Happy Campers - March, 1996 - C. Elliott Easterly IV and friends
The players in this adventure numbered four. Two full-time students, Molly King and myself, as well as a Korean exchange student, Dae-Hyung Lee, and one student-at-large and fellow Eagle Scout, Brian Ballentine made the trek three thousand miles and 68 hours later to and from Grand Canyon, Arizona; just north of Flagstaff.
The adventure was the brainchild of one of the members of the Outdoor Club at PC (Presbyterian College). Asking for ideas of things that members wanted to do, one said that she'd like to go to the Canyon. Since I'm a backpacker at heart, long before I ever frequenting live performances of the Grateful Dead, so I figured that it'd be pretty swell to backpack part of the Grand Canyon over Spring Break. I was not a realizable possibility to go in a school vehicle, or even affiliated with the school because it would have been too expensive for the Biology department (the group's sponsor) to sponsor. So, I found a few people who said they might go and learned all I could about the Canyon over the winter break.
I learned that parties must have a permit to camp below the rim, and that they're difficult to obtain The earliest that a permit can be applied for is four months in advance. I applied in early January. Fortunately, the park service accepted and returned it before February. This meant that I could bring up to 6 people with no livestock. My only other concern was that the government might again shut down, and the canyon below the rim would be closed yet again.
I made an effort to try to bring people together and get a vehicle to go on our break (1 March to 10 March 1996), but to no avail. The circumstances ended up that three last-minute decisions and the promise of the utility of my father's Saturn made the trip possible. I made sure that everyone had the proper winter gear including sleeping bags, thermal underwear, boots, socks, lip-balm, and especially water. Everyone who I helped prepare for the trip had few if any gear-related problems... but that's part of what made the trip exciting. Brian had more than enough experience and prescience of mind to prepare for the trip. He prepared well, just not completely. Absence of mind due to some very demanding situations back home made it difficult for him to remember every last detail.... we survived in any event. I made sure that the two novices, Molly and Dae-Hyung, packed adequately and would be prepared for almost anything, and they were.
We arrived at the Canyon at about three or four, local time, and we visited the back country office, which was closed. So, I parked the Saturn in the long-term parking and we proceeded to pack our packs to Pink Floyd's The Wall. The vertical extension of Brian's pack broke off. He put the broken aluminium piece it in the trunk and duct-taped the sharp ends. I left the car on, and just before we were finished (about three quarters through the first side of the album,) there was a cloud of vapor from under the hood that smelled sweet. The coolant escaped. We hoped that we could get back east, but there was nothing to do now but just top it off with water when we returned. I turned off the car, and we locked it up. We walked about half a mile to the visitors center and got the lowdown on the weather and found out why there were several flags flying at half-mast. There was a memorial service the previous day for a worker on the trail crew who was slain by a falling rock, and today the flags were flying half-mast in remembrance of him. We went to the last real potty for a few days and proceeded to hitchhike to our starting point (so we could hike our way back to the car over the course of the week).
After waving our thumbs in the air for two minutes, a gentleman from LA stopped and drove us to the intersection where our paths diverged. He was taking his son back to school on Monday in LA ('twas 5pm or so Sunday). After that, we started walking a bit, and a small pickup with a top on the bed slowed down to pick us up. I learned that the driver was an employee at the Phantom Ranch canteen, the place to eat down at the popular part of the canyon. In fact, Phantom Ranch is the only place to stay that isn't primitive below the Rim. She had the past two days leave for the memorial service and was going to hike down the Kaibab trail to the Ranch. She empathized for our situation and went ahead and drove the extra miles to our starting point, Grandview. She told us to say hello in the Canteen when we arrived on Wednesday and drove to Kaibab to get to work by 7am.
Everyone but Molly donned some crampons (we had only three pairs, and she had a relatively light pack), because there was a great deal of ice and packed snow on the trail. I gave my belt to Brian's cause because the strap that was holding his sleeping bag on to his pack broke. It was nearing dark, so we put our footgear on just in time for the darkness to set in. This trail was so steep that one errant step would leave you a few hundred feet from your last one. Between Brian and I, we helped Molly through the most difficult parts, and Dae-Hyung fared pretty well at his leisurely and safe pace. We couldn't figure out where exactly we were, and the moon came out. We hiked until something like 2am and Brian, with his Sleepless-in-the-Saturn/Zombie hiker disease, required some special attention, like helping him out with decisions about where the trail was. Even though he had a temporary disability, Brian hiked without any mishaps and oriented our map well. Immediately if not sooner, we went to sleep under a moon with rings of clouds around it. The wind was quite strong, it nearly blew us away. It turned out that we were about half a mile from out actual destination, but it was more comfortable after such a long hike to stay the night there. The ground was soft. We slept. Night number one in the canyon, and we were a thousand feet or so below the rim.
