Anyone who can locate and complete this rarest of excursions is the most fortunate of hikers. -from Doug Nering’s description of the Point Huitzil Route
Before we get to the epic trip report, I’d just like to remind people in the Tucson area that the Birds, Blues, and Bellydance Benefit is this Saturday, May 7th at Sky Bar- 536 N. 4th Avenue from 7-10 pm. Come out, visit with the Great Horned and Elf Owls and Harris Hawk, have a beer, see some live blues by the Railbirdz and watch bellydance performances while supporting Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson- what’s not to like? Here’s the flier with all the info and a picture of Elfie the Elf Owl, who will be at the event:
Can’t make it to the event but still want to donate? Click this button to donate with PayPal or send an old-fashioned check made out to Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson to Pima Federal Credit Union P.O. Box 50267 Tucson, Arizona 85703. Volunteering at the wildlife rehab is one of my great joys in life and I am glad to be able to help this entirely self-supported facility by organizing this event.
Now for the hike: Last October, I backpacked the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon. It was one of the most challenging, scenic trips I’d done to date. Challenging not only because of the difficult terrain, but also because of the group dynamic and because the trip leader was woefully unprepared. For the whole story, click here.
After getting off that trip, I wanted to go back- this time on my terms as the trip leader, so I put in for a permit and was rewarded five nights starting April 5 on the Royal Arch Loop by the Grand Canyon permit gods. Originally, it was supposed to be five of us- my friend Wendy Lotze, who had been on the previous Royal Arch trip, Chris Forsyth and Russell Ownby, who I’d met through my volunteer work with the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association, and Russell’s wife, Kandi.
Russell suggested we up the ante a bit and go for the loop via the Point Huitzil Route, an ancient Anasazi route that uses some pretty ingenious ways including an ancient log ladder to get through the cliffs in the Coconino. I was a little intimidated by the route, which is supposed to have areas of great exposure, but I know that anything that gives me that feeling of butterflies in the pit of my stomach is sure to provide great adventure and satisfaction once the route has been completed. Unfortunately, Russell and Kandi had to cancel and so it was just Wendy and me that arrived at Chris’ house in Phoenix on April 4th to begin our adventure.
Chris was a little frazzled getting packed. You see, he had just come back from an 8 day trip in the Grand Canyon the night before! Chris lives a life many of us would envy- he makes the Grandest of Canyons his home for more nights a year than most spend in a lifetime. He has a wealth of knowledge about the history and geology of the canyon, besides being an enjoyable guy to be around, and I was looking forward to his perspective on the trail. We drove up to Flagstaff and spent a bit of time in the gear shops, picking up food to go at Pato Thai, and stocking up on Peeps. I think Chris realized this was going to be a little different than his usual trip when we stopped to eat our dinner with a view of sunset and the San Francisco Peaks. All we had to do was get to the abandoned Pasture Wash Ranger Station and set up camp for the night, and after a long drive on a dirt road, we arrived at the defunct ranger station amid the sweet-smelling sage and junipers.
Day 1-After some morning Peeps and breakfast amid some pre-hike jitters about the route we packed up and started the first leg of the day at 9:45 am navigating from Pasture Wash to the drop-in point on the rim. We followed a closed road and then a well-beat-in path that followed an old phoneline for a while. I had my GPS along, which helped to navigate toward the rim when the path we’d been following vanished in the pinyons and junipers. We picked up a cairned path at the bottom of the drainage and followed it until we reached a dryfall and reached a point where we got our first views of the Canyon at 11:15.
There was a cairn marking the descent and after a small scramble at the top, it was all nasty, loose, steep descent on sliding scree slopes. Wendy was having a hard time, going very slowly down the slope and we took a short break when we reached a level area to refuel with some snacks before the real fun began. Several more sliding slopes led us to a prominent cairn that took us down a system of ledges and past our first ruin and pictograph- an upside-down anthropomorphic figure next to a symbol. There was a circle of elk horns in the ruin and I could see the dark cliffs mentioned in some of the trip reports- I knew from my pre-hike research that we were coming to the log ladder.
I looked down the slope and saw a cairn sitting on the edge of a steep sandstone slab that angled off into nowhere and knew in the pit of my stomach that was where we were headed next. About this time we saw two dayhikers on the slope above us who had tried to locate the route and hadn’t found it, so they were going back. These were the only hikers we saw for six days.
