Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Grand Trip

Kind of a long post, but it was a two week trip and all....

After having the good fortune to be invited on 7 previous Grand Canyon trips, I was a bit under the impression that I had sorta “done” the Grand Canyon river trip, and was generally of the mind that the big time commitment and the many zillions of things in the world to do meant that I should focus my efforts elsewhere.  But the opportunity to head down in the sometimes-tough-in-SLC month of November, a window of opportunity on the work front, the presence of our great friends Team Hanlon, the late addition of our old friend Jeannie Wall, and the knowledge that the loveable Jonny Adler was bound to have a posse of great family and friends joining him made the decision pretty easy.  And it indeed turned out to be a pretty fab journey. 

After spending a great evening with Joe Hazel and Nancy Evans and fam in Flagstaff (where we were the last of 680 million people be exposed to “Gangam Style”!; it’s good to have 13 year olds around to keep the likes of us up on pop culture) Jeannie, Tom Rossmeisl (who grew up a few miles from Jeannie in Madison, WI; the world’s smallness still never ceases to amaze me) got an early start for the hike down the South Kaibab trail to meet the crew  - who had been floating the river for a week already – at Phantom Ranch.  The storm that walloped the Wasatch with 4 feet of snow that weekend left plenty of cold air in its wake, and I think it was around 20 degrees when we left the rim.  But a quick 2 hr hike to the river got us onto the beach in full sun and warm temps.  A little later than expected the crew emerged from the dark Inner Gorge after camping that night above Hance rapid, and it was pretty clear that they were just as psyched to see the sun as they were us!  It had been a pretty long and chilly morning for them already. 

After the typical Phantom cluster and saying goodbye to Porno Dan (long story; actually, many stories!) and Sam and Dave (who were hiking out to get Sam to a redeye flight out of Phoenix that night) I flopped into the cockpit of the raft and we floated on down to Horn Creek rapid.  Horn is one of the most notorious rapids on the run that likes to bite rowers who show up at Phantom pretty dang rusty (I hadn’t rowed a stroke since our 2008 trip).  Despite my life as a rower being dictated by the venerable Scott Martin’s adage that rafting is all about setting up, then very profoundly taking thumb and inserting it into one’s ass, I had the misperception that I could actually move a fully-loaded 18’ raft in the heart of a rapid, and as such took a good whallop from the big wave at the bottom of Horn Creek.  An inauspicious start to my trip, and I’m glad that my passengers were willing to give me a bit of slack on that one, since they had just met me and were relying on me probably more than they wanted to! 

The crew was made up of a mostly-Middlebury College-centered crew, and because very few of them had done a previous Grand trip – or, for that matter, any  river trips - Greg Hanlon had taken advantage of that opportunity to impress upon them that the cold temps and short days of November were not limiting factors in the quest do all the hikes possible, so they were well-versed in pushing the limits of daylight had already done a lot of awesome hikes and a couple of slots (including one that involved 8 rappels into water, and all were done in the dark; they finished at 8:30 pm!).  And armed with this book:

And the “Hikes from the River” book Greg had put together an ambitious agenda of hikes that all ended up being stellar.  In the first 10 days of my trip we only made it 90 miles down the river; we did 3 layover days and several days were only several miles, going from one awesome adventure to the next, with a little whitewater and a fair bit of drinking/eating/yucking around fires in between. 

After anticlimatic runs of the remaining “big” rapids of Granite, Hermit, and Crystal we got to Bass Camp, which is a much-sought after camp due to the plethora and range of things to do there as well as a lot of winter sun.  The crew that I joined for that first layover day hike was Greg, Tom, and the ladies, and our objective became Dox Castle, a huge limestone block looming a couple thousand feet above camp. 

And once on top the views were sublime:

The next day we moved on to Elve’s Chasm, which is a bit of a funny place for me.  The first time I saw it I declared it The Most Beautiful Place On Earth, but since then I’ve had the fine fortune to see lots of those (and declared them as such as well; I have bit of a short term memory) and I’ve been back into Elve’s 6 more times - including one scary waste of time where we probed as high as we could to see if we could see the elusive and impressive Royal Arch -  so it has lost a little of its draw for me.  However, Greg had identified a great loop (that clearly gets a lot of use) that goes into Elves from the top. It requires some scrambling:

And someone had been bold enough to solo up and put in a fixed/etriere’d line that Jeannie fired up:

To eventually bring us to where the legendary (at least, to me) Royal Arch lies:

This journey isn’t for the faint of heart:
This 180-footer was Tom R’s first ever rappel! 

