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Backpacking the Grand Canyon [Interim 2011 Part III]

Grand Canyon backpacking days 4-5

22 January 2011

The group gathered back at camp following our solo experiences. In turn we each discussed our highlights and shared things that stuck out in our minds from the experience. We ate crackers, cheese, and summer sausage for lunch before once again hitting the trail.

Each day of this trip through the Grand Canyon brought us down trails that were unique from any of previous trails, and this day was no exception. The trail led us past large sandstone walls and areas where the path completely vanished and cairns were all that lead the way. One portion of the trail, which I thoroughly enjoyed, also had an element of danger that required more teamwork to safely negotiate. The trail was leading us up a dry riverbed that apparently received lots of water when there was rain. This path was uphill and rather strenuous, but to top it off were thirty-foot waterfalls that had dried. There was no ways around these large ledges because of the corridor’s steep wall and we couldn’t simply climb them because with our heavy packs it would be illogical to attempts such a feat (especially due to the injury risk associated with back-country free climbing). This posed quite a conundrum, but everyone contributed their ideas of what the best route near the edges of the corridor would be. Those who needed, passed their packs up to others who had already made it to the top, and we continued to navigate our way to the top of each of these puzzles in a similar fashion.

Eventually we made it to the top of the riverbed and were once again walking on the vast flat-land that is so visible from the top of the canyon. As we walked, we tried to take in as much or the amazing surroundings as possible. This would be our last afternoon in the canyon and we all had fallen in love with it.

We took a rest stop at a scenic overlook. some ate snacks while others took pictures of the canyon. Our solo experiences had rejuvenated everyone, so we all had energy. This made our rest stops more lively and enjoyable. People laughed a little more than before and everyone enjoyed each other’s company. The group had grown close to one another and conversation flowed easily.

Our final campsite was a lot further off the path than we expected. This wasn’t a problem, but we had to back-hike a little ways to meet up with the trail out of the canyon – this meant every step we took after that point meant another step we would have to undo in the morning.

In camp the group relaxed and made a splendid dinner. We ate pasta with a soy and peanut butter based sauce. This was the best meal I ate all week, but its chunky, runny, brown-colored spread was enough to make me nearly pass on giving it a try. Even though it was the best meal I ate, it was also the most disgusting looking meal I had seen yet.

Following dinner, everyone laid out their sleeping mats and bags as the group had opted to sleep outside together the final night. Sleeping outside is an amazing bonding experience, and also allowed us leave the tents all packed up, which was especially nice since we decided to wake up at 3:00 AM and hit the trail by 3:30 AM to hike in the dark.

Before going to bed, several members of the group, not including myself, decided to try “pudding slammers” which they had heard about from our AMGA instructor two weeks prior. A pudding slammer is a packet of pudding mix poured into a half-liter of warm water then chugged before it congeals. The purpose is to overload the body with calories so one will sleep warmer.

Shortly after downing the pudding slammers, the guys noted feeling like their stomachs had bricks in them. Needless to say they were not going to be hungry soon. We were later informed that the pudding slammers worked so well that several of the guys couldn’t stand to be in their sleeping bags that night (they slept on top of their bags in the cold January air). It was decided that these pudding slammers worked very well but should only be used should the temperature be below a bag’s temperature rating.

23 January 2011

3:00 AM comes rather early when you stayed up late talking with friends the night before and trying pudding slammers. Disregarding our fatigue, we rose from our sleeping bags to make a quick breakfast of granola and powdered milk. We were on the trail very shortly afterwards.

The canyon around us and the sky above were pitch black. We used headlamps to follow the path, which vanished often enough in the daytime making it even more difficult to follow in the dark due to its vanishing nature. We navigated the path well, with only one momentary mistake in direction. The next six hours consisted of hiking switchbacks to reach the top of the canyon. Since the granola for the group had been far over-rationed, my 60 packets of oatmeal for the group breakfasts were not even touched. So unfortunately, I hiked those 60 packets of oatmeal through the entire Grand Canyon and back out.

As we gained elevation, so did the sun. The far rim soon became visible through the depths of the night. Slowly but surely the canyon lit up until finally our headlamps were removed and we experienced some relief from the cold night air.

