For the better part of three years, I’d been toying around with the idea of a backpacking trip – one that would be my longest, so far, and include the most time I’ve been out solo. From the vantage point, up on the viewing platform of Mary Coulter’s Desert Watchtower, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, you have a view of the Tanner Trail snaking along below. It contours past the head of 75 Mile Creek, passes below Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, then drops, steeply, through a break in the Red Wall formation – a sheer, 500-800 foot thick limestone layer forming one of the major obstacles to anyone trying to walk into or out of the canyon. From there, it winds it’s way for another four miles, or so, to the Colorado River. From the Watchtower, you can see Tanner Beach and the start of the Escalante Route. Beginning in 2011, I’d been venturing below The Rim, spending 5 – 7 days each time, exploring different portions of the Canyon: dropping in on the Grandview Trail and heading out the New Hance; Hermit to Indian Garden and out the Bright Angel; S. Kaibab to Grandview, etc.. Each trip spending time with friends, cutting the canyon into 25-30 mile segments, spending some days on the Tonto Platform, occasionally dropping all the way down to The River. In 2015, after finishing an “easy” trip that took me from the South Kaibab trailhead, down to Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch, then back up the Bright Angel Trail, I was standing on the platform at the Watchtower and it occurred to me: I should do the Tonto, from its junction with the S. Bass trail, in one push, and throw in the Escalante and Tanner trails for good measure. It’s not the PCT, AT or the Hayduke. In fact, by NPS mileages, it’s only 100 miles (various individual hikers state anywhere from 99 miles to 130 miles). I’m splitting the difference and am calling it 115. It’s not a “through-hike.” The entire route, as planned, lies well within the confines of the canyon. There are numerous points where you could exit, relatively easily, if needed. The real trans-canyon thru-hike involves hundreds of miles, mostly trail-less, and has only been completed, in a single push, by a few hearty souls. My intended itinerary would be relatively easy in comparison.
The Tonto Trail begins at Garnet Creek or ends there depending on your direction of travel, just west of its junction with the South Bass trail and ends at The River, at Hance Rapid. I chose to go up-river, dropping in on the South Bass trail to hike out the Tanner. Technically, my planned route would not include ALL of the Tonto trail – at the S. Bass/Tonto junction, I chose to head east on the Tonto, without backtracking to the official beginning/end of the Tonto, in Garnet Canyon. It’s an 18 mile out and back, and I didn’t want to insert it into my “loop” hike. I guess I’ll have to go back and explore that section next time.
For this particular journey, I would be spending a total of fourteen days below the rim (fewer than 15% of the Park’s visitors go below the rim, less than 1% actually walk all the way to the river). For the first four days of my trip, a friend from Colorado would be joining me for the “Gems” section, then would hike out the Hermit Trail the morning of day five. From that point on, I would be a solo hiker. The start date would be March 6, 2017. Really, it started on November 3, 2016, when I got the email from Ranger Wells telling me I had a permit, reserved in my name, awaiting my confirmation. Ranger Wells also informed me that I would need to submit a Hiker Information form – basically, a hiking resume, outlining my canyon backcountry experience. The Park will ask for this if you’ve chosen, by their definition, a particularly “aggressive” or challenging itinerary. That means any solo hiking outside of the corridor trails, or mileages exceeding 10 miles per day. After filling out the appropriate paperwork, I had my permits and the fun started.
Planning menus, researching water sources, following weather patterns and laying out and presorting equipment took up a lot of my time. With my layover day at Indian Garden, my mid-point, I’d be looking at 9 mile days, on average. I began preparing. I wanted to pare down as much unnecessary weight as possible – you do carry everything you need to live on, on your back. I bought a luggage scale and weighed everything that was too big for my kitchen scale. I’d already cut the handle off my toothbrush; removed any extra webbing/material from my pack; I bought a Jetboil stove to increase fuel efficiency then swapped out the large lid it came with, for a lighter one, from an old mess kit; I eliminated anything redundant from my gear, paring down my repair kit, first aid kit, and kitchen. I repackaged all of my food, making “dinner balls” with the corners of oven roasting bags, eliminating the bulky, heavier foil pouches that freeze-dried meals come packaged in. With a re-supply arranged, with friends, at Indian Garden, my pack would weigh around 30 pounds to start out each trip segment. I usually pack just under a pound of food per day, so it does get lighter as you go. I was also able to carry less water each day, as the South Rim had a really good winter. Every side drainage, seep, spring and pothole had water. I was able to get by carrying just a couple liters a day, and filtered out of streams as I hiked. I had also begun preparing myself, physically.
After a two week long bout of laryngitis/bronchitis in December, I began “training” for the trip. I put that in quotes because, as experienced canyon hikers like to say, “the only way to train for the Grand Canyon is to hike the Grand Canyon.” Living in Santa Fe, that isn’t really an option for me, so I put together a workout schedule and posted it on the wall, by a countdown calendar, in our home gym: 1 day of arms/shoulders; 1 day of core; 2 days cardio; 2 days leg focused strength training; any local hiking I could get in, weather permitting. Sticking to this routine was not an option, but a requirement.
In the past, I’ve hiked down from the Rim to whichever campsite was planned. I’d feel fine, tired but fine. The next morning, however… It’s difficult to describe what 8 – 9 miles of unrelenting, steep, loose, downhill hiking will do to your quad and calf muscles, especially bearing a full, multi-day backpack. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon compared to an “inverted” mountain, and that is not inaccurate. Each step-down, on slabby or loose footing, requires a lot of resistance and control – a fall here could mean a flight out in a helicopter. I call it the “screaming quads.” You wake up, try to stretch your legs in your sleeping bag, and they scream, almost audibly. Hmm, maybe that was me screaming. In all seriousness, it hurts. The lactic acid thing is very real, and it will last for 2-3 days. You try to walk it off, but that just pokes the bear. The first time you try to answer nature’s call is always entertaining. Who knew how difficult squatting could be? So, for this trip, I was not going to succumb to the “screamers.” I bought a weighted training vest for my gym workouts, it was easier to work out in than my loaded backpack. I even wore it walking the dog. I did step-downs, step-ups, elevated lunges, jump-squats, Joel-jumps, burpees (I hate burpees) and too many pushups to count – core fitness helps with actually carrying/supporting the backpack. I guess it all paid off. On day two, after a long hike into Serpentine Canyon the previous day, my legs did not scream, and neither did I.
One of the most important steps, for me, was finding someone to run a shuttle out to the South Bass trailhead (bless you, Tim!!). I needed my truck to be waiting for me at Lipan Point, so leaving it out at the S. Bass wouldn’t work. A shuttle was imperative. It takes a couple of hours to drive to the S. Bass from Grand Canyon Village, on unimproved dirt roads. The last few miles, the road is deeply rutted. If it has just rained, or snowed, forget it. It becomes impassible. After passing through a corner of the Havasupai reservation (pay $25 per car, if they have someone there), you pass the Pasture Wash Ranger Cabin, wind through the trees, and arrive at the edge. After unloading the packs, thanking the driver, stretching and snapping a quick photo of the trailhead sign, it began.