Walter Powell Route — Page 4

Little Colorado River Gorge at Dawn

Dawn Over the Little Colorado

The eastern horizon over the Little Colorado River Gorge begins to glow, a masterpiece of delicate pastels that chases the stars from the sky.

To the west is the Grand Canyon itself, where the sun's first fiery rays strike the top of 6400' Chuar Butte. I grab my camera and do a walkabout.

We are camped about a mile west from the start of the hiking route, at the tip of a narrow finger of rock that points toward the magnificent chasm below.

Chuar Butte Camping on the Rim Canyon Cactus Searching for the Entrance Undulating Plains Checking the Map

With such sights in all directions, I do my best to record a few snapshots, none of which will do the scene justice.

It's time to roust my sleeping brother.

He grumbles about his aging body. I grumble about mine.

Two hours of rough dirt roads have left both of us a little stiff this morning. The chilly morning air doesn't help. But we need to get moving.

We have a big day ahead—especially if we hope to make it to the Confluence and back.

We pack up the truck and drive eastward, looking for the start of the route.

The Canyon, as they say, provides a journey back in time, with each 300-600 vertical feet changing to an entirely new layer of rock strata.

This has special implications for would-be travelers.

There is no one single barrier to descending the Canyon—there are many. Often, it is possible to breach one set of cliffs, only to find yourself hopelessly trapped above the next.

Connecting rim to river thus entails finding and linking a series of unlikely passages through multiple cliff bands. This can easily entail miles of circumnavigation, especially in the Canyon's more rugged aspects, such as our present location.

Kelsey offers ambiguous directions when it comes to finding the start of the hike.

You'll have to do some route finding on this one, he writes.


My brother parks the truck. To our left are the benign high plains adjacent the rim.

To the right are the impossibly-sheer drops of the Little Colorado River Gorge.

We traverse the rim, looking for a viable route down. Of the two of us, I have evolved into the mountain climber—but Grand Canyon is my brother's domain. Some years ago, he actually attempted to solo the Walter Powell Route (today, this strikes us as a rather daring effort). On his own, my brother found the entrance to the route and descended about fifteen hundred vertical feet before getting hung up on the Redwall and being forced to turn back.

This adventure at least enabled my brother to scout the route's upper section, though at the moment his memory has gone stale. One of the oddities of "Canyoneering" is that everything happens in reverse. It is certainly of no benefit to begin one's day by hiking downward. Fresh leg muscles are quickly fatigued by the relentless pounding of the descent, which is all done via negative load—eccentric muscular concentration.

Aerobically, of course, it is easier to go down.

This can lead to a potentially dire trap, as the unwary hiker quickly descends thousands of vertical feet with deceptive ease. Then, of course, he or she must climb back out. Now, tired leg muscles begin to cramp. And the heat—not apparent on the descent—materializes as if all at once. Heat especially is a deadly-serious threat in the Canyon. The Forest Service refuses to issue permits for certain sun-exposed sections of the Canyon in summer.

All of these issues presume you've actually found your route. When there is no trail, canyons again pose a unique quandary: you must down-climb your route without being able to see it first. Thus, as we traverse the rim, we're peering largely into the unknown. We can't really see what lurks beyond that first drop—so choose wisely!

next: The Entrance

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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