Monsoon Hiking in Grand Canyon
The first afternoon and early evening on the South Rim was tempestuous. The Arizona skies were heavy and swirling. This is never a good sign in the monsoon season of early September, especially for a hiker about to descend into the enormous gash that is Grand Canyon. When stimulated, monsoon season means a heavy diet of rain, wind, thunder, and lightning. It means clear skies that turn to into an apocalyptic fury that can curdle the blood of the most fearless of campers. One look at the sky upon our arrival and I knew it was going to be an interesting week.
The sky turned from gray to almost black. Thunder rolled around the canyon as if it were the sound of a gargantuan boulder on the loose. Behind it came terrible bolts of lightning and then curtains and curtains of rain. The roads and gullies flash flooded and turned to muddy rivers. All this was happening on the gentle rim in the park's developed village. I imagined what it was like down there, down deep into the canyon itself. Soon I'd be there with nothing but a poncho to protect me. My futile hope was that it would all blow through and the morning would greet us with sunshine and chirping birds. But, deep inside I knew better. Monsoon season isn't like that.
The rain was getting heavier and heavier. For the first time ever I thought I might leave my camera at the rim, safe and dry inside the truck of our car. But hiking without the camera seemed unthinkable even if it might suffer some damage in the process. Cameras are meant to be used not coddled. No photographer ever made a great image by playing it safe. The idea quickly passed. At this point I just wanted the lightning to stop. It didn't.
And so it was on the night of our arrival. Anticipation is always thick on any night before a canyon hike. Seeing the monsoon season agitated and in full force only added to the drama. There was nothing to be done, the wheels were in motion, the hike was going to happen. The camera was going to get wet and I'd need to somehow protect it while still using it. The other side of monsoon is its dramatic beauty and I would be presented with photo opportunities like no other. Leave the camera at the rim? Not a chance.
The rain gave way to a stunning sunset. The trees dripped and glistened in the waning light. After retreating to my cabin on the rim I unpacked my pack to make sure everything was set and in its place. I filled my water containers. I made certain that my green poncho was accessible in an instant. A backpack is like a booster rocket, heaviest at the departure point of the voyage. I lifted the water-heavy pack and groaned. It seemed so light just moments before the water was added. I groaned again as I propped the pack against the wall.
I tried to sleep, trying to ignore the sounds of rodents scurrying inside the walls. The air was uncharacteristically humid and still. I tossed and turned to visions of steep and rocky trails. Rodents and trails…rodents and trails…rodents and trails. The repetition started to drive me mad but was suddenly broken by another sound. The rain had started again and was pounding the roof. I sat up, shook my head and plopped back down again. Rain, rodents, and trails…rain, rodents and trails…
Knock! Knock! Knock!
It was time. Karl and Tom were outside my door, whispering and restless. I went through my mental list one more time before I opened the door.
"I'm ready," I said as the door squeaked open, only half believing myself. The truth is that I'm never quite ready for the canyon's depths at 6:00 AM. "How's the weather?" I asked as I poked my head out the door.
The sky was mostly clear but there were a few clouds. This was not good news. You never, ever want to see morning clouds during monsoon season. Those gentle wisps are the seed clouds that gather evaporated moisture throughout the day only to throw it back down at you in the afternoon. It's a furious cycle. The clouds start out mild and innocent but then grow and grow and get darker and darker. They get so heavy that they can no longer hold their moisture. So they start to grow long tails of rain that stretch to the ground. These are the violent storms that thrash the canyon and anyone silly enough to be in it at the time. The growing storms grumble and mumble and throw forks of electricity at you. They come at you like an oncoming train in a tunnel, seemingly tracking you like a cougar does his prey. No, I never do like to see any clouds in the morning during monsoon season in Arizona.
I went back inside and groaned as I lifted my pack. It felt like a hundred pounds. Loading the vehicles and then closing the cabin door, I knew I was quickly reaching the point of no return. Each action brought me closer to the canyon I love but it also meant both mental and physical challenges, something that I'd rather not face at the crack of dawn. The pack felt heavier every time I lifted it. I stared up at the clouds hoping to intimidate them and chase them away. All it did was give me a stiff neck. The clouds were undaunted. I got into the truck and sighed. Cloud or no clouds, we were off and on our way.
