Last Spring, Bruce and I shortened a planned Grand Canyon trip and dropped Olo Canyon from our itinerary. The remaining trip down SOB to Matkat and Panameta canyons was amazing. But we still wanted to visit Olo. So did Bob, who accompanied us only in two-dimensional form (Flat Bob).
And so we set out again. As it turned out, just in the nick of time, too, just two days before Congress decided that it was OK to shut down the government and deny folks access to their national parks.
The trip required about 40 miles(Bob’s number–Mike puts it at 50) of walking, scrambling, rappelling, climbing, almost none of it on an engineered trail, as well as about 4 miles of travel on and across the Colorado River. Being old, and more importantly, weak, we didn’t think we could do this in 4 or 5 days. OK, I’m speaking for myself on that. Nonetheless, we planned for seven and a half days. That meant seven and a half days worth of food. And more. In addition to the harness, hardware, ropes, wetsuits, rafts, paddles, etc., we had the standard lightweight backpacking gear, and our dry packs tipped the scales at 50lbs +/-. When the packs got wet, well, they weighed more.
While the previous weeks had dumped a lot of rain in the area, the monsoon season seemed over and we had a clear forecast for the length of our trip. Fleeing our Las Vegas assembly point, we headed to the rim, including the final 50 miles of dirt road—the last 15 or so of which was pretty rough—to the 150-Mile (SOB) Canyon trailhead.
On a cloudless Monday morning, we set out early, hoping to make it to just above the river. Following the steep descent through the Coconino on an older stock herder trail and then rock-hopping down the drainage through the Supai, we hit the Redwall layer and the start of the narrows well before noon.
The recent rain meant lots of flowers were out, and we also noticed a large population of caterpillars of various sorts, something we hadn’t seen much of on past GC forays.
Hitting the floor of the canyon our suspicions were confirmed. This was going to be a much wetter trip through SOB than Bruce and I experienced in the Spring. Then, we did it in shorts and a t-shirt, getting wet, even swimming once, but spending more time out of the water than in it. This go, the water was deeper and colder. We quickly decided to don wetsuits, and not once did we feel overheated or regret that decision.
Along the way, we found casualties of the recent high water: a dead bat, a dead bird, and (we think) a largely decomposed ringtail cat (mmm).
SOB’s Redwall narrows don’t feature monster rappels that adrenaline junkies might insist on for the cool factor. It is just five short rappels, no longer than 25′, at a series of chockstones. But the slot does feature long lengths of serpentine, polished limestone. Narrow and beautiful, it goes on and on. And as I mentioned, it was wet. On last Spring’s trip, there was only one stretch of water where I briefly couldn’t touch bottom. This time, I counted 7 swimmers. Each was short, but deep enough to require kicks rather than walking. In much of the Redwall narrows the water was gently flowing rather than just in the form of discrete pools. Just a few gallons per minute, but flowing.
As the Redwall ends, the canyon widens a bit, but the Temple Butte has some nice scrambling and a couple of nice rappels. We again skipped the TB rappels here primarily to get a good bead on the bypass route. ‘Tis a shame. The 70’ rap from a polished alcove and down a chute is a nice one, my favorite in SOB. However, last Spring, Bruce and I missed the bypass on the way back up and resorted to a seriously sketchy free climb on crappy, crumbly rock. We didn’t want to repeat that and wanted to be quite sure of the route on the way back up so we could make time if needed. Probably unnecessary, and I wouldn’t go down the bypass again if I could avoid it, but it was nice knowing exactly where to head up when we returned on the exit.
Eventually, we got down to the Muav layer and called it a day at a convenient camping location a few hundred yards from the Colorado River, right below the route we’d take to walk upstream the following day. Early to bed and early to rise became our pattern. And I mean early to rise. Like 3am early. Pass out early. Wake up hours before light. I guess I should have brought a book! (As if I needed more weight.)
We set out at 7am to pick our way along the river to a point about ¾ mile upstream where we would inflate rafts and cross the Colorado. And so we did, jumping into what Bob referred to as our inflatable shower curtains. Upstream, we could see a narrow rectangle of sunlight on the Colorado that represented Matkat’s narrow mouth. Once across, we scrambled further upstream, peeking into the Matkat narrows which we’d all visited previously, and continuing up Matkat canyon.
Like SOB, Matkat seemed wetter than last spring. It doesn’t have the tight narrows of the other canyons we visited this trip, but it has some nice boulder problems, and it is the GFC after all, so there’s plenty of interest if you look for it.
We figured this was an easy day. As easy as rock hopping for many hours with 50 lbs on our backs while gaining a couple thousand feet can be.
After reaching far up into Matkat and finding the break to take us up into the Supai, we slogged, I mean frolicked, along the interwoven burro paths around to the head of Panameta Canyon. 6pm. We were all glad to drop the bags on top to the Redwall and call it a day.
After a night of harassment by the local mosquito population, we deliberately held back the start time, hoping the sun would warm the notoriously cold Panameta narrows, and hoping to time the circle back through the Supai for the late afternoon rather than in the noonday sun.
