Sunday, June 6, 2010

Grand Canyon - New Hance to Grandview Part 1

Living near the Grand Canyon is a luxury for me. Although many visitors travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to see this magnificent work of nature, most spend very little time here, possibly a few hours gazing into the depths and walking along the rim. For them the inner canyon remains a mystery, inaccessible due to time constraints and the extremes of climate and geography.

I first ventured into the Canyon at 19 years of age, a journey which initiated a lifelong love affair with the landscape of this ancient and immense natural wonder. I've ventured along nearly all the named trails and most routes in every season, and by far I find spring to be the most enjoyable time of year to descend deep into the wilderness.

The Inner Canyon is a harsh place of severe topography and little water, and humans can exist here only with careful planning and preparation. Springtime helps blunt the brutal nature of the place, with ephemeral water found in many side canyons and temperatures that are generally favorable for strenuous hiking over shadeless expanses of rock and sand. As there are no "easy" trails into the Canyon choosing the right time to explore the depths can make the experience something other than an endurance test.

For me a trip into Grand Canyon in April is also a chance to make the transition from winter into summer, where I can decompress and get my head back to some sort of equilibrium after dealing with large numbers of people. The cabin fever I often experience as an occupational hazard leads me to make plans in January, and the anticipation of the upcoming trip keeps me going through the doldrums of February and March.

New Hance to the Colorado River

I originally intended to make a longer trip than the one I ended up taking, but the extension of the ski season left me with no alternative other than to shorten the trip by two days. Because of multiple access points to the Inner Canyon I was able to "join" up with my original itinerary by dropping in on the New Hance trail, one of the lesser used and steeper paths from the South Rim.

First built in 1894 by John Hance to access mining claims in the area, the trail drops quickly off the rim into Red Canyon, named for a vivid formation called the Hakatai Shale. Like most "off-corridor" trails no maintenance or improvements are made, and conditions can vary from year to year. Most notable are large "step downs" and boulder strewn sections where hiking poles are very useful as an aid to balance, especially with a heavy pack.

Jim, who is also a seasoned veteran of Canyon hiking was my partner on the trip. And like many of my springtime outings, the weather was questionable with rain and snow in the forecast. He and I began the descent under mostly cloudy skies, and made perhaps a quarter of the distance before rain enveloped us in a steady drizzle. Here are the only images I was inclined to capture prior to the clouds closing in.

The focused concentration needed to negotiate the rocky and unforgiving path kept me from thinking too much about how wet I had become, and the necessity to get to the River where we could seek refuge was high on my list of priorities. Though the trail is only 7 miles in length, in places it is torturous and caution is needed to avoid a misstep, so the pace was slow but steady. Nearly 5 hours after we started we reached the bottom of Red Canyon, and the skies began to lighten revealing the stunning grandeur of the Inner Canyon.

Upon reaching the Colorado River, Jim and I dropped our packs, unloaded our gear and set it to dry, and put up the tents in case the rain returned.

The Colorado River usually flows relatively clear and cold, but on this visit is a muddy chocolate brown due to upstream tributaries such as the Paria and Little Colorado, which are swollen with snowmelt from the watersheds they drain. Since the Colorado is the only source of water here, extra steps are needed to settle the sediment laden broth before it can be filtered for drinking.

This view is looking up Red Canyon, which we had just descended. The brightly colored red rock of the Hakatai formation contrasts nicely with the green riparian vegetation of the canyon bottom, while gray clouds swarm the upper reaches of the rim, nearly a mile above us.

We've managed to survive the cold wet descent to the River, and we slowly dry out ourselves and possessions while soaking up a different kind of immersion - the unmatched beauty of the Inner Canyon. NEXT: What goes down must come up!

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