Sunday, November 18, 2012

Royal Arch Route

Ok,  this is not technically cycling related but it does fit into the "Wanderer/Adventure"  side of Randonneuring.  This is the record of my trip around the Royal Arch Route in the Grand Canyon a few weeks back.

View from South Bass Trailhead.

Here is a brief (well ok, not so brief) report of my trip in the Grand Canyon via the Royal Arch Route.

I've had my eyes set on the Royal Arch Route for a long time. Since I was 14 actually, when I learned there was a trail in the Grand Canyon with a rappell on it. I use the word trail loosely here. There is a footpath much of the way but easy walking it is not. Last year I spent 3 rainy and snowy days in the canyon with two friends and upon learning that they would like to do another backpack trip in the canyon after that was over, well, I thought perhaps, here are two hardy fellows who wouldn't laugh me to scorn if I suggested the Royal Arch Route. They didn't, and were even enthusuastic. I realize of course that introducing two guys to canyon hiking with first, a long trip across the tonto from Grandview trail to the Kaibab trail, and then dumping them into the Royal Arch Route might not be the standard way of getting people into canyon hiking, but hey, I had waited a long time and I knew their pain tolerance was high from the first trip so it was a go!
Tues the 23rd of Oct.

We met at Jamie's house after a flurry of last minute preparation which I thought I had already taken care of. Our 5 PM departure turned into a just before 7 departure. Still, 7 PM is a lot earlier than when we left last year. We had a long way to go. I should break in here with a list of who our band consisted of. Originally we were going to number five but a few nervous wives dropped the number to three. Quite frankly it's probably not necessarily a bad thing for one of those. This was a gruelling trip. Very rewarding, but gruelling and the three of us were in pretty good shape.
Not much was open in Flagstaff at 10 PM so we snacked at Sonic and stopped for gas along Fort Valley road where we would get one of the 2 theme songs for the trip stuck in our heads. Yes, we had Bob Dylan's, "Lay Lady Lay" etched into the grey matter as the last song we heard before embarking on a 4 day Backpack trip. Dan, also got us going with Disco Inferno which he had stuck in his head most of the time as well.

I had always heard it was tough to navigate to the South Bass trailhead but honestly, if you don't muck about with entering the park and just take a left on the dirt road before the park entrance, the road takes you straight there (just about, maps are still your friend though) with a right turn made a mile or two after entering the Havasupai Indian reservation. We got to the trailhead between 1:30 and 2:00 AM with 1 truck in the lot and decided to take a "Nap" before we started the day's hike.
Wed. 24th of Oct.

Absolutely Gorgeous day. Sun was up, sky was blue. Highs in the 60's lows in upper 40's. No complaints to the weatherman this trip. Had a breakfast of Pop Tarts and then got all packed up and ready. We were on the trail before 8 and in not too long were down at the well marked trail split. The South Bass trail may not have signage like some of the other backcountry trails I have hiked but folks have setup rock paths and Cairns well to mark the junctions of the Tonto and the Apache/Royal Arch route.

Dan traversing the Esplanade.

After Caching a gallon of water (very glad we did that) I put my map in my pocket (had read lots of accounts of folks getting lost as they didn't read their map) and we started our stroll across the easy portion of the esplanade. The trail would be pretty smooth and pleasant for a canyon or two but as we approached the canyon before Montezuma point my fears of a scramble were realized as the flat portion of the Esplanade gave way to the "walk across a landslide" portion of the Esplanade. The last canyon would take us as long to cross as the previous two and then some. There were several places where we momentarily lost the trail but we never got more than 20 - 30 feet from it or burned more than a minute or two before getting back on. This section was just tediously long. The goal was to eat lunch at the east arm of Royal Arch Creek at Noon and we missed that a bit.

We made good time after rounding Montezuma point mind you, we just happened to have fatigued a bit crossing that last canyon. We had fairly nice walking back to the creek intersection but despite our best efforts it was closer to 1:30 when we got there for a well deserved lunch. Lunch made me aware that my knees were getting annoyed with me. All this scrambling was starting to cause pings of pain in my knee so I would baby it for the next bit as we hopped down the ledges of Royal Arch creek. There were side trails that meandered all over the left side of the creek to bypass a few pour offs but we opted right and got to get our hands dirty with a little scrambling and one spot where I had to take my backpack off (the front guy always has it tough as there is no one to spot him).

