Friday, September 4, 2009

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim - Utah Flats, Phantom Creek

April 17 - 25, 1998

Note - This was our first attempt at Phantom Creek. We reached upper Phantom Creek but due to the flow rate we did not descend Phantom Creek. See Grand Canyon - Clear Creek and Phantom Creek For our descent of Phantom Creek in a subsequent trip.  In 2013 we repeated this trip including another successful descent of Phantom Creek.  The log from that trip includes more current trail conditions and better photos of the route to Utah Flats.

Friday – Getting to the Canyon - John drove. He and Jerry had time to get coffee, sweet rolls and still be early to pick Norm up. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our 9:40 flight only to learn it was delayed for one hour. Jerry checked his backpack and his travel bag so he had no glasses or book. Things were looking pretty grim. John luckily had an extra pair of reading glasses, and Jerry bought a newspaper. The flight was uneventful and included breakfast. John rented a Ford Taurus, which gave us just enough room by using half the back seat for luggage. We bought gas at a camping store in Phoenix and water and oranges at a Safeway in Flagstaff. We bought Subway sandwiches at a gas station and ate them outside (sitting on rocks; like we needed an extra meal on the rocks). As is our custom we reached the rim just as the sun set. We checked into Mather Campground, ate dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge dining room, and Norm bought a few more GC souvenirs. We slept better than we have on other trips but had to endure the motor home generator for a while and then a car alarm. We did not awake until 6 o’clock (9 by Michigan time).

Saturday – Down to the Bottom - It was COLD. Norm was happy he had gloves and all were happy to have stocking caps. We wore all the shirts and jackets we had with us. We fired up the stove for coffee and oatmeal to be sure it worked. We sorted through our stuff and repacked. We stopped by the Yavapi Cafeteria for coffee and then went to Mather Point to drink it and look over the S. Kaibab trail. We could see the trail clearly on and beyond Cedar Ridge, but we could not identify for sure how the trail got down to cedar Ridge. Did it stay high or not? We could see up the North Kaibab trail and had a good view of Utah Flats.

When we arrived at the trail head we learned that we would not be allowed to park; in fact we weren’t even supposed to drive up there. We quickly dropped Jerry and the packs off and went to find a parking place. A kind shuttle bus driver suggested a picnic ground nearby or the scenic overlooks nearby. The picnic lot was full and the scenic overlook lots looked too vulnerable so we went back to (yes, you guessed it) Yavapi Lodge to park. The shuttle bus picked us up and we were on the trail by 9:45. We did not hustle, as we were happy to be bringing up the rear to avoid a few more people. We have no history of catching up with people so it was a pretty safe approach. It was still brisk in the shade and there was ice on the puddles. The trail is wide and well prepared (for the mules). There seem to be some special cairns for (or by) the mules. They are green and aromatic. There were not as many as on the Bright Angel trail in May of 1994.

Our first OOPE (out of pack experience) was at the rest rooms on Cedar Ridge. This was quite short as there were about 100 people and 2 dozen mules. We stopped for a longer stop in the shade below O’Neil Butte. By the time we got to the Red Wall descent, we were in the full sun and the next shade was the rest room on the Tonto platform. John and Norm were not excited about the ambience but were happy to have the shade. As we ate lunch we were visited by our first ever backcountry ranger. It was Todd Van Something, who was also the Cottonwood ranger. He checked our permit and assured us we would see him again. (On six other backpacking trips we had never had a ranger check our permit.) We saw some raggedy looking squirrels. They needed to polish their begging technique if they were going to get fat and bushy like the Bright Angel Squirrels.

The trail is only on the Tonto for about 50 yards and then descends into the Tapeats. As it crossed the Tonto trail we were happy we were going down and not "across” on the Tonto trail like the group we saw. We were surprised to meet people who were coming up as we descended this lower part of the trail so late in the day. We expected this section would have been clear of people coming up by 9 or 10. We particularly noticed Mr. Sweats who had on shorts over sweat pants and was using a very slow deliberate step even in the lowest and earliest (for him) parts of the trail. The other people we felt for were a couple. The young woman had dropped her pack to go back and help the fellow. He had shorts and was carrying too much weight on himself (not in a pack). It was not at all obvious that they would make it by dark and they had no equipment to sleep on the trail. We stopped in the Schist but did not eat.