We took off our packs at the top of the slab and Chris went to scout the route. Chris had done this route about four years ago, and was a little apprehensive about whether or not he could locate it again. This part, however was clearly marked with a large cairn at the edge of the slab. There was a step down from the ledge on some unstable rocks.
Chris found the hole in the cliff that gave access to the crack where the log ladder was and called Wendy and me over. He said he’d bring our packs to the hole and I can’t say that I wasn’t a little relieved. The hole is literally at the edge of the sloping cliff, and I edged over and lowered myself into the hole. Now normally when I’m nervous, I have a tendency to use- let’s say- indelicate language. This time, I started laughing and couldn’t stop- the route is so unlikely and I couldn’t believe that I was here, lowering myself into a hole at the edge of a cliff on the way to the famed ancient log ladder. The lateral crack that the hole accesses is surprisingly spacious, with room for all three of us and our gear. I could see the top of the log ladder in the vertical crack that was to our left as we entered the hole.
Chris went first and we passed our packs down. Wendy wanted to go next, and I saw that the log wasn’t as stable as I’d thought (why I thought this log was going to be stable- I don’t know)- it twisted as she shifted her weight. When it was my turn, I told Wendy to take a movie of me going down the ladder. I got on the first step without a problem, but then it took me a bit to figure out where to best put my hands for the next step. Then, as I got toward the end, the entire log shifted downward and as a result the video is too awkward for public consumption.
One thing that Chris had mentioned about the last time he’d done the route was that there was one particular slab that slanted away from the cliff that really freaked him out- he said it was on his top 5 most scared moments. This had worried me ever since the idea of doing the Point Huitzil route came up- if Chris was freaked out, how were Wendy and I going to deal with it? Which slab was it? In the beta that I’d collected before the trip, Doug Nering describes the crux of the route: “The sandstone slopes steeply away toward the cliff and there are no holds, only friction.” Well, we’d just left the ladder and were greeted by a slab that met just that description.
But the payoff in this area for crossing steep treacherous slopes is numerous petroglyphs, so I decided to trust in the tread of my brand-new shoes. The petroglyphs were incredible. So many layers upon layers of art-it was almost too much to process all at once. The petroglyphs are on one of the slanty slabs and we explored them for a while as Chris went off to scout the next part of the route without his pack.
Chris found the next obstacle- ancient Moqui steps (hand and toe-holds that have been chipped into the rock face) that indicated the route. They led to a part where there is a 5-foot drop from one ledge to another, but there is an unstable stack of rocks- basically a big cairn- to step onto. So many interesting twists and turns.
Then there were even more slabs. I used all sorts of calming devices, such as singing “Slab” to the tune of “Spam” from Monty Python, and calling the slab all sorts of variations, like “It’s a Slaborama” or “This is Slabalicious”. We even called it a “Slabmageddon” and a “Slabpocalypse”. So it turned out, that there isn’t just one scary slab, there are about 15 on the route that would fit the moniker just fine.
We used a handline that Chris had put into place down the second set of Moqui steps. By this time, Chris had realized that his “scary spot” from before had come from not trusting the shoes he had on plus inexperience on that kind of terrain. He had also done a lot of off-trail exploring in the Canyon in the years since he’d done this route last that made all the difference. There was more crossing of slabs and one last awkward move and we took a break at a flat spot in the shade of a tree. It was around this time that Chris taught us a saying he’d learned on the river: “Don’t celebrate while the water’s white”. It would become a theme of the trip.
We finally reached the bottom of the Coconino and the ground changed to a rich reddish-brown. There was still one last steep, loose decent down to the more level ground of the drainage below. We were all relieved to see water right as we entered the drainage at about 4:30 pm. Looking back at the cliffs, it was hard to believe the unlikely way we’d arrived here. Here’s a video:
Hiking was much easier in the drainage, and there were a couple of pouroffs to negotiate. We’d hiked down into springtime, and there were blooming Cliff Fendlerbushes and gorgeous redbud trees. We decided at around 5:30 to look for a place to spend the night and found a delightful spot at the top of a pouroff with a clear tinaja filled with amorous frogs. It had been an eventful day and we were all pleased that we’d gotten through the toughest part of the route. I was excited to be able to wander around barefoot and set up camp- the forecast was for a clear evening and I adore sleeping under the stars. Chris and Wendy went to bed soon after sunset and I stayed up for a while, listening to music and wandering up the drainage.
