Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rock of Ages

Video coming soon

The Grand Canyon is one big hole in the ground. The sheer size of this ditch deceives the senses. Even the venerable Loobster was initially blasé upon viewing it. Not so with me, mostly because of the dramatic contrast with the environment on the rim. The South Rim is above 7000 feet and the north rim a thousand feet higher. Up there pine and juniper forests dominate and it can be extremely cold, even in spring. All that changes immediately, abruptly, as you drop down into the canyon. Temperatures soar, quickly, and the desert environment is immediately entered. Any adventure here, if it goes to the bottom, is huge and the availability of water dominates all movement. Without water you'll quickly grind to a halt, as your body loses its moisture and your muscles cramp. Then, without assistance, you'll die. If you're on the heavily traveled Bright Angel or Kaibab trails and you get into trouble, you'll likely get that assistance. 

Five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year. I'd guess that 0.1% of them hike to the bottom, though that is still 5000 people. The number that venture off the main trails is probably 10% of that.

Viewed from the rim, the canyon doesn't look real. It looks like a painting and that deception lulls people into a false sense of security and they seem to forget the daunting figures involved with a trip to the river and back. The day we arrived, there were three helicopter rescues and two mule rescues out of the heat in the canyon. It was hot there, at nearly 90 degrees, but nothing compared to the 110+ that can be reached in August. The shortest route to the river is the South Kaibab Trail, which is only 7 miles long, but drops 4800 feet. Nowhere on this route is there water, hence, the hike back out can quickly turn into a death march, literally, for an unlucky few that underestimate the difficulties and their fluid requirements. Making these mistakes are so common that park officials there are very jaded and treat nearly every hiker as an imbecile. This is mostly warranted due to the time they spend rescuing people. 

A myriad of adventures is possible here, from running the absolutely huge rapids of the Colorado river to ultra-running the increasing popular Rim-to-Rim-Rim (42 miles, 12, 000 vertical feet by the shortest route) to canyoneering descents and isolated backcountry hiking, but for a climber like myself, I'm drawn to the peaks. Peaks, you say? Yes. The Grand Canyon is so incredibly huge that is has mountains inside it! These are generally called temples and there are over 100 named summits. There are no trails to top of these peaks and many have no designated trails remotely close to them. I've now climbed more than a few of them:

Zoroaster (twice) w/Opie and then Buzz, Stefan, Homie
Brahma w/ Buzz, Stefan, Homie
Cheops Plateau w/Loobster
O'Neil Butte w/Loobster, Derek
Battleship w/Loobster
Battle Bitch w/Loobster
Sinking Ship w/Loobster
Mt. Hayden w/Loobster, Homie
Vishnu w/Loobster, Homie
? on north rim w/Loobster, Homie
Buddha  w/Loobster

While some of these aren't too daunting, the remote ones are amongst the toughest peaks I've climbed. They are inspiring to gaze upon and as a climber. I'm drawn to them by a force that I can't seem to resist, try as I might. Why try? Because so much of the work involved to stand on top of these temples is extremely unpleasant. It is hot, dirty, loose, scary, miserable hiking, most of it without a compelling technical challenge. This is why I haven't climbed more of them. It's often said that an essential quality of an alpinist, and these peaks are a type of desert alpinism, is a short memory. With these peaks my memory isn't all that short. It takes at least a year after an attempt for me to contemplate another go. 

My partner for most of these has been the redoubtable (previously venerable) Loobster. Indefatigable Homie, the most voracious peak bagger I know, has also joined me for a few temples and has in fact, been the engine driving many of these ascents. That was the case for Isis as well. Isis had been on my list for many years, but the sheer amount of miserable work it was going to require kept it comfortably near the bottom of my to-do list. At least it was until Homie sent me a trip report and rekindled my desire. One of the advantages of getting older is that my memory is fading. Old people are supposed to be wise, but I seem to be forgetting enough of my past experiences to make me an exception to that rule. For if my memory was better I wouldn't have been excited about this trip, I would've been dreading it. 

