Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nankoweap & Little Colorado (Days 70-76)

Written 6/15/08

We awoke to a cold morning, and frozen beads of condensation on our bags. We ditched our layers and raingear, the extra clothing useless in the heat of the inner gorge. From our camp on the rim, we had a commanding view of the world below. The canyon walls fell away into a deep chasm of rock and stone. Teapot buttes and Hindu temples jutted up from the gorge, suspended in the middle ground between earth and sky. So much topography, so much terrain.

Nankoweap granaries

We began our descent down the infamous Nankoweap Trail, our route into the Canyon.  The trail dropped through the upper layers of limestone to the low ridgeline of Saddle Mountain.  We beat through thorny locust, and navigated slick patches of snow.  Snow in the canyon!  In June!  With every new bench, we dropped into new strata of vegetation.  The trail passed from ponderosa and manzanita, to open forest of pinyon and juniper. We tiptoed around lethally sharp agave – a single trip could easily impale.  They had recently put up massive 10-12ft stalks, bristling with small lemon yellow flowers, an impressive structural feat for such a small plant.  Black bumblebees buzzed from blossom to blossom; newly hatched cicadas sat drying their wings.

The views changed as we descended.  Perspective and scale were in constant flux as we passed through layer after layer.  I felt insignificant amidst the magnificence and grandeur, a lowly speck travelling through the rocky folds.  The trail wound across a sinuous bench, along the base of a cliff.  The route seemed to “slope off towards disaster”, where sections of the trail had broken away leaving little space between the wall and the gaping void.  Some definite sphincter-puckering.  Footing was treacherous below Tilted Mesa, where the trail was covered in loose pea gravel.   It felt like hiking in roller skates.   Thank goodness for the trekking poles.  We were much relieved to reach the cold flowing waters of the Colorado, the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Barrel cactus
Down in the gorge, our progress was slow, dictated by the movement of the sun.  Mornings began before dawn to beat the heat of the day.  We hurried to make early miles as we watched the sunlight inch down the face of the western wall.  We could feel our brains cooking in our skulls, as we hiked in a heat-induced drunken stupor.  When it got too hot to hike, we sought whatever shade we could find.  Daytime temperatures rose to 110F in the shade.  It was too hot to explore, too hot to write, too hot to sleep.  If we were close enough, there was solace by the river.  The Colorado, released from the confines of Glen Canyon Dam, stays a frigid 42F – just tolerable enough to dunk ourselves, before drying off on the hot sand.

We found ourselves drinking 2 gallons of water a day – and we were still dehydrated.  In these temperatures, our bodies couldn’t absorb water as fast as we were losing it.  In addition to dehydration, there is also a serious situation known as hyponatremia, caused by a sodium imbalance.  On our second day, Ben came down with a mild-case and was incapacitated for an evening.  Not a fun time to feel miserable.  It was an uphill struggle against the elements.

The route followed the west bank of the Colorado, bushwhacking through a difficult maze of Tamarisk and locust trees.  We ventured up to the famous Nankoweap granaries, perched hundreds of feet above the river.  I found it incredible to imagine that people actually lived down here.    A mix of game trails made the going easier, sometimes leading up the steep shale slopes, sometimes dropping down to the river.  We slogged across loose sandbars, recently deposited by the Glen Canyon Dam springtime release.  After the Colorado was dammed, the seasonal fluctuations in river levels ceased, which lead to eroded beaches and washed out dunes.  It was good to see the new management practices were having a positive effect.

Fording the Little Colorado River
We flagged down a passing private raft trip, and they were gracious enough to give us a ride across the river.  We soon reached the confluence with the Little Colorado River and its beautiful turquoise waters.  Travertine pools backed up behind natural dams caked with deposited layers of limestone, and small waterfalls poured over the marble terraces in pale cascades.  Fording was simple, and we managed to cross without difficulty.  The Little Colorado turned out to be a popular day trip for commercial raft trips.  From afar, we watched nearly 200 tourists march in misery to see the falls in the tormenting heat of the canyon.  All were on vacation, yet none seemed to be having a good time.  The poor souls.

The Beamer trail was a welcome change to the recent bushwhacking and route-finding.  We hiked along a high bench layer of Tapeats Sandstone, contouring in and out of hanging side canyons that poured off into thin air.  At times, the trail dropped off into the river several hundred feet below us into the dark green waters of the Colorado, directly beneath our feet.  From above, we could see the upwelling of silt and sand as the waters churned and mixed in the current.

We found solace down by the river at Cardenas Creek and Hance Rapids.  The Escalante route was a hands-on scramble up and down the bench layers and talus.  We shouldered our packs and left the cool confines and shadows of the river for the exposed and parched expanses of the Tonto Bench.  From up above, we had massive views of the undulating ridge of Palisades of the Desert and the river below.  We stumbled past gardens of prickly pear, as we peered over the edge into the gaping abyss of Granite Gorge.

Palisades of the Desert

Our bucket cache on Horseshoe Mesawas intact and waiting.  We passed the rusted remnants of early mining equipment.  I was dumbfounded how anyone thought it would be a good idea to haul ore and minerals out from the depths of the canyon.  At the edge of the bluff on the mesa point, we regained our bearings, and found ourselves seemingly suspended in the midst of the world, somewhere between rim and river, earth and sky.

Section mileage: ~51 miles

1 comment:

JDB said...

I have been reading all you posts at work today, trying to escape while in the office. What a fantastic journey! You're writing is so entertaining, the geological & historical descriptions really help bring the experience to life. More than anything, the description of the trail down into the Grand Canyon as “sphincter puckering" had me rolling on the floor. Keep on adventure-ing & thanks again for sharing your trip with everyone (even if it is years later).