Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Grand Canyon In Winter

This morning in the car, my MP3 player was on "Shuffle", running wild, something I'm normally too cautious to let happen.  I am after all, a person of structure.  Between hearing Ed singing Blue Red and Grey on the oookulele .....

I dig every second, 
I could laugh in the snow and rain
I get a buzz from being cold and wet
The pleasure seems to balance out the pain

and recent comments by fellow blogger Keith, my mind drifted back to my time in the Grand Canyon and the weather that I experienced there.  I knew that today was the time to Post about my best experience in Arizona.

One late fall day quite awhile ago, I decided that it would be a good time to quit my job and based on a workmate's suggestion, head to Redding, California.  Eric grew up there and the more he talked of his old Stomping Grounds :), the more I was convinced that it was the place for me.

Our kids were all still in diapers (no, not really....this was long before I was in the Family Way) when I gave my notice, jumped in the old Chevy and headed west.  This was back before I'd discovered GPS and as a result my route was far from being a direct one.  There were stops in Moab, a few days in Beaver, UT that hadn't been part of any plan, through Las Vegas as fast as possible, Beatty, an amazingly fast friendship in Mountain Mesa, then  Bakersfield.  Of course there were stops at Yosemite, Kings Canyon and from there, it was getting to be high time for Redding, so the Central Valley was mostly a long, straight and direct drive.

I found a lot of what I was looking for in Redding but work proved tough to come by.  The region had long suffered a drought, the Shasta Reservoir was way down and tourism, an industry I had hoped to be a part of, was especially slow.  Eric's folks were good to me, helped me snag a couple of quick, part time jobs.  I met Annie on my own, she was still employed up near the Shasta Dam.  Before long, my quick jobs were done and seeing the very sad, long lines of people at the Unemployment Office reminded me that there were many folks there that needed work much worse than I.  Annie knew of a guy that knew of a guy in Palm Springs.....

Another trip through the Central Valley, only this time south and again, another hurried blitz drive.  Through L.A. and on to Palm Springs where there was all kinds of work but affordable housing was as or even more precious than work had been to the north.  The guys at the auto dealer parts counter were good to me, but not good enough for me to be satisfied to live in an ratty old apartment with a bunch of 20 year old guys.  One of the quickest decisions of my life had me off and gone, using the eastbound lanes of I-10, then up to Prescott, AZ and on to Flagstaff.

Humphrey Peak and some of the most beautiful hoarfrost I've ever seen.....though it may just have been the location and my's funny how that can often make a difference.

Contrail in the far and beyond distance........

Looking back, the Grand Canyon may have been one of the real, underlying reasons for me going west in the first place, I don't really know but once in AZ, the big place drew me like a magnet.  I arrived one afternoon on the South Rim to this......

The Bright Angel Trail sloping down dead center in the photo.

After obtaining a Back Country Use Permit and enjoying lots of time at the Visitor Center, it was time to set up camp.  I've become used to having a warm beer now and then (too many enjoyed in the U.K.) on my bike cold was free and I didn't have or even drink the brews back then.

So, I was set the following day and very excited to finally be able to walk down in the world famous Grand Canyon.  My grandparents had ridden mules (they never did that again) down, back in the '30's and of course I'd heard many stories about the place from Gramp and otherwise.  The next morning I awoke with one of my boots hitting me in the face.  A very strong storm had come up, it had snowed some more.  My tent's fly had blown into the pine trees, luckily the poles were in the branches where I could find them.  Everything, even me, was covered with snow and wet by the time I was able to get out and start gathering my things.  I threw everything into the car's trunk in one big pile, frustrated, cold and very unsure about my plans to go into the canyon.  I was within a micron and maybe less, of turning the heater up all the way and enjoying myself in the car, leaving that crazy place.  Something inside me, no idea who it really was, told me that if I left at that moment, I'd never again be in a place to walk down into the big hole.  Summer heat and serious-work backpacking have never worked for me, nor was that a workable combination back then.

At the last minute, I drove my snow-tired old, Minnesota-plated Chevelle on snowy, unplowed roads to the parking lot for the South Kaibab Trailhead.  I grabbed this photo a week later in the daylight, after coming back to pick up my car; it was still dawny dark the day I headed down very early in the morning.

I repacked everything, grabbed as much food as I could fit into the framed backpack and headed down, a bit drier and much warmer after having been in the car.

This is what I saw in the first few hundred yards down the trail.  Right out of the parking lot, snow was over the top of my waffle stomper boots.  Lucky for me, my jeans were quickly frozen tight and keeping most of the wet from invading over the top of my boots.  If our kids ever do anything like this......

See how much further down into the canyon the snowline is from the day before.

Looking back up.....the snow was already much less deep.

What these photos don't show and what I really wish that I could share was how windy it was.  Rounding some of these points and getting exposed to the 'breezes' blowing through the canyon was truly amazing.  I could lean forward with my pack at an angle that I never could have been able to stand at.  It seemed the clouds were racing at 60 mph as the clearing skies and warming sun began to appear; the storm passed or so it seemed.  No sooner than it got really bright, the blackness would return, the views changing rapidly.