What really turned me on to the trip was that my 16-year-old son proclaimed early this year: "I want to start doing adventures." An adventurous father can hear no words sweeter than that. Provided, of course, that he meant to add, "with you, Pops." We'd done some backcountry skiing this winter to improve his skills there in preparation for snow-covered peaks and he'd been training in the climbing gym, climbing up to 5.11d. These skills would prove completely worthless on this adventure. The main qualities for a Grand Canyon temple are strong hiking skills, endurance, love of adventure, and toleration of misery. I hoped he had those qualities and I had some data to indicate that he might, but this would be a quantum leap for him and I wondered if it was too big of a jump.

The Loobster immediately went "all in." The Loobster is 70 years old. My immediate thought would be, "well, how hard can this temple really be?" when it should be, "Just how much of a bad-ass is this Loobster?" I have not the words to adequately answer that question. While the Loobster may look 60, there is nothing else about him that would indicate he is older than 40, especially his sense of humor. As climbing partners go, he's tough to top. What are the greatest qualities of a climbing partner? Overwhelmingly it is compatibility of personality and spirit. With the Loobster, we are a team. Once we leave the trailhead absolutely nothing we carry, no matter whose pack it resides in, is mine or his. It is all ours. The Loobster has my back. I think he'd die to save me. Ten or twenty years ago I looked up to him as inspiration for all that I still had left before me, adventure-wise. He was my role model for continuing this way of life for decades to come. Now, with this adventure, he's gone beyond that. I'm now in flat out awe of him. I cannot imagine doing this trip at 70 and I think there are very few people in the world that could do this at that age, certainly a ridiculously small percentage. There's so much talk of the 1-percenters, but Loobster is truly a 0.001-percenter. He matched Derek and I step for step on this trip. He made all the right decisions for the team on our descent. In fact, he really made this trip possible because, being retired, he got to the Grand Canyon two days early and secured our backcountry camping permits. 

Unfortunately, after having inspired this trip, Homie couldn't join us. Derek and I were locked into a 4-day weekend where he was off school and Homie couldn't make that happen. This was a big loss to the team, as I know no one stronger than Homie and he has an incredible sense for finding the route. He guided Loobster and I to the summit of Vishnu and back, through a complicated maze of ledges and cliffs. Alas, we'd have to make do without him. 

Isis Temple is 7014 feet high. The South Rim, where we start, is at 7260. What makes this adventure so huge is the fact that Isis is on the north side of the river and the river is at 2400 feet. Actually, that's not true. While the vertical gain is daunting at over 12,000 feet for the roundtrip, what makes this adventure huge is the extent of movement without a trail. The difference in effort between movement on trail to off trail is about a factor of three. To get the summit of Isis we'd have to cover 14 miles on a very good trail (Kaibab), 8 miles on a primitive trail (Utah Flats), 7 miles of trail-less creek bed, and 9 miles of climbing up to 5.7 in difficulty, scrambling, bushwhacking and rappelling. We'd spend 50% of our time on those last 9 miles...

Derek and I left town on Thursday evening. We crashed for six hours at a rest stop and got to the Grand Canyon at 10:30 a.m. local time. Miraculously, the Loobster had landed a camping permit for Bright Angel Campground, at the bottom of the canyon for that night. This allowed us to take it nice and easy on the descent, knowing that was all we could do on Friday. We had permits for the Upper Phantom Creek area for the next two nights.

A couple of miles below the rim, while we paused to snap some photos, a guy wandered over to us and asked about our ropes: "Are you guys going to climb Zoroaster?" That's the most common temple and I'd already climbed it twice. I said, "No, we've done that one. We're headed for Isis." He responded, "Cool. What route? The north side route?" I said yes and he then told me that his brother had put up the first ascent of that route and left a ski pole planted below the crux pitch. I asked him his name and it was Parnell Tomasi. Indeed, he and his brother have climbed over 100 of the Grand Canyon Temples and wrote the guidebook. He gave us a little beta about the climb, which was good, because I had neglected to bring any information whatsoever about this route. I knew the general path to follow and hoped I'd just be able to figure it out. This lack of definitive knowledge would slow us down a bit later.

