2 Canadians, 2 Romanians and 2 Americans decend into the Grand Canyon....sounds like a good set-up huh? Well it turned out to be an amazing set-up for what turned into a 6-day jaunt into the seldomly trodden western portion of the grand canyon on a little known backpacking loop called the Royal Arch Route. Unique for trips to the GC, it starts and ends at the same place: the South Bass Trailhead. Inbetween are 45 miles of pure southwest American beauty, a 20 foot rappel, attacking rattle snacks, hot days, drinking from stagnant pools, arguing about which way to go, seeing (or skipping) the Royal Arch and Elves Chasm, trying to leave through the wrong exit valley
for over a day, etc... but I'm sure all 6 agree the trip of a lifetime.
For technical stuff, like getting to the trailhead, what to bring, what to be mindful of...see the ROUTE DESCRIPTION
Here's our story:
Us: If you are considering this trip, you should know that we did it in early September (not optimal), and that none of us had backpacked in the Grand Canyon or done canyoneering before. That said we did have a ton of experience in many countries between the lot of us, including some mountaineering, technical climbing, and various trekking.
The Canadians (Brian and Walt), Romanians (Tudor and Stefan), and Americans (Ken and Ilan) met up in Vegas on Saturday to get 4x4s and get on the road.
First pit stop is Henderson where we have to go to REI to pick up food, gas and other small things. We get there, do the shopping and realize we are all extremely hungry – we stop at a tacos joint eat some burrito, drink some smoothie and it’s already around 3 PM. We are done but we need one more stop at Whole Foods to buy trail mix, dried fruits, real fruits (apples) and water….A LOT of water. We buy about 60 liters of water, enough for the first night on the rim, the first day of hiking and the last night on the rim (as much as it hurts your feet, your mind feels much better in the GC when your backpack is laden down with liters and liters of water…so carry a lot!).
We finally hit the freeway..it’s 4PM and we are way way behind schedule. this sets the tone of our adventure from now on. We start driving, trying to keep an average of 80 miles/hour…..the Jeep can’t keep up with this average so we slow down to about 70 miles/hour.
We drive for about 3 hours before we leave the freeway and turn towards the Grand Canyon village. Off in the distance (at the canyon?), we see lightnight striking down. We reach the GC National Park gate at around 8PM pay 25 USD/car to enter. Asking which way to the Royal Arch Loop or South Bass trailhead, we just get blank stares = kinda funny, kinda scary, fully exciting! After about 15 minutes we reach the Grand Canyon Village…..we drive on small roads and Stefan anounces that we already passed it…Tudor thinks it is still about to come and he is right.
First thing when we reach the village is to look for a place to eat – we find this big canteen, get it, and eat our last real dinner – some chicken, some soup, hot-dogs etc. We discuss of what to do, whether to stay in the village over night or start driving the off-road trail to the South Bass trailhead that night. Stefan, cautious as usual wants to stay and drive in the morning. Most of us want to wake up with the view of the Canyon and have an early head-start for our first hiking day……as we discuss Stefan changes to a different state of mind, starts smiling stupidly and he’s hyper and ready to start driving… Brian tells us it’s his other personality. That’s it, we decide to start driving and agree to stop and camp if we get lost on the way.
Out in the parking lot we see a couple of Rangers and ask them about the roads towards South Bass trailhead and The Royal Arch Loop…..they look at us like we are asking them about some Mars trails recently discovered by NASA…they have no idea what we are talking about, we thank them for nothing and hit the road. Tudor, Ilan and Ken are in the Toyota in front with the instructions and the satellite map towards the South Bass trailhead and Stefan, Brian and Walt are in the Jeep in the back. We know it’s a tough, rough, rugged, road….if you can call it road, considered and adventure in itself by the backcountry office very difficult even by day….and it’s pitch black (ironically this will become another feature of our adventure). We go around the kennels and find the road out which is still paved….but not for long. After about 1 mile it turns into dirt road. We drive blindly in the forest for a while until we see a sign: road 328 GREAT!! We are on the right trail. We continue to drive, hit 328A and then 328 again. 328 has even mile stones (sticks) all along. As we keep on driving, there are more and more signs with the following inscription: “This road is not maintained for low clearance vehicles – 4WD vehicles recommended”. Hmm….it already looks pretty bad…..how much worse can it get? A LOT WORSE!!!!! At one point the road turns into sort of a drainage and we have to drive on one side of it or the other. (Turns out the road was near as bad as it could have been...we read about some trips being turned away just by the road if it had rained recently, adding mud as an extra complication.) We hit a point at which we have to cross from one side to another…..car goes on 2 wheels, looses adherence, we push it and we cross over…..Ken hasn’t said much for quite a while but now he is dead silent....he already “enjoys” this trip to the max. We reach the Havasupai Nations’ Boundary and start driving through the Indian lands (nobody to ask us for money, not at that time of the night….it’s about 11 PM). We all feel like we don’t want to camp or stop here.