A warning to us invincible and cocky young men about what we have already gotten ourselves into.  I can't imagine doing this on an August day.

It didn't take very long for the trail to become wet and muddy, then before long, dry as I descended.  Look closely and you can see the trail ahead.  The black clouds giving way to brilliant sunshine....and back again was inspirational, even reverent.....I don't have better words.

One of my favorite photos and always will be, looking towards the 1000' higher North Rim.  The Colorado River is down there in that crack, far down.  There's a framed 8 x 10 in my cubicle at work of this.

Going down, still going down......

My first view of the Colorado on the hike.

The Kaibab Trail is the steep one and as a result, the shortest one.  I had decided up top that I'd go down this one and use the more gradual, 9 mile Bright Angel Trail to exit.

Once again, the trail visible sloping down and to the left.

Almost down, Phantom Ranch, the Colorado on the left, the Bright Angel Creek coming in from the right.  My tent will be set up between the stream and those rocks along the right edge of the photo.  The bridge is the 2nd bridge, the newer one, the route across the river for the Bright Angel Trail.  I'm just about down to the bridge that I'll be crossing.

In the lower right corner, you can just barely make out the entrance to the tunnel to cross the bridge.  It was in here somewhere that I ran into one of the National Park Rangers.  Surprised to see me coming down, he asked where I'd been.  When I told him about sleeping in the campground up on top and starting out just that morning, he told me that the trail had been closed due to the dangerous conditions.

"It wasn't closed at 6AM" was all I had for him.

The "men" being Native Americans......

Note the soil on the bridge for the horses and burros.

Coop contemplating and Watching The River Flow.......

Looking up river at the Kaibab suspension bridge from Phantom Ranch

My bright orange tent under the cottonwoods beside Bright Angel Creek

My grandparents slept here.....inside one of the cabins.

It froze every night.....

and tried to thaw every afternoon.  I'd lift this ice out on my morning hikes, then see how much of it had melted on the return trip.  I didn't stay down long enough for it go dry.

It took forever for the sun to reach us every morning.  Between the canyon walls and low winter sun, bright light was precious.  

Bright Angel Falls, on the trail to the North Rim.

Behind the falls.......a great place to spend an afternoon or even a couple of them.

If it looks like I enjoyed my time(s) at the falls, I really did.

I've mentioned many times in conversation that viewing the canyon from the normal vantage points is of course impressive, but to really appreciate it's size and scope, you need to be part way down.  Here in the bottom, it looks like you're next to a mountain.  From the rim on top, you see a huge hole.  It was on some of the plateaus, able to look both up and down, that I was truly able to get it.

A week later, on the way out.  50-55 degrees each day in the bottom had taken care most of the snow on the South Rim, here the North Rim in the distance.

I stayed in the canyon longer than I should have, carrying all of the freeze dried food that I had when I left the car.  Margaret from Baltimore was one of the persons caring for the horses at Phantom Ranch.  She snagged a couple of meals for me and showed me things down there I'd have not seen without her.  

And then there was the group of guys that fed me trout, real corn that didn't need water added and some of the very best Tennessee whiskey I've ever had.  One evening I was in my tent, preferring to eat inside rather than outside due to cooler temps.  The stove was running right out my 'door' (never cook inside a tent) and I noticed this guy walking past in the strangest get-up I'd ever seen a backpacker in; he obviously hadn't been shopping from the L.L. Bean catalog.  Odd knee length boots, a long hip length pea coat, a jaunty cap and the oddest vision of all, carrying a grocery bag.......a paper grocery bag, no shoulder straps, no aluminum frame.   I wondered whointhehell is this Ichabod?  What comet did he ride in on?

I began to wonder if in my weakness I may be hallucinating.  No more than an hour later that same guy with another (there were other tents and campers along the creek) guy walked past with a can of corn and a stick as fishing pole.  I laughed to myself. The mystery was only getting more odd but then, not long afterwards, they were heading back the other direction, a stringer of trout hanging from their hands and the laugh was on me.

It was finally too much.  I walked down to the end of the camping area and saw a rather large group of young guys gathered around a few tables and a very warm campfire.  I went over to say hello and learned that they were all workers up at the motel, restaurant, cabins, store, etc.  Every one of them worked for Fred Harvey Concessions, the private company that runs the non-park businesses not only at the Grand Canyon National Park but at a number of other Parks around the country.  The source for the trout was obvious, but they had a literal feast on the picnic tables, nothing like the freeze dried junk I'd been eating.  I saw more than one bottle of Mr. Daniels whiskey on the table and asked with a smile where that had come from.

"Fred Harvey Concessions..."

Knowing the probable answer, I asked where the corn and other food had come from.

"Fred Harvey Concessions....", this time with multiple voices.

The guys all worked for a number of days straight for the businesses on the South Rim doing various tasks and then took their accumulated days off together in the bottom of the canyon.  Obviously in better shape than (even then) Coopdway, they'd hustle down for a few days at a time on their days off and then go up again when it was time to go back to work.

