Hayduke trail day 45: The Nankoweep trail (in the dark)

May 1
Mileage: 21
601 miles hiked

I sleep terribly in our motel room, perhaps partly because I am wracked with guilt about bailing in the snow. Why did I bail? No, it was the right choice. I shouldn’t have bailed! It was the right choice though. Am I a good hiker or am I bad at hiking? I don’t know. I wake up groggy and feeling awful.

A large quantity of diet coke, which I developed a taste for in highschool and which I sometimes still drink on trail, even tho it is poison, makes me feel more awake. It’s still winter outside, the ground is still blanketed in snow. I guess I get another chance.

It takes us two hours to hitch around the closed North Rim gate and down hwy 67 to where we got off the trail. We arrive at 10:30 a.m., in all our layers and with plastic bags in our shoes. Time to hike.

Oh, it’s cold. The snow is deep so we stick to the forest service roads that parallel the Arizona trail, where the snow is less, in order to delay toe-numbness a little longer. We just need to get to the Nankoweep trailhead, and then the trail will drop seven thousand feet over the course of ten miles, down into the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where it’s warmer. Seven thousand feel closer to the molten core of the earth. Seven thousand feet to freedom! At the bottom of the long descent on Nankoweep trail is Nankoweep creek, a water source and balmy place to camp. We just have to make it there.

The cold and numb toes and blowing snow-wind are not so bad, today, because I know we don’t have to camp in it. In the afternoon the Hayduke and the Arizona trail part ways, and we’re back to being just on the Hayduke. The Arizona trail goes down into and across the Grand Canyon via the main corridor trails. The Hayduke does something much more hardcore, something I can’t conceptualize just yet.

We reach our cache and dig the buckets out from the snow. We sit on Dan’s sleeping pad and snack as quickly as possible, until our feet grow too numb and it’s time to walk again. Not quite the cache bucket celebration of our dreams, but soon we’ll be out of it! The forest is beautiful tho, cold mist hanging in the trees, everything silent and white. I gather water from a deep snowmelt puddle in the dirt road. It tastes amazing.

For some reason I think the Nankoweep trail will be cruiser, simply because it’s an actual trail. I’ll learn later, from the guidebook, that the Nankoweep trail is considered by the park service to be the hardest named trail in the entire park. Maybe the fact that it drops seven thousand feet in ten miles should’ve tipped me off.

The Nankoweep trail is not cruiser. Steep and narrow and covered in slippery snow at first, then large loose rocks, then muddy and washed out, in places, as it contours on steep cliff bands above a four thousand foot drop. My god, though, the views! The myriad side canyons of the Grand Canyon, a fantastical amount of surface area all folded up into itself, an orgy of intricacy. So many different colors of rock! So much light and shadow! And all of it for my eyeballs to stare at.

Fuck! I have to keep my eyes on the trail tho. I’m not sure if it’s because of the recent storms, but some off the most narrow spots of the trail are completely washed out, forcing me to step over spots of sloped, loose dirt and scree so steep I’m not sure my shoes will stick, in order to get to the trail on the other side. These sloped bits of dirt end in a cliff two feet to my right- so if I slip in the loose scree I’ll fall thousands of feet to my death. No problem! Except it’s fucking terrifying, and I go slowly, and take my time. These too-steep-without-any-trail bits happen over and over, I think just because of the way trail erodes on these cliff bands, which are constantly shedding. I also don’t think many people hike this trail in the Grand Canyon? Just for the hardcore few, ha ha ha.

We are not descending this trail very fast. We are, however, stripping off layers- it’s 45 degrees below the rim, so warm I can’t believe it! A few hours before sunset I realize we should’ve packed enough water to camp before Nankoweep creek, way down at the bottom of our descent- but alas, we did not. And then I look at how many miles we have left, at 1.5 mph, and realize that we’ll be doing the last part of this steep, sketchy trail, with some of the worst exposure we’ve seen on the Hayduke so far- in the dark.

At some point fear becomes useless, and you just have to shove it way down inside. I don’t think this is the healthiest way to deal with an emotion, but it’s useful in situations such as this, when you have no other fucking choice. Soon it’s too dark to even see the eroded cliff bands, much less cross them safely, so we pull out our headlamps and carry on, guided by these wavery circles of light and unable to see anything else around us- not the snaking canyons, not the next ridge, not the two thousand foot drop below us. And then suddenly, for some reason, I’m no longer scared. All I can see is this small circle of trail directly in front of me, this next spot of loose steep rocks or eroded dirt. Whatever is half-illuminated by my piece-of-shit headlamp. And I’m not longer frightened at all.

I remember going over Mather pass in the High Sierras on the PCT in 2014. We’d entered the Sierras early, and all the passes were still covered in snow. Switchbacks completely buried, maybe one set of footprints kicked up the steep snowslopes directly to the top, some brave soul who had gone before. I was trying to catch up to my friends who were a few hours ahead, and I ended up climbing over Mather pass in the dark. I couldn’t see anything while I was climbing- not the top of the pass, not the snowslopes to my left or right, not how far I would fall if I slipped. All I could see was what was right in front of me- where to put my hands, the next place in the snow to kick in my feet. I didn’t have an ice axe or microspikes (none of us did). I leaned into the mountain, my pack holding me there. I felt completely safe. I wasn’t the least bit afraid.

I got down the other side and reached where my friends were camped at 11:30 p.m. They couldn’t believe what I had done- of all of the snowy passes, that was the one that had scared them the most. But since I hadn’t been able to see how far I could fall, I hadn’t been afraid.

We reach Nankoweep creek at 10 p.m. I am a blind person, hobbling in the dark, but I know we have arrived by the croaking frogs and burbling water and the heady smell of flowering plants. It’s so warm here. And we are so, so tired. We pitch the tent awkwardly against the last of the stormclouds beneath a grand old cottonwood and collapse. We leave the mesh doors open so the mice can run in and out as they like, do laps on our faces until they get tired. It’s good to be back on the Hayduke.