Day 2-I was the last to bed and the first to wake up, so I went exploring the terraces above our campsite so as not to wake my companions. We got hiking at 8:30 and in 15 minutes were at the junction with the Royal Arch route that Wendy and I had done in October. There was a lot more water in this drainage than the previous one. 25 minutes later, we were at The Ledge and the Supai pouroff.
Chris had never done the Ledge bypass route on canyon right, so off we went toward the Rabbit Hole. We passed our packs through and took the requisite pictures. In October, our group had spent a lot of time on this part lowering our packs and locating the scramble down. This time, Chris suggested that we go over and see if we could do it with packs on. It turned out not to be a problem at all to scramble down the brushy chute and we saved a lot of time. I just love the colorful inclusions in the rock on this part of the route- it adds a nice touch to an otherwise rough and steep descent back down to the drainage.
Once back to the drainage, we negotiated the obstacles of Royal Arch Creek. It was so much easier this time, knowing what to expect, and we were able to wear our packs for much of it. It had been overcast all day, and it started to sprinkle on and off. A little unnerving in a tight canyon, but I knew we would be at our camp in a couple of hours.
When we reached the first of the pools that we’d had to avoid in October, a little scouting revealed that both it and the following pool were dry! This made our lives a lot easier, as we didn’t have to wade a cold pool or do the exposed bypass. We passed the cairns that mark the exit route from the drainage at 1:45 on our way to the Royal Arch to camp. As we got into the ledges and a pretty waterfall, I knew we were getting close. It was a relief to see the Royal Arch and get underneath it before the rain started falling. Definitely the most gorgeous umbrella I’ve ever used.
We were able to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the Arch without having to put our rain gear on. Thankfully, the rain would stop from time to time and we were able to go out and look at the pools and the giant drop beyond the Arch. Chris found an alcove camp while Wendy and I camped beneath the Royal Arch.
Day 3- Up before everyone else again, I had one of my favorite moments of the entire trip- early morning yoga and dance as the sun was rising on the ledge next to the dropoff past the Arch. What a way to start the day! Before we left, Chris went and cleaned up webbing left by the group that had rappelled off the big drop since his trip in February. I would totally love to come back to do the route down to Elves Chasm someday. I also went to check out the path that goes to the right of the drop. It is right on the edge in places but gives an incredible look at the Arch, the drop, and the canyon below. Here’s a video:
Sadly, it was eventually time to leave the Royal Arch and head toward the next part of the route- hiking up and out of Royal Arch Creek and toward the rappel. The weather was cooperating as we hiked up the break out of Royal Arch Creek and had a last few interesting spots to negotiate while contouring above the creek.
Soon the views opened up toward Stephens Aisle on the Colorado River and the Explorers Monument. There were several types of wildflowers blooming and we soon saw the giant cairn by the edge of the plateau. Chris and I went to check it out- it matches a benchmark from the Matthes-Evans survey of the early 1900’s. The views from there are wonderful up and downriver.
After a snack break we continued contouring over toward the rappel. There was a short scramble down on sharp rocks to the rappel platform, but this time Wendy and I were able to do it with our packs on. Last year, Wendy and I had spent a good amount of time waiting on the platform because there were so many people on the trip, which only made us nervous. This time, Chris efficiently set up the rappel and Wendy went first. I went next and after having done the long rappels on Weaver’s Needle in February, this rappel seemed like it was over before it began. Down came our packs and poles, then Chris.
We had one last part where Wendy and I passed our packs down the crack below the rappel, then it was time for the steep, loose slope down to Toltec Beach. We reached the beach with plenty of time to relax before dinner. Only the weather had stopped cooperating and had turned nasty. It was windy and threatening rain and Chris and I got our tents set up and Wendy set up her tarp and bivy.
What followed was one of the windiest evenings I’ve ever had the displeasure of enduring. Wendy and I went exploring up Toltec to a beautiful salt-encrusted seep. We tried to make the best of our camp, but the sandstorm made it tough to relax and even more difficult to eat. I had to take my contact lenses out and put on my glasses for the rest of the trip because my eyes were getting blasted with sand. I spent part of the evening on some rocks next to wet sand by the river before going into my tent. The tent only served to filter out the larger chunks, so when I went to lie down, everything was coated with superfine sand. I had to sleep with a bandanna tucked into my hat and scarf over my face so that I wouldn’t be subjected to a fine rain of sand on my face every time the wind blew.
