Friday, November 26, 2021

Grand Canyon - first two days

Photo credit (various pictures in the Grand Canyon series of posts) to David Bogle, Robyn Cantor, Art and Jillian Cook, Cathy Cox, Sheila Reiter, Leslie Reuter, Steffen Saustrup, and Sheila Torres-Blank

After a hectic, but at least dry, morning of packing, breakfast, briefings, and raft loading, we were finally on the river.

Let's do this thing!


Right off the bat there's a class 1 "riffle".  The Grand Canyon rapid rating system goes from 1 to 10.  This is different from the rating system we're used to, where a 5 is quite big and challenging, and I'm more of a class 2 kind of gal.  Class 1 on the Grand Canyon = barely worth mentioning, but that didn't keep us from celebrating our first "rapid"  :)

Next was a class 2 at Cathedral Wash, a spot John and I had hiked down to previously.  Again, easy.  Especially in the big 18' raft.  Most of my river experience has been in a variety of small craft including canoe, kayak, packraft, kick board and inner tube.  The only thing remotely comparable was the Sanpan canoe in Eco-Challenge Borneo, in that it has a lot of momentum so it can take a lot of work to steer.  Also fairly indestructible.  This I can appreciate.

Jimmy rowing under the first and last road bridge we'll see from river level, while Art demonstrates how not-tippy these things are:


Everyone was snapping pictures during the start of our adventure, including me.  Hello, John, Cathy, and Robyn!


Jillian brought a nice camera and took some great pictures.  I'm amazed that her camera held up through all the upcoming rapids - she must have taken good care of it:


Randall was excited to paddle an inflatable kayak down the river.  I thought he was very brave!


Our first lunch stop - which was kind of a cluster - which was mostly on me.  I was in charge of pulling all the items for the cooks to compile meals.  Beth had reviewed the process with me, I had a good sense of where everything was, but... I didn't realize that some of the stuff would be covered up with dry bags and other things would be almost as equally hard to get to.  We all learned a lot that first day.

Regardless, lunch was delicious!


We ran Badger Creek Rapid, our first class 5.  Robyn and I were in the front of John's raft, chattering about waves and hanging on and avoiding whatever obstacles we might imagine were in front of us, but in the end we probably just got wet.  I don't recall this rapid specifically, so I'm just guessing that's what happened because we did that pretty much the whole way down the river.  Thank you John for not minding!

Sheila T-B took a turn at the oars on Jeff's raft - go Sheila!


Sheila R also learned how to row.  I was impressed how they both stepped up right away to take turns on the flatwater sections.  Rowing can be a lot of work, no reason just a few boat captains need to do all of it.


Tenmile Rock, a slab of sandstone that fell in the river and is sitting on its side.  Must have been quite a day when that happened.


Jillian did a superb job of spotting wildlife, especially the bighorn sheep on the banks.  I tried to pay attention to whatever the people in her boat were looking at.  Hello sheep!


Leslie always looks like she is having a splendid time, even while doing some work:


After another class 5 rapid (that I'm sure Robyn and I were relieved to get through), then we landed at Brown's Inscription camp.  It was our first chance to figure out how to make this all work.  It would take a few days to set up systems and adjust to life on the river, but this was a decent start.


Day 1 haiku:
  Challenging boat prep
  Class 5 rapids - not too bad??
  Lunch - let's do better

The morning of day 2 - Mark had talked about the "Roaring 20's" rapids as an early test and learning opportunity.  Robyn and I were rather worried.

But first!  Time to poop.  Seems like the correct order of things.

John was the Groover Man, finding a place for our toilet system (called the groover because you used to sit directly on the can which resulted in grooves on your butt) at each camp.  He set it up, kept it stocked, and disassembled and cleaned it for transport the next morning.

Dave helpfully took a few pictures of our system.  Here's the "key", containing toilet paper.  John set it at the start to the path heading toward the groover.  If it was sitting there, you knew the toilet was free, so you picked it up and carried it with you.  And remembered to bring it back when you were done.  Somewhat incredibly, I don't recall anyone forgetting this part.  I had to remind myself every single time, otherwise that easily could have been me.


A scenic and private little spot to sit:


Super Grover guarding the groover:


Other morning tasks included breakfast (cooked up by our excellent breakfast cooks), packing up gear and tents, making sure I had all the lunch stuff pulled or at least accessible this time, and reloading the boats.


