Friday, November 16, 2018

More Grand Canyoneering

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Following last spring's successful Grand Canyon canyoneering soiree' our small posse decided to give the Big Ditch another go with a different loop, and one that stayed on one side of the river so we didn't have to bring pack rafts/gear this time.  Even though Utah has an incredible amount of great canyons that we essentially drove past to get to great canyons, the Grand Canyon offers a unique ability to be completely untethered from a car and civilization, and particularly given that we decided to go at the time of the election (we mailed in our ballots) a break from the frenzy was definitely anticipated.  So off we went.

In addition to my canyon-groveling cohorts Mike and Greg this time we had the pleasure of adding Kiwi Andy to our cadre.  Andy and I had done a lot of my initial canyon adventures back in the day before he left to go home, and a coupla years ago when I was visiting him we got a good introduction to New Zealand "canyoning" (which is always wet; the canyons are perpetually in the process of being formed) and he had never seen the Grand Canyon, much less probed its bowels, so he was keen for a good adventure.

From SLC the Grand Canyon is surprisingly accessible.  The north rim is only an hour+ from Kanab, Utah, which is in turn a reasonable 4.5 hour drive away (and has a great new pizza place and a killer bakery just as you enter town; great alternatives to the inevitable McDonalds, Subway, and steakhouse, and burger/fries/shake places there).  This time of year can be sketchy getting into the north rim zone due to higher elevation and they can/do sometimes close the highway out to the North Kaibab trailhead, but the other roads aren't controlled and they are lower elevation so they are less-affected by snow and far more likely to be open.  So off we went to the Indian Hollow trailhead, which looms high above the Deer Creek drainage that culminates in the dramatic 200 falls that is an iconic stop on river trips.

Our first destination was Fishtail canyon.  After dropping a thousand feet off the rim on a trail:
 we cut west cross country to the head of the canyon. 
In the GC "off trail" usually necessitates long pants, since everything alive - and inanimate - is scratchy.  

An old/new cairn
A nice difference between Grand Canyon and southern Utah canyons is that the latter's mesa terrain at canyon heads is almost invariably hammered by the thousands of cows that are grazed super-cheaply ($20-odd per head; adjusted for inflation over the last 30 years it should be more like $200/head; take that Cliven Bundy, you cheapass tax evader! but don't get me started) and the canyons' starts are subtle enough that many times it's a challenge to find the start to the canyons.  But generally it's no problem in the Grand Canyon; the sub-canyons are big and distinctive.

As much as we try, it seems impossibly difficult to remember the  names of the various layers of rock that are striated as you drop through the Grand Canyon.  But we've learned that there's one layer that really matters:  Redwall Limestone.

It's in this layer that most of the canyoneering happens, and it's a bit different than in Utah's canyons where it's always a function of what layer of sandstone you are traversing.  I realized I'm developing a penchant for the Redwall; the limestone seems to have a lot of sinuous texturing from both water passage and wind erosion, a wide array of colors, and even though it's ferociously sharp in its raw state (which provides great traction but is daunting in case of a fall) water-affected limestone is smooth enough to not destroy clothes and particularly drysuits, which we knew that we needed on this trip.

Soon enough we got into the goods, and it was indeed good.  Fishtail provided a great array of downclimbs, wades/swims, rappels, etc.
the wades started mellow

and then picked up a bit
a bit more

some nice walks between obstacles

Burly Guy striking a pose

The canyon was long enough that we didn't make it to the river in a day, but had a great patio camp:
The ability to camp in a canyon is a great aspect of Grand canyoneering
A morning scramble with some raps:

brought us to the river, still running brown from rains a week prior:

