I’ve heard it said that sometimes you beat the Canyon and sometimes it beats you. This trip it beat me like a drum. After my very successful week-long solo perambulation of the Hermit/Boucher loop in October, 2006, I was primed for wilder, more challenging Canyon hiking. I also wanted to invite my younger (by 2 years) brother Dave along. So, during the winter of 2006-07, I studied routes, trip reports and gleaned much information from the Grand Canyon Hikers internet group. I finally decided on a New Hance/Grandview loop, to be done over 5 days in October, 2007.
When first approached, Dave was somewhat less than enthusiastic, although we have had two previous multi-day hikes in the Canyon together. However, as the spring turned to summer and I continued to gently edge him toward a commitment, he finally agreed.
So, with all of the planning, provisioning and packing completed, we piled into Tullio, my trusty 1974 VW camper bus and headed down that long highway for the Grand Canyon.
From Kansas City it's a two-day trip, running 600 miles each day, two long days in an underpowered, non-air-conditioned, very noisy vehicle. Road fatigue is a major factor and the one biggest problem we had was a lack of recovery time between our arrival at the rim on Sunday night and the early start I wanted on Monday morning. But, then again (ask anyone who knows me), I never do anything half-way: its balls to the wall or nothing at all. So after a couple of beers to celebrate our successful journey to the park, we packed it in early for the night.
Sometime in the wee morning hours, we heard the pitter-pat of rain on the roof of the bus. Knowing the weather at the GC can change in minutes, I didn't think too much about this, feeling that it would probably blow through by morning and be the usual clear-as-a-bell atmosphere. Wrong.
Having read so much about the importance of early starts, we awoke at about 5:30 am. No rain, but the sky was very overcast. We quickly made a pot of coffee, broke camp and had a breakfast at the Yavapai.
The New Hance trailhead is about 17 miles from the village. Backcountry hikers are not allowed to park there, so the plan was to dump Dave and the gear at the trailhead while I would backtrack with the bus to Grandview, where parking is allowed. This was really the only logical choice, anyway, as we would be coming out at Grandview.
I am also a bicyclist, so I brought my fixed gear bike so I could ride back to the New Hance trailhead. Wouldn't you know, as soon as I parked the bus and got my bike off the rack, the skies opened up and it began to rain. It was a cold, wet 5.5 mile ride back to brother Dave, where, upon my arrival, I cabled my bike to a convenient tree, changed into my boots, we strapped on the packs and headed for the start, which is actually a short walk from the road.
All the trip reports and route descriptions were spot on, indicating that the descent begins immediately, relentlessly steep and rocky. Folks, this is no Bright Angel trail. And the rain-slickened rocks only made things so much more treacherous.
Our plan was to make it to the river. We did not. To make an already long story shorter, suffice to say that our hiking speed was greatly diminished by the various conditions. My balance, which has never been very great anyway, seemed to just go haywire. I stumbled. I fell. Repeatedly. The 45-pound weight of my pack certainly wasn't helping the situation, either. In my efforts to decrease the weight I had to carry, I only packed one pair of shorts, and I managed to rip them square up the ass right off the bat, trying to recover from a stumble. Dave chastised me severely, but he had an extra pair of shorts, so I didn't have to do the whole hike with my butt hanging out.
As I was saying, we didn't make it to the river. We made it to the Redwall break at about 4:30pm when I finally decided we better find a place to camp. We located a reasonably large and flat spot for the tent, although it was rather exposed. We set up things in short order and were comfortably ensconced in the tent by nightfall. Then the wind began to blow.
Dave thought it was going to be the end. I knew (hoped) differently. We had brought our packs and everything into the tent (which is a wonderful Henry Shires Tarptent Rainbow that I used last year) and set the packs as a wind break, which worked really well. As I say, the wind was howling really good, probably gusts in excess of 40mph at times. It reminded me of my last night at Yuma Point last year, when I had very foul weather at an exposed site (and rain!), so I was not concerned with the integrity of the tent. But Dave didn't know and was really freaked out, especially the couple of times the tent "taco shelled" over on us. But the Tarptent design is excellent, and it popped right back up when the wind subsided. Nevertheless, Dave didn't get much sleep that night, whereas I had the best sleep of the entire hike. I was beat to a pulp and had my usual fatalistic outlook that if tragedy overtook us, so be it. Dave continually rued the fact that he did not capture his terror in the flapping tent with his camera's video clip feature. Me too, would've made a great YouTube video.
