Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Grand Canyon in Winter, 2015 edition

"It feels like we've been down here a month," I say to TC on the morning of day four in the Grand Canyon. The Canyon is like that: timeless. Hours are somehow longer here, days encompass years. I feel like I have always been here.


We are hiking rim to rim to rim again over six days. The four of us met here in the canyon two years ago as strangers. Now we are friends. Plenty of people do RTRTR in one day. We could do it faster, but why would you speed up your time in the canyon? Six days, I think, is barely enough.


We start out on the South Kaibab trail on a brutally cold morning, just above zero. The trail is icy, requiring our microspikes right away. They stay on for at least two miles. Snow lingers far down the canyon, and even though the sun hits us by Tip-Off, it is still very cold. We reach Bright Angel to find the water shut off, the result of a pipeline replacement. Though this campground typically has the dubious luxury of flushing toilets, this is not the case today. Instead we must hoist buckets from a fold-a-tank, hoping not to splash ourselves in the process. By the time we have camp set up, a deep chill has sunk in.

My pack for this trip weighs in at 38 pounds, the result of my fear of cold. I am fine when I am moving, but what I dread are the sleeping and pre-sleeping hours. I have Raynaud's Syndrome, which means that arteries that supply blood to the skin are narrowed in response to cold. Typically, my fingers and toes turn white at low temperatures as available heat is diverted to my core. It's manageable but it means I can be colder at rest than most people. I am not a candidate for an Everest quest. Secretly, I wonder if I can do this and not be miserable.

Me with my Big Agnes Fly Creek. A small, easy to set up tent was the way to go. We saw the gamut, from heavy mountaineering type tents (not necessary) to a guy cowboy camping. Brrr--he regretted it.
But it turns out I have packed the right stuff.  Ultralight is not for winter camping. I wear my down vest, fleece pants, and puffy jacket, leaving the large puffy--the big gun--in reserve. (Like a chocolate stash, I like to have layers in reserve). Boiling our separate meals, we all are surprised how warm we are, even though it must be mid twenties. 

We have a short day on Day 2, about seven miles to Cottonwood, a couple thousand feet higher. We meet people coming down with tales of horror. "Three feet of snow! We had to turn around on our way to the north rim," one woman says. "Did you bring waterproof pants?" She tells us that Cottonwood is very, very cold. Another couple says they made it to the north rim, but it was very snowy. One of them is wearing jeans. If he could make it in jeans, we can surely make it, we think.

On the way to the North Rim. Ice and snow started about a mile from Roaring Springs. We were glad for our microspikes.


The next morning we day hike to the North Rim. We leave early, which is a good decision. There is so much snow on the trail, and at the lower elevations it melts and turns to thick mud. We run into four guys on their way up, who say they wish they had left as early as we did. "Well, we left at eight," one counters.

"Thirty," says another.

"San Diego time," says a third. We laugh. It turns out they don't get back to camp until ten pm. (later, we see them carrying huge yucca stalks tied to their packs) Not us. We are in our tents by hiker midnight, which in winter can be as early as 7 pm. Some people would not be able to handle this much tent time, but to me it is a luxury, hours to sleep and read and do nothing.

The end of the trail on the North Rim isn't overly inspiring. But...

...there are some great views on the way.

We break camp and leisurely stroll back to Bright Angel, where I hang out on Boat Beach and finally feel warm. Not for long--this is the coldest night yet, below twenty. I make quick work of packing up and heading on the Bright Angel trail to Indian Garden, our last camp. Here, we debate. It is early: we could hike out and be in hotel rooms tonight instead of facing another twenty degree night with brutal winds. The ranger comes by and says she is leaving out extra pads and sleeping bags for campers because of the extreme cold. Hike out? No way. We are staying.

Boat Beach!

