Midwestern Boys Take on the CanyonThe epic two week western trip is somewhat of a ritual for many of us in the Midwest. An incredibly long and boring trip across the Great Plains is the price we pay to hang out in the mountains and canyons. Usually these trips take place during the summer, but as my brother and I grew more addicted to the west we began thinking a winter trip was also needed. Thankfully our colleges provided us with ample time during winter break.
My general feeling was that the mountains are fairly inhospitable to human life during the winter months, unless you have the money to stay in the hotel every night. This directed us towards the warmth of the desert. Since my brother and I were raised in the massive mountains of Glacier, we weren't going to be satisfied with anything less than mile high walls and miles of rugged backpacking. This left us with only one option: The Grand Canyon.
Our crew consisted of Mike, a freshman, my brother, a sophomore, and me, the senior. I had done the South Kaibab / Hermit Loop last winter, but Mike and Matt had never seen the canyon. I'd done a lot of scrambling in Glacier with Matt, so I knew he could handle it, and I knew Mike was a pretty tough guy, so I figured he'd be alright too.
The plan was to drive through Colorado, spend a bit of time in Arches, and then do the Escalante Route in the Canyon.
Day One - Minneapolis to Colorado SpringsWe pulled out of Minneapolis around seven in the morning blaring "The Ecstasy of Gold" by Ennio Morricone. Our rig was a 1994 Geo Prism with a quarter million miles on it. We were able to pack three guy's worth of crap in there by sticking an action packer on the trailer hitch.
Through Des Moines, Omaha, North Platte, and western Colorado, the miles slowed ticked by. We had enough cigars, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Black Oak Arkansas, and turkey sandwiches to choke a horse. We got most of our amusement from a vintage Time Life book on the Grand Canyon. A few select passages that got us amped up:
When a man first stands on the rim and images of the Canyon flash through his nerves to his mind, the mind reacts like a badly programed computer signaling "input not acceptable" or "reject". Or so at least do the minds of most people except the southwestern Indians, who have been looking at the canyon for a long time. However, most Americans are of European ancestry and have acquired from their forebears a far different idea of what a landscape should and should not be. It ought of have relatively modest colors and contours. It ought to have some restraint.
Sandburg peered into the canyon and saw :
"Battering rams, blind mules, mounted police, trucks hauling caverns of granite, elephants grappling gorillas in a death strangle, cathedrals, arenas, platforms, somersaults of telescoped railroad train wrecks, exhausted eggheads, piles of skills, mountains of empty sockets, mummies of kings and mobs, memories of work gangs and wrecking crews, sobs of wind and water storms, all frozen and held on paths leading on to spirals of new zigzags"
Do not trust rocks. A rock resting of the rim of the Grand Canyon may give an impression of strength and permanence, but as soon as a man turns his back the rock will resume disintegrating and sneaking off to California.
We pulled into Colorado Springs at about 1 in the morning. We got a pretty good sleep on the floor of a friend's dorm room.
Day Two - Mountains, Miners, and Big Bad JohnAfter grabbing some Mcdonalds and coffee we headed up Highway 24 into the mountains. Driving into the mountains for the first time on one of these trips is always great and we were all feeling good. We considered driving up Pikes Peak, but after learning they didn't have a broke college students discount we continued onwards. The weather was incredibly warm and sunny, so we scrambled up the first large rock we saw. After that we were greeted with an amazing view at Wilkerson Pass.
We drove up east of the Sawatch Mountains until we got to Leadville. We hadn't planned on stopping, but a sign for the National Mining Hall of Fame caught our attention. We learned quite a bit about mining and saw lots of pictures of old timers who were tougher than any of us these days could hope to be. Looking at those gigantic metal picks and shovels that they had to work with made our modern day backpacking look tame by comparison. We even saw a monument to our hero, Big Bad John. ( We'd been listening to a lot of Jimmy Dean on the way out. )
We left the museum, and were off to Moab. We pulled into a BLM campsite near the Fisher Towers late that night. Luckily there were piles of cleared piles Tamarask everywhere, so we got a nice big bonfire going and passed around the bottle for a while.
Day Three - ArchesWe woke up in a snow covered canyon country the next morning. The Colorado was frozen solid along the banks and large ice chunks were floating down the middle. We didn't have too much to do that day so we were slow getting out of bed. Eventually Mike and I got tired of waiting around, so we pulled opened all the doors to the car, cranked the volume to max and the ipod to Born in the USA to wake up Matt. Born in the USA is one of those albums that tends to attract a party, even if its eight in the morning, and before long we were cooking up the corn beef hash and slamming Budweisers. Great thing about winter is you tend to have most places to yourself.
As you can see above, we kept Matt as our designated driver, and after tearing down camp we were off to Arches. Riding into Arches blaring the Good the Bad and the Ugly theme song is something everyone should do at some point in their life.
