Grand Canyon Adventure: Backpack & Day Hike Stories and Photos
Vishnu backpack trip

March 12-18, 2010

Dennis surveys Vishnu Canyon late on the afternoon of March 14, 2010

I don't know how many times I tumbled or how far I fell down that rock choked ravine. What I do recall is hearing the unmistakable sound of a boulder breaking loose above me, turning to look upslope and seeing Dennis Foster, my hiking partner, falling forward. Then I saw it, a half-ton limestone monster rumbling toward me. The projectile bulled its way down slope with purpose. It seemed destined to pass safely to my left but at the last moment something redirected the stone missile. Pivoting to my right, I avoided a direct hit but the boulder clipped my backpack. The impact spun me around to the left and sent me tumbling crazily down the rock strewn slope. I was totally out of control.

Out of control is not a good feeling in any situation. Nor is it a welcome feeling. It's even less welcome when hiking in Grand Canyon. One moment you're working your way towards this night's camp site, thinking about dinner and the warmth of your sleeping bag. The next, you're caught up in a maelstrom and wondering if this is it: The End. Needless to say, this was not how I'd pictured the day coming to an end. But the unexpected is something one has to be prepared to deal with during a backcountry hike. Expecting the unexpected is what drives me to invest so much time planning and preparing for my Grand Canyon treks. The better prepared I am for the expected, the better able I will be to deal with a surprise turn of events.

This passage through Vishnu Canyon was part of a planned nine-day, eight-night hike from the South Rim to Asbestos Canyon and back. Dennis and I were interested in checking out John Hance's old asbestos mining operation. Along the way, we would hike a recently popular route from Clear Creek to Vishnu Canyon known simply as, "The High Route." Out itinerary included spending the first and last nights at Bright Angel Campground near Phantom Ranch. This comes as close to a resort as one can find in Grand Canyon. The balance of our excursion would be a genuine wilderness adventure. On day two, we would take the Clear Creek trail east from Phantom Ranch to a designated camp site at Clear Creek. From there we would be off-trail for the next four nights, including camps in Vishnu, two nights in Asbestos, a dry camp on the Tonto below Hall Butte and one last at-large night along the Colorado River near the mouth of Clear Creek. Finally, we would reconnect with the Clear Creek trail for the return hike to Bright Angel Campground and our last night in the canyon. We had been planning this hike since last December.

Hikers make their way down the icy upper section of the South Kaibab trail

On March 12, Dennis and I left the South Kaibab trailhead at 10:58 am to make the trek to Phantom Ranch. By 3:00 pm, we were selecting a site in Bright Angel Campground. The Phantom Ranch Canteen closes at 4:00 pm to allow staff time to prep for dinner so, we left our gear in the campsite and headed to the Canteen for an ice cold Lemmy. After finishing our drinks and writing a couple of post cards, we walked over to the afternoon ranger presentation. The topic was bats and I was hooked. Dennis decided to head back to camp.

Forty-five minutes later, I returned to camp just in time for some not so good news. A squirrel had chewed a hole in my pack to get at my trail mix and jerky. It was a rude reminder of why I always--OK, almost always--stow food in the complimentary ammo cans provided by the Park Service at Corridor campsites. Grand Canyon squirrels are very aggressive. I've seen them work in teams, one or two distracting a hiker while a third commando squirrel raids the food stash. I should have known better than to leave camp before stowing my gear. But the clarion call of the Lemmy was too much to resist and my weakness of character cost me. In hindsight, the squirrel raid on our gear may have been a sign of things to come.

The next day's hike to Clear Creek was uneventful. We left the campsite at 8:00 am, stopping for lunch below Bradley Point just before noon and arriving at Clear Creek at 4:20 pm. The combination of a wet winter season and recent rains had filled many of the potholes in the slickrock drainages we passed through during the long hike. I couldn't recall seeing so much water along Clear Creek trail. We could have left Phantom Ranch with a liter of water, each, and filtered the pothole water along the way without risk of running out or even of running low the life-sustaining liquid.

March 14, 2010 began innocently enough. This was the third day of our hike and we broke camp late, about 9:25 am. Making the short hike south through the main arm of Clear Creek, we soon arrived at the junction with the minor eastern arm. We made the left hand turn to head up the eastern arm of Clear Creek at 9:45 am. An hour later, we took an extended break to explore some ruins along the north side of this arm in the Tapeats. From this elevated location, we also scouted a route through the Tapeats on the opposite side that promised to grant access to the Tonto level below Angels Gate and The Howlands Butte. Once through this relatively easy ascent, we found a flat spot with a view and stopped for lunch.

