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The Tanner Trail, Grand Canyon, 1990

The Tanner Trail
Grand Canyon
David Sheppard

The Watchtower, near the Tanner Trailhead, eastern end South Rim
Photo by Bob Ribokas, www.kaibab.org

For a new adventure, Sara and I had decided to embark on our first Grand Canyon hike away from the safety of the beaten path of the Bright Angel Trail, the main tourist trail. We had hiked several Arizona desert trails, and the Bright Angel a couple of times in both summer and winter, and considered ourselves Hardened Desert Hikers. We had scoured the maps for weeks and decided on a trail in a remote area at the east end of the Canyon National Park. It led from a lookout point down to the Colorado River close to its confluence with the Little Colorado. It was to be a leg-stretching stop during a cross-country motorcycle trip.

We arrived at Grand Canyon Village and walked into the Backcountry Office at about 9 o’clock on a sunny Arizona morning to get our permit. The ranger behind the counter asked us which trail we wanted, and we said, “Tanner”. She laughed and said, “No, really, which trail?” We repeated that we definitely wanted Tanner, and she turned to some other rangers and said, “Hey, these people want to hike Tanner!” They all giggled and laughed and said that we must be joking. These were the first signs of something ominous. We ignored them.

The ranger asked us a few questions. Did we know where Tanner was? Were we experienced? Did we know that it was unmaintained, steep, had no water, no communication except for mirror flashes to overhead planes? Did we know there would be no other people anywhere nearby? Did we know that it would be well over 100 degrees down in the Canyon? We replied, “Yes, yes, yes, oh really? Yes, thanks for the warning, we are experienced desert hikers from many trails in Arizona.... no worries, mate!” Then she said, “But still, how about South Kaibab instead of Tanner? We like people to have a bit more experience in the Canyon itself before they go on a remote trail.” No, we said, Tanner is it. More ominous warnings that we ignored. We were thinking, “What is the big deal? It’s just a trail. She can’t scare us off! Tanner is OUR trail.”

She also asked if we had one quart of water per person per hour of hiking, we said yes, making mental notes to go straight to a store and get more water bottles. A quart is about a liter, “litre” for Aussies and Euros. Quick calculations...two days, say twelve hours per day, twenty-four quarts apiece, that makes forty-eight quarts total, twelve gallons, so we carry six gallons each, eight pounds per gallon, forty-eight pounds (twenty-two kilograms) each in water alone!!!! OK, I think we’d better think it out again, lets say eight hiking hours a day then, we won’t need so much water when resting. A little re-packing, we could do it! She recommended that we don’t take a tent to save weight, we wouldn’t need it for warmth or rain shelter. It wouldn’t cool down much at night, and if it did rain we would be thankful to be wet, even if we were sleeping. Good idea, we thought, although she didn’t mention rattlesnakes...but that’s another story. She advised that we carry a large bottle of water in our hand, a half gallon or bigger because we should be taking big swigs every few minutes. She told us that we would be the only ones on the trail, no other permits had been issued. She advised us to take the mirror off our motorcycle to signal aircraft overhead in case of emergency, otherwise we were on our own. Radios and telephones don’t work too well in the Canyon unless there’s a plane in sight, so a mirror is almost as good, except at night. So don’t have an accident at night.

Reluctantly, and with several more noted but ignored ominous warnings, the ranger issued us our permit for Tanner Trail. It was about 10 in the morning, and already hot. We headed for the store to buy water bottles. We needed about three gallons more capacity. There were half-gallon canteens with shoulder straps for about $15 each, so did we some more quick mathematics, and decided that $90 wasn’t in our budget. So we found the gallon plastic jugs of bottled water for $1.50. At that price we could splurge and get four!

We were on the Harley, a basic bike with leather saddlebags and a small luggage rack, so we had to repack (you CAN tie two backpacks, a big one and a small one, on a motorcycle...the extra gallons of water were a challenge), and headed for Lipan Point, near the East Entrance and Desert View Overlook. Lipan Point is the trailhead for Tanner. We parked there, unpacked the Harley, and told it to have a good rest for two days. We looked over the edge at the enormous void extending into the earth below us, the jagged ridges, the steep slippery gravel slopes, the colors blazing in the heat like an overexposed photo, the hazy distances, and thought that maybe the ranger knew what she was talking about. Tanner would be tough, but then so were we. We organized our packs and the additional water, and headed into the desert.

