Backpacking Grand Canyon, 02 – 06 February 2015

A group of seven friends had a great backpacking trip to Grand Canyon last week. The weather was perfect!

I took a bunch of photos again. Those are on my Google+ site here.

Hike summary: 5 days, 46.6 trail miles, and huge altitude loss and gain. Sore calves and knees. Staggering and sublime views everywhere!

This is our second trip to Grand Canyon National Park. My blog post for the first one is here.

Getting There

I left Oklahoma City Saturday morning and arrived late morning in Phoenix. Car and baggage were no problem, and I spent my day first with a wonderful brunch with longtime friend Keith and his husband Ben. We followed an excellent meal and talk up with coffee at a nearby Starbucks. We split for a bit for errand running (and me driving all around Phoenix), before meeting back at their house for brownies, ice cream, more talk, and playing with their kitties. A wonderful way to spend a day!

Sunday, the rest of the team was arriving around 0930. They actually arrived around 1300. Fog in the area of PHX caused a ground stop for the flights arriving from DEN and SAN. Dammit. Once everyone arrived, we had a quick lunch (El Pollo Loco, yum), and we booked out of town to avoid any traffic due to the Super Bowl that was being played a couple miles to the west.

We stopped in Flagstaff for the guys to get food and last-minute supplies, and then drove to the Canyon, checking into the Maswik Lodge, having dinner in the Bright Angel Lodge dining room, before returning to the Maswik to get our packs stuffed and a last night in a real bed.

Day 1 (Monday, 02 Feb)

So… this was our short day. Yow.

We got up, checked out of Maswik, had breakfast at Bright Angel Lodge, and drove our cars to the Backcountry Info Center (BIC). Caught the Park shuttle to the Visitor Center, then took another shuttle to the Kaibab trailhead near Yaki Point. We weighed our packs before checking out, mine came in at 38 lbs, about nine less than last year (yea!).

At the BIC I had an electronics fault. The evening before, I had tested my Garmin GPS in the Maswik, and it worked fine. At the BIC, I fired the thing up, and it would beep and shut right off. This happened about 10 times in a row. It had new batteries. I was annoyed by this no end. I didn’t want to carry a nonfunctional GPS, so I left it in the car (another 5oz down). So the end result is I don’t have any GPS track data for the trip. The most annoying thing: when we got back, I picked the darn thing up and it fired right up. Well, crap.

Regardless, we got the Kaibab trailhead, those that needed filled up water bottles, everyone hit the head one last time, we shouldered our packs, and headed down. We hit the trail right at 1030.

This day was down, down, down, down, down hill. There were some level-ish places along the trail, but I do not recall any up. Much of the trail is big stairsteps. It is jarring after a while. There are a couple places to stop on the way down, and at least two toilets (one at the first tip-off point, and the other on the Tonto Plateau). There is an emergency phone at the Tonto location. There are also a couple places that have staggering views down and over the river. But the dominate memory of this day is the relentless down.

That day was the hardest day of hiking I have had. At the end of it, I had a very sore spot behind my left knee, in a place I’ve not been sore before. It reduced me to a very slow pace for the last hour or so of the hike. The trail is so steep it is hard to believe.

I had two full water bottles at the top of the trail, and had the last of my water at the Bright Angel side of the bridge.

The Kaibab ends up at the eastern suspension bridge over the Colorado. Once across the bridge, you are about a third of a mile from camp. We got into camp right around 1730. We stayed at the Bright Angel Camp for backpackers, in one of the two group camps at the south end. The campsite had a nice shelter that was built into the rock face. Two of the guys rolled out their pads and bags right under the shelter. The rest of us put up tents. My tent is not freestanding, and this made me wish it was. The ground was uniformly dirt, but there were a plethora of rocks about two inches under. I found a nice fist-sized rounded rock and took several attempts per tent stake to get them in. Several of them only went in about halfway; for each of those I took a largish rock and used it to hold the stake down.

We all got dinner going. I had Backpackers Pantry Santa Fe Chicken and Rice, and it was pretty good. I could not finish it, and only finished about half of it.

