The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Twenty-Five

Snow on the Trail

An Unexpurgated Journal of Grand Canyon Exploits, 1991

Day Zero

Mather campground at Juniper 134. Slept well. Cold and windy. Flashback: Intense wind at Lipan Point gets us freakified. Mommy sez we're not going in with this wind. Discussed staying in a lodge. Hiker integrity vetoes this idea. Bought lots o' stuff at Babbitt's and ate sumptuous pasta meal at Cafeteria. Champagne goes undrunk again.


Day One

Wake early at Juniper 134 and skulk out before other campers arise. Head for breakfast at Lodge, which costs more than sumptuous supper the night before. However, since we didn't pay either park or campground entry fee, we feel justified and consider our breakfast costing only $1.50. So. On to BRO where a large obnoxious short woman cross-examines park ranger Dee Montgomery who smiles while reporting that there are no lockers at the river. Nor, she advises, is there an elevator, contrary to what the AAA guide states. After a long, bemused wait, we begin to obtain our permit, and simultaneously meet Mike and Ruth Ann, who are traveling about the same route in the opposite direction. We agree to a vehicle parking swap, in order to avoid a long and nasty asphalt hike at the end of our mutual ascents. So by mutual assent, we meet at Babbit's parking lot where Mike observes, "You're really into grains", and Ruth Ann expresses her heartfelt desire to pack in some Coca Cola. Our day lurches to a start as we arrive separately at Grandview, where Mike doesn't want us to drive his fancy Toyota Forerunner (but claims to have only one key). Since I am almost out of gas, I run back to the Village for more, delaying us another half hour. Finally, we meet at Lipan Point, where Mike drives my lovely little car away. So, in we go. It is about 11:45, and so we are getting a very late start for this purported 10-mile hike. But, optimistic as ever, we trot, happy and serene, down the first seven hundred ninety six thousand switchbacks. At the middle of this diabolic segment, my left knee decides to emulate the right knee of Nurse Babs two years ago, inserting sharp pains into each descending step. Being a brave lad, I do not whine continuously, but just enough for the essential self-satisfaction of knowing the cleansing agonies of the truly happy camper. Stevie points out, as I write this, that it took nearly an hour to notice the beauty, as the pain so commanded our attention. However, we reached a long, contouring hike where the canyon opened to us, and we reveled in its illuminous glories just before another set of agonizing descending elevator-desiring switchbacks began anew. Lest I leave the reader, i.e., usses, confused into believing that these were switchbacks as tidy as the Cathedral Steps, I shall at this moment disabuse usselves of that memory. These were indeed devil switchbacks, covered with unstable rubble and heel-shifting scree. All visual memories of this descent are obliterated by pain. At the next contouring section, I have little heart to proceed, but cheerled by Nurse Jen, I continue toward the mythical Tanner Rapids. A subtle yet constant internal generation of endorphins and stupidity keeps us trekking onward. But--alas--mere thousands of feet from our goal, we set up camp for the night. Dinner was prepared in darkness, and consisted of curried rice with dried apples, and Ovaltine. Darkness fell over my psyche quickly. Babs sez she was fine (hah).

Evening Windy Sunset Evening's Windy Sunset

Day Two

We had camped right on the trail. Morning's light brought us breakfast and a hiker, who issued warnings about the lower Beamer Trail and its dizzying height and narrowness over the river. He also casually inquired if we had a rope. However, looking like an ad from Accountants on Parade, he did not effuse camper credibility. We began our languorous descent to Tanner Beach, crossing what was to be our access to the afeared Beamer Trail. At Tanner, we washed clothes and dishes, and once more swam in the chilly Colorada. After a refreshing sunbreak, we set out for the Little Colorado confluence. The view from Beamer was incredible (lacking other words). The trail hugs the edge of the sandstone, keeping us in view of the river's course the entire time. We rise and fall gently during the hike, crossing Comanche Creek and eventually...


