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 hikes I became intrigued by a route that legend has it was the trail 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.
In Fletcher’s account of his hike, he too had been intrigued by the legend and how to cross the Colorado where the thieves allegedly drove their stolen horses.
I was curious of how Fletcher made this extremely difficult part of his end-to-end trek.
He did not know how to swim! Yet, he crossed the Colorado River despite its treacherous reputation.
He floated across a slower section of the river above a serious rapids.
He carried his heavy pack on his flimsy inflatable air mattress, paddling entirely by hand. I admired the courage that must have taken.
So on my Grand Canyon hikes I began to imagine what it would be like, if I were to try to cross the Colorado the same place that Fletcher paddled.
But down in the canyon watching those rapids, It was frightful! And unlike Fletcher, I knew how to swim!
In addition to that challenge, he had gone 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 decided to try it, I’d need at least two weeks for such an ambitious hike.
With setting-up at the trailhead, as well as dealing with unforeseen difficulties, I’d best plan a minimum of twenty-three days.
I went out to California and introduced myself to Fletcher. I spent a few days with him at his home, mostly to discuss how he’d managed the river crossing.
He was not very helpful, just told me how he’d felt about conquering his fears of the crossing inasmuch as he didn’t know how to swim.
I also became acquainted with many others who knew the canyon.
One particularly knowledgeable fellow, Stu Aitchison, was a biologist at Northern Arizona University.
Stu had been on the team that evaluated the human carrying capacity of the banks of the Colorado River for the National Park Service to determine the limits of the number of river runners it ought to allow in a season.
Stu became was encouraging and took a good deal of interest in helping me plan my trip.
He advised a very early spring trek, when the weather would be cooler and there would be potable water in the sparse sources along the trail.
The first question we had to deal with was how to get into the north rim trailhead of the Nankoweap Trail. The Grand Canyon National Park was not open until May 15, which was much too late for us to begin our hike.
My first thought was to ski the fifty miles in from the closed gate. We could follow the road from Jacob Lake. That would be a journey in itself, just getting to the rim would take an additional five days.
The the problem of what to do with the skis once we reached the rim. We didn’t want the burden of carrying them down into the canyon and up the other side.
naan Leave them? Couldn’t do that without a plan to retrieve them.
Next question, how to cross the river?
We decided both issues with Stu’s advice.
He offered to drive us in as far to drive us 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 with the loads we would be carrying, but it was obviously the best solution.
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 with carabiners for a dangerous traverse 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.
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 to fit into our group 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.
To be sure we would be able to find the trailhead in the winter, the trail rarely used back in the early 1970s, Kenn went out to reconnoiter where the trail drops over the rim of the canyon.
He went in the fall, days before they closed the North Rim road.
February 1975 — Our Adventure Begins
Stu was able to drive us within about a mile of the trailhead to Saddle Mountain. Then 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 then hiked down into the canyon to a spot where Kenn had slept on his scouting trip. 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 there was a steady trickle of snow melt coming over the rocks, with which we re-filled our water bottles and made our camp for the night.
It was wide rock ledge, which dropped off some twenty-five to thirty feet on the 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 drop-off of about a hundred feet on the right.
Pretty risky with heavy packs. So we planned not to risk the section without setting up protection.
Because of my rock-climbing experience, I tied into the climbing rope, had Kenn belay me across the traverse, where I secured the free end of the rope.
Then it was easy. After securing each end of the rope, we each clipped a carabiner onto it, and made our way across.
When we were all across I returned to untie the other end of the rope and bring it all 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 the 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 days being so short at that time of year.
And before we realized it, we saw that we would be caught on the trail in dark if we continued.
We decided to make an emergency bivouac on a decent section on a point of land.
This required a careful inventory of our water. We hadn’t planned on another night on the trail.
We had barely enough. And now had to stringently ration our use. This caused a problem we had not anticipated.
Charley and Curtis had issues with one another. They each were accusing the other of “cheating” and taking more his share of the water.
It was the kind of crisis you read about in classic adventure stories. As foolish as it sounds, it did become serious.
It struck Kenn and me as a silly dispute, inasmuch as in the morning we had less than a half day’s hike to the creek where there were springs of pure, clear water.
And even if we had to go entirely without water for the entire morning, we would be safe for the weather was cool and our hike not that strenuous.
That didn’t stop the quarrel between Charley and Curtis.
When we finally reached the crystal clear creek Charley was so desperately frightened by our rationing our water, that he plopped down in the creek, filled his canteen and literally drank a couple of quarts of water, laughing crazily in panic release.
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 where we set up our next 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 where there are distinct remains of building foundations of in an ancient Native-American village
So enough delaying already! Day Nine!
Time to face the 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, tumultuous rapids?
We located the spot Stu told us was the best shot at it.
It took little more than an hour to find the spot. But dawdling to meticulously “do it right” took a full hour and a half, 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.
He had his pack with him just in case he was able to make it all the way across without mishap.
We tied an end of the climbing rope to the boat “just in case.”
Setting off from the riverbank was no problem.
The water at our launch point was gentle enough to Kenn to paddle upstream and out toward the fast 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.
Holding our breath as he headed out, into the fast water mid-stream.
The current immediately caught him and rapidly drew him down river!
Kenn bent his paddling cross-ways to the current. It was rapidly carrying him downstream.
For a few breathless moments we helplessly watched Kenn struggle to gain the calmer waters on the other side, which carried him into an upstream eddy on a back current and easily over to the other shore.
He got out, pulled it ashore, stood up and waved to us.
We whooped and hollered back and forth even though impossible to hear each other above the roar of the river.
With great relief now, we began ferrying us and our gear across.
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 ninth night’s camp.
Our next day we day-hiked up the Little Colorado to the Navajo Indian sacred site of the Sipipu, a hot spring which has built up a tower of travertine over which it flows into the Little Colorado.
We respectfully did not go near it. Took some pictures, had lunch and began a pleasant body float back down the Little Colorado to its emptying into the Colorado River.
We camped another day, then waded in thigh deep water across the Little Colorado.
We inspected the stone ruins of a tiny hut that had been inhabited by the nineteenth century prospector, Ben Beamer. And finally hiked on 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 camp.
This was the first night of inclement weather. The winds blew up 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 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 when the rain stopped that despite my sleeping bag getting soaked, it was completely dry by the time we got up.
After breakfast we climbed the rest of the Tanner out to our car at Lipan Point, where we’d left it parked for our return.
Thirteen days to complete a trek I recall with such strong affection.
We learned a great deal about backpacking in the canyon, that we knew better how to pack especially food and fuel for our next big trek, on which we had Stu come along to tell us about some of the more interesting biological and geology of the canyon.
This trek was going to be an 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 this trek in another post..
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