After dinner, I changed into my cool weather clothes, and took a couple Advil. My knee was really bothering me. Fortunately, after a good night sleep, the knee had no pain. I had been worried about it enough that I was going over abort-and-walk-out scenarios. So I didn’t have to carry one of those out. The rest of the guys headed up to the Phantom Ranch canteen for a couple brews. I stretched out in my tent to work a Suduko, and passed out around 1945.

Bright Angel Camp is very nice. The group site we were in had a shelter, and the bathrooms have actual flushing toilets. Very plush.

For the first day, we had 7.1 miles of hiking, brutally down, a total of 4,780 ft of loss.

Day 2

We got up at 0830 (really!), and were packed up and out of camp by 1030.

It’s about a half mile from Bright Angel camp to the junction with the Clear Creek trail. Right off the bat, you climb at a good pace. The trail is a bit on the rocky side. It climbs to an overlook for Phantom Ranch. There is a pretty cool bench made of stone there. Right past the bench a short trail goes to a small area with a great view of the Colorado River. After that, you spend a lot of time contouring and climbing and contouring and climbing to get up to the Tonto Plateau, but this time on the north side of the Colorado.

Once up at the bench and overlook, and for maybe another half mile or so, you actually have cell service. Not much, but I was able to call Raegan and tell her we were OK.

There is no shade up there, except a couple places along the trail where the wash is deep enough to provide some shade, and one great big boulder that provides enough shade (see the photos, it’s enormous).

There was one place on the trail to get water, it was just past our lunch place outbound. There were a couple tepid pools below the trail, and one nice looking pool, albeit small, very close to the trail. When we came back Thursday, the same area had a slight, very slight, trickle that had formed another small pool. If that’s what you get in February, I’m thinking there isn’t any most of the time.

Shade is another thing, as noted above, there’s basically none.

The views were another thing altogether. Constant, and staggering, and head turning, and majestic, and all around. The view of the south side changed as we walked along, and of course the north side has those magnificent walls with the grand names like Zoroaster.

The last part of the trail down into camp was tough (but not as bad as coming down Kaibab). A lot of the trail is a sort-of worn area in red dirt, and it slopes down, so if you slip you get to roll 400 ft into camp. The parts that were not like that were rocky and steep.

We got into camp around 1730, with pretty much empty water bottles, and being on the trail eight hours. Camp is small and set in among some cottonwoods. There are a couple areas to camp in, and I think I like the southern one best. Clear Creek was burbling along happily with a good flow.

There is a dehydrating toilet north of the camps. I thought it was a little odd that the toilet was upstream of the camps, but on the other hand it was quite a ways back from the creek, but on the other other hand it was surrounded by washes. Hmmm….

Dinner was very pleasant. We talked a bit after dinner, watching the amazing dark sky and tons of stars until the Moon rose and the extra light wiped a bunch, and then crashed.

This (and Thursday, clearly) were our long days. We had 10.8 miles of trail. We had a 1,680 ft gain from Bright Angel Camp to the Tonto Plateau, and we lost 560 ft of that down into Clear Creek camp, for a net increase of 1,120 ft. The true “up” for the day is something like 1,900 ft, as we had numerous examples of walking up a hill, then back down the other side, and back up the hill on the other side of the side canyon.

Day 3

This was a side hike day for us. You have three basic choices: stay in camp and chill, go down Clear Creek through a slot canyon to the Colorado, or go up canyon. We decided to head up canyon. There are some ruins up there, and the largest waterfall in the Canyon, Cheyava Falls.

You can’t just follow Clear Creek. The creek disappears, and reappears, and there are side canyons. It’s full of brush and low limbs and occasional scrambles up what would be waterfalls if there was water. There are three streams of reliable water: from the Clear Creek camps to about a half mile upstream, then about five miles upstream, and then below Cheyava Falls.

The Falls were not running when we were there. Rangers told us there had been fairly little snow on the North Rim, so there was little to flow down Cheyava.

There are some super pretty sights up those canyons. They collapse down to slot canyons in a couple places (the NPS warns that there is a flash flood risk if there is a storm up-canyon, so obviously you need to watch the weather). There is a huge variety of rock types, shapes, and sizes in the canyon.

