Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Grand Canyon (Day 7) - What Trail?

The following post is from the journal I kept of my recent adventure upon a 21-day private river rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon from Lee's Ferry to Diamond Peak (about 230 miles) that took place between April 18th and May 8th, 2012.

April 24, 2012

And on the seventh day we rest... well, not really. We're taking a "layover day" today at the Kwagunt campsite to have some extra time to hike or relax or both. Butch remembers a science trip (a trip where the guide works for National Park service scientists instead of tourists) from 25 years ago where they hiked up Kwagunt canyon and up a trail that leads to the top of the rim overlooking the campsite, somewhat similar to what we did a 50-mile campsite (Dinosaur). To me it looks higher and more daunting than the Dark Castle of Dinosaur camp.

Our entire party packs individual lunches at the end of breakfast. I'm not taking any chances today so I fill ALL of my water bottles and drop a few NUUN tablets in one of them and mix up Gatorade in another. I pack my first aid kit, survival kit, headlamp, knife, camera and as much food as I can bare to weight down my backpack and then lace up my trail shoes. It's going to be a good and long day!

We head up the Kwagunt creek wash area at about 7:40 a.m. in search of this trail that Butch remembers. It's unknown territory for everyone. We follow footprints and broken trail for about 3 miles up the wash looking for what Butch remembers as a trail that breaks away to the left and up the mountain, almost "step-like" and not too difficult. We look and look, but find nothing definite.

At some point, Robert, Athena, Tricia and Kathy decide to stay behind and explore the area around the creek, which is very beautiful and relaxing while Butch, Bob, Andy and myself make a bid for the summit with or without trail. When we split we leave a walkie-talkie with each party so hopefully, we'll be able to communicate if needed.

We spend about 15 minutes studying the mountain ahead of us. There's no obvious trail so we can only look at the natural terrain of this beast that lies before us and make an educated guess on the proper direction to make our bid. An hour later we find ourselves high up on a ridge line overlooking Kwagunt Canyon. It's freaking amazing and breathtaking, but still no trail and the terrain is not easy to traverse without a trail. It just looks like desert in the pictures, but without a trail to follow you have to side step every bush and it's hard to keep a straight line. Not to mention, just about every plant out here will give you splinters if you rub against it the wrong way and I'm not just talking about the cacti. There are prickle poppies, beargrass, brittlebush, snakeweed, catclaw and dogweed to avoid.

By 11:30 a.m. we are on a higher ridge and now we can see a large portion of the North Rim. There is snow up there, which makes the contrast between the green pine trees of the Kaibab plataeu and the ground that much more striking. We stop to rest under a dead cedar tree of some sort that provides minimal shade and I can't help but think we might be the only humans to have ever sat here. It's a romantic thought that's probably completely false, but I feel so isolated in nature right now. I haven't seen any footprints or other evidence of humans in hours and I'm a thousand feet or more in elevation up from the creek. How often can you get to a place with no evidence of humans being there before? Whether we make it or not, I'm completely satisfied with the journey today. It's so quiet up here that you can hear airplanes flying over at altitude loud and clear. There's no river noise; only wind noise or the occasional clank from a rock sliding down the mountain side loosened by our feet.

We're all running low on water. I look at the summit above. It's probably another 600 vertical feet or at least a mile of difficult trail blazing. It's high noon and getting hotter by the minute. I turn to Bob and Andy and say, "I can make it up there, but I'll kill all my water in the process." Reality sets in among us all. There's no aid station up ahead and there's definitely not any water source at the top. We're in the desert! Going down will be difficult if not worse. We collectively decide to start heading down the mountain. Rather than go back the way we came it seems much more interesting to take a different route down and also try and short cut the trip by going toward a direction that is closer to the mouth of the wash below than where we started our summit bid. It's also in a direction where we think we might have missed the start of the mystery trail from the wash. This will ensure that if it's there we'll come across it on the way down. At one point I find a Gardner snake and a few minutes later Bob is buzzed by a Peregrine Falcon. I mean, the thing flew past him at more than 100 mph and probably only missed him by two or three feet. He jokes about how it was "checking him out."

What seems like a brilliant idea soon becomes somewhat of a bitch. There is no trail. NO TRAIL! If there ever was, it's gone or in a totally different location. I guess I take trails for granted. Maybe it got covered up by a rock slide or something, but there's no trail. Today is the day of NO TRAIL! My legs are scratched to hell at this point. The path we blaze down is actually very steep and this causes us to switchback across a very loose rock slide area. It's that or get more scratched up from the desert plants. Rocks are constantly coming loose and falling down the mountain under our feet and several times I slip a few feet down with them before stopping. I find a small stick and carry it in the hand that is nearest the mountain at all times with the thought that I can use it to arrest myself if I fall, similar to an ice axe. I don't have to use it, but getting down turns out to be the most technical part of the day. I make it back to the creek a few minutes before everyone else and I'm so happy to see the water I lay down in it and let it wash around my entire body. It's cold, probably snow melt, and I don't care!

Andy, Bob and Butch soon arrive and without hesitation do the same as myself. At this point I'm completely out of water and so is Andy. We elect to hike back to the boats immediately while Butch and Bob decide to rest, eat some foot and take a slower approach back. Once Andy and I make it back to camp it's been nearly 7 hours of total hiking time. My body feels like I ran a 20-miler. I ice my legs in the Colorado River as long as I can stand it. We settle in for the rest of the afternoon taking shelter in the shade from the scorching heat from the sun. It's a lazy afternoon and I'm loving it. It's allowing me to take a little more time to write, read, relax, etc. Cathy has been fishing most of the afternoon with a good amount of success. I think she's caught four or five trout so far.

Tomorrow I'm hoping that we make it to the Little Colorado River. If it's clean water it is one of my favorite spots!

 This is a black and white shot I took at sunset of the peak we were attempting to summit at Kwagunt.

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