Wednesday, January 4, 2017

52 Weeks of Focus - The 10 Minute Rule

So I have a mixed history with new years' resolutions. Over the years I've had serious ones (usually about climbing mountains), lighthearted ones (like 2016's resolution to eat more bacon) and occasionally philosophical ideals. But this year I'm going for something different.

For 2017, my resolution is to continually work on living a better, more focused life.

I'm not committing to a set goal or any specific means to that end - rather, I'm committing to making an honest effort at it, and to re-evaluate myself at least once a week. If something isn't working, I'll change it. If I find another aspect of my life that I want to work on, I'll devise strategies to help out.

I didn't come up with this idea in a vacuum - I've been thinking about ways to improve my company (Rogue Panda) for the past few months, and I have changes coming there for the new year. So it was natural to extend that idea to self improvement. Plus, I read a really excellent book on the plane back to Flagstaff - Deep Work, by Cal Newport. Some of the ideas I have for the new year are straight out of that book, and others are inspired by reading it.

I haven't figured out exactly how I'll approach this self-improvement, but right now my plan is to implement a new strategy every week of the year, in addition to evaluating how the previous week went. With that in mind, let us begin:

Week One: The Ten Minute Rule

This week's new strategy is one that I came up with while reading Deep Work, and I call it the 10 minute rule. It came about because I, like many people, find the internet to be my greatest weakness when it comes to maintaining focus. The rule is pretty simple:

Any time I'm on my computer/smartphone, I'll divide my time into 10 minute blocks of mindful activity. I will never spend fewer than 10 minutes at a time on a task.

The idea behind this is to spend my online time mindfully, yet maintain flexibility in scheduling and keep the aspects of social media that I enjoy (and that are essential to my business). Disconnecting completely is not an option, so I needed a way to have my cake and eat it too.

In order to help out with this, I created a very simple script on my computer that launches a little pop-up window every 10 minutes. When the window pops up, I make a quick plan for how I'll spend the next 10 minutes, or I turn off the computer if I'm done.

Usually the plan-making takes just a few seconds. Example plans might be as simple as "keep answering work email", or something more complicated like my usual social media rounds: "check Facebook, check Instagram, check mtbr forums, use any extra time to go find bikepacking-related posts on Instagram and comment on them".

That's the gist, but there are a couple other things required to make this one work:

  • I turned off notifications on my phone, of all kinds
  • I find I need to keep a "Look-up list", to write down things to look up later
  • If I happen to finish a session early, I never spend the time on social media or email
I've been following this rule for the past few days, and I've noticed a couple things so far. First, I'm not as tempted as I used to be to go check Facebook or Instagram after I make a particularly engaging post. It's easier to deny those urges because I have a clear boundary, and most of the time I don't want to go spend a whole 10 minutes on the computer - what my brain wants to do is go check Facebook, Instagram and Email in a quick round. The 10 minute rule gives me an easy excuse that doesn't require a lot of willpower*.

The second thing I've noticed is that, when you're acting mindfully, 10 minutes is a really long time. I continue to be surprised at how quickly I accomplish my 10-minute plans. It's amazing how many emails you can answer in a quick, focused session - and how few you can answer in a couple hours of semi-mindless idling.

*The idea of avoiding use of willpower sounds like a weakness or failure on my part. It's hard for me not to feel that way, but I have science on my side here: Willpower has been shown in multiple studies to be an exhaustible resource that actually uses glucose in your brain! Conserving it is smart strategy, not weakness.

So that's the 10-minute rule! It might not apply to you, although I know that checking social media frequently is a problem for more people than me. It never used to be, but then I started a business that relies on it and that's made it much harder to stay away. Between Facebook, Instagram and email it can feel like there's always something to check. So far this strategy is working out for me, but I'm sure I'll end up tweaking it over time.

Next week will be about embracing boredom, and after that I've got ideas for exercising more, eating more vegetables, eating more bacon - all the usual suspects. Also a brief overview of the science of willpower and how to create strategies that are easy to follow. Right now I'm sick with a cold, so all of those sound very daunting. It's taking all my limited willpower to stick to the 10-minute rule.


If you want to try this, you can tweak it to fit your specific situation. For example you could do a 20-minute minimum instead, or divide your time into different-sized blocks. But the important thing is to keep it simple and make the decision-making easy on yourself. Conserve your precious willpower.

For the 10-minute popup timer, I use linux so my method won't work for most people. But here's a way to do something similar on windows.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why You Should Buy a Vacuum Sealer

I bought a Foodsaver vacuum sealer a few months ago, and I've come to the conclusion that everyone should buy one.  That's a pretty bold statement, I admit.  I'll explain it in detail, but for the TLDR crowd:
  1. Everyone should eat lots of fresh vegetables
  2. Food waste is a big problem
  3. A vacuum sealer will make fresh vegetables (and a lot of other things) last much longer
Basically a vacuum sealer makes it easy to eat a lot of fresh veggies, salad, and other perishable items without having some of them go bad.  It's like a level-up for your refrigerator.  And you can get started very cheaply - for as little as $15.  By using the Foodsaver mason jar attachment, you can vacuum seal in reusable jars, without wasting plastic bags.  Case in point: salad greens:

Spring mix, crisp and delicious after two weeks vacuum sealed in the fridge.

