band and back so he could claim a summit "attempt".

The route down to Vishnu creek was very straightforward.  There is just one bypass at a large dryfall, where a large, obvious ledge heads out right.  Soon the ledge reaches a talus slope and you can head down to Vishnu creek.  We downclimbed an easy 15-foot section of rock to reach the talus, but if you continued around the corner it might be even easier.

Picking our route down to the Redwall talus.
We headed down Vishnu creek, passing numerous full potholes and an ice-covered spring.  Soon the Tapeats appeared and we hiked down the narrows a bit until we found some large spring-fed potholes and a route up and out on the right.  We filled up a few liters and got up onto the Tonto platform.

Back on the Tonto!
It was nice to get back to the old, familiar Tonto.  Last year's trip ended with a couple days of contouring on the Tonto level, heading upriver to Phantom Ranch.  This year would end with a couple days of contouring heading downriver to the Ranch.  Nice symmetry.

We contoured for an hour or so and got out onto the plateau, directly below Hall Butte.  We ditched the tent, which was a nice change.  Last year we only used it a couple of nights, but this year's hike was wetter, windier and colder so we had the tent up almost every night.  Camping under the stars in the desert is such a great experience.  I miss my conservation corps days, when I would camp out more than half the year without a tent.  There's an intimacy with the outdoors that you don't really experience any other way.  Fortunately I still get to sleep out on backpacking trips.  Well, usually.

Cowboy camping at last!
Speaking of our camp, it was nice to get one on the Tonto; they are some of our favorites.  When the skies are clear and the winds are light, camping out on the plateau is much warmer than camping in a drainage.  It's also generally easy to find a flat spot, and the sunrise and sunset views are fantastic.  Carrying water a couple of miles is a small price to pay.

Day 9: 16.1 miles

There's a river down there!  - Nick
You can see it? - Craig
No, but it's down there! - Nick

From Vishnu Creek to Clear Creek there are a couple of options.  One is up and over the Redwall, passing Hall's Butte and Angel's Gate.  We'd read in Grand Canyon Summits Select that the descent from Angel's gate had some 4th class face climbing.  4th class can mean a lot of things.  Sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's terrifying.  Anyway, new routes are always harder going down than up, so we decided to play it safe and hike the Tonto around.  We're pretty fast Tonto hikers and besides, we hadn't contoured much in a few days so we were due for some more!

Looking at the map, we realized that we had a decision to make on where to camp.  Go all the way to Phantom tonight or stop in Clear Creek?  There were a few things to consider:

  1. We were smelling the barn.  We were tired, and the cold takes a lot out of you when you're in it day in and day out.  Both of us just felt like finishing the hike.
  2. We'd probably make it into the Clear Creek use area in the afternoon, which would mean the logical camp would be up on the Tonto, and the next day we'd hike out.
  3. We had friends staying at the Phantom Ranch bunkhouse, volunteering for a fish crew.  The rather warm, no-need-to-get-in-your-sleeping-bag-at-6pm bunkhouse.
  4. Remember that barn?  Still smelling it.
  5. Said friends at Phantom had beer.  Tasty beer.  Carried down by mules.
  6. Did I mention a barn?
So basically we decided that it was all or nothing - either make it to Phantom that night and hang out with our friends, or stop at Clear Creek and miss them the next day while they were at work.  The decision was pretty easy.  As long as we made it to Clear Creek by a reasonable time in the afternoon, we could still make it to Phantom before it got too late.  Even if it got dark, we'd be on a trail by then so we could just hike via headlamp.  So we set off, contouring once again.

Hello there Zoro!
The contouring was easy (so much easier than above the Redwall) and soon enough we rounded a corner and got a great view of Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple.  It was nice to see those familiar faces again.

We followed the same basic strategy all of the way to Clear Creek: contour high around the points and low across the drainages.  Contouring high around the points shortens the route and means that you can head a lot of smaller drainages.  So although you have to climb a lot to cut off the point, you avoid some up and down as well.  Even if it's not more energy efficient, it's definitely faster than trying to stay low and contour around the point.

Crossing the drainages low means that you can sometimes limit how far you have to hike up them before crossing.  The layer below the Tonto platform is the Tapeats, and usually you have to walk a ways into a drainage before you can cross it.  But sometimes you'll see a route down the Tapeats cliffs into the drainage and out the other side.  These routes are almost always faster than walking all the way up and around.