As the hike continued, one group member was having difficulty with carrying her pack up so many switchbacks. At our next break, each of us opened our packs and added items from her backpack to our own to help make her hike more manageable. It is teamwork like this that allowed our group to depend on one another to the depth we did. It allowed us to open up and know that we could trust one another. Each member was there for the others and no one was selfish enough to put himself or herself ahead of the rest. Although this does not characterize everyone at the college, Calvin College is the only place I have found so many people who share this selfless mentality.

With about an hour left on the trail, my body crashed. I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast and I simply ran out of energy. I felt hollow; I didn’t know how to fix it without majorly inconveniencing the group. Two members offered me Clif Bars®; I devoured them. Within minutes, I had an energy boost strong enough to make it out of the canyon and last three more hours in the car before getting lunch. When we finally stopped for lunch, I ate six pieces of pizza and an entire order of breadsticks. Oh, how good front-country food tasted!

Before we knew it, the Grand Canyon was something of our pasts and we were getting ready to head home. We stayed the night in a hotel, met up with the other half of our Calvin group, and prepared to fly home in the morning. When we finally got back to Grand Rapids, we were all so excited to see our families and tell them about our amazing experiences from the past three weeks, and even more, I could not wait to be home and get a kiss from my faithful, loving dog.

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Posted by on 27 October 2011 in Backpacking

 

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20 Hours Alone in the Grand Canyon [Interim part III] Grand Canyon Backpacking

21 January 2011

Night 3 (Interim Night 19)

A solo experience in the back-country is one that many outdoor organizations plan for their students. It is a time where students can reflect on life, test their ability to become one with nature, and have an extended time of silence – something far too rare in our society. A solo experience is powerful. Most who go out and experience this time alone in nature wish they had more opportunities for such an experience.

My solo trip began by choosing the plot of land I would stay on. It is good to limit the area one will be on during a solo for two reasons. First, leaders can keep track of their students (this is extremely important in the back country), and second it would be easy to explore alone all day and never get tired of it. Even though exploring the back country would be amazing, it would also deter the person from concentrating on introspection and sitting quietly to observe nature – the exact purpose a solo experience is intended for. My plot was an outcropping of a cliff, varying from ten to twenty feet wide. It was slightly above the treetops and hung over the Colorado River. 150 yards down river was a class III or IV rapid that created a beautiful ambiance to drown out any noises made by other students.

My plot was in an area where large boulders had fallen, and it seemed that at any moment more were prepared to. I hoped none would fall while I inhabited that area. I quietly prayed for safety throughout the night. I laid my sleeping pad in a groove cut into the rock about four feet from the cliff edge. This, I figured, would be enough to hold me in for the night. I then placed my pack next to me, on the cliff-edge side, as a second bit of protection.

I began to attune myself to my surrounds. I tried to experience things through all my senses and truly pay attention to what was going on. I noticed the dirt smelled different from the dirt back home. I reached down and touched the granite below my feet; in so places it was so smooth, yet at other areas it was course. I looked at the canyon as a whole and at very small parts such as a single cactus needle. It was amazing how intricate the world around me was and how easily I had blown by so much detail in the days previous.

Soon I began to reflect on the trip and all of the humorous things that had happened. We had one member of our trip who was plagued with unfortunate events but was always in high spirits and could take a couple jokes. He was so much fun to be around. I reflected on some of the humorous events that had already occurred (Including him walking into multiple cacti, being the only one to soak a shoe, and having a pipe that simply wouldn’t light). I wondered what would be next.

I was told that peeing off cliffs was one of the leading causes for men dying in the back-country. Nature called and naturally, I had to investigate what was so exciting about this peeing off cliffs thing. I quickly concluded that it was totally worth the risk.

That black spec on the edge of the point by the rapids in my 6'3" classmate, The canyon is HUGE!

Night began to approach, so I ate my dinner of peanut butter and honey tortilla sandwiches – one of my favorite meals on the trail. I crawled into my zero degree sleeping bag, and hoped to stay warm for the night. The view from where my head rested on the pillow was astounding. It was the best view I had ever had from a pillow, and I had it all to myself. I did not want to close my eyes! Far out on the right, large white water rapids were echoing through the canyon. A peninsula extended out from the short on the left to meet the rapids. Stars were uncountable, extending across the night sky like a delicately stitched blanket. Cliffs soared upwards all around me; the moon rested in the trough between two of these peeks. In the far distance, like a staircase leading up to the moon, each successive tier of the canyon was visible. It was perfect.

