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House Rock Valley to Vasey's Paradise:
A Grand Canyon backpack

Day One: October 5, 1999



I had arrived the day before, flying into Flagstaff from my home in Maryland. After a stop for lunch and a visit to a local outdoors outfitter to buy fuel for my camp stove, I was off to Marble Canyon. Marble Canyon isn't so much the name of a town in Arizona, as it is a point on the map. It is here that the highway crosses the Colorado River, at a point not far from the northeastern boundary of the Grand Canyon National Park. The next road crossing of this river to the west of here is over three-hundred miles away, at the Hoover Dam near Boulder, Nevada. Here at Marble, two bridges cross the river at a height of about five-hundred feet above the water's surface. The eastern bridge is the older one, having been built in the 1950's as one of the first bridges over the Colorado in this region. Today, it is used only by those on foot, as the newer and wider trestle to its west carries the automobile and truck traffic on its way to places like the North Rim Village and southern Utah.

I stayed over at the lodge at Marble the previous night in preparation for this day. I was to meet with the other hikers in front of here at 9:00AM. This would be my first experience at hiking with an organized group of complete strangers. I had signed up for this outing several month earlier, with a group called the Grand Canyon Field Institute. The institute conducts hikes at all levels of difficulty in the canyon. The classes, as they are called, are led by instructors who have a wealth of knowledge about the canyon's history, geology, biology and ecology. They are also all well acquainted with the rigors of backpacking in this predictably harsh environment.

Dave Wegner was to be the instructor for this trip, and I met him and his companion, Nancy Jacques, right at the appointed time in front of the lodge. The rest were soon to follow. Charlene, from San Diego and her brother Gary, from Kansas, joined Bernie, Nancy and myself for the outing. Bernie lived the closest to the canyon of all of us, having driven up that morning from his home in the Red Rock country of Sedona.

This first day was not to be a difficult one. It would be spent hiking with only our day-packs after first taking the short drive to Lee's Ferry, only a few miles from Marble Canyon. It was a perfect, clear, sunny day when we arrived at Lee's Ferry. Dave took us for a walk around the area, while discussing its history. The earliest settlers here were the Anasazi Indians, around 500 to 1200 AD. Much evidence of their inhabitancy here can still be found in the form of petroglyphs and archaeological ruins. Although it is by no means certain, it is thought that extended droughts and soil erosion were some of the reasons for their leaving. By 1200 AD, the Anasazi were gone. Many short-term residents lived here over the next five-hundred years, including Ute, Paiute, Hopi and Navajo. It was not until 1776 that the first European explorers were to visit. Two Spanish Franciscan priests, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velex de Escalante were quick to realize that this site was one of two places in the region where the Colorado River could be safely crossed. The other location was upriver, and now lies under the reservoir formed by the Glen Canyon Dam.

In 1869, the great explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell camped here preceding his journey down the as yet uncharted Colorado River through Grand Canyon. It was during the middle of the nineteenth century that the Mormons came here as well. Church leaders realized that a ferry crossing here would be a boon for development and gave John D. Lee the task of establishing this venture. Lee built a ranch near the river that his wife would dub "Lonely Dell Ranch" due to the remote and desolate nature of its surroundings. Later, Lee would be run out and become a wanted man by the U.S. government, due to his Mormon beliefs and heritage. The ferry, however, remained in operation well into the twentieth century, until it finally succumbed to high water from a storm, only to wind up on the bottom of the river.

Dave took us on a tour of the area, visiting the remains of Lonely Dell Ranch and its surrounding orchards. It was easy to visualize how difficult life must have been here for Lee and his family. He also told us about the large pieces of mining equipment that were left on the river's edge came to be there. In the late 1800's, a man by the name of Robert Brewster Stanton was hired to survey the Grand Canyon in the hopes of building a railroad along the river all the way from Lee's Ferry to what is now Reservoir Meade in the west. The railroad, of course, never came to be. But his company decided that there was money to be made in mining gold from the river's edge at Lee's Ferry. Much of the rock here does have fine bits of gold strewn throughout its makeup, but it never would be enough to support the expensive operations that were required to extract it. So today you can see a large steam boiler and other "relics" from the gold mining days that were left behind by their prospectors.