I still use the plastic bags occasionally, but the mason jar attachment is what really makes my Foodsaver shine.  At a one-time purchase of $10, this little gadget is our key to storing food in completely re-usable, plastic-free glass jars.  This turned my sealer from a kitchen toy into a workhorse that has changed my life.  And that is no exaggeration.  I'm eating a lot more vegetables now.  Orders of magnitude more salad.  And I've hardly thrown away any food since I got it.

The attachment hooks up to your Foodsaver with a hose (or you can use it with much cheaper hand pumps, more on that later).  When you want to seal a jar you put on a standard mason jar lid (just the lid, and not the band).  Put the attachment on top of the jar, press the canister button, and let it go to town.  When the motor turns off, undo the lock lever on your Foodsaver to release the pressure (or remove the hose) and take the attachment off.

Sealing some kale in a jar before a road trip - it'll be crisp and fresh in the fridge when I get back.

The lids can be reused over and over again.  There are two sizes of jar lids - the wide mouth and regular.  I prefer the wide mouth for just about everything but the smaller 4oz and 8oz jars are only available in the regular size.

As for opening the jars once they are sealed, there are two good ways.  First, Foodsaver recommends putting a spoon between the top thread of the jar and the lid and turning it.  This uses leverage and is very easy.  But I find it's more convenient just to use my thumbs.  Hold the mason jar in both hands and press up firmly on the lid with both thumbs.  Listen for the "woosh" sound as air enters the jar, and enjoy the contents.

Opening a jar of goat cheese with my preferred method.

So, What Does Vacuum Sealing Actually Do?

It's important to talk briefly about what vacuum sealing does for food storage (and what it doesn't do).  Vacuum sealing a mason jar removes most of the oxygen, and that has several effects.  The most important for me are that it stops mold, slows vegetable wilting and slows flavor changes from oxidation.  This means that it will help some foods last much longer in the fridge, or help dry foods last much longer in the cupboard.  It also prevents freezer burn.

It's important not to use the vacuum sealer as a substitute for canning, because of botulism.  Botulism spores can't reproduce in the cold of the fridge, or in dry food.  But if you are trying to store wet food outside of the fridge in a vacuum you're actually creating ideal conditions for botulism.  So don't do it.  Here's are some things you can (and should!) use a vacuum sealer for!

Fresh Vegetables

Yum, delicious salad!

In my experience, any vegetable you seal in a mason jar will last longer.  This is where my Foodsaver has really changed my diet - I'm eating things like celery and salad again.  Celery stays crisp and fresh for weeks when sealed in a mason jar in the fridge!  No longer do I buy some for a soup and then end up with half of it sad and limp in a week.  I can buy a bunch and use it at my leisure.

Salad is really the "killer app" of the Foodsaver for me.  I got out of the habit of buying it for a long time before I got my vacuum sealer.  I was tired of picking out wilted greens, or having it get slimy in the fridge.  I would end up wasting half of a bag by the time it was done.  I don't like to waste food, so I just stopped buying it.  I'm sure I'm not alone in this problem.

But now salad is so easy to deal with!  I buy large 1-pound boxes of spring mix, pick out whatever has gone bad already and seal the rest in quart-sized mason jars.  The salad will keep for a couple weeks in the fridge this way and stay totally fresh and crisp.  So when I'm in the mood for a salad I just grab a jar and go to town.  No wilting, no sliminess, just delicious salad every time.

Broccoli, roughly chopped and sealed in a half-gallon mason jar.

There are a lot more uses than salad and celery, too.  Got more veggies than you need for dinner?  Cut it all up anyway, seal the extras in a mason jar and they'll last longer in the fridge so you can use them in another meal.  Got some extra lime or lemon halves?  Store them in a jar to use later; they'll keep for at least a month.  Carrots will keep for over a month as well, without drying out or becoming limp.  Basically, put an end to food waste in your household!

Whole limes will keep in the fridge for weeks in a vacuum sealed jar.  Even limes cut in half will keep for a while without drying out.
Dry Food

Some jars in my backpacking food cache.  From left to right: Mountain House fried rice, dried hummus, corn snacks, freeze-dried veggies, dried mangos, dried spinach, home-dried roasted red bell peppers, Nido whole milk powder, and dried pork.

Dry food might not be an obvious use for the sealer, because it is shelf-stable already.  But as someone who has a large cache of backpacking food, I'm well aware of the ways that dry food can go bad.  There are two basic ways that it happens - fats go rancid, and food becomes overly dry.

The rancid part is the most common.  Basically oils oxidize and this makes them taste stale.  The flavor is a lot like the way playdough smells if you aren't familiar with it.  This happens a lot with nuts but also with other backpacking food.  Now that I have the foodsaver I can buy nuts and other dried food in bulk and seal them in jars.  This saves me a lot of money.