After a while we reach the exit from the Reservation and happily see the boundary to the GC National Park again. We stop at the “gate” to pee and read the advisory information at the park entry – the only thing mentioned is the South Bass trail and it is mentioned you need a permit to camp from here on….the one we have. We keep on driving, until at one point the road transforms into little more than a slightly large hiking trail with big stones and boulders…..we push the cars to the max, the Jeep does better here with it’s controlled 4X4 transmission and the higher clearance; the Toyota get very intimate with the rocks and sometimes sounds like "that’s it, we broke the oil pan". Everybody seems to think at every turn that this must be it cause it doesn’t look like we could go further….. tudor remembers from the picture how the “parking” at the South Bass trailhead looks like and tells all that we are not there yet. We finally reach it and it’s exactly like I imagined. It’s windy and a bit cold and about 12pm. WE’VE MADE IT TO THE TRAILHEAD THROUGH THE NIGHT!!!! Everybody is happy with our accomplishment, we set up tents and go to sleep as soon as possible. During the night it feels cold…..no wonder ….it’s +48F. Strange…..we were expecting 110F, but up on the rim it’s much colder. we end up really using those summer bags, altough those with lightweight bags just endure the cold up on the rim.
We wake up around 6 AM and start packing and organizing stuff. Tudor feels it’s too hot and starts without socks liners and only with the shorts. In the rush, he accidentally leaves the zip on pants in the car, instead of putting them in his backpack...big mistake as he would later learn from the cactus whip-marks on his legs. Around 8AM we are all packed, we had breakfast we filled all our water containers and we are ready to go. Ready, steady, go…….wooooh!, go back to steady….these damn backpacks are heavier than we are. Each of us carries an average of 7-8 liters of water.
Descending towards the esplanade
We finally manage to lift them up, take a group picture at the trailhead and we start the descent on South Bass trail. Tudor goes first, Brian goes last. As we go down the sun is shining on the Canyon walls creating breathtaking views…. Luckily we are all the time in the shade. We stop all the time to take pictures. Further down we see some nice Indian ruins. we take pictures again. We are going in a nice pace and soon we reach the junction with the Royal Arch Loop, all beautifully marked (so far). The junction is a very nice T made of stones. We turn left and leave the South Bass trail to our right….see you in about 4-5 days….hopefully. (Turns out it would be 6.)
It’s already 10 AM and we are now out of the shade. The heat is not too bad though. We are still hiking in between trees which provide occasional shade. We try to keep on our plan to stop for food every 2 hours. This time we find some trees and rocks and as it is about 2 hours since we started we stop for a short power break. We eat fresh apples, trail mix and attempt
In retrospect, some thoughts on FOOD: it's so damn hot that very little sounds appetizing. But this can be dangerous considering how important it is to eat and get calories/salt in addition to water. We packed out most of the power bars we brought. if you have to, bring cliff instead. we packed out a lot of unused trailmix. it gets gross and warm. DO NOT add m&ms! they don't just melt in your mouth! Ilan's classic is peanut butter and honey on tortillas. Don't bring ilan's classic. What helped many of us eat when we didn't want to eat anything was: dried apricots, real apples (true delicacy!), beef jerkey (suprising, but true), and making soupy dinners (we used the MountainHouse freeze dried food).
We keep the break short, about 15 minutes and haul ass again on our trail. We hike and take pictures in the same time and the heat is now upon us. Is getting close to noon when we decide we have to think about a lunch break. We stop and Tudor and Brian continue for a while without the backpacks to figure out where we are. They see a huge cliff on our left and assume that is the entry from Point Huitzil into the Royal Arck Loop. On the way back they see a nice formation of rocks providing good shadow for the entire group.