After leaving Lee's Ferry, we drove a few miles west to stop along the road and hike a trail known as Cathedral Wash. A true wash is what this is, as erosion has cut down through the rocks after every big storm, and over time has produced this upside-down "tunnel" that takes you all the way back to the Colorado River. It was perhaps about two or three miles to the river, and all the way we were losing altitude as we climbed down and down through the winding wash. I couldn't help but notice that while the rest of us were wearing our sturdy hiking boots that we brought with us for the big hike that would begin tomorrow, Dave was walking in only his flip-flops. I thought to myself that this must be a very easy hike for Dave, and that he'd be putting on the boots tomorrow. Little did I know at the time just how much more difficult tomorrow would be than today, and how incredibly adept Dave would be at negotiating those cliffs and rocks that were in our future.

Arriving at the river for the second time today, we sat and had a leisurely lunch. Relaxing, sitting on the rocks and watching the river flow by was a perfect way to spend the time that afternoon. When it came time to go, it was hard to get up the motivation, but we did have to be getting on our way. We had a good drive ahead of us and we wanted to get to our campsite for the night before darkness fell, so upward we went, back through the wash, and finally to our cars. After a quick stop back at Marble to fill up with water and whatever other supplies we still needed (and for our last visit to a restroom in a while), we carpooled to the dry camp at the edge of South Canyon in the House Rock Valley of Grand Canyon National Park.


Day Two: October 6



I was up before sunrise on the second day of our expedition. It was probably the excitement of the moment that kept me from my dreams. I wasn't the only one of our group up early, either. I could hear Bernie over there packing up his tarp and getting ready for breakfast, and by first light, we were all doing the same. The rising sun was a beautiful sight that morning. It rose directly over a distant butte, known as Shinamu Alter. Shinamu Alter is a sacred site of both the Navajo and the Hopi Indians. Dave said that we should take this as a sign we would have a good day. Everyone was ready to make the trek down the chasm that lie before us, and by 8:00, we were on our way.

I knew from the Field Institute's brochure that this was to be a very steep climb down into the canyon. I also remembered how they had told me that the Vasey's Paradise hike was more difficult than the hike down the South Kaibab and up the Bright Angel trails that I did with a friend some four years earlier. But at the time, I gave all that a shrug. After all, this hike had only about half of the five-thousand foot elevation change that the earlier one had, and I've climbed over 2000 feet many times back east in Shenandoah in as little as two hours. Little did I know as I picked up my heavy pack on this bright and sunny morning just how great a lesson in hiking the Grand Canyon back country that I was about to receive.

After leaving the campsite, and walking a short distance east to the canyon's edge, it became apparent just how difficult a trek this was going to be. South Canyon is one of the many side canyon's of the Grand Canyon. As with most of the others, it's deep, rocky and narrow. From the top you can clearly see the trail of boulders at the bottom that we would be following on our way to the main canyon and to the river that cuts through it. It was with a bit of disbelief that I saw these boulders, knowing that we would be hobbling over them for miles to our destination. It was with much greater disbelief that I beheld the sheer drop that would take us to them. After only a short distance down, with both the beauty and treacherousness of this canyon becoming even more a reality, it was obvious that this was going to be a much more difficult task than hiking down the smooth, wide South Kaibab trail was four years ago.

Just as he had done the day before on our hike down Cathedral Wash, Dave was going down the trail into South Canyon wearing nothing on his feet but a mismatched pair of flip-flops. Pack and all, it didn't seem to bother him one bit. We asked him about it, and he just said that this was how he always hiked. Dave was full of many surprises when it came to his abilities and knowledge of the backcountry.

We hadn't gone far when we reached the first of many spots on the trail where we would have to remove our packs and hand them down one by one to Dave who could easily do the steep descents with his pack still on. I was at first reluctant to take my pack off, thinking that I'd be able to do it easily enough, but again, I was wrong. The rocks over which we had to climb down were so steep, and my pack so heavy, that it was really the only safe and logical way to progress. Just as steadily as Dave had traveled downward wearing his own pack, he would take each of ours, laying them below for us to gather once we made it down each of these steep and dangerous plunges.

It wasn't completely easy for him, though, as some of our packs (mine especially) were quite bulky and laden with weight. Water, of course, comprised a large part of that weight in each of our packs. I started the day with five liters, Bernie being the only one of us with more than that. Dave had, the previous week, been down the trail and had cached a quantity of water at a location near the bottom of the climb we were now on. I was also planning to cache one of my liter bottles at a spot near there. This was so that our climb up in two days would be a little easier and our water supply on the way up more secure. I wasn't worried about having sufficient water today, since I was sure that my remaining four liters would be plenty to hold out the for the eight-mile journey to the river. After all, our hike down was only supposed to take about four to five hours. Sometimes things don't work out the way they are supposed to, however.