It got a bit late, so we ended up dropping into Elve’s proper as the light waned:

And then we had to negotiate the Elve’s well-known tricky little sections in the full dark (though by this time the crew had learned that it was best to pack headlamps on all Hanlon adventures!).  It was at this time that my many trips up into Elves paid off somewhat, because many of the little route nuances – which look a lot different in the dark – are a bit unlikely-looking.  

Upon reaching the beach we had a few minutes of consternation because the rafts were not quite where we expected the rest of the crew would leave them.  This caused probably more than a couple of thoughts of “this could be a long night”, but a bit of snooping found the hidden rafts and soon enough our intrepid gang was floating down the inky blackness of the Colorado, with the stars peaking through the gorgy walls above us.  We went three miles like this, and I must say that floating in the dark was some of the coolest time I spent on this trip.  And when we reached camp, the hoots of joy from all and the warm fire was much appreciated; it was nice to know that they were not worried or mad about our late hour, just stoked at the adventure. 

*Note - it was at this point in this post that I cracked at the painfully-awkward lack of ability to paste in photos (even editing is a PIA; what is up with this blogger program?) and I gave up.  I will paste in a link to Picasa photos at the bottom....

And the rowing/hiking/adventuring continued.  We hit up Deer Creek, the Throne Room, and had a rousing game of both Ultimate Frisbee (or as Greg calls it "Mediocre"; according to him, "Ultimate" is a bit presumptuous, and there are a lot of things that are more ultimate than "Ultimate") and a new favorite, nighttime Bocci.  I don't have any pics of them, but Jonny brought along these killer lit up bocci balls, and it was awesome to roam around the beach in the dark with these glowing red, green, yellow, and blue orbs flying around the dark shadowy camps. 

One morning a handful of us got up early and pushed off camp at first light to head down to Matkatamiba Canyon, which is another of the GC classics.  However, we had more ambitious plans than the standard wander up the Matkat gorge; Panametta Canyon was listed in the canyoneering book as a stellar slot that was the pinnacle of a 4-day trip from the south rim combining it with nearby Olo Canyon, but Greg felt like starting from the river might enable a one-day blast.  By 9:30 we had floated 11 miles and were marching up Matkat, and after 3 hours of hiking (that included a couple of funny encounters with the wild burros in that area) we found ourselves staring into the Panametta abyss.   Once in the head of the canyon, we suited up and dropped in, and for the next 3 hours were in an incredibly smooth and beautiful limestone slot that had 8 rappels with plenty of water to navigate.  We found that running water in the GC is pretty warm, but the pools cool down at night and then never warm, so they are quite cold.  Greg and I were a little reluctant to take our drysuits/tops/pants into the slot due to our experience with Utah’s abrasive sandstone, but the polished limestone makes that more or less a non-issue, so Jeannie was feeling pretty snug – and smug - in her drysuit and was amused to watch us do jumping jacks to keep warm. 

 We were able to make it back out of Matkat just before dark, and were able to meet the rest of the crew at the nearby Matkat Hotel camp just downstream, much to our relief, because Upset rapid loomed a mile below.

Upset doesn’t rate highly on the rapid list, but it’s provided plenty of excitement for river runners over the years due to the large wave/hole near the bottom.  I inexplicably forgot the lesson I had learned earlier in the week at Horn Creek, and figured I’d just “move right” from center and miss the hole.  But within seconds of entering the rapid it was clear that we were going to vector straight into the heart of it, so I squared up and in a very calm shriek told the guys to pretty much hurl themselves forward into the wave so it wouldn’t flip us; which they obliged.  We got slammed hard  - the bowsprits got a nice nasal douche - and for a split second I felt the raft almost stop – which generally portends considerable excitement in a fast moving river – but the river gods (whom I’d met in Italy last month!) decided to let us go free.  Apparently our 18’ raft and its occupants completely but briefly disappeared in the maw….

Not far downstream is Tuckup Canyon , which was first referred to me before our 2002 trip as a bit of a sleeper side canyon, and it’s one of the best places in the Canyon.  Once again, Greg had cooked up an awesome loop combining a couple of canyons that we had done as out and backs on previous trips.  We marched up Tuckup to an enormous subway-like section then climbed out of that to the mostly-flat Esplanade layer that allows for quick overland travel (though it’s a land mine of stickery bushes/cactuses) and then dropped into the upper part of the East fork of Tuckup, which in 2002 I had declared as The Coolest Place Ever.  Which may not necessarily be the case, but it’s still way cool.  A few short rappels, some more wading, a nice hike back to camp, and another layover day adventure was done. 

