Cratering – Rim

Part 1 / Day 1

My knees buckled under the weight of my pack when I hoisted it on my back, it felt like the joints were being crushed and compressed. I had never carried that much weight before. Jeremy and I had spent the previous night dividing two weeks worth of gear, fuel and food between us as well as 8-10 liters of water each to last us the first two days until we reached a reliable water source – we estimated the resulting pack weight to be around 90 pounds.

It was too late for second thoughts or to back out now. Jeremy’s friend had left after dropping us off at the remote trailhead located over 30 miles on rough dirt roads outside the Park boundary. It was a cold crisp January morning and the canyon had snow in the upper elevations so we had to descend carefully. We did not come across any footprints in the snow as we descended, it was just me and Jeremy in this remote part of the Grand Canyon. If anything happened, one of us would have to make our way out to get help, and help was far away.

The original plan was to do the Gems route, a remote waterless traverse of the Tonto plateau through canyons with names like Ruby, Turquoise, Sapphire. The ideal window was late Winter while the snow was melting so there was a chance of finding seasonal water in potholes or springs in the lower elevations before they evaporated or dried up. This was the route that fired my imagination when Eb pointed it out to me as we were exiting Hermit-Boucher 15 years ago. I had long written it off as an unfulfillable dream as it was too remote and chancy for a commercially guided trip and the logistics were staggering for a solo trip.

After I returned from the Thunder River guided trip in May, I started dreaming about the Gems route again and I spent hours searching online for photos and trip descriptions from those who had done it. I eventually decided that though the chances of me doing the Gems route end were close to none, I had seen it from the Boucher end, it was enough if I could see it from the South Bass end as well and I could put the dream to rest. Having researched the Thunder River trip, I knew all the outfitter and guided trips into the Grand Canyon so I was astonished when my search query a few months later turned up a trip route I had never encountered before – a rim to rim trip in October via the remote historic North Bass and South Bass trails instead of the corridor North Kaibab-Bright Angel trails. I was excited, this was my chance to see the South Bass end of the Gems route and signed up. Still I had my reservations, my group hiking experience on the Thunder River trip in May still rankled, and instead of crossing the Colorado via footbridge like the North Kaibab-Bright Angel, we had to cross the river by floating across (and avoiding rapids) except instead of a ferry in historic times it would be a packraft (paddles and life vest) we had to pack in, inflate, paddle across, and pack out.

Jeremy was the guide for the North Bass-South Bass rim-to-rim trip and as we settled in for our first night on the rim, he asked the group members why they selected this trip. Everyone said they were excited to be the first to packraft across the Colorado (which was news to me) and the bragging rights to recreate a historic rim-to-rim route. “Umm, I just wanted to catch a glimpse of the Gems route” when it came to my turn. I stole off to watch the sun set over the canyon while everyone continued chatting around the camp site. Months later, Jeremy would tell me he recognized in me a kindred spirit that shared his love for the canyon because I had the same “stupid look on my face” that he had gazing at the canyon. Ah, that was why he allowed me to stay behind in camp on the fourth day after crossing the Colorado so I could have much needed alone time with the canyon while the group spent the day packrafting across calm stretches of the river. It was also why he invited me to join him on this two week expedition; it was not like we became friends during the rim-to-rim trip and had made plans, I had kept to myself throughout the trip and the only other time the Gems route was brought up was when Jeremy mentioned he had attempted it before with his friend, but he did not get to enjoy it because his friend got sick early on and he was in rescue mode. And me without any expectations said “Well, whenever you are planning to attempt the Gems route again and need a hiking partner, please let me know.”

