Looking up at the South Rim from the Bright Angel Trail

 

A Winter Descent: Grand Canyon 2010


18th February: Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, preparing to descend the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, 4,460' below, was not without some trepidation. After many years of mountaineering, the prospect of a retreat to safety that would involve climbing instead of descending was a daunting prospect. But after the first few hundred yards down the Trail on hard packed snow, Lucy and I became more concerned about staying on our feet, and keeping clear of the constant vertical drop-off below the path.

The snow terminated 2,000' below the Rim, after which travel became easier and faster despite snowmelt puddles, mud and slippery wood crossties on the steeper sections of the trail. Eventually we reached the drier desert environment of Indian Garden, it's associated campground and running stream 1,200' above the River. The remainder of the descent to the River, then east along the River Trail and across the Silver Bridge to the Bright Angel Campground was relatively pleasant. We'd covered the 9.5 mile journey in 6.4 hours. The campground was a surprise: Sheltered location, potable water, good bathroom facilities and full of campers ... in the winter!

19th February: Lucy and I set off early from the campground, heading up the North Kaibab Trail to the day's destination of Cottonwood Campground, 1,500' above the Colorado River and a 7.5 mile hike through the Bright Angel Canyon. The grade was easy and the lower section of the canyon spectacular with many twists and turns between narrow vertical walls. Closer to Cottonwood the canyon opened up, providing views of both the North and South Rims. Unlike the previous day's trail, this one was sparsely populated ... only a few day-hikers from Phantom Ranch on their way to visit Ribbon Falls. Five hours of walking brought us to Cottonwood campground which was totally deserted ... no Park personnel, no campers.

20th February: We spent a pleasant and relaxed night in our tent, but woke in the morning to overcast skies and light rain. Not a good omen for the remainder of our stay in the Grand Canyon ... fresh snow on the Rims and cold rain in the lower elevations! After considering our options, we decided to leave our camp in place and continue up the North Kaibab Trail for as far as possible (and return to Cottonwood) within the available daylight hours. Three hours later we were back at our camp, having reached the bridge (and house) at Manzanita Creek before retreating in heavy rain, wind and poor visibility. We knew from the long range Park forecast that this rain would be setting in for at least three days, so decided to pack up and head down to Bright Angel campground with a plan to exit the Canyon the following day

  • Lucy descending on the second switchback of the Bright Angel Trail Lucy descending on the second switchback of the Bright Angel Trail
  • 2000' below the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail and leaving the snow behind. 2000' below the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail and leaving the snow behind.
  • On the trail above Indian Garden On the trail above Indian Garden
  • A timely reminder of the perils associated with descending into the Grand Canyon A timely reminder of the perils associated with descending into the Grand Canyon
  • Lucy descending through the cottonwoods of Indian Garden. South Rim above. Lucy descending through the cottonwoods of Indian Garden. South Rim above.
  • Looking down the switchbacks below Indian Garden. Looking down the switchbacks below Indian Garden.
  • Lucy on the trail where in runs beside the Colorado River. Lucy on the trail where in runs beside the Colorado River.
  • The bridge across the Colorado River that connects the Bright Angel Trail. The bridge across the Colorado River that connects the Bright Angel Trail.
  • Silver Bridge crossing the Colorado from below the South Rim to Bright Angel campground. Silver Bridge crossing the Colorado from below the South Rim to Bright Angel campground.
  • Opportunistic deer cleaning up left-over mule feed from a trough near the campground. Opportunistic deer cleaning up left-over mule feed from a trough near the campground.
  • Lucy at our campsite in the Bright Angel Campground on our first night in the Canyon. Lucy at our campsite in the Bright Angel Campground on our first night in the Canyon.
  • Lucy on the North Kaibab Trail climbing through the Bright Angel Canyon. Lucy on the North Kaibab Trail climbing through the Bright Angel Canyon.
  • A flourishing circle of cacti growing in the upper reaches of Bright Angel Canyon. A flourishing circle of cacti growing in the upper reaches of Bright Angel Canyon.
  • Near our high point in Bright Angel Canyon with the weather changing to rain & cold wind. Near our high point in Bright Angel Canyon with the weather changing to rain & cold wind.
  • Looking up to Bright Angel Point, the location of the North Rim Visitor Center. Looking up to Bright Angel Point, the location of the North Rim Visitor Center.
  • High in Bright Angel Canyon looking back towards the South Rim. High in Bright Angel Canyon looking back towards the South Rim.
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Drenched and cold, we arrived at Bright Angel in continuous heavy rain. Equipped primarily for snow and dry cold conditions, the rain created serious problems to our comfort. Our single walled tent, sans vestibule - wet from the night before, pack covers that leaked, limited dry clothing and damp down-filled sleeping bags made for an unpleasant night and concern about staying warm during the next day's climb out to the South Rim.

21st February: Early morning: We were blessed with a brief break in the rain ... enough time to pack up, put on the few clothes that remained dry and get moving before the rain started again. We did have a permit to camp at Indian Garden if the prospect of climbing all the way to the Rim (9.5 miles and 4,600' ascent) became too daunting. We reached the Garden with the rain still pelting down, so it was an easy decision to keep climbing towards the Rim. We emerged from the Canyon 7.5 hours after leaving Bright Angel and into a full blown blizzard on top of the Rim. Another hard lesson rediscovered: If there's a possibility of rain, carry the extra gear to stay dry. In future we'll have backup ponchos and a vestibule for the tent!

┬ęCopyright 2012 Peter W Tremayne, Reno NV

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