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Two weeks below the rim: An epic hike through the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon
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Two weeks below the rim: An epic hike through the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon

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On Black Friday of 2018, while hiking in the Grand Canyon, I stepped on a rock and we both went flying into a small ravine. A helicopter ride, X-ray and MRI later, it was determined that I had dislocated my knee, tearing my meniscus, ACL, PCL and LCL. Fairly complete damage.

My doctor encouraged me to forego fixing the ligaments (I did have surgery to repair the meniscus) and focus on building the surrounding muscles to see if that would stabilize the knee. Based on my past experience, I was willing to give this a try. The process has gone very well and I have stayed an active hiker and backpacker, although I use a knee brace as a precaution.

This March I would really put this to the test with a 14-day trek across the eastern part of Grand Canyon, mostly off-trail over very rough terrain, with my hiking buddy John Eastwood.

Our plan was to descend on the Nankoweap Trail to the Colorado River and follow it to the confluence with the Little Colorado River. This would give us a few days of hiking alongside water, reducing what we would need to carry. A dry camp would then be necessary before we reached our next water source at Lava Creek. Then we would have dry hiking days, ending each day at a water source – Basalt Rapids, Unkar Rapids, Asbestos Spring, Vishnu Creek, the 83 Mile Canyon water pocket (which I have found to be rather reliable) and Clear Creek.

Besides the issue of water, the other key to our plan was that we had arranged with a river runner to drop off two five-gallon buckets at the halfway point of our trip with food and supplies. So, at most we would have to carry only six-plus days of food.

In many ways this hike went very well. I have done this route twice before and am familiar with what is required, although those trips were 27 and 36 years ago. Over the first 12 days we got rained on three times, but only at night and it wasn’t so much that it impacted our hiking during the day. We did get rained on, heavily at times, during our 13th day when we were on the well-defined Clear Creek Trail. We would not have wanted to deal with rain when climbing in and out of the many rough canyons earlier in the trip.

We fell behind our schedule by a day almost right away. But, a layover day was scheduled six days in, and that allowed us to catch up to our itinerary. A few days later we would get stymied along the river below Unkar Rapids and be forced to backtrack and find a new, much longer, route to continue. That set us back by a half a day, which we were unable to make up, and so our trip took 14 days instead of the 13 we planned. As it turned out, we had enough extra food so this was not a problem for us.

On the other hand, the hike had its problems. I dropped my phone in the first 30 minutes of the hike and cracked the screen, although it functioned fine for the whole hike. The first night my air mattress went flat and I was never able to find the leak, so many times a night I would wake up laying on the cold ground and blow up the mattress again to give me enough relief so that I could fall back asleep. After a few days, the sides of my boots began to blow apart. That left me at risk when wading through the cactus, but they held together well enough for the whole trip. And somewhere between Nankoweap and Kwagunt is an earband I lost and at the Unkar Delta is one of my tent stakes.

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Hardest of all for us – both of Medicare age – was the grueling nature of the hike. Side-hilling takes its toll. Descending steep slopes full of loose rocks is a challenge, likewise for ascending steep slopes. Finding suitable routes through scoured out ravines is nerve-wracking, paying close attention to every step you take. I came to better appreciate that this is really a young person’s game. Ascending out of Asbestos Canyon in 1994 I recorded in my journal, “[T]he climb out was fairly straightforward – didn’t really make any mistakes on the way up … It was a nice cool climb.” For this hike, I wrote in my journal, “Harrowing climb!”

For the first time we experimented with adding alum to the chocolatey-colored river water. The Colorado River was fine until reaching the Little Colorado, where it turned from a dull greenish hue to solid brown. At Basalt and Unkar we were able to successfully use the alum to accelerate the process of settling the sediment out of the water. We were aided in this by being able to let our water buckets sit out overnight before pouring off, and filtering, the clear water.

Besides the hike itself, there were a few of special highlights for us. On day six we finished contouring around Temple Butte and descended into Carbon Creek. Then we followed a very good trail to Lava Creek, maintained by the many river runners that hike this every year. As we walked this trail I came to realize that this must certainly be a portion of Walcott’s trail, crudely-built in 1882, as he traveled through this section of the canyon mapping its geology for the USGS.

On day nine we had a similar experience. This was the day we got cliffed out along the river and retreated to find a different route from Unkar to Asbestos. There was nothing in my notes from the previous trips to indicate any problems here, so I am not sure why this happened. We ended up crossing over some high hills to the next canyon and going back quite a ways to find a route across the bed. Then we ascended to a ridge leading up to a break in the high cliffs below The Tabernacle. On this ridge we found another well-worn trail, again maintained by river runners using it. But, Walcott also got his pack animals up here and this route seems most logical to me, so this may also be a vestige of his long-ago survey expedition.

On day 10 we descended into Asbestos Canyon. Here, John Hance had a mining operation and some of the old camp is still visible. On my two earlier trips, back in the days of film, I took a total of only one photo of these remnants. It was quite satisfying to be able to better document this fascinating site, with the cabin outline still standing, and an old iron pot and large skillet still here.

Most sobering to us was the start of day six. We had dry camped near the main drainage between Chuar and Temple Buttes. Within minutes of starting, we crossed a small ravine that was littered with debris – some of the wreckage from the 1956 crash of two commercial aircraft over the Grand Canyon. It appears that the clean-up efforts from back then may have missed this particular site.

At times we had to fight our way through thickets of tamarisk and reeds along the river, gingerly stepping through fields of cactus on the plateau, and scraped by the cat's claw and the thorny mesquite in seemingly every ravine. We had to tread warily along narrow ledges and rely on the stability of rocks on unstable slopes.

Although we had to do this every day, in my mind, the hardest part of our trek was the descent through the middle valley of Basalt Canyon. Here we carefully stepped down a long section of smooth, but fractured, rock. Then, we cautiously moved down a steep embankment full of loose rocks to a narrow, boulder-choked ravine. But this led us to a 20-foot fall and we backtracked to climb out the other side of the ravine onto the more gentle slopes. Gentle, but covered with mesquite trees and their long, sharp thorns. It was so thick that we had to take off our packs and spend time breaking and bending branches to carve a way for us to get through to another ravine that took us back to the bed. But we were not done yet, as there were three falls we had to bypass, lowering our packs by rope at two of them and finding our way down over unstable crusty soil and loose rocks. Altogether a two- to three-hour nightmare.

But the views were fantastic every day. The remoteness is exhilarating. We talked with river runners on the second day and hikers on the 13th. We faced, and overcame, numerous challenges every single day. We found new routes in some old, otherwise familiar, places. We had great satisfaction after each major climb, up or down. And, as usual, with the passage of time, the pain and suffering fades away and the good times come to dominate your memory. Already I am gazing at my maps and wistfully thinking of other places I’d like to see.

Our hike started before the panic over the coronavirus ramped up. By the time we got out, the world had changed in dramatic fashion. We passed through a deserted Phantom Ranch, evoking some eerie episode of the old Twilight Zone show. We checked in with the local ranger to let him know that we were finishing up this long hike. Going up to the rim on the South Kaibab Trail, we encountered only a dozen or so hikers. And at the top we got a bonus hike – because the park shuttles weren’t operating, we had to walk another two to three miles to our vehicle at the Visitor’s Center.

Dennis Foster has been an avid Grand Canyon hiker since 1977. He has logged 370 trips spanning over 818 days and over 462 nights in the canyon. He has posted reports on many of his trips on his website, Kaibab Journal, here:

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