Monthly Archives: March 2010

Hack Canyon, Ch. 4: The First Step

One of the particular joys of arriving in the canyons at night is not seeing where you are until morning.  You set up camp in the dark and go to sleep blind, and maybe wonder, “What does it look like?  Is there snow?”  Because you can’t know the scale and scope of the canyons in the dark, even with a moon.  You just can’t see that far by the reflected gleam of moonlight.  Detail is lost and you can’t judge distances.  It is ghostly and ethereal.

But in the morning you wake in unfamiliar territory and stare for a few warm moments at the wet inside of your tent.  Y0ur first thought is usually about time, your second about weather.  You try to gauge both by the ambient light in the tent, but it is a crude measure.  The condensation that slowly runs down the inside of your tent doesn’t bother you; your sleeping bag is too comfortable.  But the curiosity you fell asleep with spurs something in you, creeps in and eventually wins out – like unfinished business from the night before.

Maybe you don’t even have to get out of your sleeping bag.  Maybe if you just unzip and poke your head out, that will be enough.  So you sit up, reach down to the foot of your bag, and stretch to reach the tent zipper.  With a jerk or two that inevitably ruffles the tent enough to rain gentle but cold droplets down on you and your partner, the zipper opens and you flip back the flap, and behold the world outside.

It is like being born.  You find yourself utterly transported to a foreign landscape of staggering beauty and magnitude.  The details are sharp on the canyon walls and the low sun – must be about 7am – bathes everything in soft, orange light.  Blue sky, red earth, dark streaks on the canyon walls, and a dusting of white snow layered on the prominent features – the color scheme itself is astonishingly beautiful.  You may wonder, is it really that beautiful or am I just giddy?  Am I somehow conditioned or evolved to appreciate natural scenery?  Maybe both or all three.  In any case, you are enjoying the sight and you feel like you should have been here all along.

Because it has been here.  The canyons have been here.  Just sitting.  Waiting.  All of this – the canyons, the walls, the red earth, the snow – all of this has been here and you haven’t.  What have you been doing?  What on earth have you been doing?

The canyon walls are tall and far away, so tall and so far away it is hard to conceive of their size.  You feel like you could just bolt from your tent and run there and at the same time you know it would take you an hour to get there.  The air is crisp, making your sleeping bag all the cozier, and then you remember your students and the job you have to do.  There is breakfast to organize, packs to pack, curriculum to teach.

The first step is getting dressed and out.

Hack Canyon, Ch. 3: To Hell With Your Witches and Giants

Ranger Todd was all smiles.  He was bright.  In this case, I don’t mean smart, although that he was, too.  In mean, he was bright, like he emanated his own light or maybe, like the moon, he just had a high albedo.  In any case, he was a welcomed sight.  It was a time of uncertainty for us.  Our time of need, to be sure, and out of the darkness some 20 miles down the road appears a legit Park Service Ranger?  I told myself that the desert has a way of taking care of people, answering prayers, giving you what you need when you need it.

Todd was young, wide-eyed, cheery, both talkative and articulate.  Good teeth.  His jeep was well splattered with recent mud.  Not just a little and not accidental.  This was a tell-tale sign of confident and adventurous off-road driving.  He had a large hand-held radio on the passenger seat and other communications electronics mounted and wired to the dash.  It looked official, and yet not overly orderly like a cop or a serial killer.  There was credible outdoor gear in the back, some layers and a big first aid kit.  It all looked right to me.

I liked Ranger Todd.  We had an immediate affinity, he and I, born, no doubt, of difficult ambient conditions and my need for this trip to work.  I was certainly predisposed to believe in him, like the feeling you get when the ambulance shows up, but I liked him nonetheless.

I also kept my eye on him.  I told him our story, school trip, been here before, scouting the road because we had heard it was in doubtful condition, etc.  He said he was down doing more or less the same thing, scouting the road.  He affirmed that it had indeed been closed due to a rock slide most of the winter and that only recently had he heard that it was open again, in fact just yesterday he had gotten the news.  He had wanted to see for himself.

“I’m going all the way to the trailhead.  Hop in if you like.  We won’t be gone long.”  And so, leaving my two co-leaders in charge, Todd and I galloped on down the road over patches of crusty snow, through mud, and over softball-sized rocks.

Todd liked to drive fast.  Part of me was grateful.  In his jeep with the lightbar lighting up the canyon and the knobby tires humming over the gravel, we were fleet, invulnerable.  This could work.  He chatted easily about the canyon, uranium mining, education, the weather.

“We have a sat phone,” I volunteered.  “Just so you know.”

“Is it Iriduim?”


“So, at least it will work,” Todd said.  He had a likable skepticism of backcountry technology.  I sensed a value on self-reliance and a faith in the resources available to one’s ingenuity.

At one point we skidded to a stop not  a jeep-length from an 8 foot drop.  The road had been washed out by winter runoff that had cut the gravel bank back and left a sheer face.  Todd engaged the four-wheel drive and we backed slowly off of our perch.  No problem.

“That wouldn’t have been good,” he said, with an innocent awe.  “I think they cut a new road back there.  I bet I missed it.”

