Grand Canyon Ski Traverse
They say that timing is everything and it seemed our timing was perfect. In a winter that had brought one Pacific storm after another to the Grand Canyon area, we had lucked out and had a five-day forecast of sunny weather and unusually warm temperatures. A snowstorm two weeks before had blanketed the Kaibab Plateau with two or three feet of snow, and my friend Jana and I had skied a few miles down Hwy. 67 on our way to Fredonia just the weekend before, confirming that the snow would be ideal for our 45-mile ski from Jacob’s Lake to the North Rim. The downside to the timing thing was the fact that I had caught a cold- the first one in many years. Why NOW of all times when I had to be at my physical best?! I carried Echinacea in my pocket and downed it regularly, hoping that the virus would move out of my body quickly and be a mild one.
I had dreamed of doing this classic Grand Canyon trek for at least ten years and had even bought a sheet of hard blue plastic that I had intended to use as a sled. It had sat on a top shelf gathering dust, as I could never find companions with the same desire and sufficient experience to make the trip safely. When friends from Colorado who had done the trip last winter invited me, I was ecstatic and convinced my husband to go with me as a way of celebrating my 50th birthday. Rick engineered sleds for us, going through a few prototypes before we found the system that seemed to work the best. The sheet of blue plastic is still gathering dust- we found that ten-dollar plastic kid’s sleds tied to the waist belt of a fanny pack worked the best and were the simplest to use. Although we have traditional in-track Nordic and heavy telemark skis, the word was the best skis to use are metal-edged backcountry skis for a combination of good control and reasonable weight. The boots are also lighter than plastic tele boots but insulated to help keep your feet warm. The combination was a good choice and “only” added about 12 extra pounds to our packs when we would be walking and not skiing. We soon realized that weight was not so much an issue when pulling the sled so we could go heavy on food for the first three days. The trip leaders had put in caches of food and fuel along the route last fall, but I was responsible for one group dinner and we all were asked to bring one individual “emergency meal”. Arrangements had been made for breakfasts and dinners at Phantom Ranch, so we also had seven days worth of snacks and lunches.
One of the trip leaders had generously offered to pick us up at the South Rim in his plane to avoid a long car shuttle to Jacob’s Lake. As we flew over the canyon I could pick out Muav Saddle below us and before we knew it we were landing in Kanab. We rode in a van up to Jacob Lake where we met the rest of the group- some of whom I had hiked with before in Field Institute classes. There were ten of us in all, nine men and me! I was struck with anxiety about being able to keep up with these very athletic guys who all live at 8,000 feet- and me with a cold! Too late to back out now… We ate a good dinner at the lodge and planned for a 6:30 am breakfast and an early start in the morning.
After breakfast, we made two trips the 300 yards up the highway to where the road is blocked off- one time carrying skis and sleds and the next time with our packs. I didn’t get off to an auspicious start as I slipped on the ice right outside the motel room and did a face-plant with a heavy pack on. I hoped the skiing was going to go better as we loaded our sleds, hooked them to our waist belts and snapped ski boots into bindings. The plan was to follow Highway 67 all the way to the rim and it starts off with a long and fairly steep hill that was a bit icy. The most experienced backcountry skier in our group advised skiing out of any snowmobile tracks in the mornings when ice made traction more difficult, getting back into the tracks as the snow warmed later in the day. Those were words of wisdom, especially since today was mostly uphill- some gradual and some a bit steeper. It remained partly cloudy and actually quite warm, necessitating peeling layers of clothing off to keep from overheating. I found a pace that I could maintain for the next three days and 45 miles, trying to get as much glide out of each push with the skis as I possibly could. Although we didn’t spot any wildlife along the way, Rick found mountain lion prints in the snow. Early in the afternoon our leaders stopped at the appropriate mile marker to look for our first cache and soon the guys had their shirts stripped off with the exertion of digging through the deep snow. It was a wonderful break and I had to rig a jacket on poles to get out of the incredibly bright sun. After much digging and even more heated discussion, it was determined that the cache was not going to be found, either because they weren’t looking in the right place or because they had shallowly buried it and were unable to dig through the frozen ground. Okay…they would come back next spring and remove it and we would eat the meal I carried in my pack tonight- smoked oysters and crackers, “Lolo’s Shrimp and Chicken Gumbo” topped with garlic croutons, and two pound cakes for dessert. We skied on and stopped about 3:30 pm near Crane Lake, about 15 miles or so from our starting point. We set up camp and began the process of melting snow for water- a task that seemed to take forever! As usual, I made too much dinner and we had about 2/3’s of a gallon zip-lock bag left over plus one of the cakes. This was no problem since extra weight on the sleds didn’t make much difference- we’d make a nice before-dinner soup for tomorrow night with the leftovers. Rick and I got into our tent and snuggled into our enormous sleeping bags, thankful for every bit of lofty down as the temperature dropped to what would be a low of 13 degrees that night.