The next morning, we awoke early, stiff and sore, and did the usual coffee/break camp routine. We only had to negotiate the rest of the way down to the creek bed, but there were still plenty of steep, sketchy sections, a lot of loose, crumbly shale and a fair amount of rocky trail. My legs were pretty much like rubber at this point and I leaned heavily on my poles, slowly and gingerly placing my feet at every step. I got blisters from the poles on both my fingers closest to the pinky finger and a great big one on the palm of my right hand. Nice. I suffered the rest of the trip with these delights.
At one point, we stopped for a rest and I sat on a trailside outcropping of rock. I shifted my weight and the dang thing broke free, rolling over my right leg, scraping the hell out of it. Ah, another trophy! Lucky it didn't break my leg, as it probably weighed about a hundred pounds.
At this juncture, I began to really think this hike was jinxed, perhaps even doomed. It was not a very positive outlook.
Nevertheless, we pressed on and made Hance Rapids by about 11:30 am. We got what was obviously the best site in the house, sandy, level, surrounded by scrubby trees that still offered some modicum of shade. We set up house and proceeded to the river to get water in our bucket.
The river was a silty brown, unlike last year's greenish-blue. I had intended to let the water sit and silt out, and then we would treat it with Aqua-Pur tablets (the 2-stage kind). Back at camp, I looked for the tablets and COULD NOT FIND THEM! I had visions of them sitting on the dinner table at home. Thank God, we had a backup in the form of an AquaMira squeeze bottle filter. It was a long, arduous task filtering 4 2-litre bottles, but, hey, at least we could sit and watch the rapids! (I eventually did find them- hidden deep in a crevasse of my pack)
We met a couple who had come in from Hance Creek via a guide. Shortly, we met the guide, a young man named Curt who had very helpful info about our exit from Hance Rapids to the Tonto the next morning.
It was a very pleasant second night there by the river, although this meant we were off-itinerary, something I'd never been before. I fretted a little about what a ranger might say should one show up, but none did. Temps were in the low 80's and the sky was crystal clear. My brother was amazed at being able to see the Milky Way, as well as several meteors, and we lay out on our Tyvek "front porch" star-gazing.
I saw my first Canyon rattler the next morning, down by the river, as the cycle of coffee/break repeated itself. We set out on the Tonto for Hance Creek. It was to be another grueling march, as I was already so beat up. Slow, arduous progress eventually brought us around Ayers Point and into Mineral Canyon.
After almost seven hours of hiking we finally reached the Hance Creek campsites, where we met a couple from Indiana who would be heading for Horseshoe Mesa the following day, like us. They had come down from Miner's Spring after a circumnavigation of the Tonto under Horseshoe.
This was another butt-biting day of intense hiking for the old man here. I must digress briefly and compare this hike with last year's. I'm 55 and in pretty good shape. I work out at the gym 2-3 times a week and ride my bike a lot. You'd think my lungs would be in great shape, and last year they were. But something was different this year.
I think it's related to the amount of time we had to acclimate ourselves to the 7000' altitude at the South Rim and another year of second-hand smoke from cigarettes. But I had more trouble getting winded this year than any previous trip. Or maybe my lungs are just getting worn out, eh? Dave, on the other hand, was doing magnificently, nary a stumble or complaint. He works construction and is up and down ladders all day. We just figure he's more used to regular punishment than I am. I can't emphasize how glad I was that Dave was there. If this had been a solo, it could have been disastrous, but Dave was my cheerleader and inspiration. Thanks, brother!
The water at Hance Creek was clear and cold. We filtered it anyway, better not to take chances with bugs. The night was really uneventful, save for more intense stargazing.
So the next morning, our fourth day of hiking, we were determined to get to Horseshoe Mesa for our last night in the Canyon. I personally think topo maps lie about distances. I had figured from the map (Sky Terrain, excellent) that it said we would only have to hike a little over two miles from Hance Creek to get to the mesa. Again, it took us forever to hike that distance. Of course, I was completely shot, physically. The accumulated scrapes, blisters, and just plain sore muscles were no doubt the culprits in our excruciatingly slow progress up the trail.
When we got to the first mine, the one with all the artifacts outside, we took a long, cool rest inside. Brother Dave explored the entire shaft, going back about 300 feet until it teed off in a different direction.
The stop at Miner's (Page) Spring was another welcome one. It is a beautiful spot and the water is just perfect, in fact we did not treat that water at all, simply filling our bottles. It would be the last water available once we left the spring.
At this point, I seriously had doubts about my ability to hike on up to the mesa. We had been warned by a variety of people about how steep and difficult the climb would be. The map shows it as a black "double D", the most intense variety of trail. We even briefly discussed Dave going ahead and coming back for me, but the rest at the spring gave me the oomph I needed to make the final assault. Thank God!