Less than 24 hours after leaving our house, we set up camp in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We threw down the pads and took a rest before cooking dinner. As we lay sprawled on our backs with our food spread out all across our site's table, a volunteer ranger came by. This pony-tailed, condescending guy filled us in on the right way to camp. We learned that plastic is evil. He took one look at our ziplock baggies on the table and said, "This is exactly the problem right here. Animals have been autopsied and found to have pounds of plastic in their stomachs." He told us that we are going to be animal central tonight because now all the critters have spotted our food. How they watch us 24-hours-a-day in two shifts (presumably diurnal and nocturnal animals). In my younger days I would have asked, "What will they be doing in our site with all our food locked up in those metals boxes you provide? Won't they just move on?" Even in my old age I found it very hard resisting a response to this pontificating numbskull, but I wanted to set a good example for my son. He then told us that this was a "light friendly" camp or something like that and proceeded to tell us how to use our headlamps. Next was the fish spawning in the creek which were "not yet on a list, but are approaching that" and we should not bother them. 

I started to cook up our noodles when I realized I forgot to bring any utensils at all. Talk about a tense situation. Here we were headed to a daunting desert peak without as much as a spoon! We didn't panic, though. We just dealt with the situation as best we could, which was to use the Loobster's spare spoon. Thank god for the Loobster! But who carries two spoons on such a trip? I can see two pairs of gloves on a winter ascent, in case you drop one, but two spoons? It's like the Loobster, amongst all his other talents, is clairvoyant, predicting the shortcomings of his partners and preparing for it. Nevertheless, crisis averted.

We slept until 5 a.m. and packed and ate leisurely, thinking we'd just be moving camp to Upper Phantom Creek, setting up for a summit bid the next day, though not ruling out a summit bid that day, hence the somewhat early start. We were hiking up the very steep, loose Utah Flats trail at 6:20 a.m. If we didn't climb Isis until Sunday, we'd have to get down and move camp as close to the river as was legal so that we'd have a chance of hiking out and driving home all in one day. Derek had to be at school by Tuesday morning and I didn't want to have to drive through the night. To this intention we scoped out some dry camping options on the ascent. There is a nice sheltered spot just down from the saddle above which would have worked out nicely. We trudged past this spot and up into the boulder-choked Piano Alley, so named because so many of these rocks resemble grand pianos. At the top of the alley we ran into a guy and two ladies returning from a massive adventure hike that had seen them visiting the Cheops-Isis and Isis-Shiva saddles, but not climbing any peaks. Just doing this is substantial and the ladies called it the toughest, scariest day of their hiking lives and they assured us that they had done a lot. Hearing this the Loobster responded, "It sure looks that way!" I would have expected him to follow it up with, "You looked like you've been ridden hard and put up wet. Like you've been wandering the desert without sunscreen your whole life." He meant it to be a sign of his respect for what they have done and that they looked fit and tough enough to do hard things. After slapping him, they got the gist of it.

We bent to the hot task of weaving through the densest patch of cacti I've ever seen, contouring around the base of Cheops and heading towards Isis. Once below Isis, we turned and headed downhill, directly away from the summit. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of climbing this particular temple: a significant amount of the time is spent going in the opposite direction. This is because this peak has considerable defenses in the form of vertical to overhanging cliff bands, many without any climbable features. The Grand Canyon cuts through many different layers of stone, starting with the black, blazing hot, 2-billion-year-old Vishnu schist at the bottom of the canyon. The tiers alternate between vertical layers and sloping layers with the vertical layers obviously being the biggest obstacles. Isis was defended by three difficult bands. The lowest elevation-wise and tallest vertical-wise is the daunting Red Wall. This is very hard, very sharp limestone. This band is so impregnable that unless there is some natural weakness, like a drainage, it is for all intensive purposes impassable. The key to Isis and hence the circuitous nature of the route, was the break in the Red Wall at the back of Phantom Canyon. Here a couple of moderate rock climbing pitches lead to an exposed traverse to a drainage. The technical crux on this route is getting through one of the Supai Group bands. This brown sandstone is very steep, reasonably solid, and occasionally has crack systems splitting them. On Isis there are five to seven steps of Supai. The final barrier is the white Coconino sandstone cap rock, which is crumbly and unstable.   

