AZ -Grand Canyon Escalante Route - 2003/10/01 - 5 days

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The perfect backpack trip starts with fear over dire warnings from the National Park Service. Rugged and remote - Definitely. Hard - you bet. Dangerous - not if you pay attention.

By Rick Wiebush


The Fear of God

I can’t believe I almost didn’t do what turned out to be the almost perfect backpacking trip. I knew from reading trip reports on the web that the Escalante trail in the GC was very remote, not used very frequently, fairly rugged and, in some spots, potentially dangerous. The reports - and people I talked to, including rangers - kept talking about pour-offs with downclimbs; the 50 ft. Papago wall that had to be climbed directly, and required using a rope to lift your pack; and the Papago slide, a 350 foot, high-angle talus slope that threatened trespassers with a crushing rock slide with any mis-step.

Since I was doing the trip alone, the mounting evidence was troubling, but I think it may have been the subtle messages the NPS was sending in reply to my requests for a permit that got me thinking about giving it up and doing an alternate route. Little things like: “Please reconsider your route. You’ll probably DIE and if not, you will likely get seriously hurt or, at minimum, lost.” In fact when they did finally send my permit, they actually had something like that printed in CAPITAL LETTERS right on it. Since you have to carry a permit, I figured it was their way of saying that if someone found your mangled, condor- and raven-picked body, the NPS would be able to say: “we kept trying to tell this fool, but he obviously wouldn’t listen.” It worked - they put the fear of God in me. If mid-October hadn’t been such a popular hiking season, and if all spaces on other routes hadn’t been already taken (there literally were no permits available for anywhere else I might have considered in the Canyon), I probably would have bailed and done something less daunting, or even considered the alternative of just walking around my back yard for 4 or 5 days. But, since I was now being forced to do the route I shouldn’t be doing, I figured: what better way to die?

It turns out that the NPS, as many of my friends suspected, was merely being cautious; concerned about the once-every-ten-year backpacking warrior who decides to go for it and ends up way over his or her head. I can see the need for these pre-emptive measures, but couldn’t they find some code words or something that would let people with some experience know that the “you will probably die” message is hyperbole? Even some parenthetical aside (Pssst! Hey Rick, this is just some high drama not intended for you; go ahead and do it; not to worry) would have been appreciated.

The Route

The series of trails I planned on taking, and which were the source of such official consternation, is in the east end of the Grand, running down off the south rim, then basically following the river westward, climbing up onto the Tonto Platform, and finally up onto Horseshoe Mesa and out at Grandview Point. The distance between Lipan Point (the start, where the Tanner Trail drops down in) and Grandview Point (the exit) is just 11 road miles along the rim. However, the trails cover about 35 miles. The area is where the Colorado makes its long, southwest-heading bend after emerging from Marble Canyon and before starting its east- to-west track through Granite Gorge.

All the trails are considered to be in the “primitive” zone. In the NPS classification system, they are considered more remote and difficult than the “corridor” trails (e.g.,the highway-like Bright Angel trail) and the “threshold” trails (e.g., the narrower and rockier, but still heavily-traveled Grandview trail), but less serious than hiking in the “wild” zone (where there are no trails).

Here’s the planned and actual itinerary:

Day 1: down the Tanner trail from Lipan point to Tanner Beach (9 mi). The trail follows Tanner Canyon down off the rim all the way to the river and runs basically south to north. The canyon is huge and so is the drop off in elevation - in those 9 miles you descend almost 5,000 feet, going from 7,200 at the south rim to 2,600 feet at the river.

Day 2: day hike part of the Beamer Trail (which runs north from Tanner Beach to the Little Colorado river, 9 miles away), but only as far as Palisades Creek (about 6 mi R/T). Then hike 3 miles from Tanner Beach down river (west) to Cardenas Beach.

Day 3: west on the Escalante Trail from Cardenas to Papago Beach (8 miles). This section crosses through Escalante Canyon (which runs east-west), the spectacularly long and deep 75 Mile Canyon (also runs east-west) and Papago Creek (south-north). Camp on Papago Beach, at the base of the 50 ft “wall”.

Day 4: west on the Escalante Trail from Papago Beach to Hance Rapids/Red Canyon and then on the Tonto Trail to Hance Creek Camp (7 miles). Starting at Hance Rapids, the Tonto moves away from the river in a southwest direction and actually starts the climb out, with an elevation gain of about 1200 feet (from 2500 at the river to about 3700 at Hance Creek Camp).

Day 5: Tonto to East Horseshoe Mesa Trail to Grandview Trail and out (6 miles). This section climbs up off the Tonto Platform, through the Redwall to Horseshoe Mesa (at 4,700 ft) and then makes the never-ending (or so it seemed) ascent to the Rim at 7200 ft.

So, What Was It Like?

Here’s how my experience matched up against what I had read and been told:

Sweeping vista

“Rugged and remote”? Definitely. These are not the popular, 8 ft wide corridor trails, brimming with people. Instead, they were often faint, but followable, 6" to 1 ft wide trails that sometimes were knee-crunching (down Tanner), sometimes sandy (parts of Beamer), frequently annoyingly boulder-filled (parts of Escalante) and always in and out of great canyons (Tanner, Escalante, 75 Mile, Red, Hance Creek).

