Day 19: Eighteen Hundred Vertical Feet
Today we’ll be running a long day on the river, from our camp at 185 Mile to Indian Canyon on river right at mile 207.
Day nineteen of our twenty-four day trip. Two hours of battery remaining for this blog.
The past eighteen days have slid by relentlessly, rolling along like the river itself until life in camp and on the
boats and hiking the side canyons has expanded to fill our awareness so that it takes a conscious effort to remind
myself that I have another life waiting for me in Idaho, in Wisconsin. Houses, cars, jobs, all these things are
irrelevant to life in the Canyon, and they are all surprisingly easy to forget about, to ignore. We’re on geologic
time now, and much of what passes for life outside the Canyon has been forgotten for now.
Rock walls and tumbled boulders, rapids, blooming ocotillo and prickly pear, the mud-brown flow of water and the
whisper of distant rapids. Bighorn sheep, sun-hungry lizards and rattlesnakes, sand and wind and blue skies–these
have become our world. None of us are eager to leave it all behind. Yet the awareness that our time here is coming
to an end cannot be completely avoided.
Our flotilla pulls out and day 19 begins.
An uneventful day, but the uneventfulness IS the event. We’re lucky with the wind again–nothing but intermittent
breezes–and it’s another blue-sky sunny day. Ten-year-old Natalie is rowing with me today; apparently an evening of
card tricks and logic puzzles has convinced her that I’m a reputable boatman. We each grab a gourmet lollipop from
Greg Hatten to tide us through until lunch, and we’re off.
I spend the day’s quiet float instructing Natalie on the geology and fauna of the Canyon. Now we’re into the volcanic
dikes and basalt formations.
“See this rock here,” I say, “how it looks like giant claw marks?”
“That’s where the giant cave bears used to come to sharpen their claws,” I tell her. She giggles and shakes her head.
“Well, you’re right,” I say. “This isn’t really bear country. Those claw marks are probably from the giant Canyon
mountain lions that live here.”
She giggles harder. It’s hard to educate someone who can’t keep a serious focus on the topic, so I give up. We pull
up to Greg Hatten in the Portola and get more lollipops instead–Banana Split flavor this time. And the river flows
on, and we float gently downstream, past a sharply spiked rock twenty-five feet tall.
“See that rock?” I ask. “That’s the petrified tooth of a giant Canyon shark. They’re extinct now, but there used to
be all kinds of them in the Colorado.”
“No,” Natalie says, giggling. “Too big!”
Today’s youth have no respect for the wisdom of their elders.
After lunch Natalie jumps ship–no patience for the rigorous curriculum demands aboard Fat George–and I’m alone.
It’s a quiet float through flat water punctuated by tiny ripples and one rapid, 205-Mile. It’s a 6, and might have
caused me a moment of worry in the first days of the trip. Today we all float through without scouting. Some medium
waves, but I come out mostly dry.
We reach camp in the early afternoon and, after the usual unstrapping and unloading and carrying and setting up the
kitchen and the chairs, I’m free from camp duties. Cece Mortenson and I decide to go on a hike. There are two options:
a casual flat stroll up Indian Canyon’s dry wash, or a steep climb up a rock-studded ridge above camp, eighteen hundred
feet above river level.
Given the fact that one of us is a fool and the other a professional mountain guide based in the Canadian Rockies,
it’s no surprise that we opt for the ridge climb.
The hike begins with a short easy scramble up the rock ledges above camp, and then three-quarters of a mile of steep
slopes of sand and scree. At the top of these we’re into complicated entrenchments of Canyon limestone, edging
carefully along narrow ledges above a long drop. At the end of the narrow ledges, there’s a chute between two fins.
Cece is already halfway up the chute by the time I get to the end of the ledges.
“It’s like third or fourth class scrambling,” she calls down, one hand on the rock and her feet smeared on small edges
in the limestone. “The hardest part is that you don’t want to bushwhack it.”
When I start climbing the chute I immediately find out what she means. The bottom of the chute holds enough dirt to
support a good selection of desert plants. And, evolution in action, desert plants have evolved defenses to protect
the precious moisture inside them: thorns. Spines. Prickles. Spikes. The trick of climbing this chute is that gravity
and fear suggests you climb the bottom of the chute, securely tucked deep between the rock walls.
The reception you’d get at the bottom, though–sword yuccas, prickly pear, even the names suggesting the need for a
healthy distance–that unpleasantness overrules fear and gravity. Instead of cowering at the bottom of the chute as
I normally would, I climb as far out on the edge as I can. My right foot is on the chute’s right wall, my left on the
chute’s left wall, stemming up the dihedral. And my hands–one is generally grabbing a hold in the knife-edged
limestone (in the Canyon even the rocks have spikes) while the other, between searching for the next hold, carefully
nudges a sword yucca or a thorny branch out-of-the-way.
But it’s not too hard, actually, and soon I’m at the top of the chute, where there is no more up. We’re on the top of
the ridge, far above camp. We pause for a couple of photos–the tiny boats fifteen hundred feet below little more then
specks of red, white, and blue–and enjoy the rewards of the climb. As I turn in a circle to admire the view, I notice
the next summit in the ridge a few hundred yards further south of us.
“Let’s go,” I tell Cece.
“You want to keep going?” she asks. I think she was expecting me to want to turn around; I’ve been lagging behind the
whole trip. But I’m not smart enough for that. I’m just slow.
“I didn’t come this far to NOT go up that one,” I say.
Besides, it’s an easy hike from here. We both go up to the next rounded summit, where we’re seventeen hundred feet
above the Colorado. And again, a quarter-mile along the ridge further on, is a new high point, this one a dramatic
rocky platform hanging high between the main Canyon on the left and a side canyon (209-Mile Canyon) on the right.
Cece and I start forward almost without having to think about it.
We get to the new rocky summit, a stunning platform that drops steeply down to a canyon on each side. Eighteen
hundred feet above the river. And just ahead, past some rocky scrambling, the next high point beckons, a jumbled
mass of sharp-toothed limestone fins and towers and standing stones. It won’t be THAT hard to get to…
We get back to camp just as full dark arrives.