2007 Grand Canyon backpacking trip

Oct 27 - Oct 29, 2007 


By Darin Kerr

 

 (Click on any of the pictures for a full screen version)

I think we all have had trips at one time or another that didn't work out as expected.  Guess I've been pretty lucky to date… Well, I was until this trip.

 

Prologue:

 

Early this year, I began planning a backpacking trip to Clear Creek in the Grand Canyon.  I made a similar trip in Oct 2005, but only stayed 2 nights in Clear Creek.  This time, I wanted a bit more time to explore there, so I faxed in an itinerary for 3 nights stay at Clear Creek to the Park Service.  

 

Side note:  Why can’t the National Park Service hire a decent webmaster and put the application form on the internet instead of dealing with 1980’s technology?  Of course the fax line was busy (like it is the first day of every month), so I had to keep trying the number until my fax finally went through. 

 

Here’s the approved itinerary I received about 2 weeks later:

 

Oct 27 – Hike down South Kaibab trail to Bright Angel campground

Oct 28 – Hike Clear Creek trail to Clear Creek

Oct 29 – Layover day at Clear Creek

Oct 30 – Layover day at Clear Creek

Oct 31 – Hike Clear Creek trail back to Bright Angel campground

Nov 1 – Hike out Bright Angel trail

 

For someone who would like to explore Clear Creek canyon, it sounds like the perfect itinerary?  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

 

Where to begin?  Let’s get started…

 

Preparation for hike and list of contributing factors to failure:

 

I run 3 miles every other day, and weight train 6 days a week for an hour a session, so I felt the only thing else I needed to do was to hike on weekends with my loaded pack to prepare my back and legs for the weight I would be carrying.  I also bought new Merrell hiking boots a few months ago, but I made sure they were well broken in before I made this hike.  I did not have a single blister or foot problem on this trip.

 

Problem #1: Insufficient training.  I did far too little work with the pack, and did not pack it with the true weight I ended up carrying in the canyon.  My pack ended up weighing around 55 lbs for the canyon, but most of my training was only with the pack weighing ~35 lbs.  The extra 20 lbs ended up being a huge (!) difference on the trails in the canyon.  I was warned by the experts that I was carrying too much weight and needed to completely reassess what I was carrying, but I thought my physical conditioning would make up for that.  I am not a hard-core backpacker and do tend to bring things along that the experts would consider unnecessary/extravagant.  Also, I don't go backpacking that often, so I find it hard to justify spending big $$ on gear that I might only use once or twice a year.

 

Problem #2: Illness.  A week before I was scheduled to leave for the canyon, I caught a cold with an upper respiratory infection.  I mistakenly assumed that I could be fully healed of this in time for my hike.  This was a key problem that affected me on the trip.

 

Problem #3: 15 hour solo drive, followed by insufficient rest.  For backpacking trips to the canyon, I usually fly to Phoenix, pick up a rental car and drive the 3 hours or so to the park.  This year, I elected to drive.  15 solo hours behind the wheel with only stops for food/fuel can be really tiresome.  Interstate 40 offers little in the way of scenery the entire way as well.  I should have allowed 2 nights at the South Rim before beginning my hike to allow for rest and some acclimation to the thinner, drier air.

 

Problem #4: Prescribed fires on the North Rim, and dusty trail conditions.  There was a pretty significant prescribed burn on the North Rim of the canyon.  The smoke would drift down Bright Angel canyon at night, and then lift during the day.  Strangely, there was little wind during my hike, and the smoke affected the air quality during my stay.  The trail was very dusty – each footstep lifted up a cloud of fine talcum powder-like dust.  The numerous mule trains made it even worse.  It was a bit more strain on my lungs which were still recovering from being congested the previous week.

 

Problem #5:  Insufficient water carrying capacity.  I didn’t take into account the increased sweating I would do carrying a larger pack and was only packing 5 liters of water.  I was amazed how fast I went through that quantity of water in the canyon.