We descended, steeply, 700 feet down to Phantom Creek where there is a nice campsite. Here we found a couple who were familiar with the area and gave us some information about the other campsites further up stream. There is the Alcove Camp and Hippy Camp. We figured on camping at Hippy Camp, but they told us that would likely be a mile above the last available water. We didn't like the prospect of a dry camp, but what choice did we have? We could camp lower, by the water, and go for the summit from there. This is what the Loobster proposed. If we went for the summit the next day, we'd have a another short day, but it would allow us to start very early in the morning and greatly increase our chances of success. It would also set up the nightmare Monday of hiking for 8 hours and then immediately driving for 11 more hours. 

Mulling that over, we headed upstream. The going here isn't overly brutal, but it is slow. We had to constantly cross and re-cross the stream, mostly bouldering hopping, with some following of use trails. It's 3.5 miles of this before you head up towards the Red Wall. We were entertained by a seemingly impossible density of lizards, considering we didn't have any bug issues at all. What do these things eat? It seemed like lizards were constantly in my view. Not so with the frogs, but in a certain one-mile stretch we found tons of these sun-basking amphibians. They would cling to impossible rock faces above pools of water, baking themselves. I found that I could touch them with my finger if I moved slowly enough towards them. If we cast a shadow over them, though, they'd leap off in cartwheeling dives and splash down to the bottom of the stream.

Around one boulder I heard an awful sound. A sound I've heard before. A sound that immediately brings me to full attention. I immediately stopped and reversed direction back into Derek as the angry rattling sound alerted me to the danger a foot away. A three-and-a-half-foot Western Diamondback rattlesnake. It was maybe three inches in diameter and the biggest rattlesnake I've ever seen. It was angry and coiled, ready to strike. As dangerous as these snakes are, especially in such a remote location, they are very accommodating to give you a warning and a chance to save yourself. If I had been struck, it would have definitively ended the trip. Once bitten if you get antivenom within two hours, 99% of people recover. I had zero chance of that happening. The most important factor in surviving a bite is the length of time between the bite and treatment. For me that would have been a long time. On the plus side, 20% of bites are "dry", meaning that the snake doesn't inject any venom. But that was all moot, as the snake rattled and I backed off. 

The Loobster and I make a good team for a lot of reasons and one of them is our contrast in ambitions. I tend to be overly aggressive and the Loobster is a bit more cautious. We're both a bit restless and would have a hard time lying around camp the entire afternoon. but committing to the summit from so low down, so late in the day, it was now 10:45 a.m., was aggressive. I was surprised the Loobster wasn't pushing us to be more cautious. We decided to roll the dice on "fast and light", though we did decide on a turn-around time of 5 p.m., thinking we could come down a lot quicker.

We spent 45 minutes repacking our packs, hanging up all our food, and pumping 80 ounces of water per person. At 11:30 a.m. with just the bare essentials of our 200-foot rope, a rack, helmets and harnesses, some food and our water, we headed for the summit. Derek and I were in shorts and short-sleeve shirts. The Loobster in long pants. We all carried our rain shells, but that was it for shelter. We had to get back down to this gear.

We continued another mile or so up the creek, finding water for most of the way. Water that was more appealing than what we had pumped, but what was done, was done. We found the extremely steep, loose trail that led from the stream up to the base of the Red Wall. Parnell had called the two steep pitches above us 5.4, but he had soloed them unroped. Another had called it 4th class, so we started up unroped. I'd probably agree with Parnell about the rating, though the two sections weren't very long, they were very steep, nearly vertical. Thankfully the limestone was solid and provided good handholds. This is the first time I'd ever not roped up Derek on something so steep and I was nervous. I cautioned him to be in "alpine mode" and to check every handhold before committing to it. Derek was completely calm and did just what I did. It looked like he'd been doing this stuff for twenty years instead of this being his first adventure of this nature, instead of this being his first vertical solo.

We climbed steeply for maybe thirty feet and traversed a bit right to easier terrain. This led to a small shoulder where a fixed line lay over the second steep section. Both Derek and I climbed the wall without using the rope, not out of purity, but because I felt the rock provided better handholds. This steep section ended at a small ledge that we traversed right for a couple of hundred feet, passing one section that was only six inches wide, though thankfully with good handholds.