On a side note, I always feel a little bit weird driving around on that main park road. Its got kind of a museum feeling to it, because you drive from one artfully named piece of rock sculpture to another, and the off trail hiking restrictions have the effect of leaving you disconnected from the landscape. However Arches is still an amazing place to see.
After spending some time in the Wall Street area, and a few too many bailout jokes later, we filled up our water bag and drove the Delicate Arch trailhead.
Although its not commonly done, overnight backpacking is actually allowed in the park. The permit is free but because of the Crypto Crust you are somewhat limited in where you can go. They make sure that you stick to the slick rock or creek washes, and your camp must be about a quarter mile and out of sight from any trail or road.
We chose the area near the Delicate Arch, high above Courthouse Wash. We grabbed our camping gear, the rest of the Budweiser, a can of Dinty Moore beef stew, and a blueberry muffin for morning, and headed up the Delicate Arch trail. Once we got to the top of the big slick rock ramp we set down the packs and hiked the rest of the way to the arch. The trail was pretty icy but the arch looked amazing. After the arch we hiked roughly a quarter mile towards the rim of Courthouse Wash and found a massive red slickrock protrusion. We set up camp behind the outcrop so that we'd be out of sight from the trail.
After dinner the sun went down and we cracked open the whiskey and cigars. About an hour later a nearly full moon came up, which provided us with an unbelievable amount of light. We ended up spending the next three hours exploring the Delicate Arch area under the moonlight.
Day Four - More Arches, Drive to the CanyonThe next morning I woke up before Matt and Mike, and went for a hike along the rim of Courthouse Wash. There were a lot of strange orange slickrock formations but none of the pictures turned out too great. On the way back my head started hurting, apparently the lack of water and the terrible diet of the past few days was starting to take its toll. When I got back everyone was awake, and the terrible diet continued as we split the muffin three ways and washed it down with a frozen beer. Still the sugar from the muffin gave me enough energy to tear down camp.
After breakfast, we spent a few hours tempting fate on the icy slickrock ledges north of the Delicate arch. The area was packed with all sorts of interesting slickrock bowls and miniature arches. It also provided an seldom scene perspective of the Delicate Arch. If you spend some time in the side canyons and slickrock near the Arch, the arch as a landform starts to make more sense. All around of you see similar bowls and fins, which grow steadily taller as you move to the east. Even amongst all of this strange geology, the final shape and placement of the Arch is still striking.
We eventually hiked back out the car and grabbed burgers and green chili at the Moab Diner. After diner we set out down Utah 191 towards the Grand Canyon.
Apparently the look a 94 Geo drew the suspicion of Utah Highway patrol, as I was pulled over once in Moab and once again in Monticello. Once I explained what how awesome our trip was, both pairs of cops let us go free with just a warning.
The sun went down as we were driving through Monument Valley, and we pulled into Grand Canyon National Park a few hours later. The moonlight provided a few tantalizing glimpses of the canyon but we made up our minds not to go to the rim till morning. We checked in the Holiday Inn ( off season price of only 69 dollars! ) and watched the better part of Cold Mountain.
Day Five - Into the ChasmWe woke up the next morning and drove to the canyon's rim. After taking in the view for a half hour or so we picked up our permit. Unlike any other time of the year, in the winter you can simply walk into the back country office and tell them how you'd like to set up your trip. We made our final preparations for the trip and got to Grandview Point around 1:00. A few families of tourists surrounded us as we were strapping on our makeshift crampons; none of them could believe we were headed down into the canyon as there was one or two feet of snow on the rim.
Being from Minnesota we didn't have any real mountaineering crampons, so instead we took the spikes off a few pairs of MSR snowshoes. They were provided us with a bit of extra grip on the icy Grandview Trail.
We quickly left the trailhead and headed into the canyon. Our goal for the day was to camp somewhere near Hance Creek. The scenery was absolutely astounding as we negotiated the snowy upper rim.
The snow and ice made the trail significantly narrower and made for a few tight spots along the Grandview Trail. At one point we had to swing out around a rock outcropping, and at another we had to crawl along the edge of a several hundred foot drop off. Throughout we had a "geez I hope we don't die" mentality, and after a few miles we were out of the snow.
By the time we made it to Horseshoe Mesa the sun was getting low in the sky, casting an amazing light onto the canyon walls. More than once I had to stop and simply absorb the scale and epicness of the place. The Red Wall section of the trail was extremely steep and rocky, and at the bottom we grabbed some water at the spring. The floor of Hance Canyon was warm, and for the first time I truly felt like I was in the desert again. We pulled into camp in the dark, and after a dinner of red beans and rice doused in Louisiana hot sauce we went to bed.