Plan 1: hike over the Flint-Tuna saddle and negotiate a 30 foot exposed downclimb.
Plan 2: If for some reason Plan 1 won’t work, continue traversing the Tonto platform on the north side of the canyon for two more days to the North Bass trail.
Plan 3: improvise.
I woke up early, before sunrise, and mulled over sleeping in longer since for so many nights in a row I was getting 5 to 7 hours of sleep, an amount that makes me start to feel withered. I was camped in the bottom of a canyon with high walls to the east and west, and it stays dark in such canyon bottoms much longer. Sleeping in would be so easy. But I was anxious about the day and the steep climb out of the bottom of Trinity Creek. I got up and started packing up my things while the dawn bats whipped about for bugs, spots of dark in the growing translucence of morning.
I have to say that today ranks among the hardest hiking I’ve done. A lot of factors conspire toward this result. ‘Contouring’ is actually slow and difficult, navigating countless tiny drainage trenches, rocks, massive drainages, and cacti (so many cacti). I bled more today than any other day of the trip so far. Despite rising early to start hiking at 4:30am and hiking steady until five, I struggled to get nine miles. It’s slow and exhausting terrain, involving crossing drainages by scrambling down to the river and away again in 1200 foot climbs and descents over very steep and loose terrain. To make these strenuous climbs, the hiker has to find places to pass through the Tapeats, whose cliff bands are often a hundred feet thick or more. Sometimes a scree gully breaches the cliffs and offers passage, though it can be hard to tell from the bottom or top of a climb whether the line you’ve chosen will actually go, and the uncertainty of it coupled with amount of time any travel in this territory requires was sometimes anxiety-provoking. Mistakes could be costly, in terms of time and therefore in terms of water.
I labored up and out of Trinity and ‘contoured’ along the Tonto for many slow hours. (George Steck says this about contouring: “Once on the Tonto our next goal was Ninetyfour Mile Creek, and all we had to do was ‘contour around’. I hate those words. They are a euphemism for ‘big trouble’. Contouring around sounds so easy, yet is often so hard.”) It was starkly beautiful, in a way that I would anthropomorphize as an indifferent landscape bordering on hostile. Nowhere else on this hike have I had the feeling of being so close to the edge of trouble, even when that edge is ill-defined or shimmers with the vague promise of a mirage, its presence is felt. It is a wild place, untrammeled. I moved slowly across the Tonto, carefully watching every tiring step, stopping often to removing cactus needles form my feet. After descending Ninetyfour Mile Creek, a long very steep descent I carefully managed my exploding weight down one little step at a time without incident until, as I was making the last step onto the flat sandy beach at the bottom, a rock rolled under my foot and I pitched forward and scraped up my knee and thigh pretty badly (and it’s always the last step because you let your guard down thirty seconds too soon), I had to climb right back up. There didn’t appear to be a scree gully break through the Tapeats, but George Steck described a scramble shortcut through the ledgy cliffs. Otherwise it was a long almost two miles ascending the drainage until it rose enough to rejoin the Tonto platform. I took the scramble, clamoring upward on blocky rocks until I arrived at the bottom of the cliffs. I had filled up with water at the river, around a gallon and a half. My pack weighed me down into the earth, the opposite direction I was trying to go. I started up the scramble, feeling okay, until about fifty feet up I had to step out over empty space under an overhanging ledge. I tried to make the step and my pack, towering over my head, bumped into the overhang and pushed me backwards. I almost lost my grip of the rocks there, fifty feet above the rocky ground below. I tried again but couldn’t get the pack through. I had to take it off, wedged in between ledges to stabilize myself, and slip it under the overhang, bracing it to prevent it from sliding off and falling off the cliff. Still holding it up, I stepped around after it, but then I had to figure out how to put it back on. It’s so heavy that putting it on on flat ground requires a hefty swing andthe help of a knee. I tried and tried and couldn’t figure out how to get it back on in this exposed and precarious perch in the middle of a cliff. I couldn’t drag it up back hand, and it was so heavy I don’t think I could have hauled it. Anyway without me holding it up there it would have crashed to the ground below. I seriously considered just throwing it off the edge and climbing down after it. But I gave it one more try and managed to get one pack strap on, then other, and heart beating fear in my chest, scrambled the rest of the way to the top. It scared me some, enough to put me in a dubious mindset about the upcoming downclimbing after the Flint-Tuna saddle.
Exacerbating what would be very challenging anyway–this route, coupled with the very heavy load on my back, the temperature shot up today. My thermometer read 95 degrees, and that was in the small pool of shade cast over it by my backpack. There is otherwise no shade on the Tonto platform. The heat is stunning, and when the miles come so slow, I don’t have time to siesta. Gone is the leisure. This is hard hiking.
So, after climbing up that scramble that George Steck describes as ‘sporting’ and having no feeling of exposure (I would, in the context of my backpack, readily disagree, though maybe if I didn’t have to deal with the pack I would feel differently), I ‘contoured around’ five more miles to descend into Crystal Creek, five excruciating slow scorching hot miles. I decided in that time I don’t want to try the downclimb after the Flint-Tuna saddle, not with this monster pack. My alternate plans also started to look bad–another dubious climbing situation to gain the North Rim from Flint-Tuna saddle (and I was not favorably disposed towards George Steck’s dubious climbing situations), or to contour on the Tonto platform for two more full days and one dry camp from Crystal Creek. I drank eight liters of water in the scorching heat today. That means I would need at least 16 liters of water, an amount that exceeds my container (and pack seam) capacity.
So plan 1 and plan 2: now is not your time. I’m at Crystal Creek and I found a rafting party here. I stumbled into their camp dirty, bloody, heat dazed, and I explained what I would describe as my diminishing odds (or, if not terror, a kind of inflamed misery). I have a new plan now. I’m going to get a ride directly across the river and make my way up Slate Creek drainage to the south side of the canyon and to the Tonto trail up there. I’m not sure if the passage is possible, but I’m going to try. I can always return to river if I get cliffed out. There is more water on that side, at least two sources tomorrow. In this heat, water is everything.