Mule riders crossing the bridge. They all have to wear yellow jackets that say "Mule Rider." Plus, they looked like they were freezing.
I leave early for a solo walk to the rim on the last day. I love this more than anything, walking by headlamp alone as the canyon slowly brightens. I've been here three times this year, and by all rights I should be over this place. But I'm not. The day after I get back I am reading up on the Grandview--South Kaibab route. Spring of next year, I think, maybe.

Plateau Point view.



It is possible to camp comfortably in cold temperatures. Here's what worked:

  • Down vest. Absolutely perfect. Your core is warm, the rest of you is warm.
  • Down booties for camp. Yes.
  • A Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer jacket. I rarely am passionate about gear but I am sold on this coat.
  • A hard sided Nalgene for a hot water bottle in your bag. Tighten the cap!
  • Chemical heat packs for sleeping bag and mittens.
  • Hot drinks liberally. We generally had one right when we got to camp, at dinner and at breakfast. We carried one medium fuel canister and one small one for two people, and two small ones for the other two people. We ended up with extra fuel, but not much.
  • Freeze dried soups and stews. My dinners were not calorie heavy, like the others', but I had lots of snacks.
  • Putting discarded layers in the mesh pocket of my ULA Catalyst pack. They were easy to retrieve without having to dig in the pack. In fact, someone else could pull them out for me.
  • A small sit pad (I used a thermarest one) for insulation when hanging out in camp.
  • I brought a Neo Air XTherm for my sleeping pad. It worked fine. I did envy some of the others who had thicker, longer pads though.
  • I brought a buff and used it as a headscarf. Mostly I wear a cap for sun but this time a buff was the way to go. Most of the time I didn't even need my wool hat.
What didn't work so well:
  • I brought mittens but not liner gloves. You can't really break down a tent, etc with mittens, and they got too hot to hike in. My hands get too cold for just liner gloves. I should have brought both.
  • I have a hard time with breakfast: eggs, etc are revolting early in the morning. I brought protein smoothies which are great in warmer weather but even with hot water I couldn't face them. I should have brought granola and powdered milk instead.
  • I brought energy chomps, but didn't eat them. Those seem to work better in summer also.
  • I hiked only in hiking pants. I saw lots of people in just tights (a look that is hard to pull off, but may work well for them) because my long underwear was just too hot. Maybe silk long underwear would have worked. If it had rained, I would have had to figure something else out.
  • I brought waterproof socks for the hike to the north rim but didn't wear them. I was lucky that the sun was out on the way back down because it dried my shoes and socks. If not, it might have been uncomfortably cold.
  • I brought a hydration bladder because I drink more with it. It did freeze at night. This would have been a problem without my Nalgene to drink from in the meantime. 

34 comments:

  1. All I can say is WOW ...what a breathtaking trip and love hearing you talk about even the simple things like clothing and all the small details.Been to the Grand Canyon, but the way you see it is a once in a lifetime view some of us will never see.Thanks for sharing,love your post. Bert from Bama

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    1. Thanks! I've been there so often lately, mostly because work trips brought me near. I'm fortunate!

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  2. Great write up Mary! I remember taking the mules down with Sheila in the Fall many tears ago. At times I wished I was hiking, but the mules were fun!

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    1. Many tears ago?;haha. Mules might be funner in warmer weather.

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  3. The Grand Canyon looks fantastic in the winter.

    I am also not a fan of liner gloves but *love* these mittens. Primaloft with an opening at the top of the palm to pull fingers quickly in and out to do tasks, eat, etc. Unfortunately I've gotten hooked on this Swiss gear company's stuff, and I'm not even sure you can buy it in the U.S. — http://www.skinfit.eu/at/en/products/09557.html

    So you don't sleep with your bladder when it's below freezing? I throw mine in a silnylon dry sack just in case for the winter bivies.

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    1. I should have slept with it but I was afraid of a leak. I had it in my vestibule. I know I should have just turned off the valve. Learned my lesson! I'm going to check out those mitts.