A few months after that rim-to-rim trip, I found myself again at the South Bass trailhead, but instead of being the terminus of a trip like the last time, it was the beginning of an expedition. When Jeremy contacted me confirming the permit itinerary, I was freaked out when he said he decided to chain the Royal Arch Loop and the Gems route together into a two week expedition. These were the two most difficult and remote South Rim routes each with different challenges that stacked together seemed overwhelming – negotiating and climbing narrow ledges, bouldering, route finding, searching for water and a 20 foot rappel which we were going to attempt to downclimb. I began training by walking 8km every day from the office to home, and on weekends I would load up a daypack with 50lbs of dumbbells and water bottles and walk 10km of the Humber river valley vacillating between uncertainty and resolve.

I descended the South Bass gingerly, trying not to lose my balance on the slippery snow and ice that covered the trail, made more challenging by the unaccustomed heavy packweight and center of gravity. Sometime after the earlier Grand Canyon trip where I’d busted my leg, my right ankle began rolling over randomly even on flat sidewalks causing a shock from pain and suddenly losing my balance. It worsened despite visits to the chiropractor and physiotherapy sessions and I set off on this two week expedition keenly aware of my limitations and tried my best to compensate by being extra conscious of each step and taping up my foot and ankle to the hilt to keep it rigid.

Within the first mile of the descent that ankle suddenly rolled over while I was negotiating my way down a steep incline of slickrock, it rolled over at such an extreme angle and the accompanying pain was so sharp and excruciating that I lost strength in my legs and was instantly keeled down by my pack. After the shock wore off and my breathing stabilized, I took off my boot, sock and tape and examined my ankle. Despite the persistent radiating pain, thankfully I did not break the ankle but the tendons were compromised, I had to be careful not to put too much weight on it, and be careful where I stepped because the pain prevented me from feeling what was underfoot. I re-taped and reinforced the ankle and carefully continued my descent, making sure to favor the right foot which was now limping. I did not know then it would be the first of four trials on my first day.

Jeremy was waiting for me at the cairned intersection where the South Bass trail met the Esplanade where the Royal Arch route began, from here on it was no longer a trail but a route, meaning the way forward was no longer well defined but occasionally marked by cairns. I suggested setting our own paces (similar to the dynamic Eb and I had) vs. hiking together all the time because Jeremy was not acting as my guide for the trip and I knew we both want the space to have the canyon to ourselves, plus given the state of my ankle I would not be able to sustain a constant pace. Especially Jeremy’s pace from my experience on the rim-to-rim packraft trip he guided; even Sara, a fellow trip member, a tough and badass female wildfire firefighter used to hauling it over rough terrain had trouble keeping up to Jeremy once he locks into a pace where gets into a zone – she nicknamed him “the alien”.

Traversing cliff bands and ledges

As Jeremy and I contoured around the Supai cliff bands and ledges we would chat if we happened to be within earshot, sometimes I would pass him when he took a break, other times he would breeze on ahead when I stopped to take photos and take in the canyon. My second trial occurred in the head of one of those side drainages where the ledges narrow and the cliffs become sheer. This one had a spring that flowed across it which had frozen into an icefall where it plunged off the ledge. I reminded myself to be careful crossing the icy sheet because it would be slippery yet it was my very first step that slipped causing me to slide feet first over the ice, over the top of the icefall. As my body shot over the ledge, my fingers managed to grab onto the edge of a small boulder atop the icefall which miraculously stopped me from going over. I hung there for what seemed like eternity, my chest against the icy ledge, my hands an awkward angle above my head gripping to the grainy edges of the boulder, the rest of my body dangling over a cliff over a hundred feet. When I stopped gasping and got my voice back, I called for help a few times but Jeremy was too far ahead by that point to hear. I could not hang there indefinitely in the event he wondered what happened to me and decided to backtrack. I never had much upper body strength and sucked at pull ups, plus I was carrying an extra 90 pounds; I had to try before my strength gave up or before the boulder got dislodged. All I remember was the ice against my face as I somehow managed to haul myself up far enough to roll the rest of my body onto the ledge. I laid there on the icy ledge motionless until my breathing and strength gradually returned. My hands were scratched and bleeding from desperately seeking additional holds on the boulder. Grasping the boulder, I managed to sit up and work my way away from the edge. I slowly got up, crossed the ice sheet and continued on my way.