The route through the Redwall to the saddle between Wotans Throne (visible on left) and Angels Gate

At 2:35 pm, Dennis and I were standing at the base of the Redwall studying the steep ascent route that leads to the saddle between Wotans Throne and Angels Gate. The route proved to be no less difficult than it had appeared from below. We spent a long hour negotiating and exposed ascent that required no shortage of hand and toe climbing. When we reached the saddle at 3:35 pm, both Dennis and I were in agreement. This route is doable but not worth the risk just to shave a half-day's hike time on the trek to Vishnu. I will say the opportunity to see Angels Gate from such close proximity was a real treat. It may have been tempting the explore the lower slopes of this formation for a route up, but the day was late and we wanted to reach our planned campsite in Vishnu before dark.

As we worked our way to the southeast along the rim of the Redwall below Wotans Throne, we were treated to some truly spectacular views. Looking to the southwest through the nameless side canyon offered a new and fresh perspective on Lyell Butte and Shoshone Point along the south rim. The going was slow and we arrived at the head of the descent route into Vishnu Canyon at 5:40 pm. We had about an hour until sunset and another thirty minutes of hiking in twilight. But by 7:30 pm, it would be dark and the last thing we wanted to be doing in the dark was negotiating a tricky descent route. The pressure of diminishing time was getting to me. It was time to pick up the pace.

The route into Vishnu began with a descent through a narrow break in the Redwall. This led to an alternating series of rocky slopes and boulder-strewn ravines. The Muav layer appeared to be a continuous vertical wall except to the south where we spotted some breaks that appeared to allow access to a drainage leading to the main bed of Vishnu Canyon. So, we assumed a diagonal line that descended towards the Muav along a generally southern course. I was a bit ahead of and below Dennis when we entered a rather steep ravine. It was approximately 6:30 pm and all hell was about to break loose.

During my tumble, all sense of my location in time and space vanished. Only a few memories--snippets, really--remain of what happened next. After the second bounce, I recall thinking I might be slowing. I was wrong. There was a blow to my left temple. My glasses flew off. Another tumble. (Did I flip five or six times?) Finally, I slid to a stop lying on my stomach in the rocks. Thank God it was over.

"Dennis, are you all right?" I yelled. Looking at my right hand, I made a conscious effort to move my fingers. The middle two were stiff and sore. My arms, legs, head, neck and back all seemed to move freely. Then the pain arrived. The ache in my right knee and throbbing above the left eye were strongest. And there was blood dripping from above my left eye. I was a mess but I was alive, dammit!

Yours truly standing atop the Wotans-Angels Gate Saddle

"I can't believe I'm alive." These words were more whispered than spoken and were meant only for me. My backpack must have shielded me from the rocks, absorbing much of the punishment delivered during the violent tumble. My pack's aluminum frame had been snapped. Something had ripped the lens off my Nikon camera. Did a rock do that or a collision with my thick skull? Eventually, Dennis worked his way down the ravine to where I sat. He wasn't moving much better than me. The tow of us were a wreck.

Dusk started to fill Grand Canyon as Dennis and I discussed our next moves. We needed a place to lick our wounds and assess the situation. Even without my glasses, I could see what appeared to be a somewhat sheltered space amidst some large boulders. It looked like enough room for the two of us so, we made our way to the boulders to settle in for the night. I was in shock and probably slightly concussed. It seemed to take forever to make a decision or take any kind of action. The challenge was to stay focused on one task at a time. First things first. Retrieving the mirror from my kit, I found the cut above my left eye. It was in the eyebrow, not too deep and the bleeding seemed to have stopped. A band aid from my first aid kit covered that wound. My left arm hosted an assortment of scrapes and bruises. A 4-inch square piece of gauze and tape bandaged the worst of it. The middle two fingers on my right hand were swollen and stiff, but did not appear to be broken.

It was the right knee that worried me, most. A sharp pain accompanied any motion and the leg couldn't bear weight. Unless this improved, I wouldn't be able to get far, not in this terrain. While I tended to my injuries, Dennis cleared small rocks and other debris the create enough space between the boulders for our sleeping bags. He laid out our tent footprints. Then, we inflated and set in place sleeping bag mattresses. Finally, the bags were spread across the mattresses. Dennis helped me into my bag before getting into his. I ate a sandwich and took two 500 mg tablets of acetaminophen chased with Gatorade. This was how Sunday, March 14, 2010 ended for me in Grand Canyon.