Dan walking down Royal Arch Creek.

We passed pools of water in the sandstone periodically which gave me reassurance. In hindsight we should have filled up at one of them but oh well, hindsight is what it is. It was a rather nice combination of walking interrupted periodically by fairly easy scrambles down pouroffs until we in late afternoon arrived at the "Impassable Pouroff" the NPS talks about in their leaflet. A lady at REI had told Dan when they went down a few weeks previously that despite their best scouting efforts they could not find the route on the right that bypassed the scary Ledge on the left. I knew that the secret was looking for the cairns 50 or 60 yards upstream from the pouroff and they were easily spotted and we got onto the easy (er) bypass on the right without so much as a pause and quickly climbed up to the next band of cliffs and arrived at the familiar "Rabbit hole" I had seen in pictures.

Dan coming through the "rabbit hole"

We passed packs through the rabbit hole and after I accidently stepped on/bent Dan's hiking pole and a quick photo op of me on the ledge (the bypass ledge, not the tippy toe one), we were off to hunt for the cairns that led you down to the bottom of the canyon. These were a bit tricky to spot but since I was looking for them we didn't miss them but if I hadn't been on the watch, it would not have looked like a way you could get down if you didn't see the little cairns.

Dan and Jamie sitting down canyon of the rabbit hole.

There is a shoulder height drop or two to a largish ledge and then a short walk back under the cliff and you then find yourself looking down a cool looking crack that takes you most of the rest of the way through the cliff band with one or two more shoulder height drops down to the talus slope, none of this is visible from above on the rabbit hole ledge though so watch for those cairns!

Paul standing on the Sissy ledge just past the Rabbit hole.

It's pretty straightforward following the cairns to the canyon floor from there.
The sun cast it's shadow on us as I waited for the others to get down and we would spend the rest of the afternoon in the deep shade of the redwall narrows of Royal Arch Creek. Somewhere in here the walk turned into a death march. This canyon went on forever! I swear it seemed like it was twice the listed mileage as we meandered through the canyon narrows scrambling over endless boulders and rocks, downclimbing periodic 20-30 ft high dry falls. Wondering what we would do for water. We did pass a fetid pool or two but the others weren't willing to drink it and we pushed on hoping to see the cairns that marked where the route left the creek so we could setup camp. Just as dusk was starting to get serious we found a spot which coincidentally was that last camping spot before those cairns but we did not know it until we had dropped the packs and I looked ahead and saw a trail up on the canyon wall on the right a few hundred yards down canyon.

Jamie in the "Crack"  below the sissy ledge.

Since we had enough water to make dinner I suggested we get water in the morning on the way to the arch and then eat breakfast when we got back from the Arch. This was agreed upon with very little dissent as everyone was footsore and just wanted to climb into bed and lie in misery after consuming a quick meal.

Dan descending a waterfall in the Redwall Narrows of Royal Arch Creek.

Among the boulders there were patches of sand large enough for a sleeping bag or two here and there so we were seperated by 5-10 feet and Dan managed to find a tent sized patch over a largish boulder and down 10ft from where I was at. I was able to hang my hammock off a boulder and my walking sticks.
It was a gorgeous night. The few times I woke up I just stared at the brilliant stars until I could get sleepy again. Within the band of sky visible between the tall canyon walls (after the moon set of course) I could see 6 of the Pleaides quite clearly as well as make out the orion nebula as I rocked gently in the evening breeze in my hammock.

Thurs 25th October

We managed to get behind on our schedule on Thursday. Of course, this trip was slower going than originally expected but I had confidence we could still finish it in the 4 days alloted. First order of business was of course water. I scarfed a pop tart and each of us gingerly made our way down the canyon to water and not too far further, Royal Arch itself.
Being semi-fresh after a 11-12 hour sleep, the morning's hike did seem to go a little faster than the previous evening's death march. We very thankfully did hit the spring that feeds Elves Chasm at around 45 minutes of walking down canyon. We sat down and filtered and drank, and filtered and drank some more, and filled all the bottles full of water.

