Back to the Wall Tour
Tanner, Escalante, Tonto, Grandview
The frigid wind roared, large snowflakes flew, as the van slipped around icy curves on the drive to Lipan Point early Easter morning. After a restless night in "Buckys Lodge" I was more excited than a kid at Christmas. Finally, after all the months of planning we were mere minutes from descending the Canyon's southern wall. The Lipan Point parking lot was under attack from fiercely blowing snow. We didn't dawdle getting ready as the gusting storm hammered us. Strapping on our packs (in near white out conditions) we wound our way through the stunted Juniper maze and over the ledge. Dropping over the rim, the noise of the gale quickly quieted, and we found ourselves in a winter paradise, as the Canyon embraced us. We were the first ones down the invisible Tanner Trail that lay beneath an ivory carpet. The melody of new snow scrunching under our heels soothed our decent among the trees. We had hired a guide, and he found the trail mostly by memory for the initial few miles. More about the guide decision later.
Down and jarringly down and relentlessly down over uneven and slick footing. Everyone slipped down at least once. The snow covered slick icy stones made for treacherous traction. Each step was measured, each was carefully chosen before being committed to. I was stunned at how pathetically slow our progress was. In thirty years of hiking in California's Sierras, I had never progressed so painfully down hill. Laughing inwardly, I thought back to the month prior... trying to imagine what we were going to do at the Colorado in early afternoon. After all I thought "its only about ten miles to the river". Normally ten to twelve miles a day is a nice mellow pace in the Sierras. The intensity of concentration required to remain standing was exhausting. Every step was essential! Inattention produced a sudden seat on the trail. We were never in danger of falling anywhere life threatening, but, one of my new Leki trekking poles snapped when I fell awkwardly in the first half-hour of the hike.
No photograph could compare to the visual assault of that crisp morning. The new snow balancing atop bare branches like classic Japanese art. The large version of this image is worth seeing. The layers of sedimentary rock were frosted with toppings of white. Rouge colored vistas peaked suddenly through the clearing clouds. A sight that you cannot get from the gift shop at the Bright Angel Lodge. It was an awesome introduction to the inner canyon.
Dropping in altitude with every step, the temperature imperceptibly climbed. The morning passed, as we stepped down over big broken slippery stones. The trail became muddy. We stopped for lunch near the head of Seventy-five Mile Canyon. The snow remained only in isolated patches. The group scattered to find a flat dry rock to lay our packs (and ourselves) on. Below, the side canyon wound to the west. The view took our breath away.
Our group consisted of six: my daughter and son-in-law, Beth and Jeremy Barnes (25) from Costa Mesa, son Andrew (22) from Pleasant Hill, Ca., my brother-in-law Alan (who is an active marathoner) Moore (50) from Columbus Ohio, our guide Eb from Tucson (40?) and me David "stocky" Stockbridge (48, left knee feels like its 68) from Martinez Ca.
After lunch, we pushed on past spectacular sights. We leisurely meandered along, with everyone taking turns pointing out interesting features. Over our right shoulders, the Desert View Tower watched over us, and grew smaller. As I remember, it was late in the afternoon, when Eb said, "well, what do you think"? My left knee was really throbbing and I was bringing up the rear of the group. I had assumed that we would push on to the river, no matter what. In the Sierras, I would never consider a camp two miles from water. The truth was, the guide saw that I was dragging. He gently suggested that the group stop. It was a great decision. We stopped in a place that had an awesome view of the Palisades, and we (I) felt pleasantly tired, but not totally exhausted.
We set up for the night among the boulders and flaked out. Two hours later, another group gingerly made their way past our camp, they looked weary but determined. We saw them later in the trip... in bad shape. I leaned back against a boulder as the Desert Palisades blushed in the fading light. I couldn't help but feel thrilled to finally be nestled deep in the canyon!
Morning light spilled over the canyon's rim, diffusing as it revealed the beauty around us. My son Andrew claimed that I had snored incessantly all night. Of course, this was outrageously false. Since I'd barely gotten any sleep at all. In any event, he found a pair of ear plugs, and made a big show of wearing them nightly.
