I’m a canyoneer. I’m no stranger to the pain and suffering that can accompany a great canyoneering adventure. The fun of sliding down slot canyons and rappelling waterfalls must be repaid with a steep hike to regain all that lost elevation. Canyoneering in the Grand Canyon serves up extra helpings of suffering, like your mother reaching for your plate with one more heaping spoonful of potatoes when you’re already full.
“Really. Enough. I’ve had enough,” you plead. Your pleas are ignored and…plop. Now your plate is full again.
My legs ache. My feet ache. Even my toenails ache. Especially my toenails ache. One of them aches so much I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose it. It was confined to a neoprene sock inside a wet shoe for many hours of hiking up and down steep terrain and through water filled canyons.
Brian and I spent two days and one night descending Big Canyon, a slot canyon buried deep in the Grand Canyon along the Little Colorado River. Our approach began at Salt Canyon Trail, as described in Todd Martin’s fantastic book “Grand Canyoneering”. Salt Canyon “Trail” descends steeply for 2700 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Little Colorado River. It was less like a trail in places and more like a jagged rock and scree covered slope. We followed this trail for about two thirds of the hike, and the other third we hiked without a trail, picking our way through the colorful layers of the Grand Canyon.
Brian did a fantastic job finding a route through the wavy layers of rock, talus, and grass. We were never faced with exposure or steep cliffs. However, we became much slower during this off-trail section of hiking as the terrain generously served up some of that extra special suffering I mentioned earlier. We climbed around on boulders and avoided the abundant thorny plants.
We picked our way through this terrain for hours. I declared this canyon approach to be only for chumps. An alternate approach starts above Big Canyon, without the extra descent of Salt Canyon Trail and the physical hiking across theses layers of talus without a trail.
The easier canyon approach required either two cars or a bike shuttle. Vanifest began making a banging noise as we drove the dirt road out to the Salt Trail Canyon Trailhead, so we decided to start from the Salt Trail Canyon parking area instead of doing the shorter, bike shuttled route as planned. This would avoid driving Vanifest six more miles into the wilds with curious and concerning noises coming from the front passenger axle.
Anyway, after the long and arduous approach, the drop into Big Canyon was pretty incredible. The color of the rock changed from red, green and brown to orange and white once we dropped into the polished limestone curves of Big Canyon. Soon we arrived at the top of the first rappel and enjoyed the musical sounds of rushing water in the cavern below us. At the bottom of the cavern, about 60 feet below us, we could see a very clear pool. I attached my heavy pack to my harness and dangled it below me as I rappelled. I entered what is known as the “spring room” and it was like entering another world, similar to a cave but above ground. A hard, gray, rippling sheath of minerals coated every surface of the cavern where water had touched it. A couple feet above the waterline the walls were dusted with a white powdery salt.
The clear, spring-fed pool was comfortable in mid-March in our 4/3 millimeter wetsuits. As I detached from the rope floating in the clear pool at the bottom, the sound of the water loudly echoed off the walls in this small space. I swam around the corner to see a white, gurgling stream gushing out of the wall and sending a gentle flow of mineral rich water down the next drop, a gently flowing slot canyon waterfall.
Brian filled up all our water bottles in the spring room, noting the water had a bit of a mineral taste. To be safe, he also added iodine to the water, turning it light brown and murky. Now it really tasted funky. Hopefully at least it contained some beneficial minerals, because this would be the water we would rely on for the rest of our trip, including the 2700 foot ascent back to the rim.
We moved down the canyon, and the other rappels in the canyon were also really nice. The mineral rich spring water flowed gently down huge travertine wedges striped green and brown. The surfaces of the travertine formations were solid and great for rappelling. Turquoise plunge pools spotted the bottom of the canyon.
Big canyon uses natural anchors for its rappels. Most of these anchors seemed solid, and were made of webbing slung around large rocks.
However, this last anchor made me a little nervous. It was nothing but a small rock wedged in a horizontal crack. And to this, we are trusting our lives? We tested it quite a bit and it seemed completely solid. I went first with both packs. Brian backed up the tiny wedged rock with his body weight to catch me if I fall, and the little rock held me and both heavy packs with no problem. There’s a picture of this little rock anchor in Todd’s guidebook, and it looks like it hasn’t changed since the guidebook was written. How long will this tiny rock provide a safe anchor for canyoneers and their heavy packs? It seems like it could hold for a long time, or come loose at any moment. I’m just not sure.
We took all our overnight sleeping gear through the canyon, rappelled waterfalls with it, and dragged it through pools. Everything was wet except the few things we had stuffed in drybags. We laid it out to dry as best as it could, then we prepared to drag all that gear 2700 feet back up to the rim of the canyon, straight up Salt Wash Trail.
“Are you ready for another big helping of suffering?” asks the canyon.
At least we had plenty of water and daylight for the exit hike. It was longer and steeper than any other hike I’ve done after a canyon. This trip through Big Canyon was “Grand Canyon Canyoneering Light”, too. Many of the Grand Canyon canyoneering routes have ascents of 5000 feet or more!