Dan and Jamie in Royal Arch Creek just below the spring.

The Arch of course was magnificent but I can see how people could walk right under it and not see it as the best view is from down canyon where things open up a bit and let you get a nice view of it. It towers over head and right next to it is a massive monument which has the unfortunate conincedence of being located next to the largest arch in the Grand Canyon so it really doesn't get any of it's own top billing though it is a rather impressive spectacle itself. The area from the spring down to the arch/natural bridge is one of the most beautiful stretches of the trip. Theres just something relaxing and energizing about gurgling water and creekside foliage and hanging gardens.

Monument below Royal Arch

Oh, I forgot to mention, scrambling over boulders in this section I split 1 of my two pairs of pants on this trip wide open. Yes, the long hours of sliding down boulders on my butt on day 1 had taken it's toll on my backpacking pants. I was happy Dan decided to go pickup his sewing kit before we left when I asked him about it (mental note to self, toss a sewing kit in the backpack). Fortunately, there was not a soul in this part of the canyon. We would actually not see anyone until day 3 and that was a few souls from a river party.

Dan and Jamie under Royal Arch

At camp I heated up my scrambled eggs and thoroughly enjoyed them. By the time all was said and done we didn't get out of camp until around 11. Garnet canyon was pretty much a no go at that point and we decided we'd just camp at Toltec beach below the rappell. That would take a lot of stress off of day 2 and allow us some recovery sort of.
Climbing out of Royal Arch Creek was interesting. THere was quite a bit of exposure, which we were not new to of course, having completed day 1. The path wandered among rocks and slopes on a ledge high up on the canyon wall as it worked it's way over to a slope above the tapeats by Elves Chasm. When out on the slope, after getting out into the sun we almost stepped on a Rattlesnake which warned us he was there and then quickly moved off into the brush. Glad I didn't step on him. He was about 4 feet long and a pretty impressive looking snake.


We hit the rappell later in the afternoon and took our time negotiating it. I made everyone wear a backup chest coil belay, using the rope we had brought, in case the primary rope or harness failed. This worked pretty good. It was a bit of a safety ninny measure I'll allow but this would be a very bad place for an accident. Not a lot of rescue options.
We had a few more shoulder height drops to get down to the talus slope from the base of the rappell and then we were on our way to the bottom. Dan lagged in here for some reason which I can't remember. Jamie and I cruised on down to the beach and dropped the packs and started getting lunch out.
After a late lunch we hung the food up and decided we would make a go of seeing Elves Chasm before dark as it was 4 PM and a 1.5 mile walk to the Chasm. 1.5 miles of scrambling mind you, not normal walking. We ended up doing it in aound 50 minutes there and pretty much the same on the way back. It was interesting walking in places where bits of the vishnu Schist and Zoraster Granite popped up into the strata to make things interesting and add variety to the journey and give you a break from the sharp rocks that were otherwise the norm.

Waterfall in Elves Chasm

Elves is in the top 10 of prettiest places I have been. Partly because it is such a chore to get there which makes for a ready soul once one arrives. The pink rock and the hanging gardens next to the cascading waterfalls and travertine is just beautiful and to see it in the early evening was just a perfect time of day for it. The pools were tinted turquise and reminded me a little of havasupai. I tried to wade in past my knees but the water was frigid. I managed to snap a nice picture of it before we headed back to camp.
Back at camp dark set pretty quickly but we had a much better evening as everyone was not at the point of collapse this night and good conversation and sewing projects ensued. We also discovered the mice of the beach were not very timid and had no qualms about searching packs while being watched. Fortunately we hung the food up. Unfortunately the branch of the tamarisk bush holding my food snapped during the night and the mice would get a a good portion of my wheat tortilla's. Still there was plently left after I ripped off the part the mice had got and stored the unspoiled portion in another ziplock baggie.
It was another beautiful starfilled night in the hammock by the colorado. So glad I didn't leave the hammock behind on this trip. Between boulders and my Walking sticks I really didn't need any trees and not having to sleep on the ground was very nice for an aching body.