One thing to watch: there are an amazing number of cacti of various types in the canyon. Some of them are clustered close together. Now, there are cacti on the Tonto as well, but not nearly as close together as they are in the Clear Creek drainage. I counted 32 (yes, thirty-two) punctures and scratches on my legs. Dave caught one in the shin that we thing punctured a vein just a bit, as he had a huge amount of blood on his leg and boot. Very impressive.

After dinner, we stayed up all the way to 2040 ( 🙂 ) to watch a short pass of the ISS, and then crashed.

This day was 8 miles round trip, and a 1,378 ft climb, then return to camp with the same altitude loss.

Day 4

Not much to say about today, except the views were just as massive and sublime coming from the opposite angle.

As I mentioned above, there was one more trickle of water at one point. I wouldn’t count on it being there now.

We got up and left camp around 0830. It took us 35 minutes to walk from camp up the first big climb and level out some. After that, we motored right along. This walk took us about 7.6 hours coming back instead of the 8 hours going out. We went faster, and took shorter breaks.

We got back into camp in time to stop at the Phantom Ranch Canteen for a beer.

We had dinner in camp, watched an excellent pass of the ISS starting about 1830, and then hung in camp and talked. While we were there, a ring-tailed cat raided the camp! It was hanging out in the roof area of the shelter next to the rock wall the shelter was built into. S/he was not terribly afraid of us, and we took some pictures while getting peered back at.

Around 1955, we headed back to the canteen for some beer, iced tea, and talk. We stayed about an hour, headed back to camp, and crashed. Four of the guys didn’t bother with a tent, and crashed on the floor of the shelter.

Another 10.8 miles, and a net loss, but the uphill out of camp and the back sides of the hills we walked down made for some decent altitude for the day.

Day 5

We got up at 0530 for what we figured would be a long day. Turned out, not so much!

During breakfast and packing up, I noticed my SPOT was missing. We searched all around the camp, and saw the remains of some plastic Ziplocs around, especially in the roof above the shelter. I figure that the darn ringtail was rooting around, and took the Ziploc with the SPOT in it. Damn cat. Rather, damn raccoon family member. I figure the SPOT is in the roof somewhere, or around the camp area. Hard lesson to learn, but put the $150 SPOT in the bear canister with the rest of the food and trash. I let the Rangers know after returning home; who knows, it might turn up.

We got out of camp around 0730 and went directly to the west bridge over the Colorado. James spotted a bighorn sheep above us, which was cool.

On the way, I stopped where I lost my Nalgene last year and looked for it, even venturing down the cliff face a bit. No luck.

Shortly after this we hit the Devil’s Corkscrew. It’s a tough walk with a big pack, even on the last day, but we all made it in good time with minimal stops. We showed up at Indian Garden around 0930 and took a water and snack break. It was 42F there, and since we were sweating and then stopped, it was darn cold! We didn’t stay long, it was better to be walking and warm.

So started the Big Slog. Walking out of Indian Garden, you are walking up. After a mile or so, the trail tilts upward and you begin four miles of trail going up several thousand feet. The view gets better as you go, but that’s about it. It’s just keep the feet going one after another. Around 1430, I came over the South Rim to complete the trip.

The last day is 9.9 miles, and 4,380 ft of altitude gain. I think the only level is walking from Bright Angel Camp and crossing the bridge, and the only down is a couple short segments along the river, but every bit of the rest is unrelenting up. Still, we all did it without any pain. Rest along the trail every once in a while, and keep a good attitude, and you make it.

We went immediately to Bright Angel Lodge for late lunch and beer and iced tea. From there, it was a walk to Maswik, getting checked in, getting the cars parked at the BIC, showers, and all that.

We drove out to Hermit’s Rest right before sunset to watch the sun set. Then it was back to Bright Angel Lodge for dinner, and a long sleep.

Heading Home

Saturday was pretty straightforward. Up and pack, check out, breakfast, and a visit to the Visitors Center and Mather Point for a last look into the Canyon. It’s a long drive back to Phoenix, but we left the Park around 1030 and got to the rental car return by 1400, and on our flights on time.

Things That Didn’t Work

Losing my SPOT is in this category for sure. Lesson learned is put the thing into the bear canister.

