Grand Canyon Odyssey, Part I… The Wilderness Cure

The Grand Canyon is a world treasure. I've backpacked into it several times and rafted the Colorado River through it. Once I even rode a mule into the Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is a world treasure. I’ve backpacked into it several times and rafted the Colorado River through it. Once, I even rode a mule into the Canyon. The mule carried me over the trail you can see right front center.

I followed Highway 50 east out of Sacramento, cut off at Pollock Pines and picked up the Mormon-Emigrant Trail. Soon I was on Highway 88 climbing up and over Carson Pass. Newly dressed aspens, snow-covered mountains and frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

Kit Carson came through here in February of 1844 along with John C. Fremont. The snow was deep and food was limited. They ended up dining off of their horses, mules and the camp dog. The dog apparently went quite well with pea soup. Later, the trail they discovered would become a major entry point for the 49ers and run through the foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised.

By evening I had driven down the east side of the Sierras and made my way into Death Valley. I was setting up my tent under a convenient Mesquite tree when the sun sank behind the Panamint Range. Coyotes howling in the distance lulled me to sleep.

I walked out from my campsite in Death Valley as the sun set and listened to coyotes howl in the distance.

I walked out from my campsite in Death Valley as the sun set and listened to coyotes howl in the distance.

By ten thirty the next morning I was in another world, investing quarters in a video poker machine at Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip. Luck was with me. Two hours later found me crossing over Hoover Dam with an extra hundred dollars in my wallet. It represented two weeks of backpacking food. I zipped across the desert, picked up Interstate 40 at Kingman and cut off toward the Grand Canyon at Williams.

Circus Circus Clown.

A little treat for those of you with Coulrophobia, the Circus Circus Clown. No wonder people fear clowns.

I wasted little time checking in at Mather Campground. The Canyon was waiting. An unoccupied rock off the trail near Yavapai Point provided a convenient spot for dangling my legs over the edge. Nothing but several hundred feet of vacant space existed beneath my hiking shoes. A slight breeze on my back reminded me of my mortality.

Sitting on the edge of the Canyon isn't for the faint-hearted. One can fall hundreds of feet.

Sitting on the edge of the Canyon isn’t for the faint-hearted. One can fall hundreds of feet.

My musings were interrupted when a fat Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel poked his furry head up next to me and demanded payment for my front row seat. I recited the Park’s rule on feeding animals and told him to go eat grass. He flipped his tail at me and squeaked an obscenity as he scrambled off in search of more gullible victims.

Twilight was painting the Canyon with a purplish tinge but I could still make out the distinctive colors and shapes of the rocks. While my right-brain admired the beauty, my left-brain was busy considering eons upon eons of earth history. The dark, tortured walls of the inner canyon, now obscured by evening shadows, reached back over a billion years to the very beginnings of life on earth when our ancient ancestors had frolicked in even more ancient seas.

While the sun still touched the rim of the Canyon, the inner walls turned a dark purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While the sun still touched the rim of the Canyon, the inner walls turned a dark purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Erosion had given these Precambrian rocks a flat top, shaving off some 500 million years of earth’s history and creating what is known as the Great Unconformity.  Since then vast seas, Saharan size deserts, lakes and rivers had patiently supplanted one another as they marched through Paleozoic time depositing layer upon layer of the canyons walls.

My present perch was made of Kaibab limestone created by an inland sea some 250 million years ago. Dusk slipped into dark and my thoughts turned to my impending backpack trip.

I had backpacked into the Canyon several times. My objective this time was to explore the Tanner Trail on the eastern end of the South Rim road.

The next day was devoted to careful preparation. Seventeen years of backpacking in all kinds of terrain and climate had taught me that there was no such thing as being too careful. I approach compulsive when it comes to backpacking alone. Had I resupplied my first aid kit? Was my stove still working? Did I have adequate fuel? Did I have my flashlight, signaling mirror, whistle, compass and maps? Did I have enough but not too much food, water, reading material, etc. etc. etc.?

Safety, comfort and even entertainment are important but weight is always an issue.