Hiking poles and a boulder make great hammock anchors.

Fri 26th Oct

The hopes of finally getting to a trail that offered some semblence of a walking surface was a big motivator on Friday. We got off fairly early so as to keep options open, and we would need them. In the section between Toltec and Garnet (which seemed to take forever) we ran into a few river runners that had hiked up to the trail to check out a rock with fossils on it sitting by a salt encrusted pool of water. We didn't stop long. I had hung some of the underwear I had washed that morning on my pack to dry and had I been thinking about it I would have stowed it before we got to this spot. People probably thought I was weird.

Anyway, we wandered along above the river on the small footpath that went around and over every large boulder in the way, and slowly climbed up to the base of the Tapeats by the time we finally got to Garnet canyon. There wasn't much in Garnet. I'm kind of glad we camped at Toltec. in fact, were I to do it again I think I would do it the same way.

The climb up onto the Tonto was interesting as we climbed the shoulder high ledges just at the top of the cliff layer that had to be conquered to gain the tonto Platform. Once on the platform we did in fact have a trail which gave us some mighty fine walking. No more scrambling over boulders and such, mostly nice walking with a few spots of exposure for good measure.

Dan and Jamie at the extreme west end of the Tonto above Garnet Canyon

I remembered folks tend to mistake other canyons the tonto meanders through for Copper canyon before getting to it so we did not fall for that. We were looking for pools of water as we had decided not to hike down to the Colorado for that night's camp and in fact were even considering Copper Canyon. We found a pool but the filter which we had broken that morning was unfixable and we decided to move on to something without mosquito larva in it.
We hit Copper Canyon about an hour before dark and one went upstream and two of us went down in the search for waterpockets. I took my bottles plus 2 garbage bags and about 30 minutes down the creek at the edge of the inner Gorge I found a nice set of pools with good size frogs in them. I filled my bottles and scooped 3 or 4 gallons of beautiful brown water into my garbage bags and was just getting ready to head back when Jamie found me. Since he was quite a bit more spry at this point (he's a personal trainer) I let him carry the garbage bag.
We found a nice spot to camp just above the trail and setup for the night and I pigged out on everything resembling dinner in my pack, since it was the last night after all.

Incidentally, Dan didn't find any water upstream, but lots of copper/turquisish colored rocks he tells us.
That night I got to use a combination of a boulder and a tree and the walking poles to hang the hammoc and it worked pretty good. The foam pad I put under me sure kept me nice and warm. Another night of brilliant stars after the moon sunk behind the redwall.

Sat 27th
Final day in the canyon. Beautiful morning. All we had to do was walk out of Copper canyon and up the South Bass, sounds easy no? In all fairness, compared to the preceding days, the last day was a walk in the park by every definition of the word, pun intended.
Tonto was good walking back to the South Bass trail and the South Bass was wonderful. Temps were absolutely perfect and the shade in Bass Canyon was much appreciated when we got there. Our goal was to eat lunch at the water cache on the Esplanade.
We spent the remainder of the morning working our way up through the redwall. In the redwall we ran into the only other people we would see in the four days. A group of hikers that originally were going to do the Royal Arch route but due to car issues had to alter their plan and were heading towards Copper Canyon that night and were appreciative of our news of water down canyon.

Good conversation was had most of the way up. Dan fell behind a bit in the last section but we waited for him where the trail topped the Esplanade and once we were all back together made short work of returning to the point we had been 3 days earlier stashing water. We hit it around 2.

I have to say the Peanut Butter, Jelly, and wheat tortillas (what was left of them) really hit the spot. Fresh water was nice too. Not that iodine water isn't the tastiest but cool clear water is always appreciated in the desert any time of year.
Dan said we could go ahead in the last section if we wanted to and Jamie and I managed to cover the last 1.7 miles in 45 minutes. Dan came trooping into the parking lot 30 minutes later. There were quite a few more vehicles in the lot this time around. After a bit of freshening up and stowing the gear we were off for Flagstaff and a giant dinner at La Fonda!