A North Rim Classic

About 5 million people a year visit Grand Canyon National Park, the vast majority of whom go to the Visitor’s Center, which overlooks the South Rim.

If you want to leave the crowds behind, look no further than the North Rim. A mere 10 miles to the north across the Colorado River, the North Rim is a 220-mile drive from the South Rim visitors’ complex. With far fewer people, hotels, restaurants, gift shops and interpretive displays, the North Rim offers a distinctly different experience than the South.

Things get even quieter in the Grand Canyon’s backcountry. A rich network of spectacular and rough trails penetrates the vast wilderness that lies beneath the rim. The more popular of these are in the “Bright Angel Corridor”, with historic Phantom Ranch as the focal point.

Grand Canyon hikers who really want to get away from it all, dream about the huge expanse of country that can only be reached by leaving the trails behind, and striking out on cross-country routes. These trips are challenging, beautiful, fun, and totally engaging; but they are very serious too. Heat, scarce water, skin-shredding bush whacks, cliff bands, and very steep, rugged terrain are the main headliners.

Lowering Packs

This past October, I hooked up with Bob Wade (owner of Ute Mountaineer), James Wilson ( Wilson’s Eastside Sports), my sister Brenda Baker (San Diego), and two renowned Grand Canyon veterans, Jacek Macias (Chicago) and Jim Ohlman (Kayenta, AZ). Inspired by the classic guidebook, Hiking Grand Canyon Loops, by the late George Steck, we planned to walk the Crystal Creek – Phantom Creek loop, which leaves the North Rim near Tiyo Point. We walked 50 miles over 8 days on the trip, which works out to just a little over 6 miles a day. Not a great distance at all, but it took most of the day to cover these short distances due to the rugged terrain and difficult route finding.

Dropping off the North Rim, we followed an ancient route that has been used by people for thousands of years. At our first camp in Shiva Saddle, we found pottery shards and discarded flint flakes scattered about. For the rest of the trip, we continued to find other signs of the Ancients, including a small cliff ruin and several agave roasting pits.

The following two days were spent in Crystal Creek making our way toward the Colorado River. On one of these days, Bob, Jacek and Jim took time to complete the 5th recorded ascent of the Tower of Ra, over 30 years after the first ascent back in the 1970’s. No mystery as to why this magnificent summit receives so few visitors, Ra is surprisingly remote and requires both technical climbing skills and keen route finding ability to gain its summit.

Colorado River at Ninety-Four Mile Rapid

Day four found us on the banks of the Colorado River twice; once early in the morning at the famed Crystal Rapid, and again at sunset on a lovely beach overlooking Ninety-Four Mile Rapid, some four and half miles up-river from Crystal. There was no route along the riverbank from Crystal to Ninety-Four. We scrambled a thousand feet up an imposing, steep slope to gain access to the Tonto Platform, which offered a parallel route high above the River. Late in the afternoon, we reached a point atop a 250 foot cliff with a view of our desired campsite far below on the beach at Ninety-Four Mile Creek. Though the escarpment was seemingly vertical, we used an amazing route down the cliff that linked short chimneys and hidden ledges to reach the bottom.

Two more days were spent trekking to Phantom Creek, a deep side canyon that is graced with a beautiful permanent stream. On the way to Phantom though, we had a “dry camp” in the parched upper reaches of Trinity Creek, which meant we had packs heavy with water as we climbed the steep ravine above Ninety-Four to reach the Tonto Platform. On the second day of the trek to Phantom Creek, Bob and Jacek bagged Cheops Pyramid, another of the famed Inner Canyon summits.

Under Cheops Pyramid

Our seventh day was far and away the shortest in distance – we only covered 2 miles! The route from our camp in Phantom Canyon back up to Shiva Saddle was complicated by having to climb through the Redwall cliff, easily the most imposing and intimidating of the great Grand Canyon rock formations. Bob led the way up two fourth class pitches which ended on a ledge half way up the cliff. A long traverse on the ledge (with over 400 feet of exposure!), gave access to a gulley which broke through the remainder of the Redwall. We reached Shiva Saddle early in the afternoon, and settled in for the coldest night of the trip under a snug sandstone overhang.

An eight-day trip is a pretty long one, but this one seemed to end too quickly. A final climb back up to the North Rim led to a peaceful walk through a deep pine and aspen forest, to our cars, and the return home.

Thinking about a backcountry trip in the Grand Canyon? You’ll need a permit: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jerry Cagle says:

    Just curious Dave – does Ra rise (pun intended) to the level of a 5th class climb?

  2. dave says:

    Based upon the account I heard from the summit party, the climb did involve some 5th class climbing, and though perhaps not technically sustained, the route is challenging, requiring a strong party and good judgment. Down low there is an easy 5th class section in the Redwall at a giant chockstone blocking a gulley. The summit party talked about difficult route finding through bad rock above the chockstone in the Redwall, and making a long traverse below the summit trying to find a weakness they felt comfortable attacking. Closer to the summit there was another section or two of 5th class climbing.

    Bob had this to say in a recent email: "I led it all without gear but I’d say 5.6 on some marginal rock. Best have a 5.8-5.10 climber in the group. We had an 80′ rope along as I recall – 100′ might be better."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *