Friday, January 8, 2016

100 Miles to New Year's: Part Two (Butte Fault Route)

Note: This is part two of a three-part trip report.  To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 5: 6.8 miles

Someone could make a movie about people hiking this route . . . and call it "A Fault in our Buttes"
- Nick

We awoke on Christmas Day to rain falling on the tent.  Wait, on second thought, that's sleet!  By the time we had packed up the sleet had turned to snow, and we had ourselves a white Christmas, pretty much at river level.  It was a beautiful day, not too cold, and I felt a little better than the day before.

Merry Christmas.

Accumulating snow on the Butte Fault!  And on my hat!
We headed up creek a little ways and turned left up a drainage.  This was the start of the Butte Fault route, something that had been on my list for years.  The Butte Fault is a major fault in the Grand Canyon, responsible for much of the uplift that raised the Kaibab Plateau and allowed for the 5000-foot depth of the central Grand Canyon.  The massive displacement of the fault (about 3000 feet) created a large fault zone of weakened rock.  This makes for relatively easy walking for several miles, behind a line of buttes that the fault is named for.  The first one was Nankoweap Mesa, and originally we had planned to climb it on this trip.  But between the snow and my illness, we decided to skip the side hike.

Unique landscapes.  I think these are Supergroup layers but I don't know which ones.
There are several route options between Nankoweap Creek and Kwagunt Creek.  I don't think we took the best one, but I don't care because our route was absolutely beautiful.  The landscape is like nothing I've seen anywhere else.  Rolling grassy hills to the west, towering buttes to the east, with rock layers turned vertical in between.  And geologic wonders abound!  I don't think you can go wrong hiking anywhere in this area.

Jointed rock, layer unknown.

Our route took us up and over the ridge just east of Nankoweap Butte.  The route down into Kwagunt Creek was steep, but uneventful.  Kwagunt was a gorgeous drainage and had a good amount of flow where we crossed it.  There are narrows below the fault and you can hike the creek down to the river, but we left that for another time.

Heading up and over into Kwagunt.
Kwagunt was our last reliable water until Lava Creek, about 8 miles away.  We picked up a modest amount of water and moved on - you don't sweat much in December and if push came to shove we could probably find more by exploring down one of the other creeks.

Blue skies, clouds, sunshine and snow took turns throughout the day.
Throughout the day squalls of snow moved in and out, so we spent about half the time in the sun.  We went up and over into Malgosa Creek, and then up and over into Awatubi Creek. The temperature was moderate and the snow never got too thick, so it turned into a really nice day.  And despite the large amount of elevation gain, the hiking felt much easier than in Marble Canyon.  We found a lot of nifty rock formations and an old rusty kettle, and got into camp with a bit of time to explore down Awatubi Creek.

There's not as much to write about for this section, because the route finding is so easy, and the walking is straightforward.  You just follow the obvious line of drainages behind all of the buttes.  Up, and down.  More up.  A little down.  More up, then more down.  Etc.  However, despite that description it was never mundane - in fact, it was one of the most photogenic sections of the hike, and I'm definitely going back.  Hopefully the photos will make up for my lack of writing inspiration.

Gravity, it's a hell of a drug.

Day 6: 7.2 miles

This is a very lonely, quiet place.  No life and nothing but cliffs and canyons.  Rocks, rocks, rocks.
-Charles Walcott, 1882

The forecast for the day was "blustery" (we had gotten a forecast through my Delorme Inreach the day before).  And sure enough, when we woke up in the morning the tent was taking a beating.  Fortunately pyramid tents shed wind extremely well, and the air inside the tent was remarkably calm.

All good things must come to an end, though, and we wanted to make some miles.  I was finally feeling better, apart from a mild cough.  Plus, we had a food cache at the mouth of Lava Creek, and there were a couple of beers in it.  So with that for motivation, we packed up and headed towards our last two saddles.

A great view of the curving layers of the Butte Fault, next to Kwagunt Butte.
First was up and over into Sixtymile Creek.  There's not much to say about it other than that the terrain was still beautiful but the weather was awful.  It was pretty much the opposite of the day before, when it was snowy but otherwise great hiking weather.  Instead, the storm had cleared and the skies were blue, but brutally cold winds robbed us of any of the warmth that the sun could give.

I hiked as fast as I could manage without giving myself as asthma attack from the cold air.  I rarely have problems with asthma these days, but icy winds can still take my breath away from time to time.  I managed just fine, but didn't stop much to get my camera out so my photos are sparse.

I'm short on photos, so here's a cool rock from the day before!
After Sixtymile we went up and over into Carbon Creek, and I got the chance to check out the routes up to the top of Temple Butte.  We didn't go explore any of them, but I saw enough from a distance to know that I'd like to come back and try to bag that summit someday.

We headed down past the butte into Carbon Creek, and followed it down until it slotted up.  From here there was a river runner's route that headed up and over a very low pass, down into Lava Creek.  It seems likely that Lava Creek will pirate Carbon Creek in the very near future (on a geologic time scale at least).  Before heading over, we explored the slot down to the river, where we spent a few seconds pondering how nice it might be to have such a ripping tailwind if you were floating down the river.  Then we headed back to our packs, over the hill and down to the cache.

Neat shale formations on the trail from Carbon to Lava.
The cache had been packed by me a couple months before, and placed there by a river trip (Thanks guys!).  Inside was lots of food, plus some cocoa and peppermint schnapps, and some extra fuel for the alcohol stove.  But also, beer!  This time I packed two Wet Snout milk snouts (from Sleepy Dog Brewing in Tempe) and one Moonlight Vanilla Porter (by Borderlands Brewing in Tucson).  There's nothing like a good stout or porter to soothe your soul on a cold winter's day.  We got the food we wanted out of the cache, left our trash and some excess items, and drank our stouts on the way back up to our packs.  We set up camp out of the wind, in the shelter of some mesquite trees.  We went to bed, hoping for better weather tomorrow.

And thus ended our exploration of the Butte Fault route.  A whirlwind and sometimes miserable hike from Nankoweap to Lava in two days.  Nonetheless, it was absolutely gorgeous and I'm happy we included it in our route.  I'm already making plans to hike this section again at a more leisurely pace.  Preferably with better weather and less illness, so that going slow and exploring would actually be fun.  So many places in the area deserve further exploration, so I see another trip (or two, or three...) in my future.

Note: Leaving food caches in the canyon is a privilege that should not be abused.  Caches should be well hidden and every effort should be made to prevent rodents or other critters from getting into your cache.  A single food cache could have a huge impact if compromised by wildlife.  For this cache, we vacuum sealed our food (to reduce odor and add another layer of water protection) and put it in a bucket with a tight-fitting gasket lid.  Don't skimp on critter protection out there, and pick your empty caches up as soon as you can once your trip is over.

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