The less common problem is that food becomes overly dry.  This happens with dried fruit (dried organic mangoes become brittle particularly fast), and makes it much less pleasant to eat.  It also seems to bring out bitter flavors in some fruit.  It also makes freeze-dried items rehydrate slower.  Seal them in jars and they'll last for months, if not years (maybe decades for freeze-dried food) without losing their deliciousness.

With these two problems at bay, I can keep a backpacking food cache in my garage.  So I can buy things in bulk, and when it comes time to pack for a trip I don't really need to buy much.  This saves me from going to multiple different stores before a trip.  For example, I like to buy dried fruit at Natural Grocer's in Flagstaff, which is all the way across town from me.  It's really good quality but inconvenient to get to.  Now I just buy it in bulk and take it out of the jars as needed.  I do the same with Mountain House dinners in #10 cans, as well as freeze-dried veggies and other ingredients that I have to buy at specialty stores.

Bulk Purchases

Half-gallon mason jars are great for bulkier items like this kettle corn.
This category encompasses some of the previous ideas, but it's worth going into in its own right.  I'm a big Costco/Sam's Club shopper (I wish Flagstaff had Costco but Sam's is what we have).  I think I get it from my grandparents, who would buy food on sale, and had 3 freezers full of ice cream in their basement.  Some day...

Anyway, having a Foodsaver makes a lot of bulk purchases more feasible.  I already mentioned nuts and backpacking food, but the sky's the limit really.  I bought a giant bag of kettle corn on sale at Sam's a month ago, and sealed it in half-gallon jars (yes, they make them that big!).  I've still got one sitting in my cupboard, waiting for snacktime.  Or I can buy queso fresco or goat cheese in bulk, crumble it into a mason jar and seal.  Need just a bit of goat cheese for a salad or a pizza?  No problem, pop open the jar and pour some out.

Those examples were great cost-savers, but some of my bulk purchases are more about convenience.  If I know I'll go through something it's easier to buy a bunch of it than to have to go back to the store later.  For example, I buy good quality Morena sugar for making ice cream in bulk, and seal it in jars so that it won't clump up over time.  You could do the same for any kind of sugar.  No longer do I have old bags of rock hard brown sugar in the cupboard.  I also use arrowroot powder as a thickener (it's great for ice cream), and I've read that it will lose thickening power over time.  Not in a vacuum sealed mason jar it won't!

Arrowroot powder and brown sugar - no clumping here!

Where To Get The Supplies

Pretty much any FoodSaver brand vacuum sealer has a hose for use with Foodsaver canisters or the jar sealer.  But I'll provide links to the Amazon listings for some options I recommend.  These are affiliate links, which means I get a little bit of Amazon credit if you click on them and order the product.  It doesn't add any cost to you.  I'm not going to get rich off of this but why not?  If you enjoyed the read you can support the time I spent writing it and maybe I can buy a book or two.

For the vacuum sealer, I use this Gamesaver model, because it has good reviews and I've heard the Gamesaver series is heavier duty than the regular models.  I'm not sure if that's true and I haven't had mine long enough to tell, but it seems sturdy and I trust the reviews.  My only complaint is that it's a little loud, but I think that's true of any vacuum sealer except the Ziplock kit (read on).

There are two cheaper options - the Reynolds Handi-Vac and the Ziplock starter kit.  They both come with a pump and special bags, and in both cases the bags aren't very good.  But the pumps work on top of the Foodsaver mason jar attachment.  So with the Ziplock kit you can start vacuum sealing mason jars for under $15, and the Reynolds pump isn't much more.   I have the Ziplock pump as a backup.  One advantage is that it's hand powered and therefore quiet.  It doesn't pull as strong of a vacuum, so I still use my Foodsaver most of the time.

All of these sealers require the Foodsaver wide-mouth mason jar attachment.  You can also get the regular-mouth attachment here.  I recommend the wide mouth attachment for most foods - it works better, plus the wide mouth jars are more convenient and easy to clean.  The regular mouth sealer is quirky and requires you to use two lids when sealing a jar - the bottom lid will seal onto the jar and the top is just a spacer that makes the sealer work.  I only use the regular-mouth attachment for 8oz and 4oz jars, to seal spices and other small items.

As for the mason jars, I don't recommend ordering these online.  You should be able to find them locally if you shop around - half of the grocery stores in my area have them and half don't.  But the cheapest place is actually my local ACE hardware store, and that seems to be true in other places as well.  So check your hardware store first.

Lastly, I splurged a bit and got this Stainless Steel Wide-Mouth Funnel.  Unlike most canning funnels it's specifically made for wide-mouth jars, and it's built to last.  It's a bit expensive for a funnel but it's been well worth it for me, and I expect to get decades of use out of it.

