Backpacking Grand Canyon National Park, 31 Jan – 05 Feb 2016

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Hike Summary: 48.4 miles over five days, with 8900 ft of altitude gain. Stunning scenery. Main question asked: “How *can* it keep getting better, backpacking Grand Canyon?”

The photos from this trip are on my Google+ here.

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

Getting There

Very straightforward. Four of us flew OKC-PHX, picked up a rental car, and headed north. We stopped at REI Flagstaff for stove fuel, then into the Park. Two others drove from San Diego to Flagstaff, then to the park where we all met up. We spent the first night in Maswik Lodge. The next morning, we loaded up, and checked in at the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) for an itinerary check (and change).

Weather Forecast

Our past two years in the Canyon were bedeviled by weather as we traveled there, but it was beautiful and warm while we hiked. This year, it was weather at the Canyon that was the issue. Forecasts were for highs in the 30s, with lows in the -0s for the South Rim, and up to a foot of snow. We were not enthusiastic about finding the Tanner Trail and Escalante Route when covered with snow, with our way out of the Canyon blocked in all three of our potential exits, and even the road closed along the Rim. We worked with the Backcountry Information Center (BIC), and they changed our route and permit, which turned out to be amazing regardless.

Day 1

We started at 0715 with breakfast in the Maswik food court, then got to the BIC right after it opened at 0800.

We headed out from the BIC after changing our route and walked directly to the Bright Angel trailhead.  Not much to say except it’s a long way down.  We started out around 0900, had lunch in Indian Garden, and then got into camp around 1530.  I was very happy that I didn’t have any knee problems this time.  I had practiced by walking a lot of stairs in the month prior to the trip.  The Bright Angel trail (sloped) is also a lot easier on the knees than the South Kaibab trail (large stair-steps).

We all walked around, Corey fished, and I looked for my missing SPOT in the group camp we were in last year (no luck).

Water was weird.  Apparently the NPS was working on the Transcanyon Water System, and there was only one place (right in front of the Phantom Ranch Canteen) to get potable water.  The heads had no water, and to flush, you emptied a big bucket of nasty-looking water into the head after you did your business.  We sent a patrol out to fill water bottles at PR (it’s a half mile there) and dipped water from the creek for boiling for food rehydration.

We decided not to go to the Canteen at 2000 as we were tired, so we all crashed at 1945.

10.5 miles and loss of 4380 ft.

Day 2

We all slept in a bit here, and didn’t hit the trail until 1030.  We walked up through Phantom Ranch to the Clear Creek turnoff, where it was new trail for all of us.  We walked through The Box, where the canyon sort of slots a bit.  The GPS lost lock several times.  We always had water very near us.  There were numerous places where rockfall had happened.

When you come out of The Box, the canyon opens up a bit to several hundred yards wide.  It’s quite the transition, and now you have tall walls in the distance.  It snizzled on us pretty much all day.  The trail doesn’t get a significant slope until just before Cottonwood Camp, then it bumps up and back down about 300 ft in a short distance.  Shortly before you get to the first bump you can see Ribbon Falls to the northwest, and it’s impressive even from a distance.

Going through The Box (and later tomorrow, as well), there are a lot of pour-offs and streambeds that would probably be very pretty waterfalls after a heavy rain.

We got to Cottonwood Camp, and we were the only people there.  We spread out to three of the small campsites.  They have tables and pack hangers there, and composting toilets.  There was no Ranger.  It’s a little hike to get water from the creek, but only about five minutes.

The stars up there were stunning!  So dark, so clear, so…  freaking… cold.  We saw a pair of ISS passes, very bright and pretty.  We all sat up and talked a while, all the way to almost 2000!  Party animals, we were.  🙂

7.2 miles and gain of 1600 ft.

Day 3

We woke up around 0745.  I thought it was cold the night before…  no way.  Our water bottles were liquid when on the ground under the tent fly, but in less than 20 minutes of being out on the table, ice crystals were growing.  I think the temps were between 10F-15F (both mornings).  We fired up Coreys Whisperlite for breakfast.  Ian and I made cheese rice that we had planned to eat with the Chili Mac the night before, but it was better that cold morning.

We headed out with daypacks continuing up the North Kaibab trail.  Our plan was to walk as far as we could until the snow got too deep, or until it was 1330, then head back.  We left around 1000.

