Those of you waiting to hear of this year’s exploits with my friend Ed Kondrot don’t have to wait until autumn. Last year, on the way out of the Grand Canyon, Ed talked me into coming back. But I said we can’t be stupid enough to do it again in mid June when you are breathing air hotter than a blast furnace. So, Ed turned to a patient and long term Second Opinion reader Bob Green of Colorado to lead us on a new canyon adventure – back country that few eyes get to see, but in April.
Ed arranged Bob to guide us on a wilderness excursion he did last year. Bob is 70. He brought his mountain hardened friend attorney Mike Harr, 51, also of Colorado. Ed and were the novices on this trip. Bob had planned out a trip, which the first two days, the hardest, did not follow trails. It followed poorly marked paths with only stone markers to document the way. Bob unfortunately left out some crucial details. He didn’t warn us to bring leather gloves. He also didn’t tell us that he and Mike had done a similar trip some 15 years ago. It was so harrowing that Mike had not returned to the Canyon for 15 years. This was his first time back. We learned why.
The first day we descended through a crack in the face of the canyon at Huitsel point. This entrance was discovered by an Indian many years ago, and only rediscovered a several decades ago. We quickly discovered why it was largely unknown. Aside from repeatedly losing our way due to missing the stone markers, we had to descend down an almost vertical wall. Going down is not my forte. I’d much rather go up, where, if you slip, you don’t have far to fall. Slipping on the descent is quite scary.
My legs were on fire braking much of the way. We slid down rock slides pushing piles of slate like rock in front of us. The descent sometimes was so steep that we had to lower our packs by rope. At times, Bob and Mike would secure us with rope in case we might lose our finger and foot holds, but fortunately, we managed to make the maneuvers without the rope offset. At one incredible spot, we were standing on a rock with a 200 foot vertical drop. Somehow the Indian long ago discovered a tunnel within the rock that was large enough for a man to pass. We shed our packs, passed them forward, went through the tunnel and emerged at an old “Indian” ladder, a tree trunk propped up into the tunnel exit. That enabled us to safely descend another 10 feet bypassing the 200 foot vertical drop we had just faced. The rest of the day we steeply descended into a dry drainage. The rock turned to eroded limestone. (More on that in a moment).
As we descended down the drainage, we came upon dry falls after dry falls, some over 20 feet. We had to climb sharply up and down to get around these vertical drops. We found ourselves repeatedly perched on ledges and bellying around them since the ledge was not wide enough to accommodate our bodies’ perpendicular to the wall. And here’s where the limestone was our best friend, and worst nightmare.
Eroded limestone has knifelike edges much like an onion grater. It made safe footing, but descending and bellying around ledges requires balance. Stabilizing ourselves by holding onto the limestone cut fine paper cut like wounds in our epidermis. Bob quickly apologized for not warning us to bring leather gloves. Fortunately I had fabric gloves. They did protect my skin but the sharp limestone edges sure worked their fury on the fabric instead of my skin.
The other major hazard was the thorns of the desert plants which rendered a maze of superficial slices on my lower legs. It was just too warm to wear long nylon pants. And finally, balancing created additional hazards. When you are moving over unstable ground, you will flail your arms reflexively to balance. With prickly pear cactus all around, the likelihood that your hands will smack into one of these is high. I drove a spine about 1/8th inch into my palm. Fortunately, it came right out.
The first night, we camped in the dry creek bed. It was only the presence of water in potholes in the rocks that sustained our need for water. We knew it was potable by the presence of hundreds of polliwogs in the puddles.
The morning of day two greeted us with the only other party we saw. A sorry looking group of six that had turned around about 10 miles further down. They reached a 20 foot rappelle point we were destined for. Not equipped to negotiate it, they were faced with a most difficult ascent, and with no water past the few puddles present where we camped. Needless to say, we felt blessed not to have to go out the same way we went in.
About an hour later we dropped our packs and walked into a most beautiful area. The dry creek suddenly sprung forth running water. It led us to Royal Arch, the largest arch in Arizona. There we found stunning pools of water cool, but warm enough to jump into and lay out in the sun. The stream provided for rich riparian vegetation. The creek suddenly dove into a chasm called Elves Chasm 500 feet below. We would be there the next day.