The traverse led us to the lip of the pour-off and hence the top of the Red Wall, though above us to the left the wall still loomed. We hiked back up the gully, scrambled up another 30-40 foot wall and zigged and zagged up a wooded and brushy slope. We contoured around the side to the left, now fully above the Red Wall and on a sloping level. We had to traverse this band to the Shiva-Isis saddle. We were actually on Shiva at this point, but finally headed directly for Isis' summit.

The traverse to the summit is trail-less, of course, as everything has been once off the Utah Flats, but this is more frustrating, as you go up and down to avoid impassable boulders and thickets. We dropped into and out of a gully of sharp ravines in the slope and made the saddle after twenty minutes of traversing. This was way easier than the grueling traverse the Loobster, Homie and I had made to get to the Freya Castle-Vishnu saddle.

We made our way up the ridge from the saddle over relatively easy ground, heading towards the north ridge. We made our way through a couple of the shorter Supai bands unroped. Derek found one option up a 15-foot tall band, but the Loobster and I thought it looked a bit hard and traversed a bit to the right. I was working up the weakness I found when Derek appeared above me. He had gone up his way and said it was casual.

We proceeded up to the biggest band, which was probably 200 or more feet high on it northernmost end. We knew we weren't going up that and started traversing right, looking for a weakness. I feared having to go way around the edge to the west and tried to see a weakness when there wasn't one. I probed one option that looked possible, but found it was going to be dicey for ten feet to get to a crack and there was a dangerous fall potential. Loobster traversed more to the right and thought he found a good spot. As he stepped back to get a better look, Derek arrived and said, "Here's the ski pole." Loobster had not seen it since his neck was craned back to scan the wall above.

I quickly joined them and we donned harnesses and helmets. I led up the fifty-foot wall with little difficulties, finding and clipping the pin that the Tomasi's had placed on the first ascent. It protected the last slab move, though a yellow Alien looked like it would have worked as well. I hauled up my pack and Derek's pack and the Loobster followed with his pack on. While I coiled the ropes, the others hiked up to the next Supai cliff and started scanning for weaknesses.

The going was a bit tedious as we had to climb 5 to 7 of these Supai bands. Most of these cliff faces are completely unclimbable, but each have a climbable weakness, of course, and all of them save the big one we just did have somewhat easy passage. The trick is finding them. Do you walk to the left or the right? We didn't know and frequently did both. All this takes time.

One 50-foot band had us stumped for a bit but we walked to the left and near the prow found we could scramble up some ledges and traverse further to the left, as the ground fell away below us. Derek led this scramble and near the top we had to enter a short but vertical squeeze section. I then took the lead, wanting to scope it out beofre him.  He backed down to my stance and I took over the lead. We were unroped at this point and I wanted to make sure it was climbable and if not, at least I'd be in the front carrying the rope and rack. I struggled up the slot, getting my pack wedged a bit. It wasn't too hard, but a bit burly and we were now 60 or 70 feet above the sloping terrain below. Once on top, I dropped my pack, pulled out the rope and dropped two ends for my companions. They clipped in and soon joined me on top. Once again, I coiled and they forged ahead.

The last Supai band was a tricky one. Derek once again probed the lower weaknesses first. We had spotted a fin of rock that led partway up the wall, where upward progress ended, but a ledge, with an overhang just two feet above it, led left to a chimney/slot that looked like it might provide access through the band. I scampered up behind Derek and then took the lead. I crawled left on the ledge and entered the slot. Some chimney moves saw me to the top of that and I called for the others to follow. There was still a five foot face to tackle, now with some exposure, but everyone was solid and we were finally atop the Supai bands.

The summit looked so close. We just had to hike up the steepening slope above us to the Coconino sandstone summit cap, traverse around to the east and look for the 4th class weakness, and soon we'd be on top. Derek led the way as it started to rain and loud thunder seem to shake the entire canyon. It was 4:30 p.m. We'd been through so much that I couldn't imagine turning around. I told as much to the Loobster, saying the turn-around time was null and void now. He knew it. He agreed. Silently I knew we'd probably not be making it back to the sleeping bags tonight. It had taken too long and the descent wouldn't be very quick, but as long as we weren't making it down, we might as well go get the summit.