We crossed the black bridge at 3:30. 5 hours and 45 minutes to descend the 6 miles. Norm’s toes were feeling pretty jammed into his boots. After finding a site along the BA creek Jerry cooked mashed potatoes and roast beef gravy. It was from the 1996 trip but cooked up and tasted fine. After dinner Jerry made the blackberry cobbler. It was Ok at best but at least he wouldn’t have to carry it further. Jerry picked it out for the 1997 trip and Norm carried it for 7 days. After dinner we walked to and John and Norm crossed the Silver Bridge. Jerry was not interested in walking on this bridge since you can see through the grating all the way down to the river. This completed Norm’s goal of crossing the suspension bridges at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. While we were near the river we saw a Big Orange Jeep (Big Horned Sheep) high up across the river. We also looked around Phantom Ranch. After dark we played a little Trivia, getting 6 of 6 right in the first few pages, and went to sleep under the stars. It was cold enough Norm was literally shivering, and had to mummify himself.

Sunday – Up to Cottonwood – Jerry awoke feeling poorly so he went back to sleep. John and Norm walked to the ranger station to get trip tips on the Phantom Creek route. They learned that Phantom creek required wading in waist to chest deep water to cross the pools. Harvey and George hadn’t mentioned exactly that. We started to consider the Tonto route. The ranger advised that going up Phantom creek wasn’t much fun even at low water, but in the spring would be a real drag. When they got back to the campsite they found Jerry still asleep, so they read, and enjoyed the Canyon a little longer. Jerry eventually awoke and felt a little better but still couldn’t keep much food down. As Jerry packed up, Norm read Psalm 91. Jan always writes that on the GORP bags to remind us. By about 10:15 he felt good enough to leave for Cottonwood. We saw only one party going up, and eventually saw 4 parties coming down from Ribbon Falls; a total of about 22 people. The trail is quite gradual and is pretty smooth and wide. The major excuse for having this piece of trail in such great condition is that the water line is underneath it. We stopped four times in the shade of the overhang or other rocks, had lunch. John commented that Norm always seems to find a place to sit where he can lean back. We arrived at Ribbon Falls at about 3pm. We spent quite a bit of time at the falls and took some pictures that turned out very well. It is a beautiful spot. We climbed up behind the falls and watched the water hit the big mound. We then arrived at Cottonwood Camp at about 5pm. Ranger Todd recommended Site number 4, and he was right. We moved up to number 4. It was a little further from the other occupied sites, was the right size for 2 small tents, had a nice view, and was far enough from the whine of the water system that we could not hear it. Unfortunately even site number 4 had the gnats. We finished eating just as the sun set, and played Trivia by flashlight. We again got 6 out of 6 almost right away but played on anyway. We slept in tents, because it was a little cooler at the higher elevation.

Monday – On to the North Rim - We were on the trail by 7am without packs. We made good time and stopped less frequently for shorter periods than we do with the packs. Roaring Springs is spectacular. There are actually about 5 different springs gushing out along the north wall of Roaring Springs Canyon. They all cascade down hundreds of feet. This is where the water lines to both rims originate. From Roaring Springs, North, the trail is used for Mule trips but since we were there before the North Rim opened, there were no Mule cairns to avoid. It seemed pretty wide to Norm but pretty narrow to Jerry. To control erosion and run off, there are many diversion devices, of wood or stone. The mules must be very sure footed to cross all these without stumbling. The most memorable stretch (for John and Norm) is in the Muav and Redwall. It is a trail with hundreds of feet of wall on one side and hundreds of feet of fall on the other. Jerry said he just watched the corner where the wall met the trail and the feet in front of him. Norm and John greatly enjoyed the view across the canyon. Due to the snow melt above there were about 6 little waterfalls which came down near or directly on the trail. This was another day when we got to see active waterfalls where the summer crowd would just see rock. We could see them originate hundreds of feet up and cascade down through several shelves and falls. In the morning we did not get too wet even when the water fell right on the trail, but on the way down after the sun had increased the melt rate, we got quite wet a couple of times. We were happy the air was warm. We wanted to rush through to keep from getting drenched but we had to go slowly because the trail was right on the edge of the abyss and the wet rock could have been slippery.

