I was eager to hike the Grand Canyon long before I began publishing Backpacker magazine in 1973.
I was completely taken by Colin Fletcher’s classic backpacking book, The Man Who Walked Through Time.
It’s an account of his two-month backpacking trek from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other.
He was the first to accomplish this hike in one continuous journey.
Fletcher’ book ranks among the world’s all-time classic hiking adventures. I’ve read it a half dozen times that I recall.
So, once I started publishing Backpacker I had a good excuse to take the all-time favorite hikes I’d dreamed of.
The Grand Canyon was high on that list.
After a few Grand Canyon hikes I became intrigued by a route that legend has it was used by horse thieves.
They stole horses in Utah and ran them down into the canyon, across the Colorado River and up the other side to sell them in Arizona.
Fletcher had been intrigued by this legend as well, wanting to know how the thieves drove their stolen horses across the Colorado River.
I was also curious how Fletcher made this difficult crossing.
He did not know how to swim! Yet, he carried his heavy pack on his flimsy inflatable air mattress, paddling across entirely by hand.
I admired the courage that must have taken.
So on my Grand Canyon hikes I began imagining what it would be like, if I were to try to cross the Colorado at the same place that Fletcher and the horse thieves made it across.
Down in the canyon watching those tumultuous rapids, it was all the more disconcerting.
And unlike Fletcher, I knew how to swim!
In addition to that challenge, Fletcher had hiked out the NankoweapTrail, which also had its reputation. It is the longest, most difficult trail of the canyon.
It usually takes full two days to hike it, with an overnight somewhere mid-way.
After some study of maps, the river’s water, and each end of the Nankoweap, I determined that I had to try it.
I, first off, figured I’d need at least two weeks for such an ambitious backpacking trek.
Add on time for setting-up the trailhead, as well as dealing with unforeseen difficulties, I’d best plan a minimum of twenty-three days.
Consulting the Experts
I went out to California and introduced myself to Fletcher.
I spent a few days with him at his home, intending to discuss how he’d managed the river crossing.
However he was not very helpful. He just told me how he’d felt about conquering his fears of the crossing inasmuch as he didn’t know how to swim.
I did enjoy getting to know him.
I also made acquaintance with others who knew the canyon well.
Stu Aitchison was one particularly knowledgeable fellow. He was a biologist at Northern Arizona University.
Stu spent innumerable days in the canyon on the team that evaluated the human carrying capacity of the banks of the Colorado River. The National Park Service wanted to determine the number of river runners it ought to allow during a rafting season.
Stu encouraged me and gave me a good deal of help my trip.
He advised an early spring trek when the weather was cooler, yet warm enough for there to be melted potable water in the sparse sources along my route.
The first question we had to deal with was how to get into the north rim trailhead of the Nankoweap Trail.
The North Rim of the Park is closed in winer and not open until May 15. Much too late to begin my hike.
My first thought was to ski the fifty miles into the trailhead from the closed gate.
I figured it possible to follow the road from the closed entrance at Jacob Lake.
That would be a journey in itself. Just skiing in to the rim would take an additional five days.
Then there would be the problem of what to do with the skis once we reached the rim.
We didn’t want the burden of carrying them down and up the other side of the canyon.
Should we leave them on the rim before hiking into the canyon, we’d have to plan to go back in to retrieve them, though we would not have to ski in. We could wait for the North Rim to re-open in May and drive in for them.
That seemed far too much to add onto the already challenging trek I was planning.
Stu solved the issue.
He offered to drive us in to the base of Saddle Mountain as far as snow permitted.
We would “hike” through the snow to the trail-head at the rim of the canyon, meaning we would slog through knee-deep snow without snowshoes or skis.
That would not be easy, especially with the loads we would be carrying. But it was obviously the best solution.
The Gear We Would Need
We’d be carrying winter gear and provisions for eighteen days and plodding “barefoot” through knee-deep snow the entire three miles to the rim.
Next issue was what we would do about the river crossing.
We decided upon a small inflatable rubber boat and paddles that we could carry down and out of the canyon.