We move together to the rock formation for lunch break. Everybody finds a nice place in the shade, and have lunch. Tudor tastes the Slim Jim sausages…too spicy so gives them to the others. Ilan even opens his pad and takes a nap. We all lay down on rocks and take a nap or relax. To our pleasant surprise, we see clouds forming on the North rim and moving fast towards us. We decide to take the break until the clouds reach us so we can hike under their protective shade. At one point Tudor looks at his brother and sees some water leaking from under his backpack. "What’s that?!" and Stefan says: “My Dromedary is broken and it leaks”….. Tudor almost faint but is calmed down when Stefan explains he was joking. he was just sitting on the mouth pipe and opened so it leaked a bit…. very nice joke stefan!!!
After about two hours the sky is covered with clouds and we have replenish our batteries and we are ready to go. We all pack and get ready to start. Tudor prepares to put his 70 pounds backpack and to do this rests it on a rock…..after about 1 minute he puts his hand on it and feels something wet…..the entire bottom of the backpack is soaked and the rocks around are covered in water….he feel lightheaded, and knows what happened…..exactly the same thing that happened to his brother, stefan….the mouth pipe got squeezed on rocks and the water leaked out. he opens the zipper to the water compartment and….it couldn’t be worse – the entire Dromedary, 6 liters of water, is EMPTY!!!! left with only 1 liter of water in his Nalgene…..he relates what happens and all assure tudor that in between ourselves we have enough water even if we won’t find water until we hit the river which should happen sometimes in the afternoon of next day……we have no idea how wrong we are and that even this event in itself it could have coasted us dearly.
Anyway, we hit the trail again and have a nice hike for a few hours without the sun bothering us. It’s still quite hot but it’s OK. The trail takes us over a few drainages and we see very interesting rock formations. We find our pace, adapt to the weight and feel like we can hike forever. Ilan however shows signs of tiredness in the afternoon. Later in the afternoon we stop again for some water and food. We decide we are behind schedule but not too much….nothing compared to what is waiting for us in the next days. During this stop Stefan and Brian argue over whether or not we will find water in the Royal Arch drainage. Brian is hopeful we will find water and Tudor agree with him. Stefan thinks we won’t find…..they argue and Tudor says he don’t like it a bit – "I know we don’t need any kind of misunderstanding between ourselves if we want to make it out of here." As a consequence of this episode Stefan takes his backpack and starts hiking in front of us…Tudor tells him to wait for us but he doesn’t listen. Brian follows him and so do we all. Ilan looks really tired and Tudor stays behind with him. Ken is somewhere in front of us and the rest are way ahead.
Day 1 - towards drainage...
As we enter the Royal Arch drainage, Ilan trips across some rocks and starts to tumble out of control down the slope over sharp rocks and boulders, in front of Tudor. The weight of his backpack and his level of exhaustion makes him loose control. He finally stops and ends up sitting on his butt. almost sure he badly injured something, tudor rushs towards him to see if he is OK. Fortunately it seems to be only a quite large cut on his knee and a few other minor scratches….plus a huge amount of adrenaline flooding his brain which makes him light headed and pins him down for a while. tudor has him relax, gives him water and some power gel and start to dress his wound to avoid infection. After a while he is OK and they continue down the slope until reaching the drainage. The drainage is like a highway so we start moving faster. Soon they hear the others voices and realized that they stopped. As approaching them, stefan says they found water and a camp spot for the night.
The next day we wake in the morning and head off. The drainage is easy to follow even if cairns are very sparse. We find several water pools along the way and the water looks ok (if you filter and treat with iodine). At one point the drainage drops abruptly for about 100 feet. This can be avoided on both sides of the drainage - the left side goes over a 2-3 inches ledge over a 60-70 foot drop while the right side
(a newer route)looks better but still has substantial exposure and some crawling involved (it is also longer). We decide to skip the famed "ledge" and take the new detour that takes you to the right directly across from ledge. Some cool pics of ledge
come from another group's trip report
. Unfortunatelly, the cairns marking the route on the right side got us all confused. Brian Walt and Ilan decide to cut straight down at one cairn that looked like pointing towards the drainage. Stefan doesn't like the exposure combined with extremely loose rocks/soil and Tudor takes him and Ken further on the top until the decent to the drainage is decent enough. They backtrack and meet the other at the point of their descent. From here things got confusing as there is no clear route back in the Royal Arch drainage. We are wondering around on the top of the drainage trying to find a way down. Eventually we better track back to the drainage until we can enter somewhere. We do this but we have already wasted a lot of time. Our water is getting low and we decide to go back in the drainage until we find water pools - we do so and soon we are back at the 100 foot drop we had to go around (however now we are at the bottom of it). Until we filter water it'as almost 5PM and we haven't gone even 1 mile today. We go down another mile or so and decide to stop at a point where we find water. Tudor and Brian go down in the drainage to scope out the route for the next morning. They come over another big boulder and find a way around it on the left side of the drainage. We set-up camp, eat dinner and go to bed.
