There were more slides on the Hermit Trail than I cared to count. I actually did try to count them for awhile but decided to keep track of my foothold instead. I lost track at around the ninth slide—which was a big one. I heard myself groan as I climbed over the massive boulder field that constituted the slide. It cut off the trail at an almost-perfect perpendicular angle. The trail continued on the other side but my attention was to my left where everything dropped off into nothingness. The nothingness continued for about 1000 feet straight down where it ended in another boulder field. "It's all academic," I muttered to myself. "It would only take a fall of about twenty feet to kill me anyway. The rest just adds drama to the story." The next noise I made was another grunt as I safely landed on the other side of the slide.
It's always that way on Hermit Trail. You go along for awhile and then another slide greets you. But, this time it seemed worse. The recent monsoonal storms had made a mess of the trail. The big slides seemed pretty much like I remembered them but there were smaller, more annoying obstacles and debris fields that hadn't been there before. Old slides are always easier to deal with. The rocks are more firmly planted and more secure. New slides have looser rocks and lots of debris that make it seem like your hiking hiking on slippery, ball bearings. You just can't trust anything that you put your weight upon. I heard rocks go over the edge as I worked my way through the chaos. I counted how long it took before I heard them crash below. It mostly took a very long time.
The steep trail and its slides finally gave way to the gentle slope that marks the end of the Hermit Trail. We were soon at the junction of the Tonto Trail and the relatively level plateau that lends that trail its name. A spur trail led the way down to Hermit Creek. This would take us to Hermit Rapids on the Colorado River where we were scheduled to spend two nights. The creek trail is historic, one of the oldest paths leading to the river. The creek and trail cut through a spectacular, side canyon and promised to be the best part of the hike. But, recent events had made a mess of our plans, the trail, and the creek itself.
As we descended the very steep trail into the tributary canyon raindrops began to mark the boulders. It started gently as it often does. But the clouds overhead had grown heavy with the day and the inevitable finally happened. It poured. At creek level now, we could see that there had been a recent flash flood. The trail was mostly gone and there was debris everywhere. The plant debris was still green, telling us that the flood was very recent. We were forced to hike in the creek bed itself where slippery muck was everywhere.
I heard the curse echo through the canyon. Either Tom or Karl had just fallen in a spectacular way. I couldn't look up to tell, trying not to fall myself. I had to put my poncho on which further limited my field of vision.
"Goddamn it all!"
This time it was me. I tried to get out of the creek bed to safer and higher ground. The rock embedded in the creek-bed wall that I thought was secure was not. I tumbled into the water and fell on my back. Luckily my weight was distributed towards the rear where the padding of the pack softened my landing. The fall was more humiliating than anything else. Besides, I was more worried about another flash flood than I was my sorry ass. A bruise would be nothing compared to a hundred logs and boulders coming my way at the speed of a train. I just wanted to get to the rapids as fast as I could.
"Try to get to higher ground!" I heard myself say to my friends and myself. I was sweating profusely inside the rubber poncho. The rain was not letting up and neither was the hike. Each of us fell two more times, each time in a dramatic way. This was the worst stretch of hiking I could ever remember. I kept looking over my shoulder, looking for a wall of debris coming my way—not that I'd be able to avoid it if it were. More sweat dripped down my face and into my eyes. I prefer rain in my eyes—at least rain water doesn't sting the way sweat does.
Finally! I could hear the roar of the rapids. Finally! The chocolate-brown Colorado River was just ahead. I looked back once more towards the direction from where the flash flood might come. I laughed at it and then cursed it. I almost fell one more time as I stepped out of the creek bed and onto the beach. The rain stopped and the sky lightened. The rapids were so loud that we had to shout to hear one another. Noisy or quiet, the beach looked like a spot of heaven. It was a wet spot of heaven but the sun would make quick work of the moisture, if and when we ever saw it again. No matter, we were at Hermit Rapids for the next two nights. And I needed a rest.
To be continued…