SHAWN STANFORDíS GRAND CANYON BACKPACKING ADVENTURES - South Kaibab, Bright Angel, Clear Creek - March 18-23, 2006
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My son and I started backpacking in 1998, and we have fallen in love with it. As soon as I finish a trip, I start thinking about my next one and keep thinking about it until I finish it and then start all over again. My son, now 16 years old, also has the backpacking passion. We have backpacked the Grand Canyon several times, mostly but not entirely off the South Rim. I have completed 15 Canyon multi-day treks, and my son has completed 9. Bobís Web site has been one of our most helpful resources. I figure it is about time we start logging our experiences in the event they might be interesting or helpful to others.
The 2006 winter was a dry one for the entire state of Arizona, including the South Rim. For this trip, we had been tracking the weather and gathering forecast information for a couple of months. About a week prior to our trip, the forecast for the Canyon predicted clear skies and warm weather for our entire trek. However, about 2 days later the forecast changed dramatically. Strangely enough, the weekend our trek started a cold front blew in and the temperatures dropped considerably, so we prepared for a potentially 4-season trek over the course of 7 days. Our route was planned for 1 day at Bright Angel, 2 days at Clear Creek, back to Bright Angel for a day, over to Horn Creek a day, then backtracking to Indian Garden for a day, and finally hiking back to the South Rim on the 7th day.
We drove to the South Rim from Phoenix late on Saturday afternoon, so that we could scope the South Kaibab trail before starting our hike the next morning. About 5:30 pm, we looked down into a canyon filled with low clouds, while bracing ourselves from being blown over by strong winds, feeling very cold as the snow flurries fell, and wondering if we wanted to do this trip. We had planned too long for it to withdraw at this point, so we checked into our motel for the night and decided one way or the other we would tackle it. We had endured some pretty fierce weather a few previous trips, including a 4-day trek from New Hance (Red Canyon) to Grandview on a November trip about three years earlier; and we had learned a lot through our previous backpacking trips. We were confident we could complete this trip despite the challenges that might lie ahead.
We did not get the 1-2 inches of snow that the weather forecast had predicted for the night. Our carís digital temperature gauge read about 30 degrees as we drove to the Yavapai Lodge parking lot to catch the shuttle bus. We started down the South Kaibab Trailhead about 8 am. The trail was icy and slick, so we strapped-on the Yaktrax to our boots and headed down. We were very glad we had the Yaktrax; they provided us some stable footage the first mile down that we would not have had otherwise. On our way down, we hiked in falling snow, snow flurries, and sleet. The trail turned from ice to slush to mud by the time we reached the saddle about 1 and Ĺ mile down. The temperature began to warm up at the butte, so we started stripping down some of our clothing. By the time we got to the Redwall descent, we had stripped down a little more and began enjoying the nice temperature while some of the clouds cleared. After making a pit-stop at the Tipoff restroom, the temperature was about 60 degrees and a slight breeze was blowing. As we started down the last descent toward the river bottom, we got a few raindrops and wondered if we would be in for a rainy afternoon and night. We experienced only a few sprinkles that afternoon and night as we enjoyed our first rest at the Bright Angel Campground. We slept pretty peacefully in our Tarptent Rainshadow II.
I had hiked to Clear Creek a few years earlier about the same time of year as the present trip, with a group from the Grand Canyon Field Institute. On that trip we had perfectly clear skies the entire week and outstanding weather. From that trip, I knew the trek over to Clear Creek was a long stretch, so this time we started hiking about 7:15 am. The temperature was quite cool. A strong breeze was blowing, and according to my watch thermometer the temperature was in the mid-40s. We had mostly-cloudy skies the entire trek over to Clear Creek. Although the temperature warmed up to the low 60s as we hiked across the platform, the breeze made it feel cooler. The skies threatened off and on as we pushed, and I figured it was only a matter of time before we would get rain or something worse. My son got a little discouraged at about the 5-hour point when I told him we had quite some distance yet to cover, and it did not help when he ran out of water about a mile or so from Clear Creek. Fortunately, I had extra water and was able to give him a quart bottle, so eventually we both made it to our destination for the next two nights without any problem. A few rain drops fell for 10 minutes or so right before we began the final descent into the Clear Creek drainage. Both my son and I were rejuvenated as we entered the camping area, knowing that we could now set up our temporary sleeping quarters for the next two nights and enjoy this beautiful oasis. Our hike there took about 7 hours.
I would much rather sleep under the stars in a see-through bivy than in a tent. I brought our Tarptent for this trip, however, in view of the forecast. It is very roomy for 2 people, has enough space for gear, and weighs less than 3 pounds. I especially like the ventilation is offers around the perimeter and through the front door. As we began to set it up, strong winds began blowing and they steadily increased. Staking out the Tarptent was quite a challenge, as the ground was rock-hard and the wind battled us to the point of near exhaustion. The situation got complicated when we tried to force the shock-cord pole at the lower end over a strap and the pole snapped. My son was in near despair for a few minutes, and I was at a loss of how to remedy the situation. Both of us just wanted to eat dinner and get into our warm sleeping bags, for the temperature had dropped dramatically and we were ready to call it a day. Fortunately, when the pole snapped it tore only through the hoop sleeve rather than the tent wall. After much trial-and-error, I was able to duct-tape the pole enough to make it somewhat usable. We guylined the Tarptent by using the tree and several large rocks at our campsite, ate dinner, and sacked out about 7:30 pm.
