Well, I did it again. I went back to the scene where it all started with John and I a decade ago. The New Hance trailhead. (Been through here several times, including this same itinerary, but very different trip, a couple years ago.)
This time around we had a great group of 11, including 6 GC newbies, and 4 veterans who hadn’t previously been down Red Canyon. Summary: “It’s so pretty.” Longer summary: A great trip, beautiful canyon, the plague, and laughing until our jaws ached.
And now for the even longer summary…
Sydney, Krista, Amy, Liz, Emily, Mike S. (Mike the Old), Jason, Malcolm, July, Jesse, and I met in Phoenix as we arrived from hither, thither, and yon. After a mediocre hotel buffet breakfast, we drove up to Flagstaff for a few items and to stop off for the traditional Thai lunch before heading for a pre-departure night on the rim.
I mention the Thai lunch in particular this year since it was an early suspect in a thread that ran throughout the trip…
Now, I’m not an epidemiologist, and we have no samples to confirm or refute the hypothesis. But the working theory for the first part of the trip was that a couple of us picked us food poisoning at the lunch. By a couple of us, I mean Malcolm and I. My symptoms started with some evening rumblings and than exploded just after 1am on a cold night in the campground. And I mean exploded. I was up once an hour losing it out the back end, and that switched to front and back around 5am. Malcolm joined in the fun around 6am. I had eaten Malcolm’s leftover Pad Thai (I ate most people’s leftovers!), hence the early blame on the Thai food.
Why this preamble? Because it made for a grueling first day for me.
Monday, March 25
I’ve been lucky enough to never really get sick while backpacking. I knew I was in rough shape having lost the previous day’s meals and unable to keep anything down (or keep it in, if it somehow stayed down). Now, the prudent thing in a case like this would be to wait it out–not to go backpacking. And yet I decided to stick with the plan. (Malcolm and dad Jason, very prudently decided to wait a day.) I really don’t encourage this. I made a conscious decision based on the fact that I’d trained hard for a trip the following week, and I was in the best canyon shape of the last 10 years. I knew the route and what it entailed. And while they
didn’t know the route, I had several experienced backpackers with as a safety net (including someone with a wilderness EMT cert) on an established trail. So I decided to see just how miserable it would be as an experiment for someday when I might have to do this without the cushion.
It was a tough day for me. I’d been able to keep down 1/2 piece of toast. I started dehydrated, and couldn’t get hydrated. And as such, I suffered. (I repeat–do not do this. If you are sick, you’re better waiting it out or canceling. If it had been 20 degrees warmer, this could have been downright dangerous. Do not do this.) It was good to find out what I could do. But for me, that first day sure wasn’t much fun.
Fortunately, most others had fun (even while keeping a watchful eye on me). I still think the New Hance trail is a great introduction to the backcountry of the Grand Canyon, away from the wide, busy Corridor trails. And combined with the Grandview exit into a loop, it’s a fantastic trip. [Caveat: this doesn’t mean the loop is “easy”. The NPS would say it’s for experienced–and fit–canyon goers only. If you’re new to backpacking, the Grand Canyon, or not in good shape, stick to one of the Corridor trails. And there is a huge difference between early April and the furnace of the summer months. Do your research and know your capabilities.]
Big groups move more slowly (even without a hobbled leader). With a very late start sorting out the illness issue, and a slower speed, we didn’t make it all the way down to the river on the first day. Instead, we stopped at the point where the trail drops into the stream bed–and indeed the spring was flowing enough to make an overnight easy.
Serenaded by Herbert the Frog and the Hoppy Choir, we got to see a few star before the nearly full moon turned on the lights. The group retrospectively decided they liked stopping here rather than at the river since it gave them a different camping spot and different feel. I guess that’s part of the introduction! I understand folks had a good dinner (and Amy broke her spork)–however, unable to eat, I laid down for the night at 6pm, stirred a bit as others were calling it a night, and then stayed put until morning.
Speaking of serenades, on the drive up from Phoenix, Krista had purchased 11 little stuffed animal keychains. That’s bad enough. Worse, they were wearing bunny ears. Worse yet, when squeezed, they chirped and belted out “Happy Easter”. Every one was duly issued bunny-eared fluffy, and from time to time, we’d be treated with the insidious tweet. Maybe being in my zombielike state, insulated from perception, wasn’t such a bad thing after all!
Tuesday, March 26
Before setting out, the crack team of Mike, Mike, and Jesse threw everything they had at repairing Amy’s spork. Super Glue didn’t seem to work on its own. But the combination of Super Glue, melting, and duct tape holding splits fashioned from a zip-tie held–and would hold for the remainder of the trip.
Day 2 was now an easy stroll to the river, and a nice side trip to Papago slide and wall. I pointed the way. Feeling marginally better, and finally able to keep a little food down, I nonetheless wanted to rest. For me, this was supposed to be an easy warm-up trip for a longer trip the following week. But without food or water I was working too hard.
So I pointed folks on their way, suggested a few things to look for, and hung out with July in the shade. Alas, it seems July wasn’t feeling well either. Sydney stayed behind to make sure we didn’t steal her stuff.
By all accounts, the trip to Papago was a hit. It’s a fun side trip for folks who haven’t been that way, and walking further upriver you can get a taste of the difference between Marble Canyon and the Inner Gorge.
Returning to the beach camp, several folks got to see a rafting party run Hance Rapids, and while there, they ran into a couple of backpackers–Jason and Malcolm looking good and joining up a day into the jaunt.
Not part of my regular routine, the day hike was followed with yoga on the beach. I would have preferred some yogurt on the beach to start rebuilding the intestinal flora.