At 9am or so we awoke, and gratefully Brian was back to more or less normal. He and I walked to the intersection of the trail while Molly prepared pancakes for breakfast. We met some hikers from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC and there dog named Bear. They were going to go to the Smokies, but instead, they made it all the way out here as we did. They were interested and depending on finding water at Miner's spring, which was supposed to be near where we were, Horseshoe Mesa. We looked around for a while unsuccessfully for the spring. Then I noticed a sign that said Page Spring (which is also named Miner's Spring). We figured that it was time to eat, so we ascended up to our makeshift campsite. After spending 2 hours eating, Brian, Molly, a nd I finished off the pancakes while Dae-Hyung had some Ramen noodles and some sort of meat with them. Dae-Hyung also found some black line that we used for the remainder of the trek to repair Brian's backpack. We packed up (replacing my belt with some black line to secure Brian's sleeping bag to his backpack frame). Our party descended to Horseshoe Mesa to the trail intersection. Now it seemed absolutely necessary to find some water. Dae-Hyung guarded the packs while Molly, Brian, and I made our way to the water. After talking with some hikers out of Colorado, we figured out that the spring was below the redwall. It turns out that the spring is 400 feet below the mesa elevation. So, we went down the trail which passed an actual mine with tracks and a cart still in tact. It took about an hour and a half to descend and fill up our water bottles, treating with an iodine crystal solution. Remember, turn off the Tonto at the metal wheelbarrow. If you ever go there, the wheelbarrow will still be there. It took only half and hour to ascend because we knew where we were going and we were more accustomed to the terrain. After donning our packs, we began the long journey to Grapevine. This first part was the most difficult because we had to descend quite a way with 16 extra pounds of water that we thought we needed to get through the next few days. The amazing thing about the Grand Canyon, at least through the parts that we hiked, it's beauty increased with every step (in the daylight). In retrospect, corridor hikers don't see a fraction of the beauty of the canyon. It lies in the buttes, it lies in the cacti, it lies in the thousands of knee-high sagebrush (grey sharp round scratchy bushes) that dot the landscape for miles around. We finally got to see the Colorado river just before nightfall. 'Twas green and flowing.
The sun fell. The most death-defying part of the whole trek came next, the pit of death. In the dark, this place reminded me of Sarlaac's pit: the place in Return Of the Jedi where Jabba the Hut wants to throw the heros to be digested for thousands of years. The wind was blowing us in toward the butte, so we had to compensate for our wind resistance in order to stay upright and lean towards the pit of death. We seriously had about a two foot wide walking path and about a six inch shoulder before a near-vertical 1000 foot drop. So, when the wind died down, we were leaning in to the enormous cavity. It probably wouldn't have been near as bad if the wind was not as strong or if it was daylight. We eventually made it to Grapevine creek. I had errantly thought that we'd be camping near grapevine rapids, but luckily, some hikers from Vanderbilt who were staying there encouraged us to remain there. There was enough water there get your whole body wet. We wasted that time getting before, but, who knew? Dinner was nice. Molly seasoned our spaghetti with some genuine Grapevine Creek silt, and it tasted fantastic (for food on a camping trip). After gorging ourselves, putting up out food from the reach of thousands of small ravenous rodents, and relaxing for a time, we slept under the clouds on a rock in the creek bed.
Sometime that night it began to sprinkle. I figured that this was Arizona. The name means ARID-ZONE, i.e. no precipitation. Also, I figured that the wind would dry us off in our winter sleeping bags that stay warm even under water. Brian said "Don't you think we ought to set up the tent?" I rolled over, said "hmpf," and directly went back to sleep. Well, it started raining a little harder, and Brian asked me the same question, only to get the same reply. Third time: Brian said "Elliott?!?" after he noticed a stream running through his sleeping bag. I felt the rain was much heavier than the first two times, so when I heard my name, I sprang up in my thermals and we set up the tent in no less than 3 minutes. Dae-Hyung figured out what we were doing when we set up the tent on top of him, but Molly didn't get the picture because she was still pretty warm. Everyone slid into my 2people+winter gear/3people+light gear/4people+no gear it's-really-warm-in-here capacity geodesic dome and we slept until a Vandy hiker started complaining about the bottom of his or her sleeping bag being wet. Needless to say, ours were completely soaked, yet they kept us relatively warm. We packed up quickly and began the approximately 13 mile hike to Cremation Canyon. I was glad to get away from Grapevine. We should have taken heed of the Dutch adage about rings around the moon = rain the next day or two when we saw the rings around the moon at our campsite the previous night.