Our first night here was rough. The wind blew fiercely and the rain poured down almost the entire night. The foot of our Tarptent kept collapsing on my side, weakened by the broken shock-cord pole. I tried different guyline rigs and attempted to stack additional rocks outside against the pole, but nothing worked. I finally figured out I could stash my backpack inside against the pole to keep it from blowing over. The Tarptent held up well but flapped loudly from the wind.
Most of this 3rd day and night we experienced some of the scariest winds I have ever seen in all my GC treks. The rain was so constant during the day that we did not feel like venturing out to explore anything. The temperature had dipped to the 20s during the previous night and to the low 40s during the day. We stayed in the tent basically the entire 3rd day, except for an occasional nature call or a brief respite from the pounding weather. We even took an afternoon nap because we had slept so restlessly the night before. I was glad we had prepared for cold and rainy weather; our sleeping bags and other gear served us excellently. We found about a Ĺ hour break of calm weather at dinner time, so we quickly cooked up a meal outside but then took it inside to eat when the rain started pouring again.
I was impressed with our Tarptent. Even though its foot kept initially collapsing on the one side because of the broken shock-cord pole, it held up strongly in the inclement weather. At one point, a person from another group about 50 yards upstream from us came over and asked if we were staying dry, and I could honestly report we were doing fine despite the uneasiness of not knowing how long the weather would stay that way. Despite that the Tarptent has a 6-inch mesh screen at the bottom around the perimeter, only a few drops of rain sneaked in.
That 2nd night at Clear Creek (3rd night for trip), the winds died down about 10 pm. Then the rain turned to sleet for a few hours, and then about 1 am the sleet turned to light snow. I exited the Tarptent to take a nature call about midnight, and as I look southward I could detect a snowline a few hundred feet above us.
We woke up to a dusting snow-line that had reached about 200 feet above our heads. We wondered what we might be facing on our way back to Bright Angel Campground. The skies were still overcast and looked like they could drop a lot more on us. We quickly ate breakfast, prepared for a cold departure out of the drainage, packed up our gear, and left our campsite about 7:15 am. I am strong believer that God is in complete control over the circumstances of our lives and over the world he has created. Thus, I had prayed with my son prior to our departure that the Lord would, in his sovereign direction and provision, make a clear path for us and guide us safely back.
When we got up to the Tonto Platform above the Clear Creek area, the sight was absolutely gorgeous: a snowy carpet blanketed the shelf everywhere we could see, and the warmth of the trail burnt-off the snow so that we could see and hike the trail easily. We had a very pleasant hike back to Bright Angel. The skies turned partly sunny, gentle breezes blew, the snow-carpet melted within a couple of hours, and the temperatures warmed up to the upper 50s. The return trek to Bright Angel is much swifter than the trip to Clear Creek, and we arrived there in about 5 and Ĺ hours. The temperature at 3 pm that afternoon reached about 70 degrees, and the skies turned completely clear. What a relief! We had a very enjoyable afternoon visiting the Canteen and relaxing around the campsite. That night was also the calmest one of our entire trip so far; not a drop of rain fell, and I enjoyed looking out the Tarptent door at the beautiful starlit night.
We awakened to a 45-degree sunny sky, looking forward to our next jaunt over to Horn Creek. After a filling breakfast of toasted bagels with butter and lemonade, we pressed on to Indian Garden, which we would have to cross to reach Horn Creek. We made quick time up to the Garden, and the weather was wonderful. The temperature steadily climbed, so that by the time we reached the Garden we were in the mid-60s and sitting on a shaded lunch table under crystal clear, azure skies. We took our time at Indian Garden after arriving there in about 2 and Ĺ hours. After about a 1 and Ĺ hour break, we began filling up our water for the leg over to Horn Creek. For some reason, I sensed that my son was burning out and might be anxious at this point to return home rather than spend 1 night at Horn and another night at Indian Garden before hiking out. Just as we were ready to venture-off to Horn, I posed the possibility to him of our hiking out of the canyon at that moment. He jumped at the chance and suddenly perked up. We decided together that we would forego our final 2 days allowed by the permit and make our way to the top.
Our decision to head on out rather than venture over to Horn Creek was a good thing. My son was more motivated than he had been for 2 or so days, and the thought of his being home a couple more days during his spring break excited him. As we ascended the Bright Angel Trail, the temperature quickly dropped, and it cooled increasingly as we moved into the shadows of the drainage and meandered up toward the rim. At the 3-mile rest stop, the trail began turning into mud, and by the time we reached the 1.5-mile stop we were walking in snow and ice. My son suggested that we don our Yaktrax again, which we probably should have. But I responded that they would not be of much use to us since so much of the ice has melted. We trekked through quite a lot of slushy trail the rest of the way, slipping and sliding much of the way but eventually reaching the top about 4:30 pm and rejoicing at another successful GC excursion.
Having completed 3 March backpacking trips off the South Rim, I have learned that this month can be tricky. I guess that, since it a transitional month between winter and spring, it can grant pleasant days that spill-out comfortable sunshine or dark days that pound-out strong winds and heavy precipitation. My first March trek, about the year 2000, was a 4-day trip from Hermit to Indian Garden and out, and we started with cold, cloudy, and windy weather and ended up with cool and sunny skies. My second one was about the year 2002, a Field Institute Clear Creek trip, which presented us spring-like sunny, clear skies the entire week. The present trip offered us 3 of 4 seasons within a 5-day period, and if we had not been prepared we could have suffered miserably or worse. Clear Creek is a wonderful and generally quiet place to visit, but its semi-challenging route there should not be taken lightly.
Copyright © 2006, by Shawn Stanford