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Trip Report, October, 1998 - Unsuccessful Atoko Route Descent

Trip Report, October, 1998
Unsuccessful Atoko Route Descent
By Charlie Hart

Hiking with:Dan Fiedler
Joe Azar
Mark Thornton

Hi folks, I thought I'd post a report from our recent trip into the Chuar Area via the Atoko Point route. This is described by H. Buchart in his first book. My reporting may be a bit long and too detailed for this newsgroup. If so, let me know. We had hoped to hike from Atoko, into Lava Creek, then upriver to Kwagunt and back to Atoko. It would make a nice loop around Gunther Castle. We never did get below the Supai, however. The trip became a good example of hikers "exploring" with too large of packs.

We parked on the road to Cape Royal, near Atoko Pt., where a forest road intersects at the 8353 benchmark. It was about 9AM on a beautiful early Oct. morning. We headed in a northeast route along the rim as described by Harvey, and were lucky enough to find route ribbons on trees, marking the way. Sure enough, these ribbons ended up pointing us down the bay described by Harvey. The going was steep, but in deep soil that allowed good footing. The ribbons led us through the Coconino, with only one cliff that required aid of a static rope. We were pleased and confident as a result of the well marked route. We looked forward to an straight forward trip to the Kwagunt/Lava Saddle. There was a nice small spring to the west of the route at the base of the Cococino. It drips slowly into a 1'deep pit that holds at couple of gallons.

The ribbon route veered northeast along the base of the Coconino through heavy brush. Who ever set this route had a sharp blade, because brush cuts could be seen. This made the way easier and helped to confirm the route. I still wonder who really set this route maybe it was the Park Backcountry Rangers. We never visited the N. Rim Backcountry Office to check it out, however. Looking back, I believe this was a mistake.

Eventually the ribbon route worked out to a Hermit ridge above the head of the main Kwagunt gulch. We took a break here and then were ready to head for the saddle it was about 11AM. Our confidence was short lived, however, because we quickly lost the route. Our destination was obvious. We just had to work along the Hermit, around Atoko Point to the Lava Saddle, and then down to Lava Canyon spring. However, without a cut route, the way become extremely difficult through oak, maple and locust brush. There were also plenty of large Coconino boulders and steep Hermit gullies to prevent a direct traverse. Finally, we made it around the northern ridge of Atoko Point at about 2PM. There was still no sign of the Lava Saddle. We had not gone a mile in more than 5 hours. WOW! Our 7 day packs had slowed us down, and the brush had started to kick our butts.

We kept on though, and learned the way was easier if we kept immediately below the Coconino. If fact, working around the northeast side of Atoko Point, it seemed mandatory. The big Hermit gully was way too steep to traverse. The only way around this gully was to hug the 1' wide shelf just below the Coconino. Finally, the Lava Saddle came into view once we rounded the northeast ridge of the point. However, now it was 5PM and we were getting low on water. It also appeared that the Hermit was very steep into the Coconino past this point. Some definite route finding and TIME would be needed to go the next mile to the saddle.

We had to make a decision. We could press on to the saddle, camp there, and hope we could make it to Lava Spring water the next day. The alternative was to find a good camp below the white wall and hike back to the rim, and sure water. We made the conservative decision (remembering Steck's advice NOT to explore TO water). Also, our butts were completely whipped at this point.

We worked back toward our starting point looking for a camp. We were like horses headin' back to the barn with renewed energy. This time we really kept close to the white wall along the entire Hermit traverse. We found a really nice (OK, adequate) camp in a rare stand of ponderosa at the base of the white wall. This is almost directly west of the high rim point of Atoko, shown on the map. It was enough to sleep all four in our party on soft, flat beds. It was a wonderful night looking into the head of Kwagunt gulch, and straight up the 100' high white cliff. However, we knew our 7 day trip was being badly diverted.

The next morning, we headed up the way we came. We made much faster time along the base of the white wall, missing the Hermit gullies and boulders. The brush was still there, but not as bad. Eventually we had to drop down because of a big rock slide and steep Hermit slopes. We found the route ribbons just about where we lost them. There is still strong discussion among our group whether we just missed the route (the day before) in the Hermit brush, or if it went down to some less brushy Supai ledges. Our trip took us all over that Hermit brush without seeing any further route ribbons. The Supai ledges seem to cliff out below the Hermit Gullies. Thus, we really think the best way for this route is to hug the white wall all the way around to the Lava Saddle. Some diversions may be needed along the east side of Atoko Pt. From the saddle, hopefully one is out of the brush and just has to deal with Supai and Redwall Cliffs. I am mostly offering this report to describe the problems of some fairly experienced canyon "route" hikers who go caught up in an overly challenging route on the 1 st day of a long trip. A few lessons we learned were:

  1. Explore Buchart or other "challenging" routes with a light pack BEFORE trying them as the lead day for a big trip. (Named canyon trails or Steck's 1st day route descriptions seem more suitable to longer trips.)

  2. Try not to traverse along the brush in the Hermit. (The red shale is easy walking if flat. However if brush is growing, it is too dense at this elevation.) I remember this lesson now. We had similar problems in an upper Supai and Hermit traverse climbing out the Merlin Abyss. You'd think I learn by now.

  3. If you are stuck in upper Supai and Hermit brush, you might try to make your way up to the base of the Coconino. Often there is a flat shelf and less brush to make going easier. The flat shelf can be "exposed", however, over steep Hermit slopes.

  4. Maybe it's worth checking in with the Backcountry Office to see if they have any experience with the planned route (as much as I want to do it all by myself).
Oh, by the way, the route up the Kwagunt drainage to the Lava Saddle and out Atoko really looked long and dry. One would still have to back track the route just described. I think I'll keep to the Kibby Butte or Nankoweep outlets from this area for now.

I hope this report helps others taking the Atoko route down into the wonderful Chuar, Kwagunt and Nankoweap areas.


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