Over a very bad day......we gain about two miles of progress the ENTIRE day 2. We've spent a ton of time under the hot sun doing too much guessing where we are and not enough knowing. I know it sounds kind of pathetic, but it was our first time in the Grand Canyon and no GPS. In retrospect we should have taken the ledge - it is more exposed but we had a rope and it would have taken us straight back into the drainage which would have saved us a lot of time. We did poorly this day but our group starts to work better together.
We start off and take the bypass around the boulder we saw the day before - the bypass is a bit exposed but easy to negotiate without packs - we lower the backpaks without ropes and get down to the few pools of water that depending on the time of year, require different amounts of time to get through. Tudor and Brian scope the route and find a bypass around the pools. They both decide that it is too technical for some of the guys. Brian and Walt ended up taking this bypass and skipping the pools. Tudor takes he rest of us through the pools which takes a few hours. Shuttling gear, rope-lining the backpacks and having a lot of fun swimming in these pools etc…
Pools and Packs
Once that’s done though, follow the drainage. Finding your way in and out of drainage is challenging, as there are necessary bypasses to certain spots that you always have to make sure you follow BACK IN to the drainage. We failed to follow cairns back down into the drainage accidentally once and thought we could just stay up above it for the rest of the way around to the plateu that descends to the rappel, but were severely wrong. We wasted hours (in the sweltering sun) walking across 35 degree cactus/rock fields…in retrospect it was unwise, but we came to the canyon with the understanding that we’d have to be doing a bit of routefinding. In every situation, we ended up going back to the last cairn, and looking harder for the correct way. In this case, the correct way took us back into the drainage because despite the time gone by, we hadn’t made nearly as much progress as we thought we’re making.
After getting back in (at the right place mind you, which is very important, use cairns), we then saw obvious cairns at the bottom inside the drainage which we followed until we finally found the correct exit route of the drainage which would get us up and out and over to the plateu that leads to the rappel. In the end, we were so behind schedule that we decided to skip the ¼ mile out and back to the Royal Arch. Big dissaspointment for some, but others frankly didn’t care because of the stress and sun.
You hit a georgous view when you exit the drainage and we snapped a few pictures there.
Finally escaped the Royal Arch Drainage!
We then start down the plateu under shade and evening approaching. We snake our way towards the rappel and Brian scouts the way down. He comes back up suggesting that he ferry bags down to the rappel point because there's a dicey part for the people lacking climbing skills and he is also the only one wearing approach shoes giving him a lot more control. That starts to make everyone nervous and by the time we make it to the rappel ledge, it's dark as night...probably because it was night. Oh and more thing...we're out of water and thirsty - the night rappel pumps a lot of adrenaline in some of us and this dries out our throats even further.
The nerves induced by the dark rappel make the situation a little more tense and we're itching to get down to that water. Tudor sets-up the rappel and goes down first to belay the others. The rappel goes down without a hitch and we're convinced the knotted rope would have been just fine if it were daytime and you could actually see what you were downclimbing. Then we hit trail and start zigzaggin down to the beach, where the water will save us. We finally make it down, bloddy exhausted both physically and mentally, and probably dehydrated as well from this tough day of doing things wrong, and trying to make up for it.
Unfortunately as I go to scoop water from the river, as expected it's full of silt. We try to filter it and after a few pumps all our filters are cloged. By this time we're not happy campers and people are getting stressed. Usually about water. Ilan is so thirsty he just fills up a Nalgene with brown silty water, pops in two iodine tablets and some fruit punch gatorade powder and made a drink we will never forget. We waited 10 minutes instead of the recommended 30 and enjoyed every last drip of that fruit punch silt water. That flavor gatorade will always remind us of that moment now. We try to use everything we have (towels, tarps, clothes, etc) to pre-filter the river water - nothing works. Exhausted, we bed down and get some well-earned rest...but NOT BEFORE we fill up the bear buckets with water with the hope that the silt will sediment over night and we'll have something useful to filter from in the morning. Tudor wakes up in the middle of the night to pee and is clever enough to check the water in the buckets - it's all clear after only 3 hours.....great news.