Remember Amy’s spork? Did I mention it was red plastic? Piling on to the eating apparatus woes, Emily’s red plastic spork broke. A few other’s had the same model, but different color. Theirs didn’t break. We might commission a study to examine this. But I’ll stick with my titanium model.
After dinner, it was again a challenge for folks to stay up past 7:30 pm, although a few of the gals enjoyed a Guinness generously donated by a passing kayaker, and Liz did give a good lesson in stars and constellations (there was a quiz).
Wednesday, March 27
Wednesday was the relatively easy 6 miles or so marking the beginning of the Tonto trail, from Hance Rapids through Mineral Canyon and to Hance Creek. After the quick climb up, the hike becomes typical Tonto walking, and a generally defined trail (pay attention when dropping to the bottom of major drainages so you know where to pick the trail up on the other side).
This simple hike had been built in as a rest and recovery day. The Hance Creek area was quiet and we had our pick of sites, choosing the nice area near the big cottonwood tree. The afternoon was resting, some light poking around, and watching the 14-year old Malcolm be the most mature contributor to our cocktail hour conversation. And there were indeed some light cocktails. Using this as a warmup trip, I had gladly carried some extra weight in the form of Patron and fresh limes. Chilled in the creek, and mixed with just a splash of lemonade. I was even feeling well enough to have half a drink myself.
One of the things we noticed at Hance Creek–something I hadn’t seen in four previous visits–was that there were a lot of visible poop holes. And as evidenced by some dried out TP some folks apparently hadn’t followed the rules pack out used toilet paper. Digging into a previous hole isn’t much fun. Jesse observed, “People really need to learn to chew their food.” Thankfully, I don’t have a picture to illustrate.
On the health front, July seemed bouncing back, Malcolm recovered lightning fast like a teenager. And I wasn’t as queasy eating. I almost got to the fully hydrated point.
Thursday, March 28
With a group of mixed abilities and experience in particular, having a couple days built in that let people go at their own level helps keep everyone happy. This day involved a day trip down Hance Creek–destination Sockdolager Rapids or anywhere before that.
After breakfast and a leisurely start-up, we heading downstream.
Even just heading down the creek for a couple miles is a good chance to walk through changing layers and try your hand at some off-trail hiking. Heading down Hance Creek, you eventually hit a couple of pour-offs where you can either turn around, or take a couple of bypasses (the first, canyon right; the second, a very short distance further, canyon left).
We started together eventually splitting into three groups as people hit their comfort limits. I finally got my glimpse of the rapids this time around with the forward group, and walked back to camp with something like an appetite for the first time in days. With three of us on the mend, we also had a new mantra: Happiness is a dry fart.
As we prepared dinner and took care of other chores, the group had a strong preference that I not wear my ballet outfit.
We wrapped up the day with more silliness, dinner with Ranger Ross, and an agreement to get up and on the trail earlier than the previous days.
Friday, March 29
The hike out.
I like the hike out. No, not because it means I’m done. I just like the heart pounding push. And exiting Grandview gives one the chance to exit at one of the higher elevations on the South Rim. Of course, as the name would suggest, it also offers some rather…er…grand views.
Before that though, we got to see Jesse, hereafter known as Shivering Cold Ultralight guy, hunkered down in July’s sleeping bag for an hour or so. Apparently his 3 oz. quilt (I might be exaggerating a bit) hadn’t kept him warm enough after about 4am. His pack was impressively light, though!
We saddled up and started the short contour around to Page Spring. Once hitting the Page Spring drainage, the trail steadily steepens until it becomes a series of tight switchbacks climbing through a break in the red wall that isn’t immediately apparent from a distance. Passing the mine you pop out onto the beginning of Horseshoe Mesa. The stroll through the Supai here is mostly a gentle sweep followed by the start of Grandview Switchback Hell. Especially as one hits the cobbled trail. I’d rather hop rock to rock.
For first-time friends going up this trail I like to stop at the saddle right before we head into the Coconino and make them a bowl of soup. It just seems so civilized, and it’s a great place to break the climb and catch your breathe for ten minutes (unless you’re on a tequila run–but that was the 2011 story!).
Alas, Thai fever (which by now seemed much less like food poisoning and more like a nasty Norovirus) had now migrated to Jason. He didn’t seem hit as bad as Malcolm or I, but I’m sure it didn’t make the climb out to 7,400 ft very pleasant for him.
Another funny thing about exiting Grandview on a sunny day is the questions from the Hole Peepers on and near the rim, amazed that people would actually walk down there let alone stay over night. I’m reminded of Night Rider’s Lament by Michael Burton (I’m partial to the Nancy Griffith version).
But he’s never seen the Northern Lights
Never seen a hawk on the wing
He’s never seen Spring hit the Great Divide
And never heard Ol’ Camp Cookie sing
We made it out. Lunched in Flag. Had a good dinner in Phoenix (it turns out there actually are a few good restaurants there).
Reinforcing the virus rather than food-poisoning theory, Jesse and Sydney each got sick with the same dreadful symptoms within 24 hours of exiting. Most unpleasant. But perhaps more bearable with a nice bed and modern plumbing!
I lost about 8 pounds in 4 1/2 days on what I consider a fairly easy trip. I really suffered the first day. But it was good testing my own limits a bit, in that scenario. And it was great spending time in an amazing place with an awesome group of friends. The illness took a bit of a toll on my conditioning, and it hurt me the following week. But I’m glad I led the trip–and I hope they are, too! [It’s a wonder that with a max permit size of 11 there’s a waiting list to join me on a sh*tshow like this?!]
[Next up: the story of the SOB-Matkat-Panameta trip which started the next day.]