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  4. There's no reason to even try to go "ultralight" in winter conditions unless there's a contingent of rangers immediately available to save your ass (which I've seen used as a backup for climbers too lazy to carry proper gear on Denali). 38 lbs to me in the winter is probably lighter than I'd ever go. I prefer to take an extra hour's travel and sit in comfort in camp than shiver my way through tent setup to "move faster" or whatever such nonsense. As you know, your safety margin needs to be much bigger in winter. As for tights...ehhhh I really don't know what the Euros are thinking with that.

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    1. 38 was actually perfect, I didn't wish for much more stuff. I think it's lighter than most people because I've gotten the pack I like, the bag and the tent pretty lightweight. It's about ten lbs over my summer weight. I was happy with it. Yes the tights. Not sure either. I am seeing this look a lot in airports also.

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  5. Looks like a great trip, I haven't had a chance to spend much time in the Grand Canyon (just a quick day hike to Cottonwood in back). For winter camping, I love quick cook oatmeal. You can put all sorts of nuts in it so it's just as hearty as granola but WARM!

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    1. Oatmeal and I don't get along unless steel cut which takes some cooking. Wish I liked it more. It's a texture thing.

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  6. I've been waiting for this post! It sounds like you had a great hike...I'd love to spend more time there. I was so moved by the beauty and the vastness of the place.

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    1. There's just something about it. I always say I am done with it for a few years, then I go back!

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  7. Since your mileage between camps was fairly short, did you hike other trails? Or did you spend lots of time in camp?

    One tip I've started using for taking down my tent is disposable gloves. Keeps your hands dry and warmer. Another tip for your outside glove, I'm using old SmartWool socks as mittens. I just cut a slit for the thumb. I also use these as electronic cozies.

    I've been making steel cut oats in my crockpot. I don't use milk to make them so I think I'll give dehydration a try. I'll let you know how they turn out. They could be a yummy and cost effective solution to packaged options. A packaged option I've found I can tolerate is Kashi. Truly Vanilla is my favorite and I buy it by the case from Amazon. https://www.kashi.com/our-foods/hot-cereal/kashi-golean-truly-vanilla-hot-cereal

    I just got some waterproof socks and will be interested to give them a try. I also just got the waterproof Altra Lone Peak shoes. They feel great and definitely add warmth. I hear they will be adding an ankle height option before next fall. They've also added Vibram soles to one of their models; they soon may be added to the Lone Peaks.

    Great tips and experiences. I'm sure they'll help me if I do the snow camping at Crater Lake. I have Grand Canyon on my list for Feb so would love trip ideas. You can PM them to me or I can send you my email address.

    I also think the time you spend outdoors in frigid conditions prepared your body immensely for winter trips much more so than people who spend all their time in heated indoor temps and live in warmer climates.

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    1. Yes, our longest day was 14 miles. On the shorter days we did some side trips...Ribbon Falls, Panorama Point, and once just hanging around on Boat Beach and the cantina! The hours of daylight were pretty short too, so the days seemed to pass quickly.
      I am VERY interested in your steel cut oat experiment, let me know how that goes. Ooh and I have some socks with holes in them that I have been reluctant to throw away. I am going to use those as overmitts! Thanks for the tips!

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  8. Looks like a fabulous trip! Those photos of the N Rim look very familiar. I'm hoping to get to the S Rim maybe next year. Great tips for winter backpacking.

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    1. I'd love to do some backpacking off the North Rim. Am going to look into that. Not in winter, though.

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  9. Hi Mary, great photos. It is beautiful there. It's surprising how the temps. fluctuate there from top to bottom. It sounds like you enjoyed it. I one of those who likes instant oatmeal with cinnamon. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Yes, the elevation change is pretty extreme. From 7,000 to about 2,400. Thus the changes in temp.

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  10. Welcome back, glad you managed the cold so well. Your trip sounded great! The 'bucket brigade' was going on at BA Campground in October as well, wonder how much longer? Anyway, you know you are having a good trip when you are already thinking about the next one.