Major flashback: after meeting the hiking accountant, I reached to straighten my pack. Bursts of light and circles and arrows and metallic flavors, coupled with stabifying pains, conspired to indicate that my back had gone out about as far as Texas. Nurse Babs to the rescue. After about a half hour of vain attempts to recall which particular pretzel-like shape my body needed to be contorted into to effect an osteopathic repair, visions of a distinctly foreshortened trip, embarrassing ranger rescue, and humiliating ex-post-hippie return to the East loomed in my brain. However, the crucial pretzelization position was rediscovered, and the back was snapped unceremoniously into its innocent infantlike original position. Recipe: (from Nurse Babs' Notebook of Osteopathic Cuisine):

  1. Position wretched wreck on left side, approximately one foot from edge of as smooth and flat a surface as available, i.e., any old rock that doesn't gouge the guts out of said left side of lying wretch.
  2. Wretch to wriggle right leg until it overhangs edge of said surface with its full weight (leg, not surface).
  3. Left leg extended.
  4. Rescuer grasps left shoulder of wretch and draws shoulder towards self.
  5. Right arm extended along body.
  6. Short sharp motion simultaneously pushing wretch's right shoulder back and down, and pulling wretch's right hip up and forward.
  7. Repeat as prescribed.

Back was fixed, pack was installed by Nurse Babs, and the trek safely continued.

Back to main story

...crossing Comanche Creek, and arriving at the drainage of a thousand rock faces, Espejo Creek (bifurcated). We took many photos here (and swam around here, too), and went on as quickly as possible to our rendezvous with the confluence. Alas, light began to run out as we traversed Lava Beach, and as we pushed our way through the flora in search of good photos of duck-like fauna, some flora, probably in conjunction with the wind, ate our trail map. We retraced our steps from the east end of Lava Beach without finding it--only a trailless topo map and verbal description remained. Wooooooooo. This, together with the faltering light, encouraged us to set up camp ... next to the lapping waters of a pleasant river beach-ette. Dinner consisted on red bean chili, ramen and hot drinks. There was no tea due to a hasty sorting performed by the aforementioned Nurse. We hung our food on some ready-made crossthingies. By the way, the map search was not to be entirely fruitless. Or hopeless, as it were.


Day Three

Morning breaks with a groan. We have, needless to say, but to be said anyway, given up the full trek out to the confluence. We break camp only after one more search for the map ... I return instead with a faded but full can of the fruit of the hop, Budweiser, which, when presented to Barbara Steven, evinces confusion and delight. We follow our path back through the silly rocks, past Comanche Creek, and down to Tanner Rapids, where we wash clothes, sun, jump in the rapids pools, read our remaining map, and generally refresh ourselves. Interjection of physical condition, courtesy of professional observer, Nurse B:

Traveler A, male, age 42 years: sunburn, spotty, including T.O.H. (top of head)... * Physical Status Flashback--at Lava Beach, the feared attack of the bloody hemorrhoids! * continuing ... shoulders still symmetrical but sore. Back in but delicate. Knee improved but still wrapped. Thighs stressed, feet blistered.

Traveler B, female, age uncertain (i.e., discrepancy between chronology and performance): sunburned, all muscles on strike; menses present.