“You think?” I quipped.

The road to the trailhead was indeed greatly rerouted since last year.  The slide that had closed the road must have been prodigious.  But we found our way on mostly very passable, very friendly road bed.  There were two washes with newly cut berms where the runoff had again cut the bank and washed the soil down canyon in its long journey to the Colorado and out into Gulf of California.

Todd was optimistic.  “I don’t see you’ll have any trouble,” he said.  “You can even take the edge off that lip and if you get a running start with your van, I bet you can get over that berm.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said.  And I was feeling good.  The road looked promising.  We could certainly get down to the trailhead and spend the night.  I had other questions about getting back out in a week’s time, but I am accustomed to the adventurous spirit, that to-hell-with-your-witches-and-giants attitude that Shel Silverstein wrote about in his poem, The Perfect High.

I have never been a risk-taker, and I have never been cavalier with the risks I encourage others to take.  I had with me other people’s children.  I have been leading outings for a long time, and I have contemplated all the maxims of outdoor leadership.  Examined them, mined them for truth, made them my own.  Chief among the kernels of truth in the annals of outdoor wisdom is the dictum against small missteps that can arrest a lifetime’s wanderings : There are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers, but there are no old, bold mountaineers. And it is all true, every word, and yet there is more to it than that.   There is this:

You can only answer a certain set of questions with the information you have.  Running an outing is a little like weather prediction.  You can be certain about present conditions, and based on what you know now, you can make some reasonable guesses about 24 hours from now, but the farther out you look the less you can see.  Much beyond 24 hours in the weather and you just don’t have enough information on which to base reasonable decisions.  But tomorrow you will have more information, if you are observant and you are willing to continuously reevaluate your plan.  Like driving at night: a constant stream of little decisions based on what you can see by the shine of your headlights can get you the whole way home.

So, I didn’t know what the week would bring or what the way out would look like, but I felt we were okay to keep taking steps forward.

“You know, there are two things we are lacking,” I began with Todd as we bounced back up the road to the where my group waited.  “A map is one of them.  You don’t happen to have a map of this area we could borrow – or purchase?”

Todd had a map.  “Just let me check it first,” he said.  “Sometimes I write stuff that I don’t really want others to see.”  I tried to imagine what Todd might write on a map that could serve to incriminate.  I came up empty.  Todd checked the map, found it acceptable, and scribbled a P.O.Box in the margin.  “Send it back here when you are done, okay?”

“The other thing is that we haven’t logged our plan with anyone,” I said.  “Can I leave you with our plan, so someone will know that we are here and what we are doing?”

Todd wrote a couple of phone numbers in the margins next to the P.O.Box.

“You guys will be out next Friday, right?  So, when you get out to the road, call this number and leave me a message.  If I don’t get your message on Friday, I will know you are still here.  But be sure to call because if you don’t call, it will mean something.  The other number I gave you is our dispatcher.  If you get in trouble, call this number.  They will get help rolling.”

With that, I deemed we were set to go.  Todd disappeared back up the road and into the night, and my co-leaders and I briefed the students on the newly revised plan, during which one of the students asked with no discernible agenda, “Isn’t there still a storm coming in?”

Hack Canyon, Ch. 2: “Courage and strength are nought without prudence” Edward Whymper

It was late evening, newly dark.  We had turned off the main road from AZ 389 maybe an hour ago, just after sunset, and as we had begun to descend into Hack Canyon on the rutted dirt and gravel road, it had grown darker as the canyon walls grew higher.  A few trundling miles went by without problem or incident and we had started to feel hopeful.  We had gone down only to see what it looked like and with plans not to stay – and against the clear advice of our only good source of information, Charlie, of Willow Canyon Outdoors in Kanab, Utah.

His report was unfavorable and inspecific – he described a kind of general malaise of conditions and a discomfort with probable weather developments that I found difficult to act on.  He talked about old reports of rock fall, the unusually wet winter, and the likelihood of snow build up on the road leading in.  “I hear it’s impassible,” he said.  “Been that way all winter.”  Maybe I should have known better than to doubt him, but it was out of character for Charlie to be so grim about conditions, and it was just inconvenient enough for us that I wanted verification.  I wanted to see it for myself, before I turned my entire group around and set off in search of a new course area in medias res, as we were.  I wanted to know that Charlie’s estimation of “impassible” matched mine.

But we weren’t going to stay.  We had decided that as a group.  Inescapable, it seemed to me, was the fact that we still had no map, regardless of road conditions into the trailhead.  I knew in my heart that that was a deal breaker – I couldn’t take this group of into the desert for 6 days without a map of the area.  Although, I confess it, the thought had crossed my mind.

We were prepared, I and my co-leaders had been there before, and canyons pretty much go in two directions.  We were either hiking down canyon or up canyon.  It is hard to get lost in canyons as big as these.  Even if we had a map, we wouldn’t  be using it much.  Unless, of course, we did.  Unless, we needed it.  We wouldn’t be using the map much unless something went wrong and we had to find another way out, or….  I didn’t know exactly.  I just knew we needed a map.