Day 4 + All-Night Hike
Ahead of us is the Tonto trail and about ~20 miles of beating sun and poor water sources. We decide to change our plans and spend the day at the beach relaxing and recharging our batteries. The plan is to start on the Tonto at around 9PM and hike the entire night until we hit the South bass trail. We spend the morning swiming in the river (butt naked) waiving at river-rafting parties (still butt naked) filtering water and relaxing. In the afternoon, Stefan, Tudor and Walt decide to make the boulder hopping trek west to the Elves chasm, though Stefan tires part there and turns back deciding he'd rather use the day to rest as well. Tudor and Walt continue to the Elves Chasm and reach it around 5 PM - as they have to be back at the camp before night fall (7PM) they only have about 20-30 minutes to enjoy the waterfall. Tudor knows the pools and the fall from reading other route descriptions, swims in dissapears under the waterfall and comes out 20 feet up on the top of the fall. He jumps from there in the pool with a huge splash. Before they had back they fill up 12 liters of pristine water which doesn't need filtration. Having all not seen the Arch, Ken, Ilan and Brian make the tough decision to skip Elves Chasm as well, to stay for the day back at the river, replenishing water stores for the group, rehydrating, and resting. Brian scouts the route ahead and the plan is to make up lost time by leaving the river campsite at 10:30pm, and hike through the cool night by headlamp. Even though some spent the whole day filling water, we leave camp under full water capacity because Brian scouted some water not too far ahead (that didn't require 3 hours settling time!) on the way to garnett canyon. This will be an important water fill because the LONG DRY TONTO is ahead of us. One of the more potentially scary parts of the trails considering the amount of times we've hiked in the hot sun, and the times we've wished we had more water than we did. But hiking through the night hike was MEANT to alleviate some of that stress...
We lift packs as a soft drizzle starts at 10pm and head off. We hike off for about 40 minutes to the water source, and Ken starts filtering water without delay. It works fine but a bit slow. Tudor is looking around and like in a horror movies says that something is wrong - the water is not running and still it has a pristine appearance....no frogs, no bugs nothing. Ther rock is black but has white vines in it.....the other say it's just limestone. He thinks about the descriptions he read and after only 1 liter asks Ken to taste the water. Ken puts a little to his lips and dramatically spits it out and curses. Everyone gets a little silent...our intended water hole is deathly salty water!! The salt must be at the saturation limit - never tasted anything like this in our lives.
Considering the poor prospects for water ahead, we have no choice but to head back and fill anything empty at the river. Ilan completely empties his pack and we load every empty container into it. Brian, Ken and Ilan backtrack a ways until Brian finds a place where he can reach the river. He takes it all down, fills, and heads back up with the ~80 lb backpack. The three trade off the rediculous weight hopping over and around boulders to get back to the other 3 which were waiting on the rocks near the salty water trying to get a little sleep. We then all set off for the next canyon that almost became the demise of our trip...Garnett. However, the water issues throws us way behind schedule....it is now 1AM.
Finding route and cairns was hard enough during the day. Doing so at night, with various members heading off in all directions, still overwhelmed by heat, weight, and the fact that you're still burning through water...makes for an interesting time. Garnett proved especially taxing on the mental psyche of the group. We were working our way up the canyon, but kept losing the trail, and now had lost all sense of direction.
At 2:30 AM now (well behind anticipated pace), tempers flare and everyone grabs a seat, tired and nervous. Serious discussions ensue about whether to continue the trip, or whether to return to the safety of the Colorado, where there's at least (silty) water, and the ability to flag down help from rafters who we saw during our day on the river. Tudor, the organizer and appointed leader, dwells on the subject for some time and feels responsible for everyone's safety. Stefan speaks up though and says, despite the fact that we're not full on water, we do have about 3L each and so long as we can hit the south bass trail, can always make a run for the river, no matter how unappealing this sounds to everyone seen as though you lose something like a thousand feet, a few miles, and would have to wait for that water to settle anyways (and that's all *assuming* you're on the southbass trail! something we took for granted).