Panameta was just as awesome as last time. It’s a short section of Redwall narrows, but it’s jam-packed with fun downclimbs, slides, short jumps, and rappels ranging up to 100’, one right after the other. Every few steps you’re doing something different. It was a great slot to revisit. The water didn’t seem as cold as last time—although I imagine it will be bitter cold in a month as nighttime temperatures drop.
The pass through the narrows took almost four hours, but we were hardly rushing. Instead we were smiling. Well for most of it. At one point I snagged my wetsuit with a horn of my belay device while starting a rap and struggled for a moment to avoid compounding the neoprene tear. Then on the longest rap, while belly sliding on a tricky start, I flipped the rope on my ATS into a strange looking position. It still had friction, but I wasn’t confident it would stay that way. I was able to self-rescue (there’s a good skill to have!) with the added comfort of a quick belay line tossed down from Bob as a back-up.
I’d never used the ATS before, and this was to be the practice trip to get used to different friction settings. I like it a lot—and I liked it more as the trip progressed, and I gained familiarity with its features. But the freaky rope rearrangement on that rap was more than I was looking for at the beginning.
Finishing the narrows, we hopped down the wider part of Panameta back to Matkat for the loop back around.
Just up Matkat from the confluence of these two arms is a wide, flat section of nicely compacted gravel. Very easy walking. Perhaps the easiest of the trip. And it was precisely at this point that I sprained my ankle.
It was a mild enough sprain, but it completely took away any stability in my left ankle, which would hurt for the remainder of the trip. I was familiar enough with it not to be overly concerned, but it was a real PITA. (The “A” stands for “Ankle”, too.)
The stroll through lower Panameta, up Matkat, and around Burroland took about five hours. It was a lot easier without full packs, but our easiest day so far was still nine hours.
After our first “easy” day, we planned another easy one up and down sections to the Sinyala fault and over to the head of Olo. We did get a pretty early start hoping to gain most of the day’s elevation climbing up Panameta’s northern arm in the shade.
The burros have really done a number on the lower section there, beating the ground into dust. As the slope steepens, though, the boulders get bigger and the going more jangled. I loved that section. It’s a fun climb up, even when Bob decides we ought to take the more difficult routes up some of the cliff bands. Bob is apparently part mountain goat, and he just feels safer walking where no other mammals—or no other humans—can.
On the final approach to the Chikipanagi Mesa (where we hit a relatively flat section of the Supai in between lobes of the Sinyala Fault), Bob also then had us christen the Davis Route, a longer, more circuitous route. (OK, it probably added a mere 10 minutes to our day.)
The stay up on the mesa was very brief as we found an easy way to follow the fault down the other side. It was about half way down the fault that I stepped on a very obvious foothold as part of a large bolder only to have that piece of rock break away completely and send me, my enormous pack, and my shin and knee crashing hard into a rock. Judging by the knee pain and the big goose egg on my shin, I consider myself lucky not to have broken my leg.
Just a few minutes later I walked within a few inches of a rattlesnake, apparently startling it—hey, I’m big, I was unshaven, and I didn’t smell good. I would have startled you, too. It was all enough to encourage the snake to slither away, and Bob was able to capture it on camera.
Not in a big hurry—it was an easy day, remember—we took a long break at a little shady oasis next to a trickling seep and under a scrawny cottonwood. We figured we had at most a couple of hours to go, and likely much less than that, so why battle the open Supai stretch in full sun. Besides, my knee hurt.
We got going again, and now my hubris really caught up with me. Unfortunately, it caught up with Bruce, too. I should have taped my ankle that morning. I’d been focusing hard to compensate for the lack of stability, and of course as we regained the game trail and the walking got easier I let my attention wander and immediately rolled the ankle again. I stumbled into Bruce who was a bit surprised to have 250lbs of Mike+Pack crash into him from behind. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt. The conclusion was clear. I had to tape that ankle before someone died.
Leaving the Supai seep, we decided not to tank up with extra water weight. Hiking with limited water is always a risk in the GC, but we had seen plentiful water from the recent monsoons in the other drainages and we were hoping to find more above the Redwall in Olo, where we planned to camp.
Well, we struck out up high in Olo. Bruce and Bob searched for about 20 minutes. Plenty of gravel bars but no productive potholes. No liquid. We were down to a scant liter each. We had intended to camp here, but now we didn’t have the water to do that. There were two choices. We could head back to the seep and haul water back, a two-hour round trip. Or we could jump into Olo—well rap into Olo since the first step is about 100’—and continue down canyon until we found water.
Now, what should have been a high point for me—the big free-hanging drop into Olo—was the low point. My ankle hurt, and I knew it was trashed for the remainder of the trip. My knee hurt from the fall a couple hours earlier. And that was all distracting. So I asked for Bob’s and Bruce’s patience and lowered my pack here rather than rapping down with it. It’s mentally exhausting hiking in the GFC with an injured and unstable leg. I just wanted to minimize the chance of problems and get down safely despite my distractions. And I got nothing but the help I needed at this point from both of them.