I have no idea what the question was, but Jimmy doesn't seem to have an answer:


Mark giving some last-minute instructions before we set off:


This sums up the morning for me and Robyn - and John is just too cute:


Robyn took a turn on the oars while we were still on flatwater.  We don't want John too tired out for the big stuff!


Our first big rapid, like "for real" - House Rock, at class 7.  The water flows left and then curves to the right past the wall, which wouldn't be a big deal except for the "holes" at the bottom.  A hole is where water flows over an obstacle like a big rock and then drops and swirls backward on itself.  Generally this river is quite deep and we don't see what is causing the hole to form.  So we don't have to avoid the rock, but it would be nice to still avoid the hole it creates.


We parked and the boatmen went over to scout the rapid.  Hi John, but aren't you supposed to be looking downstream instead?


Mark explained that we should paddle hard across to the right side and try to break out of the main wave train.  Then the raft should miss the biggest waves.  John accomplished this perfectly.  At the same time, Jeff ahead of us didn't quite get far enough across, and his raft had a much bouncier ride.  So bouncy that Jeff came out of the boat!  To top it off, he went over backward, with his legs sticking straight up in the air in the "V".

It's hilarious now to think back on it, but I'm sure at the time we were quite worried about them.  Sheila R noticed Jeff's departure and jumped on the oars.  Nice job Sheila!

While they were fishing Jeff out of the river, our raft slid right... next... to... the... holes - wow, those look really big from up close!  Nice job John!

Well that was exciting.

There was a reprieve before the Roaring 20's got going, thankfully.  Jillian got to practice rowing on the calm water:


The kayaks, with Randall in the yellow one, Mark dressed in black, and Thomas with the red boat:


The 20-mile rapids started with 5's and 4's, and there weren't a lot of cameras out for most of it.

Until we got to Georgie.  Mark was rightfully concerned about this one, because the river level was on the low side.  Apparently there's not much to this one at higher water.  From our vantage point it looked more like a spill-over dam.

Scouting Georgie:


Great news - we can walk this one if we want!  Robyn, Sheila, and I were completely happy scrambling over rocks to watch the rafts take on the challenge.

Charlie came at it a bit off-center and tilted, but had no problem getting through.


John went down the middle of the pour-over tongue and made it look easy (I still don't regret any of the walk-arounds I did though):


Cathy sat calmly in the back and proclaimed she was having a blast.  John got more of a workout as he had to get the raft to shore to pick us up - thank you John!


And... Jeff was in the water again.  Legs up in the air, the whole deal!  Sheila T-B took over the oars this time.  Good thing everyone has been practicing the rowing.

I'm sure Jimmy made it look easy, probably the kayaks too.

The rest of the afternoon involved rapid after rapid, 6's and 5's.  I don't remember anything about them, possibly having blacked out the memories  :)  Vaguely, I think I said "it's OK!" a lot and Robyn replied "Is it?  Is it really?" each time.  We probably got splashed and wet and I think most people had fun.

At some point, Randall came out of his kayak and into the water.  Although it happened more than once over the 3 weeks, he was always calm about it.  Mark and Thomas made sure he was reunited with his boat, and we were grateful to have 2 safety kayakers along.  Thank you Mark and Thomas!

John, John, he's our man!  He's just a little shy...


Finally we made it to camp at Shinumo Wash, yay!  And phew!

Mark told us stories about the Silver Grotto that was just around the corner from camp.  Right off, it looked like "not your normal hike", as John clambered up the first obstacle:


There was a reason Mark had told us to wear helmets and lifejackets:


Fun and interesting little adventure, as we all helped each other up the narrow canyon.  I'm pretty sure this was the first time (of several) that I asked John to go retrieve a rope to help us get back down.


We made it, ladies!  What a unique place:


Day 2 haiku:
  Jeff and Randall swim
  Sheila and Sheila row boat
  Big Day - we did it!

The first several days were filled with a lot of things - learning, adapting, taking pictures, experiencing our new reality.  Things will start to calm down in the coming days, and I think my Grand Canyon blog posts will start to get a little more condensed!  At least, that's the plan...

Monday, November 22, 2021

Grand Canyon river rafting - part 1 of (?)