There is a gap in the photographic record of the expedition, the photos of the first day stopped at that point as I lost a lot of time; I had to pick up the pace and could not pause to take photos. I eventually caught up with Jeremy who had stopped for a lunch break. “What took you so long?” he enquired “Oh I stopped to take photos” I lied and pretty much collapsed on the spot. I sat there for a while after Jeremy picked up and left, partly to rest my ankle but also ponder why I was not afraid of death when I was dangling over the icefall. Had I internalized the inevitability of death? Did I not care because I could not forsee a future? It was certainly not because I lived a life without regrets; was there something I wanted to do and accomplish in order to have no regrets?

My third trial occurred traversing the scree slope below Toltec point. Breaks in the cliff bands like these are special places in the Grand Canyon as they provide the means to descend or ascend to a different cliff band. On my first try I spotted a route across but realized I made a mistake when I got to the other side, the ledge I ended up on was impassable. I backtracked to the start and tried again, this time aiming for the cliff band at approximately the same elevation, nope. Perhaps it was the one higher up, nope also impassable. Perhaps it was the one lower down, nope no indication of foot traffic from the overgrown vegetation. Try as I might I could not see a cairn on the other side indicating which cliff band I should connect with. I returned to the start again and worked my way to where I lost sight of the cairns a third of the way across. From that point I searched for a cairn and worked my way towards it. The problem was everything looked like a cairn on a scree slope especially at that point when the rocks were evenly-sized. As I tried again and again and failing, my mind started playing tricks on me and second guessing which mound of stones might be man-made vs. natural. The brilliant afternoon sun reflected off the off-white limestone scree not only hurt my eyes (which are sensitive to light due to glaucoma), it also eliminated shadows which made it difficult to discern shapes and potential cairns. If this were a Hollywood movie, my many attempts would be a heroic montage of struggling and sweating set to rousing music, but the reality was it was draining and demoralizing. Since my eyes were no longer a reliable indicator, I tried testing the compactness of the scree underfoot as a gauge for potential route across to no avail, constantly falling when I contacted slippery loose scree especially on my bad ankle. I was exhausted and climbed high up on the scree slope that was shaded by the cliff shadow to rest and drink and take stock. I had spent 45 minutes trying to cross and failed plus I had pretty much used up the first day’s water ration, things were not looking good. As I sat there scanning the cliffs and scree debating what to do next, I spotted what looked like a semi-circular imprint of bare red sandstone in a patch of snow atop an improbable looking ledge (it seemed too thin to support weight from my perspective) a ways down from where I was. That could be made by the heel of a shoe, or it could be another false lead. I weighted the effort needed to get down to that ledge, and the effort it would take to climb back to my starting point (where I lost sight of the cairns) if it turned out to be another false lead back and forth until I decided it was my best chance for now, however unlikely. I made my way down and examined the impression in the snow. It looked like It was made by a heel of a shoe probably, even if it was I could not be certain it was Jeremy’s shoe print. Nevertheless the way forward looked passable so I decided to press forward. I progressed further and further with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I exhaled a sigh of relief when I eventually came across a cairn, I’d finally connected to the correct cliff band, I was back on route.

Jeremy was waiting at the top of a drainage. “What took you so long? I was waiting for over an hour”

“Sorry, I was tired” I panted, I had pushed myself into a faster pace to make up for lost time.

“We’re going to go down this drainage, connect to a side drainage and continue till we reach a plateau where we will camp tonight.”

“You go ahead, I’m going to rest for a bit and catch up” I said and dropped my 80 plus pound pack (minus water I had consumed). I was still somewhat shaken after my three trials and had kept pushing forward to make up for lost time as the sun sets early in winter and in the canyon. I felt I needed to pause to regroup to gather my mental and physical energies – I did not know then that decision would set me up for my fourth trial.