We first hit the Pumphouse Ranger residence after about 30 minutes.  A bonus here was seeing a fresh cougar print in the snow, and several more later in the mud.  At this point the trail starts up quite a steeper slope, we started seeing more snow next to and on the trail, and it was getting colder.

After about another hour, we came into view of Roaring Springs, the source of water for the National Park.  It was amazing!  We kept going up, coming to several enormous layer-cake pouroffs.  Eventually, at the 5900 ft level, we ran into a foot+ of snow, and turned back.  Most of this hike was in shade, and it was very cold.

When we got back to Cottonwood, Dave, Neal, and Corey walked down to the trailhead for Ribbon Falls.  Ian and I tried to get across the creek to explore a side canyon, but we couldn’t find a safe place to cross, so instead we explored the area around camp.

We had company in camp when we got back, a couple from NYC.

We eventually had dinner under another cloudless, sharp night, and racked out.

8.2 miles and gain, then loss, of 1820 ft.

Day 4

Very straightforward hiking day after a cold, cold morning.  We got out of camp around 1000 and walked over the first hill to the trail junction for Ribbon Falls.

That Falls is impressive.  The Falls are probably 100 ft high, and you can walk around in back of them for some very pretty views.  We met several other day hikers from Bright Angel/Phantom Ranch there and had nice conversation.

We continued back down trail and through The Box.  When we got to camp, we “upgraded” to the group site we stayed in last year.  Corey and Neal hit the fishing holes again, and Dave, Chuck, Ian, and I headed up to the Phantom Ranch overlook, a 3 mile round trip with 700 ft of elevation gain.  There is cell service there, so I called Raegan and let her know we were OK.

After dinner, we talked for a bit, then headed up to the Canteen for a beer.  We stayed up all the way to 2045, then walked back, and crashed.

12 miles and net loss of 1600 ft.

Day 5

Not much to say about this again.  Chuck, Ian, and I left camp at 0800 and came over the South Rim at 1515.  It’s a bloody long walk.  10.5 miles (to the BIC) and gain of more than 4380 ft.

We went directly to Maswik and had cheeseburgers, then I walked to the nearby BIC, weighed my pack, and we went to our Maswik rooms and essentially ran out the hot water :).  Hot tea was consumed in significant quantities.  We tried to catch up on news as well.

Dinner and beer was had in the Bright Angel Lodge.  I had an undistinguished Salisbury Steak.

10.5 miles and GAIN of 4380 ft.  Whoa.  This single activity is harder than all of the walking of the past four days.

29 February 2016 update:

I put all of the GPS data I had into a single GPX file, then exported it to a text data file. I plotted it in 3D but the result didn’t look right. I realized that the problem was the scale was not right in that the elevation Z axis was in feet, while the X and Y axis were in Lat/Long. I used a USGS online tool to determine the distance in feet between latitude and longitude for the area of Grand Canyon, then wrote an Excel formula to convert the Lat/Long data to feet. Then I replotted the data to get the altitude relative to our walking distance. This is what I came up with, annotated with some major landmarks:

Grand Canyon 2016 Altitude Profile

No matter how you slice it, Grand Canyon is steep!  It’s either up or down pretty much everywhere you hike.  The Box was really the only place that it was fairly flat.  This plot is the 3D view turned on its side.

Getting Back

Very straightforward again.  Dave rode with Neal and Corey to PHX, while Ian, Chuck, and I went to the Geology Museum, the Visitor Center, and then the Planes of Fame airplane museum between Williams and the Park.  We all rendezvoused at PHX and flew back to OKC.

Equipment Notes

My pack weighed 36 lbs when we hit the trail, and 32 lbs coming off the trail.  Not bad, considering that I had just short of *7* lbs of clothing.  I used every bit of it, it was cold!  For a warmer weather camp, that would put my hit the trail weight near 31 lbs, which is pretty darn good.

My REI Quarter Dome 2 tent fit Ian and I with no problem, in spite of me being 6ft 2in and him being 6ft 4 in.

I love the Sea to Summit sleeping pad!  One thing that was nice:.  I used to have to put my closed cell sleeping pad in the bottom of a big duffle bag, then put my partially disassembled pack on top of it.  With the new inflatable pad, everything is stowed in the pack.  It’s nice to be able to pick it up at bag claim, sling it on my shoulders, and head out.

Food Notes

I carried a bit too much food. I started with roughly 6 lbs, and when I came back I had 1.7 lbs still. Most of the food was lunch and breakfast stuff. There was also a lot of trash I carried for other people, maybe a full pound. I maybe ought to not be so nice :).

