The winter of 1969 was the first time I went down into the Canyon. We were trying to escape the cold and the city, and a friend told me that the Grand Canyon was relatively warm and pleasant in January. So Marty, Frank and I piled into my ’57 Buick and headed south. We arrived at Grand Canyon Village about 2 o’clock in the morning, and it was immediately clear that we weren’t going to escape the cold. It was six degrees. We waited in the hotel until morning.
The back-country ranger we talked to was as naïve about hiking the inner canyon as we were. But he was impressed with our experience in the Colorado high country. He asked for a planned itinerary, “Just in case we have to come looking for you.” We got out our map, and saw the name “Elves Chasm.” We didn’t know anything about it, but the name sounded intriguing. We told him that we’d hike down the Hermit Trail and head west on the Tonto Plateau, probably stopping for the first night near Agate Creek. Then we’d go to Bass Camp, and then on to Elves Chasm. After spending a day there, we’d head back. He thought this sounded like a good plan, and sent us off with the advice that we carry a gallon of water per person per day. We decided to ignore that, as it was clearly impossible to carry that much water, and anyway we figured we could always get some from the river.
The morning went pleasantly enough. We found some dinosaur tracks, and even took a side trip to see Dripping Springs. Then things got rougher. We kept losing the trail. It wasn’t the trampled path then that it is now. But with a cliff on one side and a drop on the other we couldn’t stay lost for long, and evening found us at Hermit Creek, where it cuts through the Tapeats layer. Clearly we were not going to make Agate Creek that day, so we decided to leave our packs and go down Hermit to the river. It was a beautiful canyon, but I was impressed by how long it took to get to the river and back. I was beginning to doubt that we would see Elves Chasm this trip.
Thirty-six hours without sleep is a great soporific, and we slept peacefully through the night despite the cold. In the morning our sleeping bags were white with frost. We hadn’t brought a tent. No one wanted to get out of their bag until the sun came up. That wasn’t until after nine.
It didn’t take much hiking on the Tonto “Trail” to figure out that our itinerary was worthless. It was a liberating experience, actually, to know that we couldn’t possibly fulfill our plan. We’d just have to take our time, and see what happened. The Tonto Trail was really just a skein of burro tracks. They went every which way, never straight for long, and often petering out in the middle of nowhere. And we didn’t just have to go around the side canyons, we had to go around the side canyons to the side canyons to the side canyons of the side canyons! Each mile on the map translated into six on foot. By late afternoon we were at the stone cabin in Boucher Creek. Frank wanted to camp on the sand by the river. The walk down the canyon to Boucher Rapids seemed to go on forever. The only thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that if I stopped and took off my pack, I couldn’t bring myself to put it back on again.
The beach at Boucher rapids was magnificent. On the upstream end it was covered with huge boulders, polished and sculpted by the river, and downstream was a vast, flat expanse of beautiful, smooth sand. Nowhere was there any sign of man, not so much as a track. In fact, it is quite likely that we were the only people in the western end of the Canyon, east of Havasu, at that time. Several hundred square miles to ourselves! Up against the cliff an enormous pile of driftwood had been heaped up by past floods. It was perhaps fifteen feet across, ten feet deep, and stretched thirty or forty feet down the beach. There were no restrictions on open fires in the Canyon at that time, and this supply of firewood seemed so prodigal that it was inconceivable it could ever be consumed by those few hikers, like us, who might happen to pass this way. (In fact, it was gone within four years!) We treated ourselves to a modest, but warming fire on the beach, and the cold, clear desert skies treated us to an amazing display of stars.
We enjoyed it so much that we decided to just spend the next day where we were. The multicolored rocks, samples from all the myriad geological layers above us, were fascinating. The waves out in the rapids could be watched endlessly. The large boulders were so carved by past floods, and polished to such a glass-like sheen, that we could almost feel the water rushing by high over our heads. But it was still bitterly cold, so while the light lasted we spent most of our time dozing atop the sun warmed rocks. We hardly spoke to each other during the day, but the long evening at the fire gave us ample time to compare notes and swap stories about past exploits. We could all feel the Canyon working its magic on us.