From the mouth of the canyon we hiked upstream along the bank for three miles to Deer Creek.  What we didn't know is that the dam(n) keepers had already started releasing what has become a near-annual high flow event to move the silt that tributaries like Paria River Little Colorado River had deposited into the main stem down the river for beach replenishment, but the water had not yet reached us 135 miles downstream. Since much of our hike was near/at the shore that was soon to be under water, our hike would have likely been much more challenging. 
As it was we got to the famous Deer Creek patio, where we had to be a little careful with our big packs to not bump them and get pitched into the narrows:

And camped at the Deer Creek site.
andy is stoked to be in the GC finally!
A classic river trip outing is to do the Tapeats Creek-Surprise Valley -Deer Creek hike, and we did half of that backwards and then veered toward the rim to climb a fair bit further before dropping down one of the three upper forks of Deer Creek.
Surprise Valley.  At the risk of being a bit cynical, I couldn't help but wonder if the moniker came from the Surprise that it was so bleak up there.  
On the way up we met solo hiker Margie from Flagstaff who has spent a lot of days in The Ditch:
It was also at this point that we unfortunately had to bid adieu to Andy.  It's hard to  get your body ready for a trip that involves 4-5000 foot climbs and descents over rough scrambly desert terrain with a heavy pack, and he got a classic over-use strain of his IT band (the big tendon that stretches from your hip to your knee).  I've had it as well and it's extraordinarily painful, with rest and massage being the best treatment, and it's rare that doctors prescribe yet-more big pack-carrying and huge boulder scrambling for multiple days as good therapy, so he limped a few miles back to the car, with the plan being that he'd come back and get us in a few days.

We easily found our next canyon

and headed down, but got to a big dropoff that the beta we had said could be bypassed
After a ton of scratchy bush-bashing we got back into the canyon, but not without Mike getting a nice deep cactus spike that required a bit of doctoring

the canyon got going with a bit of water here and there

To a lot of pretty full on swimming
Mike was a little wary of getting his toesies wet:

we had some beautiful scenes

Descending out of the spaceship
 A few more swims:

and we were out of the water, for a nice warm south facing "hike" down the remainder of the canyon:
still a couple of rappels to drop another thousand feet to the Deer Creek camp.  
The canyon was so good (one of the best, tho I don't know how many times I've said that!) that we were a little punchy at the end of the day:

lapping up Fritos, a great post-canyon snack! 

ooh yah, that was a good canyon!  
The Grand Canyon has a lot of natural features to keep adventurers busy, from the river itself to the side canyons to epic hikes.  But there's also an opportunity to go subterranean.

Hi tech Subterranean Exploration Vehicles (SEVs)
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And considering how arid it is, the water-oriented hikes are pretty incredible:

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With the cottonwoods doing some changing:
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Mike was still finding himself "stuck" in the challenging flora:
And the repeated dusty hiking/rinsing gave my socks some good body:

We also saw the impressive 675 foot rappel sequence for a canyon that we had a little beta on:
not sure I'm willing to carry the ropes needed for that lark....
After almost a week of thrashing about in the Big Ditch we worked our way back up to the "Esplanade" (the big layer below the rim):
Where we had yet another beautiful campsite:
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a good breakfast nook
the raven appreciated it as well
And we had to do the gratuitous shadow dancing in the morning light
we did some others that weren't quite as family-friendly......
As we made our way back up to Monument Point to meet Andy (who had chilled/healed/toured about the Kanab area for a few days) we had a great view looking out over the complex of canyons and such that we'd explored:
Fishtail Mesa in the distance with Fishtail canyon near the base, and in between (to the right) are the three forks of Deer Creek 
Upon meeting Andy we we asked him a critical question that we had wanted -but not wanted - answered while we were in the depths:  did the Dems take the house?  And there was much rejoicing....

A few more ahtsy-type pics, getting our Colter/Fred inspiration on:
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Greg pondering desert greenery

the cacti in the canyon are amazing

the actual light at the end of the tunnel

Thanks again to Greg, Mike, and Andy for being again great pards on an excellent adventure, and especially to Andy for being a good sport and being willing to hang out for a few days to extract the rest of the team.  

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