Al was standing and bounced from foot to foot. He had awoken early and run down the River and back. Eb looked at Al and you could read the puzzlement in his eyes (he was wondering if Al really had run down to the river). He wasn't sure exactly what to believe. We got going rapidly, although everyone appeared to be waiting for me. The rest of the way to the river was very easy, no ice covered rocks, or major hazards at all. We strolled to the Colorado and turned west. I was filled with joy and thankfulness. The scope of the Canyon was absolutely inspirational. Probably that sounds Pollyannaish, but it's the truth.
We passed the group we had seen the night before. They were still loitering around their campsite in the sand (maybe 200 feet or so west of the trail intersection). The young band looked tired and disheveled to me. We smiled, conversed briefly, and walked on. We moved at a relaxed pace under a friendly sun.
One of my goals had been to photograph a Grand Canyon rattlesnake. Andy spotted a small rattler sunning on the trail. Before I got within camera range (somehow I always seemed to be bringing up the rear), the little guy slithered into a small bush on the edge of the track. Since today was going to be a short mileage one, we took off our packs and wandered around; in order to give the reptile time to relax and come out of hiding. While we were meandering about, Andy spotted some sort of ruins. They turned out to be an old rude (Anasazi?) shelter. Not as impressive as the famous granaries, but still a fun discovery. Attempting to imagine what life was like for the builder of the structure was tough. Probably his life was just a little rougher than mine was back in the Bay Area suburbs. But then, finding a parking space there can be pretty difficult; so, I felt able to relate to those past residents of the Canyon.
We stopped early in the afternoon upstream from the Unkar Rapids. The weather was awesome. After setting up camp, we separated to our various interests. I soon lost sight of Al as he wandered the hillsides in a search for solitude and Canyon magic. The generation Xers flaked out on the beach. I got some water from the River and cleaned up deep in the Tammys. WARNING!! The mud in this area is extremely sticky and made a real effort to steal my Tevas. I was surprised to see that beavers had been hard at work chiseling down many of the smaller saplings that dotted the waters edge.
That evening was mild and quiet, so I slept far from the tents beneath a tree with only lacy branches between me and the stars. Lying on my back, I watched as the Big Dipper wheeled through the branches during the night. Everything was going well and I was very pleased. I had been so worried about "exposure" and it seemed as if the reports I had read were written by height sissies.
Along the trail near the river the group headed west, up the mild hill to gain the Unkar overlook. I kept my eyes open for ruins but missed them. We enjoyed snacks across from the Unkar Delta. Andy (who has absolutely no fear of high places) spent an inordinate amount of time near the edge. I casually mentioned that the rock is in a continuos state of sloughing and that he should move further from the edge. He gave me a look of condescending disdain, reserved for the insanely protective parent. Readers with children over the age of thirteen will understand what I mean. We spent time trying to see the remains of the village that is located on the Unkar Delta. All I could make out were a few packed down trails. It is supposed to be an active archeological site, anyhow I was disappointed. We watched two tiny rafts run the cataract, but from our vantage point they appeared to be class ½ rapids.
Traveling south then east towards Escalante Creek involved an easy walk followed by a good stretch of boulder hopping. We stopped for lunch on a lovely but rugged ridge that allowed us a vast appreciation of the canyon. Ten minutes into our repast, two rafters arrived from the Unkar area to share our space. Being an optimist, I assumed that since we were in such a large area (as opposed to an elevator) these guys stopped with us because they were looking for some friendly interaction. WRONG! This was a completely erroneous assumption. However, it took my Mr.Spock-like mind several minutes to uncover this fact. The conversation went something like this "Howdy! Where are you folks from"? They mumbled "un colorada". So, I perkily responded: "Great! Rafting, gee I've done that many times in California (I went on to name the rivers and their ratings in a vain attempt gain some common bond that would lead to sparkling conversation." Again they responded "unha". I gave up. We continued to chew our cheese and crackers as they stood like mimes; alternately scanning the upcoming rapids and looking at the skies. Finally they left. Whoopee! So much for the camaraderie of the inflatable!
