September 1996 Backpack Trip to the Thunder River

by George Aumann (9-30-96)

Tuesday 9-3

(Click on pictures for a larger version.)

The Thunder River Springs

We planned to get up at 5:30 am to have an early start on the trail, but it was only 4:30 am when I awoke. The spectacular summer night sky of last evening had been replaced by the Moon, which cast its gray light over our camp right below Monument Point on the Grand Canyon North Rim. Today we would start our backpack hike down the Bill Hall trail to Deer Creek and then to the Thunder River. Our group consisted of Gene Kopan, who had organized the trip and obtained the camping permits, Linda Fullmer, Tom Chester and Craig Cheetham, Tim Conrow and Cynthia Kiser, Tad Sesplaukis, Rich Benson and his son Eric, and myself.

Gene, Linda, Tim, Tom, Craig, Rich and Tad all had participated in several of Tom Chester's so called "death marches" into the Grand Canyon ten years ago. For Cynthia, Eric and myself this was to be our first Grand Canyon hiking experience. The description of the Thunder River Trail in a book on hikes in the Grand Canyon was a mixture between an invitation to a thrilling experience and a warning to the inexperienced and physically or mentally unprepared: "Thirteen miles of waterless trail leading from the Grand Canyon North Rim to the Thunder River. The roar of the river and the sight of the plunging cataracts of the Thunder spring are breathtaking. The river pours into the Tapeats creek half a mile and 1200 feet below the spring, and it is possible for a hiker to make his way down that creek to the Colorado River. All this provides a thrilling wilderness experience, but is so far from civilization, and hence so far from help, that all prospective hikers should check with the park rangers on the North Rim and go well equipped." To my email inquiry about space on the permit Gene Kopan responded: "... without meaning to discourage you....this will be a difficult hike and not a good first hiking experience in the Grand Canyon". He, Linda, Rich and Tom had taken this hike nine years ago. There would be no water between the trailhead and the river. "... Linda and I are planning to carry 7 liters of water each, and cache 4 liters each at the Redwall."

A web site,, provided me with the latest trail information. In hiking down the Bill Hall trail Bob Ribokas writes about "...coming to a small cliff than can prove a little difficult to get down with a pack on. There is not much in the way of footing on it and I personally preferred to remove my pack and rope it down rather than risk carrying it..." . On the Deer Creek trail "there are a couple places where you have to some ledges protruding from the cliff face tend to obstruct the trail". I envisioned myself in the Grand Canyon, crawling along a ledge of a shear rock, facing 4500 foot down to the river, and debated between forgetting the whole trip and making a definite decision to go.

Well, the final decision was at hand. It was 5:30 am and the eastern horizon was starting to light up. At 6:30am, after a good breakfast, I was ready to go. My pack weight was about 45 pounds, including 7.5 liters of water (16.5 pounds) and 6 pounds of dry food. This weight would decrease to about 35 pounds after caching 4.5 liters and 29 pounds, with most of the food gone, on the way out. To keep the weight low I carried only a ground pad and a bed sheet (instead of a conventional sleeping bag), no tent, no camp shoes and no rain gear other than a plastic rain coat. In addition to the clothing I was wearing, I packed a long sleeve cotton shirt, long pants and a T- shirt, a First Aid kit, a small camera, two rolls of film, a small tripod, a small 8 x 21 mm telescope, a signal mirror, a small shovel, and 40 ft of man-rated nylon rope. I also carried a spare Butane canister for Tad's stove and Tad's filter pump.

