Grand Canyon Royal Arch Route
Variation: Rappel directly into Elves Chasm
Days: 3.5, 12/29/17-1/1/18
Miles hiked: 35
Rappels: 170′, 140′, 20′
Elevation loss/gain: 4,700′
CAUTION! This route should only be attempted by those with advanced canyoneering skills. Other challenges include Class 4 scrambling, route-finding, and a lack of water sources.
Q: What’s the best way to ring in 2018?
A: A daring adventure in the Grand Canyon.
We gathered the night before to go over the plan. It was me, my best friend and expedition partner of seven years, NoDay, and James, who had a lot of experience in the Canyon. But neither he nor I had ever done anything like this.
We huddled over the map on NoDay’s coffee table. We would do a variation of the Royal Arch Route. From the remote South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim, we’d descend and hike west along the Esplanade (a red sandstone shelf) to the tip of Royal Arch Canyon. We would find our way down the canyon to the eponymous Royal Arch. Next, the real fun would begin. We’d rappel twice for a total of 310′ and downclimb into the famous Elves Chasm. From there, we would follow the Colorado River east to Garnet Canyon and the Tonto Trail. Then we’d cut south on the South Bass Trail to close the loop.
It was a long drive from Tucson. We stopped for Mexican food and blared heavy-metal covers of Disney songs. Their manic tempos matched my excitement; 2017 had been a shit year and I needed this trip.
The road from the Grand Canyon Village to South Bass Trailhead was slow and jolting, high clearance 4x4s definitely required (A Jeep in the parking lot had punctured a tire and shredded it to bits). On the hour-and-a-half drive, we saw a herd of deer, a fat javalina, and a small band of wild horses. It was dark by the time we arrived.
The trailhead was tucked right up against the rim of the Canyon. The Grand Canyon! I sucked in my breath and walked over to take a look.
When I was nine, I visited the Grand Canyon with my family. (This was also the year my parents told me I was depressed, and took me to see a child psychiatrist.) I had read about the Canyon in the books stacked beside my bed. I liked stories of hardship and adventure: pioneers on the Oregon Trail, girls who were called by divine circumstance to dress in armor and fight. I thought the Canyon was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen. When I gazed over it, I felt like I was flying.
As I approached the rim nineteen years later, I was almost nervous. Would it be the same? The vastness of the Canyon was unchanged. But I took up more space now. I hiked across the country on the CDT. I could stand in a circle of men and raise my voice. I could say, My life is a story of hardship and adventure too.
It was quite the same. Even by moonlight, it was a punch in the gut. The canyon walls weren’t quite illuminated, but the light hung thin and white in the empty air.
Day One: 14 miles, South Bass Trailhead to Royal Arch
To hike in December, you must rise before the sun. I pulled out my stove in the black morning and made coffee on the tail of NoDay’s truck. NoDay and James bustled around me, debating last-minute gear subtractions. Keep the helmet. Leave the 5-lb camera.
We dropped a thousand feet immediately. Along the way there was a trace of wall built into the side of the rock. After twelve months in New Mexico I was used to seeing these ruins, unmarked.
For the ancestral Puebloans, the Grand Canyon was a sacred site and a home. Now, people pass through in a long line of cars, and Ryan Zinke wants to charge $70 for the privilage.
As we continued down, the dirt changed from brown to red. When we hit the first junction, we cached a liter of water and three beers. The trail flattened out immediately and wove its way along the Esplanade, just a little harder to follow than before.
We hiked quickly. We hoped to reach the water in Royal Arch Canyon by nightfall so we wouldn’t have to dry camp, but we each had six liters just in case. (NoDay was more concerned about her cheese supply; she drew lines on the wrapper to ration it for each day.)
Royal Arch Canyon stretches south from the Colorado River towards Park boundary. It was carved by a spring-fed creek, and it ventures down from the Esplanade, past a natural arch, into a narrow box called Elves Chasm. On the standard Royal Arch Loop, hikers circumvent the most shear, dangerous part (the 170′ and 140′ rappels) and approach the Chasm from the beach below. We were going straight down into it.
Once we started down, the trail became more, well, sketchy.
Suddenly we were scrambling, using our hands to guide ourselves along the canyon’s eastern wall. I lowered myself gingerly, scraping my butt against sharp boulders. This wasn’t the place for a wrong step.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we made it down to the wash, but we were scrambling again as we went deeper and deeper. It reminded me of talus-hopping in the mountains. We tucked our trekking poles away and stopped repeatedly to pass our packs, then fanned out again to inspect our next options. The route was now just that, a route.
The rocks cascaded in unbelievable colors: red, orange, purple, beige. They formed strange conglomerates and glimmered like gems in the sun. In a place like this, I thought, you can believe that humans were born to roam free, live in peace, and give the earth the love it deserves. I grinned stupidly. This is what nature does to me.
We reached the Royal Arch before sundown, just ahead of schedule. There was nowhere to set up our tarps/tents/shelters besides on the flat rock, so we opted to cowboy camp.
As we spread out side by side, I studied James’ gear. His backpack was much larger than mine and NoDay’s, and heavier; I had learned that handing it down walls and through holes. He had spare clothes, a red bell pepper and a whole onion for dinner, and a water bottle full of rum.
That’s how I used to do it, I realized. It was almost a romantic notion now, the idea that you can carry anything you want. I chowed down on my rice noodles with peanut butter, hot sauce, and crushed-up potato chips.