 

Problem #6:  Hiking solo.  While many hikers have successfully hiked solo in the canyon without problems (yours truly included), it is definitely not recommended.  The smallest error can snowball into a life-threatening situation when hiking alone in an environment like the Grand Canyon.

 

As you can see, each of the problems I listed above seems minor when taken alone.  But combined together, they could spell problems.  I’ve read many books that warn about how small problems combined together can mean a serious problem if ignored.  I chose to proceed on the side of caution and not become another statistic for books written about hikers who made poor choices.

 

Oct 26

 

I left home at 2am, arriving at the park just before dark at 6pm.  Driving solo for 15+ hours is definitely not my idea of a good time.  I stopped in Flagstaff to buy some last minute food items and ate at Pizza Hut. 

 

I had a room at the Maswik Lodge near the Back Country Office (BCO) which I thought was ideal for the next mornings’ hike.  My plan was to catch the 6am Kaibab shuttle to the trail head.  The Maswik Lodge has a decent cafeteria-style restaurant just inside the main lobby.

 

Just before sunset, I walked out to the rim to get a view and what seemed to be a very large forest fire burning on the North Rim at the top of Bright Angel canyon:

 

(Click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

I had passed a sign along the highway from Flagstaff that warned drivers not to call 911 as the smoke cloud was from a prescribed burn. 

 

Another surprise...  both my Sprint phone and Tracfone worked from the South Rim.  In previous years, I would lose all cell phone signal just north of Tusayan, and had to hike up to a high point along the rim trail about 1/2 mile west of the rim lodges to get cell phone reception once inside the park.  An employee at the Maswik lodge told me Verizon put up some towers in the area recently.

 

Oct 27

 

I slept fitfully, and awoke with a splitting headache around 4:30am.  I get these from time to time, usually due to lack of caffeine.  However, this headache I attributed to the lingering effects of my cold, and the altitude difference.  7000 ft is a big change for someone normally acclimated to 1200 ft.  I took some aspirin and proceeded to pack up my gear to make it over to the BCO in time for the 6am Kaibab bus.  Thankfully, the headache subsided.

 

I got my car packed and drove it over to the BCO parking lot, making it there around 5:45am.  I went through my checklist, making sure I had everything for my trip.  Satisfied I had everything, I then put on the pack (ugh!... the weight was a lot more than I expected and trained for) and hiked over to the bus stop.  There were at least 15 day hikers and trail runners already waiting there for the bus.  I say that, as most carried nothing more than a small hydration pack.  I looked like a turtle carrying his shell in comparison.  In many ways, I envied the day hikers as they had no burden to carry.

 

The bus showed up late – around 6:05am.  Everyone piled aboard the bus and we made one stop at the plaza and picked up about 15 more people.  The bus was standing room only when we pulled out from that stop and headed over to the trailhead.

 

When we arrived at the South Kaibab trailhead, it was about 6:20am.  I let the faster day hikers’ speed on down ahead of me.  I was the last person from the bus to get on the trail.  The first thing I smelled was smoke as I headed below the limestone layer.  The air was hazy with smoke/fog/dust.  I was very disappointed in the views presented due to the poor air quality.  I’ve seen far better skies than this on previous trips to the canyon. 

 

I had forgotten how steep the Kaibab trail can be in spots, and tried to use my hiking poles as much as possible to take the weight off my legs.  The hiking poles are probably the single best item I bring for my backpacking trips.  Here's the sign at the trailhead:

 

 

 

Here is a good section of the South Kaibab trail, not too far below the rim:

 

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The South Kaibab trail was in pretty good shape, but then I would expect it to be that way with so little rain this year.  It took me about an hour to reach Cedar Point, where I took a break and drank some water/Gatorade mix and ate a Clif bar, some trail mix and beef jerky.  I was carrying a full 3 liter water bladder in my pack, and a 1 liter bottle of water in each side pocket of my pack for a total of 5 liters of water.  1 liter of water was mixed with powdered Gatorade. 

