Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Winter, Days 1-2: The Silence and the Cold


It was the day after Christmas. We dropped below the South Rim in a clattering of microspikes. A thin layer of ice lay like frosting on the South Kaibab tourist trail, and day hikers skittered and slid as we passed them with our forty pound backpacks. They gazed at us, mouths agape. The average visitor to the Grand Canyon spends about eleven minutes on the rim viewpoints and we had seen it while stuffing our packs at the trailhead: cars speeding up, everyone popping out for a picture, and back in the car.

Obligatory rim photo. It seems that the Canyon must be in a drought. There wasn't much snow on the rim at all.

A chilly wind bit at my heels as I dropped lower in elevation. This was my gift to myself, a six day backpacking trip below the rim and up to the north rim and back, in the company of ten other like-minded individuals. It's often hard for me to find others who share my enthusiasm and I had hit a backpacking jackpot with this diverse group.



The South Kaibab is seven miles of switchbacks, interrupted by the long, sweeping expanse of the Tonto Plateau. It was there we lost the limited crowds and were left mostly to ourselves, in the deep, deep silence of a canyon winter.

I've been to the canyon in spring, when everyone goes. I've been to the canyon in summer, when it sizzles with heat. I've never been in winter. Down at Phantom Ranch it was still fall, the cottonwoods a glorious shade of yellow. As soon as the sun set in the Bright Angel campground, the temperatures plummeted to the mid-twenties, the stars brightly enormous in an unspoiled sky. I eyed Ashley's down booties with envy and regretted the ultralight decision to go light on layers. At night I shivered in my zero bag, wearing all the layers I had brought. My feet were blocks of ice. It seems like the older I get the less tolerant to cold I am.

The mule trains go all winter. The mules have special spikes put on their shoes for the ice.

But the canyon is beautiful in cold weather, the sun not reaching the walls of the inner gorge as we hiked up towards Cottonwood Campground, seven miles to the north. In a dry wash we turned our faces like flowers to the sun, almost warm enough to get down to the last layer. Only a handful of people passed us. It was as deserted as the canyon can get.

There's the Colorado River!

We reached Cottonwood in late afternoon. In the distance the North Rim loomed. We were going to go for it the following day, without knowing how deep the snow would be. There were rumors of a washout further up the trail. It would be fourteen miles of hiking through a strangely quiet place. It's true that people run through the rim to rim to rim in less than a day. We were taking six. I needed that long for the canyon to work its magic.

My Kindle quit working and I begged a book from Murali. The nights were fourteen hours long and brutally cold. I curled my body around a hot water bottle. Our little lights shone from our tents. There was something special about the canyon in winter that made me feel heroic.

The next day we would get up well before dawn to make our ascent. Would we make it? Would we be stopped by deep snow and ice? Much remained to be seen.
Ribbon Falls, off the North Kaibab Trail

11 comments:

  1. Good luck in the following days. I visited in the winter of 1977. The snow balls we threw down into the canyon were immediately thrown back at us high above our heads by the wind.

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  2. Cool! The Grand Canyon is on my bucket list. I will get there - one of these days! Until then, I'm going to enjoy your recaps.

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  3. It is mindblowing that the average visitor just takes a couple pictures from the car and then moves on, but I've seen them do this a LOT in the parks I've visited. I spend a few days at each park I visit and I still feel like I saw so little of it, it almost feels like a waste to take shorter trips than that!!

    Also: Down booties rock my world. We went backpacking in the Trinities earlier this week and they were my BFFs at night.

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    1. Those heat packs would have been perfect too. Not sure if you can fly with them.

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  4. Ribbon Falls! I saw it during RTR one September when the inner canyon reached 105 degrees....I shivered just reading about your nights, but the days sound awesome...and quiet.

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  5. Winter backpacking in the Grand Canyon sounds amazing. How did you go about getting a permit? I wanted to plan an overnight in the canyon a few years ago, but I looked into the permitting process and it seemed almost impossible to get one without planning years in advance. Of course, I wanted to go in April. Perhaps it's more open in the winter?

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    1. You are correct. Much easier in winter. I went with a group that already had a permit, but from what I heard, you can show up and get a walkup permit easily. Even the main campgrounds wete not that full.I believe in more popular months there is still a wallkin percentage as well. just not as many available.

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  6. Beautiful Mary,
    Can't wait to read the rest of your adventure. I've never been to the
    Grand Canyon, but I would love to go some day. Some of my friends who have there own rafts and have been putting in for a permit for years finally got one a few years ago. They went on a couple week rafting trip and said it was the best ever.

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  7. I'm curious: What sleep system were you using, including mat(s) and clothing?

    We had this trip lined up for February 2013 but we had to cancel at the last minute. I still have my NP credits and the airfare. It might be right to return soon!

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    1. I had an old school thermarest which was great, a synthetic zero bag which seemed too big for me. I wore long underwear, a wool pullover, my hiking pants, a hat, a buff, socks and lay my down jacket over my core. I was still cold. I think a down bag of shorter length might have been better.

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