Deer Creek-Thunder River Loop, with a Descent of Upper Deer Creek

The standard disclaimer: Don’t take hiking or backpacking in the Grand Canyon, generally and with this route in particular, lightly. Poor preparation, insufficient skills, bad luck, illness, or injury, could lead to serious problems or death. Really. Don’t be stupid. Parents, note also that the following report is rated PG-13 for references, real or imaginary, to alcohol-use and “The Groover”, for language, and for photos of Bruce in a wetsuit.

Early rappel in the Middle Fork of Upper Deer Creek, Grand CanyonOver the past decade on multiple trips through the Grand Canyon, I’ve found myself hankering to complete the Deer Creek-Thunder River loop. But for me, the trek from the East Coast is often the hardest part, and while I tooled around South Rim routes, I thought about ways to lengthen DC-TR to make the best use of the trip out. Rich Rudow, with some amazing photos, and Todd Martin in his book Grand Canyoneering, helped solve that puzzle with an exposition of some of the Upper Deer Creek drainages. And after hiking together for the first time last Spring, Bob, Bruce, and I decided to test our ability to work together a bit further and include some technical components in a senior citizen trek. Thus sprouted our take on the Deer Creek-Thunder River loop with some modifications, including a decent of the Middle Fork of Upper Deer Creek and some exploration of Dry Lake and the approach to the Cranberry Route to prepare for future trips. The idea was explore some new areas (new for us), have some technical fun, and relax, all rolled up in one trip.

And, wow, what a trip! (Want to skip the boring narrative? Jump directly to photos.)

Monument Point, Grand Canyon, near the Bill Hall Trail trailhead

Bill Hall Trail near Monument Point

We met in Las Vegas, primarily to take advantage of Bruce’s truck and avoid a rental vehicle, not for convenience to the trailhead. Let me say that the jump seat of a Toyota Tacoma is no place for a guy who is 6’5” and 210 pounds (OK, 215 lbs.—that’s almost 98kg for my metric friends). I’m still not recovered from that portion of the trip. But nonetheless, we stocked up on a few perishables, water and headed on a three-state trip to the Bill Hall Trailhead, arriving well after dark and spending several hours preparing a gourmet meal that included several pounds of rosemary and thyme. (Bruce, we need to talk about that meal prep thing!)

On the Esplanade during a cache run - Grand CanyonWhat we called “Day 0” began the following morning. Given the length of the trip planned, and the more technical beginning which included the weight and bulk of wetsuits, ropes, harnesses, and hardware, we decided to do a quick run down to Surprise Valley to stash several pounds of food to be retrieved later. And since we were making a light run, we figure adding a couple cans of beer couldn’t hurt. Never having been to the area, even in retrospect, that seems like a good idea. But loading up the bags in the morning, I discovered a problem. I had fastidiously assembled the grub for the group, carefully titrating caloric intake, weight, and energy needs. Unfortunately I’d left 1/3 of the food cache, about 20% of the total,  sitting on my dining room table back in Burlington, VT. Suddenly calories were an issue. We schemed several ways to make up the calorie deficit without having to make an hour-plus run back to Freedonia. First, as Bruce had explained, we had each brought enough booze for three people. So barter was a real possibility. Second, since this zero-th day didn’t involve heavy packs, we could cheat ourselves of a few calories and

Food cache in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon cache–thanks for the popcorn tins, Mom!

try to add them into the real trip. Pure genius. And so we headed out on our 15-mile round trip with about 3,500 ft down and back up with less than full stoking—about a 4,000 calorie day on about 1,000 calories, most of them from perishables that another group was getting rid of. We also brought a few gallons of water to cache for a dry camp on the first night of the real itinerary. Well, I’m here to report that we survived that cache trip. But the deficit of calories and low glycogen reserves did make it a bit grueling on the way out. Thank goodness Bob had a package of cookies from his Southwest flight. If only he’d given me one… Cookie hoarding aside, it was good to see that we could all turn on the fat burners if necessary.

Day 1 began in earnest with us still several thousand calories below the trip requirement, but within acceptable tolerances (and with that extra booze to trade!). That was quickly remedied, though, by Catherine, a saintly hiker we’d met the day before. She not only plied us with a few extra freeze dried meals, some trail mix and a few energy bars, but also topped off our water giving us a nice safety margin. She even gave us a big roll of toilet paper—perhaps intending to send some sort of message. And so we began the trip with enough food, more than enough water, and we avoided the drive back out.

