With a quizzical look and a Minnesota delivery, Seth asked us “This is a pleasure trip?” He was on a river rafting trip on the obligatory stop at Redwall cavern. Bob, Maureen, and I had just floated in on our inflatable shower curtains (some call them “pack rafts”, but we’re realists). The question was a fair one. And one we then got to ask ourselves over and over as we humped too-big packs up sketchy steep stretches, hopped through boulder fields, and side-hilled on ball-bearing pebbles. The answer was always obvious, and required only a change in inflection. “This is a pleasure trip!” I’m going to skip the step-by-step narrative–sparing you not out of compassion, but only because I’m too darn busy right now. Instead, you’ll get not-quite-random thoughts, musings, and observations. (Jump right to a collection of photos from the trip.) First off, though, a brief description of the intended route. This week+ was really split into three sub-trips. Why? Because NPS permit rules limiting pack rafting mileage made it necessary. Kind of a drag, it meant we had to enter and exit the national park three times to comply. It added mileage and elevation and energy that we would have preferred to use in slots and poking around on top of the Redwall. The only pluses were trailhead pit stops that allowed us to carry less food and rope on some legs, beer, and a clean shirt. The combined itinerary, as planned, looked like this.
Trip 1 Night 0. Car Camping somewhere near Eminence Break trailhead (Navajo reservation). Day 1. Head down Shinumo Wash (Twenty-nine Mile Canyon) to river, cross river, float downstream to South Canyon. Camp at South Canyon Mouth. Day 2. HIKE OUT South Canyon/Bedrock Trail to trailhead.
Trip 2 Afternoon Day 2. Start at Bedrock trailhead. Around to South Canyon, and down South Canyon to river. Day 3. Float down from South Canyon to around Mile 35 and head up to either dayhike or hit Nautiloid or 35 Mile. Day 4. Repeat some version of previous day’s fun, 36-Mile, 35-Mile, Nautiloid. Day 5. HIKE OUT up Tatahatso Wash with Eminence Break exit, and car camping near Eminence Break trailhead.
Trip 3 Day 6. Down Tatahatso Wash including Redwall narrows to Colorado River. Camping at River. Day 7. Hike/float downriver to Eminence Break route. Exit that day or wait following, depending on time/energy. Day 8. HIKE OUT via Eminence Break “trail”.
While the road to Tatahatso Wash appears to be a superhighway on some maps, it ain’t. The first several miles are clear and easy, and then you jump onto a road with two tire tracks in the middle of a maze of other similar roads. As we hit this just before the sun went down, we soon lost the ability to navigate from landmarks. And we got lost. A GPS would have been helpful here. Even George Steck noted that he once, while in this area, thought he was heading 180 degrees opposite from his real direction. No biggie as we had food and water and just eventually decided to camp by the road. However, the post-dark meandering meant we weren’t at the trailhead, and it ate into our night time gear futzing.
Gear futzing was needed because Bob and I had just flown in, and Mo had just driven from Yosemite where she’d been climbing and wrangling the volunteers on a week of service. Plus, despite her worldwide mountaineering and climbing experience, this was her first canyoneering experience (we figured we’d start her with a small taste–8 days of suffering in the Grand Canyon).
This meant a later start than anticipated…and we still had to get out to the Eminence Break trailhead and a shuttle over to Shinumo Wash. Tim was a great shuttle driver. Found us at night, navigated to the trailhead for a vehicle drop. And then spent a lot of time helping us find the right drop in Shinumo Wash (our mileage counts having been jacked by the meandering, and descriptions a bit unclear on some of the mid-route miles). All told, the most difficult route finding of the trip was on the roads on Navajo land before we actually starting hiking, and we didn’t set off down Shinumo Wash until after noon. This lost half-day impacted the rest of the itinerary.
Tim hiked down the wash with us for a while, before leaving us to our own devices. We got down to just above the Redwall narrows by 3:30. Decision time. We thought we could rush through and hit the beach by 6:30. By we also thought, “why?”. Why risk finishing the descent after dark? Why rush through what promised to be a beautiful slot? So we pulled up and camped.
Great decision! Morning found us packing up and donning wetsuits. I topped it off with the birthday hat that my nephew had given me a couple days earlier for my 50th–he’d asked “can you wear it while you’re on the ropes?”. So I did.
Shinumo was indeed a beautiful slot (see the image at the top!). The water was chilly, but not icy, and we were glad to have the neoprene. And just as glad that we could take our time and enjoy it. It turns out that many climbers aren’t used to rapping off piles of rocks, knot chocks, or little pebbles jammed in cracks as anchors. Mo looked on with a combination of curiosity, terror, and excitement as she pondered the saying, “there are old climbers, and there are bold climbers, but there aren’t old, bold climbers.” Mo, I’m not calling you old! But at 60, and with her experience, her questions and input where appreciated. And she gained confidence in the anchors’ ability to hold us as we progressed. Heck, if they held Mike, they’d hold her. (Yet another example of the Fat Man at Risk principle–even Skinny Mike still weighs in at 200, plus gear.)
Speaking of Mo, holy crap, the woman was carrying about 40% of her body weight with all the technical gear. With a smile. She wasn’t as fast as Bob or me, but she covered the distance just the same. 30 year old gym rats would have been crying, and she made it look like she does this every day. (Lugging a pack that was 60% of her body weight on a climbing mission over Shepherd’s Pass gives one a sense of her carrying capacity.)
