A Grand Trip to a Grand Canyon

Trip Start May 09, 2009
Trip End May 27, 2010

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In the Canyon!

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Friday, March 26, 2010

This posting and pictures are not as timely as the others….Pam is obviously much better at cataloging our joint adventures. (I still have not written up or posted pictures from my Mt. Hood backpack trip, way back in Sept 2009!). However, while she was off enjoying the resort life in Sedona with Emily, Pat and Carol, I, along with three friends from back east, had our own adventures backpacking in the Grand Canyon.

The logistics for this trip were a little more complicated than our normal annual backpack adventure, that is, getting all the gear and guys out to Phoenix, but it all came together, with John Foster, Dave Brussee and Mike Hartley all arriving at PHX within a couple of hours of each other. While John and Dave have made a dozen or more trips into the Canyon, this would only be my second trip down the bottom, and for Mike, his first and a long awaited check off on his life list.

The drive into the South Bass trailhead was, quite fortunately, very easy and uneventful. The dirt and rocky road that turns west to the trail head, just north of Tusayan, can be difficult during or following bad weather. However, we found it to be dry and relatively smooth for most of the drive in. (On a prior trip, we had been unable to get to the South Bass trailhead, and had to get an alternate itinerary from the GC backcountry office).

The Bass Trail is named for William W. Bass. He was one of the most noteworthy of the early pioneers that came to the rim of Grand Canyon in the 1880s to carve a life and a lifestyle from the wilderness. He spent more than 40 years living in and around the canyon, constructing many miles of trails that are still walked by hikers today.

With the easy drive in, we were able to get an earlier than anticipated start, heading down the trail well before noon. The conditions were nearly perfect for hiking, not too cold, with clear skies.

The first day would play out to be the toughest grind on our aging knees. The South Bass trailhead is at an elevation of 6646 feet, and eventually drops to 2200 feet at the Colorado River. Since we planned our returning climb out to be split over two days, our last camp would be on the dry Esplanade. Therefore, we carried an extra cache of water down the first mile and a half and a drop of 1200 vertical feet. In addition, during this first leg, we also encountered more than a few patches of snow still lying across the trail. With the extra water, we all estimated our packs to be well over 50lbs at the trailhead. Needless to say, we were happy to make it to the Esplanade, and to jettison and cache the extra water. However, we still had hours, and miles to go, descending through the Supi and Redwall formations, before making our first camp in the general vicinity of the Tonto Trail junction. The descent through the Redwall is relatively steep, looking back from whence we came; it was hard to discern where a trail would even exist.

By the time we set-up our first camp, we were all pretty beat, and sore. Fortunately, we found a small tank of water in the bedrock just off the trail and did not have to spend time venturing further downstream for a water source. Drinks and dinner revived our weary knees and feet…to a point. We still had several more miles and another 1000 feet or so to get down to the South Bass beach at the Colorado.

The next day was another perfect hiking day and we were buoyed by the fact that we would see the Colorado within an hour or two at the most. During the final decent to the South Bass beach, there is an old boat chained to the rocks above the high water line. Abandoned in 1915, the Ross Wheeler was built by Bert Loper, the grand old man of Colorado River runners, and named for a murdered friend. Loper died a romantic death in 1949 during a Grand Canyon river trip, suffering a heart attack at age 79 while at the oars of a Colorado River cataract boat. His remains were not recovered until 1975, 26 years after his death.

We set up camp just above the high-water line. The Colorado was running fast and muddy, about the color of milk chocolate. We decided to spend two nights at this camp, and take a day off for hoisting our heavy packs. Dave, John and I did a day hike over to Copper Canyon, where we saw rafters headed downstream. Mike stayed in camp, hoping a day of rest would revive a sore knee.

An interesting phenomenon occurred in the evenings as we sat around the pools of fresh water formed by the drainage from Bass Canyon. Just before dusk, we would begin to hear the croaking and calling of frogs, from the brush and walls above us. This was apparently the start of an amphibious mating orgy. As daylight diminished, we could begin seeing the walls come alive, as dozens of frogs began making their way down to the pools of water. Sometime during the night, they would make their way back into hiding in their higher and drier daytime environs, and noisily return to their watery playgrounds the next evening. With no campfires allowed in the Canyon, this provided some of our entertainment for the evening.

Upon breaking camp the next morning, one of my two tent poles snapped, so Mike and I had to jerry-rig a fix, with an extra stake and ever useful duct tape. We hoped for (and got) good weather the rest of the trip as the fix left the tent pretty vulnerable to wind or rain.

Mike's knee appeared to be fully recovered, so on Day 4 we set off across the Tonto Trail toward Serpentine Canyon. This was the hottest day of the trip, by far, especially given the total lack of shade on the Tonto. Once at Serpentine, we set up camp on the ledges near the head of the canyon and a good water source.

The next day was perfect for hiking all the way down Serpentine Canyon, to its outlet at the Colorado. The roar of the river, combined with the rush of the wind down the main canyon made for awesome sights and sounds. We again saw a few rafters come by and shoot the rapids -- although this time we were at their level rather than looking down from higher ground.

From Serpentine Canyon, we started to make our way back to the South Bass Trailhead, the first leg taking us back to our original campsite for day one. Our final camp was spent on the Esplanade where we found our water cache intact and clear, wide open skies for one last starry night in the canyon.
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