The rain continued to fall, but not too heavily. I figured the sandstone was still climbable and if we could only get to the climbing before it got too wet...

Derek led us up the loose slope, which became incredibly steep as we neared the cliff. We hit the walls on the far north end, just below the highest of the twin summits. Unfortunately, the fourth class weakness rises from the low point between the peaks and this was to the south. Way to the south. We traversed up and down along the base of the wall and it wore us down. The sun fell further down the horizon, the rain continued, and around each corner was more unclimbable rock.

Eventually I overtook Derek and pushed the search for a solution a bit harder. Derek's enthusiasm waned, as all of ours were. I rounded a corner and found the entire slope had slid away. What remained was daunting: 50 degree dirt. I didn't want to cross it and tried to force a 4th class route up 5.9 terrain. That didn't work. We descended a bit and Loobster led the way across the deteriorating slope. This was like traversing a technical friction slab except that it was entirely dirt. I tried to move up at one point and kept sliding back down to the same spot. The dirt was hard enough where you couldn't really make a step and the surface just slid away. We just had to move very delicately. When Loobster and I got across the 100-foot section I looked back and saw Derek perched on a boulder, just watching us. He was spent mentally and just needed a break. He needed us to say, "Hey, I found the way up and it looks super easy!" We couldn't say that just yet and I chided him to close ranks.

Just past the dirt slab we found a break that looked climbable. I led up damp sandstone and felt two sections were tricky, especially with the wet rock. I dropped my pack and pulled out the rope. By the time I had dropped a loop the Loobster was past the tricky section. I dropped it further to Derek, but he was solid, cranked the move and I packed the rope. The Loobster looked left and said it wouldn't go. I looked right and it was a dead end, so I traversed left a bit lower and found easy slabs around the corner, but the summit still looked a long way off.

I led up sandstone slabs and blocks, rushing to tag to the summit so that we could start the descent. The rain had stopped and the clouds had cleared. The low sun covered us in soft light as we stepped onto the top. It was 5:21. I still hoped we could make the Shiva-Isis saddle before darkness and told the others that we should start down in 9 minutes. Derek took one photo of Loobster and I. The Loobster was too busy eating and drinking, trying to catch up on our deficit, to take a photo. We were happy to have made it, but didn't celebrate much, too concerned about the descent.

The Loobster thought we should descend off the west side. At first I thought this was crazy. We knew the route on the east side, as horrible as it was. The west was unknown. We didn't even know if we could get to the ground that way. I rejected it, but as I approached the saddle between the two summits, the sunlit slabs below me to the west beckoned and I changed my mind. I scampered down to the edge of the cliff. It didn't look that far to the ground. I knew we could make it in 200 feet, but we needed it to be less than 100 feet to retrieve the rope. I found a bush and wrapped a sling around it for an anchor. Then spotted a better bush that was directly up a spur of dirt that was higher up. After setting up there, we moved again, spotting a large tree a bit further north. We scrambled over to it, over probably low-5th class terrain. I lowered Derek to the ground in what would soon be our standard operating procedure. I'd lower him down as he held the other end of the rope. If he hit the ground before he had to let go of the other end, then the Loobster and I could rappel and retrieve the rope. If he had to let go, he'd still make it down, provided it was less than 200 feet, but at least one of us (me) would have to find an alternate way to the ground.

In the end we never had to split up, never had to find an alternate descent. Each time Derek touched down with both ends. On this first one we wrapped the rope around the tree and were able to pull it down without leaving any gear. On subsequent rappels in the Supai bands we left slings and biners three times. Traversing the slopes below the Coconino summit on the west side was much easier and soon we were back at the top of the highest Supai band. With more time we might have been able to find all the weaknesses we had climbed up, but we were now racing the quickly fading daylight. We searched only to find an anchor (usually a sturdy bush) from which we could rappel to the slopes below and also be able to retrieve the rope.