When Tad and I had checked at the North Rim on Monday the trails were still closed to entry between 7 am and 5 pm, presumably to encourage potential hikers to stay out of the heat of the mid-day. The temperature in the inner canyon (Phantom Ranch) was listed as 105 F daytime, 89 F night time. At 7 am we took the mandatory group pictures and started on the trail. Our plan was to hike to the Deer Spring campground today. We would descend on the Bill Hall trail to the Esplanade and hike to the edge of the Redwall, where we would cache 4 liters of water for the overnight stay and the hike out on Saturday. After descending the Redwall we would hike through Surprise Valley and take the steep descent to the Deer Spring campground. On Wednesday, after a morning hike without backpacks to the Colorado River, we would return to pick up the backpacks at the camp site, hike back up to Surprise Valley, about 2000 ft altitude gain, and hike via the Thunder River spring 2000 ft down to the upper Tapeats river campground. Thursday we would relax, go fishing and hike down to the Colorado River, only a few hundred feet lower and 1.5 miles away. On Friday Tom, Craig, Rich and Eric planned to hike out in one day. Gene, Linda, Tad and I would hike from the Tapeats campground to the Redwall, about 3000 ft elevation gain and about 6 miles, and stay there overnight. On Saturday we would hike the remaining 2000 ft elevation an 6 miles back to the trailhead. It was an ambitious plan.

The group now consisted of Gene, Linda, Tim, Cynthia, Tad and myself. Tom, Craig, Rich and Eric, who had stayed overnight at the North Rim Lodge, would start later and meet us at Deer Creek camp ground. The trail from the parking lot entered through a cattle gate and started to climb about 300 feet to Monument Point at 7200 ft elevation. Climbing through forest-fire-blackened brush on a footpath still covered with ashes, we reached the unmarked trailhead in 30 minutes. A retired Forest Service ranger in Fredonia told me later that in June 1996 a lightning-caused fire started at Monument Point. The Park Service let the fire burn out of control. It then proceeded into the Kaibab National Forest and burned almost 50,000 acres before it was put out.

The descent into the Canyon just short of Monument Point

If Gene had not assured us that this was the start of the trail, I would have walked right past it. The ranger on duty at the North Rim told us about the Bill Hall trail: "It is not sanctioned by the Park Service. The trail is steep, but not that bad. It saves about one hour in going down that trail compared to the extra 2.5 miles down the official Thunder River trail from the trailhead at Indian Hollow." His description seemed accurate. The trail headed almost straight down the forest fire denuded Kaibab limestone formation for about 500 feet, in some places requiring the assistance of both hands, then started a long traverse through Juniper trees on the top of the Toroweap formation. We reached the steep spot described by Bob Ribokas at 9:00 am, at about 6500 ft elevation. While Gene gave Tad directions for footholds for getting down I snapped a picture, then I lowered my backpack on a nylon rope and scrambled down. The descent through the Toroweap limestone formation starts in this area. At 9:15am we left the shade of the junipers, at about 6200 ft elevation. Some previous hikers had left two empty and one almost empty one gallon water bottles hanging on a tree, a real eyesore. Gene cached one liter, I cached 1.5 liter of water and made a mental note to remove the abandoned containers on my way out. From here the trail headed south in easy switchbacks down to the Esplanade. We reached the junction with the Thunder river trail at 10:00 am at 5400 ft elevation. It was getting hot in the sun, but Tom Chester claimed later that it was only 80F in the shade when he measured it. Tad cached 1 liter under some rocks. We estimated that Tom, Craig, Rich and Eric were two hours behind us, coming down from Indian Hollow. Since we did not want to wait for them, we continued on at 10:30 am.

The Esplanade is on top of the Supai Group layers. It is chili red in color and erodes into massive cliffs and dome shaped formation, some of which reminded Tad of UFO's. To me it felt like walking along a series of giant waterfalls, which dried up perhaps millennia ago. The trail was almost level, and migrated past the cliffs through low shrubs and occasional prickly pear cactus, with rock trail markers (cairns) every few hundred feet. Patches of cryptogamic soil lined the trail in some areas. The threadlike roots of these microscopic plants knit together loose particles of sand, forming a dark lumpy crust. The lumps are the size of chicken eggs, but more irregular. We reached the top of the Redwall at noon and took a long break in the shadow of a large football shaped rock. A large rock formation, which looked like a giant duck, posed as background for a snapshot of the group before the descent into the inner canyon. As planned, I cached three liters of water here for the overnight stay on the way out. This left me with 1.5 liters.