We lay in our sleeping bags, exchanging conversation but mostly looking at the sky. The silhouettes of the rock formations made a frame for the stars.
We were all asleep by 8:00pm.
Day Two: < 3 miles, 3 rappels, Royal Arch to Toltec Beach
I don’t think any of us were trying to sleep for ten hours. But it certainly gave us a nice recovery period from the day before. I woke refreshed, made hot coffee, and marveled at the warmth of the air. How could this be December?
The two long rappels were first on the list for the morning. James and I muttered worried assurances to each other that yes, we were both nervous. Neither of us had canyoneered much, and never rappelled anything like 170′.
NoDay was our expert. She estimated she had been canyoneering two dozen times, and had done this kind of thing before. There was webbing on the rock from previous expeditions, though nothing fresh. NoDay anchored the rope and the pull cord with something ominously called the “European Death Knot”.
She went first so she could hold the rope (a “Fireman’s Belay”) as we came down. James and I looked at each other. Who would get to go next, and who had to wait up here and clip in alone?
We played rock-paper-scissors and I won. I clipped on my belay device and asked James to check it, too.
“On rappel!” I shouted. A garbled affirmative bounced up from below.
The first move was the most difficult, edging over and around a boulder while releasing my weight onto the rope. Don’t think, just do, I told myself.
It’s a strange sensation, moving yourself downwards with your own weight in your hands. I fed the rope slowly through my belay device, keeping my right hand by my hip as a break. As I lowered myself, I was sprayed with water. Green ferns and moss hung like icicles off the rock.
I descended over a ledge and was suddenly suspended, wall-less, in the air. Involuntarily, my legs began to kick. As I continued passing the rope through my burning hands, I began to spin around.
“Don’t worry!” NoDay called from below.
I let out a great yell the second my feet touched the ground. I fumbled with my harness and rope. “Off rappel!” I shouted, adrenaline pumping. My fingers shook around the carabiner. “No, wait – still on!”
“You looked like a total pro,” NoDay assured me.
As I watched James descend with his 80-liter pack, I was suddenly glad for my light-as-can-be mentality.
They say that a person can get used to canyoneering, so I assumed I would be less afraid of the second rappel. I told James I would go last.
This time the anchor was a tree. It was an easier start – straight off a cliff. I watched NoDay disappear, then James (“Off rappel!”) and then it was my turn. I clipped in and checked the lock on the carabiner one, two, three times. I tested my weight. Don’t think, just do. “On rappel!”
I was wrong about fear. The second my feet left the top, all the clicking and rubbing sounds the gear was making echoed like thunder in my head. I spent the whole 140′ terrified that I had done it wrong, that I might snap free at any moment. I had to go faster, the weight of my pack was pulling me backwards, I was sure I was about to fall –
And then I was standing on solid ground, shaking my hands to numb the sting. The rope had torn the skin off my left palm in several spots. I screamed again, joy and fear in one torrent, and the sound bounced off the rocks.
We packed up our harnesses, but (surprise!) there was another rappel, this time only twenty feet. We continued scrambling, stopping constantly to search for potential routes. At one point the three of us wandered, stumped, for fifteen minutes before deciding on a nasty-looking ledge. We passed our packs off a sharp edge using the rope, with NoDay anchored to a tree in case their weight threatened to pull her down.
I tried to ease myself off another ledge with my pack on, and fell a few feet. I dropped one trekking pole and it sailed beyond me, clattering thirty feet down the rocks.
The mouth of the canyon got steeper and slottier; the rock grew darker and the water collected in large clear pools. We stopped in the grotto above Elves Chasm, which NoDay thought was Elves Chasm. She stared at the waterfall in disbelief.
“A place like this,” she said, “almost gives you hope.” Apparently nature does that to NoDay, too.
Elves Chasm was just above the confluence of Royal Arch Creek and the Colorado River. We were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, almost 5000′ below where we began. We stopped for lunch and celebrated the end of The Hardest Part. We compared notes on who was scared when and congratulated ourselves on being total badasses.
There were trails along the river, one high and one low. We took the high route, scrambling once again over what James called cheese-grater rock. It makes your hands into human cheese.
The river was an impossible green, a brilliant green, and we wondered why. The answer, it turns out, is algae. A river that would normally look brown with sediment is instead clear, due to the presence of Glen Canyon Dam just northeast in Page, AZ. Before the dam was completed in 1966, the riparian zone of the Grand Canyon looked very different. Fish swam in the warm water between beaches and sandbars. Now, with the sediment flow plugged by the dam, we struggled to find a flat space to camp on the bank.
Once we found our little beach for the night, I stripped off my shoes and socks and ran around with my feet in the sand. We hadn’t had sunshine all day, but I dipped my toes into the water. It was cold but not icy.
“Drinking water for 40 million people,” I said to NoDay and James. They nodded and listed cities that depend on the Colorado: L.A., Phoenix, Tucson. And yet, I remembered, more than one-third of the Navajo Nation east of here does not have running water. They drive through the desert to pick it up in gallon jugs. I thought of our thirteen-mile dry slog the day before. I thought of the indigenous activists and others who fight to protect our rivers. We are all connected, I thought dreamily, by the water that courses like veins across the planet. Like blood, water is life.
I could have set up my shelter in the sand, but I chose another night with the wind on my face. There were mice on the beach, so I slept with my food beneath my head. As I twisted and turned on my foam pad, I could hear the whisper of the river.