Day 4-The night’s sandstorm didn’t do anything for anyone’s disposition in the morning. Especially Wendy, who hadn’t slept all night. The weather looked like it had taken a turn for the worst. Chris said something really glum, like “This is when the fun ends”. I had to disagree- it was going to take more than a sandstorm and some bad weather for me not to enjoy the Canyon. The forecast had been for a storm to arrive on the weekend, but it looked as if it was here early.
We went back and forth about whether to visit Elves Chasm. Wendy hadn’t made it there when we were here last October, and Chris and I had both already seen it, so we left it up to her. Though she hadn’t slept last night, she decided that she’d regret it if she skipped it. So we packed up a snack and some water along with our rain gear and hiked the nasty little path over to Elves Chasm. The mile and a half took us an hour and a half and Wendy was cursing every steep up and down, knowing that we’d have to repeat all of them on the way back. It was sprinkling and we all took great care on the slippery-smooth polished rocks as we hiked up the sidecanyon toward the waterfall.
Totally different experience seeing Elves Chasm in the rain- when I got here last October, I was on the verge of overheating and jumped in to cool myself. There would be no jumping in today, but it was still a lovely place to look at. We stood admiring the waterfall for a bit, then retreated to a dry alcove for lunch before hiking back to Toltec and packed up.
The original plan had been to take a layover day at Toltec so that we had all day to enjoy Elves Chasm. None of us wanted to even look at Toltec a minute longer than necessary after such a crappy camp the night before and we’d already done the waterfall thing. We wore our raingear as it was sprinkling while we were negotiating the man-eating razor-sharp rocks on the way to Garnet Canyon. That piece of the route is nasty! But the payoff is getting to Garnet and climbing up the Tapeats to the Tonto Trail. It was much colder today, and we had to put extra layers on when taking snack breaks.
It was such a relief to be on the Tonto Trail and be able to stride out for the first time in days and days, even if we were soggy. I had brought my umbrella to use for shade on the Tonto, but instead I was using it for the rain. We cruised along the Tonto for a couple of hours until we reached the sidecanyon before Copper and made camp. I love contouring on the Tonto- I never understand people who get irritated by it.
We’d been toying with the idea of hiking out a day early, but realized that it was probably best to stick with our itinerary, which would give us the whole day to hike out from the Bass junction, do our 3.5 mi roadwalk, and drive out on what was probably going to be a really bad road because of the storm. It was a wise choice. Chris and Wendy shared his two-man tent instead of Wendy having to set up her tarp and bivy in the rain.
I am not crazy about sleeping in a tent, (I prefer under the stars) so I was really irritated when the ground had gotten saturated in the middle of the night and the stake holding the fly vestibule was ripped out by a gust of wind, waking me with a cold spray of water. I woke up and went out into the rain to re-stake my tent and find the biggest rock in the area to put on it, swearing up a storm the whole time. Then I realized that the fabric of my tent fly had begun to stretch out and it was touching the mesh in several places, letting drips into my tent. Wendy, after laughing at being woken up by my stream of obscenities, offered me her bivy to use in my tent to protect my sleeping bag and I was able to go back to sleep.
Day 5- All night we’d heard the steady sound of rain on our tents. The ground outside my tent was a mucky mess from my midnight scrambling to restake. We’d left a plastic scoop made from a gallon water jug outside as a rain gauge and we were all thinking that from the sound of last night, that it would be full or overflowing. Surprisingly, there was not even an inch in the jug. The upper layers of the Canyon had been enshrouded in fog which finally lifted to reveal the snow-capped canyon in all its glory. I have never been at the Grand Canyon when it has had snow on it so this was quite a treat! Here’s a video:
This day was most notable for the ever-changing weather. We had rain, blue skies, sleet, and sun- sometimes all within a 10-minute period. Chris pointed out different landmarks along the way as we contoured along the Tonto. We filled up water at Copper Canyon, which had a snow-capped Mt. Huethawali sitting atop Evolution Amphitheater. In October, Wendy and I had camped on the point right before the turn into Bass Canyon and Chris and I went out there and watched rafters go through the rapids.
