Saturday, Sep 30th, 2023, 0700-1800
Muav Saddle to Thunder River and Tapeats creek
8.5 miles, elevation 2500′
I don’t even know where to start about describing this day. It was the hardest, wildest, most chaotic and fun day I’ve spent in the outdoors as far back as I can remember. Carrot Quinn described this section as the Hayduke’s final exam. Every crazy and difficult thing one has done up to this point is all in preparation for the obstacles in Saddle Canyon. And I passed!
I slept ok on the cot. It was really only the wind that woke me several times. It was raging over the saddle so bad that I contemplated staying another night in the cabin. A front was coming through over the weekend, bringing thunderstorms and rain by the evening. Wouldn’t it be great if we could seek refuge in the cabin, one of very few protected spaces in the canyon. But no. One look at the clear blue sky in the morning convinced me that I must move on. I also didn’t really have enough food for a layover.
We were up with the dawn, enjoying the comforts of the cabin while packing. This task took me twice as long since I did my best to waterproof all my stuff. We expected some possible dunkings in the plunge pools and Tapeats Creek. I double bagged my clothes and quilt with my shnozzle packliner and a nyloflume bag. I really should have had a proper trash compactor bag. The rest I tried to fit in my food bag, which wasn’t really waterproof either. My pack could keep out some water, but a complete submersion wouldn’t be good.
Saddle canyon through Tapeats Canyon held a series of obstacles in phases. First was a bushwhack through dense scrub oak, cats claw and every other prickly and thorny plant known to man. Next were a few dry falls, the first of which involved some easy work arounds but the last required a tedious bypass well above the canyon for about half a mile. Phase 3 was the infamous plunge pool section, with lots of downclimbing, butt scooting, and sliding into muddy pools of unknown depth. Several miles of dry canyon wash scrambling followed for phase 4. Finally we would come to the full force of Tapeats creek, which we had to cross multiple times and even walk down for about 100 yards through a narrows section. We hoped to get to the Thunder River intersection in the afternoon and decide there whether to push on or not. Our permit had us staying at the confluence, which was only 8.5 miles from the cabin. Considering that we walked 30 miles the day before, this seemed like too short of a day. But as I found out, success with a cross country route in the Grand Canyon is measured in feet, not miles.
The first phase was tedious but not terrible. We pretty much stuck to the tiny creek bed, crawling over and under all the debris. If we ventured out of the bed, we quickly became surrounded by impenetrable scrub oak. Every plant seemed to grab at my clothes and pack. I quickly ripped a huge hole in the sleeve of my sunshirt and also my tent sack, which I had pinned to the top of my pack since I didn’t have enough room to fit it inside. My trekking tights held up remarkably well, though. My legs don’t get all scraped up when I wear them and they don’t snag on stuff like pants do. They are hot, that’s my only issue with them.
Coming to the dryfalls, we easily went down the first, but the second gave us a little pause. After a few minutes, we discovered a route to the right, bypassing what would have been a sketchy downclimb. We located the longest bypass right at its start, never actually seeing the 3rd and biggest dryfall. I’d researched this part in detail and it was just what I expected from the guides and blogs. We traversed the steep slope to a flat spit of land, just below a rock that jutted out like the prow of a ship. The route was pretty well cairned, so that helped a lot. We descended into a side canyon, coming back to the main canyon just above the first of the plunge pools. This phase was so much easier than I expected that I started celebrating a little too early. I knew it had cost other hikers several hours, but we located all the right intersections, never once having to backtrack. It had taken us only about half an hour. The rest was supposed to be pretty straightforward.
It was not. We followed cairns to easily bypass the first pools, but then it became obvious that we had to stick to the center of the canyon for most of the rest. Many could still be bypassed via ledges alongside the pools, but suddenly we came to a dryfall with a giant chockstone in the middle. The pool below was nearly empty and looked like it had been pretty scoured out by recent floods. It was a long drop to the pool…15 feet or more. Worm volunteered to go first so that I could line our packs down to him. He had to swing his whole body over the ledge, holding onto a rock that was wedged in the channel, trusting it would hold his weight. He lowered himself down with just his arms until he could gain a foothold here and there…blindly. Thanks to his height (6’1″), he was able to lower himself far enough to reach some mud at the edge of the boulders.
I lowered our stuff to him and then it was my turn for some class 4 (or higher?) climbing. Swinging my body over the side definitely required a full commitment. All the while, I was pondering how anyone ever went up this canyon? So many of the downclimbs we did seemed like it would be impossible to go back up. We basically had to drop down a foot or more to solid ground several times. How then could we have reversed such maneuvers? By jumping up to grab invisible handholds and reaching above overhanging ledges? This was not in my repertoire of skills. I shuddered to think about getting to point that we couldn’t go down and couldn’t go back up, either.
I made it down the chockstone awkwardly, feeling better about the fact that Worm was right below me, spotting. At my slender build and emaciated weight (fresh off a summer of hiking), I probably could have jumped into his arms. The drop wasn’t so high that we would have died. The mud puddle would have softened the blow, too. Still, it was best try try to remain upright. We celebrated the victory, thinking the worst was over. We immediately came to yet another chockstone drop, this one worse than the first. The drop was again 15 feet or more, with no water at the bottom, and the downclimb severely undercut, from what we could see. Suddenly I felt that panic about being trapped. Can’t go down, can’t go up. I looked around all the sidewalls for ledges we might be able to traverse. Nothing. Worm sat at the edge of the downclimb looking defeated for awhile. He just couldn’t bring himself to swing over the ledge as he’d just done. It looked way too sketch. It wasn’t fair that he should be the one to test everything, to always put himself at risk first.