While munching on some trail food I surveyed the water situation. The heat was starting to concern me, since I was using water faster than I had expected. Gene pointed out that this was the edge of the inner canyon, meaning that the heat was going to get a lot worse. I had started with 7.5 liters of water and cached 4.5 liters. After five hours on the trail and roughly at the midpoint of the hike, I had consumed 1.5 liter of water. This left me with 1.5 liters to get to water at Deer Creek. At our current rate of progress we would get there in 5 hours, but the remaining hike was through the much hotter inner canyon. Most likely I would run out of water and be seriously dehydrated well before getting to what Bob Ribokas described as a very difficult and steep descent. Dehydration is serious problem, discussed in "Hiking the Grand Canyon" by John Annerino. At a loss of 2.5% of body weight dehydration commences. Symptoms due to dehydration at 5% weight loss are nausea, followed at 6-10% weight loss by giddiness, headaches, limb itches and heat cramps. Giddiness, according to Webster, means "being mad, foolish, possessed". Which of the serious symptoms of dehydration would hit me first was something I was not keen on finding on. If we would head for the Thunder River spring directly, we would reach water at least one hour earlier and before the steep descent than if we went to Deer Creek. Tad, Tim, Gene and Linda had each one liter water left, Cynthia still carried 2.5 liters. Four of us, Tad, Tim, Cynthia and I, decided to head to the Thunder River, then leave the option for visiting Deer Creek for the hike out. Gene and Linda wanted to wait till the temperatures cooled down and stay with the original plan to go to Deer Creek.

At 1pm we started the descent of the Redwall from the shear cliff at 5200 ft to 3600 ft elevation in Surprise valley. The fortress-like appearance of the Redwall is due to the limestone, supposedly blue- gray in color, but stained red by red iron oxide washed down from the Esplanade above. The trail was steep, but in excellent shape, with big rocks acting like one long staircase. The temperature rose rapidly, the sun burning from one side, while the rocks radiated heat from the other. At 1:30 pm and about 4100 ft elevation the four of us huddled in the first shade along the trail, a big rock slab, and surveyed the water situation. I had one quart of water left and estimated that we had another three hour to reach the Thunder River spring. After a while we spotted Gene and Linda coming down the Redwall and decided to wait for them. When they reached our shade rock, at about 2:10 pm, Linda announced that they had decided also to head to the Thunder River. The four of us vacated the shade spot for Gene and Linda and continued on roughly south-westerly heading switchbacks into Surprise valley. We reached the junction with the Deer Spring trail at 2:25 pm, about 3800 ft elevation, and left a yellow ribbon marker on a bush for Tom's group with the message "2 Sep 96 2:25 pm. IPAC gone to Thunder River, low on water".

The trail now turned easterly and traversed what to me looked like an ancient lake bed. According to Tom Chester, there is some speculation that all of Surprise Valley is the result of a massive landslide that temporarily dammed the Colorado River. The trail first dropped to 3700ft, then slowly climbed through thin brush no taller than 2 feet back to almost 4000 ft elevation. There was no shade in sight. During a brief rest stop in the open sun at 2:40pm Tim and Tad announced that they were out of water. I was down to 0.5 liters. Cynthia, who carried probably the heaviest backpack of the four of us, distributed one liter of her water. This left her with one liter.

The high temperature was starting to get depressing. We expected the temperature in the shade to be 105F in the inner canyon, but this felt like 120F. If there was an emergency, how would we communicate with the outside world? According to the ranger on the North Rim, " the rafts on the Colorado river carry VHF radios with airplane frequencies. When an airplane happens to fly overhead, they request a relay to a station on the rim. You can get the attention of the raft by shouting, waving a white flag, white T-shirt or flashing a signal mirror, but don't do it while they are in the middle of a rapid." Some trip reports however suggest that this method is not reliable. The only reliable way to get help is for somebody in the party to hike back to the rim.

