Spring 1994, April 23rd -- May 1st Smita Bakshi
Special thanks to Ilana Stern (ilanancar.ucar.edu) for planting the (insane) idea of rapping directly into Elves Chasm from the waterfall just below Royal Arch, and the invaluable information provided by her husband.
This hike starts and ends at South Bass trailhead, which is (in)accessible via a 30mile dirt road. This road gets muddy and impassable with light rain and, as we found out last year, a 4W drive is a necessity, not a luxury. The weather in Northern Arizona had been warm and dry for several weeks prior to this hike, so the road was hard and dry although deeply rutted. Before we went with 4 days, but had to bypass the arch as well as Elves Chasm, we decided that 3 extra days were in order.
The plan was as follows: (Starting April 23rd). Since David hurt his knee just before the hike (pox on all rollerblades), and Brian had shoulder surgery 2 months before, we realized that we would have to take it really easy. In any case, there were 166lbs of stuff total which had to be totedl including 4lbs of food, and 40lbs of water and 171bs of ropes and assorted climbing gear.
Day 1) South Bass trailhead to
Esplanade Trail, and follow trail to Montezuma point. At this
point, we intended to follow the
second ridge going west towards Royal Arch creek. The plan was to follow it out to the redwall bordering the creek, and then to make our way down into the creek just before it meets up with the South Fork. i.e., just before the spot of exposed climbing " required if going down the East Fork. This would save the long uninteresting boulder hopping and vegetation of the East Fork. Camp just before rappel, same spot as last year.
Day 2) Go out to the Royal Arch. Spend the night at the alleged ledges under the arch. Expect to find water here for the first time.
Day 3) Rappel the alleged 150ft waterfall just after the arch into Elves Chasm. Spend the day in the Chasm, and po6sible camp out of the Chasm going east along the Colorado. Possibly at the end of the Toltec drainage. Catch fish!
Day 4) Go to Garnet, out to the river, and spend an easy rest day basking in the sun, catching fish.
Day 5) Do Garnet to Copper. If we feel up to it, then go out of Copper to Shinumo rapids for the night. Else just take it easy.
Day 6) Camp at Bass rapids. In any case, should be an easy day. Trivial if we were at Shinumo rapids, easy morning walk if we were at Copper. Bask in the sun, fish all day etc...
Day 7) Start just after dawn, and walk out.
In all we expect a hike with possibly 2 maybe 3 tough days, and 3 maybe days at the river catching fish :-). After all, we did "almost" the whole hike in 4 days 3 nights last year!
What actually happened:
Met at Maswik lodge at about 3:45pm. Had a last supper, parked one car and started out to the trailhead. It was easy enough to get out to the trailhead as 2 weeks of very hot summer like weather had baked the dirt road. However, with our luck, there was a Pacific storm working its way towards us, and we expected the weather to turn sour. So we set up the plastic-tent to sleep under. Since we want to start early the next day, we also pack up our Packs.
Got up at dawn the following morning 130F), and the storm was about to happen. It took considerable effort to get out of the warm sleeping bag and by that time it started snowing. After spending a little while sitting in the truck trying to warm up, we started off a little late (there was little motivation to get going in the middle of a snow squall). Everyone had heavy packs, except for David :-) whose 35lb pack was the lightest of all. Trail is very easy down to Darwin Plateau. We cached 8 bottle of water about half way down, and another two by the Esplanade route junction. Temperature was cold, and the loss of 1,OOOft caused the nice dry snow to turn to sleet. We were in reasonably high spirits, even though it was cold throughout the day (35-40F). David and Raghu were singing nonsense songs and limericks all the way. It would start with a perfectly innocuous song, and words would gradually be replaced until the lyrics were scarred beyond recognition.
It was when we started down ridge from Montezuma's point towards the west that the going got interesting. We could soon see the entire Fast Fork of Royal arch creek below us, however at the point where we thought we should be able to descend into the creek, the going was not obvious. There were bands of cliffs from 5-30ft high, with flat regions between the cliffs. Basically we would look for breaks in the cliff band, and then make our way down one level at a time. In any case, we decide to set up camp and to deal with getting down to the creek in the morning.
