Below Freezing, Below the Rim

Backpacking the Grand Canyon in Winter - Feb 2011

Rainy Ridge
I started off down the South Kaibab trail on a 2-night backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. Weather reports had forecasted a foot of snow the night before, but it had rained instead - leaving the trails clear, but muddy. It continued to rain for most of my hike into the canyon with frequent gusts of wind and very cold temperatures. At times (like here at Cedar Ridge), much of the canyon was obscured by the clouds and fog.

Which Way Did They Go?
The rain increased as I entered the inner gorge - wiping away all footprints except for those of a mule train that had just passed. About this time, I could see - out of the corner of my eye - something dangling below my chin. I thought the neck-strap on my hat was loose and reached up to adjust it. Instead, it was a six-inch strand of snot hanging from my long-numb nose. How long had that been there, I wondered? (Listen folks... I'm just trying to accurately depict the full winter canyon experience, warts and all).

Cabin, Sweet Cabin
I had originally planned to stay in my tent at the bottom, but the storm caused some last-minute cancellations at Phantom Ranch and I was able to pick up a cabin for the night. As soon as I got to there, I checked in, hung my damp gear out to dry and then slipped beneath the warm blankets for a short nap before dinner. It was glorious.

Snow in the Garden
The rain was still falling the next morning as I worked my way out of the inner gorge on the Bright Angel trail. As I neared the mid-canyon oasis of Indian Gardens, the rain turned to snow and there was a couple inches on the ground by the time I made it to camp. No cabins here - it was going to be a cold night.

Canyon in the Sky
Shortly after I got my tent setup, the storm started to break a bit and so I grabbed my camera and headed out to Plateau Point overlooking the inner gorge to see what I could see. At times, little windows would open up in the clouds and reveal sections of the upper canyon floating in the sky.

Cloudy Zoroaster
For the next couple hours, Plateau Point was mostly clear (and mostly cold) as the storm rushed by on either side - like standing in the median of a giant cloud highway. Sometimes one rim or the other would be completely covered in haze and fog. Other times, the clouds would pour across, smash against, or get caught upon the canyon ridges and spires like ocean waves crashing against a rocky beach.

Light and Dark
Although these images are still, the actual landscape was changing quite quickly with various canyon features bursting into sunlight and then fading again into shadow with the rolling of the clouds. This photo and the one above were taken within moments of each other. Here Sumner Butte and the inner gorge (foreground) are deep in shadow while Zoroaster and Brahma Temples briefly bask in the sun and the more distant north rim is still completely lost in the clouds (black and white photo).

Pipe Dreams
A fresh wave of clouds rolling along the south rim behind me partially filled the upper sections of Pipe Spring Canyon (the obscured top rim of the canyon would normally be near the top of the photo). Below you can see a section of the Bright Angel trail known as the 'Devil's Corkscrew' working its way up the inner gorge below.

The Clouds from Whence I Came
As I stood at Plateau Point, my camp back at Indian Gardens was again engulfed in clouds and fog (and probably rain). The upper sections of the canyon were completely obscured and it was sometimes hard to tell where the snow ended and the clouds began. Battleship rock can be seen faintly poking through the clouds on the right. Hmm... did I remember to close up my tent before I hiked out here?

Buttes on Fire
For a brief instant, the snow-covered peak of Isis Temple was highlighted in a beam of pure sunlight even as a passing cloud was still flowing across the ridge behind - it almost looked like smoke billowing from a fire. The large peak in the foreground is Cheops Pyramid.

Somewhere Under the Rainbow
The churning combination of snow, rain, clouds and sunshine even produced a brief rainbow spanning the inner gorge. It was the first time that I had looked down at a rainbow rather than up.

Here Comes the Snow Again
My little island of sunshine could only last so long. Looking down river to the west, I could see a huge gray storm cloud rolling up the middle of the canyon and bearing down on Plateau Point like a tidal wave. I beat a hasty retreat back to camp at Indian Gardens as it swept across the Tonto Plateau behind me.

End of Storm, End of Day
There have been days while backpacking where I have been cold, wet, and miserable and a long way from anywhere warm, dry, and comfortable. Days where I find myself asking 'Why in the world am I doing this?' Then the weather breaks and for a few hours - maybe just a few moments - the sun reveals landscapes borne out of the fury of the storm. Scenes so starkly beautiful, so magical, so powerful - and yet so fleeting - that in an instant I am asking myself how could there be any other place in the world that I would rather be? This had been one of those days.

Cold Climb Ahead
The storm broke during the night and I awoke to clear skies and sub-freezing temperatures. It was hard to get out of my snug sleeping bag. The thin layer of snow at Indian Gardens had dissipated, but I could see that much remained on the upper canyon as I prepared to hike out on the Bright Angel trail. You do NOT want to be the first person in the outhouse on a sub-freezing morning. Sometimes, there just isn't enough chap stick.

Mile and a Half and Snow
I hit the first snow patches in the Redwall Limestone and by the 3-mile rest house, the trail was completely covered (fortunately, mule trains had already plowed a path). There was a good foot on the ground by the time I reached the Mile and a Half rest house (shown here). The rest house shade had frequently been a cool refuge on warmer hikes, but seemed less inviting now. Nonetheless, it still provided a rare snow-free spot to take off my pack and dig out the requisite Phantom Ranch Snickers bar for the final push.

The Final Stretch
I saw only a handful of other hikers during my whole trip up - most of the time, I seemed to have the whole canyon to myself. The sky was dark blue, the snow was pure white and the yellows, tans and reds of the canyon glowed warmly in the morning sunlight. Everything was beautiful and still. My gear kept me warm and the cool air was great for hiking. For once on a climb out, I actually did not want the trail to end - I can't remember a better hike out of the canyon.

Freeze Frame Photography
I turned a final corner and there it was - the old Kolb Brothers photo studio perched on the rim and covered in snow like Santa's workshop. My hike was at an end. After digging out my truck and dropping off my gear, I headed over to the cafe at the Bright Angel Lodge for a big bowl of hot chili (sadly, Maswik cafeteria was closed for remodeling - I was really jonesing for their lasagna). Weather had made me fear for the worst on this canyon trip, but it was one of my best.

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