Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cheops Pyramid (& Buddha...)

Cheops Pyramid (& Buddha...)

My plans for this day were ridiculously, embarrassingly ambitious, but mostly it was ignorant. Ignorant of my abilities and of the difficulties of off-trail movement in the Grand Canyon. I had hoped to climb three north-side temples in a single day from the South Rim. We ended up getting just one in a marathon 20-hour, 12,000-vertical-foot day.

The Loobster and I started around 3:45 a.m. hiking the road into the South Kaibab Trail. We descended to the river entirely in the dark and hiked to Phantom Ranch where we loaded up with water. We then crossed Bright Angel Creek and followed the faint trail out of the campground first site and up onto the Utah Flats. Here we came upon an extraordinary sight. Before us was a carpet of prickly pear cactus - wall to wall, if there were any walls. The barrier was so complete that, for more than a moment, I thought our trip was over - stopped by a barrier that was at no point higher than our knees. Prickly pear is a particularly nasty cactus. You don't want to hit one of these. It was a mile across this barrier and we weaved our way through via a careful serpentine course.

On the other side of “cactus land” we once again picked up a thin trail. We stay on this clear until dropping into upper Phantom Canyon. Before we go there, though, we took a detour up Cheops Pyramid (or Cheops Plateau, I was a bit confused about the real name). Cheops it a very impressive looking temple with a huge summit. Its summit lied 3000 feet above the Colorado River and the climbing on it is almost entirely on very solid, very sharp limestone. But before we started the climb we had to gain 800 vertical feet up a horrible slope of loose rocks and dirt, covered with yucca and prickly pear. It was as unpleasant as the climbing was fun. It was impossible to slip on this rock because it bit deeply into anything that touched it. We had to be very careful to never even barely scrape against this rock, for that would immediately cut us.

We were careful and the climb went well, up and down. We wandered around the top for 30 minutes before heading back down. We retrieved our gear and dropped into Upper Phantom Canyon where we found a tent and some campers. We pumped water here to refill out containers and then headed up a horrible slope and then traversed across a slope dense with prickly pear until we finally entered the dry Shellbach Wash. We climbed up this wash for thousands of vertical feet and it sapped us greatly. 
By the time we made the saddle at the top of the wash, we realized where we were and what we had gotten ourselves into. It was now 2 p.m. and it would be dark by 7 p.m. We were a good four hours from Phantom Ranch and a trail that we could navigate by headlamp. Buddha loomed above us. I figured we could do the round trip from there in three hours, but that was just a wild-ass guess of course. We wondered what we were thinking before and why we bothered with Cheops on the way in. Actually, I knew what was I was thinking before. I was thinking of going for  24 hours, but I now realized we wouldn't be able to move much in the dark out here. I was extremely disappointed with myself and the choice of up or down tore at me. The Loobster knew I wanted it bad and we agreed to continue upwards for another hour and if we were going to bag it soon, we'd bail.

We climbed through some cliff bands and loose slopes, every upwards. We traversed an amazingly steep slope of loose dirt/gravel where a fall would have been very difficult to stop. And you didn't even have to fall, the ground could just slip out from under you. It was committing, but we had no time to waste and pushed on quickly. 

We were finally stymied by a vertical band with no way to breach it. We found a fixed line, thirty to forty feet long. We could have probably prussikked up it with our slings, but it was going to be time-consuming and we didn't have time. We finally admitted defeated and turned around.
Approaching this 5.6 climb involves either a secret passage we couldn't find, unprotected 5.10 climbing, or aid climbing. I've heard it said that the crux of many a Zion route is the descent. In the Grand Canyon the crux is the approach and it was for this climb. Or non-climb as it was.

We reversed our route back to the saddle and then down the wash. Here we made a fateful decision. Instead of leaving the wash and traversing across the cactus slope and back down into Upper Phantom Canyon, we decided to descend the Schellbach Wash all the way down into Phantom Canyon. Then we'd descend Phantom Canyon down to Bright Angel Creek, cross it, and gain the North Kaibab Trail just a mile north of Phantom Ranch. Heck, the guidebook even mentioned that as an alternative way to approach Buddha... What followed was epic.