We reached the South Bass junction and set up our tents in a dry spell. Wendy had a perfect Wendy-sized alcove for her bivy and we ate dinner up there before retiring for the evening. Right after I got into my tent, there was a barrage of sleet and small hail that came rolling underneath the fly of my tent. Good timing. Tomorrow’s hike out was going to depend a lot on what kind of weather we were going to have.
Day 6- It was mercifully clear when we awoke in the morning, but we were guardedly optimistic after going through the changeable weather of yesterday. We had been speculating for a while about what kind of conditions we would encounter on the upper reaches of the trail and our roadwalk and if we were going to be able to drive the 30-mile dirt road. I was hoping that most of the snow had melted, as I am not a fan of the white stuff.
We made it on the trail around 8am. I really enjoy the South Bass Trail. It is a beautifully constructed and laid-out trail and I was with two people who also appreciated trail construction, so we were all geeking out about it. The lush area right before the Redwall break is fantastic and after being on the Royal Arch Route, the wide trail felt very fancy and almost luxurious
We were all excited to reach the level part of the traverse in the Supai and get a break from the climb and enjoy the views. We reached a snow-free trail on the Esplanade and stopped short of the Royal Arch junction to refuel for the final push to the rim. The weather was cooperating and couldn’t have been more perfect. There was visible snow up ahead and Wendy and I used bread and tortilla bags over our socks to keep our feet dry.
As soon as we passed the Royal Arch Route junction, we saw lots of footprints, which made our lives a lot easier. Now we knew that the trail had been broken through the snow. There was just the perfect amount of snow- enough to attractively coat the trees and trail without causing any issues with traction. The last mile and a half went smoothly and we were on the rim by 1 pm. There were several cars at the trailhead, and the road was clear of snow but very wet.
After a break, we started out on our 3.5 mile roadwalk back to the Pasture Wash Ranger Station. At first the slippery mud was kind of funny- we were sliding around and sometimes our feet would get sucked into deep spots. The humor lasted about a half a mile, and then we realized that the mud was going to make it a much more difficult roadwalk than we’d been expecting. In fact, I can say unequivocally that that was the most demoralizing, unpleasant, wet, squishy, unstable, slippery, piece of crap that I’ve ever had the displeasure of walking.
Chris went ahead and Wendy and I plodded on- I was glad we had the bread bags on our feet so that they at least weren’t wet and cold. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the Pasture Wash Ranger Station and Wendy’s car. Wendy had baked brownies for our trip and we’d saved one apiece for when we returned, plus there were some celebratory Peeps left. It felt so good to take my slimy, mucky shoes off, change my stanky clothes, and take a wet wipe bath. I realized that I had not taken my first aid kit out at all during the trip- not one ibuprofen or piece of moleskin was needed for the whole six days.
Somewhat refreshed, we had one last leg of the trip to go- the dreaded drive out on 30 unpaved miles of muck. The water was indeed still quite white. Wendy managed to drive her little AWD Subaru Baja like a champ as we white-knuckled it down the road. There were times when the car would slide sideways down the road as Wendy applied the gas and a couple of spots that required her quite some time to get out of a rut. We all cheered when we saw the blacktop of Hwy 64. Finally, all the obstacles of the trip had been surmounted and now all that was left was an ordinary car drive home.
I am so glad that I decided to do this route again with a small group. The fact that I’d been on much of the route before made the Royal Arch Loop appreciably easier the second time around. The Point Huitzil Route was an incredible way to get through the Coconino and an experience I’ll never forget. I am usually a little morose upon leaving the canyon, aching for the next time I’ll be able to return, but there was no need on this trip.
I knew that in mid-May that I will be back, this time on the river volunteering on an Arizona Game and Fish fish survey. I will be hiking in via the South Kaibab and taking out at Diamond Creek- 12 days of getting to see the Grand Canyon in a completely different way. I can’t even describe how excited I am- I have dreamed of rafting the Colorado for years and years and finally the right opportunity came together. I had to laugh when I saw the first three areas we’ll be working on the river trip- Upper Bass, Garnet, and Elves- guess I’ll be back in the neighborhood before long! Click the picture below to go to the full set from this trip on my Picasa account:
|Point Huitzil 4-5-11|