Backpacking into the Grand Canyon… Part II

Looking down from Lipan Point at the start of the Tanner Trail. Then sharp bend in the Colorado River... far away, is where I am heading. (The photos of the trail down I actually took several years later when I backpacked down with Peggy.)

Looking down into the Grand Canyon at the start of the Tanner Trail.  By the end of the day I would be near the sharp bend in the river. At the beginning, my body was having serious doubts about whether it wanted to go there. It wasn’t the distance. It was the drop of several thousand feet which can be tough on both knees and downhill brakes.

You may (or may not) recall that I left you hanging on the edge of the Grand Canyon when I took my summer break from blogging starting in July. I had hoisted my 60-pound pack and was preparing to drop off the edge of the world following one of the Canyon’s toughest and least traveled trails several thousand feet down to the Colorado River. My body was having a serious discussion with my mind over the wisdom of the decision. You may want to go back and read Part I of the Grand Canyon Odyssey to refresh your memory.

Tanner trail dropped away under my feet as I began my journey and descended through millions of years of earth history. About a half of mile down it disappeared, having been washed away by winter rains. “I told you so,” my body whispered loudly as I mentally and physically hugged the side of the Canyon and tentatively made my way around the washout.

Although this photo is a little blurry and from another Grand Canyon trail, I included it because it provides a perspective on the trails into the Canyon that receive minimal attention from the Park service. Main tourist trails are like freeways in comparison.

Although this photo is a little blurry and from another non-maintained Grand Canyon trail, I included it because it provides a perspective on the trails into the Canyon that receive minimal attention from the Park Service. Main tourist trails are like freeways in comparison.

Steep drop offs are a common factor in all trails leading into the Grand Canyon. The first trails were created by Native Americans. Later miners, rustlers, and companies interested in promoting tourism would enhance the original trails and create new ones.

Steep drop offs are a common factor in all trails leading into the Grand Canyon. The first trails were created by Native Americans. Later miners, rustlers, and companies interested in promoting tourism would enhance the original trails and create new ones. The top of the photo reflects the different rates of erosion that create bluffs.

I am not sure when my legs started shaking. Given the stair-step nature of the trail and the weight on my back, not to mention an extra 20 pounds of winter fat, my downhill muscles were not having a lot of fun. Fortunately, Mother Nature provided a reprieve. The erosive forces of wind and water that have sculpted the mesas and canyon lands of the Southwest are less challenged by some types of rocks than others.

Somewhere between two and three miles down I came upon the gentle lower slopes of the Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, which allowed me to lollygag along and enjoy the scenery. I escaped from the sun beneath the shadow of a large rock, drank some of my precious water, nibbled on trail food, and took a brief nap. It would have made a good place to camp. Others had obviously taken advantage of the shade and flat surface, but the Colorado River was calling.

Ignoring the screams of my disgruntled body parts, I headed on. At mile five or so my idyllic stroll came to a dramatic halt as the trail dropped out of sight down what is known as the Red Wall. (It received this imaginative name because it is red and looks like a wall.) Some fifty million years, or 625,000 Curtis life spans, of shallow seas had patiently worked to deposit the lime that makes up its 500-foot sheer cliff. It is one of the most distinctive features of the Grand Canyon.

My trail guide recommended I store water before heading down so I could retrieve it when I was dying of thirst on the way out. I could see where people had scratched out exposed campsites here as an excuse to stop for the night. The accommodations weren’t much but the view was spectacular.

The rest of the five-mile/five month journey was something of a blur. (It was closer to five hours but time was moving very slowly.) I do remember a blooming prickly pear cactus. I grumbled at it for looking so cheerful. I also remember a long, gravelly slope toward the bottom. My downhill muscles had totally given out and the only way I could get down was to sidestep. I cackled insanely when I finally reached the bottom. I was ever so glad the Sierra Club guy (see Part I) wasn’t around to see me.

As tired as I was, I enjoyed the beauty of the inner Canyon.

I was so tired, I could hardly enjoy the beauty of the inner Canyon. (These photos are from a later trip I took down with Peggy. I waited until after she said “I do” before introducing her to the Tanner Trail. Otherwise she might have said “I don’t.”)

I smiled at the Prickly Pear Flowers on my way out of the Canyon that I had growled at coming in.

I growled at a prickly pear for looking so cheerful.

Looking back up the trail provided a perspective on how far I had come. The small, needle-like structure is Desert View Tower.

Looking back up the trail provided a perspective on how far I had come. The small, needle-like structure is Desert View Tower, about a mile away from the Tanner trailhead.

Setting up camp that night was simple. I threw out my ground cloth, Thermarest mattress, and sleeping bag on a sandy beach. Then I stumbled down to the river’s edge and retrieved a bucket of brown Colorado River water that appeared to be two parts liquid and one part mud. I could have waited for the mud to settle but used up a year of my water filter’s life to provide an instant two quarts of potable water.

My old yellow bucket, a veteran of dozens of backpacking adventures, holding Colorado River water. It retired after my second trip

My old yellow bucket, a veteran of dozens of backpacking adventures, holding Colorado River water. It retired after my second trip down the Tanner Trail.

All I had left to do was take care of my food. Since people camped here frequently, four-legged critters looked on backpackers as a major source of food. I could almost here them yelling, “Dinnertime!” when I stumbled into sight. Not seeing a convenient limb to hang my food from, i.e. something I wouldn’t have to move more than 10 feet to find, I buried my food bag in the sand next to me. Theoretically, anything digging it up would wake me. Just the top was peeking out so I could find it in the morning.