Hermit's Rest, at the trail head of the Hermit Trail, is a gentle place, newly renovated by the Park Service. It seems like a nice spot for a lazy picnic. But, our stay would be brief, just long enough to park the truck and mount the packs onto our backs. No picnics today. No, on this day we wore the grimaced faces of men who are serious. No time for fun and games—there were canyons to conquered, mettle to be tested. We had morphed into alpha males on the move, sweating already on this uncommonly humid morning. Packs were mounted and we were already making the first steps downward.
The Hermit Trail was once the premier trail on the South Rim. Constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1912, it was later abandoned in 1931 when the now-famous Corridor trails were built. The Park Service does not maintain the trail but the remnants of paving and fine trail construction still exist in the upper parts of the route. It's all rather seductive. The beginnings of the trail are quite civilized as one is lured down and down and down. Just about at the point where you wouldn't want to turn back, it all changes. It is then that you reach the first of many rock slides that have long ago obliterated the trail. That's when you know that the Hermit means business.
We'd been down this trail before so we weren't fooled by the paving and fine stonework of the first stretch. But the trail got rougher and rougher as we descended. Either our memories had softened the experience or the Hermit Trail had gotten decidedly worse in the past year. This monsoon season had already been a rough one and it seemed to have taken its fury out on the Hermit. We started to count the rock slides as we climbed over them. We lost count quickly. And we were getting too tired to play games. The boulders seemed to be growing bigger as we descended down, through many rough miles. Something else was growing as well. I looked up and saw dark clouds coming right at us. The drama of the day was intensifying with each moment. The canyon is never boring and it wouldn't be on this day.
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.
Hermit Rapids was right there, close enough to feel the spray of its froth. We walked along the sandy beach of the Colorado River. The river was roaring, churning and angry—looking more like boiling milk chocolate than water. Our packs and clothes were heavy with sweat and rainwater though my spirit had lightened considerably since leaving Hermit Creek Canyon. I'd been all but certain that a river of boulders, trees, and mud would have buried me alive back there. But all the mud did was benignly attach itself to just about every part of me and my belongings. Even my camera was covered with muck due to the third and last somersault I'd taken just moments before.
Ahead, a group of rafters had gathered at river's edge, eying the rapids and planning a strategy to run them. Every one of them just stood there, staring at the fury, mesmerized by the roar. I, in turn, stared at them, wondering what it might be like to ride those rapids in a small, rubber raft. No, I was wet enough already and felt satiated by the met challenges of the day. Being bounced around like a fisherman's bobber in a jacuzzi was utterly unappealing to me. Standing in the trickling creek was as close as I wanted to get to live, river action. The rafters remained for a few more minutes and then disappeared into the brush. I assumed that we'd see them again in their boats, on the river itself.
We quickly set up the tent nearby in the soggy sand. Everything around us was wet and it would surely rain again soon. But, as the sun peeked out from its monsoon exile, all the puddles turned to mist right before our eyes. The canyon was transforming itself yet again, this time into a rocky, steam bath. It felt a little like heaven and hell all at the same time. I wiped the slimy clay off of my sunglasses and lifted them to my face. Someone was saying something to me but the roar of the river was all I could discern. I was muttering again to myself anyway, something I do with alarming regularity in the canyon.
A rainbow appeared in a gap in the inner gorge of ancient rocks. While we waited for the rafters to appear on the rapids we took advantage of the golden, afternoon sun. The innards of our backpacks and our wet clothes were spread out everywhere to air out and dry. Camp was shaping up nicely as we rolled out our sleeping bags and blew up our air mattresses. It would be a lazy two days before we'd stuff it all back in the packs and begin the long ascent back to the rim. For now, there was nothing to do but be present in the bottom of the world's greatest canyon.
I settled into the tent for to rest my bones and to clean my camera when I heard the yelps and hollers of the rafters. I ran out to watch them ride the rapids. The water tilted them up at frightening angles and then swallowed them again just as quickly. They all wore the smiles of mad daredevils, smiles as wide as their heads. The hollers were amplified by more boats and then more again. A dozen went by in quick succession. Once past the rapids they all rested and then floated lazily downstream, disappearing slowly and quietly around the bend. Soon we were alone in the canyon as the sun sank lower and lower, casting golden light and deep shadows everywhere on the beach.
Maybe this was a good sign for the rest of the trip. Maybe the tempestuous weather had broken and we would enjoy this warm sun for the rest of our trip. Tomorrow would be a day of rest and it would be nice to spend it in sunshine. But the sky still had some clouds and that meant all bets were off. We put the rain cover over the tent just in case. There would be no stargazing tonight, just watchful eyes and restless sleep.
