Friday, May 12th, 2023, 0600-2030
West Horseshoe Mesa to the South Rim, via South Kaibab trail
24 miles, elevation 7200′
Gazing at stars every time I woke up was a nice experience. But then the quarter moon came up and boy did it seem bright. My tent usually blocks some of the light but out there in the open, even such a sliver made a big difference. I also was awoken by something crawling on my neck. I only remember grabbing and flicking whatever it was away, then falling back asleep. So it probably wasn’t a scorpion. Oddly, there were 20 or so little beetles crawling under each of us in the morning, so I’d guess my nighttime visitor was one of these harmless critters. Such minor inconveniences were worth it. All of the views, buttes, cactus and stars. Good thing we didn’t have a blacklight to see all the scorpions!
We were off with the sun, which made way too early of an appearance. The Tonto Plateau is brutally exposed, with nary a tree for cover. Luckily we brought our own shade…Sky and T Rovers activate! I had my brella up from 9 am until 6 pm… probably a record for a single day. I couldn’t imagine a trip along the Tonto without one. Temps were probably broaching the 90s this day.
We also took many breaks. First we stopped for second breakfast and a water top up at Cottonwood creek. Then we wound for a whopping 6 miles in and out of Grapevine creek. To contour the plateau, the trail must weave along the edges of all the major drainages. A hiker can stare less than a mile across these side canyons, knowing it will take them hours to reach the other side. I would like to propose a zipline be installed in such places, but I guess that would involve a lot of liability for the park, and the government doesn’t like liability. So I could only stare and dream about such a fixture.
We took an early and long lunch at Grapevine, concerned there might not be much water further along. We were dragging our feet somewhat, intentionally trying to run out the day. We’d decided to spend one more night, which meant only about 17 or 18 miles of hiking. That’s a really big day in the Grand Canyon for most but for us, it just wasn’t enough. We took another long break at Lonetree canyon in the afternoon, precariously hiding from the sun under the tiny trees in the drainage. I cooked an extra meal and took a short nap.
Between the lack of water, the exposure, and our antsy-ness, we changed our minds and decided to just hike out at the end of the day. Sky messaged Leah, who was hanging out in Flagstaff and had offered to pick us up. She had an Airbnb for one more night, so the promise of a shower and bed motivated us greatly. Plus, Sky was anxious to figure out the next move in regards to continuing on to the North Rim. We’d gotten word that a stream along the North Bass trail was impassable, further confirming my suspicions that conditions were just too uncertain and sketchy. I was content not to waste my time trying to find a way or waiting for conditions to improve, when I could instead be with my family at my aunt’s memorial. These last few days in the canyon had been a prettty satisfying end to my hike. If I got back to completing the remaining 150 miles or so, great. If not, so be it. Quite honestly, I hadn’t ever felt much ownership of this route. It’s the only one of my hikes that made me feel less confident overall, rather than more confident. My heart was no longer in it, if it ever had been… I’d often felt like I was just along for the ride. At least for the last week, some of my confidence had returned and I felt more in control of my experience. It was a good note to end on.
We passed by Cremation Creek, which was bone dry, and the last place we could have camped. Sunlight still bared down on the campsites, further confirming our decision not to stay there. The trail was steep and slippery getting in and out of the drainage…tough in the afternoon heat. But when once we were dragging our feet, now we moved with a purpose. The ying and yang of backpacking. Slow down then speed up. Speed we could do, even 3000′ and 4 miles all the way up the South Kaibab trail. I’d once raced up the same trail at a pretty solid 3 mph pace and knew I had it in me to do it again this day.
We reached the trail junction just as a construction crew was getting set to fly away. All afternoon we’d been seeing the park SAR chopper moving in and out of the canyon. On the first pass, we assumed it was going to Phantom Ranch to rescue someone from heat stoke…it happens all the time. But when the helo came back sporting a load attached to a line, we figured it had something to do with the toilets. Sure enough, it was hauling supplies from a recent remodel. The privies had been installed at the Tonto \ South Kaibab intersection. I couldn’t recall seeing them in 2019, so I guess they were a new addition. We joked with the crew that we’d love to hitch a ride, but they only giggled nervously. I definitely would have taken a free helo tour of the GC…duh. But we weren’t getting a hitch on this helo unless we had a life-threatening injury or illness, even if the helo was already was there and going our way. Never hurts to ask I guess. But I wasn’t about to feign a sprained ankle… I’m not that good of an actor.
We watched the helo take off while we chugged water and rested under a pavilion…also a new addition I think. It was still hot and damned if all the clouds around left just enough of a hole to let the sun bear down. Seriously, the sky was more then 60% covered, just not anywhere near where we were. We started our ascent at 6:45 pm…very late by most standards. But the Rim to Rim to Rim (and on and on) runners always do portions in the dark. I wasn’t even concerned, since I was pretty sure we’d make it by sunset. I put on a good playlist and got to it. The trail was amazingly trodden and wide, especially after we\’d experienced little to no trail for hundreds of miles beforehand. It’s so well traveled that even the stone steps are worn down by foot traffic…and the dust is terrible. Though it was late, we passed 5 backpackers/hikers going down and 3 still going up. They and the helo crew had been the only people we’d seen all day. It was so nice to walk up this incredibly popular and crowded trail when there were so few on it. Good timing on our part!
The climb was pretty easy but I started to lose my energy and pace in the last mile. Sky was right behind me the whole time, making it look even easier, and ended on a much better high note. I don’t perform my best athletically in the evenings, but we certainly slammed it by most standards. We reached the last few switchbacks just as the sun was setting across the canyon. Again, perfect timing! We snapped some pictures and chuckled at all the warning signs. Even as we made fun of the puking man, I felt a little nauseated. The park put up some very descriptive cartoons depicting sick and unprepared hikers… it’s a common thing to hike to the bottom of the canyon and then not have the fitness to make it back up. Also the heat really gets to people. We were the opposite… prepared for the heat but not the cold. I was wearing only my dress, but still I had been sweating. With the sun suddenly gone and being at 7,000 some feet in elevation, the coolness of the desert hit me pretty fast.
Incredibly, a shuttle drove up just as we reached the parking lot, so we ran to catch it. I didn’t think the shuttles would still be running, but I guess they go right up until just past sunset. It was already 8:30 pm. I donned some layers as we sat down but by the time we reached the visitors center, I was shivering. The sticky sweat under my layers felt terrible. All I wanted was a shower.
In our rush to catch the bus and meet Leah, I failed to get much of a finisher photo. Oh well. As I explained before, I didn’t know if this would truly be the end of the Hayduke for me but I was certainly ready for it to be over this night. It had been another nice day in the canyon and a strong finish. The sunset at the end was all the more reward and fanfare I needed. I felt no emotions, other than being tired and cold. We connected with Leah at the visitors center and she whisked us away to Flagstaff. I spent another few days there and one awful night in Las Vegas before I flew back to Denver. All in all a good but unexpected ending. Again, thank you to Sky and Leah for both being great companions in this last section. It was fun getting to know them better. I’ll follow up with a summary post when I get back home to a computer. The Hayduke… amazing, unique, rewarding, hard…glad it’s mostly behind me, I guess.