In fairness, I should add that private boaters get on a waiting list that stretches for years, just for the opportunity to run the Colorado. They had experienced miserable cold, wet, and windy weather for days. It must have been discouraging to wait so long and to be so miserable. They did their best to share it with us. Near this area Al pointed out a visible fault on the north side of the river, the photo also slows two rafts.
The day began to warm as we pushed on. We progressed slightly up, down and around the drainages. The group rounded a point and traversed a long section of the route into the Escalante Creek side canyon. The heat began to build. The topography reminded me of Mars, hot and red with broken stone rubble and little vegetation. Traveling in the side drainage the power of the sun seemed to reflect from the bare hillsides. It was probably only eighty five but it seemed much warmer. We caught up with Andy and Jeremy resting under an over hang. Jeremy's face was reddened and he looked a little frazzled. Since Jeremy had a bad heat experience once before, we decided to take it easy the rest of the way to the river. We suggested that the rest of the group get down and set up camp. It was downhill most of the rest of the way. However, we all wanted to arrive feeling good, so Beth and I encouraged Jeremy to go slow and eat some snacks. We paused often and drank extra water. The rest of the group was a little worried, so they were waiting when we dropped down to the dry creek bed that lead to the beach camp site area.
Stumbling over the loose cobbles, we wound down and around the bend where the river came into view. We saw an odd sight. Against the left wall of the side canyon wall was a prone figure. Someone was lying down in a sleeping bag in the full sun. This seemed odd because it was very warm. When Andy greeted him, it took several seconds for the young man to respond. We looked at each other and realized that this was a potentially serious situation. All six of us were surrounding the reclining youth. Not wanting to embarrass him, we left Andy with him and we walked another hundred yards or so to a good campsite among the brush clumps. Andy got the kid's friends to bring him down to the river and cool him off, force him to eat and drink. Then he spent quite a while advising the group on caring for their companion (Andy has training as a "first responder"). It turned out that the victim had been on some kind of weird diet and they had not noticed any problems until they got to camp. We placed Jeremy into the shade and forced him to drink extra Gatorade and eat more snacks. Minutes later Jeremy was looking good and back to his normal perky personality. In retrospect, I believe that our intervention probably kept this fellow from going on to severe heat stroke and maybe death, because when we arrived his group was fooling around at the river's edge and not attending to their friend.
We took time to kick back and get cleaned up. There is a lovely protected beach area to the west and the boys plunged in. They did not linger in the frigid water. That evening and night were perfect, as again I found myself peacefully slumbering beneath a spreading canopy and the star show. The river murmured and the ancient rock walls cast off the heat of the day. It was an incredibly beautiful night.
Morning found us gathered around breakfast as Eb whipped up his son's favorite meal. It was called "Blue Corn Polenta" and consisted of (surprise!) blue corn meal, cheese, and honey. As I recall, Beth opted to go for a stale bagel. Andy gave most of his to Al. Jeremy and I made a vain attempt to choke down our meal. Uncle Al proclaimed that this meal would really give us a tremendous energy boost for the day. Al is probably the most positive person I know (he could encourage Robert Scheuller). He actually managed to finish his bowl full of the blue goo. Blue Corn Polenta is an acquired taste in my opinion.
Walking eastward the trail climbed above the river and the wind began to gust. The trail is not boulder-hopping, but the footing requires attention when stepping from rock to rock. Turning south we strode along the lip above the Seventy Five Mile Creek Canyon. This is an easy hike overlooking one of the best parts of the entire route. I recommend that you follow the rim to almost the end. Cairns mark climb downs that will shorten your path, but you will miss the upper end of this polished rock slot canyon. There are a couple of narrow places or short climbs but nothing spooky If I could do it again I would camp near the mouth of this beautiful chasm. So that I could spend more time there in different lighting situations. The patterns, shapes and textures of the stone walls are spectacular.