Debate ensues. At one point Tudor stands up and decides WE GO and starts trecking at a fast pace. All agree to go on because we're not completely empty on water. But the long dry tonto sits on all our minds...Luckily we find the route and cairns and we try to move as quickly as possible. Tudor is in front and as he moves he looks to his left and sees the river in the pitch black darkness. We were out of the Garnet for a while now but we hadn't realized it.
We are now on the Tonto and move fast protected by the night cool air and put a few miles behind us. As the sun starts to lighten the sky we are treated to a beautiful water hole, where we ditch the remaining river water and thank our lucky stars.
Because we had hiked through the entire night, everyone's a bit tired and we take a good nap around 7am. In retrospect, maybe we should have kept going so that we could nap during the hottest hours and put more trail behind us.
The tonto trail starts to take us in and out of small canyons with little to elevation changes. Luckily we also get a bit of rain from around 8-10AM. The ground is now spotted with new interesting sights, like 4-foot tall cacti that remind you of cartoon characters. We also see blue speckled in the dirt - rusty copper - when we move in and out of one particularly large canyon on the Tonto. We assume it's Copper Canyon. Which means we're making good time and the South bass trail should be just beyond the next divide, what we think is the Grand Scenic Divide
We continue around and now the sun's getting HOT. Most of us take down our packs at one minimally shady spot and Brian heads back along the trail a little to check out a small junction a few of us thought we saw. He comes back telling us the way is a little awkward, but he saw enough cairns going different directions to suggest we were now at the junction of the Southbass trail.
Enthused and motivated we pick up packs after enjoying a little scrunched up shade on some rocky seats and we move up. Our map suggests the trail leaves the creek bed and first goes up on the left (east) side of the canyon, and we look up to see what appears to be cairns up on a shelf on the left side. There's no obvious trail but we scramble up there and start heading deeper into the canyon on this ledge/shelf - several other cairns mark the way. We end up cutting back into the creek bed at some point and try making our way up there. We can see a flat wall (with the "nipple" sitting on top - called Mount Huethawali) at the back of the canyon and think we have to find the major switchback that takes us to the right and then up and over it.
Across the canyon, we see what could be the ledge comprising the single giant switchback...and as it's getting late though, we head into the canyon where we had already seen *water* and decide to camp there. With the IDEA that we knew the way out and we could simply relax that night and then find our way out of that canyon in the morning. Everybody is happy at the camp as it looked like we made-up for the slow days and we are on schedule to get out of the Canyon the next morning. Only Stefan, cautios as always questions our conviction that we are in the South bass canyon. How wrong we were and how right he was...
We awake and liesurly pack up and leave camp by ~8am. Heading up the creek bed towards the back of the canyon we scour for cairns or trail. Various groups of us are heading up the western walls, and scrambling the cliffs, assuming (for many reasons, including one DEVIOUS CAIRN deep towards the back of the canyon) that this is our way out. Brian gets up on the ledge we think comprises the switchback and appears to last long enough to curl around the divide, but he's up there forever with no communication. Turns out in boulder hopping, a hungry rattler had made a lunge for Brian, which he narrowly averted by changing trajectory in mid-air. What a true scare that would have become had he been bitten. When he comes back he and Tudor head back to scout the same route again....35degree slope, cacti, the whole story again....our judgement was already badly impaired. However, on this second trial, Tudor looks at the walls on the canyon and realizes they don't match with the map. There were many other much more obvious signs than this but we were all blind. The suspicion that we are in the wrong canyon becomes almost a fact now for everybody.
Back Wall of Copper Canyon!
When we finally all find eachother after various searches for signs of trail, everyone is exasperated and many are wondering whether we are in fact in the south bass canyon now. It is already 12 noon and we are at the exact same spot where we camped. One particularly scary proposal that came up was following the "southbass trail" down the drainage until we hit the water, where we could flag someone down, radio a ranger, and ask how the F--- to exit the damn southbass canyon. Seeing as though we weren't even IN the southbass, trying to use the copper canyon drainage (which didn't have the trail connecting to the river) could have gotten us in a LOT of trouble. Hikers have been known to make poor decisions when dehydrated and trying to reach the Colorado. We've since read advice of people who ARE on the correct trail/drainage from southbass to the river to be patient when downclimbing and make sure you find the cairns. Doing otherwise can take you somewhere you may never make it back from!
