Note, you can skip the boring narrative and go directly to a mixed collection of photos of the trip.
Having tasted the Grand Canyon last year, a couple friends decided they wanted to step it up a notch. And the Royal Arch route via Pt. Huitzil is a step up from the more established trails. Game on. Until they canceled. Then after bumping into me on Camels Hump this winter, and having been teased with the trip for a few years, Asa decided it was his turn. He roped in Greg. Game back on.
One could justifiably question the wisdom of bringing two first timers on this route. But Asa and Greg are sporty lads, and not afraid of anything except olives. They were more than up to the challenge and got a great introduction to the GC backcountry.
Flying in from the East Coast, we met in Flagstaff on a chilly Sunday for last minute supplies and the traditional Thai send off. From there it was a ride north to the canyon, ducking onto Forest Service road 328 for the trip over to the South Bass trailhead. Since we were leaving the vehicle at Pasture Wash, we could have simply stopped and camped there. But camping right on the rim allows for a good GC sunset and sunrise. We soaked in the view and a couple of Heady Toppers (conveniently schlepped from Vermont) and rolled out the bags for a brisk sub-freezing sleep under some brilliant stars with no moon. (Liz, it would have been a great night for one of your tutorials!)
Waking up at 1:30am (East Coast time zone plus this old man don’t sleep syndrome I’ve acquired) , I found it very easy to get ready for our planned early drive back to Pasture Wash, even with several hours of reading bundled up in my bag. In the morning light, we had some yummy breakfast burritos, coffeed up, cached some water for our exit, and drove back to Pasture Wash. There we dropped the rental, snapped the “before” picture”, and headed for Pt. Huitzil. Greg looked quite dapper. Asa and I looked like we belonged in the circus.
It seems there is quite a bit more foot traffic out this way than even 6-7 years ago. There are cattle prints, and paths which are easy to follow…although not always heading the direction we wanted. Checking a compass bearing helped keep us on track, even as we found the old telephone wire and a growing collection of cairns.
The Royal Arch route doesn’t offer the expansive canyon views of some other trips, but it was good to get a taste of the bigness before dropping in. And get another photo of Asa who seemed to be shooting a Patagucci commercial throughout the trip.
After scampering through the Toroweap, we made our way down the amphitheater to find the little hole and dive into a really interesting descent through the Coconino. It was my fourth time down this route, and I don’t expect I’ll get bored with it this lifetime. The hole, the chimney and ladder, the Moki steps, and just good scrambling on the sandstone make for a nice day.
After riding the Hermit shale ridge down, with hit the Esplanade Sandstone. Whether in a tight drainage or up on a broad plateau, I always like walking through the Esplanade. This also gave us an opportunity for a short break to eat a little. On the menu was a weighty piece of summer sausage. A bit heavy, yes, but a way to forestall the nuts and dried fruit and the next several days.
We really lucked out on the summer sausage. A friend of Asa’s had told him one of the CRITICAL items he needed was a fixed blade knife. Who knew? I’d somehow managed to survive previous trips to the Grand Canyon, and many other places in the backcountry, with just a folder (albeit one a bit bigger than Greg’s micro blade, pictured). Sure enough, though, Asa’s knifed, now formally dubbed the “Lane Blade” was able to make its way through the soft summer sausage. Later in the trip, Asa was able to use it to cut the packaging on some beef jerky.
On a related note, under the “critical skills” category, Greg taught Asa to tie his shoes. This made the rest of the trip less troublesome, and I expect it to change Asa’s life for the better!
This drainage was as dry as I’ve ever seen it this time of year. With the exception of a couple shallow potholes, almost no water was to be found all the way down from the rim to the spring that starts just above the Arch. We’d planned on that, though, and had brought even water to confidently make it to the Arch.
The Royal Arch route remains a good scramble (if you like boulder hopping) through the Redwall, Temple Butte, and Muav. Little obstacles make the walk interesting, although certainly much slower than powering along the Tonto. There are definitely worse ways to spend an afternoon.
We rolled into Royal Arch in the mid-afternoon. The gurgling spring meant plenty of water. The ledges provided comfortable places to stretch out, and the Arch and the Grinch (that’s what I call the tower next to the Arch) and the narrow views out into the wider canyon offered some eye candy.
Greg has a bad knee. And it was a rough route for a bad knee. That knee was fine. Unfortunately, his good knee wasn’t. It was starting to hurt. He’d also tweaked his ankle. But Greg smiled and pushed on. This was to be an easy day, just popping up out of the Royal Arch, contouring around a couple miles, and then dropping down to Toltec Beach. And that’s pretty much the way it went.
My left ankle is in need of some repair, and walking along a cliff’s edge with left-hand exposure gets my spidey senses tingling. But the path is level(-ish), and the wind was from the West, blowing us away from the chasm. Ah, the wind. We’ll come back to that.
