Grand Canyon Hiking and Backpacking Trips:

3 Days on the Edge: South Bass & Tonto trails to Copper Canyon - June 2010
Doug and David

The Unsuccessful Return: Kanab Wilderness area - September 2010
Doug and Brian

Grand Canyon Hike Photo: Shade under sandstone ledges in Copper Canyon, south rim, the Grand Canyon

My (Doug's) June trip to the Grand Canyon was supposed to be a wonderful repeat trip of the Royal Arch/Elves Chasm loop with my son, David. Instead, it turned into a 3 day grueling ordeal, plagued by extreme temperatures soaring into the 130-140 degree range, dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and almost not being able to find water.

We had known it was going to be hot (hiking in GC is not recommended for June, July and August and this was the first week in June), so we planned to leave early in the morning, cache water for the way out and carry extra water. But, as it turned out, on the first morning we did not leave early enough or carry enough extra water to compensate for the early season heat wave that blanketed the Grand Canyon that week. The first day's hike was down the South Bass trail from the trailhead at the rim to the Tonto, then over to Copper Canyon. Instead of 5-6 hours, it took a total of 13 hours, as the heat took its toll, requiring a much slower pace and frequent stops at the end get out of the intense heat. Late in the afternoon, I went ahead, sans pack, to replenish our water, while David stayed behind, under our tarp and out of the direct sun and heat, with our gear. When I got down to the dry creekbed at the Copper Canyon crossing, which turned out to be about a mile from where I left David, I first looked upstream for water. Finding none, I headed downstream for about 30 minutes, to a "reliable" spring in the lower part of the drainage and, there, got hit by a bomb ... it too was bone dry. Fortunately, 20 and 30 minutes further on down, I finally found 2 pools of water. But those 20-30 minutes "on the edge", coupled with the heat and exhaustion of the long day, plus the fact that I was separated from my hiking partner (and that hiking partner was my son!), for almost 3 hours, had taken a toll on my psyche. This was the first time in 30 Grand Canyon hikes (plus even more mountaineering climbs and hikes) that I had ever had to separate from my partner in a time of stress.

We took a much needed recovery day on Day 2 ... resting, hiding from the sun's heat. We had set up our tarp under a ledge in upper Copper. Inside, protected in shade, the temperature stayed in the mid-90's, 'balmy' compared to outside in the direct sun. Outside, the thermometer on my pack "topped out" at 120 degrees at 11am and didn't drop under 120 until just after 5pm. Inside, we rested, slept, read and talked about how to proceed. Our choices for Day 3 were to either continue on, or turn back and retrace our first day's footsteps to the rim. If we continued on, we would have had a long day of more intense heat to the end of the Tonto at Garnet, then down and over to the Colorado River at Toltec beach, with no potable water (beyond what we would carry) in between. And the fact that we were having to take an unplanned layover day in Copper Canyon meant we would have to forgo one of our two major objectives of the trip, Elves Chasm or the Royal Arch. The decision was obvious and we made it together ... the known - the long, hard, hot climb out, back across the Tonto and up the South Bass to the rim.

Day 3. In spite of leaving at pre-dawn and knowing we would hit a critical point when we would start climbing in altitude, meaning we would also start climbing out of the heat, before noon, we still experienced more heat exhaustion and heat cramps, an indication that day 1 really had taken a physical toll that required more than one day's recovery. In the end, what took 13 hours to go down took 12 hours to come back up. On a lighter note, during a long, much needed rest stop only 1,000 feet below the rim, we donated most of our week's worth of food (including a pint of 151 proof rum) to the javelinas and other critters of the trail, to cut pack weights. I buried it as best as I could in a small crevasse, but I can only imagine that there was quite a food orgy in spite of my efforts to "leave no trace."

Exhausted, we finally reached the rim, loaded the car and started the 2+ hour drive from the remote South Bass trailhead back to Grand Canyon Village. We rested overnight before heading home, via Glenwood Springs, CO and its Hot Springs pool.

In September I attempted to return to the Canyon, with Brian, choosing a familiar area and trails we had visited in 2004 - the Kanab wilderness area. But it was too soon after the events of the June trip ... the memories were still too raw ... the body had healed but the mind and spirit had not. So we shortened what was planned as a 6 day, 5 night hike into 3 days and just 2 nights. The Grand Canyon, at this point, was no longer a place to rekindle and replenish my spirit. The magic was not gone, but had receded to a dark place.

... I will heal my mind and spirit, I will re-find that magic and I will return to the Canyon.

Limited South Bass - Copper Canyon photos, with captions and slideshow, are available.

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