We also needed a couple hundred feet of nylon climbing rope and carabiners for a dangerous traverse right at the start of the Nankoweap Trail a few thousand feet above the river.
The rope would also be useful to tether the boat from shore to keep it from getting carried away downstream on the river current into rapids.
Next the more common items — food, stove, fuel and clothing for an eighteen-day dry, cool Grand Canyon backpacking trip.
By the time I’d gotten those issues settled, I had a number of people who wanted to join me on the trek.
My nephew, Kenn, was my all-time provisioner and detail man.
Who else to take along?
I decided Charley Brush, who’d become a good friend, would be good company. He was the president of the Explorers Club, and used to long treks into the wilderness..
That seemed about enough of a group.
But Stu suggested that four was a safer number, especially for such difficulties as the traverse and the river crossing.
So I was open to a fourth.
Then a friend suggested a good outdoorsman who was also a filmmaker, who when he heard about our plan, was dying to make a motion picture of our adventure.
When I met Curtis Imrie, he seemed a good fit for our team and I agreed to take him along provided he carried all his filming equipment as well as his portion of the common gear.
All set, we considered it challenging, but not too risky if we didn’t consider the river crossing.
We needed to be sure we could find the trailhead in winter. It was rarely hiked back in the early 1970s.
So Kenn went out in the fall, just days before they closed the North Rim Road, to reconnoiter where the it drops over the rim of the canyon.
February 1975 — Our Adventure Begins
Stu was able to drive us within about a mile of the trailhead to Saddle Mountain.
Then we were off. We began our slog through knee-deep snow four miles up the mountain and down the other side to the Nankoweap Trailhead at the canyon rim.
We had yet to hike down into the canyon to a spot where Kenn had slept on his scouting mission.
We had planned to melt some snow for extra water for the hike down to the river, which takes two days from this point.
But that was unnecessary since there was a steady trickle of snow melt coming over the rocks, with which we re-filled our water bottles.
We set up camp on a wide rock ledge, which dropped off one the lip some twenty-five feet or so on its outside edge.
So we each tied ourselves with a length of rope to a tree before we went to sleep.
We knew our next section of hiking to Marion Point had the scary traverse along a section of trail no more than a foot wide with a rock cliff on our left and a sheer drop-off on the right.
Pretty risky with heavy packs. So we planned not to risk the section without setting up protection.
My rock-climbing experience came in handy. I set up a safe belay around a safe rock out-cropping, tied myself onto the loose end of the climbing rope and had Kenn belay me safely across the traverse. I untied myself and secured this end of the rope to a sturdy-rooted tree, thus having a hand-rail of rope across the traverse.
Then it was easy. We each clipped a carabiner from our waist-loop onto the rope, and made our way safely across with our packs.
When we were all across I returned to untie the other end of the rope and brought it across.
Now we were off on safer trail with magnificent views of the canyon all around us.
The route was steep, but fairly straightforward down five miles to our next campsite on Tilted Mesa.
The following day we expected to handily reach Nankoweap Creek, a relatively short distance, but over what the National Park Service calls “very” steep trail.
The distance being so short we dawdled quite a bit, photographing scenes and meandering slowly to take it all in.
, , , we had not counted on how short the days are in February.
Before we realized it, we saw we would be caught on the trail in darkness if we continued.
We decided to bivouac on the widest, flat section of land we could find.
Taking another day for the hike down meant taking inventory of our water, for we hadn’t planned on this extra night on the trail.
We realized we would barely have enough if we stringently rationed our use. I mean like a half a cup a piece at dinner time and the same in the morning for breakfast. And still less for each of us to reach the creek at the bottom of our route.
This caused a problem we had not anticipated.
Charley and Curtis each accused the other of “cheating” and taking more than his share of the water.
It was the kind of crisis you read about in adventure stories. As foolish as it sounds, it became serious.
It struck Kenn and me as comical, inasmuch as we had less than a half day’s hike to the creek where there were springs of pure, clear water.
We believed that even if we had to go entirely without water, we would safely reach fresh water before noon the next day. Tthe weather was cool and our hike not that strenuous.