Morning came and as the sun began to rise, great shapes began to distinguish themselves. The author of the great rumble, the rapids, once again came into view and so did some of my fellow classmates. I noticed everyone facing one of the plots, starring, and laughing. When my eyes found the plot’s inhabitant, I found out what was so funny. The student who was having no luck with cacti had rolled onto one in the night and was now attempting to pluck hundreds of needles from his bum. I couldn’t wait to get back to camp and hear the story first-hand.

This is the view down river from the rapids; this is what I was looking at from my pillow during the night

With a couple hours left in my solo time I was overcome with my “Lord of the Flies” instincts and began to play like a child. First I decided that I wanted to view up river, a feat only possible by traversing the entire point on which my plot stood. There was water below me, so I knew I wouldn’t get hurt, but a fall would mean hiking in soaking wet boots for the last two days of the trip – Gore-Tex holds water in just as well and it keeps water out. I began to traverse the point. I had made it quite a distance around the point and could almost see up river when, much to my surprise, the handhold that was bearing most of my weight tore out. I had two fingers on my other hand in a little finger-hole and that was all that saved me from the cold January water.

One narrow escape was enough for me and I abandoned my dream of seeing up river. I traversed back to my plot and scrambled back up to my shelf on the cliff. I began to play with rocks on my plot as I did when I was a child. I enjoyed the freedom to regress for a time to my childhood instincts without being judged by others. Too quickly the solo time was over. I packed up my things and headed back to camp to discuss experiences and hear first-hand what happened with the cactus during the night.

This solo experience gave me the rare opportunity everyone needs to sit and think about life. This time allowed me to relax and figure out all the things I had previously been too busy to contemplate back home. The solo experience was good for my mind as I had time to address any and all of my concerns; it was good for my soul because it gave me time to pray and meditate; it was good for my body, because I had hiked many miles on very uneven terrain and this was a chance for my body to rest. Through this experience I has able to become more connected with nature and watch a day pass me by rather than being too busy, like normal, to notice the sun and moon move around me.

 

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Backpacking the Grand Canyon days 2 and 3

Backpacking the Grand Canyon days 2 and 3

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Day 2 (20 January 2011, Interim day 18)

            The day was filled with ups and downs, literally. One moment the path would lead us up a set of switchbacks, and the next moment it would take us down another even longer set of switchbacks. Slowly we descended further and further into the depths of the canyon.

I was sore from the previous day’s hike. The hike had been down hill all day and we were back at it once again. My pack was significantly heavier this second day because the campsite we would stay at next had undrinkable water- we were told there was radiation in the water. Consequently, we had to fill water drums with enough water for the group for the afternoon hike, dinner meal, and the entire next day until we would be able to find another water source. I was one of the lucky souls who got to carry the extra weight which made my pack about 65lbs. Several other group members had packs around this weight as well, some even a little heavier.

During our seven-mile hike, we came across three stags (eight or more points each), two doe, and a fawn. They were beautiful and so graceful in their movements. After taking some time to watch these animals in their natural habitat, the group pushed forward.

Due to campsite regulations stating that groups could not be larger than six at either of our campsites, our big group of twelve had to split into two smaller groups of six for the night. We split up rather arbitrarily. I was in the group that would hike a shorter distance this day and make up for it with an 11-mile hike the next day.

Upon reaching our camp, we cooked dinner and took pictures around the campsite. One of our favorite pictures was taken from the box (primitive back-country toilet where a box is placed over a hole or collection tank) showing off the view. It was by far the best view any one of us had ever had from a toilet.

Our small group got into a deep discussion while we cooked dinner, bonding and getting to know one another in a way we had not done so before. With fewer voices contributing to the conversation, it was easier to focus on each member of the group and truly get to see who they are.

Once dinner was over, everyone went to bed. No fires were allowed in the canyon, it turned dark early, and we would be getting up very early the next morning as well. The girls went to their tent and we went to ours. My watch read 7:00PM.

Day 3 (21 January 2011, Interim day 19)

            We were five-miles behind the other group and were hoping to meet them just after their breakfast. For this reason, and because we had gone to bed so early the night before, we woke up at 4:00AM to eat breakfast and begin our hike.