After making contact with the Colorado you turn left and parallel it for about a mile and a half as you gradually gain a bit of altitude. The wind increased its speed as we continued along this narrow section of the route. Looking far below, I saw a strange blur obscuring parts of the river and the shore area. It took me a minute to realize that this was a great quantity of sand being blasted along by the powerful wind. It would be miserable to be down at the river level either camping or rafting during such a windstorm. Al's hat was blown off (it took an act of heroism to recover the wandering chapeau). Beth claimed that she was blown off her feet. In her defense, this was an unsettling portion of the hike because the river was quite a ways down and the slope was fairly steep (those of us who are concerned about traversing high places will understand her worries). It seemed like about forty five minutes of tense walking before we dropped down to beautiful Papago Creek beach. We prepared lunch in the narrow alcove protected from the wind. What an intimate setting. High clouds joined together to produce heavy raindrops as we quietly munched. We donned nylon shells as I wondered where the trail went from here.
Much to the dismay of Beth and myself, the trail went up the slippery and wet rock wall at our backs. It was an ascent of maybe fifty feet. The climb was actually easier than I originally feared. There were big ledges and hand holds at convenient locations the entire route. We did rope the packs up the last twenty feet or so to make it safer, this was probably done to calm me. I suspect that an average pair of guys would just climb carefully with packs on.
I made two horrible mistakes at the same location. Andy was roping up the packs in a position that I felt exposed him to a falling danger. He was standing up and leaning out to clear projecting rock obstacles as he strained to pull the packs up. I gently suggested (some have said it was more like a scream) that he sit down. Anyhow, the result was that I took over the pack raising duties as Andy stomped off. While doing this I managed to kick an apricot sized stone over the edge, to compound this error I immediately shouted, "LOOK OUT". So poor Al, who was tying the rope to a pack, lifted his head just in time to take the stone between his glasses and eyebrow. He got a one half-inch wide cut that fortunately wasn't too deep.
I felt like a rat, within just a minute I had screwed up two people. Things couldn't get worse! Oh, how wrong I was. The next hour was the most terrible of the trip.
For some reason, I was out in front as we wound our way up among the boulders. I had one Hitchcock-like moment (check out Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo) as I rounded a boulder, crossed a fairly narrow shelf to a ten-foot high slot. My pack scraped between both walls. Inching upward, my imagination produced a vivid image of myself cartwheeling over the cliff to my death. Blood splashed on the rock below.
Then came the slide. Beth and I were in the lead (never put the height weenies in front!) we came to a slide, I looked for the comforting duck to guide me and started across. It wasn't very bad at all. Then the route opened up and rock jumble fell away. I looked to me that we were on loose gravel with nothing to slow us on a two hundred foot plunge. I saw another duck about twenty feet down and began to creep down (looking like an arthritic crab) slowly towards it. I made it down to the marker and looked back for Beth. She was frozen in terror. I had taken the wrong path down the landslide and the exposure was very upsetting. I had put the most susceptible person in the worst location of the entire trip. I could not have felt worse. Anyhow, I proceeded to the bottom and let the rest of the group get Beth to the correct route and safely get past the spookier section of the slide. When they all finally made it to the base of the slide the wind picked up and the rain came again.
We decided to keep dry and pitched our camp right there. It was a dramatic setting. Pitching our shelter right on the trail beneath a giant monolith that rose vertically for hundreds of feet. If you look on the topo map, you will see where the contour lines are virtually solid at this location. Later towards dusk, clouds hovered at the rim and the river reflected the amber sunset.
That night we had good fun. Jeremy brought portions of several famous movie scripts. We were each assigned our character and took turns reading the scenes. As the wind buffeted the ripstop nylon, the six of us sardined in the big tent and read by flashlight. "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH". We were able to put the exact emphasis that had eluded Jack Nicholson. Six extroverts made this a riotous game! Give it a try, evidentially you can access scripts some where on the net. After the game we retired to our bags. Al spent most of the night keeping a ring tailed cat from getting into our provisions.
The day's hike to Hance creek was a pleasant one. We had an easy stroll to Hance Beach, then a gradual climb up from the river. We had soup for lunch in the lee of a rock wall and watched as a group of scouts traced the trail and passed our position. We experienced one of the most dramatic views when we stopped to admire the vista from near Ayers Point. I crawled to the edge to check out the drop, but it was well beyond my comfort zone. The drop appeared to be approximately three miles straight down (perhaps my concern about the height causes me to exaggerate a bit).