    As far as north rim- Deer Creek and Thunder River are pretty darn awesome. I went down the Bill Hall and camped on the Esplanade/Surprise Valley (short hike to Thunder River)/Deer Creek/Esplanade and out. Tapeats Creek is also in the area.

    http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Thunder_River_Trail.pdf

    Cheers,
    Alane

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    1. Tc told me about Deer Creek...intriguing. I'll check out your link..thanks!

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  11. Totally awesome, huge and dramatic, especially when the photos are clicked on and enlarged. The last thing I expected to read about was 'mud' in the canyon, but I do understand.

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    1. Yes, we were surprised by it too. There was so much snow and in the afternoon the sun got on it, then it would freeze up again. It was pretty sloppy!

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  12. I so enjoyed reading your story. What a fun adventure! You are putting ideas into my head of journies to add to my to-do list. Thank you for sharing your photos, they are lovely.

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    1. Definitely worth a trip. I admit I like getting off the main corridor more, but in winter it's nice to have the added security.

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  13. Beautiful Mary,
    So glad you had a wonderful time. Your very brave to pack in the winter, my pack probably would have weighed in at 50 pounds, I do not like to be cold although I love the mountains in the winter if I can keep moving to stay warm.
    Received great news and awesome pictures from our friends that have cabins up East Eagle. They made it to there cabins with there snow cats over the new year holiday to find over 5 feet of snow in most places with much more up high.
    Way more then this time last year, Mother Nature is blessing the mountains so far this year.... :)

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    1. Yes, we are having a huge winter. I hope for zero fires this summer. I'm over it!

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  14. See? Winter camping can be fun!! :) I have a lot of the same hacks you do, especially the down booties and heated water bottle to snuggle up in the tent. Would never leave home without those.

    I agree. R2R2R as a run sounds like a terrible idea, I miss so many of the little details when I run vs. hike and that's not one place I'd really like to run that long.

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    1. I'm not really into running straight downhill and straight uphill either. Sounds painful. We did see a lot of runners though.

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  15. Another review of Mary's book, this from the Alaska Dispatch News:

    http://www.adn.com/article/20160103/memorys-watery-path-southeast-alaska

    Here's a quote that might make Mary blush!

    --Tom, Fairbanks

    ========================================

    The plot of “The Geography of Water” flows organically and is, for the most part, Alaska-believable. Yet the book doesn’t read as a narrative so much as a poem gathered inside a narrative. As with any good poem, it’s what Emerick leaves unsaid, what lurks in the white spaces between her words, that adds power and metaphor to ordinary exchanges.

    “In the river, the salmon were dying as they swam. Driven by an invisible force, they pushed upstream, bumping against my boots with sightless, milky eyes.”

    Which leads to the book’s nagging weakness and, paradoxically, its biggest strength:

    Emerick’s prose is so lyrical, the rhythm so lulling, that it’s impossible not to read sentences out loud, marveling at the sound, the feel, the texture. The beauty of the language threatens to overpower the story.

    ===============================================

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    1. Thanks, it's a pretty good review! (Hmm, for the most part...what does that mean?!)

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    2. Having experienced several reviews in our publishing life, I think this is a GREAT review...by someone who has read and thought deeply about the story and the craft. Enjoyed the return to the Grand Canyon, and photos!

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  16. Awesome write up!! 38 lbs is incredible for winter camping!! I am planning to do some winter camping for the first time and really appreciated your insight and advice. I struggle with the bladder thing ... I definitely drink WAY LESS water when I don't have my bladder ... but it always freezes, even with insulators. Ho hum.

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    1. I'm in the same boat. I have heard of people sticking the hose in their coats, etc, but nothing seems to work that well for me. Yes 38 lbs but remember we were in the main corridor with actual water and toilets, so no TP or water filters needed. That helped.

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