A tendon had been flipping back-and-forth in my right knee since the beginning of the trip. It was causing me a lot of pain while hiking, and despite my efforts to hide it, I was starting to limp. A fellow member of my group, John, noticed me trying to hide the pain. He proceeded to take some weight out of my pack and put it in his. This helped immensely and I was very grateful.

Once our hike was underway, my knee started to bother me less. With slightly less weight in my pack, my knee only acted up after breaks and while hiking downhill. This was much more manageable than having every step be as painful as they had begun to be.

Just as the sun was beginning to warm the canyon, we stumbled upon four large stags. They were far more cautious than the ones we had seen the previous day, so they fled quickly. I was in awe at how well the deer could climb steep rocks and how careless they seemed while doing so. They were beautiful.

Quickly we came to one of the numerous long and narrow ridges in the canyon. Repeatedly we would walk about a mile to get to the other side of a gap no more than 100-feet wide. I found it curious how much I had previously taken bridges for granted.

After some time, but not as long as we had expected, we met up with the other group. They were not expecting us so early but were happy to see us. Together we walked several more ridges before stumbling upon an oasis. I quickly forgot my fatigued muscles as I surveyed our new landscape. In a matter of moments, we had gone from hiking in a dry, desert-like terrain to pushing lush foliage out of our faces and even seeing trees for the first time since we began our descent into the canyon two days prior.

Our map did not accurately show where the trail was supposed to lead us and the trail had disappeared altogether. Often there were cairns (small stacks of rocks) to mark paths that foot-traffic alone could not sufficiently mark but there were none in sight.

Scouts climbed to overlooks but found no signs on a trail. We decided to follow a small creek bed down to the Colorado River because the map showed the creek leading directly to our campsite. The weather was nice, so the risk of a flash flood was very minimal, an in the unexpected circumstance that one did occur, the group had the necessary teamwork required to get ourselves in a safe position.

            The river bed was amazing. Tier after tier, the rock walls extended straight up towards the sky. There were pools that required some ninja-like traversing moves (with feet on one wall and hands on the other) in order to cross the water without soaking our boots. The route proved treacherous at times, but the group worked together passing girls packs over difficult sections and giving a hand to any who wanted one while navigating risky parts of the creek bed. The group safely navigated the rocks. However, there were still a few mishaps. During one such traverse, the map fell into a pool, but luckily it was laminated! We also had one group member slip and put a boot underwater. This was not a huge problem, however, because we only had another couple of miles to go before we would reach our next campsite where they could be removed to dry.

The creek bed morphed into pebbles and flattened out. The water current continued to weaken until it simply disappeared. “How strange?” I thought as we continued to hike down the now dry creek bed.

I took many pictures of the rock. It had smooth, colorful features as well as jagged, grey-toned features to contrast. I was fascinated.

Our geologist pointed out the stacks of rocks along the creek bed and continued to explain how flash-flooding would have moved the rocks based on their size to their current locations. As this was being explained, we also saw a cairn – a very welcome site. We had indeed been on a path that others used as well to reach the campsite. These cairns are set up by other hikers to guide one another from place to place. Often they will be blown over in high winds or toppled from rushing water. For this reason many cairns are made at different heights. Our group added a few cairns along the way in places that did not have many.

In time water once again began to seep up through the ground as the creek came above ground once again. The babbling noise it made was welcomed by all, and the calming sound was soon replaced by the even more welcomed sound of white-water. We were getting close to the Colorado river and therefore we were also getting close to our campsite. The new noise hastened the groups pace as all were eager to reach the river and unload our packs.

When we reached the camp we were greeted by a group of white-water-rafters who were on a month-long trip down the Colorado River. They were very friendly and even took our trash from us – a very nice thing to do for people in the backcountry where “you pack out what you pack in.”

The group made a late lunch and prepared for our 18-hour solo time. During this time each member of the group would separate and spend the following hours in solitude. This solo time is a common practice in outdoor education. It teaches people to slow down, lends time for meditation and introspection, and allows people to really take in the environment they are in. This time would begin after our lunch and we would re-gather the following day for lunch once again. This would prove to be one another one of the highlights of my life so far.