75 Mile Canyon

The trails sometimes go high with sweeping Canyon vistas and sometimes low, crawling through the side canyons themselves. I saw exactly no people on the Escalante section of my route, though I ran across about 12 other backpackers over the 5 days, mostly on or at the bottom of the Tanner trail. Other than that, no one. I did run across about 35 largely besneakered day hikers at the end of the trip as I was coming out the Grandview trail, but they don’t count - I was leaving.

“Hard”? You bet. My legs took a beating on the way down the Tanner - a beating that stayed with me throughout the 5 days and 35 - 40 miles, and that was further exacerbated by the 5,000 foot climb out. That first night, after coming down Tanner, my legs hurt even when I was lying down in camp. That was a first. One measure of the strain was that my backpack never felt as though it was getting any lighter. It felt as heavy on day 5 as on day 1, in spite of the fact that:1) the food was almost gone; 2) my legs - theoretically - should have been getting stronger; and, 3) I didn’t have to carry 3-4 quarts of water (6-8 lbs) on the last day, since there was a spring about a third of the way up.

The other issue here is the altitude: I’m used to doing stuff at Baltimore’s elevation of 14 feet above sea level. Even the river is at 2,000 ft and about one-third of the time I was at 4,000 ft or higher. Made me want to sit down all the time and catch my breath with a Camel.

“Dangerous”? Only if you don’t pay attention to where you’re putting your feet when you are on a few sections where the trail is 4-6 inches wide, covered with loose pebbly stuff, and sloping outward/downward toward absolutely vertical cliffs that plunge approximately 12 miles straight down with nothing to stop you but the soothing waters of the Colorado River. But those can be negotiated by:

1) not looking down; and,
2) pretending that you are in a situation other than the one you are actually in.

Everything else is a piece of cake. (Well wait, the Papago Slide does in fact give one pause. But its negotiable with a moderate degree of caution.) The highly-touted “Papago Wall” should be called the “Papago Ladder That Any Four Year Old Who Likes To Climb Trees Can Handle With Ease”.

An Almost Perfect Trip?

For a bunch of reasons:

1. You can’t be in a much more spectacular place at a better time of year. Period. I will not attempt to describe what the Grand Canyon looks like from down inside and how you get a different stunning perspective every time you go around a corner. Here’s about the limit of my descriptive, poetic capabilities: It is continuously awesome, dude.

2. The route was demanding, but not intimidating; and really rewarding knowing that not a whole lot of people do it.

3. The trip was imbued with a sense of adventure (i.e., in my mind, the outcome was not certain) because I didn’t really know what I would find, or if it would be as difficult as others made it sound. Even though it worked out fine, I didn’t know for sure that would be the case while I was actually doing it. As it turned out, the potentially dangerous parts of the trip made it challenging and fun. All the things they said were potential trouble just added zip, an attention-focusing edge, and a sense of accomplishment.

4. The weather was perfect: cloudless skies everyday, with highs in the mid- 80's and lows around 60. Star-filled skies at night, in spite of a glaring three-quarter moon. (This moon was like sleeping in a room with an overhead, uncovered light bulb that was on all the time.)

5. Since the route follows the river most of the way, never any worries about water (unless drinking the extremely muddy CO river water bothers you).

6. I brought only the things I really needed. These included the $9 slippers I got from the Flagstaff Wal-Mart that weighed about 1 oz and were great camp shoes. The “things I really needed” category does not include the approximately 3 pounds of Gorp that I thought for some reason I would eat, in spite of the fact that I never end up eating anywhere near the amount I always bring. And, I left behind almost all the things that I didn’t need, including the tent, bivy, rain coat and the other 12 pounds of Gorp. Unfortunately, I also left behind most of the Cremora which meant I had enough milk for about 2 cups of coffee. This oversight did not sit well when I was on my third cup of (now totally black) coffee.

7. I planned it well (as it turns out) and executed the plan. Nice sense of competency.

8. It cost $575. Southwest frequent flyer ticket = $0. Car rental for a week = $250 Food = $100. Three before and after-hike motel nights = $150. Maps, entrance fees, etc = $75.

9. I did it alone. Nice sense of self-reliance. However, this point leads to:

Why it was an almost perfect trip - also because I did it alone. It would have been really nice to have someone else along, especially in the evenings. When the sun sets at 6, there’s a couple hours stretching out in front of you with nothing to do, unless you want to waste batteries reading or something. I guess I could have talked or thought to myself, but since I’m basically a boring guy, that wouldn’t have been much fun at all. In fact, I tried it, and put myself instantly to sleep: “Hey Rick, you know what? Let me tell you about this time that I was.........” HunhZzzzzz., HunhZzzzz. Plus, there’s the larger issue of just sharing an adventure like this with someone else, enjoying it together, processing the day, arguing over routes, etc.