 

Here I am still in pretty good spirits:

 

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My next stop was just below Skeleton point which is approximately ½ way to the bottom.  This is the point where you can first see the river:

 

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A young guy (probably mid 20's) passed me just before I got to Skeleton point and he was carrying nothing but a camera!  No pack.  No water.  He went as far as the Skeleton point sign, snapped a few pictures, then turned around and started hiking back to the rim.  Well, at least I knew there was someone on the trail today with less intelligence than me!  lol

 

I was at about the 2 hour point in my hike down and was already starting to feel pretty tired.  I was coughing from the talcum-powder fine trail dust combined with the smoke in the air.  The trail was much drier than it was in Oct 2005 – back then the trail was quite muddy and there was no dust at all.  My pace had slowed considerably, as day hikers from later bus drops were passing me on the way to the bottom.

 

This was followed by another stop at the Tipoff where the toilets provide the only shade in the area.  Here's a view from the Tipoff:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

Even in late Oct, hiking in the direct sun felt very warm to me.  I was already through about half of my water as well.  Even so, I wasn’t taking in enough water as I didn’t have any urge to use the restroom.

 

It took 5 hours to make it from the trail head to the north end of the black suspension bridge at the bottom.  I've day hiked to Phantom Ranch and back to the rim and done this section in about 3.5 hours.  The weight of the pack was really pressing hard into my shoulders no matter how tight I cinched the hip straps.  The lingering effects of my cold were also affecting my breathing on the way down.  I drank almost the entire 5 liters of water hiking down which concerned me for the ups and downs of the Clear Creek trail the following day.  I had considered bringing an extra water bladder but figured the weather would be much cooler and didn't think I'd need the extra water carrying capacity.

 

It was after 11:30am when I made it to the camping area at Bright Angel.  There were only about 5 campers in the campsite, so I had my selection of spots to take.  I chose one along the creek.  The first thing I did was take my foam pad and lay it across the picnic table top and took a nap.  I was exhausted.  I was beginning to realize how all the problems I listed above were starting to add up.  I was hoping a short nap, followed by some food would bring up my spirits.

 

I awoke after about 30 minutes, and felt only slightly better.  Next, I setup my tent and put all my gear away.  I heated up water with my MSR pocket rocket stove and prepared a dehydrated chicken ala king dinner.  It tasted pretty good, and I hoped the sodium would help replenish what I lost coming down that morning.

 

After the nap and lunch, I thought carefully about the next days’ long 9 mile dry hike along Clear Creek.  After a lot of consideration, I thought it really wasn’t a wise choice, due to all the reasons above.  I was coughing quite a lot due to the dust/smoke along the way.  I recalled the difficulties I had in Oct 2005 hiking Clear Creek:

 

1) The long 9 mile trek along Clear Creek trail with no water along the way.

2) The last ¼ mile of the trail into Clear Creek along a narrow, crumbly section.  For most seasoned GC hikers, this section poses little problems.  For me, it is very challenging as my legs are already tired from the 8.5 miles I've already hiked.  The narrow trail with crumbly footing is pretty unnerving to me.  In Oct 2005, I recall crouching over, and shuffling my feet along inches at a time through that section.  It seemed like the longest 30 minutes of my life.  I have no doubt I'd be turned back by the 'scary section' of the Nankoweap Trail from the pictures I've seen of it.

 

The camp at Bright Angel was only about ½ full, so I thought I’d ask to change my itinerary completely and just stay along the corridor trails and skip Clear Creek entirely. 

 

I walked up to the ranger station to find a sign saying ‘Out patrolling camp’.  Since I was already out, I walked up to the pay phone near the canteen at Phantom Ranch and called home to report I was making a change in my trip plan.  Here's a shot of one of the pack mule trains pulling into Phantom Ranch, along with a lingering dust cloud:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

I also walked up the North Kaibab trail to the intersection of the Clear Creek trail.  A couple of folks were making the trip up to the Phantom overlook:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

While taking a few pictures near the Clear Creek intersection with the Kaibab trail, a guy walked past me towards Phantom Ranch.  The guy was walking in his bare feet!  I kid you not.  Walking along the corridor trails is in many ways like walking the midway at the State Fair.  You see all sorts of nutty people!