For each Supai cliff we'd descend to the edge, search for an anchor, lower Derek down, have him do a test pull, and then rappel down to join him. Lather, rinse repeat four times until it was completely dark and we were atop the biggest cliff. Our headlamps couldn't see the ground and if we lowered Derek off a cliff that was more than 200 feet high, we'd have been completely stuck because Derek didn't know how to use prusiks and would have no way to re-ascend the rope. We were tired from 13 hours on the move and couldn't find a safe way down. We had to stop for the night.

The night was long, cold, and uncomfortable. Derek and I emptied our packs and used them as mini-sleeping bags for our lower legs, since we were in shorts. We put on our rain shells and lay down on the only semi-flat terrain, tucked right up against the cliff we had just rappelled. The Loobster tucked himself under the overhang where the rock was only a few inches above his face. Despite his long pants, he was quite cold and let us know it. Derek didn't make a peep. He just dealt with the situation like this was just another unplanned bivy like the countless he has already survived, except that he'd never done anything like this. His ability to handle the situation so easily marks him as a true adventurer. He doesn't worry about what he can't control. He just takes each situation and does the best with what he has.

Derek and I have developed a short tradition of listening to an audio book when we make these road trips for climbs. We got deep into a book on the 11-hour drive down and now we played it through the night. The app on my phone has a sleep timer and I set the book to play for 30 minutes at a time. I'd occasionally nod off and lose my place in the book or sometimes I'd awaken and notice that the book wasn't playing. If it wasn't for these events I'd have thought I didn't sleep at all. Even the Loobster, who was coming into the middle of the book, would prod me to start it up again whenever it would stop. It was a way to occupy your mind and to make time in the long night. We finished the book before morning.

By 5 a.m. it was starting to get light. We were moving by 5:30. None of us had eaten much the night before and we still weren't very interested. I downed the last of my water before we broke camp. Derek had maybe 20 ounces left and the Loobster a bit more. It wasn't a big concern just yet as it was still shaded and cold out.

We walked way north and found the cliff way too high and reversed direction. We were searching for the cliff above the ski pole. I spotted a solid tree near the edge and made for it. Upon arriving I found slings and a biner. We rapped to the ground and were finally back down through the Supai bands. We easily made our way down to the saddle and re-crossed the slopes of Shiva to the brush-choked gully leading down to the Red Wall break. I navigated by feel and got us back to the airy traverse. We did two rappels down the Red Wall and thankfully stripped off our harnesses and helmets at the base. We were down all the technical terrain. It was over except for the marching. And we had a lot of marching to go.

An hour later we were back at our packs and out of water. We weren't too dehydrated yet and decided to head downstream to better water. We ended up hiking 2.5 miles clear down to the first camp in Upper Phantom and stopped there, extremely parched. We all drank directly from the stream, not wanting to take the time to pump. Derek and I were committed to going clear to the rim tonight. Derek was dreaming of a Bright Angel Lodge burger, like the one he had after hiking out from his river trip last summer. I knew getting out would make the drive home on Monday casual, so I was in. The Loobster didn't need to get out today and he was tired. He elected to stay another night in the canyon and we bid him goodbye at 11:12 a.m.

It was very hot now, heading towards 90 degrees. Derek and I had downed 40 ounces of liquid before starting the trek up to and across the Utah Flats. On the hike we downed the 50 ounces we each carried. We had to rehydrate ourselves for the 5000-foot climb out from there.

As soon as we arrived back at the Bright Angel Campground, we took off our shoes and soaked our feet in Phantom Creek for twenty minutes. We then drank another 20 ounces and filled up with 80 ounces each for the hike out. We chatted with a very personable ranger named Della who was very excited about our adventure. She told us tales of unprepared hikers, whom she called Goobs, and the work she and the other rangers do to keep people from dying down here. While we hydrated we heard a couple talking to her her about how they had just hiked down for the day and now felt they couldn't get back out. They had no camping gear, no reservations at the Phantom Lodge or the campground. They wanted a mule ride out, but were told they were roundtrip only. They were going to need a rescue of some sort and probably needed to stay the night. It's amazing how many people make this mistake. At least with a mountain people get tired quicker and turn around sooner and when they do it is downhill. At the Grand Canyon it's relatively easy to go down it and then they are in serious trouble.

