NOT A SHORTCUT
A hike in the Grand Canyon is a challenge even for experienced outdoor-enthusiasts. Only a crazy few blaze their own trails into the mile-deep gorge. We joined one hiker on his route finding quest to the Colorado River.
Published on SPIEGEL ONLINE
“Sometimes I think I still underestimate this place”, muses Aaron Tomasi as we sit atop a cliff overlooking the Colorado River. We are halfway down the canyon, the river within reach, but now our way is suddenly blocked. What first felt like an adventurous stroll has turned out to be a demanding climb through a series of cliffs. And this one seems to deny us any further access.
Aaron Tomasi is not what most of us would think of as a daredevil. He is a soft-spoken guy with a boyish grin and a calm demeanor, and for the last twenty years, he has been delivering boxes for a major mail carrier. But on the weekends, the 42-year-old from Flagstaff, Arizona, is drawn to the remote trails of the Grand Canyon, a mere hour and a half away. Aaron is among a handful of people who regard this vast abyss as their playground.
Together with his brother Pernell, Aaron has conquered and charted more than one-hundred summits in the Grand Canyon – the peaks of those lonely islands rising up from the canyon floor. Condemned to geographical solitude by millions of years of erosion, they now bear colorful names like “Shiva Temple” and “Wotan´s Throne” and entice only the most seasoned backcountry hikers.
Aaron isn´t one to foolishly risk his neck. He has tasted many of the perils held by this equally grandiose and dangerous environment: Severe aridity, an almost total lack of shade, brutal heat and a tricky terrain which became a deathtrap for five hikers during the last year alone.
In comparison to Aaron´s summit-expeditions, our project seems almost trivial: We´ll try to find an old shortcut from Lipan point on the South Rim to the Colorado. We have a vague map, one charted by the renowned canyoneer and mathematician Dr. Harvey Butchart. Butchart found and roughly described more than 100 “escape routes” from the Colorado Riverduring the decades he spent in the Canyon, and he first mentioned the one we will be attempting to retrace in 1964. It cuts short the lengthy hike down the Tanner trail and leads directly to the Unkar delta with its ancient ruin sites.
Aaron has sketched a trail after Butchart´s description onto a topo map, but since the man´s instructions are famously vague, a few question marks adorn Aaron´s route. “We´ll see”, he said cheerfully as we left our cars at Lipan point and started down the Tanner trail.
The mile-deep Grand Canyon descends to the Colorado via a series of six terraces. In some places, these terraces are connected by vast rockfalls, elswhere, the sedimentary rock is crumbly enough to enable intrepid climbers to pick their way down. But in most places, sheer cliffs plunge down to the next level and harshly refuse a descent. Many thirsty, ill-prepared hikers have perished here, seeking a shortcut to the river and “cliffing out”.
Aaron Tomasi has been hiking the Grand Canyon since his childhood, and because he knows these cliffs and canyons, preparation has been a major part of this hike. We all trained extensively, studied maps, kept track of the weather. Each one of us carries three liters of water – a lot of weight to add to the equipment for a three-day hike, but indispensable in this environment. In the top third of the route, we deposited another couple of liters as backup, in case we don´t find the descent and have to turn back. And this is the decision we are now facing as we are sitting on top of the tapeats cliff.
We had nimbly skipped down the first few miles of the Tanner trail and then diverted to a saddle between Cardenas and Escalante buttes, two rocky crests sticking up between TannerCanyon and Seventy-five Mile Creek – which is named for its location downstream of Lee´s Ferry, where the Grand Canyon begins, not its length.
The view from the top of the saddle is magnificent: Below us, the Grand Canyon opens up to a grandiose view of Unkar rapids, where the Colorado snakes past a village of ancient pueblo ruins. Above us, the south rim of the Grand Canyon looms with the watchtower at Desert View, like a sentry silently pondering the optimistic hikers below.
With this incredible panorama at our feet we begin a swift march along a series of red cliffs which stick out above the gorge of the canyon like a series of half-open drawers. Soon we stand at the top of a long, steep rockfall – our stairway to the lower plateau. This should be a cakewalk.