Day 2): Got up, and it looked
as if it would be a good day. Worked our way out to the end
of the promontory. Passed a side creek that we thought we had
camped in the night before :-), and kept pressing towards the
west. There was one band of cliffs that seemed to be a
problem layer, and we did not see any breaks in it. Finally,
almost all the way to the end of the promontory, we found the
break that we were looking for. Stopped there for mundo
snacks, and made our way to where we had camped on the first
night last year. Easily found the route down to the creek
bed, and after going down, we realized that we would have had lots
of trouble finding it if we did not know where to look, and that it was the only realistic way to climb down to the stream bed at that
point. It put us down at the creek about 100 yards upstream of the
dropoff. Went back to the dropoff, and rapped off like last year.
Spent a while bickering about the anchor. A group from before
had left some
hardware behind which we re-used. They also left a note scratched into the rock: No gear? Don't go!!. This is good advice, because once you below that point, you cannot proceed without at least one rappel.
Now, the clouds were coming in,
and we realized that it would once again rain on us . Oh
yeah! Also about 2pm, so that we know that we are running
late on schedule once again. Continued to where the creek makes
a sharp turn north, and stopped at a little cave for lunch. Thought
about the swimming pools up ahead, and how _cold_ it would be. About a kilometer further on came to the point there were 2 deep pools
last year that required swimming: it was now dry; Yeah! For once
luck worked in our favor. Kept going to the cairns marking
the way out of the creek. At this point we were very late. As
usual. Going was slow.
Kept going on to the arch, and negotiating drop-offs every couple hundred feet. The type of rock changed, (became smoother and more stepped), and finally met the permanent creek. By this time it was getting dark, and of course... raining. Came round a corner, and the arch was there. Finally! However there was another group also camping there. Kind of spoiled the moment, but that's life. They started out the day before we did.
The arch is quite magnificent. The span is approximately 60 ft, and covers a nice babbling brook. Right below the arch is a large hoodoo. It is possible to scramble up on top of the arch, but it's really not spectacular up there. Below the arch is ample flat, dry rock to sleep on, while lulled by the gentle sounds of the brook and the guy snoring next to you. Definitely a major attraction in the canyon, and a must-see for anyone who is prepared to brave the rigours of this trail.
Had supper, and it was still pouring. Also the wind made it a bit uncomfortable. But spirits were good. Brian and David went and had a look at the waterfall. Scary!
Spent some time looking at the map, and realized that there must be another waterfall besides the one we were at before getting out to the Colorado, and that it was at least as high! Secondly, it was at most 0.5 miles to the river, and we still had about 900ft elevation to lose. All this promised an interesting day tomorrow. If we did not know that it could be done with a single rappel, we would have never tried it.
Day 3): Wake up, and decide to get moving as soon as possible. Initially choose to skip breakfast until we get down the rappel. Have a good look at it, and it looks even scarier in the daylight. Fortunately there is a way to go around a little so that we can see the entire way down. Use up our entire stash of webbing (50ft) to make an anchor. Made a two-point anchor. On one side of the creek, we pass the webbing around a huge boulder, while on the other side of the creek we use a small rock lodged into a reverse flared crack. At 9:30am decide that we may as well have breakfast since the rappel was going to take a couple more hours.
We throw the rope down, and it
is unclear that it has reached the bottom. Oops! Brian goes
across and looks again, and realizes that it has coiled up a
little on a ledge. After some jiggling we are fairly sure it
is actually long enough. Barely. (166ft rope. Luckily, the waterfall
pauses on a little ledge 10 feet below the stream bed and it is
from here that we launch the rappel.) Pull the rope up, and Smita decide to go down first, while David would guide her while perched over a 200 ft cliff at the lookout point (not for the acrophobic). Brian ends up belaying her, just in case. We pull the rope up, and tie
a knot in the end of it, since Smita has this (very understandable) fear about rapping off the end of the rope. However, the knot promptly gets stuck in the rocks at the very bottom of the waterfall. This is serious, as we know we need that rope to get out of here, even if we were to decide to backtrack, we would need to do a 20 ft rappel elsewhere (well, we could make do with our other rope in that event). Makes rapping that much more interesting. Particularly since the rope is not lodged vertically below the top of the rappel, and there isn't much slack to play with in the rope as it is. At least we have a second
belay :-) Smita ties in, and makes the mistake of looking down. Big mistake. Chickens out and then Raghu volunteers to go down. Smita says that she will try again. This time she hesitatingly goes off the edge, while the rest of us age one year for each minute that she dithers. Now there is no turning back. So, Smita goes off the edge, followed by the packs.
