Ever since I first visited the Grand Canyon, I’ve had at least one bad thing happen every time. It all started with the Havasu Falls trip that lives on as the first entry in this blog. That included a speeding ticket in Big Water, driving lost through the Arizona desert half the night, barely escaping with a couple drops of gas to spare, and having to backpack through the hottest part of the day with boots I had before my mission that I should’ve tried on before I left. The second trip, I hit a deer on the North Rim. The third trip, my cell phone fell out of my truck in the Bright Angel Trailhead parking lot and was gnawed on by possibly a hungry squirrel that definitely left its mark, but at least I got it back. I couldn’t help but wonder what the fourth trip would bring. It was ripe for problems given the last minute, same day planning.
At 5:00 pm, after work I was off to pick up a friend and head to the Kaibab National Forest to spend the night. We should’ve arrived around 11, but since it was Friday night of Labor Day weekend, and I-15 was choked with construction, rush hour traffic, and the mysterious Utah driver, there were plenty of delays, and we pulled into our campsite close to 1:00 am.
At 8800 ft our campsite had clear air with great views of the stars. No fewer than a dozen meteors burned through the sky while I laid watching the night sky from the bed of my truck. As sleep started to take me away a lone wolf cried out with it’s smooth long-strung voice, but before long another joined in, and then as if they were cued, the rest of the pack joined in for the chorus to make harmonious music for the next couple minutes. Early in the morning they provided an encore performance which woke me up, but they sounded incredible, so I wasn’t bothered.
Officially, there are no wolves in the Grand Canyon, and wolf advocates even spent the summer at the park advocating the re-introduction of wolves to the area. Maybe they succeeded. Maybe I got to be one of the first to hear wolves back in the park, or maybe they’ve been there all along, or come back on their own. Some might say I mistook a pack of coyotes for wolves, but if you listen to the sound bytes from each you can tell there’s no mistaking one for the other.
We woke up right before the sun came up. It was cold and there was frost everywhere, and the meadows were shrouded in wisps of fog. The only thing I wanted to do was turn my truck on and get it warm. We packed up and headed over to the backcountry office to see if we could get the permits we wanted for an ideal rim to rim (R2) trip. We thought it was 6:30, so we had an hour and half to wait for the North Rim Backcountry Office (a temporary trailer on blocks for the moment) to open. We wanted to be there early to get in line before the hordes of Labor Day park goers who didn’t get permits for their last minute trips showed up. The office opens at 8:00 am every day. 8 am came and went, and about 8:20 I went over to a nearby building to see if they were usually late opening the backcountry office. I found out the hard way, once again, that Arizona’s stand on not following the whole daylight savings time routine isn’t something to be overlooked before leaving on a trip. So, crank back the clock an hour cause it’s really only 7:15 am. I took the opportunity to find out if there’s ever a line, and turns out the North Rim Backcountry Office is mellow enough to show up a few minutes before to be first in line. After food, we got back, and were 2nd in line. The guys before us were on the waiting list already, so they had priority anyway. They got the permits they were looking for, and shortly later after a couple minutes of listening to one side of a vague back and forth phone conversation between our ranger and the South Rim Backcountry Office, we got one night at Cottonwood, and another at Bright Angel.
The rest of the trail description is similar to my trip last October except it was 102 at Cottonwood and Bright Angel.
Just past Roaring springs at the pumphouse I stopped for lemonade, a chance to dip my shirt in the nice cold creek, and a chance to talk to the ranger there for a bit in the shade. That place wouldn’t be too bad to live in, especially since the house is on the grid, has a freezer, a swamp cooler, and all the good stuff that comes along with electricity (that includes otter pops, but those aren’t for regular handing out).
Cottonwood was just a short walk away. The trail seemed a lot shorter this time around.
This time at Cottonwood I stayed in the creek a lot longer, at times soaking up to my neck. I was travelling super light with a waterless weight of 22 lbs for my pack – including food. I wish I would’ve thrown on another pound for sandals to walk through the creek a bit easier, but it was a necessity I could live without.
The bats this time of year were out just after the sun dropped behind the cliffs, and stayed well past dark, and were out early in the morning as well until the sun rose above the cliffs. Overall I think they were out for about 5-6 hours. It’s a good thing too, since most of the bugs went into hiding when the bats made their appearance. That night we had thunderstorms roll through, and that brought some light rain which hit the mesh on my tent and splattered through. The coolness of the rain was welcome since it was pretty warm, but the splattering was annoying.
