Monday, October 20, 2014

Grand Canyon: Royal Arch Loop - South Bass to Royal Arch


"Death is a real possibility on this trip." - Mike Scussel (trip leader)

 "...this hike offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon." - National Park Service

Descent into the Grand Canyon. Photo By Bob Cagle
Other than from the window of a passenger plane, I had never seen The Grand Canyon before. I didn't comprehend its scope or power. I didn't understand what I was getting myself into when I agreed to go. Even though The Royal Arch Loop was listed as "extremely difficult" in a canyoneering book I'd read, and even though The National Park's Grand Canyon website recommended experienced grand canyoneers only, I still didn't quite get it. For me, trips always seem to come down to one thing: Can I deal with whatever nature throws my way? Can I endure? 

After a chilly night on the South Rim illegally camped next to a horse corral, we made the bumpy drive through Indian land to the South Bass Trailhead. We drove alone through the rugged high-desert country that marks this area, encountering only the bedraggled Havasupai who charged us $25 to pass through the reservation. A fee we would have swallowed easier if the rut-filled boulder-strewn road had been a little better maintained. At the trailhead we met a group coming out; two guides and a contingent of European tourists. Water was scarce they said. The five of us had brought enough containers to carry 2 gallons of water each, and the guides had plenty of water leftover after their climb out, so we topped off. It was a good thing we did.

My first thought after looking into the immense canyon from the south rim was one of skepticism. "I am going in there?" I asked my self incredulously. As infinite as it appears from the top, you really don't get a true sense of the scope until you are inside. It could have been the surface of Mars it felt so foreign; An endless maze of cliffs, and rock - and more rock. The descent was deceptively easy, because eventually I knew I would have to return the way I came.
Our fearless leader Mike Scussel
 When we reached the esplanade my spirits were high; We were cruising, and the scenery was amazing, but as we dropped into the Royal Arch drainage the terrain changed. The trail was steep, and the soil loose underfoot. The way became difficult to discern, and route finding took more time. I slipped and fell, and when I reached out to stop myself from sliding down the embankment a sharp stone pierced the palm of my hand. It was the first of many small cuts and scratches I would get during the trip.
Getting Deeper. Photo by Bob Cagle.
We reached our campsite on a ledge near the mouth of the Royal Arch Drainage just before dark. Other than a small puddle, there was no water to be found. Our trip leader Mike decided to follow the drainage down in an attempt to find some water we had spotted from higher-up earlier in the day. We were all running low. He came limping back and cussing like a sailor. He had stepped in an agave, and the knife-like leaf had pierced about an inch-or-so into his calf. It wasn't a straight-in shot, but it looked painful. He treated it the best he could, and hoped aloud that it wouldn't get infected. In the meantime, I treated water from the small hole near our campsite. It contained about 2 gallons, but was so shallow it was difficult to extract. 
First night's camp. Photo by Bob Cagle
 That night the stars were incredible. We all noted how quiet the canyon was. It was something we all commented on during the course of the 5-day trip... The silence. In fact, The Grand Canyon is the quietest place I've ever been to in my life. At least in the area we were, which is much more remote and less traveled than the corridor trails in the more popular areas of the park. Here there were no mules, no tourists, no helicopters... Just nature.

 I thought for-sure I would sleep well that night after such a hard day, but the wind picked up just before midnight and ruined my plans. Blowing sand and dust blasted me in the face. It didn't matter which way I turned. The sand covered my sleeping bag, and even got into my eyes and mouth. Finally I cinched my hood up so tight that I just left a small hole to breath from. It worked well enough that I finally fell asleep.
First night's water.
The next morning we cleaned as much sand off our gear and our bodies as we could. Not only did I wake up with grits in my mouth, but it was inside my sleeping bag and every other crack and crevice imaginable. Mike's leg was till hurting him, but he decided to soldier on. I felt bad that he was in pain, but I also did not want to turn around. It was only the second day! We were all eager to see the famed Royal Arch, but to do so meant a hard day of scrambling and climbing down the drainage.

