Phase two was a twelve day paddle raft and kayak descent of the Colorado River from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek, 226 miles downstream. Our small fellowship consisted of 7 students (3 female and 4 male) and 3 leaders. Some of the team were using this expedition for their Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award.
We held five training weekends prior to departure in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and Derbyshire Peak District. These concentrated on improving hiking stamina and fitness, paddling skills and technique, general campcraft and mapwork, as well as team working. I would like to thank Allie Goodwill as trainee assistant leader on the expedition, for all her support, enthusiasm, willingness to get involved and good company – all very much appreciated. Most of all, I would like to thank Richard Norton. Having led many of these expeditions before, his dedication is unquestionable, but I personally thank him for his knowledge, experience, humour, amazing ability and calm nature – all a tremendous help to me and the success of this expedition. My basket of people which is reserved for those I term ‘general all-round good eggs’ only has six places in it and you fill every one! May your knowledge and experience be shared with YSES members and leaders for many years to come.
The team left the UK on the 22nd July, arriving in Phoenix by late afternoon the same day (via a hasty transfer in Chicago), only to find most of our baggage had not! Luckily the next flight in had all but one rucksack on it, and this arrived in Grand Canyon Village the following day. The first day on South Rim was spent sightseeing – our first view of the Grand Canyon from Mather Point at sunrise and a stop at the new National Park visitor centre. In the following few days, we had a short exploratory hike down Bright Angel Trail to aid acclimatisation to the canyon heat and hiking conditions, we also attended some of the National Park talks, including one on the successful re-introduction of the Condor to the Grand Canyon, and the inevitable sorting out of food, gear and left luggage in preparation for the early entry on day 5. After packing away unnecessary waterproofs (it never rains in the canyon!), tents, extra clothing and sleeping bags into left luggage, on that final evening on the south rim, we were hit by three violent thunderstorms in quick succession. Combining heavy downpours (which turned the campsite into rivers of mud and debris), with dangerously close lightning strikes for a three hour period – a very wet, weary, shaken and cold group made it to the only hotel with power and still serving food to get warmed up and fed. Not the best preparation for an eleven day hike in the desert!
Our dramatic early entry from Hermits Rest the following day would see the start of the a long trek taking in Dripping Springs, Boucher, Tonto and Hermit Trails in the coming days, and some memorable and enjoyable experiences. We reached the creek of Dripping Spring by noon siesta time. We had not travelled as far as we wanted, mainly due to the poorly maintained trail at the head of Hermit Canyon where washout had occurred and care needed on these narrow sections with heavy packs. A spectacular camp at Yuma Point that night provided rest for our early morning descent of the Red Wall into Travertine Canyon and then on to Whites Butte. The traverse above the Red Wall at times needed great care and at one point step cutting, due to the poorly maintained state of the trail and more washout (which we had been warned about by the NPS beforehand). The descent with heavy packs requires a handline in two places, with buddies keeping a watchful eye on each other for a helping hand (20m, 8mm static Beal). Before starting the traverse to Whites Butte, two of the team were going down with heat exhaustion and one required serious attention before continuing. As we re-grouped below Whites Butte overhang, we realised we only had enough water between the team to get down to Boucher Creek, without putting ourselves in further danger of exhaustion. It was decided to descend to Boucher Creek that afternoon instead of completing the Scout Burn Project on Whites Butte, at this time still in full sun.
The following day was spent recuperating at the creek, with the team completing an upstream tamarisk survey for the NPS. The next morning was James’ birthday and we hiked down to Boucher Rapid Camp to celebrate it, completing the downstream tamarisk survey en route. The day was spent watching river runners on the rapids and swimming in the cool Colorado. A late afternoon storm created a flash flood in Boucher Creek an hour later (an experience and sight that proved invaluable to the team later), as a two foot wall of gluey mud came thundering down the narrow canyon. It was an amazing sight for the team, in the knowledge and safety that we had two nights to camp at the rapids and were in no rush to get out. The next morning we returned to Boucher Creek camp for a siesta, but a navigational error by two team members meant they took an unnecessary 2 hour hike up and down Topaz Canyon! Some of the remaining team managed to locate Louis Boucher’s mine and original camp area. That afternoon we reached Travertine Canyon via the Tonto Trail with superb views of the inner canyon gorge, but the sad demise of Richard’s boots!
We spent the following day at Hermits Rest Campsite with the luxury of a composting toilet and Richard finding some perfectly fitting replacement trainers for his worn out boots! An upstream tamarisk survey was completed and added to the following day with the downstream section to Hermits Rapids. This day was spent catching up with old friends as a Can Ex trip came by which was led by Tom together with Peggy and Rob – our raft guides in 2000. As many as eight trips came through that day, together with a father and son hiking couple who had descended from Hermits Rest. The day was spent swimming, jumping off rocks and playing ‘tug of peace’ until sunset.
For our exit, we changed our route to miss out Monument Creek along the Tonto Trail and instead head up Cathedral Stairs to get as far along Hermits Trail as we could. We were pinned down by another one of those storms just before Lookout Point in the afternoon, but made Santa Maria Spring for an overnight camp. Our easy exit the following morning was finished off with a resounding group chant of ‘lying. swearing and cheating!’ as it echoed around the canyon walls.