 

By the time I caught up with the ranger and told her about my wishes to change my itinerary, it was after 6pm.  She said it was too late in the day to call the BCO, but said to stop by the station at 8am tomorrow.  She looked over my proposed changes and said she didn’t know if the BCO would be able to approve it.  She even tried to convince me to continue with my original plan and hike to Clear Creek in the morning.  I was told I could leave excess food and gear in a spare ammo can they keep behind the station, and pick it up on my return trip from Clear Creek.  The ranger made every attempt for me to continue with my original itinerary, and I do commend her for the attempt.  As much as I wanted to stick with my plan, I told her I didn’t think I could make it.

 

In my mind, I thought the itinerary change would be possible, considering the camp at Bright Angel wasn’t even close to full.  I figured an extra day here, then a day or two at Cottonwood and maybe break up the hike out and stay a night at Indian Garden.  Here’s what I had proposed:

 

10/27 Bright Angel

10/28 Cottonwood

10/29 Cottonwood

10/30 Bright Angel

10/31 Indian Garden

 

I figured I could still do some exploring from each camp via short day hikes.  I’ve never hiked the North Kaibab trail other than a short day hike from the North Rim to the Supai Tunnel.  I walked a bit around Phantom Ranch, hoping a bit of exercise would help relax my tired legs.

 

The good news was that since I didn’t have to head over to the ranger station until   8am, I could sleep in tomorrow morning.

 

Oct 28

 

I slept pretty good last night with the soothing sounds of the creek nearby.  The camp never filled up completely last night either, which led me to believe I could make the change I requested.

 

I walked over to the ranger station at 8am, and the ranger phoned the BCO.  The ranger kept my permit and requested change, said to check back with her in about 30 minutes.  She said she had some patrols to do, but said she would post my permit on the door for me to pickup if she wasn’t there.  I thanked her for her assistance.

 

I walked back to camp to get things packed up, hoping I would next be doing the relatively easy hike up to Cottonwood.  Best laid plans of mice and men…

 

About 8:30am, I headed back over to the Ranger station.  My permit was taped to the door, along with a note saying: 

 

‘We tried several variations, but everything in the corridor is FULL all week.  You have a great itinerary here…seriously!  I think you should just take it.’ 

 

Full?  Bright Angel camp was no more than ¾ full last night.  Guess I must be missing something here.    

 

Great.  It was already too late in the day to allow sufficient daylight for me to even make it to Clear Creek – even without all the problems I listed at the beginning of my report.  The thought of hiking that last crumbly section into Clear Creek after dark, solo, with a full pack was pretty unnerving to me.  I could try a dry camp along the trail, but with 5 liters of water capacity I knew I could be really dehydrated by the time I reached the creek the following day.  So, I had some serious choices to make…

 

1) Proceed with hiking 9 miles to Clear Creek with no water along the way, or

2) Make the long hike back to the rim, knowing there is water along the route.

 

I chose #2.  I would hike up Bright Angel to the rim, hoping I might snag a camping spot at Indian Garden to break up the long climb out.  The Phantom Ranch ranger stopped by as I was packing up my gear in Bright Angel Camp.  I told her I was going to cancel my hike Clear Creek, and hike out to the rim. 

 

It was almost 10am by the time I got my gear loaded and I was off on the River trail.  It took me about an hour to make it to Pipe Creek, which is the beginning point of the Bright Angel trail.  I had forgotten how sandy the River trail is and how that can slow you down when carrying a heavy pack.  I stopped in the River Rest house and took a 20 min break in order to load up on carbs and water:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

I brought along some candy which many of you may recognize… Sugar Babies.  That candy was great for a quick energy pick-me-up.  Guess it's about the same as eating raw sugar (haha).  I also ate some beef jerky and trail mix for the salt I would need.

 

I then left the River Rest stop and headed up the trail.  Just ahead of me was a group led by a gentleman who apparently was a trail guide.  I paced along with that group, who kept up a pace that was about right for me.  I caught up with them at the top of the Devils’ corkscrew and passed them as they had stopped in an exposed area near the top of the corkscrew.  I had no desire to rest in direct sunlight, so I continued up the trail ahead of them to find a shady spot.  They must have slowed their pace considerably, as I never saw them again until after I made it to Indian Garden.