Raghu goes next, and as he
steps off the cliff, he loses his balance and hangs inverted,
suspended just out of reach. Somehow he manages to get his
feet back down from above his head and against the rockface. He
continues rapelling, and promptly bashes Smita, who is belaying him from below, on the head with a small rock. David goes next, and since
there is now nobody at the lookout point, communication becomes very difficult (up to this point David had been coordinating whilst shouting over the noise of the waterfall). We set up a simple communication protocol, based on whistles, that worked adequately. Brian checks the anchor one last time, and sets up the suicide cord (6mm) to make a double rope. Well, the rappel was interesting. For one, it vertical, with many overhangs. Secondly, much of it was slippery, after all, we were going down a waterfall. Thirdly (of course) it was raining. Maybe in the future we will consider rapping with the packs on, since the lowering of the packs took considerable time.
Sun peeks its head out for a little while, and we spend a while eating lunch, and looking back at the sheer cliff faces that we had just come down. The chasm is beautiful, but not quite what we expected. However, it was green, with hanging gardens all around. While eating lunch a 6mall rockfall occurred near to the waterfall.
Keep going, and shortly come up to the other waterfall the map warned us about. Did not fancy doing another rappel like the one we just did! It was obvious that there was no way to go around via the right, but via the left seemed possible, both on the map and on inspection. Well, immediately got to the position of being squeezed between a wall and thin air. Getting down this beast involved a _long_ traverse on very steep fragile looking ground, followed by a 20 odd ft downclimb. There was no/little vegetation along the traverse, and a fall would have been certainly fatal. It took considerable cajoling to get Raghu to do the traverse. With Brian's bad shoulders and David's damaged knees, Raghu had been carrying a mule's load thus far. He had started tripping a few times and wasn't quite sure of his step any more, so he dug in his heels like Balaam's ass and refused to proceed unless he was roped in. David was of the firm opinion that ropes were a waste of time, so he took Raghu' backpack and goaded him across.
Then there was the 20 ft
downclimb. There was no good anchor to set up a rappel.
However, there was a little piece of webbing around the only pathetic
looking shrub just above the climb. There was really not much
alternative! We added a small piece of webbing to the one that was already on the shrub, and Brian proceeded to belay David, Raghu,
and Smita as they down climbed. Then Brian was belayed from below as
downclimbed. We donated our last rappel ring to the canyon at that
point. From here on will have to start donating biners, and cutting pieces from the ropes. Now it is (yep, you guessed again) raining very heavily as we make our way down into the creek. Immediately we are faced with more drop-offs, and we are tired, especially mentally, after the day's challenges. So, we decide to spend the night. (Overnighting in Elves Chasm is not allowed, but we felt that proceeding in the gathering gloom and fatigue would be somewhere between extremely foolhardy and lethal). We find a small, dry overhang and set up camp. 500ft down, 400ft to go, and .25 miles horizontally. Not really much to show for our efforts. That night David didn't sleep well, replaying the day's events and with a sense of foreboding as to what lay between us and the river (salvation in the form of a known trail). Brian and Smita slept like logs). At this point the chasm is truly stunning, but much of the beauty is lost to sog. Oh well.
On our previous trip to GC, our stomachs did not agree very well, and our shit was an ugly green colour. This time, however, we planned our diet meticulously, and it showed in the shit. Every time one of us re-emerged from behind a bush or boulder, the others would demand a "shit report"/ which usually went like "Color: delicate shade of chocolate, Consistency: good, Quantity. copious," with the occasional facetious remark about smell and texture.
Day 4): Sun's up. What a
change! Attack the chasm once again. Once again, it is
dropoff after dropoff. Each dropoff is an intellectual challenge.
It's necessary to survey the territory, and decide on the the
strategy for tackling the drop. Typical comments; "You're not going to like this", Now how are we going to sell this to the
troops?", and that old fave, "It's doable, but not
user-friendly". The rock changes about 50ft down, and we
hope that the going would change at that point. Another 10ft
section that requires downclimbing and we come to the new
rock. Now, the character of the chasm changes drastically.