Now refreshed at Tanner, we push on, following explicit instructions in Hiking the Grand Canyon, by following T.B. to the south end where it is to meet the dox sandstone. Instead it, and we, meet a pile of loose conglomerate approximately 100 feet high, bounded on one side by water, another side by attack-trained tammies, and guarded all by a healthy and vigorous specimen of audible rattlesnake. Nurse Babs emits startlingly high series of wooo-wooo-wooos and jumps back almost into the river. We retreat. An unpleasant and circuitous beach walk leads us to a marked trail up to the dox. Alas, the first of these leaves us on a path a few hundred feet above the guardian viper (and hence the river) on loose rock without anything useful to break our screaming fall, should that occur. We once again retrace our paths out of the way of a horrible bloody death to find another, safer way to Unkar Rapids, our next goal. This, the HtGC folks promise us, is easy. In fact, it pretty much is, and the view of the river from the rise above the Hakatai shale is almost incomparable to anything we have yet seen. The river turns twice, the formations are of many different soils, the stones and beaches and foliage are in remarkable harmony with a very wide Colorado. The rise above Unkar Rapids is preceded by 14 (or more) up-and-down crossings of minor drainages, during which the color of our conversation mutates toward purple. Finally, a long, ascending traverse, directly into the sun and into a headwind, leaves us entirely lost somewhere above Unkar. (We did, however, get some nifty photos, including one of a tarantula). Lost about 500 feet above the river, and without a trail map, we descend an unnamed drainage, through ever-steepening steps of shale, toward the river. Fortunately, the drainage leads without incident to a small patch of sand and tammies at river's edge. We set up camp, have dinner of ramen, split pea soup with meatless meat, and hot stuff to drink. Wind carries up through most of the night, followed by rain and hail. Rodents have attempted to eat my French vanilla pudding, sunflower seeds, peanuts, etc., despite all food being hung high in a tree. (By the way, rodents have also eaten a hole in my pack at the first campsite on the Tanner Trail.)


Day Four

Gotcha. Nurse speaks: "The Grand Canyon motto--'Well, there's always up.'" Today we had a "learning experience". The drainage so happily occupied hier soir revealed itself to be upstream of Unkar Rapids, quite a long stone's throw from the downstream side. The day began with rain, wind, clouds and chill. Our innate optimism was yet to be defeated, however, as we set out, as they say, "through the tammies". We soon learned to address each little bush with the following acknowledgment: "Sorry, but you'll have to get your pound of flesh somewhere else." We were often wrong about this. Upon emerging from the thicket, we discovered another thicker thicket, which opened to reveal Unkar Rapids ... still downstream. We hung around, hoping for a rafter hitch, eventually padding our way uphill, moments before we discovered we needed to return for water. A half hour and more padding later, we undertook the precipitous ascent to Unkar Rapids overlook--our only gratifying moment of the afternoon (well, not the only one...). An absurd contouring and rising trail eventually led us to the head of yesterday's drainage--intended drainage, that is. A pleasant stroll, interrupted only by several thousand sharp falloffs, took us to the last thousand feet or so, where my left pack support snapped. Lest, dear reader, you believe that only miscues and disasters made up our journey, please understand that we did encounter many enjoyable rocks. However, upon encountering the river once again, we found a field of less enjoyable stepping-stone, toe-stabbing-type rocks. These were a pleasure compared to the subsequent tour "through the tammies", which took us to the beach, and by the river, over which we hung by said tammies and the solid scent of fear. We finally could proceed no further, and were forced to climb a rubble of mercifully dead tammies up to the sand and toward the Hakatai shale, which we were told would lead us, more or less, and with some scouting for trails and passages, rather quickly along the river to its eventual rendezvous with Escalante Creek, where real adventure was promised on the way to Hance Creek. We did pause for snacks. The adventure commenced just at the downstream end of the unnameable beach, where the promise of sloping steps of shale was unmet. Unless, of course, sloping up was the intention, for up they went, step by step, inch by inch, until we placed our quivering toes at the edge of--yes, another--sheer cliff. As cliffs go, it was an attractive one, all square-edged and tidy, with 200-ft falls (not waterfalls but fatal falls) on three sides. We sloped up some more (invoking the G.C. motto--you remember), finding ourselves once again cliffed, with the option of up or aaaaah. We upped, finally climbing across a wash, after which one of us got stuck going down ... the other, unbeknownst to the first, had been shale-struck stuck for the last half hour. Packs were lowered, rain began, wind wrestled and all were happy to be here. Camp was set up facing the rocks--18 inches away. The wind swirled, the stove objected, food was gradually consumed, and dreams of tammies and New York were had by all.