After two days in Flagstaff shopping and sorting out gear, the rafting trip started well – catching up with old friends (Nicole and Jeff from 2000) and introducing ourselves to new guides (Deanne, Joe, Justin and Janey). Due to our group number, we had a paddle raft, two inflatable single kayaks and a double kayak to paddle down the Colorado, much to the delight of some of us. During the first few days, side hikes included Nautiloid Canyon (river mile 34), Buck Farm (rm 41) and the Granaries at Nankoweep (rm 53), where we witnessed a large rockfall on the other side of the canyon. We also encountered another huge storm (it never rains in the canyon!) as we passed through Marble Canyon (rm 40). Our tally of swimmers gradually increased and was added to by the time we reached the now familiar Hermits Rapid, flipping the kayaks and an oar raft. After the descent of the famous Gem series of rapids, we hiked Elves Chasm, the magnificent Tapeats Creek to view Thunder Falls as it exits the Red Wall limestone, Deer Creek in the late afternoon, then Matkatamiba Canyon the next day. On reaching Havasu, it was decided the weather was not favourable for a long hike to the falls in case of flash flood, so a short trip to the first pools gave us a taste of this inner canyon paradise, but also allowed for more exploration downriver later in the day.
We continued to National Canyon which starts off wide with big ledges at the confluence with the Colorado, but soon narrows to a slot and waterfall canyon. Just as we entered the narrows the low rumble of a flash flood was heard and a well executed sharp exit was made by all. In our haste to exit the narrows, a number of minor injuries were sustained to feet including a damaged heel to James. We were unable to ascertain the extent of this damage, and had to arrange for an evacuation the following morning by NPS helicopter. The evening was spent sharing our thoughts and feelings about the trip and the incident that afternoon, which was sensitively and well handled by Justin. We had also heard that exit from Diamond Creek may not be possible as another Can Ex trip only just managed to get out as the canyon had flash flooded. After James’ dramatic departure the next day, we met up with the GCY group below Lava Rapid for lunch and decided to double camp that evening.
A welcome boost for our groups morale, and a good opportunity to discuss future joint trips with Emma, the GCY organiser. With much excitement, games and frivolity that evening, the following day was a gentle trip to our final camp at Diamond Peak, via the 40′ ‘diving board’ jump into the Colorado. Our early exit was in fact, hassle free, returning to Flagstaff after the usual fantastic exit breakfast spread and an ice cream stop in Saligman. The expedition meal ended up as Pizza due to a packed restaurant with other rafting parties, but this gave us all an opportunity to reflect and share what the experience had meant before catching the bus back to Phoenix and onward to the UK.
Recommendations & Suggestions
Unless a well prepared and fit group or considerable improvements to trail maintenance, I would not recommend doing the Boucher Trail down to Boucher Creek campsite from Hermits Rest. It has deteriorated so much over the last five years that it could pose a considerable risk to the group, or at the very least, an awkward hike back to reach water. There are many other well maintained routes to follow, that still give the adventure experience without such risk.
The Hermit Trail between Cathedral Stairs and Waldron Trail junction is also poorly maintained, requiring careful route finding where washouts have entered. Some of these have formed talus fans of large boulders and debris.
The Monsoon season now creates regular and large storms, and therefore the risk of flash flooding in inner canyons is much more visible than in the past. Care must be taken whenever the group need to enter a flash flood canyon or area. The risk of lightning strike is also more prevalent, which again, cannot be prevented in the area, so greater understanding and preparation of what to expect is required in pre-departure training, together with how to best deal with local lightning storm situations. Much of the ordering and booking can be done over the internet, so that the majority of the logistics are confirmed way in advance.
This year we had a number of applicants drop out which altered the logistics for Canyon Explorations (Can Ex) quite considerably. Due to the lateness of applicants, the payment schedule to Can Ex did cause some issues for them. With this in mind, our contact, Laurie Lee, has decided that if we book through them next time, a full payment for the trip will need to be made, months in advance. I would recommend a joint trip with the Grand Canyon Youth Organisation, organised through Emma. This would prove less costly to our members, and more beneficial in terms of the science projects carried out during the rafting descent. There are some logistical considerations to discuss, but worth the effort to improve the expedition and its aims.
These would include:
- Emergency procedures of GCY – are they adequate vs a commercial company?
- What cost would GCY cover for our members?
- Can our members expect a paddle raft trip with the same side canyon and exploratory hikes?
- Can we still do a full Colorado trip?
Tents / bivvi bags would be recommended for the team on the South Rim, due to the nature of the monsoon season.
Food and drink
The Mountain House freeze dried food is very good. From a taste and variety point of view, the whole team felt it was above average and a pleasant surprise. The electrolyte additive to water was deemed necessary but some flavours were better tasting than others.
For water purification the majority of the team used Iodine tablets with neutralising tablets. This worked well and is much better the iodine alone. For washing pots and pans we used iodine saturated water from ball bearings in a glass. One person used a Katadyn filter built into a 1 litre water bottle which was also deemed to be effective and efficient. Food and drink supplied on the rafting phase was exceptional and a high standard.