And then came The Flood.  We had found out earlier this fall that the various agencies with jurisdiction in the GC had decided that it was time for another sediment-flushing flood – the last time was when we were on the river in March 2008 – and it was going to happen while we were on the river.  It took a while to reach us since we were – at this point – pretty far down in the canyon, but when it came, it came quick.  The water almost immediately turned brown with the massive (??? That was the idea, at least….) amount of sediment in the water and it went from a relatively placid, steady flow to a huge roiling mess.  The temperature in the canyon actually dropped a fair bit due to the dramatically-increased surface area of the cold water, and the water gobbled up camps and beaches (hopefully to be rebuilt later as the water dropped) and snatched all sorts of debris from the banks and swirled it around in massive boils.  It was pretty exciting to see. 

At Tuckup we shared the beach with a few scientist types who were going to be parked there for a week to monitor the flood; specifically, they were going to be measuring the amount of silt in the water (via sonar; the more silt in the water the less-effective sonar pulses are), since that's the primary reason for the flood.  It seemd pretty dang silty to us, but apparently the river "cleaned up" surprisingly quickly after the gates were closed and there's some speculation that the lack of silt provided by the bigger tribs upstream made this flood not as effective as the 2008 release.  One of the guys is apparently a bit of a GC legend - who, according to Joe Hazel, floated on an overturned raft 60 miles after flipping in the huge '83 flood - and when Greg told him about our agenda he was quite impressed; a nice testament to Greg's creativity and the team's efficient daylight-useage. 

After hiking up the recently-"blown out" (from a big monsoon flash flood this summer) National canyon we had another layover day at Mohawk canyon, which proved to be a well-deserved "rest day" since we got stopped by an unanticipated, unclimbable dryfall/chockstone.  And this shorter day enabled the preparation of an Adler family tradition:  the riverside sauna.  With tarps and tables there was plenty of room for 7-8 folks to be quite cozy, and after heating nice softball-sized rocks in the fire to get them glowing hot they were brought into the sauna to create an impressive amount of heat and steam.  I'm not sure if twelve year old Sawyer fully appreciated the value of the story of sitting next to a bunch of cute naked girls in a sauna would represent to his friends! 

And, of course, downstream loomed……Lava Falls. 

When I first floated Lava in 1990 the scene the night before was positively funereal; I honestly think that some people weren’t sure they were going to make it.  Our 2012 crew had a little more experience and the added bonus of the confidence/exuberance of youth, but as always the talk about Lava fairly well dominated the fireside conversations.  After a nice layover day at Mohawk canyon an hour of floating got us to the object of our dread.  We pulled over nice and high to enable both scouting and those who wanted to walk around the rapid (requiring back and forth shuttles across the fast-moving current above the drop) but a quick scout from on high on the left side showed that the left run - normally a bit of a chunderfest at low flows  -was pretty much a chocolate highway at 40k, and the fearsome ledge hole at center-top was deeply buried.  The oarsmen were confident, and we were all-in. 

Our “safety” strategy changed a bit on this rapid; instead of running it with two rafts at a time as we’d done on the upper rapids, we decided to fire it straightaway with all four rafts one right after the other, with the thinking that it was unlikely that more than 1 would have any problems and the remainder would be available to help in the long, fast tailwaters if there was an issue.  There was a decent-sized lateral wave at the top that enabled a nice half-spin to meet the meat below, and it worked out just fine for all the rafts.  I actually think that running the right side at normal flows is more challenging and bigger-feeling.    

Post-Lava (and it very much felt that way) we had one more good hike that Greg had cooked up:  Indian Canyon has two “difficult” (according to the guidebook) hikes that Greg identified as possibly being connectable.  However, this enabled getting past the “impassable” chockstone at the top of the canyon.  However, our rope gun Jeannie fired the 5.9ish move 20 feet off the deck (no pic; I was too busy spotting and wringing my hands) and enabled us to leave the canyon, go across, and then down a 2000’ scree pile back to camp.  And from there on down it was riding the brown train (at 7mph!) another day or so to the takeout. 

As ever, the short days and cool temps kept the crowds down; in the first week the crew saw only one party of hikers and no other raft parties, and eventually we started leapfrogging with two other raft parties, but we felt like we had the canyon to ourselves, which is such a treat, since I think it can be a bit of a zoo in high summer. 

All in all a great adventure, but what really made it great was a stellar crew who worked and played hard, got along really well, was hilarious, was patient with the likes of Greg, Jeannie and I who had to get our daily adrenaline/endorphin fix, and was game for most anything. 

Many thanks again to Andy for flawless off-the-river logistical organization and to Greg for great captaining on the river.

Here's a link to more photos:


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