There are some landmarks on the map that kept us apprised of our position and progress: the bridge, the tunnel… We stopped for a longer rest just after the tunnel. We soon found our first snow on the trail. It was in intermittent stretches of 10 to 100 yards but was at least 3 feet deep. There were footprints of two other people who had packed a trail, so we did not “Post Hole” too much. The snow was continuous through the Hermit Shale, and was intermittent in the Coconino at the beginning. By the top of the Coconino it was uninterrupted and stayed so all the way to the North Rim. The ranger had said that he talked to only one person who had tried for the North Rim this year and had been turned back by deep snow. We thought perhaps we would be turned back too, or perhaps we would be the first of the season to make it? We could make out tracks from two different boot treads in the mud, and they both went in both directions. These tracks made it all the way to the rim and so we followed them. There were two snowballs at the top, perhaps made by the two hikers. It felt great to be the second party of the season to make the rim, and to be on the North Rim all alone. We joked about a ranger asking us where our car was parked and telling him it was parked on the South Rim. The only ground not covered with three feet of snow was a single lane of road. We sat in the road, ate lunch and napped with our heads on our canteen pillows. We were sweating even though there was snow on the ground but after cooling down, we started to get uncomfortable when the sun was covered by clouds.

After lunch Jerry lead the way down. The snow was warmer, slipperier, and we ended up doing some post holing. We all ran out of water so filtered some just above the tunnel where we rested again. Norm used a zip lock bag to catch the water and Jerry pumped. This water lasted us down to the residence of the pumping station engineer. He has a sign inviting hikers to get water and in the summer often has lemonade. He came out and talked to us for about 15 minutes. He has been there since 1972, raised three children there and can’t image anywhere better to live. He said the park runs a helicopter shuttle weekly to supply him and the campgrounds. That station pumps only to the North rim, so he leaves in the winter and lives near the south rim. The water is carried by gravity to Indian Gardens on the South side where there is another pumping station for the South Rim. The pumping station engineer was the only person we saw all day.

We arrived back at camp at 5:30 (14 Miles). We were enjoying the out of pack day and decided to ask to stay at Cottonwood an extra day and give up a day near Phantom Creek. We had Chicken Stew, which was the best meal of the trip. As the sun was setting we watched the parade of jets and vapor trails criss-crossing the canyon. John guessed at their destinations. We talked about alternatives for our extra layover day, and decided on visiting the Transept, which Harvey recommended. It would require a crossing of Bright Angel Creek but we had crossed creeks before. We got 6 of 6 in Trivia quickly yet again but played until 8:35 which is pretty late for us.

Tuesday – Wall Creek – Ranger Todd was had not shown up around camp, so we decided to leave him a note asking permission to stay the extra night. Only three other sites were occupied and they would probably return to Bright Angel Camp again that day. We walked up and down Bright Angle Creek to find a good crossing point to get into the Transept. The flow was stronger than we really wanted to cross so we decided to go down to Wall Creek and explore there, since it was on our (the East) side of the Bright Angel Creek.

Walking up Wall creek was like walking up Shinimo in Merlin’s Abyss. There was no trail and we crossed the creek several times and walked through brush, bushes, branches, ankle biters, and avoided cactus. We stopped for snacks in several pretty places. Jerry left his T-shirt in the first one under some cottonwood trees, since the day was warming up. We were sure to see it on the way back, and we had to come back that way. We next found a beautiful 12 foot waterfall, then a quartzite alcove half bowl, then some huge cottonwood fallen trees which served as nice seats for serious lunch. Norm had smoked trout that was heavenly after canned chicken. On the way down to the mouth of Wall creek we walked back up a water shed up to a steep seep which was shaded and cool. As usual it did not seem possible to find our exact route again. Jerry lead and by hugging the north side of the water shed we made great time and found ourselves back at the North Kiabab trail. But the new efficient trail did not take us by Jerry’s shirt so back up we went to find it. Since we were not sight seeing, it did not take too long and we used the north side route to finish up quickly. It was still a mile or more back to camp and we were out of water since we had not brought the filter.