Despite the cache, with wetsuits, ropes, and other gear, we started with the biggest packs I’ve carried in recent years by a wide margin.

Despite the cache, our packs were ginormous. It’s just hard to get that XLT wetsuit down to a small size! Ropes and carabiners aren’t very compressible, either. The weight of the packs fortunately didn’t match the size, but they didn’t qualify as light. (That said, my pack was lighter than this emergency two-pack contraption on our Royal Arch trip last Spring.) We set out tracking the tire marks of the guy who’d left before us hauling a cart down the Bill Hall trail. A cart, really? Really! I wish I’d grabbed a picture of this. We’ve seen no news reports, and their vehicle was gone we exited several days later, so we assume they survived. But I did find a piece of the cart about a mile down, and I can’t help but wonder how big of a shit show that was getting it down the Redwall.

Coconino scramble on the Bill Hall Trail in the Grand Canyon

Bob on the Bill Hall Trail

This was a nice easy day down the Bill Hall trail, a couple miles up the Thunder River trail to the intersection with Middle Fork. From the intersection, we walked down about a mile or so, enjoying the scenery and the Esplanade. There were a couple of pour-offs to negotiate, the bigger one, we opted to thrash to the right rather than to the left (or rather than rappel). We began to encounter potholes of water which meant we wouldn’t be dry camping after all. None of these looked substantial enough that they’d be routinely reliable. But it did mean we could begin the following day well-hydrated, and that we wouldn’t have to top off once we started hitting pools near the top of the Redwall slot. After an easy day, we watched the sunset in the canyon, and had a few sips of scotch, brandy, and tequila. I couldn’t help but wonder what the heck were we doing with a full bar down here!? Fortunately, I did my part to reduce this unnecessary weight.

Dinner, a mile down the drainage at sunset

Having given ourselves a huge head start with the camp in the drainage, we took our time the morning of Day 2, timing it just about perfectly to finish the Supai thrash while temps were cool, but allowing air temps to warm up a bit before starting the Redwall slot.

We really liked the Supai scrambling, including a couple of short rappels. While someone coming only for the slots might find this Class 3 and 4 scrambling an annoyance, I relished the bouldering, occasional by-pass hunting, and general Grand-Canyon-ness through this layer.

Bob on rope in the Supai - Upper Deer Creek Middle Fork Grand Canyon

Bob on rope in the Supai

We got to the beginning of the Redwall, and stopped to don wetsuits, grab a quick snack, and make sure the blue bags were handy. Shortly after beginning the Redwall, we were wading through pools and would stay wet for the next five hours. Yes, we spent five hours getting through the Redwall. Partly this was getting accustomed to working together on the technical portions, and partly it was because we were just taking our time enjoying the slot, taking pictures, and even stopping just to grab a snack and be happy. The warmer air and water temps meant that the wetsuits kept us plenty warm, and we didn’t need speed to keep the body temps up. I won’t go through an exhaustive accounting of the rappels—buy Todd’s book for that, or check out more of our pictures.

Mike Rappelling in the Middle Fork of Upper Deer Creek

Mike, hoping it’s just gas.

We think we had one more rappel than mentioned in Grand Canyoneering. Perhaps this was a function of water levels which appeared substantially lower in some of the pools, or perhaps one could have been downclimbed with a bit more pressure to do so. But all in-all-in, the description provided a good idea of what was to come. This isn’t a book review, but one thing that would have been helpful is some indication of where key obstacles fit within the overall length of the slot just to best manage time and ensure we didn’t have to worry about getting out before dark. As it stands, a gross estimate would be that anyone prepared for this should easily be able to complete the Redwall portion in 5 hours. We were pretty confident it would have been less than 4 hours if we had wanted or needed to move faster. Generally the anchors in place were sound. We added a rapide here, backed up there, cleaned some webbing, and built one new anchor. While we didn’t use most of the anchor-building material, I wouldn’t enter this slot without the ability to reconstruct everything—too much potential for scouring water events to make everything unusable.

In the narrow of the Middle Fork of Upper Deer Creek

Bob, starting a short swim

Bruce under a chockstone canopy

Canyoneers should be familiar with the “last man at risk” technique. We morphed that into the “fat man at risk” technique. Oddly, I was arguably the poorest climber (Bob was clearly the best) in the group, especially with some shoulder pain that I brought along for the ride. However, weighing 50 lbs more than Bob and Bruce, I frequently got to serve as either the first-down anchor tester, or as a meat anchor on some of the shorter drops. It worked fine.  And being taller than the average bear, sometimes what for most would  be free air to the next foothold was just a long step down for me.