The night always comes early to the inner gorge, with little else to do but make dinner and go to sleep once it gets dark. We lit our small stoves to boil our water. The day's end came with the disappearance of the rainbow and the setting of the sun. Our first day was now over and our first night had begun.
It takes at least two days for me to detach my brain and soul from our wired world. The first night in the canyon is often one of withdrawal. There are no distractions, no phones, no Internet, no books, no television, no nothing. There's only everything that the heavens have to offer—that is if the night is clear. On this first canyon night it wasn't. But the full moon was glowing and trying to assert itself behind an eerie and stubborn mist.
The air was unusually heavy and wet as the moisture from the monsoons tried to evaporate and rise. The three of us were packed inside our small tent that was sealed against further downpours that the night might bring. I struggled to find comfort, only able to sleep on my one side, facing the wall of the tent. I dozed off but awoke an hour later, barely able to breathe. Claustrophobia hit me hard! I felt that if I remained in the tent that I'd surely die. I started to panic and then threw myself, my sleeping bag, and air mattress onto the sand. I bounced as the mattress hit the beach but the relief was immediate.
Now it was just the sky, the moon, and me…and maybe about a million nighttime critters. But, I'd rather have just about anything crawl on me or bite me or eat me than remain in that tent. And the roar of the rapids kept me from hearing anything that might go bump in the night. So, I drifted off, dreaming of scorpions, red ants, and tarantulas. Every so often the dreams became too vivid and I awoke to brush myself off of the imaginary creatures. I looked up to notice how far the moon had glided across the sky, realized that all my extremities were intact, and then I slept again for another hour or so.
Morning rain awoke me. It was time for breakfast anyway. I scurried back into the tent and waited for the shower to end. The sun emerged and rose and dried out the land once again. Then the long day grew hot as we watched the shadows shrink to nothing and then grow again in the opposite direction. More rafters came and went as the day drifted by. It got hotter and hotter and then a cloud came along to give us some relief. Then came another cloud which merged into the first one. And then there was a third. That's when it all began.
A flash of lightning! A rumble in the distance turned into an enormous and sustained crash of thunder that went from one end of the canyon to the other. Day turned immediately to night until more bolts of lightning were thrown across the sky. The whole, damned thing culminated with a downpour so furious that we scurried to the tent like little rodents being chased by a fox. The tent swayed and bent and bowed as the rain pounded the little refuge. It glowed from the illumination of yet more lightning. Breathing hard, we made several videos so that we might remember our terror. The wind lifted the tent and strained its moorings but the tent was brave and the tent held. And then the rain ended as quickly as it had started. One last grumble from the heavens was given and then it was all over.
We poked our heads out of our rabbit hole and slowly emerged. The rapids were roaring even louder but were now accompanied by a secondary roar coming from our right side as we looked at the river. This ancillary roar grew in amplitude until it could not be ignored. Looking out towards the river in that direction we saw new rapids being formed. It was the creek gone wild!
We ran to the creek and when we got there our jaws dropped in amazement. Only an hour before we'd collected water at this spot as the creek lazily provided us with clear drinking and cooking water. That would no longer be possible. The trickling creek was now a raging, muddy river, rivaling the Colorado itself in fury and power. However, its color was now much darker in color, carrying all the mud that the canyon could offer. I gulped, realizing that less than 24 hours before I'd hiked this very creek in similar weather. The flash flood made me feel insignificant to the powers that were before me. I was, at that moment, as powerless as a bug on the windshield of a car. And I would have looked just as bad that squashed bug had the creek flashed out just one day before.
I shook my head as we returned to our little tent. I sat on a rock and looked out at the river. I'd known about Arizona's monsoon season since I was a kid. I'd seen all that…or so I'd thought. No, this was different. We'd just dodged a bullet. Our date with the ultimate destiny had been awfully close. And I was now thinking that maybe I'd stay away from this blasted place during monsoon season—at least for awhile.
The second night at Hermit Rapids was way more restful than the first. My brain was slowing down and acclimating to the natural stimulation and cadence of the canyon. I was getting used to living the nomad life in a tent. The weather was still unsettled so the tent cover was still on during the second night but we'd figured out a way to get fresh air circulating while we slept. I drifted off effortlessly.