Day Five

We awaken to find everything, including our teeth, encrusted with a fine film of sand. The tent has ominously been drawn into--the tammies.


Later. Fuckin'-A. We have traversed and re-traversed a most scenic route from the upstream end of 75-Mile Rapids to Papago Canyon. The route was a beauteous upper route about the edge of 75-Mile Creek, which twists and turns through such all-American scenic gorgeosity as we have not yet put our eyes to. We followed a clear trail weaving around the creek with sheer and stunning dropoffs through the walls. We reached the west arm of the creek up the wash, this marked by a distinctively overbuilt cairn. The trail further west was not marked for some time, but the cairns returned, much to our relief. The trail grew fainter as we rounded the wall to Papago Canyon, where all sign of cairns vanished. The trail became invisible in places, but I commented with some measure of pride and relief, "isn't it good to have even this faint trail to go by", or some such remark. Within moments, all signs of trail vanished into an aching abyss, leaving us with a few (very few) decisions to make. Scout Nurse looked for an upper trail while I rubbed my knee, which had conveniently began to stab me again. We turned back in search of other trails: We found none, and hence are sitting on the rocks only a hundred feet from the beach we need to achieve to continue this journey. Flashback: I should mention the wonderful rafters who got us out of our last predicament as related under the heading "Day 4". Unfortunately, they dropped us off a bit short of our desired location. We are presently enjoying the fading sunlight (rapidly fading) (faded) on the rocks. Literally and metaphorically for today's journey.

Papago Canyon Papago Canyon

Day Six

Stranded. We've decided to wait for river runners, which, at this late time of year, could take a while. The temperature is cool, the river high, and the stillness a bit less than peaceful.


No rafters for 3 hours, but finally safety in a fellow with a Rhode Island Kite Club cap. Tucker had a trail map with what we were searching for, a description of the trail from the BRO (what you gotta ask for everything?), and directions. He'd just come that way. So up again to the edge of 75-Mile Creek--and down into some of the most exquisite terrain yet--and then we were spit out into 75-Mile Rapids--at last--1½ days late.


There used to be a TV show called "Highway to Heaven" in which two ordinary-looking guys intervened in hopeless situations, so that miracles were performed. They were, of course, angels and there was, of course, always a catch to their help. So it was with Tucker. Moments after his departure (and he had only found us because he had "missed" his cairn), the handle pulled off the water purifier. Gone. Then came the actual trek from 75-Mile Rapids to Hance. The contouring was by way of a well-marked (Tucker's doing) but viciously rocky (Tucker's doing) trail. This took us to a 50-foot ascent up a wall, pulling our packs by ropes. I arrived first, only to be confronted by a very black raven ominously fluffing and cawing its warning cry. By the time Stevie completed the ascent, two ravens were eyeing us. We continued to ascend, and they came closer. Alfred Hitchcock sprang to mind; we threw some trail mix at them and got away as quickly as our bruises would carry us. (Photos were, however, required). A round-about and rocky trail brought us to the descent to Hance Rapids. Oh yes--the BRO sheet describes this as a "steep talus rockslide--loose rock--use caution." The word they left out was "long". They also didn't point out that the ominous ravens would be waiting at the other side, their act perfected on countless hikers. The troll ravens once again began their beady-eyeing performance (have you ever seen a raven's bill up close--it's sort of like a pelican, only bigger and sharper), but we, now wise and experienced hikers, shooed them away. The descent continued beyond description. Hell comes to mind as a comfortable alternative. Upon arriving at the beach, another hour's trek brought us to Hance Rapids. Papago Canyon was magnificent; here Nurse Babs recounts: "We stopped to take a break and contemplate before ascending the dread-described wall, which was no big deal by then. We wandered up the canyon for its short distance at our level, to encounter a sheer, smooth rock face, worn by years of water pouring out from the massive canyon behind it. But here, Papago Canyon was at most 12 feet wide. Truly incredible."