We stashed our saddlebags and other baggage in some bushes out of sight of the parking lot, and found that the trail started with a sudden drop off the edge of the world down a slope only one degree short of being actual rock climbing. It was a scramble, sitting on our behinds and sliding many times. A thought struck us, “How on earth are we going to get back up?” Oh, well, worry about that tomorrow. It was heating up, certainly over 100 degrees already. We were carrying gallon jugs and taking our swigs every few minutes. We had a container filled with a sports drink, but as our mouths dried out the sugary gluggy slime left behind was not very pleasant, so we kept swapping our bottles, and diluting the sports drink with more and more water. We couldn’t afford to dump it, we needed every ounce of precious fluid.

View from upper Tanner Trail
Photo by Bob Ribokas, www.kaibab.org

After about an hour, we stashed a gallon of water behind a rock for the trip back to save weight. A gallon was two hours’ worth of water for two people, so would get us to the top, even if we had run out (heaven forbid!). I thought about the trouble we would be in if someone found and took our water. We would probably make it to the top, but we would be badly dehydrated. But no one on this particular trail would violate desert etiquette like that. “Etiquette” is too mild a word. “Law” is more like it, because to steal someone’s water in the desert could mean death. I read a book in which a man bragged about finding a stash of water in the desert and taking it for himself, even though he didn’t really need it. He didn’t even care that he could be committing murder. What a bloody drongo! The book was by Colin Fletcher, who has written several books about mega-hikes. One was the entire length of California from south to north, another was the entire length of Grand Canyon National Park from west to east (“The Man Who Walked Though Time.”) Highly recommended reading if you can’t do the walking yourself.

After another hour or so of sweating in the spectacular heat, we stopped under a small mesquite tree with some rare good rocks for sitting which were also in the shade. It was the only meager shade anywhere in sight. We had a sustaining lunch of tortillas (flat Mexican bread, good camping bread since it doesn’t get squashed), cheese (almost melted in the heat), salami (soft and oily), sardines, dried fruit, and apples (great hiking fruit, so juicy), and lots of water.

A couple more hours and we found ourselves walking across a huge talus (loose gravel) slope on a very narrow trail, stones rolling away from our feet and tumbling for long minutes before smashing against jagged rocks and cactus hundreds of feet below. We found ourselves hugging a rock wall on our left, holding on to jagged points, watching our feet, and looking at the spectacular vista across the side canyon on our right.

We noticed that the wall on our left kept getting lower and lower. Soon it was head height, then it was waist height and we could peer over it. On the other side of this knife-thin wall was another tremendous drop even steeper and deeper than the one we were cringing away from! We were walking on a razor’s-edge hundreds or thousands of feet high, between two parallel side canyons, with certain death on both sides if we should stumble or slip the merest inch! Exciting? Yes. Terrifying? Definitely. Stupid? Maybe. Would we do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat.

We carried on very carefully, admiring the views on both sides, muttering things under our breath implying the existence of a benevolent deity who might take some notice of us. We were relieved when the trail zigzagged down the talus slope away from the knife-edge in the sky, and approached a relatively flat plateau. From the knife-edge onto the frying pan we stepped.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun was high and the day got hotter. There was a long stretch on the plateau without any shade at all except for our own. We were broiling, the sun beating down like a weight. After more than an hour on the plateau, the trail mercifully dropped over the edge, and beside a small cliff was a good patch of shade with a good sitting spot. I took a break and sat down to wait for Sara. She was taking a long time, and I was beginning to get worried, but not quite worried enough to leave the shade yet and walk uphill looking for her. I was on the brink of deciding to move, back to the fiery plateau, when Sara appeared. She sat down gratefully in the shade, and said that she had been so hot that she saw a rock with just enough shade for her head, so she had taken her pack off and laid on the ground with her head in the little patch of shade. She said it was a small relief, probably saved her sanity, and how long had I been resting in the shade while she was frying?! I assured her that she could share my shade for as long as she liked.