Other Uses For the Sealer

Here are some more uses for the sealer that didn't fit into the post.  I'll add to this as I think of more:
  • Fresh berries (I haven't tried this but I've heard it works really well)
  • Some spices are worth storing in jars - I have some nutmeg sealed in a small jar.  It should last me for years at the rate I use it, and it won't go bad on me like it has in the past
  • Next time you buy a bunch of green onions, chop up the whole bunch at once and seal in a small jar to use as needed
  • Shred a whole block of cheese at once with a food processor and seal in jars
  • Freeze homemade ice cream in freezer-safe mason jars (like wide-mouth pints), then vacuum seal to prevent freezer burn
  • I make homemade yogurt by the gallon and seal it in quart jars - it'll keep for months in the fridge
  • Buy meat in bulk, cut it up all at once, then freeze it in portions so you can just pull it out and cook with it.  Normally all the extra surface area from cutting would subject the meat to freezer burn, but when vacuum sealed that doesn't happen.
  • You could seal cookies . . . if they last long enough in your house to get stale.  That's never been an issue for me.  But you could double your batches and seal half of it to eat later.  Since they're dry goods they can be stored at room temperature and they should keep texture and flavor better than if stored in the fridge or freezer.
Have your own ideas or experiences?  Post a comment below and add to the discussion.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

100 Miles to New Year's: The Gear

So after writing the trip report for our latest hike, I thought I'd add a section about the gear I used.  This was a hard trip, and we really put our gear to the test.  Everything worked well, and few items were spurious, so I feel like I have a pretty good setup right now and it might be worth sharing.  I'll share my whole gear list, and then go through a few of the items that I really like.

Weights are in grams on the left, then ounces, then pounds (in bold).  Yeah, I'm stuck in a horrible place in between metric and imperial.  Deal with it.

So that's the list of everything I carried, and here are some of the items that really stood out.  I picked 8 items total, 4 bought and 4 homemade:

Purchased Items:

Locus Gear CP3 Trekking Poles

Best trekking poles ever.  Hands down.  No contest.  I love these poles.  I don't always use trekking poles, but when I'm hiking steep trails, or if I'm off trail in the desert, I find them incredibly useful.  And when I switched from a normal aluminum pair of poles to these carbon fiber ones, it was a revelation.  No other gear change has had a more noticeable effect than switching to lighter poles.  It makes sense, too - 8 oz weight savings is a lot on an item that you're swinging around and lifting all day with your hands.  Using these poles is such a delight compared to my old aluminum ones.

These poles have now been on multiple off-trail Grand Canyon adventures with me, and they've held up great.  I use them for countless purposes and they've really become an extension of my body.  I don't think I could even enumerate all of the things I use them for, because they are so ingrained in me that I think there are lots of little ways I use them that I'm not even aware of.  Suffice it to say, I put these poles to the test, and I put a lot of weight on them over the course of this hike.  But here's a short list of uses:
  • For stability on loose terrain
  • Saving my knees on steep descents
  • "Pole-vaulting" gaps between rocks (saves energy versus dropping in and out)
  • Taking pressure off of my downhill foot when contouring off-trail (for the first 4 days of this hike I had my left pole set to 4" longer than my right pole, and I'm sure I prevented a blister in my left foot by using my poles).
  • Reducing strain on my knees when climbing up or down small boulders
  • Planting the poles on the ground to change my angle of force to a rock that I'm on, allowing me to walk down steeper rock faces than otherwise possible.  Yay, physics!
  • For extra propulsion when climbing up a hill.  Might as well use my upper body as well as my legs
  • Tied together to make a pole for the pyramid tent (see below)
  • Used with a 3rd pole and a Trailpix to make a backcountry tripod for night photography
That's all I can think of for now, but basically the gist is this: these poles are delightfully light and amazingly tough for their weight.  On last year's trip I used them about half the time, and they were definitely worth carrying.  On this trip I used them 90% of the time, only taking them off for some flat wash walking.  These were easily my most valuable item on the trail.  If you are clumsy then you could break them hiking off trail, but if you're reasonably nimble they'll treat you well.

Zpacks Fleece Hat

Not too much to say about this one.  It's a hat!  But it's a particularly well designed one, with double-layering around the years for extra warmth.  It's packable enough to fit in a pants pocket, so this was my go-to layer for temperature regulation during the hike.  I could put it on and off without removing my pack, and I did so dozens of times a day on this trip.

Exped Downmat Lite 5 and Exped Pillow

So I've resisted getting an inflatable sleeping pad for a long time.  Two years ago I got an inflatable pillow, and it was a revelation.  I still wanted to keep my closed cell foam pads but I finally got an inflatable when I realized that they make them with insulation inside.  On last year's hike there were several nights where I felt the cold of the ground rising up through my sleeping pad.  Not much, but enough to make me realize I was wasting energy that way.  If an insulated inflatable pad would keep those cold spots away, it would pay for its weight on long trips by reducing my food intake.

Some of the lighter downmats have had delamination issues.  If you google for it you'll find a number of users who have had issues.  But the Lite 5 is made of a bit heavier fabric and I haven't seen a single report of failure, so I decided to go with this version.

It's definitely heavier than my old closed cell foam pads, but it's a lot warmer.  And, of course, it's outrageously comfortable.  And coincidence or not, I've been hiking out with more food since I got it.  Might be time to drop my food total from 2 lbs/day to 1.8 lbs/day.