At 3:00 pm we reached a saddle point between Surprise valley and the Thunder river canyon. The green outline of the Tapeats River was visible in the distance, about 2000 ft below us. The Thunder River spring should now be "just around the corner". We started the steep descent into the south east facing canyon with increased optimism. The canyon walls would soon cast their shadows on the trail. We huddled behind the first shady rock at 3:30 pm, in sight of the roaring Thunder spring, and reached the short side trail to the Thunder river spring at 3:45 pm, at about 3400 ft elevation. The physiological contrast between the Hawaii-like hanging garden of the Thunder spring, with its natural air-conditioned coolness after marching through the hot desert, is enormous, and is matched by the psychological impact. In the Bible the Jewish people are reported to have wandered through the desert for forty days without water. (In this temperature they would have lasted two days, maybe.) Small wonder that they were impressed when Moses hit a rock wall and a huge river burst in the open. We were in no hurry to leave the Thunder River spring. I took my shoes off to cool my feet in the water, while, upstream, Tim and Tad were filtering water into the empty water bottles.

At 4:10 pm Linda showed up, without backpack and clearly worried: Gene had a heat problem in Surprise valley. To get help she had left Gene somewhere in Surprise valley, with only a small bush and his backpack for shade. Tad, with 2 liters of freshly filtered water strapped to his belt, immediately started back up the trail, followed shortly by Cynthia and Linda. At 4:50pm they returned with Gene who had recovered enough to make it to a few hundred feet above Thunder River Spring, where had Ted met him with the much appreciated water. At 5:15 pm Rich Benson and son Eric, Tom Chester and Craig Cheetham arrived at the spring. They had planned to hike the official Thunder River trail from Indian Hollow, but changed their minds and left Monument point at 9:00 am to hike down the Bill Hall trail also. They had found my message at the Deer Creek junction and decided to follow our lead.

Tadas Sesplaukis pointing out Thunder River

We left the Thunder River spring refreshed at 5:45 pm. The steep descent on switchbacks, now in the shadow and along the Thunder River, was on a narrow trail, encroached by brush and cactus on one side, with a shear cliff on the other. Normally, downhill hiking does not bother me, but now my knees were burning and I was glad that I had brought a hiking stick to catch my weight. We reached the Tapeats river at 6:10 pm and the upper Tapeats campground, at about 2500 ft elevation, at 6:25 pm. The campground was hot and humid. A party of six college age hikers, three boys and three girls, from Northern Arizona University (NAU) as I found out later, occupied the two choice location of the camp ground. This was not surprising. They were the legal residents of the camp ground tonight, since we showed up one day early. At 6:30 pm I found a nice flat rock directly on the side of the river where the flow of the water provided natural air conditioning, stretched out on my ground pad and relaxed. What was supposed to be a 9 mile hike with 4700 ft elevation loss had taken 9 hours, not counting the two hours spent at the Thunder River spring. I had lost track of how much water I had consumed since reaching the Thunder River spring and my legs felt like they had done 20 miles of walking.

At 7:00 pm it was rapidly getting dark and it required a flashlight to light the butane stove and read the instructions for fixing some soup and a trail dinner. I then filled my water bottle with one liter of fresh Gatorade mix and retreated back to my rock. At 8 pm it was totally dark. I stayed on the rock all night long with what was one of the most enjoyable views of the stars and the milky way, seen through the 30 degree wide window left between the canyon walls, with the cool rushing of the Tapeats river in the background. There were no ants on the rock, and the buzzing sound in the brush was not a rattlesnake but crickets on the Tamarisk trees.

Wednesday, 9-4

I woke up at 6 am. The temperature felt comfortable, even away from the immediate vicinity of the river. The Upper Tapeats campground has a solar-powered toilet. This was a good time to pay a visit. After taking care of business, according to the urine color test I was still very dehydrated, I discovered the simple design of this high-technology wilderness convenience: A 12 element solar cell powers a fan motor which actively vents the methane gas produced by the microbes in the process of decomposing the contents of the toilet through an eight foot tall chimney. In a hiking book I read that in 1983 a hiker accidentally blew up an older, passively vented model of the chemical toilet at the Hermit creek camp site. He lit a match, maybe to orient himself in the dark, and the methane/oxygen mixture exploded. The hiker reported the mishap on the rim and was fined. The park service then started to retrofit all chemical toilets with solar powered vents. A yellowed paper sign asks users to please be careful, since any repair or service requires a helicopter. It did not mention matches.