Day by Day

Day 1: Getting Off Trail Within The First Two Hours Makes for a Long Day.

Driving to Lipan Point, I get some glimpses of the Canyon and think: what exactly do you think you’re doing? The enormity of it makes me think I’m totally nuts and the tension starts building big time. In the parking lot, looking down, I’m pushing - just do it, let’s go, get underway, don’t think about it. All this preparation, packing, unpacking, sorting, re-packing, throwing stuff aside, trying to decide what I’ll need and what I won’t, trying to get everything right and now it is just right and I gotta go.

Got the pack to about 35 lbs (still too much) by paring, constantly paring. Cut off about 1/8 of the 1 lb chunk of cheese; cut off a third of the summer sausage; four of the six granola bars - gone; Cut, cut, cut. Bivy? If I have a tarp what do I need that for? Gone. Rain jacket? Same thing - if you need it, just use the tarp. Gone.

When you lift up each thing individually to decide its weight, it doesn’t feel too bad, so you say, let’s take it. But it’s like a mailman: one letter doesn’t weigh much, but you start putting all those light little things in the bag and pretty soon you’re staggering down the street under the cumulative load. Pare down. You know those two oranges? Eat one now and leave the other in the car for when you get out. Who cares if it has swollen to the size of a watermelon by then? Pare down and go.

The trail starts off by dropping through the Kaibab, Toroweap and Coconino at the rate of about 200 feet per tenth of a mile. These are precipitous switchbacks that go on and on, taking you virtually straight down for the first half mile or so. Down here I meet a hiker coming up with a sawed-off wooden cane for a walking stick and a wild-eyed, determined look in his eyes. He doesn’t want to talk and keeps moving. When I meet the rest of his group about 45 minutes later, I learn that he is “on his 4 hour pace” to go from Tanner Rapids to the top - 9 miles, crushingly uphill, in 4 hours. No wonder he had a wild eyed look.

After that first sharp drop off, the trail moderates and begins a long downward traverse toward the Tanner creekbed. At one point, it enters the creekbed briefly before rising back up onto the flanks of Escalante Butte (at about 5,500 ft) and begins a long, basically flat traverse around that. But I don’t find this out until much later. Because I stay in the stream bed, misreading the cairn that says “Exit streambed here, do not continue in streambed, go up and out”. I thought it said: “Hey Rick, keep going down the stream.” Continuing down is fun, downclimbing some little pour offs, negotiating my way around big boulders etc. About 30 minutes later, I start getting this funny feeling that something is not quite right. Wait a minute, I saw 4 hikers going up the trail, but I’m only seeing one set of footprints in this creekbed. Naw, this is it, keep going. Ok, another 10 minutes or so and then it hits me that I haven’t read one thing in any Tanner Trail description that talks about “working your way down the creekbed” for any extended period of time. Jeeeeezus, I’m 1 hours into a 5 day trip that I’m nervous about anyway, and I’m off the trail already. Nice start, knucklehead.

The level of panic is impressive. Ohmigod, I’m lost. Heart pounding, short of breath, racing back up stream, wondering where the exit is or if I’ll find it, wasting all my energy and knowing it, but still pushing, pushing, get out of this situation, move. Rick, calm down. No good. You know what it feels like to hustle uphill with a 35 lb backpack? If someone had seen me I suspect they would have described me as “wild-eyed”. I find the exit ok, but I’ve now gone 3 miles, only 2 of which I should have done, and I’m blown out already.

Back on the right trail, I soon hit the head of 75 Mile Canyon, which reaches spectacularly due west about 2 miles down to the Colorado River. It is gigantic, deep, and you could probably spend 5 days just in there. It is stunning, and calming, and a little re-energizing. Link to photo #3 Head of 75 Mile Canyon from the Tanner. But by the time I get to Cardenas Butte, I’m whipped and considering stopping for the night, after only 4 miles and about 4 hours. Lunch at top of the Redwall and wondering whether I have the time or energy to make the last 5 miles in the 3 or 4 hours of daylight that’s left. Make up my mind: I knew coming in that it would be hard, and it is already, but I got a goal. Go.

I found some new energy at the bottom of the Redwall (which was an easy, fast and fun descent), from an unexpected and delightful source. Taking a break in a little dry streambed are 5 people. Three of them are twenty-something women who are spectacular looking. I feel better already. There’s also a good looking 45 year old white guy who looks like he’s spent a lot of time out here, and a good looking 35 year old black guy who looks like he hasn’t. What exactly is this arrangement? Is there a need for a third guy to balance this out? I’m fully prepared to turn around and go right back up with them. But wait, I have a goal (and plus, they apparently didn’t need any balance in their little group, or at least none that they were looking for me to provide). Oh well.

The rest of this day is just a long plodding traverse above Tanner Canyon, gradually descending (over the last 3-4 miles) back down to the creekbed at Tanner Beach. My legs have no life and this is just one foot in front of the other. I notice along the way what I would have run up against if I had followed the streambed all the way down: just a couple 100-150 ft pour-offs. No problem.