 

Indian Garden is about at the halfway point from the river – about 4.5 miles from Phantom Ranch, and about 4.5 miles (3000 vertical feet below) to the trailhead at the South Rim.  I stopped there at the benches and took the load off my back.  The ranger there was assisting with a mule rider who apparently was having health problems.  There was some concern that the gentleman might need to be airlifted to the hospital. 

 

I waited until the ranger was not occupied and said hello.  She walked over and asked me how I was doing.  I asked her if there was any way I could make a change in my permit and spend the night there at the campground at Indian Garden.  She responded that ‘since you asked so nicely, today could be your lucky day’.  She radioed up to the rim and asked if there were any small campsites available there tonight.  She quickly got a reply from the dispatcher that there was one spot left!  I agreed to take it, and thanked her sincerely for the help.  She noted my permit that I was staying at Indian Garden and signed it.  She even offered to ask about getting me additional nights along the trail if I wanted to hike out Hermit Trail.  I thanked her for the offer, but declined.  Once again, the ranger staff in the canyon was going out of their way to be helpful to me.  I was impressed.

 

It was a short walk over to the camping area at Indian Garden.  One of the buildings which I assumed was a restroom was being gutted and the interior was being remodeled.  There were 2 other latrines in the camping area.  The picnic tables in the campsite are covered, which would be nice to have if it rained.  I never saw a drop of rain on this trip.

 

I proceeded with camp setup and prepared lunch.  Lunch was Mountain House dehydrated spaghetti with meat sauce.  It reminded me of a can of Spaghetti-O’s.  Luckily, I had brought along a small packet of parmesan cheese which flavored it up a bit. 

 

I decided to take the 3 mile round trip and walk out to Plateau Point before the sun set.  There was still smoke coming from the fires on the North Rim:

 

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Here's a view looking back to the South Rim from the Plateau Point trail:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

Nightfall comes early at this time of year.  It was dark by 6:30pm (no daylight savings time in AZ).  I made some entries in my journal and turned in early.  Sleeping here wasn’t nearly as peaceful since there wasn’t a stream nearby to drown out the fellow campers.  Between people continually opening and shutting their ammo cans to one guy who snored like a Harley Davidson… I’ve never heard snoring so loud in my life!

 

Oct 29

 

I woke up around 6am and started packing.  I took my time as I knew I would mostly be in the shade on the trail for most of the way back up.  I left camp by 9am.  I was able to get past the mainly flat section just south of Indian Garden well before the sun began to hit it:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

At the 3 mile rest stop, I met a guy from Mesa who was hiking out with one of his sons.  His son left the rest stop and headed on up the trail.  At the speed he was going, looked like he would make it to the top in about an hour.  I stayed at the rest stop for about 30 minutes, making sure I drank and ate.  I caught up with the father not long after, and paced with him the rest of the way to the top.  It sure took my mind off the relentless climb to have someone to chat with on the way out. 

 

I did have one problem with one of the mule trains.  I saw them coming down the trail, and I was at a spot in the trail where it had two distinct paths... one side was very washed out nearest the edge and the side nearest the wall was in good shape.  I stood over near the edge, expecting the mule riders to take the better path.  The mule team leader did just that, but the rest of the 'tourons' (put the words tourist and moron together) riding the remaining mules decided to take the steep path right next to me.  I was cussing them under my breath as each mule came within inches of bumping into me.  Guess I shouldn't have been nice and taken the shallow path next to the wall. 

 

One more rant...  there should be signs posted along the corridor trails reminding hikers that the uphill hikers have the right of way.  I can't tell you how many times I had to stop or step aside to let people walking side-by-side(!) head down past me.  Or faster uphill hikers not even using common courtesy and saying excuse me when they wanted to pass.  Some of them I could not even hear over the sounds of my own footsteps and the clatter of my hiking poles.  Just some of the things you deal with while on heavily travelled corridor trails. 