This was the third visit by the hikers from Northern Arizona University (the home of the famed Grand Canyon hiker Dr. Harvey Butchart) to the Thunder River area. Last year they had hiked from the Deer Creek camp ground to the Tapeats campground through Surprise valley. This time they had hiked to the Deer River campground on the first day, hiked from there along an unmarked trail to the mouth of the Tapeats creek and to the campground. The path from the Deer Creek stays high for half the distance, the continues boulder-hopping along the Colorado River. The path along the west side of the Tapeats River requires no river crossing, but was a lot tougher than they expected due to some recent land slides. They planned to leave at 9am and hike to the Thunder River spring, stay there until 4pm, then hike up to the top of the Redwall and stay overnight. They would then hike out the next morning. This sounded like a good plan. They had cached no water on the Esplanade, but planned to carry 7 liters each from the spring. I would carry 3 liters from the spring, pick up the 3 liter at top of the Redwall and later the 1.5 liter at the base of the Bill Hall trail, for a total of 7.5 liters to hike out of the canyon.

At 7:30 am people started to wake up and make breakfast. I mixed one big cup of Trader Joe's granola with water, followed by crackers, some Salami and more Gatorade. Tad needed hot coffee to wake up. Rich Benson started a four-star breakfast, with sausages, fresh eggs, hash brown and orange juice. Almost everybody complained about being stiff and sore from the hike or dehydration after-effects and how they were unable to sleep because of the heat. Ants were everywhere attacking food carelessly placed on rocks. The bits of food dropped while cooking last night had all been carried off. The NAU students left promptly at 9 am. Gene and Linda grabbed one choice spot, Tad and I took the other good one which included a wide overhanging rock ledge, a protection against potential rain.

At 9:50 the sun hit the campground and the temperature soared. Most of the vegetation along the river is Tamarisk, originally imported from the Mediterranean to California, and Mule-fat, an unsightly low brush common in to the foothill of the San Gabriel mountains, with two inch long, half inch wide green leaves, apparently liked by mules. This vegetation provides no significant shade. The only meaningful shade was provided by trees with one inch diameter nearly round, pale green leaves, which some people identified as cotton wood, but which is apparently a variety of the Redbud tree. There was no cactus growing in the campground or immediately along the river. My first priority was to get re-hydrated. Until 1 pm I meditated in the minimal shade provided by a Redbud tree next to the roaring falls of the Tapeats River, periodically refilling my water bottle with Gatorade. With a wet T-shirt stuck under my hat the temperature was not too uncomfortable.

At 2 pm high clouds appeared, the temperature, according to Tom Chester, dropped to 96F. Hopefully the clouds would be there tomorrow while climbing the Redwall. From our campground the top of the Redwall loomed almost 3000 ft high. I took some pictures, but the wide angle lens of the camera was unable to capture the magnitude of the scenery, or the mood that it evoked. Without clouds the Surprise valley crossing and the hike up the steep Redwall would be miserable. My plan was to follow the lead of the NAU students: Hike to the Thunder River spring early in the morning and stay there till late afternoon to get fully hydrated, camp overnight on top of the Redwall, then hike out the next morning.

Tom Chester had finished nursing his headache in the shade of the only big rock in the camp and tried to give me a short course in Grand Canyon geology. "The youngest rocks in the Grand Canyon are several 100 million years old and have had a long history of cycles above the sea and buried below the sea. The walls of the canyon in the campground are Hakatai Shale, a vivid red-orange shale with minor beds of sandstone, which erodes to form slopes and benches. Almost all the various rock colors are due to various iron oxides. This is part of the Grand Canyon supergroup, about 1 billion years old, and therefore contains no fossils. The black Vishnu schist at the bottom of the canyon is supposed to be 1.7 billion years old." My mind drifted away from geology: Compared to the human lifetime, what is the difference between 100 million years and 1 billion years? It is like astronomers arguing about 5 billion or 15 billion years for the age of the universe. What is the meaning of time in four-space?