Next morning we were off to Upper Ribbon Falls for my first trip there. I was under the belief that there was only a faint use trail leading up from around the canyon entrance to Ribbon Falls, and there were indeed signs of people climbing up there, so up we went. It was steep, the scree slippery, and we had a cliff gaining height to one side. With enough of a slip, it could’ve been bad, but after making it to the top of the cliffs intact I figured I wasn’t cursed around that canyon after all. The next part was great – that’s when I saw this incredibly obvious trail down below leading straight from the bridge we crossed just after leaving the North Kaibab Trail. The entrance to the trail was covered with enough debris to cover it up so it wasn’t obvious, and the desert brush keeps it well hidden even though it’s a great trail to follow. With a short ascent up the hill we were on the trail. Upper Ribbon Falls is about 15-20 minutes from the bridge. There are froggies and flowers, and a couple trees. It’s quite pleasant up there. I wanted to get a picture standing on a ledge the waterfall cascades onto before dropping 4 more feet into a pool. I took my shoes off and looked for the best hand and footholds to get up. Standing knee deep in the water the ledge was about level with the top of my head. I managed to climb out of the water, but when I went to make my second move, my right foot slipped, and my big toe, nearly had the toenail ripped right off then and there, and I knew before even looking at it that it was going to make the rest of the trip hell.
I left a bloody pebbles wherever I stepped. It was definitely a bleeder. For something so miniscule as a toenail, with only damage to the surface of the skin under the nail and in the nailbed, it was a lot of blood. The toenail was holding on, but only at the nailbed, and the last third of the nail on the sides. Everything under the nail that I could see was detached. So, I grabbed a photo of the damage, and got my shoes and socks back on so I could get to my first aid kit, which was in my pack, which was hidden by the mouth of the canyon entrance to Ribbon Falls. The Curse lives on.
Six fun filled miles, and countless reminders of my injury later I was cooling off in Bright Angel Creek again, at the Bright Angel Campground. The water here was much, much warmer than it was several miles North. The toe looked much better and had stopped bleeding, but I could tell it was well on it’s way to coming completely off. I think all the hiking only helped speed up the process. Still something like that will take several more days to come completely off.
That night we were visited by Ringtails. Lots of them. They’re pretty cool looking with a bushy tail as long and thick as their body and the head of a shrunken cat. Like everything around Phantom Ranch, they were used to humans around them enough to not really be bothered too much by our presence.
I wanted an early start out to avoid any heat the next day, and possibly a chance to beat my previous time of 4:50 to get out of the canyon. I wasn’t sure exactly when I was going to start, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep well that night knowing I could easily miss a good window since we didn’t have watches to set alarms to. I slept for an hour at a time until 3:00 am (2:00 am MST for me) and I decided I might as well just go now. So I packed up as silently as I could and got ready, and made it on the trail at 3:43.
Everything at that time of morning is eery when all you have is a headlamp and a pack, and you’re walking through pure blackness at the bottom of one of the biggest holes in the world with nobody for miles around you. I could hear the Colorado roaring to my right as I followed it to Pipe Creek. I looked off the side of the trail, down the cliff looking for the source of the sound, but saw nothing. Even during the middle of the night, it was still warmer than I preferred. My GPS said it was 86 degrees, but it reads temps 9 degrees higher than it really is, so it was about 77. I stopped to dip my shirt in Pipe Creek and put it back on. It felt odd doing something like that when the sun wasn’t even out to overheat me, but it felt good anyway. Near Indian Gardens I spied two eyes reflecting back at me from within the grass about thirty feet away. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but the spacing between the eyes, and their size told me it was probably a deer, or a mountain lion. It wouldn’t look away so I could see the profile of its head, and the grass hid any features that would make it obvious what it was. So I decided to force it to make a move and tossed a rock in it’s vicinity. It got up and bounded away, so I guess it was a deer. Shortly after the sky changed from solid black to a lighter hue as I passed Indian Gardens campground. Headlights were bouncing in every direction as the campers got ready to move onto the next leg of their journeys. I had arrived just in time to make the final climb over the next 4 miles with the first campers to leave Indian Gardens. The sun kept coming up further and further as I climbed the switchbacks, and the sun line on the opposing cliffs dropped lower and lower. I thought the sun would have been on me by 3 mile resthouse, but it wasn’t, so I guessed maybe at 1.5 mile resthouse, but again, it just wasn’t there. It was only after the final switchback around the second tunnel that the sun hit me on the trail, and it was very short lived. I topped out at 5:05. It was very close to beating 5:00 which is a very worthy time, but 15 minutes shy of my record, so I was kind of bummed about that, but I had made it out, and I had some time to enjoy the relatively uncrowded South Rim before the shuttle picked us up to take us back to the North Rim that afternoon.
We were on the road by 6:30, in Kanab by 8, Nephi by 12, SLC by 1:30 am, and I was home at 2:20. I spent the last who knows how many hours drinking 4 liters of caffeinated soda, and was pretty buzzed the whole way. Other drivers on the road however were all over the place. Some got some courtesy wake up honks, while I couldn’t get far enough ahead of some of the others.