One of the Tapeats drainages we crossed required a bit of pack hauling and climbing.  Not as hard as it looks (I'd give it 3 chili peppers).
By noon we were contouring high above Clear Creek.  Our plan was to walk up a ways until we could enter the east fork of the creek, but on our way there we spied a possible route down the Tapeats cliffs.  We could see that the route would be pretty easy for a long ways, but we couldn't see the top 15 feet.  It looked like a sheer cliff from a distance, and even as I walked up to it I thought it wasn't going to go.  But sure enough, when I looked over the edge I saw that it was broken up by a couple of ledges and would be surprisingly easy - 2 chili peppers or so.

Climbing down the top 15 feet of Tapeats cliff.
Easy hiking . . . for a while.
That 15 feet of climbing got us to a saddle between the main cliff and a small separated Tapeats island.  From that point on, the going was easy but steep down towards Clear Creek.  We entered a wash and walked down it for a while, bypassing and/or downclimbing a few small pouroffs.  Then we hit an extremely large dryfall that went all the way down to the creek.  We could see the water flowing below us, but there was no clear way down to it.

We hiked up and over to our right, looking for a route down.  We saw a possible route and checked it out, very carefully.  Below the Tapeats lies the Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite, two hard-yet-fractured rock layers.  They are notoriously unstable to climb on, and caution is mandatory.  The loosest part of this route was a short walk down a ridge of schist.  It was short and extremely loose, so we walked it one at a time.

The ridge of Vishnu Schist.  Not quite as exposed as it looks in the photo, but loose.  About 15 feet below this point we climbed down off the ridge, to the right .
Once through that section, it was an easy walk to the creek bottom.  From there, we could walk the creek bottom up, and there's also a use trail which we were able to stay on most of the time.  In about an hour we were up to where the Clear Creek Trail comes in.

Finally, a trail!  We took a short break, got a bit of water from the creek, and considered the time.  It was 3:30 PM, a bit later than when we had wanted to arrive there.  Still, there was plenty of time for us to get up out of the creek and onto the Tonto.  If we hadn't had friends at Phantom we would've had a leisurely rest of the afternoon and camped up there.  But we thought seeing them was worth some night hiking, so we headed up and out of the creek.

I didn't take many photos on this section, because we were hiking fast.  But I'll never forget how amazing it was to walk on a trail after so many days of climbing over rocks.  Contouring was just so . . . effortless.  No longer did I have to devote constant attention to what the best route might be to bypass the next obstacle.  When I came to a drainage, I just stayed on the trail and it brought me smoothly into it and out the other side.  It was like walking on a cloud.

We took a brief break as the sun set, to change layers and have a quick snack.  And, of course, appreciate the view:

The sun setting on Angel's Gate.
Soon we were heading down the switchbacks into Bright Angel Canyon, and we could see the lights of Phantom.  We got there at 6:30 PM, 3 hours after we started.  It's 9 miles from Clear Creek to the Ranch, so we'd averaged 3 miles an hour.  Not too bad.  But most importantly, we got to hang out with our friends for a few hours.

It was also amazing just to be in a heated room.  We had warm sleeping bags on this trip, and we weren't actually cold at night when we camped.  But getting into your sleeping bag at sunset gets a little old.  At Phantom, we  didn't get into our sleeping bags until almost 10 o'clock!  There's nothing like backpacking for 9 days to make you appreciate the comfort that a heated space provides.  It was pure luxury.

Day 10: 7.1 miles

Did you go all the way to the bottom? - tourist on the South Kaibab
... sort of. - Nick

Today was the same end as last year's trip, just a quick jaunt up the South Kaibab trail.  Just like last year, I didn't think it was smart on my feet to go for a personal best time up the trail.  My feet didn't hurt as much this year, but after a 16 mile day I didn't think a speed run was a good decision.  Oh, well.  If you risk injury to get your hiking time under an arbitrary number, you're missing the point.

The hike up was pleasant, with blue skies and a chill in the air.  I soon realized that I couldn't have done a speed run anyway, because I would have given myself an asthma attack from breathing in the cold air.  Even taking it easy as I was, my asthma got to me a little.  But soon we were on the rim again.  And for the first time, I could look out and say "I've hiked across that as far as the eye can see".  Between this year's hike and last year's, we had completed a line from South Canyon to Kanab Creek.  That means that at any of the usual viewpoints on the South Rim, I can look to the north and see part of the line that we've hiked.  Pretty cool.


When we completed our trip last year, I didn't think I'd be writing another trip report a year later on another big connecting trip.  But here we are!  We've completed South Canyon to Kanab Creek, and we just have to complete Lee's Ferry to South in order to have the first half of the section hike completed.  So far the hiking has been more interesting and varied than I ever could have imagined, and I can't wait to see what's in store for the rest of the Grandest of Canyons!

A toast at our Lava Creek cache, to good beer and a good hike.

Note: This is the end of the trip report, but I also wrote a little post about gear, which you can read here.

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