Vegetation by and large disappears from the canyon floor, and
we are left with a multitude of deep clear pools and cascades,
some of which are surrounded by small, red wildflowers, and other vegetation hanging from the walls. Stunningly beautiful. We take a dip in one of the pools, and 4 days of scum vanishes forever. Boy was it cold ! Finally there seems to be a sort of trampled path indicating some amount of passage. Two interesting sections remain, before we get down to the river. The first is an 80ft downclimb, on the left side oŁ a cascade. From the top, it looks impossible, but there is a 2ft cairn there. We decide that the cairn must be there for some reason. Well, as scary as it is, everytime one makes a step down, there seems to be another just within reach. Takes you past a set of triple cascades. A little further on, there is again another dropoff,
again about 80-lOOft. This time the route down is even more interesting; you have to make a traverse on a rock ledge to the left of the creek, at one point crawling on elbows and knees for about 15ft as the ledge is only 1-1.5ft high beneath an overhanging rock at that point. After the crawl, you can make your way down the slope to the creek. At that point for the first time you can see the mighty Colorado, looking tantalizingly close. Well, (no surprise), it starts raining again, and we crawl back under the ledge to wait out the brunt Of the rain. Wait for about 30min, get fedup, and decide to move anyways .
Make our way to the Colorado without much further ado. It is just around noon, and we find a little cave on the right of the creek. (East bank). Have lunch there. Of course it is raining off and on, mostly on. There is a good shelter on the other side of the creek, it is unclear if it falls in the dayuse area. We spend a little time playing cricket, using small rocks as a ball, and hiking sticks as a bat and stumps. Raghu gets his middle stump ripped from the ground, first ball, off an easy-paced full toss, no less. At least he middled some shots, David had trouble connecting with anything.
Now that we know the route, one can surely go from the Arch, into Elves chasm, and out to the river in a day without any problem. In all, it really involved 1 rappel, and some moderate downclimbing. However most of the time was spent scouting and psyching ourselves into doing what needed to be done.
In summary Elves Chasm is certainly a truly magnificent piece of the canyon. Possibly the most lovely and certainly most unspoiled gorges that any of us has seen (there were times when we were begging for a footprint or a cairn but there are really almost no signs of prior human activity). To see the Chasm in it's entirety, one probably has to be prepared to rappel in. It's probably almost impossible to work your way up from the river, and almost certainly can't be done (both in and out) in a day. Overnighting in the Chasm is prohibited and should probably stay that way. We only slept there because to go on would have been very dangerous.
Finally around 3pm, we decide to go east towards the Toltec Drainage. It seems as if the rain will hold up for a while yeah sure!). About 15min (if that) from Elves Chasm there is a sandy spot that would make O.K. campsite. Decide that it is too close, and to press on. Not the best of decisions. It starts to rain again shortly, and the Toltec drainage seems to never come. Also, the trail has climbed away from the river, and so even if there are beaches, they are not easily accessible. Spirits are more grumpy. 4 days of constant rain has begun to take it's toll. Finally the trail starts descending quickly to the river, but when we finally make it there, there is no good spot to make camp. Also, it is not the Toltec drainage as we expected. We huddle under a rock for a while. Brian wants to push on to the Toltec drainage which _really can't be too far ahead. Raghu and Brian go scouting ahead, and find that the Toltec drainage is only 7min further on, just around the next headland.
Go back, get the weary troops, go to the drainage, set up camp, and prepare to spend yet another evening in the rain.
There is something depressing about getting wet and rained on. These past days, Raghu kept his cheer up by trying to predict how long each shower would last. (His predictions were so consistently wrong that we wonder whether there might not be something to ESP after all.) After 4 days of incessant pissing by the rain god, Raghu is in no mood for more inane weather forecasts. We pray for a few dry days for our spirits and for the dirt road. There is sign of snow on the South rim.