Having satisfied myself that I could survive seven to nine days in the Canyon, I headed off to the backcountry permit office. The more environmentally inclined within the Park Service are seriously into minimizing impact and promoting safety. Requiring wilderness use permits is their primary tool in achieving these goals.

I patiently waited behind six other would-be canyon explorers and had memorized the minimum impact lecture by the time my turn was up. The ranger frowned when I mentioned the Tanner Trail.

“The trail is poorly maintained, rarely used, 10-12 miles long and arduous,” she cautioned strongly.

“And that,” I replied, “is exactly what I want.”  I was especially enamored with the ‘rarely used’ part.  I had no desire to share my experience with dozens of other people, much less armies of cantankerous mules that leave lakes of fowl smelling pee on the trail. If I had to face a particularly tough physical challenge and be extra careful to avoid a tumble into the Canyon, it was a price I was happily willing to pay.

I was leaving the office when a skinny guy wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt, blue shorts and hiking boots stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he announced, “I am with the Sierra Club and I couldn’t help but hear you are headed down the Tanner Trail. Given your condition, I would strongly advise against it. You should hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It’s a lot easier and there are lots of other people hiking it in case you get in trouble.”

Now I confess that having just emerged from nine months of hibernating in Alaska I was pasty white and pudgy. I will also allow that the guy was operating under good intentions.

But his arrogance, especially in announcing his Sierra Club membership as somehow making him a wilderness expert, irritated me. Over the years I had known and worked with lots of Sierra Club folks. I am a strong supporter of their efforts to protect the wilderness. I have even run into some who have had more wilderness experience than I. John Muir, the Sierra Club founder, is one of my all time heroes.

Had my unofficial advisor started off with something like, “I have been up and down the Tanner Trail several times, would you like some suggestions?” I would have been quite willing, even eager, to hear what he had to say. But his uneducated assumptions about my lack of knowledge absolutely turned me off. It was everything I could do to maintain a civil tone of voice as I thanked him for his advice and politely told him to screw off.

At 8:30 the next morning my pasty white pudgy body was having an animated discussion with my mind over why I hadn’t listened more carefully to the Sierra Club ‘expert’ the day before. I had started my day by splurging for breakfast at the elegant El Tovar Hotel and then driven out to Lipan Point.

I was now poised to begin my descent into the Canyon. It looked like a long way down. I gritted my teeth and banned any insidious second thoughts.

They came rushing back as I struggled to hoist my 60 plus pound pack. It was filled with seven days of food, extra water and all of my equipment. I had cursed the day before as I struggled to find room for everything. Now I was cursing I hadn’t left half of it behind. I had the irrelevant thought that my journey down would either kill me or cure me.

 

Sorry to leave you hanging here as I begin my descent down into the Canyon, but I am going to take a break from blogging for a couple of months. It’s going to be tough. I love blogging and I enjoy keeping up with all of my Internet friends. It’s a special group. But five grandsons are descending on our house and I think Peggy and I will be a little busy (understatement). After that I am going to do some traveling— who knows where? (Peggy will be off in London with her sister Jane.) I also need to spend some time marketing my book. Time simply hasn’t allowed me to put in the effort I should.

And finally, I received two notices from Word Press this past week. One congratulated me on my fifth anniversary with Word Press. The second congratulated me on posting my 500th blog. I realized I hadn’t taken a break from blogging since the beginning. So it’s time I did. I will be off Word Press until the second week in September when I will once again be posting blogs, catching up with the folks I follow, and making comments. Have a great summer and thanks ever so much for following me. —Curt

A final view of the Canyon with its multiple layers that represent deposited from oceans, deserts, rivers and lakes.

A final view of the Canyon with its multiple layers that represent deposits from oceans, deserts, rivers and lakes over hundreds of millions of years..

Dog Stew, A Rattlesnake Bite and Hypothermia… Reblog

This is the fifth and final of a series of Blogs on how the Peripatetic Bone was found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will respond to comments when I return from Burning Man.

It was a pleasant hike down to Carson Pass on Highway 88 and relatively dry since we were on a south-facing slope.

