Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring! (A New Season For Exploring) Part I

No season gladdens my heart like Spring. I know each quarter of the year has it's own appeal, but as I get older the return of new and dormant life seems to revitalize my spirit. As I've mentioned before, my chosen vocation involves winter sports recreation, and emerging from the cold, short days of the last five months infuses me with enthusiasm for warm, sunny times spent in beautiful places.

I traditionally end my metaphorical hibernation with a backpacking trip into Grand Canyon, a place that couldn't be more different than the mountain I spend all winter on. This year I chose a destination that echoes last year's trip, but with a few key differences. First off this was to be a solo expedition, mostly due to a desire for some reflective time. I also wanted a trip where the ingress and egress were the same, to allow for easier logistical planning.

As a single hiker, I wanted solitude, but I also felt it wise to use areas where I might actually see others on occasion. I am capable and competent, and feel thoroughly comfortable in the backcountry by myself, but random chance and unforeseen accidents happen to even the best prepared individuals, and my inclination is to minimize unnecessary risk. (Author's aside: for compelling accounts of the many dangers that await visitors to this amazing place be sure to read Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon).

For this reason I selected a relatively straightforward hike involving circumnavigation of Horsehoe Mesa using a combination of the Tonto and Grandview trails. This option allows for campsites that provide access to flowing water, as well as scenic side canyons with verdant cottonwood trees and riparian vegetation to soothe away the winter doldrums.

All Canyon hikes begin with a descent into the depths. Viewing the abyss from above provides no real perspective for the distance to travel and elevation to lose, and it's not until the trail drops below the rim that a sense of scale begins to take hold.

Scenery notwithstanding, Grandview is assuredly one of the steeper trails, and the effort required to brake forward momentum with each step takes a cumulative toll on leg muscles that will definitely be felt later.

The upper trail is characterized by acutely pitched but well engineered sections that negotiate sheer faces of Kaibab limestone and Coconino sandstone. This masterpiece of rockwork was completed in the 1890's by miners to facilitate the removal of tons of high grade copper ore on the backs of hapless mules. To truly appreciate the labor and audacity required to construct it, it must be seen in person.

After a rapid descent through relatively erosion resistant upper layers the path begins a lengthy traverse through the Supai, a mixture of shale and limestone formed in a shallow marine environment. This relatively unstable formation is prone to slides, and this means frequent scrambles over large piles of rocks. Although the grade is not steep, the trail makes steady downward progress towards Horseshoe Mesa, a large U-shaped promontory atop Redwall limestone.

Once atop the mesa, there are basically three options to choose from. One includes a dry camp on the mesa itself, which many hikers do. The down side to this approach (literally) is the need to negotiate several hundred feet of very steep and loose trail to reach Page (or Miner's) Springs, where hikers can resupply with water.

Another option is to use the same steep and unstable trail to continue past the spring and eventually reach the perennial stream at Hance Creek, which is my first night's destination. The third choice is dropping off the opposite side of Horseshoe Mesa into the side canyon of Cottonwood Creek, where water is usually available during the cooler months.

By now I've descended 2500 feet below the rim and traveled about 3 miles, but the steepest pitch is yet to come. Before continuing I take a few moments to rest tight muscles and recharge my energy with a snack while enjoying the view. Below me I can see just how quickly the trail winds downs through the Redwall, the canyon's most prominent and formidable layer.

There is no subtlety to the trail at this point, as geography dictates that passages through the sheer Redwall use fault lines to negotiate what constitutes an impassable barrier through most of the Canyon. Down goes what can be loosely described as a trail, and great care must be exercised to prevent slips and falls on the way. I normally eschew the use of trekking poles, but this is one section that practically requires them to assist in maintaining balance while preventing an uncontrolled and accelerated descent into the depths.

By the time I reach the comparatively modest slope of talus about a third of the way up the Redwall, my thighs are trembling with exertion as my feet (toes, particularly) protest such inhumane treatment. Soon the ordeal is over, and in less than a mile I've dropped an additional 1000 feet to the Tonto platform, a broad expanse of Tapeats sandstone that forms a bench throughout much of central Grand Canyon.

This picture provides a look back up to the break in the Redwall that provides for passage of the trail.

Since I no longer have to give 100% of my attention to the trail, it's time to start enjoying the scenery again. One of the main reasons I choose to hike the Canyon in spring is the likelihood that plants, trees, and shrubs will be greening up at the lower elevations, and that temperatures will be pleasantly warm and inviting. Once again I am not disappointed with my expectations.

The trail climbs a small hill and at the summit the destination is revealed.

The deep side canyon of Hance Creek shallows at the Tapeats formation to meet the Tonto trail, where hikers can access the small but reliable stream. Water loving vegetation clings to the narrow but vital ribbon of precious moisture. It is here I will pass the next two nights, soaking up sunshine, self imposed isolation, and incredible natural beauty.

Next: Frogs, the Full Moon, and the Tonto Trail

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