1/2" Tubular Webbing

Instead of a rope, we carry a 35-foot piece of climbing webbing to haul packs with.  If you're not familiar with the terminology, "webbing" basically just means that it's a flat rope rather than round.  Flat rope is a bit more abrasion resistant and also makes a more comfortable handline than p-cord.  The 1/2" webbing that we used is lighter than typical climbing webbing and has a breaking strength of "only" 1000 pounds or so.  Plenty good enough for handlines and pack hauls.  We got it at the Zion Adventure Company in Springdale, Utah, but I'm sure there are other sources.

Homemade Items:

"Awkward Mittens, version 2.0"

These are a homemade set of mittens.  I should take a photo of them, but they are pretty simple.  They're made by just tracing my hand for a pattern, adding some seam allowance, and sewing two of that pattern together.  Then they were made smaller until I got a good fit.  They're called awkward mittens because one time at a backcountry campsite I said "I'm not drunk, I just have awkward mittens!", and the name has stuck.

Anyway, version 2.0 of the mitts was made with a 200-weight Polartec windblock fleece, and they are sooo much better than the first pair.  The windblock fleece really does work, and even on our extremely cold and windy day after Christmas my hands were fine.  And since I made them myself with no frills, they are very light (about 1 oz for the pair).  I get cold hands easily, so this is an extremely valuable ounce.

CCF Cozy

CCF stands for "closed cell foam".  Anyone can make one of these with an old sleeping pad and some contact cement.  My cozy fits around a 750 ml Toaks Titanium mug, and I use it to eat my dinners and also have hot drinks.  Maybe I'm a slow eater, but in the winter I find it hard to eat a meal before it gets cold.  With the cozy, that is no longer an issue.  And I can savor a hot drink for half an hour without it getting too cold.  For summer hiking this might be a spurious item, but for winter it's amazing.  Why slam your hot cocoa when you can take your time and enjoy it?

Rogue Panda Backpack
The pack I took on this hike.  It's no longer so shiny and white.

Full disclosure: Rogue Panda is my company.  So this might sound like an ad, but I'm really just talking about the features of the pack that I like.  This was my 3rd prototype backpacking pack and it convinced me to start making them for sale.  I use the Zpacks Arc Blast suspension system with a couple of modifications, including a beefier hipbelt and a different attachment system.  This makes the pack better able to handle big water carries, for those days where your light pack gets burdened down with an extra 15 pounds of water for a few hours.

The material is a laminate material with a dyneema face fabric and an interior waterproofing layer.  It's incredibly durable and fully waterproof, yet lightweight.  I seal the seams for an actual waterproof pack.  It's trustworthy enough that I just stuff my sleeping bag into the bottom, no dry sack required.

I don't have a name for the pack yet, but I've named all of my packs after Arizona trail sections, so I'll probably pick one of those.  I'm leaning towards the "Catalina".  It's got a nice ring to it, I think.

Pyramid Tent

My old 'mid tent in extremely high winds last year
So I've made a couple pyramid tents before out of silnylon, but my most recent one was made out of silpoly from RipstopByTheRoll.  Silpoly has the advantage of having very little stretch, so you don't need to adjust guylines if the tent gets wet during the night.

I really like this pyramid tent for the canyon, for a number of reasons:
  1. It weighs 1.5 lbs for a solid 2-3 person shelter.
  2. Pyramid tents do extremely well in wind.
  3. It makes use of my trekking poles for the pole, which saves weight.
  4. Mine doesn't have a floor, which is superfluous weight when you cowboy camp a lot and carry an ultralight heat-shrink-film groundsheet instead*.
  5. It's roomy.  Really roomy.  Three people can sleep in it in a pinch.
  6. You can rig it with the doors open as a windblock and still see the stars, but be able to quickly close the door if it starts to rain.
I recently I decided to start making tents for sale and bought a roll of fabric.  Again, no name or price just yet.  I'm working out just a couple of kinks and then they'll be for sale.

So anyway, there's the gear talk!  Hope you enjoyed it.

*Don't talk to me about Tyvek.  It's heavy.  What's that, you say?  It was free from a construction site?  So what?  A window insulation kit is like 10 bucks, and it'll save you 5 ounces versus Tyvek.  Find a better price/weight deal anywhere else and I'll eat my shoe.**

** Not really.  But seriously, you can't do much better than that.

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.

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.

100 Miles to New Year's: Part One of Three (Marble Canyon)

The whole enchilada.  Yellow dots are campsites.

Time for another trip report!  This one was from South Canyon to Nankoweap.  I'll be posting it in three parts - one for the Marble Canyon section, one for the Butte Fault route, and one for the rest of the trip.  Above this is a map of the entire trip we took, and below is a map of the section described in this post.  Read below for the detailed description and photos.