Just descending the wash was an adventure. From the seemingly impassable waterfalls to the dense thicket of cat’s claw in the lower section, we thought the way ahead was barred many times. Unfortunately for us, it was not and it led us deeper and deeper into trouble. We thought we were on easy street once we gained Phantom Canyon and started that descent. The creek, bushwhacking, and rock walls forced us to cross back and forth across it many times. The Loobster plunged in twice. We tried to build a bridge of rocks across at one point, though now I don’t know why. I think we feared being soaked and headed for the rim and the 30-degree temperatures up there.

The light was fading and there was no end in sight. Many times we had to climb around rock outcropping to get by bends in the canyon. Eventually we came to a barrier. The canyon turned completely into a water-filled slot canyon. We couldn't see beyond the next bend, but figured it might be swimming or wading the rest of the way. We couldn't do that. We couldn't retreat the way we had come either, at least not until the light ran out. We were screwed...

Despair set in. We didn't think we were in a life-threatening situation. It couldn't get that cold down here and we've spooned before. I was more concern what Sheri would think when we weren't there come morning. There was a nasty, steep, loose slope leading up to a saddle. We hoped that we could once again get around an obstacle by cutting one of the goosenecks.We battled cat’s claw in a race against the fading light now.

When I gained the saddle, I looked down 1500 feet of technical ground to the slot canyon. It was a dead end. I wanted to scream profanities. What had we done...? As the Loobster arrived, I looked up above us to the south. I then had a thought. “Isn't the Utah Flats up there, Loobster?” He agreed it must be. Getting there involved climbing a long, loose slope to a cliff band, but the slope was free of any vegetation at all and we thought we spied a weakness in the cliff band. It was our only shot now and the race was on.

I powered up the slope as quickly as I could, fast outdistancing the Loobster. I had to know if this route would work. I hit the cliff band and traversed right, heading for the weakness we saw from below. I was surprised to see a shrine tucked in an alcove at the base of the cliff band. It was honoring someone who had died here. I took a photo and moved on. The weakness was only twenty feet tall and I climbed it at probably 5.2. Spread out before me was Cactus Land, but from a very different angle. I took off running, not waiting for the Loobster. I had to find a way through the maze before we ran out of light. The trail on the other side was very faint and went over slickrock. We'd never find it by headlamp. I figured once I found it, I could signal Loobster with my headlamp and he'd eventually join me.
I zigged and zagged through the prickly pear, being a bit reckless, but avoiding the spines, mostly by luck. Once on the other side I stopped and waited for the Loobster. We still had some light left. We continued to move as quickly as we could in order to cover as much of the complicated ground before we ran out of light. Thirty minutes above Phantom Ranch it was pitch dark and we stopped to get out the headlamps.

We moved much slower now, but continued out descent to Phantom Ranch and then hiked the trail down to the Colorado River where there was a water spigot. We each drank a full liter here and then filled out bladders for the long hike back to the rim.

The Loobster is a grand partner for any number of reasons. He's irrepressible and nearly indefatigable. He's also loquacious, maybe to a fault, but I enjoy his ramblings and they pass the time on long hikes. Unfortunately, now that he is nearly 65 years old, he appears to be defatigable! Yes, it took 16 hours of continuous movement over difficult terrain, under stress, to get the Loobster to stop talking, but I now know it is possible! His great attitude never faltered and his spirit and confidence never wavered. Trudging up the Kaibab's 4500 vertical feet in the dark, into strong, biting winds was a long chore. I felt pretty strong the whole way, but I wasn't very fast. We regrouped every hour, so that we didn't get too far apart. I'd curl up in a ball next to the trail in order to keep warm, already wearing all the clothes I brought. Turning off my headlamp to wait each time, I gave thanks that I wasn't completely soaked from swimming Phantom Creek.

We topped out after almost four hours of climbing and got back to the car 19h55m after we started. I was a little disappointed to see Loobster's car had the map light glowing for the past twenty hours, but the Subaru started right up anyway. We drove around the RV park until we found our site and I was in bed by 12:15 a.m. Humbled to be sure. We hadn't done what we set out to do, but we had a grand adventure.