The hike to Grapevine Rapids was a nice one, relatively uneventful except for a minor adjustment on Brian's pack. At some point, I used on of Dae-Hyung's crampon straps as a waistbelt for Brian because his buckle was missing. The rest of the day, after making to Lonetree and filling up our water bottles for the next day and a half, we started on the most laborious part of our trek. We left the Vandy hikers for good, they were staying at Lonetree for two days. Cremation was our goal. I heard that there was a nice undercut area after the third Cremation creek where two tents could be pitched. I figured that I'd like to check it out. We were not meant to make it there. Getting around four tiers of Pattie Butte, took every ounce of energy that Brian had. She was the biggest and one of the most beautiful mohunkin' buttes in the canyon. She took everything that we had. I set up the tent and the vestibule. Brian climbed in and slept for 14 hours. We dried everything else out on the rocks of the first Cremation Canyon creek and prepared for rain. Mac and Cheese with a concoction known as Redwall tea had we three for the evening meal. Redwall tea was a blackberry and raspberry tea about the color of the Redwall. When in a secluded section of the canyon this berry infusion becomes Redwall tea. We prepared for rain that night. At around 5am or so Brian got up to heed the call of nature. I did likewise and saw for the first time the most stars I'd seen so far, and a near if not completely full moon that lighted up everything so bright that you could nearly read a newspaper (well at least the headings). Molly was perturbed that we didn't wake her for the spectacular sky. Rising for some more Red wall Tea, we packed up and made our way through the last primitive trail that we'd hike. After making our way across the final butte, we intersected the Kaibab at the Most Ornate Outhouse in the World. The Kaibab is worth it just to see this absurd spectacle at the intersection of the corridor and a primitive trail.
The corridor was so much easier to hike than the trail we had been following. It seemed that we were hiking on a paved red-bricked road all the way down the Kaibab to the tunnel. 'Twas nice to see a tourist or two, but deep down inside, the 5-inch spike heel wearers on the corridor didn't get the view of the canyon that our party did. It's just not the same. Anyway, we watered at the public bathrooms and took some tea and ate our own lunch at the canteen. After talking with our contact at the canteen (the person who generously transported to out starting point) about our adventures on the trail awhile, we wrote some postcards (Dae-Hyung even sent one back home to Korea) and said adieu.
The hike to Indian Gardens from Phantom Ranch was so much easier than anything we'd done before, it seemed like a relaxing break. Indian Gardens was like a state park campground where the ranger comes and inspects your permit instead of taking a fee (as in state parks). But like a state park, there was a picnic table and a shelter and tent-pad at each site. Equipped with water and outhouses, who could ask for more? Well, the ravens at the gardens did, squawking squawking at us hikers four, nevermore, nevermore. We slept under some glorious stars that night before the burning moon (Korean Tradition has it, according to Dae-Hyung, that there lies a rabbit in the moon; as opposed to the traditional Western thoughts that the moon is composed of a green cheese). I saw more stars that night then ever before. I even saw the color of a red giant, slightly pink, for there aren't too many large cities to light up the night sky near the canyon with my naked eye. Later that night, Molly and I were awakened by some foraging mule-deer that nearly stepped on our heads as they went about eating grass from our campsite and looking for some unsuspecting campers food.
We had some delectable cinnamon rolls with large carbon deposits on lower third portion of each roll due to the lack of a baking apparatus. More importantly, we made two more grand canyon drinks. The first is Colorado river. It's a lime-green drink with brown sugar in it. The brown sugar is the silt of the river and the water is green. The second is Cremation Canyon Sunset. The drink is a light pink, resembling the color of the clouds at Cremation during sunset. We had a leisurely hike out with no problems with Brian's pack up the superhighway of Bright Angel.
Brian spent more money than I thought was possible to spend at a fast food restaurant at McDonalds at the South Entrance. All of us ate at a Thai restaurant in Flagstaff and the next 32 hours in the car were much less eventful than the first 34. We didn't have any problems save when I was almost run over by some kids in a red sports car in Albuquerque. What shall we do next spring break?
|Photos from the trip - click thumbnail for full-size image||Brian, Molly, and Elliott wake up just a few hundred yards from Horseshoe Mesa.|
|A view of just to the east of Horseshoe Mesa.|
|Brian lights the stove in order to prepare pancakes.|
|Brian navigates on the trail to Cottonwood creek.|
|On the trail between Cottonwood creek and Grapevine creek stands Elliott.|
|Molly and Dae-Hyung rest at the same location.|
|The first view of the Colorado river, on the way to Grapevine Creek|
|The rainbow, in 4 frames, that happened after the hikers were thoroughly soaked at Grapevine Creek.|
|Sunset from Cremation Canyon.|
|All four hikers at the bridge across the Colorado river that leads to Bright Angel trail.|