At the bottom, the “Vitamin I” was kicking in, the water meant we were well hydrated, and we were in a nice slot. It had been a tough couple of hours for me, but I got over that, and whether it was just the enjoyment of the slot, the fun of problem solving at an unexpected rap, or the lizard brain kicking in, the worst was over.
(On that “unexpected rap” part, here’s an important reminder. Having good beta is nice, but conditions in slots can change significantly and quickly, and you need to be prepared for the unexpected. And speaking of good beta, for canyoneering in the GC, there’s no better place to start than with Todd’s book.)
While the Redwall narrows of Olo are very short, they’re a good start to a great canyon to descend. Before it got dark, we walked a couple hours further to a comfortable camping spot, stopping so we could enjoy the remainder of Olo well-rested and in the light.
Olo’s Redwall narrows end mighty quickly. But without a doubt, they’re better than sitting at a desk. Plus, you don’t have to wait long for additional sporty bits. The Temple Butte layer of Olo offers more narrows, and even the wider sections are fun walking and scrambling. And the Temple Butte gives way to more fun in the Muav layer, too. It’s a spectacular canyon.
Along the way, we refurbished one rappel anchor and picked up some detritus (one sandal, a balloon–wondering how somebody walked out with one sandal?) from the wash to add to our collection of recovered natty webbing. We arrived at the final Muav patio around noon and shivered a bit in the shade. Bob decided to build a temporary anchor to get packs and people to the final anchor that would deliver us to the Colorado and some full sun. The final rap, although relatively short, makes for a great picture.
After a great morning heading down Olo, we warmed up in the sun at the mouth of the canyonette on the Colorado before the shade soon found us again. We’d decided earlier that this would be another easy day, so of course, we decided to keep going.
On a trip with so much gear to carry, I was initially excited by the 12 oz. Supai Adventure paddle, coincidentally named Olo, after the very canyon we’d just descended. But I’d been completely underwhelmed with, and even a bit concerned about, the ultra light paddle’s performance on our first crossing (the last time I’d used a heavier but full-sized paddle). We were now looking at some good riffles downstream. A kayaker, I’m a confident paddler, but given the flow of the river, I just wasn’t sure I could do anything with the toy boat and the micro paddle. Bob and Bruce assured me, though, that they’d tell my family I went down nobly should disaster strike and convinced me to give it a try. (Thanks, guys, pick on the injured bloke.)
The paddle really wasn’t up to the challenge of moving the packraft. But perhaps it’s foolish to think that in the boats we were paddling even a good paddle would make much difference—if you’re relying on the paddle to save you, you ought not to be on that stretch of water. Fortunately, the boats were more than up to the riffles, and it was a good float downriver.
We had to portage around the Matkat Rapids, continuing down, and pulling in just above Upset Rapids.
As we stripped off wetsuits, the wind picked up and was strong through much of the night. We must have caught the edge of a cold front (predicted several days earlier). Not so pleasant since we were “sleeping” on a sandy beach. Oddly, I wound up having my best night’s sleep of the trip. That, combined with another dose of Vitamin I, left me feeling strong and ready for the river-to-rim exit.
Bob the Goat, up for a morning stretch, climbed the wall at the mouth of SOB. Bob: “Looks like a few sidepulls; only a little sandy…” Me: “Hey Bob, since you’re most of the way up to the top there already, how about I throw you a rope so we can haul the packs up?” And we did just that. It was a treat to use a Micro Trax to pull the packs up this year. I’d sworn to improve on the single-line brute force that Bruce and I applied last time.
Climbing up to join Bob (this non-climber appreciated the belay), we started the hike up.
I enjoyed the hike up the Redwall as much as the hike down. Especially with packs that had a lot less food and thus were several pounds lighter. Even ascending the short ropes was fun. But whether from the exertion of the climb or the evaporative cooling, I was a bit chilled on the last bit of the ascent.
Hitting the Supai, we found a suitable campsite, and I wondered aloud as I was climbing into my sleeping bag why the stars weren’t out that night. Bob told me it was because it was only 6:30pm. We were so knackered we failed to finish off the last of the paltry rye and Irish whiskey rations we’d brought.
With a few pounds of tape solidly supporting my ankle, my legs felt strong and stable.
We climbed out to find a note from a GCNP backcountry ranger on our windshield informing us the government had shut down. Whew, we were lucky to get in before that happened and avoided having our permit cancelled.
We loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly, er, headed toward Las Vegas, that is. Even Bruce’s trusty Jeep bottomed out on a ledge on the drive out.
We got to go back over that ledge a short while later when I realized that I’m left my camera on the fender at the trailhead and that it had likely fallen off shortly after. It turns out the Olympus TG-1 (we each had one) was a tough little camera. Bruce’s had survived a 40’ sliding fall. But mine didn’t survive being run over by the Jeep.
Crossing the park boundary, we saw the “Grand Canyon Closed” sign. (How do you close the Grand Canyon?) As per the ranger’s note, we replaced the yellow tape across the gate as we left. A puzzling finish to a great trip.