Somewhere at the bottom of one of the early raps, in a pool, lies an ATC-XP which I dropped. Duh! I spent some time diving for it, but I was feeling around blind in the 7-foot water depth pool with Bruce standing on my back to overcome the neoprene buoyancy, and I came up empty. Hey Mike, don’t forget to keep that wire behind the gate as you hop off rope, even if–or especially if–you’re getting off-rope in chocolate milk. Word to the wise, anyone should have a backup plan or two, be it a carabiner brake, a Munter hitch, or backup device. This was still several big raps from the end.

Technical Descent in the Middle Fork of Upper Deer Creek

Mike, a few moments before dropping his belay device

Bruce in the “Keeper” pothole, the last major obstacle of the Redwall slot.

For me, the biggest excitement of the day came near the end when Bruce’s foot slipped at the top of the second biggest drop and he wound up hanging with one foot stuck way above his head.  Good reason to have a back-up. And good that his deft yoga-like maneuvers got him out of that mess quickly. But the oracle’s message, “Yer Gonna Die” did ring out momentarily.

We did not get to test escape strategies from the potential keeper pothole at the end. Clearly this is a deep one, but it was full of water and an easy swim to exit.

On exiting an amazing slot, we scrambled several hundred yards to the confluence with the Western Fork, and celebrated a great day (and only a couple minor drybag failures).

Day 3 was a great scramble down the UDC drainage. Lots of bouldering, route finding around chockstones, and generally just a treat. It was about three hours on the button down the drainage to Deer Spring. This pulled us into the Deer Creek campsite before noon, with plenty of time to relax before heading up to Surprise Valley to retrieve our cache. Hanging out on the Patio is not an unpleasant way to spend a hot early afternoon.

More fun in the UDC drainage

A lot of what we call fun

Around 3:30, we started to hike out bringing wetsuits, rope, and such along to cache for the trip out later. In a chance greeting on the trail out of camp, though, Sandy L. from a private rafting party offered to haul out wetsuits and rope and mail them to us. It took me about 0.003 seconds to accept! What a treat, saving about 10 miles and 4000’ of lugging this.

Retrieving the cache, we returned to camp, ate, and then after dark watched a huge group slowly make its way down the slope from Surprise Valley by headlight.

The Deer Creek “Patio”

Bob at Deer Creek Falls

Day 4 was a Deer Creek layover. Originally, we’d planned to descend the Deer Creek Narrows (and thus couldn’t have given away our technical gear), maybe even a couple of times. Unfortunately, the NPS closed this section a few months earlier (in a hasty decision arrived at without public input—boo hiss).

Thanks to our favorite AZRA guide, for the cold ones! A toast to the rafters.

Instead, we hiked up to Dry Lake. We never really did find an active or clearly identifiable route out there, and save for one small-cairned stretch, we picked a few roughly equivalent options on our own. Walking through Dry Lake to get a glimpse of the mouth of Cranberry Canyon, and an alternative route out, Bob and I did stumble across a herd of maybe a dozen bighorns. After poking around that area, we returned to Deer Creek for another leisurely afternoon on the Patio and at the falls. And continuing to experience the kindness of strangers, we were very thankful for the gift of Budweisers from an AZRA trip. I’m not a Bud guy, but a couple cold ones on a hot day is nice! Thank you!

All this time lounging around led to interesting conversation on the genesis of “The Groover” and other river tales from Bob, a variety of bad jokes, and a lot of talk of Olo.

Grand Canyon Bighorn Deer Creek Tapeats River Route

A bighorn walked right up to within 20 feet of us as we contoured around from Deer Creek to Tapeats

Day 5 was a trip along the river to Tapeats Creek. In an ironic twist, on a trip the NPS called “Excessively Dangerous” on our permit, and having just done a lot of off-trail hiking over 3 days, I took a slide as a crumbly part of a trail gave out and started me on a 10 foot slide down some sharp scree resulting in a some nice road rash. Or limestone rash. Be careful out there!

The river route was nice, and we stayed as low as possible enjoying the change and the rock hopping along the Colorado. Following a footpath along the side of Tapeats creek, Bob and I found ourselves entering the narrows and water approaching my waist…where we turned around and hopped up the trail heading up to Upper Tapeats—a hot afternoon made quiet pleasant by the cold clear water.

