North Rim Passage, Bright Angel to Saddle Mountain
212 May 1998 -- Trip Leader: Doug Nering
This hike has been in the research and planning process for many years. The trip will start at the South Rim and exit Grand Canyon at Saddle Mountain after 11 days of travel, mostly off-trail. From Phantom Ranch, the route will visit Clear Creek, Vishnu Creek, Asbestos Canyon, The Tabernacle, Unkar Delta, Basalt Canyon, Lava Creek and Carbon Creek. From this point the route will follow at or near the west bank of the Colorado River past the Little Colorado, Sixtymile, Malgosa and Kwagunt to Nankoweap Creek, up Nankoweap and over the Saddle Mountain saddle to the trailhead at Saddle Canyon. This will be similar in many places to George Steck's Nankoweap Canyon Loop from GCLH-II, but there will also be many differences. First, it will not be a loop; also, it will not follow the river as much as Steck's route. Fees will be $50 per person, depending on final details, plus shared travel expenses. Exact dates are pending permit availability; group size will be leader-plus-six. All participants must have prior Grand Canyon experience and will be subject to leader approval.
The leader has personal knowledge of about half of the route, so there will be some adventure and uncertainty involved. Route choices have been made to minimize risk, but difficulties, surprises, and obstacles are likely. Water is not expected to be a problem as the northern drainages should be full with spring snow-melt. Carrying 11 days of supplies will be a significant challenge. Planning, coordination and teamwork will help avoid excessive weight while assuring proper equipment and supplies.
A permit request was made for any 11-day period between the first of April and mid-May. The permit process was a little different from usual. Rather than getting a permit immediately, the NPS replied with a warning that such a trip was outside the norm and possibly dangerous, and requested assurance that the hikers were knowledgeable, experienced, and capable of completing this route. The dates granted were May 2 through 12 and five people signed on for this schedule. Later, as the trip date neared, two decided they would not be sufficiently prepared for a trip of this length and difficulty, and one more decided the time required would conflict with other obligations. In the end, one replacement hiker was recruited who, along with another, planned to exit at the halfway point by going out the Tanner Trail. Five of us started, three of whom were to complete the route. Coincidentally, the Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI) had a trip going from Nankoweap to Bright Angel trailhead with the last couple of days overlapping our trip.
2 May -- Where-oh-where is the leader? Answer: He is an hour behind the group. This is our first experience with the shuttle system to the Kaibab trailhead. The 4Runner is parked at the Backcountry Office where my Dad can find it and we have boarded the bus for the trailhead. ...No time for a phone call home, but there is a phone at the trailhead. Only... it's not working. The group is all down the trail and I can't call home. Well... I'm not leaving until I call, so I get back on the bus... ride back to the store, call home, catch the bus on the return, and start down the trail an hour later. This should not turn into a problem as we will be resting at Phantom Ranch all afternoon before starting up the Clear Creek Trail to camp at Sumner Wash.
Starting down at 9:00, I arrive at Phantom Ranch at 13:00. We rest, we talk, we drink, we eat, we listen to the ranger give a talk about fossils, we fix dinner, we load up with water for our overnight camp and leave at 18:30 in shade. With 4 liters of water, my pack weighs 59 pounds on the Phantom Ranch scale. The rocks still radiate and keep us warm as we go up. In twilight, we edge along under the Tapeats cliffs and meet a rattlesnake out hunting for dinner. We reach Sumner Wash camp in moonlight without need for flashlights. Space along the trail at the wash is a little tight and swarms of spiders crawl out from under the overhang nearby.
3 May -- A casual start the next day and plenty of time to get to Clear Creek. Just as we start out, a solo hiker comes headed for Phantom Ranch. Conversation reveals he lives at Phantom Ranch and has been up to Cheyava Falls. We also find that the GCFI group was at Clear Creek the day before and spent last night at Bright Angel Campground. I had expected to meet them on the trail today. ...So there is no chance to ask them about route details and water sources. We are on our own, which is OK with me. If we had the chance I would have asked, but I would really rather work through my own decisions.
Just beyond Zoroaster, I take time for an excursion to the Tapeats rim to scout a possible break. There's just a little too much cliff though. Did someone else have the same idea? We examine an old (heavyweight) tape-measure here, mysteriously inscribed "sign shop" and carefully reposition it as it was.
From the trail along the west rim of Clear Creek there is a good view of the east fork and we can see water flowing in the bed. This will be a convenient camp near water for our start the next day.
We reach Clear Creek by 12:00. Ed has been there awhile already. We find a shady spot and lunch, sleep, and drink some more. At 15:00 or so, another hiker arrives. Hes the first of a group coming from Bright Angel that morning. He looks toasted and the rest of the group must be doing even worse. Is it possible that he really said they left Bright Angel with 2 gallons of water each? No wonder they are all struggling. We watch the trail and soon several others appear above us. Not wanting to occupy a site we don't intend to use, and as the sun drops near the cliff, we pack up and go down the creek. We need to cross and so find a wide spot where it should not be so deep, but it's not an easy crossing, especially without shoes. There is an open agave pit on the flat just above the east fork. Theres also a spring in a stand of reeds here. We cross above it and go up to where the exit ravine joins the east fork. Up the gravel bed a little seems like a place we can camp and still be close to water.
This is as far as I have been before. The hike to Phantom Ranch was merely an approach; from Phantom to Clear Creek was a warm-up. Tomorrow I will find out whether I am really as prepared for big-time, off-trail exploration as I think or hope. The plan is to be up at 4 and start at 5. We exchange views on water for the next day. Its a long way to Vishnu and so the possibility of a dry-camp is quite real. Several in the group plan to carry 8 liters. My usual load for a day-and-half is 5 liters, but packs are heavy, distance is great and conditions are warm; tomorrow I plan to carry 6.