Day 9 – Zoroaster(85.0) to Schist(96.5)
River Miles: 11.5
Hiking Miles: 0
March 26, 2013
“Coffee! Come and get your coffee!”
Clang Clang Clang throughout the Inner Gorge.
Thus began Day 9 on the River. This day had been anticipated for some time because of our stop at the Phantom Ranch metro area, and subsequent passenger transfer. Today’s breakfast was french toast, eggs, and sausage. Yum.
It would be a short three miles down the river to Phantom Ranch, with the continuing character Inner Gorge-ness. Its depths provided little variation of note, save for our uneventful runs of Zoroaster Rapid(5) and 85-Mile Rapid(3). The River was busy with rafting parties – it seemed as though everyone had been jockeying for position for their passenger exchanges at Phantom.
Since a lot of people can’t commit to a long trip, it’s common for groups to split available slots to create shorter trips for individual members of the party – from Lees Ferry to Phantom, or from Phantom to the end at Pearce Ferry. Commercial guiding companies usual offer these split trips too, called the “Upper” or “Lower” Canyon.
Today Chris Atwood would leave us, hiking out the Bright Angel Trail.
We’d gain Nic Bewsey for the lower portion of the journey. Nic had previously done the upper portion of the Canyon as a part of a commercial trip, so this would be a fitting way for him to see the rest of the River.
I took the oars on the calm water beyond 83-Mile Rapid. Soon we were presented with the familiar sight of the Black Bridge, and Doug let me keep the oars through the pull-in at Phantom Ranch. It was my first pull-in, on the Boat Beach above Bright Angel Creek.
The little affluent which we have discovered here is a clear, beautiful creek, or river, as it would be termed in this western country, where streams are not abundant. We have named one stream, away above, in honor of the great chief of the “Bad Angels,” and as this is in beautiful contrast to that, we conclude to name it “Bright Angel.”
Once on shore at Phantom, our group split up to take care of business for an allotted time. That primarily meant writing post cards and attempting to make phone calls, but line was temporarily out of service. For me it simply meant relaxing in the canteen and devouring at least two king size packages of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
It was neat to actually visit the Ranch as a member of a river party. So many times I’d passed through here on hiking trips and observed as the river people came and went. Overall I’d always viewed Phantom Ranch as a major stop for rafters, but the experience was just a fleeting moment in our series of adventures.
Upon returning to the boats, a lot of comments were exchanged about how shocking it was to see ourselves in the mirror for the first time in over a week!
The next move was to go a mile and a half downstream to Pipe Creek at the bottom of the Bright Angel Trail, where we’d meet Nic and say goodbye to Chris.
It was pretty cool to float through this commonly-viewed stretch of River at the bottom of the corridor trails. The current was surprisingly swift between the two bridges. A few of us got caught up in a nasty eddy that was almost directly below the Silver Bridge.
Bo’s cataraft at Pipe Creek
We spent a lot of time here with the exchange, utilizing this as our lunch spot too. We enjoyed egg salad sandwiches, peanut butter & jelly, and the usual Pringles and cookies.
It was a fun lunch in the sun – I think seeing Chris in his last moments made us all appreciate how lucky we were to be down here in the first place. A number of hikers passed on the trail above, clearly a little more than curious about our spread of food.
I realized I didn’t have a close-up photo of Mr. Atwood.
Here’s one of Stephanie too – she’s probably thinking about the afternoon’s series of rapids that wait just around the corner.
Soon it was time to get back down to business. Dave gave us the briefing about what lay ahead. Horn Creek Rapid – rated an 8. The rapids beyond it were no laughing matter either.
We did a refresher on safety topics (presumably for Nic’s benefit) about how to use the throw ropes and haul swimmers back into the rafts, how to handle yourself if you find yourself swimming… basically just rescue procedure from the swimmer and rescuer’s perspective.
The strategy for Horn would begin with “splitting the horns.”
Dave Nally grabbed this poignant photo of Chris while we geared up for the big water… drysuits, helmets, and rig to flip!
Horn is one of the scariest rapids in the Grand Canyon.
It lurks in the gloomy, narrow confines of the Inner Gorge, wrapped in ancient granite and Vishnu Schist. A roar is heard long before the rapid can be seen. Calm water mercilessly pulls you toward it.
The drop in the water level is dramatic as a waterfall – the smooth water ends in an abrupt line, with inevitable certainty hidden below. All else beyond is invisible – a frothy doom of waves, rocks, and holes that can only be imagined.
Dave Nally disappeared into it first, followed by Stephanie. Josh vanished below, and then we were next. Jackie and I crouched forward and held on tight.
I tossed my weight back and forth – the waves seemed to come from all sides. The ride was wet as the Colorado River poured over us.
The worst was over pretty fast. We were elated to hit relatively calm water near the the bottom of the rapid. Shouts of joy and triumph came up out of our raft, but only for a split second.