Note: I make use of my "chili pepper" scale of spiciness for exposed routes in this trip report.  In short:
  • 1 chili pepper: My cousin Pam could do it (i.e. not exposed at all)
  • 2 chili peppers: Craig can handle it with ease (exposure or tricky climbing, usually not both together)
  • 3 chili peppers: I can handle it, no problem.  Scrambling with exposure.  Usually this is 3rd class but sometimes 4th.
  • 4 chili peppers: I can handle it but I'm in "free solo" mode, which means never taking two limbs off the rock at once, assuming that every hold will break off, and being extremely focused the whole time
  • 5 chili peppers: No way, Jose.
Part one of the hike (Marble Canyon section)

Day 0: 0.7 miles

Squeeeel screeech . . . screeeech . . . screeech . . . scrape . . .
- Nick's Subaru

8 am.  Snow on the ground with a bit more falling.  A beautiful winter's day in Flagstaff.  Bags packed, shuttle driver ready, coffee in the cup holder.  And now this.  What could it be?  Cursory examination of the front wheels yielded little insight, nor did a short drive around the block.  Could be serious; might not be.  Either way, not worth risking a long drive down a dirt road.  With our only vehicle with any kind of clearance out of commission, what to do?  But I digress.  Best to start at the beginning.

Last year my friend Craig and I embarked on a landmark hike for us, 100 miles across the Grand Canyon, with most of it off-trail.  That hike started as an isolated adventure, conceived one afternoon in the Grand Canyon Backcountry Office while looking at Harvey Butchart's map of routes in the canyon, and realizing how we could connect many of his lines into one hike.  But in the months afterward, it turned into a plan to hike the entire north side of the river in sections, from Lee's Ferry to Pierce Ferry.  There would be 6 total.  With the first one down we set our sights on the section from Nankoweap to Phantom Ranch for our second trip.  This would meet up with our previous trip and mirror it, coming in from the other side.  (To read last year's trip report, click here)

Anyway, back to the present.  With my Subaru in questionable condition, we were unwilling to take it out to the remote Nankoweap trailhead.  So we decided to switch vehicles, to my Dad's Civic hybrid (our shuttle vehicle from the year before).  It had handled Hack Canyon remarkably well on the last hike, but we felt it lacked the clearance to make it to the end of the Nankoweap road.  The solution was clear - grab a couple more days' of food and start at South Canyon instead.

The decision to start at South would add 3 days to our trip, and they were some pretty hard ones - but we didn't know that last part just yet.  We packed our bags again, drove up to the South Rim and got the permit, and then headed off to the trailhead.  The road out to South Canyon was in great shape and we only bottomed out twice on our way out there.  We stopped a short distance from the actual trailhead, when the road got rocky.  My Dad dropped us off, wished us luck, and headed on down the road.

See you later, Dad!
And just like last year, we were committed.  Us, our packs, and the big ditch.  No vehicle to turn back to, just miles and miles ahead.  It was late afternoon so we hiked just a little bit and then set up our tent and got out the maps, taking a closer look at the days ahead.  It begins!

Few things feel more committing than getting dropped off at the end of a desert road, carrying everything you need for two weeks of travel on your backs.

Day 1: 11.7 miles

A one, a one, a one two three nope!
- Craig, trying unsuccessfully to get out of his sleeping bag on our first cold morning

A cold snap hit northern AZ just before our hike.  In South Canyon, evidence remained.

We awoke to cold temperatures, but mild weather near the top of South Canyon.  The route down into the bed of the canyon is very steep (2.5 chili peppers on my 5-pepper exposure scale), and in less than an hour we were near the bottom of the Hermit shale.  The walk down the drainage was easy and straightforward, with a few minor bypasses and patches of vegetation to fight through.  Despite moderate temperatures in the canyon, there was quite a bit of ice left from the cold snap of a few days before.

Part of the route down into South Canyon.  Spot the wildlife
Walking down South Canyon was pleasant, and soon we were at the top of the Redwall limestone, where we would begin contouring south above the Colorado River.  This section of the Grand Canyon is unique, in that the Redwall forms a steep cliff directly into the river for several miles.  This means that walking next to the river is impossible, so the only options are to go above the Redwall or above the Supai.  We chose to hike above the Redwall, because it seemed like easier walking and we thought we'd have a good chance of finding water pockets in the drainages.
We filled up with what we thought was just enough water to make it to the 50 mile route (our next route to the river), albeit very dehydrated.  This is a common strategy for us - fill up with the bare minimum and hope to find more for comfort.  (Note: this is a safe strategy for experienced hikers in the winter - not so safe in the summer.  Hike smart and know your abilities).  We figured we'd be at Nankoweep in a couple of days if we hiked fast, so we packed a few liters of water each out of South Canyon.

Walked over a natural bridge.  Because, why not?
At first, the walking was pretty easy, atop Redwall benches high above the river.  The views were fantastic, looking down at Vasey's Paradise and Redwall Cavern along the way.  We even walked over a natural bridge in the Redwall on the way out of South Canyon.  But soon the side drainages started adding up and the going got tougher.  We barely got to the edge of our use area at dusk and set up camp.  I was feeling pretty worn out, and wondering if maybe I should start doing warm-up trips before these hikes?

Day 2: 10 miles

I hate that phrase 'contouring around'.   It makes it sound so easy, when it is often so hard.
-George Steck, Grand Canyon Loop Hikes

It begins with a bit of mild irritation.  Maybe I'm just a bit dehydrated, I think to myself.  Maybe I'll lay off the liquor tonight and have a cup of tea.  My throat will feel better in the morning, right?  Right.