Next day was a long day of walking, but it brought us, at last, to Agate Creek. I think this was the time I first heard the voices. At first I thought there must be other hikers near, but on the plateau we could see for miles, and there was no one else around. The voices seemed most distinct when we were crossing the head of one of the drainages, up near the Bright Angel shale. It seemed almost as though if I listened hard enough, I could understand what they were saying. I soon came to feel that they were some peculiar sort of hallucination, brought on perhaps by the isolation, the hardships, and the immense silences of the Canyon. Yet they seemed so clear. Though I couldn’t understand any words, it was easy to pick out nuance and emotion. Sometimes they sounded like a low, earnest conversation, sometimes like a distant party, and sometimes like children playing. I didn’t say anything about this to my companions. I didn’t want them to think I was loosing my marbles. It wasn’t until many days later, when we were comfortably back in Boulder, that it came out that we had all heard them. In fact, these voices came to be an accepted feature of the Canyon back country for all of us. I heard them on every trip, and people I took with me heard them too. The character of the voices changed from one region of the Canyon to another. Although most of the time they were friendly, even inviting, they could be downright nasty; but that is another story.
Agate Creek was a lesson in how harsh the desert could be. The sun had set by the time we reached the canyon and started toward the river in search of water for the evening meal. It was nearly dark when we reached the end of the canyon, still several hundred feet straight up above the river. Fortunately a little water remained in a basin carved in the stone floor of the creek. But between sleeping on the rocks, and the pack rats intent on sharing our supplies, we had a restless night.
Next day it was time to start back. We made it only as far as Slate Creek by evening of the next day. This was the coldest night of all. Cold air draining from the South Rim flowed down the bed of the creek, combining wind with temperatures near twenty degrees. However, we had a very pleasant evening. A deep overhang a few feet above the creek bed protected us from the wind. We built a small fire at the outside of the overhang and sat between it and the back wall where the heat was reflected from all sides. It was hardly necessary to gather wood, since piles of pine and cedar washed down from the forests above were caught in the curves of the creek. Like the driftwood along the river, these piles were quickly used up by hikers as the Canyon backcountry became more popular. But at the time it seemed like an inexhaustible resource. Our place under the overhang was so pleasant, and the prospect of getting into our sleeping bags so daunting, that we stayed up past midnight. And that is how we saw in the new year, and the start of a new decade.
I don’t remember much about the hike to the Rim, except that my feet were really sore. We were all a little dazed, or perhaps overawed is a better description. The Grand Canyon had altered me permanently in ways which even now I can’t fully describe. I knew I’d be back just as soon as possible. One really dramatic change that the Canyon had worked in us was a modification in our sense of scale. As we arrived back in Boulder, we were all struck by how small everything seemed. Houses were tiny. Distances seemed trivial. Even the mountains that rear up 8000 feet in altitude just west of town seemed shrunk to half their former size. And images from that trip into the Canyon found their way into my dreams for years afterward.
I particularly remember the looming height of the Redwall formation. A chute in Slate creek that we slid down in search of water, and then had to make a three-man ladder to get back up. The shale slopes below Geikie Peak where we warmed ourselves in the sun and ate a noon meal (My Boy Scout match safe is probably still lying on that slope!) The roar of the Colorado River in the inner canyon. A scorpion of such a bright yellow and green color that I thought it was a plastic fake until it moved. And especially the utter quiet and solitude of waking up on the Tonto Plateau the morning after the first night we spent in the Canyon.
- Hermit Trail Description (76kb – PDF)
- Tonto Trail: Boucher to South Bass Trail Description (74kb – PDF)
- The Grand Canyon With Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks (Cicerone Guide)
- Hikernut’s Grand Canyon Companion
- Hiking the Grand Canyon: A Sierra Club Totebook
- Hiking the Grand Canyon’s Geology
- Backpack The Grand Canyon – A Scenic Guide for the Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab Trails – DVD
- Jon’s DVD Hiking Guide – Grand Canyon National Park