And I remember thinking of Jack London’s frozen story, To Build a Fire.  Never take a group into the wilderness without a map seemed at least as unforgiving a dictum as “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.”  Was I in the process of disregarding my old timer’s advice.  Charlie had seemed a bit timid and I was in the mood to be bold.

But the nagging echo was there.  What were the words of London’s chilly and ill-fated protagonist?  “Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right.”

The funny thing is, I though of all that.  I have taught that story a number of times, I know it’s lesson, the insight it offers into human frailty, the need to push one’s limits in nature despite one’s better judgment and to believe despite what one knows that purity of heart is enough to keep one safe, that fortune does indeed favor the bold.

But that might just be the best definition of human frailty: the impotence of good advice and the inability to act on it.

Edward Whymper in his 1871 treatise Scrambles Amongst the Alps finishes with good advice: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

So, as we made our way in the dark further down into the canyon, watchful and wondering how far we would get before we turned around and headed out for Kanab to spend the night in a town campground, I cogitated.  All we needed was a map and it seemed so trivial that we didn’t have one, trivial and intractable.

Four miles into the canyon – and some 22 from the main road, AZ 389 – a patch of ice and snow stopped our exploration, and we stopped our vehicles to scout the way ahead.  With headlamps, my co-leader and I stomped on down the road kicking every conspicuous rock we found off the road – as if that might be the rock whose removal made the way possible.  As we walked, maybe a half mile down the road we talked about the plan and our situation, a typical conversation among trip leaders, as much about reassuring ourselves as reevaluating the plan.  After the snowy patch which was short, the road again looked entirely feasible.  In fact, better in most places than it had looked last year.  I cursed the map once again, and as we turned to return to the vehicles, I began to let the deprecations and denigrations I was harboring in my head for Charlie bleed out.

“You know, Charlie might not know what he is talking about.  How much do we really know about him?  We met him only last year and he did really help us out then, but, you know, he might also be a little nuts.  The road looks fine to me.  There is no telling why he said what he said.  Only one possible reason is that it is true and good advice.  He might also just  be having a bad day.”

My co-leader, wise beyond her years, said little.  I think she knew it was a dangerous line of thinking to be engaged in – a rationalization, nothing more.

We had almost reached the van and our group when I saw from around the corner the lights of a third vehicle.  There was someone else there.  It was a jeep, fully equipped for off-road travel, light bar, gas cans, four-wheel drive, knobby tires, a winch.  That was my introduction to Ranger Todd of the Grand Canyon.

Hack Canyon, Ch. 1: “I wouldn’t go down there, not with a storm coming in.”

“I wouldn’t go into any of the canyons – not with a storm coming in.”  That was the troubling advice we got from Charlie, a local and longtime lover of the Kanab Creek drainage system.  Charlie runs the only wilderness shop in Kanab, Utah – Willow Canyon Outdoors – and we were talking to him on the phone, still an hour away from town.  Willow Canyon is part gear store, part coffee shop, part book store, and part information center – in fact, his is the only reliable beta outside of the Tuweep Ranger Station which is perched on the north rim of the Grand Canyon some 60 miles down a rutted and  washboarded dirt road.  “Besides, I don’t even think you can get down in there.  The road’s been washed out all winter.”

In the short time I have known Charlie I have found him to be pleasantly enigmatic, wary of overly definitive proclamations about the viability of imaginative plans.  He always seemed willing to be captivated by the opportunities of a bold idea and eager to help make it happen.  In the past he had seemed habituated to saying things like, “Sure, that’ll prob’ly work.  You might have some trouble with the road on the way in – it is pretty rough in spots – but I bet you can make it go.  Just get down in there an’ explore.  ‘Course water might be an issue for you, but you’ll find potholes up on the esplanade.”  He seemed to dwell in possibility.

But not so this time.  In fact, I had never heard him be so clear.  It was out of character.  One of the first things he told us this year was that he didn’t have the map of Hack Canyon that we were looking for.  “I don’t have it and you won’t find it anywhere in Kanab, I can guarantee you that.”

I didn’t take him at his word; I couldn’t.  Charlie, the only source of information about the canyons for a hundred miles in any direction, the man whose wife left him because he spent so much time hiking the local drainages (“she said I loved the canyons more than her”), he sole proprietor of the only gear shop in the area had no map of the north side of the Grand Canyon?  Not even a used, folded, and crinkly one to lend?  Inconceivable.  Something was up.

He told us to contact his friend, John, in Fredonia – he might have more information about the current conditions of the road on the way in to Hack Canyon.  “You’ll find John at the bakery in town – it’s the only one.  You’ll find it.  ‘Course he prob’ly isn’t still there now – I don’t think he works this late in the evening – but just go ’round back and knock on his door.  He’ll answer if he’s there.  He might have a map for you.”  John in Fredonia?  It was a weak plan but it had the hallmarks of Charlie’s optimism, so we put it on our list.

In the meantime, cruising down 389 from Colorado City, we decided to check out the road for ourselves.  I wanted to get some context, some first hand-information with which to judge Charlie’s odd reticence and disquieting admonitions.  I wanted to see what it looked like.  I wanted to know what would turn Charlie away.