When we arrived back at Cottonwood camp we were plenty thirsty and tired. Our site was not shaded so we flopped down in one of the group sites near the water spicket. We chatted with a fellow from Wisconsin who was with his wife and son on their third or fourth trip; always down Bright Angel. He had packed in the Smokies in spring and told of sharing shelters packed shoulder to shoulder with “through” Appalachian Trail hikers. The shade was great and we were ready for a nap, but the flies made it impossible. Norm went to sleep in his hot but fly free tent, and then went down to cool off in the creek. John and Jerry joined him. We had Richmoor Lasagna. It was OK. We studied the maps and talked quite a bit about the Phantom Creek route, and although the enthusiasm was limited we decided to do it as planned, that is go up Phantom Creek. Played trivia by flashlight again but never got 6 of 6 correct. It was about here that Jane Fonda seemed like the correct answer to most movie-related questions. Jane Fonda was never correct.

Wednesday – Phantom Creek? No, Utah Flats – We hit the trail about 7:15 which was pretty early for us on this trip. We quickly noticed the difference of being back in packs again. Being down four day’s food didn’t seem to make much difference. Since we knew we would be near the creek, we did not even have full loads of water. It could have been (and soon would be) worse. When we got to Wall Creek we noticed the flow was much heavier than it had been when we came up to Cottonwood. It was so strong that the carefully selected and placed stepping stones were totally covered with water which was so clouded with sediment that we could not find the stones. Norm just waded across, and Jerry and John followed suit. We knew we would get our feet wet down at Phantom anyway. It was about there that we started to see how much higher Bright Angel Creek was, and how clouded it had become. When we got to the Ribbon Falls bridge, Norm stopped to talk about the plan. He suggested that we had some new valuable information: the warm temperatures had just about doubled the flow rate in the creeks we had come to know a little, and so the flow in Phantom would probably be double too. John quickly got consensus that we did not want to attempt the stock trail over the Tonto route to Phantom, and so we decided to go down to Bright Angel Camp, rest until near sunset and then climb up to Utah Flats. We took a long break at the mouth of Phantom Creek but no one seemed tempted to cross and hike up. The rangers had said that hiking up was a drag in low water. This would be much worse. We arrived at Phantom Ranch at about 11:30. Norm offered to buy Cokes. Jerry thought Phantom was exclusively for the Mule riders but Norm convinced him we were welcome. Norm bought Iced Teas and we browsed through old Grand Canyon books from their reading collection. When we couldn’t hang around there any longer we checked with the ranger to see if there was an opening at the camp ground. There was not but ranger Shore was in, and he gave us some advice about getting up to Utah flats and down to Phantom Creek. He said “You will wonder why you are staying high so long when you can see Phantom Creek for so long.” We found shady spots and enjoyed napping or soaking our feet in the creek.

By about 3:30 it was getting shady on the hillside even though it was 100 degrees in the sun. We started up, with full loads of water. The trail was steep but it was loose. We followed the trail up to the rounded rock Shore had pointed out. We found the trail up to the cliff that most people climb and also found the trail around to the right and up which Shore had told us about. Norm was exhilarated by the climb and the route finding through Piano Alley. There were hundreds of sandstone pianos to climb over, around, and through. After about an hour and a half we were up in the opening to Utah Flats. The Supergroup Dox Sandstone is smoothed into rounded but huge blobs that are stacked up like steps. They are so big and smooth that you can not climb up in most places. We did find a way up and onto a more soft and level shaley spot where we set up camp. There was one rock for the stove and about 25 feet away there were some rocks to sit on (the dining room). As we were unpacking our stuff the sun was over a hill, so we were in shade but the pinnacles to the east were afire with the sunset. Norm noted how blessed we were to be in such a place at such a time. Someone broke out more Pringles. There was no shelter there but there was also no wind and it was perfectly clear. Jerry cooked Mountain House Chicken a la King and corn. It was OK. Norm could not finish his and had to carry out the rest. Too many Pringles spoiled his dinner? (Six days is about when Norm gets tired of freeze dried every year.) We slept under the stars and watched for satellites and planes. There were many.

