Backpacking in a Giant Ditch
Apparently, they call this ditch the Grand Canyon. Not sure if you all have heard of it. I learned about it and I knew that crossing it from rim to rim and back would be a great shakedown for this summer’s thru-hike of the AT.
Day 1: Do Trees Drown in 10 Feet of Snow?
It was frigid. At least for cold-blooded Floridians it was frigid. The temperature was just below freezing and we had bundled up with all the clothes we had. Our microspikes sank satisfyingly into the snow and ice that coated the South Kaibab Trail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We were taking our first steps in our (failed) attempt of rim to rim to rim of the Grand Canyon.
We chased warm weather down the canyon, shedding layers and micro spikes as the ponderosa pine turned to juniper and then into harsh desert. Eventually we were cruising and it felt comfortable. We traversed rocky switchbacks into the inner canyon and crossed the Colorado River over Black Bridge. We cursed the day hikers who passed us effortlessly, despite the fact that one of them was sporting Converses. But we found solace with other backpackers who just like us were lugging all their belongings.
At Bright Angel Campground we sought confirmation of a foreboding condition report for the North Rim. At the South Rim we were told that the snowpack was still close to ten feet deep and that snow melt had caused several rockslides over the the North Rim. We, of course, knew better. How could 10 feet of snow be on the ground in Arizona? I thought this place was supposed to be a desert. Those silly rangers just didn’t want us to win.
The ranger at Bright Angel confirmed the rockslides, but did give us some hope as far as snow pack. The latest reports put the snowpack at five to seven feet. Not that it really mattered. Five feet, ten feet, or seven feet our innocent southern souls would not fair well in any snowpack.
In the afternoon we followed Bright Angel Creek through the narrow canyon known as the Box to Cottonwood Campground.
Day 2: So I Guess the Rangers Were Right?
We awoke at Cottonwood, slowly emerging from our tents into the brisk morning air. Today was our day to attempt a push to the North Rim. In our silly Floridian minds we could not fathom ten feet of snow nor the dangers that might accompany it. So we naively packed daypacks and hiked out of Cottonwood before the sun emerged from the walls of the canyon.
As we climbed, the cottonwoods once again turned to juniper and we watched snowmelt cascade down from the canyon walls. The trail became ever more treacherous as the canyon walls grew steeper and the rock became wetter. The streams of water that funneled down the canyon occasionally drenched us in bone chilling water.
Eventually, we reached our first major obstacle, a recently melted icefall in an area known as Mossy Cove. The remaining ice left a slippery coating on the edge of a thousand foot canyon, while frozen water fell in torrents onto the trail. With the help of micro spikes and trekking poles we slowly walked through the freezing water and emerged shivering. The obstacles only grew as we continued upward.
Before Redwall Bridge we carefully hiked over switchbacks covered in two to three feet of snow. Flowing water melted the snow from underneath our feet, causing us to collapse into icy water or sink up to our knees. As we crossed Redwall Bridge we noticed that we had entered the ponderosa pine forest. We could see the topmost granite walls that held up the beautiful but menacing North Rim.
After Redwall Bridge the rockfalls became increasingly severe. Piles of boulders, rocks, trees, and mud had wiped out sections of trail and in some cases whole sets of switchbacks. Some of the rockfalls were so recent that the trees they had flattened were not yet wilted. We anxiously climbed on, making our way through debris as we listened to rocks careen down the other sides of the canyon.
As we approached Supai Tunnel, which is less than 2 miles from the North Rim, we traversed a specifically troublesome rockslide, which spanned several switchbacks. After crossing the rockslide twice we turned to cross it a final time only to realize it had stripped the canyon bare, completely removing the trail. Although, there was nothing to grab onto we cautiously made our way over.
We rounded the corner and looked up at the Supai Tunnel switchbacks. Snowdrifts several feet in height had overtopped the switchbacks, creating long slides of slippery ice and snow down each side. It was at that point we decided to turn around. We did not want to test our newfound snow skills in such treacherous terrain and the warm sun had started to break loose more rocks from the canyon walls.
We carefully turned around and anxiously made our way back to Cottonwood, avoiding starting additional rockslides with our descent. Although disappointed, we made the right decision as the weather would slowly deteriorate over the next several hours.
I hate to admit it but the rangers were right.
Day 3: Desert Deluge
We awoke to a continued deluge that began as the sun fell the night before. A continuous stream of rain and wind blew through the canyon, soaking Cottonwood for 24 hours straight. The signs warning hikers about heat stroke in the dry desert seemed laughable after the deep snow of the day before and the current cold soaking. I know it’s wrong, but my after being cold soaked like a jar of overnight oats I would’ve taken a touch of heatstroke in that moment.
Under the cover of our rain gear we explored the campgrounds, discovering that the gentle stream of yesterday was now a violent torrent. In fact, the constant drum of rain was punctuated only by the crack of boulders rolling down the rapids.
With the stream now a wash of muddy water we needed a new water source, so we resolved to hike to a source 1.5 miles up trail. However, we were thwarted by new rockslides that brought continuous streams of mud and rocks over the trail and on one occasion narrowly missing me. So we scooped and filtered water out of the puddles in the trail and returned to camp to wait out the deluge.
Day 4: Calm After the Storm
It was deep into the night when the rain finally stopped. We awoke hoping for clear day. Our hopes came true. We dried our gear until mid-morning and began our descent back to Bright Angel Campground.
As we hiked, we counted new rock falls caused by yesterday’s storm. We had intended to visit Ribbon Falls, but the creek still raged and we could not cross it in order to reach the Falls. The seven mile hike was enjoyable and we were grateful for the warm sun. We arrived at Bright Angel Campground in mid afternoon and then spent the evening relaxing by the Colorado River.
Day 5: Unsuccess!
Our final day in the canyon was spent ascending the South Rim. We woke up early and sped out of the inner canyon into the cottonwoods by mid morning. We then hauled ourselves up the outer canyon. Huffing up 2800 feet in 4 miles, we passed through the junipers and into the ponderosa pine for a third time. Deep snow and ice had us strapping on micro spikes for our final ascent back to the south rim. Finally we crawled out of the canyon and finished our unsuccessful attempt of rim to rim to rim.
Despite our unsuccess, I couldn’t have asked for a better shakedown trip. Well, actually I could’ve definitely asked to make it to the North Rim. But, that aside, the giant ditch in Arizona they call the Grand Canyon only gets better and better the deeper you venture into it.
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