A chill night breeze filled our ravine and made sleep difficult. I used the constellations to track the passage of time that night. Leo the lion dominated the sky when cold first interrupted my rest. A few hours later when I next awoke, Arcturus had replaced Leo. Brilliant red Antares in Scorpius anchored the eastern sky upon my next awakening. Finally, I managed to string together more than two consecutive hours of sleep.

Looking south through a nameless canyon toward Lyell Butte and the South Rim

Monday morning, we weighed our options. The rock slide had happened on the third day of a nine-day hike. We had reservations for Bright Angel Campground on Friday--four days later--so, that would be the earliest anybody would note us as overdue. But hikers get behind schedule all the time in Grand Canyon. Missing a night at BACG would probably not raise an alarm. Saturday night would be the earliest our wives would note us as overdue. If Alice or Cara Lynn contacted the rangers at the Backcountry Information Center on Sunday that would trigger search and rescue teams into action. But Sunday seemed forever in the future and we couldn't stay huddled in this ravine all week. While we had plenty of food, what we did not have nearly enough of was water. Water is the key to survival in Grand Canyon.

So, we made the decision to try for Vishnu. There should be water there; we'd seen it before the rock slide. Before leaving our little cave, Dennis miraculously found my glasses in the rocks above the boulders. (Finally, a bit of good luck.) Slowly, carefully we made our way south across several ravines until reaching a slope that appeared to go all the way to the bed of a minor drainage. Dennis had injured his left knee in the slide and my right knee was still killing me. With both of us limited in mobility, it took nearly three hours to negotiate a route across Muav ledges and down rocky slopes into the drainage. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with another bit of good luck. The most beautiful little creek you ever saw was flowing through this drainage. We had found an essentially limitless supply of water. Finding water meant two things: we could survive the week that might pass until search parties started looking for us and, most important, I would see my wife and son, again. I was going to survive this. Emotion swept over me and I broke down and cried on the spot.

And survive we both did. Dennis' knee was feeling well enough by Tuesday morning that he decided to hike back to Phantom Ranch to report the rock slide and show rangers where I could be found. My injured knee was still too balky for serious backcountry hiking so, I stayed put at the creek. Over the next few days, I worked on a series of small projects to stay occupied. The activity and small accomplished tasks helped elevate my morale. The projects included putting up my tent, laying out a space blanket as a reflector to signal passing air traffic, and building a lean-to for shade near my camp. Each completed task gave me a feeling of accomplishment and took me another step closer to being home.

The last photo I took before the rock slide

During my three and one-half days in Vishnu, I never doubted getting out of the canyon. I didn't have time for such thoughts. Knowing that I was in for several days of relative boredom, Dennis had left me with his copy of Glenn Beck's "Common Sense." Admittedly, I am not a fan of Mr. Beck or his politics. However, I was thankful to have something to read and ponder while recuperating at the creek. When not reading, I did give some thought to my fate. I had decided that one of two things would happen: either help would come or I would find a way to walk out. In anticipation of a possible hike to Phantom Ranch, I started rationing my food. When the accident happened, I had six days of food remaining. By going to something approximating half-rations, I would have enough food to stay in Vishnu for a week and still have two to three days of food remaining. If helped didn't arrive by Sunday, I would leave a note for any would-be rescuers and a map showing my intended route, and begin making my way along the Tonto back to Clear Creek. The route would take me around Hall, Hawkins and The Howlands buttes. I figured it would take two or three days for me to reach the Clear Creek designated camp sites. But once there, I would be in a relatively well-traveled use area and could follow the established Clear Creek trail to Phantom Ranch. That was my back up plan. My hope was that a search and rescue team would arrive long before then.

Help did arrive. Just after lunch on Thursday, March 18, I was sitting in the shade of a tree and writing some thoughts about Beck's lack of common sense when I heard the distinctive whomp-whomp-whomp of helicopter rotor blades. Putting down my pen and log book, I stood to look in the direction of the sound. A National Park Service helicopter rose above the horizon and circled overhead a few times. Clearly, the pilot had seen me and my camp. Moments later, he guided the bird over a ridge in search of a place to land. For the second time that week, I wept. And again they were tears of joy. This ordeal had come to an end. Amazingly, Dennis had managed to walk from Vishnu Canyon to Phantom Ranch--a distance of about 22 miles--in just over two days. It must have been hard hiking with a full backpack and only one good leg. Somehow, he mustered the strength and determination to meet this challenge and, in so doing, ensured a happy ending for this tale of survival in Grand Canyon.

Bill Ferris
Flagstaff, Arizona

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Copyright 2007 / W. D. Ferris