The Grand Eight: Days 1 and 2

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It is cold. The vague two-track to 150 Mile canyon ends at a weathered pinon log and barbed wire corral with a spectacular view down into the namesake drainage. We arrived at dusk last night, and the wind was howling. A bit on edge due to anticipation and the long process of spotting my car near our exit, we drink a few beers Brendan had thoughtfully packed, eat dinner, and bed down, trying to pick spots out of the wind. The swirling 35 mph gusts make this impossible. Brendan lays down behind the front of the truck, I tuck in close to a juniper. If I lay facing left the wind shoots freezing air down into the cracks of my hood. My coat and bag are just warm enough.

Moon rise, nearly full last night, had been amazing. The level horizon to the east across the canyon gave it all the speed and directness of a hollywood sunrise. The sun doesn’t come nearly as fast in the morning. The predawn glow spreads like butter soaking into toast, and we’re left for long minutes stumbling in the cold making coffee and packing, waiting for direct warmth.

We get plenty warm soon enough. 150 Mile point in the eastern terminus of the Tuckup trail/route, which is more the latter at this end. The narrow path pitches and winds directly down a steep dirt slope, full of ankle snagging brush and loose limestone scree. I can’t quite fit everything in the pack I made for this trip, and have to strap a drybag of clothes to the back. Careful footing and aggressive pole use is instantly obligatory, as the footing and big packs make the consequences of a slip grave.

Effort notwithstanding, the rhythm of the trip rises quick and fast as we leave the Tuckup path and make our way down 150 Mile canyon itself, at this point a shallow wash. One minute we’re boulder hopping, the next we’re cruising on compact gravel, the next up above the bank threading around cactus. In past years, when lived in first Utah and then Arizona, I’ve done this a lot, and it soon feels perfectly normal.

In a few hours we get to the main event. Sandstone sidewalks let loose a deep, geometrical limestone gash in the floor of the drainage. We round it left, find a bolt atop a small tower, and rappel to the floor. Brendan has never done any technical canyoneering, and unfortunately this first rap is a bit taller than would ideal and has an awkward start on bad rock. He seems to sweat a little, but comes down the rope with grace and efficiency, big pack and all. We pull the rope. No going back now.

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What follows in the next few hours is the scenic and technical highlight of the trip, high on the list of most gorgeous slot canyons I’ve seen, and indeed on the list of most extraordinary places I’ve ever been. The Redwall limestone is the tallest layer in the Grand Canyon, and usually the crux of any rim to river route. It’s hard, whitish red, and monolithic. 150 Mile cuts a startlingly gradual and straight slot through it. It is rarely wider than 20 feet, rarely narrower than 12, and runs due east with only gradual undulations. The walls are a polished, uniform alabaster color which would not look out of place in a museum or on a monument to dead men. The walls transition into the floor with a direct curve, and the slot looses elevation via slight steps between an infinite number of clear, cold pools.

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We clamber when we can and wade when we must, which is often. Not a few of the pools are chest deep. Fleece shirts, warm hats, and movement keep us acceptably warm. A number of short rappels off chockstones wedged in the canyon bottom crop up. It’s a delightful paradox; we can’t linger or even be still for too long without going well down the road to hypothermia, and all the time in the day wouldn’t be enough to understand such a place.

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Eventually the Redwall slot relents, though the lower layers still to come provide many obstacles. We rappel, climb down, and climb around. Sheep tracks and scat show the way, though that way is occasionally rough and narrow.

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Around eight hours after we left the rim, the walls which have been constant companions fall back and a larger one rears in front. We’re at the river. We shed packs, eat, and grin awkwardly as we reflect on what we just did. If that was any indication, this trip is not going to mess around.

A party of rafters is taciturn and withdrawn, a situation which becomes clear as we are set to leave, and their huge yellow rafts start making their way through the rapid. The second or third raft moves laboriously, and seems on a bad line. Surely they’re not going into that hole sideways? Yes, but not on purpose. The river, flowing brown and fast, flips the massive boat in an instant. Two rafts later, the oarsman and his passenger do the same thing and only just manage to highside and ride the downstream oar out of the same hole.