I run across one other backpacker who I first spotted on the trail about mile in front of me. Its bizarre because from above and behind him, it looks like he’s carrying a huge white cross on his back. (When I get closer, I see that this perception is attributable to the fact that the stuff sack stored on top of his pack is white and he is carrying a six foot long white tube that is strapped vertically in the center of his pack.) As I’m overtaking him, I say jokingly that I thought for a while that he was a crucifixion re-enactor. With a weary voice, he replies: “I feel like I’ve been crucified.” That’s what the Tanner is like.

Arrive at camp at 5:30. Seven and a half hours to go 9 (ok, make it 10 with the mistake) miles. That’s downhill. Meanwhile my man was going all the way UP in four. Not supposed to be camping here at Tanner, but I’m not about to go another mile to Palisades area, especially when the trail over there involves crossing narrow ledges 200-300 ft above the river when it’s almost dark. Great campsite under a little rock outcropping 25 ft from the river. Five or six four-person rafts (and about 15-20 people) are camped just on the opposite side of the river, along with 2 kayakers.

What a pleasure to stop and get this pack off. I’m wasted, but spend the next hour laying there giggling about stupid stuff, marveling about this place and the fact that I’m in it. What makes it even more pleasurable is: 1) getting the boots off and into my little slippers; 2) knowing I don’t have to carry that backpack tomorrow except to get over to Cardenas Beach, 3 fairly flat miles away; and 3) surprisingly, the freeze-dried chicken and rice is loaded with spices that give a real kick to dinner. Nice scene: the big walls called the Palisades of the Desert are looming dramatically to the south and the river flowing fast - and real muddy - right in front of the campsite. And I’ve lit a little candle and put it inside the stove’s aluminum wind protector so it gives off as much glow as a fire would. Seven PM, last fading light, and here come the stars. Yeah, I’ll take this. Out at 8 for the next 10 hours.

Day 2: Tip-Toeing on the Beamer, the Raven Strikes and the Attack of the Kamikaze Mouse

Colorado River

Here’s my water system at this stage. I’ve got a two-gallon plastic jug that I filled with river water last night and let settle till the AM. Now I run it through coffee filters (I actually brought along one of those little plastic cones that the filters fit into to do this) and then drop the iodine tabs. Works well - the water is pretty clear and there’s a lot of silt sitting at the bottom of that jug. This will go on one more day, but by the end of the trip, I don’t even bother letting the water settle for very long, let alone use the filters.

It’s a slow morning in camp, just the way I like it. Sit around having a couple cups of coffee, smoking, studying maps and appreciating the space. Why rush out first thing if daytime temps aren’t an issue? Plus, I want to take time to experience the solar toilet. What exactly “solar” means isn’t clear, other than the fact that the toilet is totally exposed, with 360 degree views, and the sun shines in your face. It’s not that it’s solar-operated (which I originally thought), it’s just that you and the sun have an unobstructed view of each other.

200 foot drop to the Colorado

The Beamer Trail is fun, in no small part because I don’t have that pack on - just a water bottle slung over a shoulder, some Gorp in my back pocket and a camera on my belt. The first quarter mile or so runs along the top of some 200 ft cliffs that rise directly out of the water. Then it drops down to a wide sandy area that continues for a mile or so. What a relief to be able to be able to walk on flat ground. Then back up along a second, longer section of wall that runs almost the entire way to Palisades Creek. This part has some super-exposed spots where the trail is really narrow and the drop off is maybe 200 feet straight down. I mean straight down.

If you slipped and fell here, you might bounce a couple times, but water is the only thing that would eventually stop you. Compounding the problem is that the trail consists of small, slippery pebbles. I had two approaches to this. One was to go very slowly, basically tip-toeing through. The other - and I don’t know why - was to dance quickly through, like when you cross a river by moving fast from rock to rock, thinking that speed will minimize your chances of falling in. Both strategies, judging from my continuing existence, worked. I love this dangerous edge to things.

What I did not love was the scene confronting me after I returned to the campsite at lunchtime. It looked like a bomb had gone off. My stuff was scattered everywhere and it took a couple minutes to register what had happened and how. The zippers on the top pocket of the backpack were wide open, as were the zippers on my “expando-pack” attachment. I know I closed them up tight, so someone or thing had carefully pulled each set of zippers sideways to get at the contents. A mouse? Maybe if he had an engineering degree. No, I think this was the work of a raven, and apparently an enraged, perhaps psychotic, raven. I mean shit was everywhere: my eyeglasses were about 5 feet from the bag, my compass over there, my knife over that way, my notebook lying on the ground with the top five pages ripped off one by one (everything I had written last night), and other stuff scattered around.