At about 4pm a few rain drops started to fall and we moved our back packs under the rock ledge as a precautionary move. Unfortunately, some rodents took advantage of this and chewed into Tom's and Tim's trailmix bags. My digestion was now back to normal, I was rehydrated and felt like exploring the trail taken by the NAU students. Tad and Gene had gone fishing. The trail follows the west side of the Tapeats River for about 15 minutes, then climbs up several hundred feet up the side of the canyon to get around a slide area. Clearly visible from up high on the other side, the east side of the river was a nice hiking path along the river, but were was it safe to cross the river? I did not see the junction of the Tapeats and the Colorado River. There must be an easier way to get there. It was safer to turn back to the camp.

At 5:30 Rich Benson and Eric showed up. Not knowing the trail to the Colorado river, they crossed the Tapeats River four times, at a depth of up to two feet (but why were their shorts wet to the waist?), and got to the Colorado river in three hours. They reported seeing bighorn sheep and motorized rafts. The return hike took them only 1.5 hours with two crossings. Both were wearing strong sandals with socks for the river crossings. Next time, already thinking of next time, I must not forget spare socks and camp shoes usable for river crossings. Gene caught five trout, Tad caught one. For dinner I had soup and dehydrated trail food, Italian chicken. Tad got second helpings, but I was not that hungry. Tom Chester hoisted the death march flag, actually a pirate skull and cross-bone flag , on Rich's walking stick for a group picture. At 7:30 it was dark enough to require flashlights. The sky was still partly covered with clouds. There would be no star viewing tonight. At dusk a few bats came out, but there were no flies or mosquito to bother us or to keep the bats fed.

Thursday 9-5

The night stayed cloudy and hot, and I got little solid sleep. At 3am the Moon in its last quarter peeked through the clouds, throwing its pale light onto the canyon walls. We had earlier debated a plan to avoid the heat of the day by hiking in moonlight. This Moon provided barely enough light to hike on a good trail, but hiking on a difficult trail in this light even with a flashlight seemed like a desperate move. Day broke at 5:30 am. At 6:30 am Tom and Craig got up. Tad and Gene pan- fried their trout breakfast, a mandatory ritual for a death march, photographically documented from every angle. At 8:30 am we were done with breakfast. I still had three pounds of the six pounds of food which I packed in. Next time, whenever that would be, I should pack only four pounds for a four day outing.

At 9 am Rich Benson and Eric led Tim, Cynthia and Craig for a hike to the Colorado River, advertised to take 1.5 hours, with only two river crossings no deeper than 2 feet, I wished I had gone with them yesterday, but with no spare socks I didn't want to risk getting my boots wet. Their plan was to hike in the evening to the Thunder River spring and camp overnight at the Surprise valley saddle. The next morning Rich would hike back to the spring to refill the water bottles. Then they planned to hike out directly. Craig wanted to meet with Tom at the Thunder River spring. The two would then join our camp at the top of the Redwall.

The temperature was a reasonable 83F, much cooler than yesterday morning. Tom Chester started hiking at 9:15am. He carried containers for 4 liters of water, but had only 1.2 liters cached at the Bill Hall trail junction, nothing at the top of the Redwall. This gave him 5.2 liters of water to hike out. Tad and I left at 9:45 am. The trail was hot and steep, and we reached the Thunder River spring in one hour and after drinking half a liter of Gatorade. Tom had already refilled his water bottles and left shortly after our arrival to hike to the Deer Creek trail junction without his backpack, to drop 2 liters of water and his sleeping bag and do some additional exploring.

The Thunder River area, said to be U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater's favorite place in Arizona, is truly impressive. Water rushes from two, approximately foot-wide and several feet tall, almost rectangular openings from an underground river in the Muav Limestone, which cave explorers have supposedly followed 3000 ft deep into the mountain. Access to the caves was not obvious and I was not tempted to take a chance on further exploration. The water volume produced by the spring does not fluctuate with the seasons. Based on the percolation time of water through sandstone and the depth of the spring, the age of the water coming out of the spring could be hundreds of years. What looks like moss from the distance are big clumps of mint growing along water waterfall. A profusion of climbing pentstemons, popularly known as scarlet honeysuckle and common to the coastal areas of Southern California, with bright red half inch long flowers, climbed up the waterfall. Sitting about hundred feet from the spring, my camera could capture only a fraction of the scene. The waterfall had an almost hypnotic effect on me and I sat there absorbing the roaring sound, the mist and the faint smell of peppermint and honeysuckle for hours, until it was time to say good-bye.

