Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hermit Trail blizzard

I will admit, prior to 2013, I had not done much hiking in the Grand Canyon.   A few little day hikes, some exploring of the Marble Canyon area, and that was about it.  My excuse for this shameful behavior was that it always seemed like simply too much of a hassle. Huge elevation changes, permit hassles, crowds of people. There were always other options that were more appealing.

However, several factors came together that started to change this perception. I was contemplating the possibility of moving to Colorado or somewhere else. I asked myself what would I regret if I left Arizona, and not hiking more in the Grand Canyon was the first answer to come to mind. More importantly, Todd Martin's book Grand Canyoneering was published, and it was a revelation. I had always enjoyed exploring slot canyons, especially multi-day ones like Wet Beaver or Tonto Creek where you could really immerse yourself in the canyon environment for days on end.  It was kind of a head-slapping "duh" moment to read through grand canyoneering and realize there were hundreds of multi-day canyon adventures, in one of the greatest parks in the world, right under my nose.  I started getting really excited reading up on how Todd and his hiking partners had used technical skills and packrafts to really open up the grand canyon backcountry.  I wanted in.  I decided it was time to get serious about the Grand Canyon.

I scheduled a hike with a meetup group as my first overnight foray into the canyon. The chosen trail would be the hermit trail. This was a perfect choice, as it was a scenic non-corridor hike, with a small slot section at the end. It was a nice sampler of what the Grand Canyon could offer, away from the main routes but still easy in terms of navigation and finding the way.  I started hiking up Camelback, and once Camelback closed for renovations, Squaw Peak, on an almost daily basis, building up fitness for those big ascents and descents.  In retrospect I overprepared for what was a relatively straightforward overnight, but it was great to get back into "trail shape" and have a body that was capable of chewing up the miles.

As the weekend approached, a winter storm rolled in.  Fortunately everyone in attendance was game to hike in the snow, so we piled into cars and headed up to Mather campground on Friday night.  It snowed all night and we woke to a winter wonderland.  A short drive over the hermit road and we headed down into the canyon.

Heading into a winter wonderland
The first thing you register when hiking the Grand Canyon, especially when you get away from the corridor, is the layers.  Like many, I had read the placards on the rim describing the different geological layers the canyon cuts through.  But the ground truth reality of those layers only really sinks in when you're trying to hike into the canyon.  From the rim, its just colors and stripes.  On the trail, however, each layer has its own character and implications.  Coconino sandstone means cliffs and big ascents and descents.  You've got to find a route through this layer or you risk getting cliffed out.  Supai sandstone means ledges and gradual descent.  You can contour for miles by using the Supai.  Redwall limestone means cliffs again, and if you're lucky, slot canyons.  Some of the best slot canyons in the Grand cut through the Redwall.  The geological layers become a giant puzzle that you're trying to figure out the best way to pass through.

Canyon layers

That sense of progress on an epic scale was exacerbated on this trip by the weather.  On the rim, we progressed through driving snow, that became hail, sleet, rain, and mist as we got lower and lower.  Fortunately, we had a group of good hikers, who smiled and laughed through the conditions rather than complaining.  This made a huge difference in how enjoyable the hike was. 

Epic Weather
Once we reach the Tonto Plateau and Hermit Camp, the trail dropped into a set of narrows.  This was the part I had been looking forward to the most, and it didn't disappoint. The slot section was brief, but extremely pretty, and all the more enjoyable by the fact it was surrounded by this vast wilderness.  If this was what grand canyoneering would be about, sign me up!

We ended the day camped along the Colorado River next to hermit rapids.  For all the epic conditions on the descent, the weather along the river was pleasant and mild.  

The climb out the next day turned out to be no problem.  It was a long climb out, but not a big deal with all the prep I had done.  Each person headed up at their own pace, and as a consequence I had some nice solitude all the way up.  The snow came back in full force as I got to the Supai layer, and by the time I reached the rim it was a full-blown blizzard.  We crawled back to Phoenix that night at a snail's pace, but got home safely.  All in all, an amazing introduction to Grand Canyon hiking!

Worth the effort

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