The only piece of shade for miles
Photo by Bob Ribokas, www.kaibab.org

But we had to leave eventually. Down the side canyon we trudged, into the sun again. Down through tumbled rocks and low bushes as hard as steel. The trail flattened out, easier walking, another plateau, even hotter. Ahead of us we saw a good overlook spot, a flat rocky area at the edge of a cliff, but it was a hundred yards or so off the trail. An extra hundred yards of unessential walking was not a small price at that stage of the day, so we thought hard about walking over there. But we wanted to see the river below. Just a sight of water would be very welcome. We would picture ourselves taking a dip in the icy cold water, wading in from a smooth sandy beach with a big shade tree. We also wanted to gauge how far it was to the river, and whether we could make it by the end of the day. So we trudged to the cliff. At the overlook, we could see the river but it was still at least a couple of hours away. It was flowing fast and brown, through small rapids, far far below. As we watched, a speck appeared and floated downstream. Then a few more specks. They were rubber rafts, one of the commercial trips through the Canyon. The people splashing themselves whenever they felt a little warm, drinking iced water and maybe iced beers. Perhaps a more pleasant way for some to see the Canyon than our way. They floated slowly through our field of view and disappeared. We thought that we would like to do that one day if we’re rich.

We turned and looked back and saw a man walking up the trail, away from us, some distance away. The only few minutes that we had been off the trail all day was when he passed us. Fate playing games maybe. He must have been unauthorized because the ranger had told us that no other permits had been issued for Tanner. He appeared be grey haired, a thin but strong-looking darkly tanned man with a small pack and a walking staff. He seemed like he belonged there. We didn’t want to disturb or worry him, and calling out required effort, so we didn’t call to him. I wonder how many people there are who love the Canyon and feel a sense of ownership, and who feel free to hike on remote trails whenever they like. Also, I wonder how many unauthorized hikers’ skeletons there are bleaching in the sun in remote areas.

We headed down over the edge of the plateau into another level of the side canyon. Sara’s knees had begun to hurt, and they were getting worse and worse. She said it was like knives sticking into the backs of her kneecaps. Whenever there was a long view forwards, we would assess whether we should try to make it to the river. I found myself having to wait for Sara more and more, she was obviously in great pain. The river was in sight, tantalizing us with the promise of a swim, but it was too far away. It was late afternoon and we decided to stop at the next flat spot, which were quite rare, and pitch camp. The sun was low enough to offer shade, but the air wasn’t cooling down, and the ground was still hot. Later, after a visit to a doctor, Sara was told that she had the beginnings of arthritis in her knees, and that bones had been rubbing together without lubrication which resulted in the sharp pain. Being dehydrated would have exacerbated the problem. The doctor recommended that jogging backwards would help by strengthening the quadriceps. Sara took the doctor’s advice, until she got sick of the comments. “Hey, you’re going the wrong way!” “You can see better if you turn around!” Since then she has worn neoprene knee braces when hiking downhill, and we have never done such an extreme hot weather hike, so her knees have not given her any more trouble.

After six and a half hours of walking, we sat down and laid out our meal on the hot rocks beside a little knoll of gravel, flat enough for us to sleep on. I had to take a swig of water with each bite of food to enable me to swallow since I had no saliva at all. Proper water management in the desert it not to take little to save weight and ration yourself, but to take plenty and drink as much as you need. We were drinking our one quart an hour, but we were using it all up in sweat. Our sweat glands were even borrowing water from our saliva glands and our bladders. I had a dry mouth when I wasn’t actually drinking, and I felt no need to urinate at all. A bad sign. Dry mouth and less than normal urination mark the start of dehydration. I was definitely overheated. We had gone too far and rested too little. I now realize that I was on the verge of serious illness. But I was fit and healthy and was coping. Sara was a bit better off than I was. A very bad sign is if you can’t eat, but neither of us were at that stage, even if we had no saliva.

We discovered the best food for desert hiking....canned fruit. We know that cans are heavy, so we only brought one. But when you think of it, cans are heavy because of the water, and you need to carry your water anyway. That hot can of peaches was just about the best food we ever tasted, we wiped the inside of the can with our fingers and licked the juice off. We just looked at the empty can wishing we had more. We decided to bring at least a dozen cans next time.