And that was just from the top pouch. The add-on pouch, where the garbage was, was equally cleared out and devastated. The garbage bag (a big ziplock) was torn open and it, as well as every piece of paper in it, was thoroughly shredded and blowing around the camp. He had also pulled out the 55 ft section of quarter-inch line that was lying at the bottom of the add-on pouch and thrown it a couple feet away. I think this guy got so pissed off that he couldn’t find any food (hanging from a nearby tree in a closed stuff-sack) that he decided to deliver a message about his destructive capabilities. The result wasn’t just a pain in the butt, but also an environmental nightmare. Leave no trace? There were approximately 3,642 “traces” blowing around all over the place and I didn’t think he was coming back to sweep it all up. Guess who spent the next 35 minutes going around picking up each little pea-sized piece of paper, plastic bag and miscellaneous other material? Nonetheless, I continue to be impressed with my friend’s ability to open those zippers and pull everything out, especially a rope that had to weigh a pound.

The afternoon hike to Cardenas beach was uneventful - in fact kind of boring - but at least it was mostly level walking. In those three miles I felt all of yesterday’s hike in my legs, but this meant I would shorten day 3 from a nine mile trek to six miles. Good plan. Set up an early (4 PM) camp on the beach, and about 20 ft from the cranking CO. I am really surprised by how fast this sucker moves - looks to me like about 15 mph (though I learn later that it’s actually only about 4 mph in non-rapids sections - hard to believe).

People seen today: One woman and one couple day hiking on the Beamer, one backpacker heading from Palisades Creek back to Tanner, and one guy camped at Tanner. No one camped with me at Cardenas.

I was surprised last night that no little mice came around when I was preparing or eating dinner. Last time here (May 02 on the Bill Hall/Thunder River/Tapeats Creek route) these cute little mice (2 inches long maybe) would come up and sit down right next to you at dinner. And they faced the same way you did, toward the pot and the stuff cooking on the stove. It’s like they were gently asking if you might be willing to set a plate for them.

Consequently, I was even more surprised this night when a mouse (rat?) about the size of a Honda Civic came charging out of the thickets at 20 miles an hour, racing straight at the stove and me with (what else?), a wild-eyed look. It was like a Kamikaze attack or something. When he saw me he came to a skidding halt and said in a deep, vaguely menacing voice: “Yo homes, what time we eatin?” (Except for the accent, this is true.) As you might imagine, HE SCARED THE CRAP OUT OF ME AND I JUMPED UP, SCREAMED, GRABBED A ROCK AND THREW IT AT HIM ALL IN ONE MOTION. Although this highly imaginative response proved effective in the short-term, I spent the rest of the evening totally on edge and throwing rocks sporadically in what I thought might be his general direction. No further sign of him, but I realized the next morning that he had actually stolen my wooden spoon that had been laying next to the stove. I think this larceny occurred while I was distracted during the assault, but I can’t be 100% sure.
Day 3: This Is What It’s All About

Up at 5:30 and into fleece pants and top - its cold for the first time. On trail at 8:15 for what will turn out to be the best day of the trip - this is the heart of the Escalante route. Like the past two days, totally blue sky, no clouds, high in mid-80's. Heading up the hill toward Unkar rapids overlook, there’s an unexpected fork in the trail and, quite expectedly, I take the wrong one. It’s a direct ascent of the hill, climbing straight up 200 ft, (and adding to what I already knew was going to be a 1,200 ft climbing day), instead of contouring around.

Stone Cabin above Unkar

But ... it pays off, because sitting right on top of this hill is the well-preserved remnants of an old stone cabin - sans roof - that has a tremendous view of the river back toward the east. You gotta wonder who may have lived here and what they did for a living. Whoever and whatever, I bet he really enjoyed the view sitting at his kitchen table in the morning drinking his coffee, especially if he remembered to bring enough Cremora. More good news: the trail drops down the other side of the hill to join up with the “right” trail again.

Then begins a long but good southerly hike up the east ridge of the “unnamed drainage” that lies between Cardenas and Escalante Creeks. This moderate slope is covered with cactus gardens and occasionally blooming wildflowers; and the trail is easy enough that I can actually pay attention to my surroundings. Once around the head of the drainage, the trail turns back to the west and some fun starts. You cross an extremely steep slope that in places fall away straight down a couple hundred feet. Like the Beamer, the trail is real narrow, real exposed, and real pebbly/slippery, but on this one, the 4" wide trail actually slopes downward and outward toward the drop off. This is definitely the scariest section of the whole route and there’s no dancing through this. Verrrrryyyy slowly planting each foot and, because the thing is so steep, holding on to the inside wall much of the way through. I would normally trust my hiking pole for balance, but there’s nowhere to plant the thing - I’d be stabbing air. In my mind, this section went on for quite a while. In fact it’s very short, but big fun.

Then a long westerly traverse (1 miles) that takes you below Boucher’s Notch to a promontory from which everything stretches out in front of you in all directions. From this natural lunch break spot, I can see all the way back down to the cabin at Unkar (and beyond) and all the way ahead to Escalante, 75 Mile and Papago canyons. Great feeling to be able to identify these places clearly, moving from the contour lines on the map to the reality of the land.

From here, things go fast. It takes about 15 minutes to drop into the east arm of Escalante canyon. From there its maybe an hour to follow it downstream for a couple hundred yards, cross up, over and back down into the west arm of Escalante, go past a little pool where water is actually flowing (only one of two non-river water sources on the whole trip, and this one has the benefit of: 1) being unexpected; and, 2) having 10 tadpoles in it to boot), and then out to the river again, just above Neville rapids. It’s being inside these canyons that I really like and here comes another one: 75 Mile Canyon is just a hop, skip, jump and downclimb away.