Returning to the trail, we turned right for the level to slightly downhill jog to camp at Hance Creek. Probably the easiest section of the entire trip. Eb needed a comfort break, and said "you guys go ahead and I'll catch up". Al and Andy took this to be a derisive critique of their hiking ability. Inferring they were so slow and that at any time Eb could leave them in his dust. Predictably, testosterone took over, and in few minutes Al and Andy disappeared from our view far ahead. Beth and I poked along slowly to allow Eb an easier chore to catch us. But still, it took him quite a while before he reappeared. Perhaps Eb should get more fiber in his diet, and not so much cheese.
Hance Creek is a delightfully clear and small watercourse. Set below, and just east of Horseshoe Mesa, the camping area nestles among boulders. It has a healthy population mice, who view you as an interloper. That night Beth had a mouse run across her foot!
Al and I ambled downstream for quite a distance. The texture and pattern of the rock walls and beauty of the setting intoxicated us. The flowing water had worked miracles over the eons, manufacturing a ribbon of oasis just a few yards wide; and carving its legacy into the solid stone. As the walls closed in, I was reminded of a great cathedral. Instead of the sunlight burning through stained glass, it was filtered through the Cottonwoods overhead. The sounds of burbling water and distant frogs soothed us in that softened light like a distant ethereal choir. We rested on rock pews and were reminded of just how short our life is when compared age of the Canyon. If only all sermons were as powerful and dramatic church attendance would certainly improve. I now wonder if I am leaving any sort of beauty as I pass through this life. After a time of enjoying Hance Creek, we headed back to camp for dinner.
At about four a.m. I was awakened by urgent voices. There was the sound of a powerful wind whipping loose nylon. I could hear Al and Eb rushing around, securing the rain-flys on the tents and stowing our stuff under cover. Poking my head out the tent opening I saw something that I will long remember. Above and to the west, massive Horseshoe Mesa towered, and coming into view a huge angry cloud was driven by the wind. It is hard now to express how quickly that swirling blackness was upon us. One moment the dark evil shape was coming and the next moment it hit the tent. Whap! The tent recoiled under the onslaught of the snow and wind, as it dumped a shovel full of snow in my lap. Al sprang inside to rest, for the remainder of the night. We fumbled around to make room to lie down among the scattered boots and equipment. Andy slept through the entire event. Things seem amplified in the Canyon.
Breakfast was a hurried affair. We huddled under a tarp and wolfed down the grub. It was cold. Our gloved hands were clumsy. We fumbled to get ready for the trail up to Horseshoe Mesa. Reaching the fork in the trail (left up to the Mesa, and to the right around its base), the sun broke through the clouds. It was a stunning sight. The scattered patches of light illuminated areas of far side of the canyon while leaving other sections in shadow. I snapped a dramatic photo of Jeremy.
Climbing the path, we took turns changing clothing layers. First we were cold, then we were hot. Although we were heavily perspiring, any thing other than the briefest of rests caused us to chill. You get to experience so many things on a Canyon hike. Earlier in week we had problem with heat stroke and now I was worried about hypothermia! Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my! My main concern was keeping up with the kids. I decided to do everything possible in order to conserve my strength. When we stopped at the Miners Spring and later at the cave, I just sat quietly to recover. There is one place between the spring and the top of the mesa where it is helpful to hand the packs up. It is a pretty steep and in some sections there is a bit of exposure. But, after the slide it was not a problem. It seems as if the more experience you have traversing steep trails the more comfortable you become. Al's mantra was to focus on the trail and not look down.
The view from the top of Horseshoe Mesa was very majestic. You can see blue ore mine tailings off to the north as you crest the Mesa. The top is sparsely populated with the short Juniper trees. The track becomes smooth and we made excellent time up to the saddle.
We lunched at the saddle and read aloud the poems that we had written along the way. The arts are a great way to submerge your thinking in the natural world. Sketching, painting, and even poetry writing is an effective means of really "seeing" the environment. Poetry can be a fun way to communicate, and it enables you to keep a record of the experience. It is almost an emotional snapshot of the wilderness vacation. I find it relaxing, especially when compared with the normal working lifestyle.