The Raven The trickster raven

Day Seven

So. This is being written in a comfy room at Yavapai Lodge, after 2 showers, a night of 75-degree heat (artificially provided), and a 10-lb. breakfast. You see, it's like this. Yesterday morning followed the evening, both of which provided continuous rain. By the time we could begin to think of leaving Hance Rapids, it was mid-morning and the rain had stopped. Packing was miserable in the sandy murk, but we set out on the beginning of the Tonto Trail in an effort to reach Horseshoe Mesa and then hike out. The ravens greeted us early, but we had learned their scam and shooed them away. We saw some fisher birds in the river which were white and large. It looked like a long yet promising day. We found the Tonto easily, and followed it around Hance Creek for a few hours, our eyes searching for the trail on the other side which would lead us to Horseshoe Mesa. Oh yes. There was also a long trek around Mineral Canyon and a stupefying overland hike across a saddle to reach Hance Creek. So that we did, to Hance and finally on the western arm reached the trail to Horseshoe Mesa. The long trek was gratified by the view of the enormous formations and sidewashes that made up Hance Creek. The ground was still wet and even muddy because of the rain, and, as we saw when the clouds lifted, some snow was on both rims. The switchbacks up the rockfall and talus through the redwall to H.M. were brutal, the worst of the trip, and even worse than we remembered Grandview Trail. Hah. On the way up, we met some fit-looking hikers on their way to the river and out the Hance Trail (maybe) in 3 days. No one had the time, so we continued upward to the Mesa, passing Sage Springs and the copper mine. When we reached the Mesa, we tramped around (again) to find the end of the Grandview Trail. It was apparently mid-afternoon and still cloudy, so it was not easy to figure the time. We set out immediately up the trail, pausing occasionally for sustenance (and air). The trip up seemed much more relaxed and reasonable than last year, when we were much less well-supplied with water and energy foods. We met the first snow line with complete and undisturbed optimism and even enthusiasm for the cute little snowballs stuck in every tree. The snow grew a bit thicker when we reached the first cobbles. They were slick, as the afternoon temperature had reached 50 degrees. We proceeded. We rounded the "fool's corner", as we had called it, just as the sun was casting exquisite red rays over the north rim. We were also pausing for occasional photos (one) and occasional breath-breaks (infinite). Psycho Nurse reported confidently that we were "almost out". Then, many pauses and gasps later, as the sun's glow vanished in the west, we rounded, in 3 inches of snow, the true "fool's corner"--fooled twice. We still had another 500 feet or more to ascend, and, as we recalled, an hour's travel. The snow grew deeper, the footing shakier, the switchbacks steeper and with larger steps, and the blackness blacker. I was able to manage quite a while before using the flashlight, but Stevie's eyes were whited out much earlier. We both went on largely by feel in the moonless night, as the temperature dropped below freezing, the snow was 4 to 5 inches deep, and the black abyss was inches away. We were moving on sheer fear of death by this point. There was nowhere to go, as they say, but up, and we walked, tripped, fell and crawled through the pain of my knee and Stevie's back for another hour. It was perhaps the scariest time of any hike, if not ever. Our feet and hands were close to numb, the packs felt like ropes pulling us back, we were thirsty but unwilling to take even a moment in the blackness to unpack the water and unbalance our packs, and the footsteps before us were the only true guide left to the trail--there were only two sets of these as well, and one set was shuffling worse than ours. There was a sort of dreamlike uneasiness even as we ascended the short rise to the parking lot. We reached the car after a short search, and Stevie cleared 6 inches of snow from it as I coax


Day Eight

...and ate a hearty breakfast, had another shower and bath, and set down this record while watching Discovery Channel cooking shows involving splayed rabbits.

Grand Canyon, Arizona, October 24 - October 31, 1991

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.