At 3pm Tom Chester returned from his hike in Surprise Valley. He had gone all the way to the start of the steep descent to the Deer Creek narrows. Craig joined us shortly afterward, somewhat in need of rest after making the hike to the Colorado river. Tad, Gene, Linda and I left the spring 3:15pm. The sun was out, but the presence of the clouds had kept the temperature at an almost comfortable level. At 3:40pm we lost sight of the spring, and at 3:50pm we reached the Surprise Valley saddle. My backpack felt light. In the cool afternoon the hike to the Deer Creek junction was easy and we reached it at 4:30 pm. At 5:10pm we passed the rock slab which had given us shade from the heat only two days ago. At 6:00 pm we spotted Tom and Craig way down near the Deer Creek junction. At 6:40pm, we almost had reached the top of the Redwall, the setting sun painted the Grand Canyon walls in bright golden red with dark shadows, a view which can only be sensed, but not described, and which my camera was unable to capture. We reached the top of the Redwall at 6:50, retrieved the water cache and settled under a big rock overhang at the side of the trail suitable for camping at 7 pm. Surprisingly, the hike from the Thunder spring to the top of the Redwall had taken almost exactly the same amount of time as the hike down two days earlier. Rain was visible in the distance at sunset, but the night started at 8:00 pm at a comfortable temperature and with bright stars overhead. Tom and Craig caught up with us at 8:30 pm, after hiking for one hour with flashlights. Gene and Linda set up their pup tent, everybody else found a comfortable corner under the rock. I changed from shorts to long pants and put my long sleeve shirt over my sweatshirt. At 5200 ft elevation I expected that it would get cooler later at night.

Friday 9-6

I awoke at 1:30am to loud thunder and lightning and wind blowing rain under the rock. I quickly retreated with all my gear as far under the rock overhang as possible, and draped the plastic raincoat over myself. It was getting colder. When the wind let up for a moment I got my cloth bag out of my backpack and put on all my spare clothing, stuck my feet into the almost empty cloth bag, put on my hat, wrapped myself in the bed sheet, put the raincoat over everything and retreated in a crouching position still further back into the rock crevice. By keeping my mouth and nose inside this cocoon I managed to stay reasonably comfortable. Tom was complaining about the water dripping through a crack in the rock and getting his sleeping bag wet. Tad wore his thermal wear and a nylon wind breaker and found adequate protection under his thermal ground cloth. Only Tad and I brought bed sheets instead of conventional sleeping bags and we had not brought pup tents, a saving of three pounds in weight. Crouching under the rock with the wind and rain blowing I meditated on the meaning of "penny wise, pound foolish". Gene and Linda were busy keeping the pup tent from flying away and their inflatable mattresses kept them afloat in the tent. I did not hear from Craig. He seemed comfortable in his sleeping bag, tucked deep into a ledge under the rock. In the middle of the display of lightning I realized that hiding under a rock on the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm is not considered wise. Unfortunately, it was too late to move, and I figured that every lightning stroke which I saw certainly had not hit me. The nearest lightning strikes seemed about 2 seconds ahead of the thunder, i.e. about half a mile away. After what seemed like two hours the thunderstorm converted to a steady rain and the wind died down. By 6 am the rain stopped and the clouds started to disperse. Everybody got up soon thereafter to share survival stories. Within three days we had experienced two of the dangers of hiking the Grand Canyon: Not enough water, leading to dehydration and heat exhaustion, and too much water, potential hypothermia from the sudden rainstorm. The temperature was "only" 60F. Tad and I celebrated with hot coffee and split another package of Salami, which we ate with pita bread donated by Tom. Gene, Linda and Craig left the rock at 8 am, Tad and I left at 8:30 under a clear sky. Tom stayed longer to dry out his sleeping bag before starting.