In between our harrowing, pack-doffing, cliff-like climbs, there were some places on the trail descending the canyon wall where we could catch our breath and even chat a bit. I was a bit ahead of her when I heard Charlene mention to the others that she would be spending her birthday in the canyon this year. Upon hearing this, for the first time that day I remembered that this was, in fact, my own birthday! How unbelievable it was to me that I hadn't given it a thought until now. It's amazing how being in the Grand Canyon shapes and changes your thoughts. Of course I asked Charlene when her birthday was, and the answer was "tomorrow". So, we would have two birthdays to celebrate on our little journey to Vasey's Paradise. Somehow this seemed a perfect place to spend such occasions.

Of course, we all talked about other things as well. Gary, Charlene's brother, talked about his video store business back in Kansas. Charlene sold real-estate in San Diego, and Bernie would only tell us that he was an "international man of mystery". Perhaps he had seen one too many Austin Powers movies. As for Nancy, she was a writer and was busy starting her own publishing company back in Durango, Colorado, where she and Dave made their home. All in all, it was a very interesting and varied group of people; one that started out as complete strangers, but would all come to know each other very well before the end of our four-day Grand Canyon odyssey. That's what backpacking does to people, especially in difficult conditions. There are few better ways in the world to come to really know a person than by backpacking with them.

The morning wore on, and so did we. As we slowly got lower and lower into the crevasse, it became obvious that we were not going to get to the river in anywhere near the expected amount of time. We were, as it turned out, a bit of a slow group. None of us, Dave excluded, were particularly good at descending really steep rocks, and it was very slow going down the canyon wall. Another disappointment that began to creep up on us was in the air. The day before we had noticed, far off from our campsite, a planned fire burning to the northwest. The park service people regularly do these kinds of burns nowadays to allow the forests to benefit from the natural effects of fire that man has so long tried to eliminate. Though the burn was far away, now that we were losing elevation the wind was shunting the smoke down to where we were. It wasn't thick, and didn't really cause much visual disturbance, but the smell was certainly there, and added just a little bit to the discomfort of the hike. The wind had picked up as the day wore on, and we were all hoping that the "planned burn" had not become and out-of-control fire rampaging down the valley to where our cars were parked at last night's camp. Well, there wasn't much to do about it now, so on we went.

With much relief, we had finally come to the bottom of the wall. We came to where Dave had cached the gallon of water, found it still there, and added my one liter to the cache. There was little time for rejoicing at our accomplishments so far, however. We still had very far to go, and the trail wasn't going to get much easier. True, we were down the wall, but the whole way ahead of us was strewn with large boulders, and still required climbing, some up, but mostly down. It was a very difficult path, and still, it took us much longer than had been expected. By the time we stopped for lunch, at around 1:00, we were only barely over half-way there. Far off ahead we could see high canyon walls opposite the path that we all thought were on the other side of the Colorado River, but no, they weren't. Dave said that we would not be able to see those walls until we got to that rock wall we now saw, turned to the right, and kept going a couple of more miles from there. On we went.

The sky began to darken, and at first we thought it might be the smoke from the fire. But it was not. Our perfect day was turning toward rain, and in narrow side canyons such as the one we were in, this possibility was fraught with danger. When heavy rains come to these canyons, water pours down the sides and quickly accumulates at the bottom, rushing and taking with it much debris along the way. Dave, knowing the canyon so well, and familiar with scenarios such as this, told us that if it began to rain heavily, there would be only one thing to do. Go up. We would have to climb the walls to a height of at least fifty feet above our trail and wait. We would not have time to make the river today if this happened, but would have to spend the night among the cliffs instead. Due to the slow progress we were making, and the subsequent number of hours that had passed, our water was getting low. I began to regret having left that liter at the cache site. How ironic it would be if a flash flood caused by a sudden, heavy rain, caused us to not have sufficient water. As a few sprinkles started to fall from the heavens, I prayed that nothing more than this would follow. To our good fortune, nothing more did.