We got up to the mesa and set up camp. We didn't go down to the actual campsites, as we were both very tired, but found a very nice one right next to the trail, obviously well used and protected by a scrubby wind break.
I don't carry a stove for cooking, although I carry a little Esbit tablet stove to heat water for coffee. So our diet on the hike consisted of jerky, GORP-style trail mix, smoked almonds, Clif bars, dried apricots, another variety of trail mix that was spicy/sweet and some Caribou Coffee bars, which I enjoyed a lot last year. Again, I miscalculated on the amount of jerky and especially GORP, way too much. We probably had (seriously) 6-8 pounds of GORP and only ate about a cup's worth the entire week. Why didn't I learn from my experience last year? I didn't eat much of it then, either.
Anyway, when I'm out hiking, I just don't seem to have an appetite. I know this is not good, as I no doubt burn up thousands of calories every day hiking. But it was a real chore to sit and force myself to eat the stuff we had. I finally learned that by taking little bitty bites and chewing slowly and thoroughly, I could get enough food in me to recharge. I knew the lack of food was no doubt another factor in my lackluster performance.
From the mesa, you can begin to hear the sounds of civilization again, the traffic up on the rim road. We heard an ambulance or whatever, siren wailing as it wound its way along the road. Eerie.
I was looking forward to the next days hike, as it would mean our exit from the Canyon. Another night of star-gazing. They are so beautiful and, along with the Canyon itself, really cause a person to wax philosophical regarding ones place in the Great Scheme of Things. God, we're insignificant. And yet, so full of ourselves. That's a lot of what is wrong in our world today. Oh, for a simpler time!
Morning came and we were up and at 'em around 5:30 am. After coffee and food, I proceeded to break camp while Dave, camera in hand, went down to check out the artifacts around the Berry cabin remains.
Then it was off, up the trail. The map said 2.3 miles to the Grandview trailhead. I still don't believe it, those mileage figures must be based on straight line, "crow flight" reckoning.
I was totally unprepared for the number and steepness of the switchbacks, once we got over to where the final climb out began. Switchbacks, short traverse, switchbacks, short traverse, more switchbacks. It was your typical "do a switchback, rest at the turn" type of hike (at least for those of us who are simply not hardened enough to do the whole thing without sitting and resting for a couple of minutes). We had people passing us all day, on their way down. There was one group of 6 kids; the oldest couldn't have been more than 15 or 16, cruising merrily along in their tennis shoes. Merely added insult to injury.
I knew by my altimeter and simply looking up that we were nearing the rim. This was confirmed, ever more frequently, by the smells of fresh deodorant, clean clothes and chirpy banter amongst the hikers. Then, several French-speaking people began to pass by, older ones, too. I wondered, as they edged past us, what they must be thinking, seeing these two old, beat up, very smelly and unkempt codgers edging their way up at a snail's pace. Didn't care.
Dave says, "I think I see the parking lot!" We both were beat to hell, but "smelling the barn", as it were, gives you that final shot of adrenalin or whatever. We marched up to the trailhead sign, amongst the throng of Frenchies, all jabbering away unintelligibly. I said, "Nice to see you all, thanks for coming out!" We found a willing American to take our obligatory end-of-hike victory salute picture.
The bus! Ah, our faithful German friend! There he was, in all his Teutonic glory, Tullio, the wonder bus. My eyes began to well up, as they usually do after such an intense experience. Our stash of beer in the cooler was unfortunately, after sitting a week, no longer cold. But, hey, the Europeans drink it warm often, so what the hell? We cracked two Natty Lights (a Fineweiser product) and hoisted them high in a toast to our success in making it out without major injury or death. The pain and its associated memories had already begun to fade.
We drove down to the New Hance trailhead and retrieved my bike. Three hikers were just coming up from the trailhead. We exchanged pleasantries. They were ending a week-long Tanner/Escalante/New Hance trip. They joked that they were hoping to borrow my bike to get back to their vehicle, parked a quarter mile down the road, but were disappointed to see I had cable-locked it to a tree. We'd have given them a lift, but our bus is totally filled with disorganized crap, no room, sorry! They laughed.
From the beginning I had promised Brother Dave the biggest, best stinking steak dinner at the Canyon once we got out. So, after a 2-cycle shower at Mather, we hied ourselves to the Arizona Room, just as they were opening at 4:30 pm for dinner. It was the crowning culmination of our trek after eating nuts, berries and twigs for five days. God amighty I'm hungry. Let's eat!