Tapeats Creek crossing

Day 6 was an early out. The packs still looked big, but they weren’t heavy. We had accumulated a bit of trail litter (including a piece of that cart, random plastic bits, a few plastic bottles along the river, and the remains of a mylar balloon, perhaps from some birthday party in San Jose). Hitting the trail in the pre-dawn moonlight, and passing Thunder River before the sun was thinking about hitting the drainage, we stopped for a leisurely (there’s that word again—what a great relaxing trip!) breakfast in Surprise Valley, tackled the south-facing Redwall before it got hot, revisted that Esplanade, and had an easy hike up the Coconino and through the Toroweap back to the BH trailhead before lunch. By this time, we’d already gotten well into our discussion of the next trip, agreeing to HTFU, relax less, and loop in several more slots.

Thunder River - Grand Canyon October 2012

Thunder River in the early morning light, before the sun cleared the ridge.

On exit, we discovered that somewhere around the beginning of the trip, Day 0, Bruce lost his wallet up on the rim. Anybody find it?

You can check out a more complete set of photos of the trip, including a number from the Middle Fork with approach and exit. Bruce and Bob have some great shots, too!

The Exit--Bill Hall Trailhead - Team HTFU

On exit, via the Bill Hall trail, with clean shirts, big smiles, and semi-cool beer!

A big thanks to many, including Rich, Dan, Brian, and Todd-via-his-book for the MF beta and suggestions. [Rich, we’ll try the approach via Indian Hollow/Vaughn Spring later—but we did really like the slog through the Supai in the MF drainage—go figure!]. Thanks to the unnamed group for the hummus wraps, a huge thanks to Catherine O for the supplies saving us the trip into town. Thanks Sandy for your wetsuit/rope hauling. Thanks to Deti (spelling?) of AZRA for those Budweisers. Thanks to those who bumped into us for the conversation and for putting up with the smell. And thanks especially to Bob and Bruce for a gosh-darned great trip!



About Mike Rogers

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6 Responses to Deer Creek-Thunder River Loop, with a Descent of Upper Deer Creek

  1. Tim miller says:

    Sounds like great fun! I would live to hike the Grand Canyon…. It seems like you guys like to make it quite a challenge for yourself!

    • Mike Rogers says:

      Hey, Timmiller, time to come aboard for the big win! One of my Spring trips should be just the ticket…although I must confess that it has very little to do with basketball.

  2. Maggie says:

    So impressive!!!

  3. Tom Conlon says:

    Mike, you dogs! Great story and photos… Bighorn! Clearly an awesome trip!

    You remind me that part of the world is otherworldly and “excessively dangerous” in more ways than one. Passing through the North Rim on a cross-country adventure back in ’89, some friends and I were determined to get down to the bottom of the Canyon one way or another. It was high summer, but we were a volatile mix of young and ambitious. Lucky for us we met up with a crazy old Marine and his wife from Japan who both insisted (rightly so) that the only way to do the Canyon during that time of year was at night. He recommended Toroweap Overlook, way out in Paiute country, not far downriver from where you all just were. In those days there were only two or three very primitive campsites out there, and up the road, the legendary park ranger John Riffey had just died and a new ranger had recently moved into his house. So we drove on out there, ate an early dinner, packed light, and took on that sheer, sharp, and unstable cliff with just 30′ of rope and little else but our grins and the moonlight.

    Before we left at dusk, we checked in with the new ranger and he said it wasn’t so much a “trail” as an emergency evacuation route for desperate river rafters, and that if we decided to go for it we’d never forget it as it would probably be the most challenging “hike” of our lives. Being much wiser than me, my new bride decided to spend the night alone up on the rim… “with Coyote” she said.

    Well that ranger was right, and though the remaining four of us started out strong, the jelly-legs soon kicked in and our guides gave up about half-way down. Fearless (foolish?) my buddy and I kept going and finally made it all the way down, although that last 30 feet did take us about an hour… but we just weren’t prepared to die, or to turn-around.

    Our sweet reward was a short — but at least horizontal — nap on the most beautiful moonlit sandbar of my life. The next morning, with gravity on our side, we hiked back out much more easily, racing the rising sun.

    Nine months later my wife had a baby girl… and though she looks just like me I still can’t help wondering if that moon or that trickster Coyote didn’t somehow have something to do with it.

    Viva el Arroyo!

  4. David says:

    What a great trip report. A great mixture of adventure, sweat and a good head! I have done the deer creek – TR loop a number of times but never with the approach you took!. You should retell this story for a lifetime!

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