To read more check back in for my next post!

Also see:

[interim part 1 – Joshua Tree Rock Climbing]

[Interim part 2 – Wilderness First Response Training]

[Interim part 3a – Grand Canyon Backpacking day 1]

 

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Backpacking the Grand Canyon (day 1)

Backpacking the Grand Canyon (day 1)

19 January 2011

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Day 1 (Interim day 17)

After getting up at 6:00 am, cleaning rooms, and loading the van, we were fed our last meal in the front country, savory bacon with scrambled eggs. With much excitement, our group piled into the van and departed Flagstaff, AZ, headed to the Grand Canyon (or as Native Americans called it, “Mountain Lying Down”).

My first view of the Canyon was magnificent. Since it was January, the outer rim was covered with snow and ice, but from where we stood we could see the warm base of the canyon below. All were stunned by the magnitude of the canyon, but none could fully appreciate its enormity until that night, after trekking 7.5 mile to the base of the canyon 4,000 feet down. From the top, the canyon seems gigantic, but what many don’t realize is that the “cracks” that seem so small from the top actually extend down the canyon twice as deep as can be seen from the top. This is where we spent much of the following week, winding through this lowest level where the life-giving water flows.

One miss-step could land you down sever rows of switchbacks. Good thing it wasn't too icy

Our hike began on the South Kaibab trail, which has more switchbacks than I would want to count. My knees, both of which I had broken a couple years prior, screamed at me for putting them through the descent but I remained quiet, complaining does nobody any good and I wanted to see what my body was still capable of.

We often paused during our descent for brief lessons from the geology major on our trip. He would get so excited over the smallest differences in rock grains and shapes and would pour out his knowledge to the group. Many of us would stop and listen as we were very intrigued (and it was just fun to see someone get so excited over things the rest of us would breeze past without paying much, if any, attention too). This turned our to be a highlight for many of us on the trip, turning into a week-long history lesson of how the different layers of the canyon formed over time and how it will continue to change in the future. Walking through the canyon while learning about it in such detail was amazing; textbooks could never compete with this academic experience.

The trail led us further and further into the depths of the canyon. It seemed as if it would never end, until finally we caught a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. It was still an hours’ hike away, but it put a little extra pep into our steps. When we finally reached the Colorado our feet were hot (the temperature at the bottom of the canyon was around 70° even though the top rim had snow), but the trail took us to a foot bridge rather than the river bank. No rest yet.

The bridge’s construction materials (which included eight 2” diameter steel cables that span the rivers breadth) could not be transported by mules and consequently had to be carried down by men. I could not imagine re-doing that hike carrying giant steel cables – my backpack with a week’s food plus water and clothes was more than enough for me.

Enjoying the view about 500 feet down into the canyon during our first short break

Finally we reached our campsite. There was a permanent overhang-shelter and the weather was nice so we did not set up our tents. Following dinner, we, the men, broke out pipes and enjoyed a relaxing smoke after the days effort.

This event was one of my favorite memories of my life thus far. There was a quiet ambiance from a stream trickling in the background. I took slow, careful draws on my pipe – enjoying the full flavor of my ‘crops circle’ blend of tobacco. All were quiet, simply absorbing the night. Then, suddenly, a bright bauble began to appear in the sky. It grew and grew in size until finally a full moon had risen from the darkness over the wall of the Grand Canyon. We all witnessed one of the free shows God brings about on a nightly basis, but rarely does anyone give it mind and even more rarely do people have such wonderful seats for the show! The full moon brought with it a second daylight so powerful our still bodies cast shadows on the canyon floor.

In this new light I went for a walk and came across a group of deer who were very friendly. I stood, surrounded by the deer, and took pictures of them. They didn’t appreciate my flash, however, and soon walked away. I went back to camp and prepared my sleeping mat and bag. The whole group slept on the dirt with the stars as our ceiling. I was too excited to sleep and instead watched the moon cross the entire night-sky and set over the far rim. Never before had I stayed up to watch such a majestic happening. Quietly I contemplated what living in such an advanced society was making me miss.

The moon set over the far rim of the canyon and I fell asleep for a couple hours before the early morning wake-up call. What an amazing first day in the Grand Canyon! I could not have asked for a better start to our adventure in the canyon.

Full moon on the rise

 

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