Lunch was PB&J on tortillas, or tuna salad, or for the first day, a sammich I bought at the Maswik food court. One thing I did here was to buy a packet of Newman’s Own Caesar dressing that I liberally used on the sammich, very good.

One lunch item neither Ian or I liked was Underwood Deviled Ham on crackers. The crackers were crumbly but good. The UDH, not so much. We ate it, but quickly, and then started in on some snacks to get the taste out of our mouth.

Breakfast was oatmeal or Pop Tarts, pretty standard, and the day we had the cheese rice :).

We both ate a lot of snacks on the trail. My favorite is M&Ms. I ate more than usual on this trip, given how cold it was.

Dinners. I’ve written before about the quantity of Mountain House/Backpackers Pantry meals. They are “2-person”, but I used to eat an entire meal myself. This time, Ian and I shared them, and we carried supplemental rice or noodle packets. In the end, we didn’t use any of the supplemental stuff for dinner, but we ate a cheesy rice for breakfast. It was hot and gooey and delicious.

We tried a new Mountain House entree on this trip: Chicken Fried Rice. It was very good, but we added two cubes of S&B Golden Curry medium to the meal as it sat, it melted and we stirred it around, and it was one of the best meals I’ve had backpacking. Ian agreed. Great stuff!

Mountain House Chili Mac. Lordy, it was good. So was the Mountain House Spaghetti.

What Went Wrong

Stove fuel.  I have consistently carried (me personally and/or our group) too much stove fuel.  In this case, we went on the trail with exactly 2 8oz and 1 4oz canister of isopro stove fuel.  We had to cook enough water for four breakfast meals and four dinner meals.  Given what we know about that, for our six guys, it’s 2 pots (10 cups) of water for breakfast, or about 8 overall, and another 3 pots (15 cups) of water for dinner, or 12 overall, with a total of 20 pots of water for the entire crew for the trip.  From my testing, that is well within the capacity of the two canisters Ian and I carried (8 oz and 4 oz).  Chuck had an 8 oz canister as well, so we should have been fine.

BUT, we weren’t.  I broke out my 8 oz canister in camp for the first night, and we boiled 4 pots of water.  It emptied my canister completely, very annoying.  We used the canisters Chuck and Ian carried as well, and both of those ran out as well.  I thought maybe we had bought canisters that were sold to us short (maybe partially used), but after thinking about it, I wonder if the air temperature affected the fuel delivery.  I need to research that, and/or test it.  Regardless, I think the lesson learned is that I should have had one other guy carry another 4 oz.  Maybe we should have tucked the fuel canisters into our sleeping bags to keep them warm.

Speaking of cold fuel canisters, the isopro stoves failed miserably for breakfast both Tuesday and Wednesday morning.  I think the temps were in the mid-teens.  Fortunately, Corey had an MSR Whisperlite (kerosene based) that fired up just fine.  Lesson learned, carry a Whisperlite when the temps get low.  Again, I wonder if they needed to be tucked into our sleeping bags.

What Went Right

Pretty much everything!  It was cold, but we coped and no one got too cold.  Ian was a little cold in his 15F bag, but we piled all our outerwear on him and that jacked the R-value up.  The route we took was stunning!  We got out of camp when we needed to, and got into camp in good time.  In particular, we all got up the Great Big Wall before it got dark.  No one got hurt.  Gear worked

Closing Thoughts

I’ve now hiked more than 150 miles in Grand Canyon, between the three backpacking trips and a number of day hikes on both Rims.

It was super cold this trip. All of our trips to Grand Canyon have been the first week in February, and while the first two were shorts and short sleeves once we were over the Rim, we made up for it with the low temps this time. I do not think that it was over 32F the entire time we were out.  The lows were probably in the 10F-15F range the two nights we were in Cottonwood.

I could not have asked for a better group to hike with.  Everyone was cheerful (and astounded!), and there wasn’t a cross word spoken (except about the cold, not to/at each other).

The change in plan from the Escalante Route to the almost-to-the-North-Rim was not a loss at all.  It showed us an amazing part of the canyon few get to see.

We’ll have to go back next year and try the Escalante Route again.  🙂

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One Response to “Backpacking Grand Canyon National Park, 31 Jan – 05 Feb 2016”

  1. Backpack Weight, Again | Bill Hensley's Random Blog Says:

    […] spent most of last week on our third backpacking trip to Grand Canyon. This was the first chance for me to check out some of the new gear I […]

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