Escalante Butte

The trail climbs back up from the river and hugs the east arm of 75 Mile for about a quarter mile, during which time you can continuously peer down into the depths of this 400 ft deep slot or up at the imposing monolith of Escalante Butte. Then more fun - an approximately 30 ft downclimb that is doable but demanding. For this one, it helps in spots to have had some climbing experience since you have to rely on some slim ( inch?) foot and hand holds, and you have to be able to find them looking down below you, all with your pack on (though you could lower it). This drops you onto the floor of the canyon, and the rest of the way to the river you’re walking through the high-walled slot. Almost perfect (“almost” because the canyons in southern Utah are much prettier than these, with more color and more “polish” to them. These have a somewhat monochromatic and dusty feel.)

Toward Papago Creek

Fun’s over for the day though. The hike to Papago beach from 75 mile is a slog, in part because its littered with small boulders and in part because I’ve already done 7 miles, its 4:30, and I’m tired. But this is stupid: I’m on the (recommended) high trail, while there’s another one below that crosses the 75 Mile beach then goes up on some low ledges, affording what is essentially slickrock walking. Why anyone would recommend the high, pain in the butt route is beyond me, but I’m on it and stuck with it. But here I realize what is so different about this section of the trail: the canyon walls have closed in and rise dramatically right up from the river, in contrast to the more open feel of the Tanner/Beamer area, where the really big walls are stepped back from the river.

I neither met nor saw anyone on this whole section of trail. There was one other clearly defined boot print indicating that someone had recently headed through here in the same direction I’m going, but that’s the closest I came to human contact. Perfect.

After setting up camp, the thought hit: this is going to be over way too soon. (I was right, but I changed my mind for a while the next day on the Tonto platform.) This thought also hit: maybe I should set up the machine gun in preparation for whatever large rodent attacks might be forthcoming on the Papago Beach. As it turned out, this would have been unnecessary. My man must have passed the word downriver to his brothers and sisters: “don’t mess with this guy, you wouldn’t believe how loud he screams when he’s really scared” Not a peep the whole evening. In lieu of armaments, I built a teeny weeny little fire on the beach (I know, I know) that was 1 feet from the water and the flames from which I never allowed to get higher than 5 inches. I swear. I burned only about 12 driftwood sticks over the course of half an hour. And, the next morning I threw all the charred little sticks and embers into the river. No trace. I swear.

Day 4: Success in Papago, But Later I Want To Throw Myself Over the Edge In Mineral Canyon, Just To Make Something Happen

The highly-touted 50 ft “Papago Wall” rises right up from the beach. Its totally cool to have this wall as part of the trail. It is also totally necessary to have it as part of the trail, because there’s no other way to keep going west unless you climb it. That being said, its difficulty is so vastly overstated it’s ridiculous. You just climb up it, gigantic footholds and handholds everywhere. You could have on a hundred pound pack and it wouldn’t be hard. Zip, done, 3 minutes, end of story. I was worried about this?

Once on top, and after about another 15 minute climb up a slope, you encounter the equally highly-touted “Papago Slide”. Like the wall, this is the only way out. In stark contrast to the wall, there are good reasons that this has a fearsome reputation. It’s a 350 ft slope that lies on about a 75 or 80 degree angle (it looks and feels like it goes straight down) that is littered with huge boulders and approximately 17.36 million rocks. It is described in some of the trip reports as being hard-packed dirt for the first half of the drop and then rock slide in the lower half. Not anymore. The whole slope, which actually starts about 100 feet above where you enter it, is filled with loose rocks and boulders. There obviously has been another major rock fall in the past few years. I was very careful on this thing. Each step, you drop about a foot. Each step, you wonder whether what you are about to put your foot on will actually hold. Each step, you look for something to hold on to in case you slip. Each step, more sweat starts dripping from your brow, seeping into your eyes and partially blinding you. Each step, I get more and more dramatic in the writing: “There I was, there I was…….”

Up the Papago Slide

No, the thing is, you figure out pretty quickly that what you are putting your feet on actually will hold, if you’re careful. So you just go slow and work your way down. Not a really big deal. But, it must be an impressive sight to see someone negotiating their way down this thing, since the four rafts that were passing by actually stopped in the middle of the river to watch me come down. They waved heartily; I waved back half-heartedly. You can’t at the same time be waving to someone and be paying sufficient attention to the Papago Slide. I’m guessing that it took 30 minutes to get down these 350 feet. After that, it’s an easy hike on benches above the river over to the mouth of Red Canyon, the beach at Hance Rapids and the end of the Escalante Trail. Total distance for the morning: about 1 miles. Total time elapsed: about 2 hours.

