February 15, 2011
This was one of my all-time favorite hikes in the Canyon.
We did the Royal Arch Loop over the course of 6 days, and every day had its highlights.
Jed planned the trip for his brother and father, and I was honored to join them. He’s one of my all-time favorite hiking companions, and the addition of his family amplified that sentiment.
The depth and frequency of my Canyon explorations was reaching a fever pitch at this time, in early 2011. Every weekend brought new terrain – a new route, summit, or side canyon, and this trip was a highlight of the year.
We did the Royal Arch Loop in the traditional clockwise direction, in mid February.
This post documents the 3rd day of the hike.
Day 3 – Exploring Elves Chasm
Our forward progress today on the actual Royal Arch Route was less than 2 miles, but the day was packed with adventure! We did the 20-foot rappel, spent the afternoon exploring Elves Chasm, had a fun encounter with a rafting party, and enjoyed a special treat for dinner.
It was good to be up and out of the creek to see the morning light shine in Grand Canyon. Soon we were on our way to the rappel site.
Along the way we encountered this large, formidably constructed cairn. This is one of just a few such cairns that have been found by backcountry explorers.
They tend to be in remote areas, and the general consensus among Grand Canyon historians is that they were used as survey markers in the early 1900s, intended to be spotted with a scope from great distances.
We noticed a rafting party as we got staged at the top of the rappel site. They curiously pulled in at the Toltec Beach, which was our intended camp for the evening. This is an uncommon place for rafting groups to pause, but all would be explained soon enough.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the rappel. You may be surprised to hear that I first came to the Canyon in 2008 with a substantial discomfort with heights.
I’ve made leaps and bounds in my tolerance since then, but it was still developing here in 2011. So the staging process here gave me a feeling that I did my best to keep hidden. The worst part of it was the short approach and time spent grouped at the top of the site.
The rappel itself was smooth and easy, especially considering it was just my 2nd time ever trusting my weight to a rope and harness. Before the trip I talked Jed into taking me out to a small cliff along the Hermit Road to show me the ropes (pun fully intended, thanks 🙂 )
This a bundle of pre-existing webbing that was left behind in the anchor, along with 2 ropes. One of the ropes was in good shape (which we ended up using, despite packing in the appropriate gear).
The other rope was old and damaged, and Jed volunteered to pack it out (or maybe took turns doing the carry with his brother?). He carried so much on this trip.
Josiah went first, and then I followed.
Sometime in the process of roping ourselves and our packs down the cliff, we noticed that the rafting party was coming up the trail toward us – they meant to climb the rappel sight!
We were still at the bottom getting re-situated when they were upon us.
And then to our surprise, we knew who many of them were! I’d met Rich Rudow and Todd Seliga back in 2009, and helped them with a shuttle to the LCR. It was my first in-passing meeting with others in the group as well, including Dave Nally, Dan Ransom, and Slawa Nicholson.
Their plan was to climb here to Royal Arch Creek, canyoneer through it to Elves Chasm, and then have the boatmen hike back upstream to retrieve the rafts. A couple of lead climbers went up the rappel site to assist the rest of the group with a full belay.
And so our backpacking group dropped down to Toltec Beach and did the one-mile walk upstream to Elves Chasm.
This little hike immediately above the River is notoriously strewn with abrasive boulders, and there was a time or two I discovered I’d stepped off the informally cairned trail.
Finally setting foot into the grotto of Elves Chasm was a landmark experience for me. I first discovered its existence via a photograph that hung on the cafeteria wall at Yavapai Lodge at the South Rim.
I lived nearby in Rowzer Hall when I first came to the Canyon, and I frequently went to Yavapai to eat during my first weeks there. The image was magnetic in its own right, but then the poetic name of Elves Chasm sealed the deal for this Tolkien fan.
A few weeks later, I was in the backcountry office poring over Canyon maps for one the first times with a ranger when I happened to notice Elves Chasm marked on it. I made a comment and was discouraged in the ranger’s reply, effectively “That’s on the Royal Arch Route. It’s for the most experienced hikers only, involves a short rappel down a cliff, and is accessible only via a terrible 4wd road.”
Little did I know, at the time, that I’d be exploring the Canyon for many, many more years, so I wrote it off as a place I’d likely never get to see.
We were able to explore for a few tiers up the canyon. It’s possible to get above the initial, classic Elves Chasm on either side of the canyon.
This second tier looks a little daunting at first, but the rippled ledges are wider than they appear. The climb feels like the Papago Wall, but just a bit higher.
A couple of short cascades lie above it, followed by another idyllic chockstone pool.
Ascending the last leg above the final (climbable) grotto proved to involve a tricky move, so we ultimately turned around here.
Plus it was at this time that the leaders of the canyoneering group started to come down, and they confirmed that the next obstacle was unassailable from below.
It’s a small canyon
With the canyoneering group coming through, and no hurry for us to return upriver to camp, our backpacking crew ended up separating for the return to Toltec Beach.
Jed and his brother went ahead toward camp. Their father wanted to hang back and try his hand at doing some fishing, so I meandered back toward camp at a leisurely pace.
The boatmen of the canyoneering group were ahead of me at this point, and a couple of them passed in rafts as I hiked near the shore. Alone on his boat, Rich Rudow recognized me up along the rocks and called out “Hey Jamie, do you want a beer?”
I scrambled as quick as my legs could take me toward the River’s edge, but was ultimately blocked by the terrain from the water’s edge. Seeing the dilemma as he’d navigated as near to me as possible, it was clear that tossing a can was the only solution. Rich made a perfect throw from the moving raft, and I made the unlikely catch with 2 hands. Touchdown!
In parting I made a comment about how unlikely it was to run into one another in such a place.
He replied “Hey, it’s a small canyon.”
It’s an ironic but fitting phrase that has stayed with me ever since.
A perfect end to a perfect day
And then finally, as if a cold beer with my dinner wasn’t enough, Jed’s dad returned with a bounty of fish!
Fresh trout with dinner at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, pulled from the water just moments before!