The next morning we realized that even though we all knew better, we had chosen a low spot to set up camp last night as frosty fog settled into the valley. We would have been much warmer had we camped higher on a knoll or ridge, and vowed to avoid the mistake this next night as clear skies were going to drop the temperatures even more. What a gorgeous day- sunny Arizona blue skies and long “parks” or meadows free of trees that sparkled like acres of glittering diamonds in the morning light. It proved to be an easier day to ski as well, as there were fewer hills and more gently rolling terrain. My cold was at the stage where I sounded worse but felt better, but I was thankful for the Nalgene bottle of cough syrup I had thrown in at the last minute. Everyone skied at about the same pace as we leap-frogged each other towards the canyon, each person stopping to shed a layer, eat a snack or apply more sunscreen. Once again, we stopped to retrieve the buried cache and once again, it was not to be found. Hmmm… this was a bit more serious, for while we had enough food, we needed more fuel in order to melt snow for water. Our leaders handled this situation very well… mistakes are unavoidable, and leaders should be judged on how they deal with and recover from mistakes, not on whether they make any. We discussed the problems we might face by losing the caches and had several contingency plans to fall back on. We were near Kaibab Lodge where a group of snowmobilers had stopped for lunch, so approached them about possibly bringing us more fuel from Jacob’s Lake. As it turned out, these were the same group that Jana and I had seen while skiing on the road just the weekend before and they volunteered to go up to the park entrance station to look for fuel in the emergency cache kept there in the winter. They returned with a gallon of white gas and a promise to bring food of some kind from Jacob’s Lake the next morning, meeting someone at the entrance station, as snowmobiles are not allowed in the park. We skied several more miles to the head of the valley where the park entrance station sits at the south end. My frozen gumbo became like the “loaves and fishes” and just enough water was added to make a tasty soup for dinner that night. We had wisely camped up out of the bottom of the valley and into a grove of aspen, but the night was clear and cold and the low was 11 degrees.
The third day skiing would take us to the North Rim campground and (finally) a view of the canyon. The road winds through beautiful narrow valleys lined with fir and pine and has some long downhill stretches as a reward for slogging up hill. Rick figured out that if you held on to the cord pulling the sled fairly close to your leg, you could keep the sled on a “short leash” and prevent it from going faster than you could ski and swinging around to collide with you. We arrived at the rim area early in the afternoon- a few rangers and their families live there during the winter and Molly and her adorable four-month old son invited us indoors to use her kitchen sink to get water. The group campsite has always been a favorite and was sunny and quite warm as warmer air from the depths of the canyon rises and washes over the edges of the rim. The view at the south end was fantastic as the sun was going down, highlighting the San Francisco Peaks on the horizon. This was luxury camping with picnic tables and an outhouse with plenty of toilet paper. Finally…I could blow my nose as much as I wanted! The kind snowmobilers had brought ramen and cooked hamburgers that we put together for a tasty soup and everyone had more than enough to eat. Rick and I decided to be lazy and not set up the tent, so we slept on the picnic tables. We had been careful to keep our water bottles in our sleeping bags to prevent them from freezing, but the night was so warm that water left out all night was still liquid in the morning.
This was the day that we would say goodbye to our sleds and put on our hiking boots. It was also the day that we would start to pay the price for staying so toasty warm as all that gear would go on our backs. We skied to the dumpster and de-rigged the sleds, then skied down the hill to the trailhead with our packs on. I had worried about this hill on my way up the afternoon before as it was pretty steep and icy, but I only fell once at the bottom when my attention lapsed for a second. The fall wasn’t bad but necessitated removing the pack and other maneuvers to get up again. We took off skis and lashed them to our packs- my feet were happy to get into hiking boots. We had all brought instep crampons but the snow was consolidated and not icy going down the North Kaibab trail. Although we post-holed a few times, the going was fairly fast if you kept to the snow bank that formed on the outside of the trail. We lost the snow abruptly at the Supai tunnel and stopped there for food and to de-layer clothing. The trail had some large rockslides and many smaller ones, especially in the Supai, but the potential icefalls in the Redwall were all just waterfalls due to the very warm weather. Good thing- there is one in particular that would have been treacherous to cross if it had been frozen. We saw more feline tracks in the mud below the pump house, either made by a small lion or a bobcat. A beaver had chewed down a good-sized tree in Bruce Aiken’s back yard, and I hoped that the others would not suffer the same fate, as the shade trees there are such a respite on a hot day. We were at Cottonwood by early afternoon and not surprisingly, had the place to ourselves. Clouds moved in and it looked like it could rain so we set up the tent and lounged around reading pieces of a book that were being passed among us. We ate our “emergency dinner” that night (what else- ramen!) and enjoyed not having to deal with numb fingers and cold toes.