Monument Point, five miles away and towering 2000 ft above the Esplanade made a good background to the farewell picture from this high adventure campground. Hiking across the Esplanade in the cool air was a delight. Small water pools witnessed to the overnight rainfall, but there was no water flowing from the sandstone ridges. We reached the Bill Hall trail junction at 9:50 am. There were rain clouds visible in the distance, but they did not appear threatening to us. At 11:00am we reached the cache point, where I retrieved the 1.5 liters. I now had 2.5 liters of water. If the temperature had been like it was two days ago I would have arrived dry at the cache point. In the Grand Canyon it is better to carry a liter of water too many, than to be short one liter. Tom and I each tied one of the abandoned one gallon bottle to our backpacks and continued up the side of the hill. (We left the third bottle, which contained about one liter of fly-infested water, suitable as emergency water after filtering, hanging on the tree.) The break in the Redwall and our overnight campsite were clearly visible in the distance. At 11:40 am I reached the area which required a short scramble, but it presented no problem to going up with the (now much lighter) backpack on. The traverse was a breeze and at 12:30pm I reached the base of the Kaibab formation and the infamous steep part of the Bill Hall trail. From there it took another 30 minutes of stepping and resting to reach the Monument Point trailhead. After a little exploring of the west end of the top, I stopped at the Bill Hall memorial marker. Bill Hall, a National Park ranger, died while helping a downed motorcyclist on the South Rim in the mid seventies. I reached my car at 1:30pm. The seal of the 1.5 liter bottle of water which I had cached at the base of the Kaibab formation was still unbroken.

Tad and I drove back to the North Rim, and then to Imperial Point. It was cloudy and much colder than two days ago, but I had no illusions about the temperature down at the river. Looking into the canyon from above is inspiring, but experiencing the canyon, looking from the bottom up to the rim, wondering about all the eons which went by to create this landscape, realizing that tomorrow we will be gone, but a few million years from now the canyon will look almost the same as today -- that can only experienced by hiking to the bottom.

This hike at this time of the year was really crazy. Maybe we should have canceled and done some nice day hikes on the North Rim, stayed overnight in the comfort of the lodge, only $70 per night for a cabin, with cold beer and steaks in the evenings in the lodge dining room with the spectacular view of the canyon, thinking occasionally about crazy hikers in the inner canyon battling steep grades, heat without shade, thirst, hungry rodents and ants and primitive outhouse facilities. But the descriptions and pictures from those who went could not possibly have done justice or explained what we would have missed.

P.S. When I got back home I did the following calculation: On the training hike to Mt. Wilson, a 4500 ft climb in 7.5 miles one week earlier, under comparable heat, but more shade, I had consumed 2 liters of water in 6 hours of hiking, and lost 5 pounds, corresponding to a loss of 3% of my body weight. My water consumption was therefore 2+ 5/2.2 = 4.2 liters in 6 hours or 0.7 liters/hour. At the edge of the Redwall, using the Mt. Wilson rate, I had used 0.7 liters/hour * 5 hours = 3.5 liters, but replaced only 1.5 liters. I was therefore running a 2 liter deficit, 3% of my weight. At the top of the Redwall, within a few minutes of the 3 liter cache, I carried only 1.5 liters of water. With only 1.5 liters and another 5 hours to hike, I would be running a 4 liter water deficit. In retrospect, the obvious solution would have been to cache only two liters on top of the Redwall , instead of three liters, and then carry the refilled one liter bottle back uphill on the return from the river. At a 3% weight loss on Mt. Wilson I still seemed to feel OK, but rational thinking may already be somewhat impaired due to dehydration even at this early stage: Neither I nor anybody else in our group thought of this obvious solution to the water shortage.

Go To:
  • T. Chester's write-up of this trip (and more pictures)
  • Grand Canyon hikes
  • Angeles Mountain hikes Overview, Sort by Mileage or Sort by Robinson Number T. Chester's hikes
  • Tom's homepage

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