 

Here's a good shot showing the smoke on the North Rim, along with a view of the Plateau Point trail:

 

(click on the picture for a full screen version)

 

The trailhead was reached in a time of 4 hrs 47 mins.  I knew I was getting close to the top when I started seeing hikers talking on cell phones.  I have hiked from Indian Garden to the Bright Angel trailhead in almost half that time before, but I was only carrying a light day pack on that trip up the Bright Angel trail.

 

Finished off the day by heading over to We Cook Pizza in Tusayan.  Not sure if their pizza is really that good, or just that 'real' food of any kind tastes good after eating dehyrdated food for a few days.  As with most eating establishments near the South Rim, expect to pay about 40% more than in other areas.

 

Well, that’s my story.  I did not accomplish any of the goals of my original itinerary, other than hiking to the bottom and making it back out.  However, I was faced with some tough decisions to make and I still hold firm that I made the wise choice.

 

Things I’d do different and other general thoughts:

 

1)      Take illness seriously and back out if necessary.

2)      Lighten up the load.  I should have listened to the hiking veterans - they really do know their stuff.  Leave things in the car like an mp3 player, binoculars, extra clothing, unneeded extra food.

3)      Get some decent ultra light gear.  A 5 lb tent is way too much to carry for example.  I could have slept in the open or just used a tarp and would have been just as comfortable in these weather conditions.

4)      Weather can be unpredictable.  Oct can be hot in the canyon.  Daytime temps at Phantom Ranch still neared the 90F mark.

5)      Wind?  What wind?  I barely felt even a wisp of wind once below the rim.  I think I could have built a house of cards at Bright Angel camp and it would have been standing the next morning.  Maybe it’s because I’m used to seeing wind almost every day where I live.

6)      Cold weather gear was completely unnecessary on this trip.  I think temps barely hit the upper 50’s at night.  I could have easily left 6-8 lbs of cold weather gear in my car.

7)      Rain gear was also unneeded.  I was only carrying a lightweight emergency poncho and a waterproof pack cover so this gear didn’t make much difference in the weight I was carrying.

8)      Switch all battery operated devices to Lithium batteries.  They are almost 1/3 lighter than standard alkaline or NiMh batteries.  Every ounce saved helps.

9)      Carry only one tank of MSR isopropane fuel.  One 8oz can will be plenty for a 4 to 5 day trip.  That could have saved me another ¾ lb.

 

 

The biggest lesson of this trip to remember for my future trips is to go through each and every item in the pack and seriously ask myself, "is this item absolutely necessary?".  15 to 20 lbs less weight would have made this trip far more enjoyable and would have been a big contributing factor to a successful hike to Clear Creek.

 

Oct 30

 

I had breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge.  It was nothing to write home about - too bad they don't have a Waffle House in Tusayan :) 

 

Here's a few more pictures I snapped along the rim.  I think these came out really well using the widescreen mode in my digital camera. The first one was taken from Lipan Point (I think), and the last two were taken from Desert View.  Most of the viewpoints along the rim were completely empty of 'tourons' with the exception of Desert View:

 

I exited the park through the east entrance at Desert View, and then took a scenic drive along the Little Colorado Gorge to Cameron.  It must really have taken some very hardy people to make a living out of land so dry and sparse.

 

Things look pretty desolate from Cameron to just a few miles north of Flagstaff.  The mountains north of Flag are still completely snow-free, so it looks like another bust season for the Snow Bowl. 

 

Will I attempt Clear Creek again in the future?  Most likely.  If several of those negative factors hadn’t occurred, I would have made Clear Creek as planned.  However, I think a hike of that difficulty should not be attempted alone.  I enjoyed the portions of my hike the most when I was hiking with others.  Carrying on a conversation helps to take your mind off the little things that start to bug you when you are alone with your thoughts.

 

I hope you enjoyed reading my report and viewing the pictures attached.  If you have any questions, please contact me at cddman@hotmail.com.  Thank you for reading.