We woke up to light drizzle and clouds hanging low in the canyon, but the morning was partly sunny as we hiked down to the Bright Angel campground. We all enjoyed a well-deserved beer in the cantina to the sound of chainsaws being used to cut down “hazard trees” around Phantom Ranch. A shower room key was produced and one guy said if he had had a chair he would still be sitting there under the hot water. No towels or clean clothes to put on but it sure felt good. I think the dinner that night was the best steak I have ever eaten in my life and I managed to eat the whole thing plus chocolate cake.
We had planned for a layover day at the BA and planned to climb Cheops. The day started out with light drizzle but by the time we got around to the talus slope you would hike up to access the route, it was pouring rain so the climb was aborted. We returned to the cantina and enjoyed the hors d’oeuvres that I had cached over a New Years trip along with hot chocolate and Bailey’s. After huge bowls of stew, we crawled into our bags- some choosing to sleep under the rock shelter of the group site. It rained steadily all night long.
The ground was saturated and the creek muddy when the gang headed up the trail in the dark, needing to get out early to catch a plane. Rick and I went back to bed after the early breakfast at Phantom and waited until the rain stopped before packing up and heading up the South Kaibab. We were very thankful that it wasn’t raining, since with our heavy packs it was hard to go slow enough not to get too sweaty. The dampness combined with wind and an increase in elevation is a perfect recipe for hypothermia but with stops for food and many layer changes, we stayed quite comfortable until right above Cedar Ridge. A snow squall came through that dropped the temperature by at least 20 degrees, so we layered up and enjoyed the beautiful views across the canyon. Since our car was parked at the airport, we called a taxi to come get us from the trailhead. This turned out to be the coldest 20 minutes of the entire trip and by the time the van arrived I was wearing all my layers except my sleeping bag. One last look back over the rim, a few more photos, and we were on our way back home to the land of endless hot water and warm beds. What an incredible trip this was! We were very fortunate to have great weather while on the Kaibab Plateau and even luckier to have such terrific companions to share this adventure with.
Some tips and tricks to make this more enjoyable:
- Sleds are a must and make the skiing so much easier. The cheap $10 plastic sleds work the best. Use a rain cover or plastic to keep snow out of your gear.
- Use a closed cell foam pad in addition to a Thermarest for better insulation against the snow.
- Keep everything as simple as possible (knots, zippers, buckles, even food preparation) as the cold makes fine motor control very difficult.
- Hand warmers are wonderful and can be used to warm up your ski boots in the morning, even if you have slept with them to keep them from freezing. Toe warmers are helpful too.
- Fill Nalgene bottles with hot water, put them in an insulated holder and take them to bed with you.
- Bury water containers such as MSR Dromedary bags in the snow overnight to keep them from freezing.
- Be careful with anything you stick in the snow in the evening as it may be frozen as solidly as concrete in the morning (i.e.- ski poles). If you don’t have a free-standing tent, you need to figure out how to stake it and then “unstake it” later.
- Take something to use as a base to put under your stoves so they don’t melt down through the snow. We used shovel blades but an aluminum pie pan with a piece of ensolite in it might have worked better. Good old fashion Whisperlight stoves work the best- have several that have been recently cleaned and checked to see they are working well and don’t over prime them. Plan on LOTS of time, large pots and fuel to melt snow- about a liter of white gas a day for every 3 to 4 people.
- Have good instep crampons and webbing to deal with potential icefalls on the North Kaibab.
- Get in touch with the backcountry office before your trip to get updates on conditions- they will also be keeping an eye out for you as you make your way across the plateau.
- Use a buddy system so that at least one other person knows where you are at all times when skiing across the plateau. Each “group” should have all they need to survive a night out (stove, fuel, pot) in case they become separated, especially in case of very bad weather or equipment failure. A sat phone is a very good idea, and maybe the small “walkie-talkies”.
- This is a difficult trip and is best done with people who are experienced at backcountry skiing and snow camping. I sure felt like the novice until I stepped off the rim. I think it helps a lot if someone in your party has done this trek before.
Thanks to the great folks who invited us along on this trip, to all the friends and family who were thinking good weather thoughts, and all those who offered advice and encouragement and loaned us gear (thanks Al and Jana!) It was an awesome experience and I am already thinking about next year!
Up the hill(s) the first day