You know what really helps lunches? Those little foil packages of mustard, relish, taco sauce, etc. I snatched a bunch of them from the little deli in Wal-Mart where they serve hot dogs, burgers and what not. They just add some zip and unique flavor, especially if, like me, you lean toward eating cheese and summer sausage every day. They also work really well with those vacuum-packed, foil-wrapped packages of tuna that have way more tuna in them than you can fit on a bun or tortilla. To make all that left over tuna more palatable, try dropping in a packet of relish and smushing it around. When that’s gone, throw some taco sauce in there - tuna and taco sauce is a great combination.

Hance Rapids

OK, had success with Papago, had a nice lunch, and Hance Rapids is cool. I’m feeling pretty good, and ready for whatever challenge might be up next on this fine day. Unfortunately the next one was the challenge of not wanting to die from boredom on the section of trail across the Tonto platform. Actually, the first mile of the Tonto trail isn’t bad - kind of boulder strewn, but a gradual increase in elevation that provides some great looks at the river. But once it gets into the Mineral Canyon area (where it again turns to the south to contour around the canyon), look out. What follows is about two miles of the most stunningly nondescript terrain imaginable

. In particular, Mineral Canyon itself is actually ugly. You anticipate that looking down inside will afford some interesting perspectives - wrong. In fact, it really doesn’t deserve the name “canyon”. By definition, canyons are interesting, pretty, somewhat mysterious places. Not this one. They ought to call it a “sluice”, or “drain”, or something like that. Another option I came up with is to call it “Miserable Canyon”, which would be much more descriptive. You’re hot, tired, dusty, your legs still hurt, your pack feels like it hasn’t gotten any lighter, you’re getting cranky (all of which by the way appears to have been caused by this section of trail), and you gotta look at this? I had fantasies of ordering a helicopter evacuation. I just wanted out of that place. I was also considering throwing someone off the edge of Miserable Canyon - and that someone would of necessity have to be me - just to make something happen around here.

Things brighten up later on when you hit the lip of Hance Creek Canyon. Now this is a real canyon, with huge walls dropping down about 500 ft, dramatic rock formations, and it runs all the way from the south rim to the river. But, just because its so big, it takes a long time (2 miles) to get up toward the head of the canyon where you can drop down into Hance Creek itself and the camping area. I stopped three times along this stretch and almost fell asleep on a rock at one point. (While on this rock, I took a picture of myself. In the photo, I look like I actually did throw myself over the edge into Miserable Canyon.)

Finally rolled into the camping area and plopped down at the first site, about 10 feet off the trail. There are much nicer camp sites further down stream, but I was too beat to move further. It was like the whole tenor of the trip changed after lunch at Hance Rapids - this just wasn’t fun and I was ready to leave. But, with a little rest and dinner, I got over it. Also, another guy camping there told me about the canyon further down creek and the great day hike he had just done down there. Judging from what I had seen from above, it did look very interesting and just imagining what it might be like brightened things up. (The next day I met a couple heading down to Hance Creek specifically for the purpose of exploring the lower reaches of the canyon. They talked about big, but negotiable, pour-offs; huge walls; tree-studded sections, etc. This is something to consider for another trip.)

Day 5: Cool Mines and Springs, But False Rims

Out day. Up at first light, but the usual putzing around and writing lasts till about 8:30. Based on yesterday afternoon around Miserable Canyon, I’m ready to leave. Based on everything else, I’m nowhere near ready to go.

The Tonto trail over to the East Horseshoe Mesa trail is a real gradual ascent, following the west flank of Hance Creek canyon. The serious elevation gain starts once you turn onto EHM. Looking up, it is really intimidating - it’s another 3,500 feet and about 4 miles to the top.

Two things help break up this long haul. The first is Miner’s Spring, located off a short side trail just below the Redwall. What an incredible spot. The biggest water I’ve seen other than the river (in fact the only water I’ve seen other than the river) was that little 10 inch wide, 4 inch deep tadpole-inhabited pocket in the west arm of Escalante creek. But Miner’s Spring - nestled back in a little alcove and shaded by several trees - feeds into a scooped out basin that is probably 3 feet wide, 5-6 feet long and a foot or more deep. Where the water drips out of the rocks above the basin, deep green maidenfern cling all around. It’s a beautiful oasis and has the added benefit of providing clear, unmuddied water (although it still has to be treated).

Copper Mine

The second treat is the old copper mine that is about another quarter to half mile (and 500 feet higher) on the EHM. This is a six foot high tunnel that reaches deep into the rock face (I only went about 200 feet into it and have no idea how far it goes). Still inside are the little cart rails that were used to ferry the stone from inside the mine out to the ledge where the entrance is. There’s also an old piece of equipment out on the ledge that looks like it might have been an engine that powered the rail cars. Fascinating place. You have to wonder how many guys worked here at any given time , whether they camped down by the spring or hauled water up here and, more generally, what life was like for them.

I can tell you what life was like for me over the next few hours: for parts of it, I would have rather been working in the mines. The Redwall ascent starts right above the mine and is easy. You’re up on Horseshoe Mesa in a flash (about 2 hours to this point from Hance Creek camp.) And the next couple miles past that are fine - in spite of some serious elevation gain. The going is so good in fact that I’m thinking this is an incredibly easy exit route. But then you get to about the last mile, or mile and a half, of the trail and you start getting the crap kicked out of you physically and, more importantly, psychologically.