As it got dark, we lay on our mats and sheets and tried to sleep. I was so hot that I couldn’t bear to have any clothes on. I felt like I was burning, and we wondered, after an hour or so of darkness, when the night would begin to cool down. I reached out my hand and touched the stony ground beside me, it was still hot to the touch, and it stayed hot all night. We were trying to sleep on a griddle, with not much success.

This is about as far as we got
Photo by Bob Ribokas, www.kaibab.org

Next morning, we started up the trail very early before the sun rose. We dreaded the prospect of hiking in the sunshine. I still needed to drink water in order to swallow, and I couldn’t even look at a slice of salami, let alone try to eat one. Sara did, but that slimy, hot, oily meat didn’t seem appetizing to me. I ate apples and tortillas and trail mix. Thankfully, Sara’s knees weren’t hurting going uphill.

We hiked for a couple of hours, and eventually came out of the shade into the sunshine. It was like hitting a wall. The pounding heat and dazzling light were like a physical force pushing on us. I made an Arab headdress with my sheet and a bandana. Foolishly I had gone without a hat the day before so as not to miss any of the scenery. I had more hair then, but still it was unwise. The sheet was very successful. It covered my shoulders as well as my neck and head, with enough overhang to shade my eyes, too. I didn’t care what I looked like.

We passed across the knife-edge again. It was no less scary for knowing it was coming. The huge canyons yawned on each side of us, and for a short time at the sharpest point of the blade we clung only to the empty air for balance. But soon the rock wall rose again on our right and we hugged it with relief.

Upwards ever upwards wound the trail. We came to our little lunch spot with the small shade trees and the stone seats, and we plopped down. Exhaustion was setting in. We forced ourselves onwards after a short rest, and with joy we came across the spot where we had stashed our gallon of water on the way down. Only an hour from the top by downhill standards, probably two hours in our present condition. We were thrilled that we had remembered correctly, and thought about the remote chance that someone might have stolen it. We recalled the man we saw the day before, but there was no way he could have known where our water was, plus he must have been a serious hiker to even be on the Tanner trail by himself, and wouldn’t have taken it.

The water was very welcome. We took big gulps, even wet our faces which cooled down for a few seconds till the water evaporated. We had been eating small amounts often. We knew that one of the signs of heat exhaustion is lack of appetite. You feel sick in the stomach and no food looks good. But that’s exactly when you need to eat, to keep some fuel in your tank to produce energy. No food, no energy, no walking, you stop, you die. That’s part of the thrill of the Canyon.

As we continued upwards, upwards, the trail got steeper and steeper. There were areas of loose rock, too, which made it treacherous. We were definitely exhausted. The trail was hard to find in places. We had to make ourselves go on by timing our rests. Ten minutes walk, five minutes rest. Five minutes walk, five minutes rest. Five minutes walk, ten minutes rest. By the end, when the rim was in sight, it was two minutes walk, eight minutes rest.

At last we clambered over the top, into the welcome junipers spaced evenly across the plateau, with SHADE!! We dropped our packs, sat under a tree, and drank most of the remaining water. We sat for quite a while before we felt energetic enough to find our gear stashed under the bush, haul it to the Harley, repack, change clothes, and head off down the road. The lure of a restaurant was urging us on. People are always starving after a big hike in the Canyon, not to mention thirsty. At the restaurant, I still didn’t urinate. That was after a day, a night, and another day. I forget when I finally did, but it was about two days with no liquid in my bladder. No ill effects, though. There is a possibility of kidney damage if dehydration lasts for too long. We both drank and ate lots and soon all normal functions resumed, thank goodness. In the future, we resolved to take even more water, leave early, rest in the middle of the day... in fact follow all of the rangers’ advice. We would love to tackle the Tanner again, taking at least four days, maybe five, allowing us to get down to the river, rest a couple of days at the bottom, and take two days to walk up.

Anyone coming with us!

Welcome back to the Rim, from a Pinyon Jay
Photo by Bob Ribokas, www.kaibab.org

Copyright © 2003, by David Sheppard, Belleville, Illinois

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