We had a small lunch and returned to where we dropped our packs. Hours of difficult hiking later, the “trail” dropped dangerously to a vertical 20 foot cliff. I slowly inched my way down the treacherous decline where Bob was already checking out the gear for the rappel.
Ed had come well prepared. He had taken a 90 minute rappel class a week before. He was ready to walk off the ledge, secured by a rope, and rappel down the wall. I had never done it before, and had seen it only in the movies. But in medical school, we had a motto. See one, do one, teach one. So, I figured if I saw Ed drop off the ledge ahead of me first, and survive unscathed, that I could quickly harness up and do it myself.
Our guides were outstanding here. Mike went first, and then Ed dropped down perfectly. He grabbed his camera to video the “virgin” rapeller. The hardest part of rappelling is walking off the ledge. After that, and you don’t drop to your death, or shatter your legs, the rest is easy. It was a joyous thrill to “walk down” that 20 foot wall. I gently and safely lowered myself in the harness, on my first try at the sport. That ended the most difficult hiking of the trip. We quickly made it to the Colorado River where we set up camp for the only two nights we had with running water.
The Colorado River, coming out of Lake Powell, is anything but refreshing. It was downright colllldddd. But it still afforded me an opportunity to wash my clothes and “sponge” bathe.
On day three, Bob led us on what was expected to be a short easy hike without packs to Elves’ chasm. That one mile short hike took about two hours one way, negotiating cliffs, gullies, boulders, and more. But it was sure worth it. We came to a gorgeous water fall and then to Eden like pools of fresh clear water just upstream of the Colorado. We frolicked in the stream in and out for an hour, and then made the return back to camp. None of us could believe how long it took to negotiate just one mile without packs.
Day 4 led us up from the river onto the Tonto Plateau. At last we met up with a well traveled trail. No ropes, no rappelling. Just raising ourselves up ledges higher than our chests. That night we spent on another dry drainage. Had we not been with a “seasoned” guide, we might have had some real problems. Bob had called the rangers to check on the water status before we had left. They assured him there was water in potholes on Copper Creek. We dropped our packs at the drainage. Bob remembered that the last year his party had to search upstream for water. So, we meandered with our near empty water containers a quarter mile, and found one respectable pothole complete with water and polliwogs. Our water supply was replenished.
We spend a fourth night below a spectacular starlit sky knowing the following day we would face an 11 mile hike out with a 3000+ foot elevation gain. The last day the trail was like a wilderness “super highway”. The canyon just got greener and greener the higher we went. After 10 full hours of arduous climbing, we made it to the exit and the comfort of 4 wheel transportation. I was ready, I admit. My legs, though hardened from the previous four days, were more like Jell-o. Fortunately the weather cooperated. It had turned quite cool and windy, perfect for endurance trekking.
Again, I made the trip as an organic raw food vegetarian. The others did very well with meals they reconstituted with hot water. I developed a scratchy throat my first day in the canyon. Seems the vigorous exercise kept the thing at bay. The day after we got out, and I was no longer working out, it flared sharply into my sinuses and I ran a temperature. By then though I was home, with Terri nourishing me with supplements.
Another year, another amazing trek. If I could do one thing for you, it would be to paint the beauty of the magnificent magenta cactus flowers blooming across the harsh landscape. Alas, I am not an artist.
This trek was led by a man 11 years my senior with the hiking speed and power of men 11 years my junior. Bob was well in front of us most of the way the first 4 days. His capacity at age 70 definitely shows the retaining power of the human body when it is maintained with intent over a lifetime.
I called my mom as soon as we got in cell phone range. She admonished me for not calling her to forewarn her of the trip. I said, “Mom, would you really want to have known that we were rappelling off 20 foot cliffs, bellying around ledges with 200 foot drops, and slicing our hands on knife like limestone? Would you have been able to sleep this week?” She relented and admitted she would have been a nervous wreck, but wanted to know if I finally got it out of my blood. All I could say was, “Mom, I was with a man age 70 more fit than me. I have to be able to do this again when I am 70 as well.” And it is my prayer that she will still be with us to hear of my adventures at that age. At least she has given up on begging me to eat meat to stay fit. On that one she admits she can’t argue with success.