Photo credit (various pictures in this Grand Canyon series of posts) to David Bogle, Robyn Cantor, Art and Jillian Cook, Cathy Cox, Sheila Reiter, Leslie Reuter, Steffen Saustrup, and Sheila Torres-Blank

Time for some Grand Canyon river rafting stories!  We spent 3 amazing weeks on the Colorado River in September-October with 18 amazing friends.  It was a heck of an experience and there were a heck of a lot of photos taken.  I've finally got them narrowed down to several sets so it's time to write a few posts.

The short version: Amazing scenery!  Unplugged for 20 days.  Joyful company and lots of laughs.  Scary rapids.  We all survived.  And I didn't fall out of the raft.  John is awesome.

The long version: Well, the good news is that my memory doesn't hold a blow-by-blow account of those 3 weeks.  So this should just be a bunch of pictures with a sprinkle of writing, a few river days at a time.

A bit of history: John first applied to run a private Grand Canyon trip in 1996 (!).  Initially he was on a waiting list.  Then the system switched to a lottery.  His waiting list status gained him extra lottery tickets, but every year we chose the most optimal and highly-sought-after launch dates.  No luck for years.

Until the park service, in an effort to assist the original wait list people, offered him a one-time deal.  Select any launch date in the following 5 years and you're good to go.  What a deal!  Luckily we weren't quite ready for a 2020 launch, and 2021 was much easier to plan for.

We were so happy to have a bunch of adventure racing friends who wanted to join us, plus some new friends from the Austin paddling community.  Eventually we filled the 16 slots, including 4 people who hiked out partway and another 4 who hiked in to take their places.

Our river expert, Mark, has been helping us for years in preparing for this trip.  He has been down the Grand over 20 times and was extremely important in making our trip a success.  A couple others in our group had been down once or twice.  The rest of us were complete newbies.  As the park ranger at Lee's Ferry sardonically put it, "well, good luck!"

Mark suggested going through a Flagstaff outfitter for our rafts, gear, and food, and we were very happy to work with PRO (Professional River Outfitters).  They made everything easy to plan, took care of lots of little details, and provided super delicious food.  All we had to do was get ourselves and our camping gear to Flagstaff.

Oh, and someone had to row the rafts.  John, Jeff, Jimmy, and Charlie all had river paddling experience but not a lot of rafting time.  A training class in Colorado was helpful.  Mark trained people as we went, and he kept saying that this river has big rapids but nothing too dangerous - it might roll you around a bit if you went in, but it would spit you out eventually.  Hmm, that's great for water lovers; not so ideal for someone like me who has a healthy (and perhaps a little irrational) fear of water.  There was plenty of trepidation in our raft.

But hey, the rest of the trip sounded incredible!

To get us started, here are a few pre-trip pictures leading up to our launch.

Loading up in the PRO van, about to start the drive to Lee's Ferry:


It doesn't rain much in Arizona outside the summer monsoon season, but we managed to pick a rig day with an afternoon storm.  I guess it's good to find out early whether your clothing can handle a little water.  We unloaded our gear and Beth with PRO started organizing us for the raft setup:


Raft inflation, mostly using a generator-powered pump, supplemented with a hand pump to move things along:


Rainbow!  Must be good luck.


Rather dramatic lighting as the sun found a spot below the dark clouds:


I started writing haikus again, as a way to remember a few things about each day.  Rig Day haiku:
  Unexpected storm
  Figure out where to put stuff
  It's dark already

Camping out the night before launch - I guess we're almost ready!


Launch day dawned bright and clear.  And one of our group took a really nice picture of the rafts that were ready for loading:


First we had a couple briefings, one with the aforementioned park ranger and another with Beth.  Both were packed with useful information that we mostly kind of absorbed.


Beth went through the PRO menu and information binder that would soon become a permanent attachment to my body (at least when we weren't on the water - can't risk getting it wet!):


Gear loading amid running around trying to sort last-minute details like compiling our "sweep kits" (in case we needed to pull a raft off a rock, thankfully never used) and figuring out how to pack our SodaStream carbonator (yes, a luxury, but several of us really appreciated it).

Robyn, Cathy, and I latched ourselves onto John's raft in the hopes that he knew best what he was doing; or at least had the most luck while doing it.


Then it was "go time" - so as soon as I figure out in what order to upload the first set of photos, we'll get this show on the river!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

12 Hills FKT - the sequel

The hills were calling again, and we were finally able to go.  After a super fun group trek with Taylor, Andrew, and Basil in May, I'd been wanting to repeat the Flagstaff 12 Hills effort and make some navigational tweaks.  "Now" seemed like a good time, amid my training ramp.