They were a lot of fun and we had a lot of fun.

Having already overstayed my agreed-to number of days in the canyon, it was time to hike out.  A lovely day that started early, I stopped at the Indian Garden campground, roughly the halfway point on the longer, less steep Bright Angel trail.  While there, "Lethbridge Jim" joined me for a rest.  We learned of each other's adventures, both in AB and in MN for a few minutes, then hiked up the remaining distance to the much busier Service area up on top, talking all the way.  As I remember it, we must have started walking faster and talking more, just to show each other what we were made of......guys will do that when pushed.

Jim decided that we needed a hot toddy together, mine tasted so good that I actually slipped off my bar stool.  Jim left to find a bus.......I think he was headed to TX if I remember correctly.  I went out to one of the benches to regather my thoughts and give my hip that was smarting from that bar stool event a rest.  There was some more adventure that day as I somewhat wearily hitch hiked the 5 or 6 miles back to my car with the 2 yahoos that picked me up in their van but I'll let that story go for another time.  The next morning (may have been early afternoon) I went to the Fred Harvey employment office to ask about a job.  I learned that they had all of the help they needed...."but if you'd like to fill out an application.....".  It was time for me to be a Midwesterner again.

East on I-70, back before the entire road was 4 lanes.  A couple of days later, I was back in MN.....and working again, paying to get my Kodachrome developed.


  1. Coop I can hardly believe the details you recall from your adventure. You are lucky to have taken so many photos but I have to admit I think you must have been a bit more than a little crazy back then ... Glad you survived to gain some common sense but that being said you would have missed a lot of memories if you had taken the safe route. I'm guessing you were and still are (a bit) of a rebel....shhhh don't tell your kids just leave them your memoirs.

    1. Karen, there was already lots of common sense back then but I had my hand on the big valve, able to open and close as conditions warranted. :)

      I haven't thought about the trip or many of these things for years again, but the photographs bring so many details back to life. There are photos here not shared that fill in lots of gaps. There were trips that I was very good about keeping a journal but this wasn't one.

      I suppose I should photograph my employee number based on this so that it stays fresh in my head at the time clock the few times each day that I need it.

  2. Given the time of the year I can't stop thinking about how his story could have ended quite differently… Looks like you were quite the adventurer back then. Youthful bravery combined with a dash of luck and carelessness. Coop, those pictures and memories are priceless.

    1. Thanks Sonja. Looking back at the photos now all I can imagine is lots of slippery but oddly, I don't remember that at all. Wet and windy, then muddy is what I remember on the way down...and of course, being overwhelmed by the views and images that were happening above, below and all around me. Besides the employees of FHC, there were other campers in the bottom and I did meet another couple that were staying quite a distance from the established campground, so I wasn't alone in the bottom. Regulations and numbers of visitors are much more highly regulated these days.

  3. Coop, what a wonderful story.

    How long are the hikes down and up?

    I've been to Bryce Canyon and should really do the Grand Canyon.

    I've only seen it from the air on a flight from LA to Atlanta.

    Are you tempted to return?

  4. Thanks David, the Kaibab Trail is about 7 miles and the Bright Angel is more like 9.5. Time-wise, when walking out I was at a steady but moderate pace. Once Lethbridge Jim and I started out from the mid-way Indian Gardens together, things got much more intense. That part was more of blur than it should have been. time, I'd let Jim go up on his own.

    Actually, before she was Mrs. Coop, Peg and I retraced SOME of my adventures together. It was our AZ/CA car trip together that convinced me I'd found a wife that led to our marriage months later.

    We enjoyed the Canyon from the rim. I wasn't feeling well, she was driving......ask her sometime about her drive in the snowstorm on the South Rim :)

  5. Replies
    1. Deb,
      That area of our country is Wow as far as I'm concerned. My months out there were too. I'm thinking I'll add some photos of the rest of that trip in my next Post.

  6. What a cool adventure. I enjoyed the tale and the photos very much.

    I don't think I've ever seen photos of the Grand Canyon in the winter with snow. Sounds pretty sad when I type that out.

    1. Thank you Trobairitz, those were special times and places for me. I didn't necessarily need to visit the Canyon in the dead of winter to explore it; November, maybe April would have been fine. It all worked out well in the end.

  7. Is this a "Chapter A Day" segment? Only you know what I mean- and Erik, too.

    Beautiful canyon photos. You still make an effort to find and enjoy as many adventures as you can.

  8. Martha, I remember very well my very first listen of Chapter A Day. It was Ben Logan's book, my annual standby "The Land Remembers". We over here at MPR aren't as lucky as you are with WPR.

    Thank you....I intend to seek out more of them as long as I possibly can.

  9. You’ve told us this story a few times but some of these details are new even to me and it’s so cool to see the pictures that went along with it. Sounds like an amazing adventure :)

    1. K, it was great fun and quite a winter expedition. I was and still am to have had it!