Of course, it usually doesn't turn out that way . . . and this time was no exception.  When we woke up this morning, I knew I was sick.  Sick with what could become a simple cold, or a case of the flu.  There was no sense in dwelling on it, but it certainly had the chance to make me miserable. Two years before I'd hiked from South Bass to Boucher on the Tonto and on the 2nd day I'd come down with the H1N1 virus (AKA the swine flu).  It lasted the entire 8-day trip and a few days after, and it was some of the most miserable hiking I'd ever done.  And that trip was on a trail!

I knew now that we would hike slower than expected, and also that I was going to want to drink a lot more water.  So I was happy when we came across water in a couple of minor drainages early on in the day.  We felt pretty confident after that that we would find water in lots of drainages coming from the rim.  Even if some of those potholes were below accessible pouroffs, we could still get water in the other ones.

Water pockets we found in a minor drainage.

With our water issues more or less settled, we set about the task of getting some miles under our feet.  Easier said than done.  At times, we had easy contouring to contend with, but overall the Redwall contouring was among the toughest walking I've done anywhere.

There's no easy answer as to why.  The Tonto platform has many of the same challenges (boulder fields and washes to cross, cliffs to avoid and big drainages to head).  So we knew what to expect at a basic level.  I think the Redwall section just has fewer flat sections and more obstacles to contend with.  This is partly due to the nature of the Redwall and also to the friable nature of the Supai, which contributed most of the blocks that we had to climb over in those boulder fields.  On the Tonto you can get long sections without crossing any major drainages or scrambling over boulder fields.  On the Redwall, it seems like you never get a break.

The Redwall doesn't offer as expansive of a plateau to contour on as the Tonto does.  But sometimes you get nice deer trails, right on the edge!

On the way we encountered the old Marble Dam site.  Back in the 1950's, surveys were carried out here for the proposed dam.  At the time this was outside of Grand Canyon National Park.  There were also proposals to direct most of the river's water through a tunnel all the way over to the Kanab Creek area in order to generate hydroelectric power without building a dam in the park itself!  Thankfully both of these plans were scrapped and Marble Canyon was added to the National Park in 1975.  Some trash still remains from the exploratory drilling surveys, however.

Some trash left by the dam surveyors.

We continued on to 36.7 mile canyon, where we had heard of a large pothole from Butchart's book.  We had found other water so we didn't need it, but we were curious to find it.  When we got there the pothole was below a large chockstone and dryfall.  Climbing down looked pretty tough (I'd rate it 4.5 chili peppers on my 5-pepper scale, which means I'd do it if I had to but I'd try very hard to avoid it).  We pondered a scheme of lowering a water bottle on a string, which I think would have worked, but we didn't need the water so we saved ourselves the effort.

It was on this section that we thought up a scheme for getting water on this route.  I have some 3mm spectra guyline which has a pretty high breaking strength.  So if you brought several hundred feet of it, along with a small waterproof bag, you could put a rock in the bag, throw it into the river from above the Redwall, and drag up drinkable water.  You could even put "Please Fill With Beer" on the side and you could throw it in front of river parties.  The whole setup would weigh a couple of pounds and would work in a few places along the route.  That said, I'd much rather just go in winter after a storm, when you can find water in potholes.  But the scheme would be a lot of fun to try.

Water in the last canyon before Buck Farm.  There was an easy tunnel route (2 chili peppers) under this chockstone to reach the potholes below.
Our last part of the day was to cross Buck Farm canyon.  We could see the other side a couple hundred yards away, but had to walk about a mile in, head the two major forks of the drainage, and walk a mile back.  And of course, there were some side drainages and boulder fields to cross along the way.  So we looked across, picked a target campsite, and headed on in.  It took us a couple of hours to get around all of the side drainages, but we did find accessible water in the south fork, so that was nice.

When we got to camp, we took a look at a shortcut we had been eyeing on our topo map.  Point Hansbrough extends for a couple of miles out into the canyon, and rather than walking several miles around it, we could head for a saddle where the top cliff band of Supai breaks down.  Or at least that's what it looked like on the map.  When we got there and took a good look, we could see a probable route up through the lower Supai cliffs.  We had no idea if we could get down the other side, but in the Supai you can usually find a way, so we felt pretty confident about the next day.

Sometimes the Redwall walking is easy . . .

And sometimes you come to a side drainage and it looks like this.

Day 3: 10.2 miles

I think I'll contour just below the really big potatoes, above the baby reds. - Craig
Stop reminding me that I forgot the butter! - Nick

Climbing the second Supai band, heading up to the Point Hansbrough saddle.
I woke up still sick, but our Point Hansbrough route buoyed my spirits.  Cutting the corner gave us the chance to do 3 river miles in just a couple of hours, an unheard of pace when it comes to Grand Canyon contouring.  We headed over to the base below the saddle and our route still looked easy, so we picked our way through the bottom two Supai bands with a bit of scrambling.  The third band had a bit more climbing, but it wasn't hard and there was little exposure.  From there it was an easy walk to the top of the saddle.