As one exits the drainage, the wide open canyon becomes visible. I like circling around to South Bass to give newcomers a taste of this, hoping they’ll want more. The short rappel before heading down to Toltec also gives folks a sample of possiblities that get opened up with a bit of rope and a solid anchor.
Speaking of anchors, the rappel had three, seemingly built recently from some rather bright colored webbing (note to all: the standard in the GC is black webbing only). Not even a scuff mark on it. There was a dynamic climbing rope and a knotted rope hanging there. Despite the color of the webbing and the over-engineered anchors, we left the set-up in place, but used our own rope to slip down. The webbing was invisible to anyone not at the rap point, and I hesitated to cut out the new stuff. In retrospect, though, I should have cleaned it out anyway and replaced it with black as example of proper etiquette. I’ll have a chance to fix that in the Fall.
Down at the beach, we hung out in the pleasant temps with the sun was shining, and threw on a layer when it wasn’t. The Colorado was as clear as I’ve seen it as we set out to filter water. I was very satisfied with the new Sawyer Squeeze Mini filter I was carrying–very light, fairly fast, and easy to use and backflush. I already new it worked well in clear springs. That it survived the Colorado unscathed convinces me that this will be be go-to water treatment now. No moving parts. No batteries. And very light.
As we filtered, the wind stayed strong. With the setting sun, the katabatic winds kicked in, adding to the already windy conditions. Forecasts said winds up to 40 mph. At times, it felt like that. A dry sandy beach is an interesting place to be in that kind of wind. We set up the tarp against the not-so-gentle breeze to help reduce the sand blasting. It may have had some impact, but we were still hammered most of the night. By morning, it was calm, and we were covered in sand.
After de-sanding, we had another easy day in store. The plan was just a short day hike to Elves Chasm, hang out in the grotto, jump in some sun-warmed pools, and enjoy.
Alas, Greg’s knee made it painful for him to hike either uphill or downhill, something he’d have to manage for the rest of the trip.
And as for lolling in the noonday sun, there was none. It was cloudy and cool. But Elves Chasm is still a great place to visit. Asa and I climbed up several levels (Asa did it in his slippers), but turned around as rain drops started falling. Meanwhile Greg found he could climb OK, just not walk!
The clouds spit rain drops out for a few hours, but not enough to keep us from getting ready for the next day. We watered up, filtering enough to last throughout the evening, through breakfast, and carry us through a full day on the Tonto so we wouldn’t have to fuss in the morning.
A couple of gents strolled up in the late afternoon. They were doing the same loop in the other direction, so we got a quick water report that was about to become obsolete. After an early dinner, but before dark, the rain started. It quickly grew strong enough that we hunkered down under the tarp.
Ah, the tarp. When it looks like rain, I usually carry my Tarptent Sublight. It’s worked well in strong rains. Asa didn’t have a lightweight shelter, so Greg had offered to carry a larger tarp that we could all fit under if needed. And we needed it. I have to admit Greg had a pretty slick system for configuring the tarp in a variety of situations.
But, Ellen, you were right. The system has a flaw.
The primary flaw was that the tarp leaked. I’m not talking about at the seams. Or at a hole. Water came right through the fabric of the whole damn thing. Gimme back my Sublight!
We awoke after a damp night to a very pleasant day. We started walking on something called a trail, the plan being to climb up to the Tonto plateau and weave our way around to the South Bass drainage. With the rains, we’re pretty confident that we’ll find water along the way. Sure enough, without looking hard we see potholes with water in the major drainages along the way. At Copper, they’re right at the junction with the Tonto trail, and we stop for a leisurely lunch and rehydration regime.
By now, even with the minor ups and downs, Greg’s knee is making it very hard to go up and down, even the minor variations along the Tonto. While we’d planned a saunter down into South Bass, even to the river, it doesn’t seem prudent to risk damaging the knee or creating problems, so instead we opted to hunker down in a side drainage with a couple potholes of water and get ready for an early hike up and out.
The exit. We had a rather uneventful hike along the Tonto and out the South Bass trail. We can across a GCFI group led by celebrity guide Christa Sadler, and a lone Brit making their way out, too. This may for not only a social climb out, but a full parking lot, and a much appreciated hitched ride back to Pasture Wash. Greg collected a bit of snow to chill our beer a bit further for the post-trip toast. Cheers! A nice end to a nice hike.
Now, if you made it this far, feel free to peruse a mixed collection of photos of the trip.
For a different version of this same route with a bigger, slower group, see Royal Arch via Pt. Huitzil, April 2012: Trip Report (or Cautionary Tale?). Also includes links to others’ reports and description for those researching the route.