Thursday – Phantom Creek – We got going at about 8; not too far to go, so no big hurry. George Steck’s book says he could not find a trail across the flats, and neither could we. We had never seen such a dense patch of cactus as on the plateau between the exposed sandstone sections. If yesterday was Piano alley, this was cactus alley. We stayed to the right of the blister of sandstone on the slope and as we crested the slope we could see trail below us and off to the left. It came out of the first water shed we would have to contour into. Once we picked up the trail it was pretty easy to follow, although there are precious few cairns. It stayed at about the same level for quite a while. Ranger Shore said we would wonder why we were staying high so long. We did. At about 9:30, on the north side of the water shed, Jerry (as usual) found shade in the desert, in a shale alcove. It was welcome. Almost immediately after the alcove we found ourselves on a loose, steep descent to the creek.

As soon as we got to the creek we got a bucket of water and set it aside to settle. Norm was out of water and John and Jerry were low. Jerry found a nice shaded spot under a rock overhang right next to the creek. We lounged a little. We had read about the waterfall, and John had struggled to figure out where it would be on the map, so we wanted to see it. We knew from Ranger Shore it must be just down the creek from our position. We made our way down stream but got cliffed out and had to cross and recross. We found one of the sheltered camp spots on the north side of the creek. The creek was running so high we could not get to the good vantage point to see the falls from above so gave up and went back to the shady spot for lunch. We filtered some water but Jerry had to clean the silt our several times for just a canteen and a bottle. We hoped that above the confluence of Phantom and Haunted, one of them would be cleaner and so we headed upstream to find a campsite and cleaner water.

Soon we saw signs of the other party whose permit allowed them to be in the Phantom Creek use area. There was one fellow at the campsite and he directed us to some pools they had been using to filter water. They were next to the creek but were seep pools and so were not as silty. We got all the canteens and some bottles filled and then the creek level rose a few inches and flooded the pools with silty water. Norm went up stream while Jerry and John worked on the water. He found a nice sheltered campsite and lead John and Jerry to it. We explored little and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Jerry found a clear pool next to the creek for filtering water. As we relaxed the rest of the other party came by. They had been up to the source for Phantom Creek and told about a cairned trail up through the Redwall to Diva Temple. They had not taken it and seemed about as likely to as we would be (very unlikely). The wind was quite gusty that afternoon and evening. It would seem to build up steam and then pour into our “cave”. Jerry thought it was all blowing right down his sleeping bag. Norm had to get the sand out of his hair and ears and teeth in the morning. We played Trivia down by the creek and Jerry shared his Italian Salty Snacks. We played until after dark but did not get 6 of 6 this night.

Friday – Phantom Creek & Back up to Utah Flats – We had the morning to explore and sight see. We headed up the trail, up Phantom Creek. Haunted Creek comes in from the North, and above the confluence Phantom was cleaner. Jerry and John bathed and we all relaxed at a wide spot in the creek. When we got hungry for lunch we headed back to camp, ate by the creek, took a nap, and filled up all our canteens and bottles to prepare for the night’s dry camp on the Flats. We did not want to be up on the flats in the afternoon sun so we timed our departure to get us up there about the time the sun went behind the hills. Even though the packs had only 2 days food, they still felt heavy with all the necessary water. It was gusty again but as we went through the other party’s campsite it was like a wind tunnel. They were in a very narrow spot with rock walls on both sides, so it was probably worst there. They said we would be blown off the Flats. The climb up to the Tonto was not as bad as the descent. The footing is better going up than coming down. You don’t have gravity fighting you for control. Norm was relieved when the steep climb was over. We were surprised at how short the ascent seemed compared to our memory of the descent. It took us back to the shale alcove and we took another break there. The rest was basically contouring through the watersheds and it was basically up and down in small increments. We lost the trail at about the same spot we had found it. Jerry led us back to the campsite and although we stayed a little higher, it was about the same route we had taken the day before. John tried to tell us about a ledge we had to descend but Jerry and Norm were sure there was no such ledge. John said “OK, fine, see you in camp”, and then Jerry and Norm found the ledge. John always has the best trail memory. There is little point in arguing with him. We arrived in camp at about 5, and made good time with few stops. It was still a little windy but as the evening came on the wind died down. We had Chicken & Noodles which was better than the Chicken a la King. Jerry started falling asleep during Trivia so we had to wake him up to get his expertise. Tomorrow would be a tough day so we agreed that anytime after 5am, whoever woke up first should wake the others. We slept under the stars again, although it was more overcast.