The Point Hansbrough saddle.
I kept my expectations pretty low before arriving at the saddle, expecting to find continuous Supai cliffs on the other side.  If so, we would have contoured downstream above each layer of Supai until finding a break.  Fortunately, there was a talus slope next to the saddle that covered all of the Supai, so we were able to get down immediately back to the top of the Redwall.  3 river miles in about an hour - not bad!

The rest of the day followed the same pattern as the one before.  It was becoming familiar - I would wake up with a lot of energy from a restful night of sleep, and walk fairly quickly for the first half of the day.  Then in the afternoon my illness and tiredness would catch up to me and I'd slow down quite a bit.  So as we neared Saddle Canyon I was starting to get pretty tired.  Fortunately Craig was paying attention to the map and noticed that the point above the mouth of Saddle on the upstream side would likely have a really good view both up and down the river, so we focused on that as our goal for a late lunch break.

Some rare easy walking on the way to Saddle Canyon.
Craig arrived there first and walked to the edge to eat his lunch.  As he neared the edge he startled a bird that was just under the cliff edge.  He made a positive identification of it being a condor by looking down on it from above and seeing the strap that holds the number tag on!  It flew over his head and then over mine, about 15 feet up.  It was hard to read the number while it was moving but we think it was 27 or 57.  It circled over our heads a couple times, then flew high up and we lost sight of it.  It was the closest I've ever come to a condor.

Probably the best wildlife shot I've gotten in the canyon.
After that, I took a panoramic shot of the bend in the river.  This is one of those places that I'll have to go back to sometime.  After much scheming on how, I think I'm going to rappel Saddle Canyon, hike out to the point, and use the ropes to lean out over the edge.  That way I could get a panorama that showed the whole view of the river's bend.  In fact I would camp there and take at least two panos, one at sunset and one at sunrise.  Plus some night photography.  We could then continue upstream and hike out Buck Farm.

The pano I shot above the mouth of Saddle.  One of these days I'll come back and get a better shot...
It took us a long time to move on past Saddle, and just as we got past it the weather changed.  The wind picked up, and soon we were walking through wind-blown sleet and rain.  But it wasn't too cold and the wind was at our backs, so the walking was pretty pleasant for a while.  As we headed into the next major drainage, the rain turned heavier and we decided to take shelter.

Just past Saddle Canyon.
Often in the canyon (and throughout the Southwest) the heaviest precipitation comes in along a front and lasts just a few minutes.  Since we needed to take a break anyway, we found an overhang and waited out the storm.  By the time we'd eaten some food, looked at maps and talked about possible campsites, the rain had abated and we were on our way.  We made our way across that drainage, contoured around into 50 mile canyon, and found a flat campsite on the other side, up and out of the creek.

We set up the tent and I got into my sleeping bag before 5 pm.  I was still feeling sick and very worn out.  We had finally passed what was to be our original entry into the Canyon - the route down off of the rim in the drainage north of 50 mile.  It only took 3 hard days to get there.

Day 4: 9.5 miles

Do not release outdoors
- Writing on a scrap of a helium balloon, found above the Little Nankoweap route

Finally, we were going to make it to Nankoweap!  I was feeling worse every day, so we decided to make this a low-mileage day and camp at Nankoweap creek.  Turned into a few more miles than we thought, but it still felt relatively easy.  We could see a bit of trail heading out of 50 mile, but from our campsite we decided it would be more efficient to head up a talus slope to the top of the Supai and then find a way down somewhere on the other side.

The going was easy enough, and soon we were on top of the Supai.  We could see a route down, but we'd have to backtrack a bit to descend, then contour over a few drainages and some boulder fields we could see below us.  I convinced Craig that we should just contour on top of the Supai until the Little Nankoweap drainage and then find a way down.  It looked so easy from where we were standing.

View from above the Supai near Little Nankoweap
Of course, when we got around the next corner we realized that we'd have some drainages to cross up there as well.  I'm still not sure which route would've been faster, but we got to the point before Little Nankoweap soon enough and found a way down right off of the point.  The views down to the mouth of Nankoweap Creek were incredible.  Soon we were on the river runner's trail that heads down the Little Nankoweap redwall route.

The beginning of the descent into Little Nankoweap
The Little Nankoweap route is steep and exposed, including two spots where we passed packs.  It's a solid 3+ chili pepper route.  But the route is well-used, so it's cairned and easy to find.  Soon we were at the bottom and it was a short walk down to the river.  Craig went off to see the granaries and I laid out in the sun to rest (I'd seen the granaries twice before).  The sun was shining and the temperature was mild, but I needed every one of my layers on to feel warm.  I'm pretty sure I had a fever at that point.  Craig returned and we hiked up creek to a campsite near where the Nankoweap trail hits the creek and set up camp early, around 4 pm.

Craig took this shot of Mount Hayden standing tall while I was resting in my sleeping bag.
We were exhausted, but excited to move on from the Marble Canyon section of our journey, into new territory.  We knew that the Butte Fault route wasn't a walk in the park, and I wasn't getting better any time soon.  But at least we wouldn't have to contour for a while.

To read the next chapter of the trip report, click here.