Kit Carson came through here in February of 1844 along with John C. Fremont. It wasn’t pleasant then. The snow was deep and food was limited. They ended up dining off of their horses, mules and the camp dog. The dog apparently went quite well with pea soup. Later, the trail they discovered would become a major entry point for the 49ers and run through the foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised.

There was nary a bar, restaurant or gas station near the Pass so we hiked on another three miles to Lake Winnemucca. Rain was threatening and I set up my tube tent, a large sheet of plastic shaped into a round tunnel. It wasn’t particularly sturdy, but it was light and dry.

Tom, on the other hand, was carrying a luxurious three-season tent. He stacked the women in head to toe and ended up smelling April’s feet all night.

The next day was all downhill: down to Fourth of July Lake, down to Summit City Canyon, and down Summit City Creek to Camp Irene on the Mokelumne River. After dropping 4000 feet in 14 miles I found myself bone tired again. Camp Irene provided an attractive campsite but turned out to be rattlesnake country.

I had discovered the perfect toilet spot, dug my cat hole and was baring my behind when one buzzed at me. It’s amazing how fast you can pull up your pants. I was lucky the snake didn’t bite me on the butt.

I grabbed a stick and chased him away with a couple of sharp prods for good measure. He was lucky I was something of a nature boy. Otherwise he would have been smashed. The next time I did any serious bathroom duty was when I was parked on a flush toilet at Lake Alpine.

Backpacking out of Camp Irene is a challenge. The 4000 feet we dropped the day before in 14 miles we were now expected to re-climb in five. Low clouds filled the canyon. It wasn’t raining but it was cold and damp. Somewhere in the mist a male grouse made its familiar ‘whump, whump, whump’ sound, working to attract a female companion. I empathized. Dripping wet Buck Bush grabbed at our legs.

To stay warm and dry we broke out our rain gear. Lynn moved from being cold and miserable to shivering and not caring. She was on the edge of hypothermia, a very dangerous state. The body loses its ability to maintain warmth and the rational mind ceases to function. Coordination spirals downward. It is very easy to die.

Tom and I acted quickly. I fired up my Svea and Tom had Lynn stand over it wearing her cagoule, a dress like poncho. We positioned the stove carefully. While this wasn’t a solution to hypothermia one found in survival guides, it worked. (The recommended solution is to break out your sleeping bag and crawl in naked with the victim.) Within minutes, Lynn was ready to tackle the rest of the mountain.

Hypothermia can strike fast but it can also be quickly cured… assuming of course you catch it in time. Tom was next.

“Curt,” he called plaintively from off in the brush where he had gone to pee. I rushed over and begin laughing. He had managed the first half of his chore but couldn’t zip his pants up. His mind was working fine but his coordination had gone south. He was all thumbs. I called Lynn over to help as I returned to the trail chuckling. There are some chores a trek leader doesn’t need to handle.

We hiked the rest of the way into Alpine Lake without undo difficulty. Since our ride wasn’t coming until the next day, we rented a one-room cabin to share. Rain poured down outside as we relived our adventures and made up tall tales way into the night. Our journey was winding down, but it wasn’t over.

I was shaking the dirt out of my pack at home when the bone fell out. Apparently I had been carrying it all the way from Winnemucca Lake. “Darn Lovering,” I thought to myself, “I am going to get even.” I decided to keep the bone. There would be an opportunity on a future trip to slip it back into Tom’s pack. I would have revenge!

And that’s it, the story of Bone’s discovery. It started like so many things in our lives often do, as a non-event. Bone didn’t come up as a subject during our night in the cabin. Naked jumping ladies, lost trails, swollen rivers, gorgeous country, rattle snakes, the physical challenge, hypothermia and even the upside-down map were the stories of legend, not a small, insignificant bone that came from who knows what.

But time has the power to rewrite history. When Tom opened his suitcase in Japan at the beginning of a two-year exploration of Asia, Africa and Europe, he found a surprise, Bone. I had my revenge. When I moved to Alaska and was unpacking my boxes, who should fall out but Bone. The tales go on and on…