It seems like all the day hikers must have started at approximately the same time, because I ran into about 35 people coming down the trail in the section between Horseshoe Mesa itself and the beginning of the really steep ascent to the rim. What a mix of people: some serious day hikers who are well-equipped and in good shape, a bunch of families who possess neither of those qualities, and a couple of fat tourist types in sneakers who I can tell are going to be in big, big trouble when they have to turn around and start going uphill instead of down. One of these guys, apparently unaware of the unwritten rule to let upcoming hikers pass, doesn’t, and I have to step toward the edge so we don’t collide. My foot hits a bunch of loose rocks, sending them cascading down and forcing me to catch myself with my hiking pole. It strikes me how easy it would be for me or someone else to go flying over the edge because of some knucklehead like this.

Back to the last mile or so of the trail: straight up via (I’m guessing) 50-75 switchbacks. What makes it somewhat worse is that the old miners laid cobblestones in much of this section. The whole width of the trail is paved (immaculately so) with these things. It may have helped them, but for some reason (the cobblestones are all slanted downhill at the same angle?) it makes it a whole lot harder to hike up. After getting a little more used to this, the much bigger problem of false promises emerges. You are apparently in the top layer or two and in several places can look up and see a rim. I kept saying: piece of cake, I’ll be out in 30 minutes. The problem is you get to what appeared to be the rim, only to discover that it is only a rim. There is in fact a whole other wall of rock above and stepped back from that. So you say “oops, made a mistake, but still just a little ways to go.” Well, this pattern repeats itself over and over again and starts getting really frustrating and mentally exhausting. These “false rims” are like Sisyphus and his rock, or the big box with a smaller box inside and a smaller box inside that and a smaller box inside that, etc. When does it end? Up 20 yards to the switch, stop, breathe, gird. Up another 20 yards, stop, breathe, gird, don’t look up anymore. Slice by slice, section by section, piece by piece, switchback by switchback, until finally, at 2 PM, really out on top.

Only to be met by hordes of tourists swarming the overlook and parking lot - why is my sense of elation muted so drastically? Maybe since, in addition to this visual mess, I now have to get a ride back to my car and I actually have to ask someone to help me out. Putting aside my pride, I start asking likely candidates (i.e., absolutely anyone with a car), get turned down two or three times, and then a young British couple says “sure, hop in.” This turns out to be a real treat. In part due to road construction, we spend the next hour in their car, mostly talking about what they’re up to. And what they are up to is a big deal. They are going around the world, having bought airline tickets for $1,500US each, that allow them to make 5 or 6 stopovers in different places for as long as they want. They are using the trip to decide where they want to live, and just to make sure they get a good feel for each place, they are staying for three months each in: 1) the U.S.; 2) Australia, 3) New Zealand and, 4) South Africa. They’re young (mid-twenties), sold their cars and other belongings in Britain, are getting good hotel/car deals via Orbitz as they go, generally handling their money very carefully, but not living like paupers. I am extremely impressed and slightly jealous. (Although, on the other hand, they haven’t done - and aren’t planning to do - what I just did, and I’m not sure I’d trade.)

After arriving at Lipan point and talking for a while longer with the Brits, the elation hits me and I get really pumped. It happens when I take in the panorama from Lipan Point and realize that I’ve been down in, and hiking through, all the places/canyons that you can see from this vantage point. I can see almost my entire route and mentally recreate each day. What a great combination of the big picture afforded from up top and the detailed knowledge of what lies down below.
I start talking to people left and right, brimming with energy and confidence. I feel like the cowboy hat-wearing, midwest-type guy in the beer commercial who walks into the east coast bar, is greeted with the perfunctory “howya do-in?” by the regular customers, takes the question literally and responds in a torrent: “Well, ahm just fine, thanks. Ah just flew in and my brother in law picked me up from the airport but he had to pick up a few things so ah figured ahd stop and grab a beer. Sure is a nice town you got here; say, what’s your name? My name’s Bob, nice to meet you; I work in sales at Wal-Mart ..... .......” All of which is greeted by rolled eyeballs by the regulars. And then another customer comes in, nods and makes the mistake of saying: “howya do-in?” Off he goes again: “Ahm doin just fine thanks....”

Well, that’s kind of like me with the sightseeing folks on top of Lipan Point. The main difference is that I don’t need anybody to initiate the conversation with “howya do-in?” I just walk up to people and start right in: “Hi, that’s some view isn’t it? It’s even better from down below. You know how I know?” And I’m off on my story. The other difference is that when I tell them, nobody rolls their eyeballs (at least not right at me). I get the sense that they can’t quite fathom it, but that’s ok - I can. Energy still pounding, I hop in the car and drive back toward Grand Canyon Village, the whole way thinking to myself: I can’t believe I almost didn’t do what turned out to be the almost perfect backpacking trip.




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