I had a tent pole break Thursday morning. I was sitting by the tent, no stress or strain on it (I had pulled the fly off sometime earlier, and the pole broke next to an insertion point, pop! The same thing happened to the front pole earlier. So, that pole will go off to Tent Pole Technologies for replacement. I had the backup sleeve, and took the pole apart by having two of the guys hold it apart by the shock cord, then cutting the shock cord, threading the backup sleeve through the shock cord, and tying the shock cord back together. I used a couple pieces of duct tape to hold the backup sleeve over the break area.

I had something new on this trip, pain in back of my left knee, mainly toward the extreme down of the end of Day 1. A good rest and a pair of Advil, and no more issues. The same muscle I hurt at Rocky Mountain NP last July re-pulled on this trip; it made it difficult to bend at the waist, which made a couple areas on the day hike a bit problematic. Dave is a professional purveyor of PT, and he identified the muscle, and some exercises to heal it. I’ve been doing those.

Maps

Since my GPS got all weird on me right before we hit the trail, I have put these together using some of the tracks from our trip last year, and manually drawing the rest of the tracks in my Garmin Mapsource tool. The waypoints are from my SPOT reports, except the last day.

First, an overview. Our Day 1 hike on South Kaibab is in purple, Days 2 and 5 on the Clear Creek Trail in green, Day 4 to Cheyava Falls in blue, and our last day on Bright Angel Trail in red.

The entire trek in one JPEG.

The entire trek in one JPEG.

Next, a series of zooms on each segment, Days 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Days 1 and 5

Days 2 and 4

Day 3 Day Hike

Things That Worked

I was happy with my clothing choices here. I would typically wake up in my base layer, and immediately put my long sleeve mock turtleneck and Scout pants on over them, with a hoodie over the mock if I still felt the need. Then, either right before leaving, or shortly after hitting the trail, I would strip down to get the base layer and stuff off, and put on a t-shirt. That would be my hiking shirt. Immediately after hitting camp, the (usually damp) t-shirt would come off and the dry base layer go on. I would continue layering as it cooled. The t-shirt was always dry be morning.

I am going to investigate newer fabrics. Most of the crew had these, and they dried amazingly quickly, and I think the stuff was lighter and compacted better.

I went 100% Isopro/pro stove and fuel for this trip. Worked great, flawless, and heated water darn fast. I carried an 8 oz fuel canister, and ended up with about 3/4 of the fuel left. So, I could have carried a four oz canister and saved the extra weight.

Pack Weight

WOW! After my pack weight investigation last year, my loaded pack weight was NINE pounds less than last year! So I went from 47 lbs to 38 lbs. I also am about seven pounds less body weight. Was the pack light? Heck no. But it was also very manageable.

I am going to look into a new tent. At REI, I saw two tents that are two-person models (as mine), and one was in sort of the same form factor as mine. But, they were in the 2.5 lb range, which is about half my the weight of my tent.

Food

Couple things here. For dinner, I’ve always carried one backpackers meal per day. Those things are marked as two servings (read, two people), but I’ve always been able to put a full package away. I didn’t have nearly the appetite on this trip, and on the first day, only managed half the meal. So for the remaining dinners, I emptied the package into a Ziploc, then put half back into the the cooking pouch and used half the water. Worked out well, and I didn’t have to carry a number of half finished but rehydrated dinners.

My usual breakfast is a package of Pop Tarts and a package or do of applesauce. It was even so on this trip.

But I did something a little different for lunch. I took one tuna salad kit, ate that on day one, and went with Pop Tarts and applesauce for lunch.

I’m thoroughly sick of Pop Tarts at the moment. I had nine packages of them on this trip. It’ll be a while before I have any more. They kept me from getting hungry, but just got a bit monotonous. Maybe half Pop Tarts and half tuna next time? I need to think that over.

Summary

So this trip is in the books. I almost wish we had done a side hike (maybe Thursday afternoon up North Kaibab) to get in a 50 miler, as we needed 3.5 more miles.

Everything pretty much worked on this trip! The company was fantastic, and the views were the reason I go to National Parks.

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One Response to “Backpacking Grand Canyon, 02 – 06 February 2015”

  1. Backpacking Grand Canyon National Park, 31 Jan -05 Feb 2016 | Bill Hensley's Random Blog Says:

    […] This is our third trip to GCNP. The blog post for the second one is here. […]

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