Crystal Creek Camp
When we finally reached the crystal clear creek Charley had become frightened our rationing, that he plopped down in the creek, filled his canteen and literally drank one canteen of water after another, laughing crazily.
We feared he would drown himself.
Of course, by then our stress released, we had an uproariously foolish time cavorting about the stream all afternoon.
We made camp by the creek that night and explored the area before continuing on down to the Colorado River where we set up our fifth camp.
We spent the next day, lazily exploring the area as well as the ancient Indian granaries high up on the canyon wall.
The next section of our hike took us to the mouth of the Kwagunt Canyon where we again camped and spent the following day exploring up the Kwagunt.
There are distinct remains of building foundations of in an ancient Native-American village
So enough delaying already!
Time to face our Main Challenge – crossing the treacherous Colorado River in our dinky rubber raft and plastic paddles.
Could we do it without getting swept down-river into one of its notorious rapids?
It took little more than an hour to find the spot Stu had told us about.
But dawdling to meticulously “do it right” took a full hour and a half more of “should we’s” or “maybe this’s” before we firmed up our plans well enough to put Kenn in the boat to give it a go.
We tied an end of the climbing rope to the boat “just in case.”
Setting off from the riverbank with his pack was no problem.
The water at our launch point was gentle enough for Kenn to paddle upstream and out toward the downstream current.
As he approached the fast water he exceeded our rope length and we had to let go allowing the rope to drag out behind the boat.
We held our breath as he headed out into the fast water.
The current immediately caught him and rapidly drew him down river!
Kenn bent his paddling cross-ways to the current, which was rapidly carrying him downstream.
For a few breathless moments we helplessly watched Kenn struggle against the current to gain the calmer waters on the other side.
He made it and was carried upstream on the eddy of the back current and easily over to the other shore.
He got out, stood up, waved and yelled to us.
We whooped and hollered back even though it was impossible for us to hear each other above the roar of the river.
Now the tedious work of ferrying the rest of us and our gear one at a time, across the river, each time holding our breaths as we struggled against the swift current mid-stream.
It took four more round trips and the better part of the day before we were all ashore and having a late lunch.
After re-assembling our gear we hiked another mile to the confluence of the Little Colorado where we made our eleventh night’s camp.
Our next day we day-hiked up the Little Colorado to the Navajo Indian sacred Sipipu site. It’s a hot spring which has a built-up tower of travertine over which the hot water flows down into the Little Colorado.
We respectfully did not go near it. We took pictures, had lunch and began a pleasant body float back down the Little Colorado to where it empties into the Colorado River.
We camped another night at the confluence of the two rivers. t
Next morning after breakfast we packed up and waded in thigh-deep water across the Little Colorado.
We inspected the stone ruins of a stone hut that was built and inhabited by a crusty nineteenth century prospector, Ben Beamer.
And we finally hiked along the Beamer Trail to the riverside base of the Tanner Trail where we made our eleventh camp.
Day Twelve we began our final hike up the Tanner to the Seventy-five Mile Creek-Tanner Canyon saddle where we made our last camp.
This was the first night of inclement weather. The winds blew and it began raining.
We pitched tarps from the canyon wall and snuggled up beneath them while the winds and lightning danced around the rim of the canyon where we had begun our hike.
During the night the wind ripped up one of our stakes allowing the rain to soak the foot of my sleeping bag. I got up and tied the tarp down.
And here is what surprised me most.
The desert air was so dry after the rain stopped and canyon air warmed up during the night, that despite my sleeping bag getting soaked, it was completely dry by the time we got up our last morning.
After breakfast we climbed the rest of the Tanner Trail out to our car where we’d left it parked at Lipan Point.
Thirteen days to complete a trek I recall with such strong affection.
We learned a great deal about backpacking in the canyon, that we would be better able to utilize, especially food and fuel, for our next big trek, on which Stu accompanied us to give us an interpretive view of the biological, geological and archealogical aspects of the canyon.
That trek we hoped would be even more adventuresome. Stu wanted to take us into an area of the Grand Canyon, which he believed had never seen modern folks before.
We couldn’t wait.
I’ll tell about it in another episode.
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