As the sun went down, so did I. Faster than I could fall asleep, I heard myself snoring. I was brought back to full consciousness by the pitter-patter of tiny feet crossing over the top of me. A mouse was worrying the top of my food bag and going for the peanuts I had placed there to cover my more serious food.

“Hey Mousy,” I yelled, “Get away from my food!” My small companion of the night dashed back over me as if I were no more than a noisy obstacle between dinner and home. I was drifting off again when I once more felt the little feet. “The hell with it,” I thought in my semi-comatose state. How many peanuts could the mouse eat anyway?

The river water I had consumed the night before pulled me from my sleep. Predawn light bathed the Canyon in a gentle glow. I lay in my sleeping bag for several minutes and admired the vastness and beauty of my temporary home. The Canyon rim, my truck and the hoards of tourists were far away, existing in another world. My thoughts turned to my visitor of the previous evening.

I finished my last blog with a picture of the view across the Colorado River from my camp near Tanner Rapids. This and the photo below demonstrate how much colors change depending on the time of day.

The early morning view from my camp site near Tanner Rapids on the Colorado River.

Out of curiosity, I reached over for my food and extracted the bag of peanuts. A neat little hole had been chewed through the plastic but it appeared that most of my peanuts were present and accounted for. My small contribution had been well worth my solid sleep. I then looked over to the right to see if I could spot where the mouse had carried its treasure. Something on the edge of my ground cloth caught my eye. It was three inches long, grey, round and fuzzy.

It was Mousy’s tail!

Something had sat on the edge of my sleeping bag during the night and dined on peanut stuffed mouse. Thoughts of a coyote, or worse, using my ground cloth as a dinner table sent a shiver down my spine. I ate a peanut in honor of Mousy’s memory and threw a few over near his house in case he had left behind a family to feed. I also figured that the peanuts would serve as an offering to whatever Canyon spirits had sent the night predator on its way.

I visited a bush to meet the demands of my bladder, fired up my MSR white gas stove, and soon had a cup of coffee in my hand and hot morning gruel (oatmeal) in my tummy. I dutifully downed my daily ration of five dried apricots. (This may be more than you need to know, but they help keep you regular, an important consideration in wilderness travel.)

With breakfast out of the way and a second cup of coffee to enjoy, it was time to get out my topographic map and contemplate the adventure of the day. My intention was to work my way up the Colorado River following the Beamer Trail to where it was joined by the Little Colorado. The odds were I would have it to myself. The trail was named after a prospector who had searched the area for gold in the 1800s but it also incorporated ancient sections of trail the Hopi Indians had used to reach their sacred salt mines.

Hopi legend claims that their ancestors emerged into this world from a cave in the bottom of the Little Colorado River Canyon. I found the combination of history, mythology, isolation and scenery quite attractive and was eager to get underway. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. It was going on strike.

NEXT BLOG: I declare a layover day where I hardly move and then begin to explore the beauty of the inner Canyon.

17 comments on “Backpacking into the Grand Canyon… Part II

  1. Oh wow, good for you. I can’t imagine making such a grueling trek. And I suppose once you start, there’s no backing out, especially the farther along you go. And as for creatures sharing my outdoor sleeping space? My teeth chatter just thinking about it. But what an incredible experience it must have been.

    • I have always loved disappearing into the wilderness, Carrie. And even though the challenges can be daunting, I have always found the experiences to be rewarding. (I confess I wonder about the wisdom of my decisions sometimes when I am in the middle of an adventure.:)) –Curt

  2. A great read, almost a Hemmingway in its own right. I felt dizzy just reading it. I did a walk in Australia’s Tasmanian wilderness some years back, not aided by several crosses where walkers had perished.
    You could look it up on the Mount cradleback to Lake StClaire. walk. Now-a-adys there are luxury stop-overs but not then.

    • Looked up the walk Gerard and it does look beautiful. I like my trails wild, like the Mount Cradleback to Lake St. Claire was when you hiked it. Went to the movies today and watched the movie A Walk in the Woods based on the book by Bill Bryson. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte played the leads. Hilarious. Be sure to see it if it comes near you. –Curt

  3. That sounds like the descent from hell. It must have been exhilarating to finally reach the bottom – if you had any juice left to feel anything. Looking forward to the next installment.
    Alison

  4. It’s not for me, but you tell the tale wonderfully well. I don’t mind out and about, or even really out there, but the upanddownness is more than I could handle now. Clearly you’re up for it, because you’re still here, telling us about it!

    • One thing I learned from years of taking people on challenging outdoor adventures (including myself, Linda), is that people have an incredible ability to meet and even thrive under difficult conditions. The other thing that has always amazed me is how fast the human body toughens up. One week can make a tremendous difference. –Curt

  5. Pingback: Backpacking into the Grand Canyon: Part III… My Muscles Go on Strike! | Wandering through Time and Place

    • Thanks. I doubt there is anywhere in the world that has so much great scenery as the Grand Canyon. And that certainly includes Havasupai, although I haven’t been there since the flood. I am grinning about the apricots. –Curt

      • Hee hee! Thanks for the laugh. 🙂 Yeah, I haven’t been back since the flood either. But it’s a hike I’d love to do again sometime. And raft the canyon too! Haven’t done that yet.

  6. You are definitely a brave soul. Your story of the mouse sent shivers down my spine, so I can only guess at how you felt. I guess you weighed the benefits of being alone on a gorgeous, rarely traveled trail over trekking with a crowd of hardy souls, and you satisfied your lust for solitude and adventure. All I can do is admire you for it. I’d rather be with Peggy!

    • Being with Peggy definitely has its advantages. (Grin.) Still, wandering alone in the wilderness is a unique experience I’ve had several times in my life. It provides a perspective that few people have today. –Curt

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