The rest of the trail to the rim was short and steep. The old trail construction is still visible. I found myself hugging the wall to avoid the edge in a couple of places. But the trail is mostly wide and well worn; much of it is in tree cover. Nearing the parking lot at Grandview, the trail became icy, especially at the corners on the switchbacks. When almost at the top, I heard a rock cutting through the leaves and small twigs on its way to the bottom. Next, came the sound of German being spoken. "HEY HANS!! THERE ARE PEOPLE DOWN HERE", I shouted. No more rocks flew down. There was one more ice-covered ledge around a curving rock face and then the parking lot. I looked for the German tourists, but they were gone.
We were treated like celebrities in the parking lot. Tourists took our picture and seemed amazed at how far we had hiked. I felt sad that the trip was over. One quick photo of the group then we jumped into the van that had been shuttled to the lot.
We hired the guide because we had never backpacked in desert conditions. People die every year in the Canyon. Reading the accounts of people getting into trouble in the Canyon scared me; I was particularly concerned that my adult kids have a good experience. The stories about hikers getting "cliffed out" and running low on water spooked me. Learning from Eb was very helpful, but I have since backpacked the Canyon without professional help. We wanted to do our first hike off the corridor trails. Hiring an expert was a good decision.
- We avoided the permit hassle for the popular Easter week (this was important to me)
- Eb took care of all the food and equipment logistics (a time consuming thing to coordinate) for instance he recommended bringing a large tent; we used it twice for the entire group activities on the two bad weather evenings. I would have never brought such a big tent on my own.
- I was free to relax & enjoy the hike, and not think about which route to choose and the best places to camp, etc.
- We saw things that we would not been aware of, for instance Eb showed us an Anasazi site and a place with many pottery shards . . . it was awesome!
- Having another person along (with a colorful personality) added some spice
Final Canyon Suggestions
- Train for the Canyon, on my last trip I felt better than my companions because I specifically trained for the special demands of the Canyon. Two of the hikers were veteran marathoners, and yet their legs were shaking from the muscular effort. I felt fine. Although I normally work out and play tennis several times a week, this is not enough. In the month before the hike, I wore my backpack on the treadmill (set for the maximum angle) with 20 pounds of potatoes inside. I looked silly, but it really paid off. Remember what the coach said "practice like you are going to play". At least walk some stairs before the hike.
- Minimize the weight -leave it at home.
- Reduce your mileage expectations - I was used to doing many more miles per day, take time to savor the Canyon.
- Use Water Purification Tablets - I love my filter, but you can't count on them here
- Plan for Evening Fun -we had each member prepare something to share with the group. It could be some educational material on geology, history, astronomy or some kind of game. Without a campfire, planning is helpful. We also had contests of all sorts.
- Six days is a good allowance for this hike - plenty of time left over for pack-off relaxation and reconnaissance. If I to repeat this hike I would spend night one just above the last big drop on Cardenas Butte. We also loved the nights spend at mid canyon level.
- Spring is a great time to visit this area; we were surprised by the blooming cactus and the wildflowers. Our group's two favorite experiences were: first the morning hike in the snow, down Tanner Trail and second the narrow portion (near the river) Seventy Five Mile Canyon. I would not want to do this route in the summer temperatures. The textures, color, and intimate places in the canyon surprised me and meant more than the big vistas. My least favorite part of the trip was at river level, there you get a stiff neck from looking up. Although the kids were thrilled with one long afternoon spent laying around at a beach.
This is one of the poems that our group wrote, it was intended to be similar in style to cowboy poetry:
Tall Man Standing|
written by Andrew J. Stockbridge
The snow fell on my brim, coming over the rim.
Which soon became a distant height
Down and down my boots went, over Ageless sediment
Red Canyon walls in the softening light
And the saddle I passed , to the wild green grass
Then I slept through The howlin night
The colorada I found as I kept goin down
With the sun beaming so bright
I did look to the sky, and saw them clouds going by
And I knew it must seem a sight
But twa's no mystery, that my posse and me
Had come for the Endless fight
Between rock and river and time and all things sublime
And things that go howlin in the night
With all these wonders around
the best that I've found
is the family That makes me feel right