A good night's sleep pretty much mitigates the impact most of life's issues. I awoke optimistic and ready for the day's challenge. The third day in the canyon would mark the beginning of the long hike back to the rim. We'd be taking the circuitous way. We'd hike a loop that stopped at two camps along the Tonto and Boucher trails rather than going straight back up the Hermit Trail. But first we'd be heading back up the Hermit Creek section of the Hermit Trail which was a raging river only the day before. It was the only way out. And we had no idea in what the shape of the trail would be, or if there'd even be a trail at all.
The margin of error in Grand Canyon is very small. Every set of circumstances presents dilemmas to be worked through. Normally, September canyon hiking means dealing with and managing heat and hydration. This year the weather was cool and water plentiful but there's always the downside to any canyon meteorology. Storms were washing out the trails most everywhere. That meant that a successful and brisk hike could skid to a halt at any moment. A trail might be lost or a mess of boulders and debris might block it off entirely. All of our trails would be narrow and precarious to start with—they were all wilderness trails on the edge of the abyss. The unknown trail conditions added another element to the adventure.
We loaded everything up and donned our packs. We made a few parting photos like astronauts leaving the moon. The trail out of the creek's canyon was a mess with scary high-water marks proving how precarious these streams are during monsoon season. Debris and muck were everywhere but the skies were dry and soon we were out to the junction of the Tonto Trail. The relief was palpable.
The Tonto Trail meanders along the Tonto Platform which is the one, relatively flat and wide formation of the canyon. Some 70 miles long, it is the longest trail in the canyon. Covered in green, broken shale, the platform follows the course of the river and sits above the plunging cut of the inner gorge. The Tonto Trail is where the entire canyon reveals itself. It is where this enormous container of space and time can be seen for its grandness, all while you're being contained by it. Because of this, the Tonto is my favorite trail. Its majesty has moved me to tears more than once.
But, I'd never been on this section of the Tonto Trail before. The trail here takes hikers to the very edge of the inner gorge—it's a spectacular, breathtaking, and precarious route. As we approached this section the sky grew dark yet again. The weather routine was, by now, familiar. The clouds grew on the plateau above and then moved in on us. Then came the thunder and lightning and then came the downpour. This made our tiptoe on the precipice of the inner gorge all the more dramatic.
We could now see Hermit Rapids far below but could hardly admire the view. The rain was coming down in sheets. The humidity inside my poncho was stifling, causing rivers of sweat to pour from me as the rain drenched everything on the outside. On we went, grumbling and miserable. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Tonto Trail is normally a hot, arid, and sunny; a walk in the desert. On this day it was cold, windy, slick, and dangerous. The lightning was uncomfortably close as we trudged onward. At the moment of yet another lightning strike I looked up and thought to myself that being a couch potato was not a bad idea. Experiencing the canyon via a TV screen seemed like the thing to do.
The rain on this third day was stubborn. As soon as we'd take off our rain gear another cloudburst would nail us. We finally arrived at Boucher Creek but would have to climb down into a gorge to get to the camp and the creek itself. The camp was fine and in good weather it would have been spectacular. But, we were cold and wet. Damp mist crawled over the rim above us like heavy cream being poured by a sadistic giant. The rim seemed impossibly high, the weather had frayed our nerves.
Like good soldiers we made camp and replenished our water supply. Hot cider warmed our chilled bones as night came early to the shrouded skies. The next day we'd tackle the legendary and steep Boucher Trail. It promised to be the most strenuous day of the trip. The rain came yet again so we went into the tiny tent with nothing to do but go to sleep.
Water. Survival in Grand Canyon requires an obsession with it. And survival in Grand Canyon means that you must carry enough of it. Unfortunately, just as nature made water a necessity, it also made it very heavy. As our third night in the canyon came to an end, our fourth day would be lead us away from our water sources and up the canyon towards the rim. Making sure we had enough water would be our primary goal.
The fourth night would be spent on a spectacular ledge called Yuma Point. Though potholes atop the Supai Formation often hold enough water for drinking and cooking, the collected water there evaporates quickly and cannot be relied upon. We could count on no water being there. No, we'd be lugging our own water with us the entire way and we'd be hiking up the notorious Boucher Trail.
On this morning I looked up at the sky and saw more of the same—the now-familiar sky that teased us with azure expanses yet containing the seed clouds for monsoonal rains. There were enough clouds to make a noontime storm more than likely. I was hoping that we'd negotiate the steepest parts of Boucher before the rain began. For that we'd need an early start. We broke camp quickly.