Saturday – Bright Angel Camp and Back to the South Rim – Jerry was first to wake and got us up. We were walking across Utah Flats by 6. John’s great trail memory got us down to Piano Alley where we picked up the trail. It was looser going down than it had been coming up so it took great care. Norm ripped another big hole (2 actually) into another pair of old pants. We arrived at Bright Angel Camp by 7:40. We dumped our stuff in a campsite next to the wash room, changed into shorts, and used the facilities to clean up. Norm rinsed out his short sleeved shirt and then put it on wet. Before ascending the South Kaibab trail we stopped at Phantom Ranch for a second cup of coffee. A little civilization is not all bad. John let Ranger Shore know we were safe and sound and that neither Phantom Creek party had gone up or down the creek. We headed up the trail at 9, which made us about the last party to start up. The only others were hiking up from a boat party. One of the women had a huge pack which even had a life jacket strapped to the side. The overcast from the night before stuck around so it was cooler than it had been and the sun was not as oppressive. There was even a breeze. We had planned our water to have the canteens last to the Tonto plateau, the first bottle to the top of the Redwall, and the last bottle to get us to the rim. On the Tonto, we topped off our canteens and dumped out the remainder of the first bottle. We met dozens of people coming down, few with full packs. The real exceptions were three women older than we who had full packs and all three had a ski pole in each hand. John and Norm had joked about the ski pole hikers, but for these ladies we were all admiration! Several people asked if we were coming all the way up from Bright Angel. A few times we tried to explain that we started from Utah flats or at the Tonto elevation on the North side. No one understood, so we gave up and just said yes. We did get across to a few that we had been down for a week, not just overnight. A few even understood we had been all the way to the North Rim.

We did not rush the pace and we all felt the exertion but we stopped infrequently and for pretty short periods, so we made pretty good time. We had lunch after climbing up the Muav and Redwall switchbacks, on the narrow saddle that leads to the Supai. The overcast reduced the need for shade so we just sat out next to the trail. All Jerry had left to eat was some tuna. Norm had chicken but was so tired of it that he swapped with Jerry for some beef jerky. We topped off the canteens again and dumped out more of the excess. The next OOPE was at Cedar Ridge. Jerry had not liked being there among all the people on the way down, but Norm refused to go any further without a rest. At that time of day all the mules were gone and the people were pretty dispersed. Norm got strained stares from a young girl who was on a day hike with her family. He guessed 8 days below the rim must make you look pretty interesting; 8 days of beard, little washing, plenty of scrapes and scratches and clothes which have been soaked through a couple of times. (She really would have loved the pants he split!) During the final climb through the Coconino a couple observed our big packs and asked John if he would recommend it. They chuckled when he said, Yes!

We rimmed out at 2:40 which meant we had climbed out in about the same time it took us to descend. Not bad for 50 year old gents. The shuttle bus was idling so we hustled to get on. It was already full and we had to stand WITH OUR PACKS ON. No one offered a seat. Another young woman stared to ask Norm a question but when she got a good look, she stopped short and said “Never Mind”. Boy, how bad could he have looked? He’d even changed his shirt by this time. An adult fellow did engage John in a chat about our adventure.

We cleaned up at the Mather Campground Showers, ate dinner at the Sizzler in Flagstaff, and arrived in Phoenix at about 9PM.

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