Tried to do some fishing, and only end up with one small measly trout. Well, it got eaten :-)
Wake up and it is heavily
overcast, gee what a change. Brian and Smita absolutely
refuse to get out of bed (even more so than usual) both David and
Raghu clean up from the night before's excesses, do some fishing (caught zilch), cook breakfast, and then finally physically kick Brian
and Smita out of bed. By this point it is starting to clear, and
there are large swathes of blue sky around. Not exactly sure
what we should do today. Should we push onto Copper Canyon,
or should we just go to
Garnet and take an easy day off? BTW, there is a really nice spot, just 5min east of the Toltec Drainage. The weather appears to have improved, and the sun is out. Yet, there are some ominous looking clouds not too far off. Take it easy, and make our way to Garnet Canyon, arriving there before noon. Decide to go out to the Colorado and do some fishing. The sun is up, and looks good. Make our way down arnet creek to the Colorado, and the going is quite easy. Suddenly we come to one of our friends, a dropoff. Would be O.K. if one were willing to get wet, otherwise not too easy. David works his way down,
and 50ft further there is the last of the drop-offs to the river: a sheer 60ft waterfall blocks further progress. Darn. None of us feel like setting up a rappel. Come back up and do some exploring, but at that point it is not easy to climb directly out of the drainage. Finally figure out that the way to get to the river is to go up to a point just below the tapeats, and to work ones way east to the next little drainage, and follow that down. Similar to getting to the river at Bass, where Bass creek is blocked just before the river by a 40ft dry waterfall.
The running water at Garnet near the Colorado is brackish, and tasts repulsive. However, higher up the creek, there are some large pools of water that fill only when the creek is full with rain. These gave an ample supply of good water.
Well, the clouds look as if it is going to be another one of those days, and morale is low. Decide to push on towards Copper. It is now about 3:3Opm.
At some point, it starts raining, and suddenly, magically, the pace surges forward. Smita, becomes posessed by the spirit of Marathon and the rest of us scramble raggedly after her in a vain effort to keep up. Somehow, we make the trip from Garnet to Copper in under 3.5 hours, setting up camp under the overhang we found last year. Raghu's shoe-soles started coming off, so Brian repaired them with crazy glue from the first-aid.
Day 6) An easy morning walk from Copper to Bass, with Smita still in marathon mode. Land up at the rapids at llam, and spend the rest of the day lazing, eating and fishing. We meet a pair down there who have carried in an inflatable boat (13 lbs). They use it to cross the river and explore various drainages on the North side. They have also used it to run parts of the river. Apparently, they've been doing this for 15 years.
It is the first beautiful day of the hike, weatherwise. The sun's sparkling on the river. We wash our blistered feet in the river. We also wash a few clothes and set them out on the rocks to dry. David is only one brave enough to take a dip in the 42F water.
David, Smita and Brian spend
the rest of the day fishing for trout. Land up with only one
good-sized trout to supplement dinner. Raghu spends the day
napping in a choice spot on the beach, feet in the sun, head
in the shade. We spend the evening eating all we can. Except for the next day's breakfast, all food is rationed out, for we want to carry as little as possible on the way out. We top off dinner with the Gatorade, chilled by dipping the bottle in the Colorado for half
The night is warm and clear. Brian and Smita decide to sleep under the usual improvised tent (rigged from walking sticks, a plastic sheet and rope), lest it start raining in the night. David and Raghu decide to sleep under the sky. Coming from the LA area, it is breath-taking to see so many stars. It's almost a continuum (between any two stars there's a third!. It takes some effort to identify constellations amidt all the noise. You can also see several artificial satellites racing through the sky: David spotted three in a 10 minute period.
Day 7) Walk out of the canyon.
We start at 6:30am (under clear blue skies, wouldn't you know
it?, and stop for breakfast at 730am, just at the Tonto
Level. Halfway up the redwall, Raghu's shoe breaks again. Were
not monkeying around with this baby any more -- we wrap his shoe and peeling sole round and round with duct tape till you can hardly
see the leather any more. He looks like a man with a plaster cast on
one leg. (Later, Raghu had to be cut out of this shoe. We clear the
ravine and redwall before the sun really get there and the esplanade
is nice and cool. We pause at the trail junction to eat what remains
of our initial 43 lbs of food and glug the nectar that we cached there on day 1. Make it out of the canyon just after noon. 12:02pm to be exact for David (who estimated 12:07 when starting off), with the rest of the gang in close pursuit (12:20).
The drive out is a little slippery in places (just enough to remind us of last year's nightmare ride) but not really a problem. We meet a pair of rangers going in the opposite direction (who would have thought that they ever come out here?). One of them gives us the third degree as to our life histories, presents and futures. He punctuates very sentence with a very bright "awwww-riiightttt! We make it back to RV central (Grand Canyon Village) without further incident, and after a week, those showers seem like heaven. It was 75 cents for 5 minutes of hot shower, and we all took two shifts. The 7 days of grime deserve no less.