I looked up again at the growing clouds. There would be water up in the sky most everywhere but we'd still need to carry a ton of it up the canyon walls. I shook my head with resignation as I followed my buddies down to the creek to load up on water for the hike up. We'd calculated our water needs again and again. A cool day might require less water. The potholes might be full. How much would we need for cooking? Yes, we had four liters cached up on the Hermit Trail for the last leg of the hike on the fifth day. But, would it be there? Finally, we gave up on the arithmetic and simply decided to fill whatever containers we had.
Our load was heavy as we set out and climbed back up and out of the Boucher Creek Canyon and onto the Tonto Trail. Minutes later we came to an inconspicuous trailhead with the letter "B" scratched into a nearby rock. This probably meant that we were at the beginning of the Boucher Trail but the Park Service wasn't being much help. A teetering cairn of rocks next to the "B" increased the chances that we were at the right place. Nevertheless our first steps were tentative as we immediately confronted a steep incline.
Up we went. We ascended more quickly than I'd expected as the clouds grew darker. That's the good thing with steep trails—they're efficient. We met a hiker coming down in the opposite direction, an encounter which confirmed that we were indeed on the right path. This assurance was short-lived as he informed us that there were washouts ahead of us. But, the washouts were still a day away on another trail, and we were simply happy that the "B" on the rock really did mean "Boucher."
Soon we were at the base of the steep cliff known as the Redwall where a crumbling breach allowed access to its top. It was here where the Boucher Trail earned its reputation. The climb was almost vertical as we negotiated a series of boulders that obscured anything that might be considered a trail. While I wouldn't want to ever climb down this trail, the climb up went smoothly. We constantly throw our hiking poles up to the next level as we negotiated the ascent. Finally, we were at the top of the Redwall and onto the Supai Formation. Yuma Point could now be seen in the distance.
We were now on White's Butte which provided a pleasant and flat break from the strenuous Redwall ascent. The relief would be brief. The rain came yet again and we soon reached the second, very tough climb of the morning. The storm's timing was fortunate as it was brief and came during the least hazardous part of the hike. And it stopped just before we reached the second and even nastier ascent. After that the sky cleared almost completely and the trail leveled off as we began the long traverse in the Supai cliffs to our final destination of the day.
By early afternoon Yuma Point and its dramatic overlook were straight ahead. And ahead of that was a rainbow that arched across the canyon below. As we reached the overlook we saw that the potholes were filled with water. There'd be more than enough water for cooking and drinking. This had to be the most magnificent spot in all the canyon. Our last night in Grand Canyon promised to be spectacular. High above the canyon floor, the rim would be a half-day's hike away. We were almost home and certainly already in paradise.
The Boucher Trail had lived up to its expectations. It was steep, precarious, and exhilarating. But, even though now at Yuma Point, we weren't quite done with it. There was another leg of the trail to be negotiated on the next day—a long traverse to Dripping Springs Trail and then up to the rim on the Hermit. The grand loop would then be complete.
Yet, the worst was over and we knew it. Spirits were high as we approached Yuma Point. The sky was blue, the air brisk and fresh. The entire canyon was before us from this high perspective of view and mood. We looked out and down, our pointed fingers retracing the day's hike from the now-faraway White's Butte. Yuma Point was lofty and spectacular, the worthy culmination to this four-day journey.
After endless discussions of water needs, hiking itineraries, supplies, and weather contingencies, the only decision left before us was one more placement of the tent. The best spot with the best view was right in the path of some of the bluff's drainage. But the skies were finally clear and it looked like we'd actually see the stars on our last night. The lure of waking up right on the edge of paradise was too strong. We took our chances. I built a small dam of scattered rocks to divert any unlikely runoff.
"Ah, the weather has finally broken," I said, looking up at an empty sky. "What a glorious end to the trip!"
I looked down then back up again five minutes later. A storm cloud had somehow formed beyond the rim. And it was coming straight at us. Startled, I opened my mouth. "Oh, no!"
"Forget this," Tom said as he crawled into the tent. "I'll ride out the storm in here. I've had enough of this."
Karl and I decided that the rain would be brief and invigorating and remained in place on the bluff. The storm was neither brief, nor was it invigorating. The downpour was intense; manifesting a river out of nowhere that went right under the tent. Too late for staying dry, we stood there in the cold rain, shoulders hunched and miserable. The small dam I'd created to divert potential flood waters was useless.
"Your dam is made of Swiss cheese," Karl muttered. "We'll have to move the tent." He looked at me, rain dripping from his nose. He sniffed in resignation.
