I was not sleeping well the first night of our trip, an unusual thing. A number of years ago I weaned myself off the need to read before falling asleep, and since have normally slept like the dead in the backcountry.
The next morning my mom mentioned that in the approximate quarter century between when I was born and my sister left home more or less permanently, her sleep had never been what it was before, and that perhaps I was feeling the burden of responsibility for her, being as we were a full day of very rugged canyon and a half dozen rappels away from the car.
She was right.
This trip got started after my March trip, when my mom said she wanted in on the action. No one in question is decrepit or close to dying, but nonetheless life’s finitude is a not infrequent topic of contemplation. So this fall it was. After a fair amount of head scratching to get all the pieces in place, I got a permit for a route which seemed like it would be appropriately rugged, but not too hard, had remote North Rim access but not on roads requiring a 4×4, and would most importantly provide the full off-trail Grand Canyon experience.
The night before we camped on the rim. The view was sublime, and the wind fierce up in the ponderosa needles, but the temps at 7000′ were warmer than I had dared hope for. Neither my wife M nor my mother are especially warm blooded people, and I had been worried that a frigid night would put them off the trip, especially in light of the the wading and possibly swimming on tap for the first day. Instead, it looked like we had managed to schedule for an ideal weather window.
It is nowhere more relevant than in the Grand to think about elevation rather than mileage. The first few rock layers gave way easily on an old miners pack trail, which was steep and overgrown, but easy to follow. The next layer passed less easily: steep dirt sidehilling and gully hopping through thick scrub oak and manzanita, then more steep dirt and cliff bands through cactus, one of which mom happened to sit on when she lost her feet during the final descent to the canyon floor. They got the bonding experience of daughter-in-law picking spines out of mother-in-laws butt.
The canyon was gorgeous. Boulder hopping quickly led deep into the curves and galleries of the Redwall limestone, typically the tallest cliffs in the canyon. Here they gave us no serious obstacles.
Except perhaps tripping on cobbles as you looked up.
The business, of the day and symbolically the whole trip, was the Muav slot below the Redwall. Logistically and psychologically our hand was forced on this one: good campsites and especially clear water only existed past the slot, and camping right above that obstacle would have been unpalatable. We reached the difficulties later in the afternoon than I would have liked, but seemed to have plenty of time.
Unlike most Colorado Plateau canyons, slots in the Grand are often in limestone, which is very slippery, especially when muddy. Things slowed down, as rolling a knee or ankle is in this environment simply unacceptable.
My mom is more afraid of heights than a lot of people. Years ago we took her down Mystery Canyon in Zion as part of a post-reception romp, and she did well, though the big 120 foot rap into the intimidating springs chamber required extra moments to psyche up. She hasn’t rappelled since, and of course the first drop on this trip was an awkward-as-hell roll off an undercut chockstone. We lowered her pack and she went down with a commendable lack of futzing.
Apparently, a Piper Cub clipped a wing on the canyon above 30 years ago, and the wreckage is still there. Sobering.
The slot section was more beautiful and more continuous than I had anticipated, and more challenging. Daylight waned as we steadily worked through the obstacles.
A lot of time, which we ideally didn’t have, got burnt in the final tight spot before the Muav let us out. A slick downclimb necessitated a handline for M, a lower for mom, and a nervous downclimb for me. I was burning a lot of psyche keeping the show running, and at the next, probably downclimbable drop built a rockpile anchor because I no longer trusted my edge. We had been following fairly recent footprints all day, a party of obviously good climbers who had either trusted or not used some of the jingus anchors and rotten webbing I found and replaced. M, down first off the cairn anchor with me backing things up, reported that she didn’t see an anchor for the next drop, so I left the rope in place as I came down. There was an anchor, a decent chockstone slung in an awkward to reach spot. I wanted something better and after some pacing in circles found it: a bomber knot chock in a horizontal crack. One nice thing about limestone, unlike in Navajo you’re unlikely to be blowing out smaller features when weighted. I had to climb up on Ms back to get a final visual on the knot, but it looked and bounce-tested good so we were off.
After that drop (pictured directly above) we put on layers and got out headlamps, negotiating one final rap before it got proper dark. A nuisance drop soon after got the better of my patience, and after body-belaying M and mom down, I lowered my pack, dropped the rope, and wriggled down into the offwidth. Soon I found my legs in space and all my weight hanging on a single left armbar. A solid stance, but any lower and I wouldn’t be able to pick when I let go, so I muttered something about bombs away and dropped. Further than I thought. M and I both underestimated how I would fall and I blew through her spot and rolled hard, slapping both palms against the dirt. I said some unkind words in the aftermath, worried I had broken my right thumb and (irrationally) irritated the M had violated the spotters code which says that while you’re not obligated to get hurt worse than your spottee, you damn well better get equally injured. Unfortunately for our party, in me the best climbers was also the heaviest by a fair margin, and asking someone to spot you when you weigh nearly half again what they do is not a good call. Instead, I should have taken the extra minute to hunt up an anchor and rapped the drop myself.
I know better, but acting well under pressure isn’t always perfect.
Five minutes later we walked around a corner in the dark and the walls gave way, flowing water appeared, and flat stone patios offered themselves for camping. We picked what would prove to be a Top-10 camping spot, got out of wet clothes, made dinner, and fell asleep.
The next morning I was disappointed in myself for an error in judgment, but immensely pleased and proud to have two of the most important people in my life together in such a cool spot. I did not then know that the trip would continue to exceed expectations in every way.