Or so it seems. After just a few minutes our even pace has slowed to a sputtering crawl. The rockfall is a series of treacherously stacked boulders, some the size of a basketball, others as big as a truck. Cautiously, we maneuver from one loose rock to the next, in a world that seems to be precariously tilted and without stability. The steep drop and our heavy packs make for a torturous descent – muscles tense up, hips and knees hurt. Every so often, a last-second grasp for a nearby boulder is the only way to interrupt a slip that might devolve into a fall, and the rough rock cuts into hands and fingers. Halfway down, a dozing rattlesnake makes for a sudden, dizzying rush of adrenaline.
After what feels like hours we arrive at the foot of the rockfall and sink to our knees. Before us stretches a vast, level field of pink cactus flowers. Their tender beauty in this harsh landscape is breathtaking. We stretch our aching muscles and continue across the field, easily ambling along now, marveling happily at the flower field, the colorful cliffs rising up beyond, the immense openness of the gorge around us. This was certainly worth the painful climb! But then it becomes clear that we are on an extensive peninsula whose edges drop off into a 150-foot-cliff. We walk to the edge, and this is where we now sit, asking ourselves: Now what?
It is afternoon, and the desert sun beats down on us as if she means to set the landscape ablaze. There is no shade to take refuge. We rest on a flat rock, tilting the brims of our hats down, while Aaron scouts the spit of the plateau to check out the cliff below us. “Not looking good”, he hollers. According to his notes, finding the break in this cliff is the trickiest part of the descent. And below, yet another cliff awaits.
Can we afford to risk a lengthy, possibly unsuccessful search for a passage with the remaining water in our packs? As we take tally of our supplies, we discover that each of us is now down to roughly one liter, and so far, we have been hiking downhill. The Colorado seems within tantalizingly easy reach, just a few hundred feet below. But we wouldn´t be the first to be denied access. Should we return to our water stash up top instead? That stash, of course, sits in the cliffs one thousand feet up, above the rockfall from hell which looms like the warty tongue of a giant monster. And we are running out of time to make a decision. The sun is slowly sliding toward the horizon. We agree to give the descent a try and, if all fails, to camp on the cactus field and begin the ascent to our stash before sunrise.
To our surprise, we find the break in the cliff just below our resting spot. It is an open chimney of decaying rock, hidden from view except from directly above. Our courage picks up as we carefully climb down the crumbly steps in the rocks - and it promptly diminishes as we reach the lower level, a narrow slope of loose basalt crumbs winding around the base of the peninsula-cliffs. Traversing this black slope feels like walking on pebbles. Every second or third step disintegrates into a slide, and a few thorny acacia bushes are all there is to hold on to. Below, the Colorado is already enveloped by deep shadows, emphasizing the looming end of the day, and the last rays of sunshine are starkly outlined the black dust we are kicking up. A Mordor-like atmosphere descends on the Grand Canyon. Will the spirits of the Canyon punish our brash optimism about easily conquering this mighty gorge?
We shimmy along in an anguishing stumble, praying more than looking for another break in the black cliffs. Once or twice, a descent seems vaguely possible – or are our burning muscles and aching joints cajoling us into taking risks? Again and again, Aaron surveys the crumbly cliffs and vetoes a descent: too dangerous. How long can we go on like this before one of us falls and tumbles over the edge? Then, a call breaks the dreadful silence of the oncoming dusk. Aaron waves at us from a small, black peak rising up at the edge of the cliff: This is the way down. Just a few steps now, and this nightmare will be over.
An hour later we are on a flat hill in the middle of a long talus slope leading down to Cardenas Creek, a sandy dry wash forming a comfortable highway to the Colorado. The river is now little more than an easy, mile-long walk away, but our feet will carry us no further. Night has descended. Above us, in the last glow of dusk, tower the basalt slope under the sandstone peninsula, the rockfall in the distance, and way up above it, the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Above it all, a fantastically starry firmament begins to take form in the sky. The light breeze tastes sweetly of childhood adventure, the ground feels soft under our outstretched bodies, and the murmur of the Colorado soon turns into a gentle, ancient melody rocking us to sleep. Tomorrow we will skip down to the river, splash joyfully in its icy waters and blissfully catch the beer cans thrown to shore for us by a sympathetic boat guide. Later, we will silently bow out heads to Harvey Butchart and decide to return to the rim via the Tanner trail a few miles upstream. And secretly, we will promise never again to recklessly challenge this mighty Canyon.