There would be no stars on our last night in the canyon. But, there was no more rain, either. A spectacular sunrise greeted our last day as we broke camp and made our way out and back on the Boucher Trail for yet one more traverse among the red rocks of the Supai Group. These kinds of traverses are long and tedious, yet always dangerous. The uneven erosion of this geological group carves natural paths in the cliffs but these routes are always exposed and paved with loose rocks and gravel. This part of the Boucher Trail undulated up and down as we worked our way around the side canyon to our linkup with the Dripping Springs Trail and then, finally, the Hermit Trail.
"Dripping Springs Trail is washed out ahead. Hikers coming from the opposite direction appeared out of nowhere and greeted us with a warning. "Follow the pink flags and be careful!"
That's the way it always is in this place. You march along, alone in peaceful thought, keeping your eye on the trail straight ahead. Then something happens out of nowhere. You lose the trail, you fall and sprain something, a storm nails you, you suddenly get heat exhaustion. A rattlesnake appears from nowhere. You run low on water. There's always something lurking right around the corner.
Dripping Springs Trail, our final link to our final climb, was washed out. We were still on the edge, we still had several miles to go. The only way out was to follow the pink flags that the rangers apparently had placed to guide us around the hazardous obstacle. We couldn't see the new slide nor the little flags. We'd simply have to keep going with faith enough in ourselves to get past one more thing on the way to the rim.
I squinted and shaded my eyes from the glare of the sun. I saw it all ahead; a series of pink, plastic flags that cordoned off the slide on Dripping Springs Trail. It was inevitable that we'd encounter something like this. The rain had been relentless all week and there was evidence everywhere that the rain had battered the canyon for a lot longer than that.
We were still very much on the edge of the steep, canyon wall. The cliff through which the faint trail was leading us may have even gotten steeper within the last half mile. Now we'd need to climb up and around a field of rocks, boulders, mud, and debris. It was hopefully the last, unexpected stunt that the trickster canyon would throw at us. Skies were clear, the weather was mild, and we were in good spirits and condition. My mind's attention went down to my feet—even they were optimistic, with not a blister or hot spot among them. So, this would be it. Get across this nasty obstacle, do nothing stupid, and we'd be home free. Oh, there would be this little and final climb up 1600 feet but we've come to learn that hiking uphill on a good trail is one of the most rewarding experiences in Grand Canyon.
The slide was larger than it appeared from a distance. The rocks were loose. I could hear some of them roll of the edge as we worked our way up and around the obstruction. While requiring care and attention to circumnavigate, the slide wasn't that bad in and of itself. But, the trail was narrow and exposed, making any margin of error small. But, after five days of wilderness hiking along cliffs and loose footing we were tuned up for this. We negotiated the obstacle rather easily. I only held my breath three times.
Soon we were at the junction of the Hermit Trail and the spot where we'd cached a supply of water on the way down. It seemed like ages ago when we hid the water under some flat rocks. The water was still there, cool from the shaded and hidden spot where we'd placed it. Armed with plenty of water and adrenaline we began the final climb up.
We kept a good pace on this wide and paved portion of the Hermit Trail. The trail had once been the main route into the canyon and remnants of fine handiwork could be seen everywhere, still intact and mostly in good condition. Further down the trail had long ago deteriorated into a mess, but from here to the rim it would be a delight.
Adrenalin and endorphins kicked in as we climbed up millions of years of geological history. We tread past the fossils and deposits of ancient seas, past compacted sand dunes of deserts, and mud flats of tidal basins. Each step brought us thousands of years closer to present-day Arizona and the blessed rim that we so craved. Looking up I started to see blue sky instead of rock. That meant that our final steps were near.
The air got thinner and cooler with our progress. Not only were we climbing up the layers of time, we were traveling through most of the planet's climate zones as well. No longer in the climate zone of the Sonoran Desert, I could smell the intoxicating scent of pine trees. It made me swoon in the rarified atmosphere as our feet were now crunching the white rock of Kaibab Limestone—the top layer of the canyon.
We were home. The land was flat, the parking lot in sight. The rim is worlds away from the innards of Grand Canyon. A portly Texan stood there and looked at us. Another guy stood at his truck with a lit cigarette. A couple of young European guys, speaking in their native tongue walked by us.
"Would you guys take our picture?" I asked one of them. "This is the seventh year of our annual canyon trip and we just got back to the rim!" I added. I put the camera in automatic mode and handed it to him.
"Very heavy," he said as he took the shot.
"Yes it is," I responded. "But it's worth carrying it. There are a lot of photos down there."