Word apparently still hasn’t gotten out that black webbing is the rule in the GC. I cleaned out and rebuilt a couple of anchors built with orange webbing. (Bob muled out the cleanings along with a hunk of old tent until we were able to foist them on a rafting party.) We left someone else’s red and blue anchor in place–mid-slot, and well constructed, in good shape, and invisible to anyone not in the slot, but not black.
Gear note: this was my first field test of the CRITR rappel device. Loved it! Smooth, but with great control, and ability to add (and then remove) friction on the fly.
Exiting Shinumo, we hopped in pack rafts. The delay in getting down Shimuno, meant we were now a good half-day behind, and we still needed to fly up South/Bedrock to stay on permit and earn our beer. We’d also burned a half-day’s energy. I’d like to say we enjoyed South Canyon, but we looked at it more as a necessary evil.
At the South Canyon beach, we did have the pleasure of watching ravens empty Mo’s stuff sacks. Fascinating–and since there were no goodies to be had, they were soon on their way.
But remember one of the few positives I mentioned about splitting this into three legs? Exit meant beer!
The following morning found us more or less back on schedule, although with slightly lower ambitions. We’d do some more exploring in the area–adding a quick trip to Stanton’s Cave for example, before heading down river. Scouting downriver, we saw some bumpy water that didn’t have great portage opportunities. No real rapids, but some decent riffles and eddy fences that looked like they’d challenge the pool toys. And they did. Bob’s Supai raft filled with water, and his pack floated out. Mo went for a post-flip swim. I would have been doomed in the Supai, but my Flytepacker prevailed, and I was able to make sure Mo got to shore to empty and relaunch. Bob did the same on the opposite side of the river. In many ways, this was reassuring. Wetsuits and PFDs did their jobs. Obeying Archimedes’s principles, boats floated when capsized. And it was pretty straightforward regathering. However, it also make clear–these flatwater boats aren’t intended for big water. And with varying water levels and conditions, risking the Colorado in these rafts without good thermal protections and proper PFDs would be stupid.
Speaking of the Colorado, it was chocolate brown and full of debris–lot’s of logs and sticks congealing in the eddies. The recent downpours had an effect. Related Gear
Note: The MSR Hyperflow water filter crapped out. Even using a rafting as a settling pool on the very silty river water wasn’t able to bring it back to life. The backflush procedure is a bit finicky, and we soon resorted to iodine. Although it’s slower, I have better success with the Sawyer Squeeze.
We did see a few rafting parties at our Redwall cavern stop. They were quite curious about our escapades. And accommodating with a couple more beers–welcome on a warm day. With the adjustment to the schedule, we didn’t rush to our target campsite. Instead, we explored Nautiloid from the bottom, peeked at the 35-mile canyon exit (barely noticeable from the river, without much of a hint of the pretty canyon behind it), and checked out the traverse from 35-mile to our intended camp at about river mile 35.8, across from the Bridge of Sighs.
The following day we looped around to descend 35-mile canyon. The climb up from the river is best described by Steck in his Loops book. Definitely worth a read if you’re heading this way. It helps build confidence as you’re picking your way up the steep slope that you’re actually headed somewhere! 35-mile was a nice little canyon. We added one rap more than in Todd’s description. Even Climber-Bob and Climber-Mo didn’t like one of the downclimbs described. The 160-foot drop in a narrow chute wasn’t as spectacular as some, but still nice. I particularly enjoyed the narrow exit and drop down to the beach. On exit, we slogged back along the river. The route is a big crumbly, and rarely pleasant, but it goes. The toughest section is right upriver from the 35.8 mile beach. Hitting the beach we heard noises back up at Nautiloid–a rafting party exploring. We waited patiently, smiled, and they were kind enough to row in a few more beers. Ahhh… (hmmm…a theme develops here).
The following day was a long hike out back to the Eminence Break trailhead. Again, a good reading of Steck’s descriptions combined with a few squints at the map make this pretty clear, including the jaunt up from the river, the contour around to Tatahatso canyon above the Redwall, and the wash itself.
We did cache some technical gear in the wash for a planned return to descend the narrows the following day.
Tatahatso Wash is a pretty slow boulder hop. The upper south arm of the wash, called Notsohotso by Andrew Holycross, is slower with even bigger boulders. I referred to it as Tatashitshow–although I actually really liked the scrambling, even with a pack. The escape route up a narrow crack along the Eminence Break fault was sporty. At first glance, the 500 foot climb over which might be as little as 1/4 mile seemed pretty sketchy. And it is! Loose crumbly stuff. A couple of nifty climbs with flaky hand holds. It was a bit intimidating on the way up, and we planned to return the following day.
But up we made it. Again out of the park, and to the car-cache. More beer. And a colder night.
Bob took ill during the night. Some minor GI issues, but more problematic, a fogginess and dizziness that didn’t bode well for the slog back down Tatahatso, the descent of the narrows, or the loop back along the river and up Eminence Break. Had we lived in AZ, we would have just bagged it, left the cache, and come back the following weekend. But we don’t. We didn’t really have flexibility on the backend, either, with flights and obligations looming just a few days out. So, all-for-one, one-for-all, we decided to wait the morning and see if Bob improved. He didn’t.
So Plan B became Mo and Mike on a run down to retrieve the gear cache. We headed down that afternoon for the gear, and came back up the following day, enjoying the Break route three times. By the end, it was a familiar friend. So, Tatahatso is still waiting. And Bob and I are comparing notes to squeeze in a return. Meanwhile, Mo is out buying canyoneering gear and ready to jump in–and when she jumps into a sport, expect big things! (For more, see a collection of photos from the trip.)