John was up for it!  At least I think he was:


Good morning, San Francisco Peaks!  We're going to stay over here at slightly lower elevations today:


Getting ready at the Sunset trailhead.  John's about to start a track on his phone:


And we're off!  First a short road run, then an steep "oh right!" climb straight up the side of the first hill.  That was a good warm-up.  Our first hilltop:


Easy nav to point #2 with an even better view of the mountains:


We spent a few extra minutes exploring further along the ridge of hill #8549 just to be sure we had the exact highpoint.  Yes, for certain the giant boulder is the top, so we returned to it and scrambled up for a photo and an InReach Mini "OK" message:


We took a more direct line to hill number 4 this time, passing one of the giant brush piles that I assume will eventually get burned in a prescribed fire:


Another hilltop, ahead of schedule:


#8402 is a flattish top, and a different spot just over there always looks higher no matter where you stand.  We think we found the right place in approximately the center of the area:


From there, John did another nice contour, this time more level without gaining/losing elevation.  The footing was a tad rough on the traverse but not bad.  We noted a lot of soot from a previous fire, some erosion from the summer rains, and plenty of dried up vegetation.  You know, when these bushes were green they might have been a lot slower to push through.  Perhaps it was a good thing we didn't try to run this FKT a couple months ago.

A manmade object in the middle of nowhere:


A brief run down the road before jumping back off into the woods:


We climbed up the ridge and topped out on a big boulder:


We were moving well, finding our way down to a small trail and then straight up the next hill.  It was the first of two steeper/higher climbs, time to get in a groove and keep those legs churning.

Partway up my foot slipped on some pine needles and unfortunately there was a sharp rock right there for my shin to bang on.  Ow.... after a couple minutes it was only slightly painful.

Can't keep me from getting to the top though!


John suggested a more direct route to the next peak and I was game to try it.  The descent and climb were straightforward, just another big push upward.  John climbed well all day and I hung on behind him.  Nice going, John!  He had time at the top to get a picture of my approach:


Yep, 8 digits, that is correct!


Our first view of town below:


Now for some trail running, around the bowl and over to the top of the Heart trail for more nice views:


John found a spot off the trail to stash his backpack for the Elden out-and-back; no sense in carrying everything all that way (twice).

The road up to Elden:


John is either doing the jig or cleaning a rock out of his shoe:


Look out!


More views:


John led the way on the off-road very-slight shortcut, next to this interesting dead tree:


He also remembered the little cut-down trail at the TV towers, then took a more direct route toward what we thought might be the actual highpoint at Devils Head.  We jogged along that ridge, all the way to the northwest end which seems like the highest of the bumps.  Except that doesn't match the triangle symbol on the Emmitt Barks map.  So... this might take more investigation and clarification.  For now, we propose "here":


We roamed back down to the road, up to TV towers, down the next road, and along the trail to pick up John's pack.  Setting off from the saddle (at the top of the Heart trail) toward Little Elden:


Partway along the ridge, John for some reason decided to go around a little hill on the right side (the side where there might be cliffs).  I questioned several times whether this was wise; it was not.  We climbed up and over the hill to keep from getting cliffed out.  This is one spot we have yet to optimize.

We recognized the giant boulders at the top of Little Elden and John helped me up them fairly quickly.  He shimmied over to the summit register while I decided to hang out at "really quite close enough rock" to take his photo:


Hi John!


I tried to find an easier way down, while John added us to the register book again:


I was unsuccessful in finding a simpler downclimb or a way through the little canyon, and we tried scrambling down boulders to the west instead.  That ended up being slow and tedious.  Eventually we got back down to the forest floor.

I'd recently done a scouting hike to try to find a better way through the large boulder field and back to the Sunset trail.  We had been assuming we would just go back to the saddle at the top of Heart, but I discovered that the rock pile eases up partway around the mountain.

Even better than that, we found a small drainage that was much easier to descend, and soon we were back on the trail.  Score!

Just one... big... steep... climb and we were finally at the top of peak #12.  Well, John was at the top.  I was almost at the top:


I think we were both a bit tuckered!


It's a long, smooth, fun run down Sunset back to the trailhead.  As we neared the end I wondered if we might be able to break 7 hours?  So we pushed it a little, but nope.  A few seconds over.  No matter, it was a good effort and an excellent day:


Thank you John, my FKT buddy!