Time and the six of us marched on into the afternoon. Dave pointed out many plants along the way, telling us of their identity and nature. Each time we passed from one geological layer of rock and down to another, he would note this as well. It was good to be with someone so knowledgeable as him. It made the ache in my shoulders and legs a little less noticeable too. We passed along ledges high above the rocks, with only a few inches of foothold to use. We hobbled over and around big rocks, and kept draining more and more water from our canteens. Only one of us, Dave of course, didn't seem to need to drink very much. He carried his water in a bottle attached to a strap, and he carried it by hand. It was only about a two-liter bottle, and was still over half full as the rest of us were verging on empty. As we approached the last big downward climb, Dave was sharing his with some of us.

We came around a bend, and off to our right was a wonderful view. It was the Colorado River, and Vasey's Paradise. Vasey's is a spring, pouring out of the rock a few dozen feet above the river. The water most likely comes from one of the springs on the north rim; probably Roaring Springs, which lies below the North Rim Village. It flows from the rock wall in such a way that you could almost imagine it having been placed there by man, a large, round metal pipe spurting forth the water. But the water is natural and clean, and is most welcome by the river-rafters as they make their way down the Colorado. From our vantage point high above Vasey's, we could also see the beach along the river where we would be setting up camp that night. To our surprise, we would not be alone, as there was a large contingent of rafters there already having set up camp. We didn't mind. We just wanted to get there, and getting there still wasn't going to be easy. We had one more steep descent before us, another sheer rock-wall to climb down. But at least, now our goal was in sight, and we had the added impetus that we had to complete the climb down before it got dark or started to rain again. None of us wanted to be on those cliffs under those conditions.

Down we went. The very bottom of the rock wall required us again, for one last time on our trip down, to remove our packs and hand them to Dave before we could climb down. When the last one of us got to the bottom, and we knew we only had a few hundred yards to walk to our camp, it was such great relief. We beat the rain, we didn't run out of water, and most of all, we had beaten our own doubts. We were met at the beach by some of the rafters, a mostly young group, and all very friendly. What a great surprise when they greeted us with ice-cold beer at our day's end. What a birthday present for me!


October 6, at night



It had taken us a full ten hours to reach our campsite on the beach along the Colorado River. Now, at about 6:00PM, we had less than an hour of daylight left with which to set up camp. The first thing to do on my list was to walk to the river and fill up with some water from the cold Colorado. I was on empty, and I needed water not only for drinking, but for preparing that night's freeze-dried delicacy from my food container. After quickly assembling my tent, but not yet adding the rain-fly, I was cooked my meal. By the time dinner was ready, it was dark, and we all enjoyed a little camaraderie before the stars began to disappear from the sky, obscured by a thick, dark, ominous looking layer of clouds. This was a much heavier layer of clouds than anything we had seen during the day, and with them came a sudden, almost violent burst of winds. We all ran for cover to our tents or whatever other shelter each of us had, and buckled down for what was to be over an hour of intense wind, but only a spattering of rain. The winds were coming at us directly from the direction of the river, even though the opposite bank was a sheer rock wall reaching hundreds of feet straight up. The true direction of the winds was actually from the west, that being the direction we had come from down the last stretch of trail that day. But as the winds hit the sheer wall on the opposite side of the river, they reversed back directly at us, kicking up the fine-grained sand from the beach and sending it to us at painful speeds. Being one of only two of us to have one, I buckled down in my tent to wait out the storm. Because I hadn't yet added the rain-fly, a good deal of sand came right at me through the netting at the foot of the tent. Meanwhile, the group of rafters camping near us had their own problems because of the storm. They had loads of equipment, including chairs, tables, stoves, and even a barrel in which they had started a campfire before the storm hit. Their belongings were blowing everywhere, as were burning cinders from the fire. I could hear them whooping and yelling over the sound of the wind, and surprisingly, they seemed to be enjoying the fun of the moment! These people knew how to have fun.

Eventually, the storm subsided. I poked my head out of my sand-filled tent to have a look. Everyone else in our group seemed to have gotten through it well enough, but we pretty much stayed to ourselves now that the canyon had again become a peaceful place. It had been a long day, and although it really wasn't late, we were all tired. I crawled out to finally apply the rain-fly to my tent (better late than never), and went back in for the night. A few times, much later on, I poked my head out to catch a glimpse of the sky. The clouds had gone, and in this moonless night, a thousand stars could be seen amidst the milky way. I was once again reminded that there is no better place on earth that I have ever been with a better view of the stars than in the Grand Canyon.


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