My gaze fell downriver to see Josh’s boat, floating upside-down near the left wall.
Both Josh and Amy were in the water, with a grip on their raft. Amy was vocally distressed. The Nally girls were right-side-up, wedged between Josh’s boat and the wall, already scrambling to the rescue.
Doug rowed us forward to assist. I tossed our throw rope toward Amy, but it came up short. She never saw it. Their backs were facing us, and Josh and Amy were correctly focused on the Nally boat – they found their way out of the water, onto it. Those Nally girls were just born to pluck people out of the Colorado River!
Later details revealed that Amy had a scary experience. She was stuck in the water under the boats. In her immediate effort to get out of there, she was met by the rock-hard wall of the canyon as the rafts were pinned against the wall.
Here’s Josh’s GoPro video of the rapid.
After Josh and Amy were out of the water, my attention turned upstream to see that everyone else went through okay. Bo gave me a few moments of worry, as he disappeared out of sight near that left wall for what felt like an eternity. Eventually he popped into view, right-side-up.
We converged on the right bank, where it was possible to step ashore with the overturned raft. Adrenaline and excitement ran rampant as we all began to share our stories. The chatter was broken like a bolt of lightning by the steady, calm, reasonable voice of Bo Beck:
“Hey guys, let’s get this raft turned over.”
Soon a number of ropes were tied to the raft, and we all pulled with Herculean strength to get it turned over. I was encouraged to once again “channel the energy” of Rocky Balboa and the like, but now it felt like a staged afterthought, muffled between the vertical walls of the gorge.
We jumped out of the way as Josh’s raft came crashing over, fully intact. He’d done a great job of rigging and securing all of their belongings.
The afternoon was just beginning. Horn Rapid was rated as an “8” and we were slated to run two more rapids down the Inner Gorge today – Granite Rapid and Hermit Rapid. These are also both rated as an eight!
Amy was reasonably stressed, so after all the excitement we made the decision to call it an early day at Monument Creek, just above Granite Rapid.
Upon pulling up to the camp, we discovered that it was already taken! We’d have to run Granite after all. We took the time to scout this one.
Granite Rapid – photo by Doug Nering
Granite looked “interesting.” The river made a bend to the left, and it looked like all the current was driven into the sheer right wall.
The current against the wall formed large waves that bounced sideways off of it. The strategy was to enter the rapid at an angle and square up to those waves.
It worked! Everybody seemed to have a good run, and the group’s success was like rays of sunlight bursting through the clouds of the flip and gloom of Horn Creek.
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that that the rafters that occupied the camp above Granite were a group of veteran river runners, lead by Jethro Grant. Our parties seemed to form an instant bond and camaraderie while we scouted the rapid.
So after Granite we continued right on through to Hermit Rapid. Doug and I took several cursory looks at the left bank, as it’s apparently possible to hike the river corridor between Granite and Hermit.
Hermit probably scared me more than any other rapid before this adventure. This is because I had multiple opportunities on hiking trips to stand on its shore, staring mindlessly into its waves for many long minutes.
Those waves had looked so gigantic and powerful. Hermit Rapid is the first place along the Colorado River in the Canyon that just made me think “Woah,” eliciting a primal fear amid the force of such rushing water.
I went through the usual motions approaching the rapid – becoming very alert – and ready to high-side and do everything in my power to keep our raft top-side-up.
This was the best, most exciting wave-train in all of the Grand Canyon! A roller-coaster ride of most magnificence! Exhilarating! Most everyone had a lot of fun through this one, no problem!
So we made it through the day’s gauntlet. Our camp was at a site called Schist, tucked away on the left bank between Hermit and Boucher Creek. A similar, nearby camp is cleverly called “Bull Schist.”
I thought it was neat to be parked at this location, recalling the steep views from the section of the Tonto Trail directly above here.
Despite the eventful flip in Horn, it seemed to be a very enjoyable evening for everybody.
Coincidentally it was Josh and Amy’s turn to cook (With newcomer Nic), and they took on the task like champs as though nothing had happened. They cooked up a wicked Jambalaya, followed up by an extra-wicked batch of brownies in the dutch oven.
Whispers went around after dark that Dave Nally revealed that Horn Creek Rapid gives him more fear than any other rapid in the Canyon, including Lava and Crystal. That explains the extra safety talk before leaving Phantom.
This and all the afternoon’s drama were buried in a raucous evening around the campfire, on the wings of Mr. Steve O Nelson’s riotous storytelling. He had us roaring in hysterical laughter with his wild tales that may or may not be entirely true, including, for example, outrageously funny anecdotes about working for a circus with all breeds of politically incorrect walks of life. Just go ahead and google “Australian Dwarf Tossing.” I dare you.
It didn’t rain today.