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Sheep tracks lead upstream along the bank, though sandy beaches and over and between big boulders. After a little over a mile of slow going, we reach the end of the beach, yardsale our gear, inflate boats, repack, paddle upstream against a cliff, do an easy ferry over to the other side, yardsale gear, deflate boats, and repack. About 25 minutes of bother for 100 yards of progress. Camping on the river lacks appeal, and our legs have a bit more juice. We climb above the riverside cliffs and talus hop for half an hour before we pick up a rafters trail, which snakes into Matkatamiba Canyon. In enters the main canyon from the south, at such a perfect angle that when you’re 400 yards from the mouth you can hardly see it. A short journey upstream lands us on a perfect flat rock bench in the middle of a big curving alcove, flowing water tinkling and echoing on all sides. You’re not supposed to camp here, and with easy access from the river I can see why, but the days labors make us inclined to ask foregiveness rather than permission, and we bed down in the first and best camp of the trip. I’m sure it took our brains most of the night catch up.

The next morning legs are sore. Brendan and I discover yet another way in which our preferred routines match us nicely: we’re both coffee addicts and prefer to brew up and become awake and chemically enhanced from bed. I slept as the dead for 10 hours and could not be more pleased with my lot in life.

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The days routes will take us up Matkat until we can climb out to the east, back along the rim parallel to what we just walked, then up a side drainage, and down another drainage into Olo Canyon, which we’ll descend to the river, presumably on the day after. The only practical route for almost all of this is straight up the wash bottom, which mandates rock hopping and clambering of all kinds.

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It’s hard work, especially as so early in the trip, and without any relevant personal experience, we’re inclined to be conservative with respect to water. We tank up with six liters at the last big pool in Matkat, unsure when we’ll find more.

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The route back along the bench above Matkat has a nice trail, which while it still involves talus patches and cactus dodging is much nicer than none at all. At the turn into the side canyon our desire to meet the makers is granted when a obstreperous braying interrupts what has been a clear, still, and quiet day. Feral burros, generations removed from their ancestors who worked for miners, live here, and do not seem to like hikers. Unfortunately, I failed to capture their protests on video. It’s hard to describe, and I was too busy being shocked and laughing.

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Climbing up to the rim proves to be the toughest part of the trip. It’s not hot, probably no more than 75, but I broil in the unfiltered sun. There are enormous boulders to climb over and around, sticky brush to sidehill through, and towards the top a few spots where short walls have us hauling packs with the rope.

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Topping out happens as abruptly as a slap in the face. The world gets another dimension, with the main canyon marching into infinity behind us, side canyons beyond counting boggling the mind. If they’re all as complex as what we climbed today and descended yesterday, this is a very very large place. The desire to sit and soak it in is tempered by lengthening shadows, wanting to find water, and a big boulderfield below us.

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We do not find water above the Redwall in Olo, and while we have enough to make it through the night, being able to rehydrate without restriction would be welcome. Wondering downcanyon reveals a big drop off a house-sized sandstone boulder, and the scintillating flash of pools below. We gear up and make the intimidating drop. Ten feet below the anchor the boulder kicks back out of reach, and most of the drop is hanging free. We hang packs on slings below us to keep ourselves upright. Brendan, on his ninth or tenth canyon rappel ever, grumbles and shifts a bit but comes down fine. I negligently left the pullcord off to the side, to keep things from tangling, and it hangs up on a flake and doesn’t want to pull. Not wanting to prusik, I clip a biner on as a handle and pull hard. The rope pulls, after the 30 pound flake pops loose and crashes to the bottom. Thankfully that sandstone is soft, and the ropes are tough.

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A few twists and downclimbs later we find a mostly flat gravel pad 15 feet wide and 50 feet long, with a nice water pocket at one end and a short rappel at the other. With clear weather and no worries of floods, we make camp. Being at the bottom of a 150 foot deep echo chamber, we talk even quieter than usual, and go to sleep as a narrow band of stars comes out.

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To be continued..

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6 thoughts on “The Grand Eight: Days 1 and 2

  1. Pingback: A big hike in the Grand Canyon, part 1 | out. living.

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