It was still light when I picked myself up to continue, the sun was not going to set for a while. Feeling pretty good, I made my way down the drainage and picked up a side drainage that seemed to be the route. As I hiked, it gradually became clear I was on the wrong side drainage and was possibly following an animal trail, it was unlikely to plateau out. I backtracked to the main drainage, I hiked further down and picked up what I thought was a cairned side drainage but as I went further the scrub became impenetrable; once again I backtracked to the main drainage and tried another side drainage further down, still no dice. I tried and tried again and kept failing to find the correct side drainage, by this time I was at the terminus of the main drainage and found myself staring down a 200 foot cliff drop. There was a wide shelf that connected to it which seemed the most probable candidate for something leading to a plateau which I followed for a while. It was now starting to get dark and the temperature was dropping. Jeremy had the tent in his pack, I had the ground sheet and poles. Jeremy had the stove so the food and fuel I was carrying was useless. I only had the next day’s ration of water and snack bars, It would be a difficult night if I could not get to where Jeremy was and forced to make emergency camp. I was spent and contemplated camping on the shelf but the wind blowing up the cliff walls made me decide to backtrack up the main drainage to find a more sheltered spot. Dusk fell as I stumbled up the main drainage, my eyes were playing tricks on me in the dim light. Then I spotted what looked like a small fern stuck in some small stones on the floor of the drainage. I stopped and examined it, could this be a sign? I looked up and saw a side drainage I had never ventured in before, or perhaps I had ventured in but not far enough. I decided to take my chances, I dug out my headlamp from my pack and forged ahead. Progress was slow hiking in the light of the headlamp, but at least there was progress. Since this was a route and not a defined trail I had to scan the area illuminated by the headlamp and second guess which was the way forward.

A half moon rose, and I was no longer caught by tight beam of my headlamp. The moonlight cast shadows, and I could make out the shape of the terrain, the outlines of boulders and vegetation. I turned off my headlamp and as my eyes adjusted, I could make out faintly what was underfoot. I began to stride in the moon light, and my pace quickened as I began to spot hints of previous travel at random intervals, shadow of disturbed vegetation, drag marks of displaced rock, part of a shoeprint reflected off a patch of snow, until I felt like I was flying; I no longer felt the cold night air and my frozen hands and painful feet, I was one with the canyon, with the moon light, I was in awe of where I was and what I managed to do. Suddenly the shadows parted as if I had burst forth, up ahead was a plateau beneath a wall of cliffs illuminated by the half moon and the stars. And in the midst was a small flickering light, it had to be Jeremy’s headlamp.

When I reached Jeremy, we did not say a word to each other. We were in survival mode; quickly emptying the contents of our packs to sort out our shelter and food. Jeremy got the stove going for dinner, while I set up our tent and water rations. The feeling of flying was gone, the cold, pain, and hunger overtook me.

“What happened to you? I was thinking I had to go back and look for you in the morning” Jeremy asked as we ate.

“I got lost in the wrong side drainage.”

“I plucked a leaf and stuck it in some stones, I thought you would see it”

“I saw it, eventually”

I did not tell Jeremy what had transpired, actually I have not told anyone. Sustaining an ankle injury early on, almost slipping over an icefall and hanging on, getting lost and battered finding the route across the scree slope, getting lost in multiple side drainages and route finding in the moonlight; I have kept it to myself for the past 10 years. After we ate and cleaned up, we crawled into the tent and into our sleeping bags. I was tired but my mind kept returning to the trials of the day. Jeremy was fast asleep. I stayed awake by the light of the half moon until dawn. I sat up, reached for my notebook and jotted down what had happened. On the previous page I had made a note “7th day CNY”; that’s right, the start of the expedition coincided with the 7th day of Chinese New Year, the day traditionally where everyone is thought to become a year older and wiser. Given my four trials, I can honestly say I did. I wondered what new trials and lessons awaited me the rest of the trip.