A fatalistic feeling took hold of me and I confidently stepped up. I would go first this time. I sat down and immediately swung my body over. If I’d looked at it more and thought it through, I might have lost my confidence. All I had to do was drop. I found a good foothold I’d spied from above, using it to pin my hip into the opposing chockstone. Then I was able to reach into the gap to grab a small stone wedged deep in the crack, letting go of the other wedged stone that had been supporting all my weight. Trust in stones. With the second handhold, I was able to find another foothold and lower myself to the ledge of mud furthest up the side of the pit. From there it was just a matter of sliding down all the way into the pit. Whatever class of maneuvers this involved was way out of my league but damned if I didn’t figure it out and then feel immensely proud of myself. I can see why rock climbers get such a thrill from this stuff.
Worm lowered the packs while I slipped and slided all around the mud pit. I almost went down a few times. He mirrored my technique coming down the boulders and at last we were free of the pit. As a reward, we got to next slide down the triple-layered plunge pool obstacle, but it was more fun than challenging. It wasn’t so steep that we couldn’t somewhat control our slides and the pools weren’t that deep, thankfully. It felt like we were at a water park. We had a great time taking videos and pictures of each other’s antics. They can be seen on my Instagram or Worm’s: @iammikewindsor. Many of these pictures are his as well.
We did one more bypass of a huge, impassable pouroff, but thankfully it was a pretty straightforward route. We took a long lunch break once we got to Phase 4, the dry creek bed….although it wasn’t all that dry. There were plenty of pools and even flows from Stina and Crazy Jug canyons. The ‘walking’ was still very slow and tedious. I felt like I spent the majority of the day jumping down from boulders and\or lowering myself using my arms. I used every muscle in my body and then some. Go figure, in a flat and innocuous spot, my foot slipped on some gravel, sideswiped my other foot and I went down hard on my hip and left hand. It was the first and only time I fell during the Hayduke. It could have been a lot worse but it did make me feel very shaky afterwards. Plus, my palm started throbbing and swelled. I had to stop using my trekking pole much of the rest of the day because it hurt to grip the handle. My palm turned an interesting shade of black and blue a day later. Better my hand than my foot or leg, though.
I thought the last phase down Tapeats creek wouldn’t be too bad, but I was wrong about this too. This waterway was more like a river and the main reason this route wasn’t passable in the spring. It had been absolutely raging from all the snow melt and even now, many months later, it was still flowing quite strong. As far as we knew, we were the first from our class of Haydukers to hike it. The crossings weren’t anything worse than I’d dealt with before in New Zealand, but coming to the narrows section, we had to blink several times in disbelief. A large boulder was wedged at the start of the narrows, creating a chaotic waterfall on the left side and a huge, deep pool behind it. It hadn’t ever read anything about such an obstacle and sure enough, looking back at a photo from Carrot Quinn’s blog from 2016, the boulder was a new feature, perhaps from this year. It had either fallen or been pushed downstream. Imagine the force needed to move it!
We had to ponder this new obstacle for awhile. Finally we decided to climb down on the calm side of the boulder (right) and wade through the pool. Worm would go first while I balanced the packs on the boulder. With his superior height, he could better asses the depth of the pool. We already had the lowing ourselves off boulders part down pat, at least. A fall would have just landed us in the pool, no big deal. But some water was pouring over the crack, so the downclimb was a wet one. The pool was only hip deep near the boulder and about chest deep through the middle…of course it didn’t look near as bad on Worm. I thought it was going to require a swim, so we were lucky I guess. I passed packs down and then took the plunge. I ended up submerging half my pack on the walk through, but my waterproofing effort held.
Future Hayduke hikers should take note of this obstacle in particular. If the creek were just a foot or two higher, water might be flowing over the entire boulder, creating a giant whitewater hole that would be very dangerous. It might be possible to scramble the high ledge on the right to bypass the boulder, but I’m not sure. It’s going to create a real barrier for some hikers, no doubt.
The rest of the walk down the narrows was easy and uneventful in comparison. I found a bighorn sheep skeleton that apparently hadn’t found it as easy. The horns were wedged in the canyon wall…I couldn’t tell if someone put them there or the sheep’s head had become stuck in the crack and its body ripped away…most likely they were placed there by a rafter. It made for a good photo opp.
We made many more crossings and it was starting to get late. Suddenly even making it as far as the thunder river confluence seemed questionable. Just before the last bend, we found a beautiful alcove and immediately decided it was the perfect place to hole up for the day. The clouds were getting darker and the wind stronger. It was definitely going to storm. The alcove was a good 20′ above the river, so we felt pretty safe from flash floods. We would stay dry from the rain and hopefully safe from lightning. I worked quickly to pull everything from my pack to see if anything got wet. Just as I settled into my tent and began dinner, the rain started and thunder rumbled. Watching the flashes light up the canyon walls was mesmerizing. What an incredible ending to an incredible day. With so many terrifying things to ponder, the threat of a thunderstorm seemed tame. Oh Grand Canyon, may you forever be wild, off script and bewildering. Also breath-taking and unforgettable.