Derek and I started up at 2:25 p.m. into the black, searing heat of the Vishnu Schist. We felt like were were hiking through an actual oven. We decided to take turns leading for a mile at a time. It was just a way to pass the time. Our goal was forty minutes per mile and each time we banked some extra time we knew we could spend it taking a rest break. We conserved our water, knowing we could only drink 10 ounces per mile. I could have easily drank a liter per mile, had I been able to carry it. We rested in the shade almost every chance we got.

Halfway up we turned around two Germans descending without water. I didn't hem or haw about it. I told him point blank, "You need to turn around. Now." They did. A bit later we ran into a Russian girl named Olga. She had nothing with her besides a long-sleeve shirt wrapped around her waist. I gave her the same message and we moved on. A bit later Derek glanced down and then told me, "She's still going down." I thought, there's a rescue. But she turned around almost immediately after this and soon caught us. She'd stay with us most of the way out and I shared my water with her. Without it, I doubt she would have made it out. She had two companions that had run down to the river (we had seen them pass by) and was worried about them. I figured they'd be okay, but they'd be coming up in the dark. They had no lights, but at least it would be cooler then, and Olga mentioned they did indeed have water, which they could fill at the bottom.

A mile and a half from the top, with Derek in the lead, he looked back at me and said, "I'm feeling strong." I knew that meant he wouldn't be needing me to take a turn at the front and that he'd be hiking for the top at his pace. I stayed with Olga a bit longer to hydrate her as much as I could and when she really started to fade, only a mile from the top, I gave her one last pull off my Camelback and wished her good luck. She was in good shape, though moving slow, and I was sure she'd be fine getting out.

I pushed the pace just a bit and found I was closing on Derek, who was stopping intermittently to snap a photo or two. I decided it would be cool to finish together and worked even harder. I caught him just as he started up the last switchbacks to the trailhead. He eased his pace a bit and we hiked out together, ending our biggest adventure together.

I was more than impressed with Derek's stamina on day three. I knew he was fit and a strong, fast hiker for an afternoon and maybe a full day, but I did not expect him to match me on day three, far less drop me. He's a man now, arriving there a bit too early for my taste. I had envisioned many years of me being the strong one, the leader, teaching and mentoring him on many adventures. Now I see a different future. One where Derek will be shouldering the bulk of the work and then the bulk of the leading. One where he's taking me on adventures, showing me new things, taking me places I couldn't go without him to help me. I just hope he remains interested in me as a partner. I just hope I can maintain at least half the skills and endurance of the Loobster. I thought I was guiding an old guy and a young kid on a grand adventure, but the old guy made all the right decisions and the young guy was the strongest. I wasn't as relevant as I expected, but that isn't a bad thing. We were a team, each contributing something to the success and safety of each other. I am encouraged and inspired so much by both Loobster and Derek. Loobster is setting the bar for my future years. One I will be hard-pressed to come even close. Derek is years ahead of where I was at his age. Ten years ahead. Oh the places he'll go...

Derek did indeed enjoy that burger he had been dreaming about. I was too tired to even eat a third of mine. I was wasted and too tired to drive. Derek was tired, but alert. He drove us out of the park and found a turnout for us to sleep. I thought I'd have a rough night of achy legs and cramps, but I slept easily, beside my son, under the clear Milky Way above. The next day the drive home went easily and Derek drove half of it. I told him before that it takes at least a year for me before I'll consider trying another temple, but with companions like these, I'm already game for another. As always, the most important part of an adventure isn't the peak, they will always be there. It's the companions. My time with both Loobster and Derek is limited. I need to make hay now.  Angel's Gate, here we come.

Derek and I both wore LaSportiva Explorer approach shoes. These are the shoes that I scramble the Flatirons in. Derek wore the standard version (my pair actually, as we have the same size feet) and I wore the mid-height, Gore-Tex version. This was the same boot that I used to climb the Eiger. I liked the higher height as it gave me more ankle protection on the loose terrain. We did all the climbing in these boots and brought no other footwear. 

1 comment:

Stefan said...

Wow, what a trip.

No one else I know can write about suffering and make it sound as fun and appealing as you do! So cool to experience that with such great partners.