We discuss the landscape, the junction brian had seen, the shape of the Canyon wall and.....WE FINALLY DECIDE TO TAKE WHAT IS PROBABLY THE FIRST GOOD LOOK AT THE MAP. As we look, Stefan asks what the hell is Mount Huethawali doing straight behind the back canyon wall when it should be on our right have we been in the South Bass Canyon. (Not to mention, what a simple compass bearing would have told us....)
It takes a bit of discussing/arguing/mapreading/*going back to the last cairn* when it finally hits us all at once....we're in the COPPER CANYON! miles from the soutbass and our exit path! For some it was the nipple (Huethawali), others the distinct ridgeline of the divide/walls, others the angle of the canyon...regardless it all comes together. And we check our water stores (~3L each) and immediately hit the trail, partly mad at ourselves, partly just wanting to go.
Southbass trail looking towards the river
We're back on the Tonto around 2pm (our lungs are burning), and when we finally hit the southbass canyon, the trail leading up the canyon is as clear as day, and can be seen clearly snaking up the sides of the canyon. Brian leads us in alipine pace up the canyon, taking it nice and easy as the day slowly darkens as the sun sets. We never are able to lay our eyes on the back wall of the Southbass canyon because it's pitch dark by then. Regardless, we're ascending the giant switchback to light of our headlamps, and just wanting to get out, when a glorious lightning and thunderstorm erupts above our heads. It fills our ears and shakes us a little. We're tired and our water is getting low. It's only a matter of time when it runs out. Brian sets aside the most glorious L of water and adds the last of our gatorade to make us a present for our arrival on the esplanade.
When we hit the esplanade take to the ground where we sit to savor Brian's present to us all - 150 ml of Gatorade each. No liquid has ever tasted so good as gatorade on the royal arch loop of the grand canyon. We continue hiking the flat dark esplanade, one person always leads and calls out cairns. Finally, we hit the junction with the Royal Arch trail we encountered 6 days ago! Our way home is only another 1,000 or so vertical feet. We can taste it, so we don't even stop at the junction. The final climb to the trailhead is dark, steep, and exhausting. We've run out of water and that definitely slows us down, but doesn't stop us. When we nervously decided NOT to turn down the southbass trail for water at the river, and continue on with what we had up into the dark dry night, we made the rule that as soon as we lose our last drop of water, we drop bags wherever we are and continue on to the car for water. Adrenaline was pumping so hard though that that wasn't necessary. Walt and Stefan are first - we can see their head lamps in distance. Tudor si somewhere behind them alone in the night and Ilan, Ken and Brian are last. Everybody is exhausted. At one break point Ken sits straight in a cactus - doesn't matter anymore. We hit the cars at about midnight. Tudor get chills from the exhaustion and heads straight for the car to warm up. The rest drop bags on the tables and pull the liters and liters of wonderful clean water out of the car and start pouring into their mouths...
Wanting to get to yummy warm food and the always sought first meal out, we pack the car and hit the road. Stefan and Walt are driving the cars on the way back - they are flying over the dreadfull road not carring about anything anymore except for reaching civilization. Two hours to the GC village and then another hour or two in till we hit Denny's and our motel for the short stay of 4am - 11am. They're nice enough to charge us cheap for the short stay and let us sleep in another hour. We wake up and start driving to Las Vegas. We stop at the Hoover dam where Walt starts to feel very sick - as it turns out, while all the crap we put into us in the Canyon did nothing to us, he got Salmonella from our Denny's meal...and so did Stefan. We reach Las Vegas by night, we stop at the Bellagio and watch the famous fountains.....so much water wasted (we are by now all staunch conservationists).....
We head to the airport, say godbye and take our flights home. So goes the most challenging and rewarding trip many had done in some time...
Some words of advice...
- Read the cautions on the main route description
about water, route finding, etc.
- Once you make it into the Royal Arch drainage, never leave the drainage (except for some small loops that take you back in) until you hit the Royal Arch. We made this mistake of trying to find our own way up and out onto the plateu (skipping the Arch because of time) and it wasn't worth it! If you hit the Royal Arch, you'll probably have noticed many cairns along the way, including some larger cairns that show you how to scramble out of the drainage.
- Be wary of the SALTY water in garnett canyon. We also came across sulphorous water, that's best to avoid as well.
- We spent a full day trying to erroneously exit via Copper Canyon. This was largely due to failure to triangulate and use compass etc, though it was helped in part by the discovery by Brian of what appeared to be a junction leading into Copper. We also came across a RANDOM CAIRN DEEP IN COPPER.
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