 A half-a-mile down we found the water we spied the day before: 3 large potholes filled to the brim with crystal-clear water. The discovery was just in time, as I had maybe half-a-liter remaining. Our progress was slow going. We squirmed and wiggled and slid down car-sized boulders on our butts. I think every one of us ripped a hole in the ass of our pants during the course of the day, but we didn't really care. We were having a blast. 
Descending through the Royal Arch drainage. Photo by Bob Cagle
 We eventually reached a huge dry-fall, which looked somewhere in the neighborhood of one-hundred feet, that dropped into a giant gorge with sheer cliffs on both sides. We knew we were nearing the infamous ledge of death, but Mike couldn't remember the route (it had been a few years since he had done this hike). Bob eventually spotted a faint trail leading up the cliff-wall to the right, and we all followed, except Mike who was still vigorously contemplating which route to take. My heart was beating like a machinegun as I climbed. Any slip would have meant certain death. At one safe point I turned around to check Mike's progress, but I couldn't find him. I began calling out his name. When he finally yelled back I spotted him across the gorge traversing a narrow ledge on a near vertical cliff. He had spotted the correct route, which was along the left wall, but the rest of us were too committed to turn back. 

 Video below: After reaching the dry-fall, Mike is deciding which way to go. The rest of us began traversing the cliff on the right, while Mike eventually took the cliff on the left:



Watching Mike traverse that ledge from across the gorge was the scariest moment of my hike. One mistake and he would have fallen to his death. Not that our situation on the right was any different, but being in a group gave me at least some sense of a safety net. With baited breath we watched Mike traverse the ledge. He eventually reached The Ledge of Death, which is a spot on the ledge where a fallen boulder has completely blocked the route. In order to pass it, Mike had to hold on to the top of the boulder and squirm around the outside leaving his body literally hanging over the abyss. It was a tense moment for us 4 watching from across the canyon. The cliff was just so huge, and Mike looked so small from our vantage point. But to our relief he made it, and when he reached a safe spot, he then watched our descent on the other side.
Looking across the gorge just after the Ledge of Death. You can see Mike standing on the ledge in the center of the pic. Photo by Bob Cagle.
 We had to descend because the route across became impassable. Mike shouted over to us the route down that appeared the safest. We took our packs off, and with Bob leading the way, we down-climbed between cracks in the the cliff and over ledges and boulders, passing our packs down as we progressed. It was nerve wrecking because one slip-up would have been catastrophic. When we finally reached the slope at the base of the cliff, I was relieved but exhilarated by what we had just done. 
We descended to the slope from the top using the cracks in the cliff wall. I've dubbed this section "The Ledge of Doom". Photo by Bob Cagle.
David prepares for the last obstacle before the slope below the ledge of doom.

Our reunion with Mike back in the drainage was all smiles. We had conquered the most dangerous section of the hike, and we were all alive. The day wasn't yet done however, and soon we were back to sliding and scrambling. There were still plenty of dangers to go around. The largest hazard was falling, as it seemed like we encountered one obstacle after the next. But we got good at it, and worked as a team to negotiate the most difficult sections. By the time we reached Royal Arch we had hiked all day long, but covered less than 5 miles.
Royal Arch. Photo by Bob Cagle.
 Royal Arch is the largest natural bridge in Grand Canyon National Park and it is spectacular. Just as incredible is a huge rock pillar that stands just past the bridge that looked like a wizard's tower from Lord of the Rings. The arch is an oasis in the desert, as water flows freely, and pools are deep enough to swim in. It was a welcome sight after the day we had. A couple of the guys jumped in the icy water for a bath, but for me it was time to just relax and contemplate what we had accomplished in just 2 days. By that second night, this trip was already the most difficult hike I'd ever done, certainly in terms of the danger involved, but also because the amount of off-trail travel. The route finding was constant. Every new obstacle made us pause to consider the best way forward, Sometimes there were rock cairns, left by hikers before us, but mostly it was a matter of taking a few minutes to look. I had not experienced a day like that before.
Tower near Royal Arch. Photo by Bob Cagle.
Billions of stars dotted the night sky. More stars than I'd ever seen since moving to Arizona. I was glad that I wasn't in a tent. Part of sleeping outside is just being outside, and we cheat ourselves out of that experience sometimes by sleeping in tents when we don't have to. Although all the climbing and boulder-hoping was engaging, I was looking forward to putting in miles on an actual trail. We still had 3 more days in the canyon, and I was already having the time of my life. 
Royal Arch camp. Photo by Bob Cagle.
To be continued...