In the night a few storms visited, marked by intervals of hard rain and wind gusts. I slept in a bit so that I wouldn’t be starting in the dark this morning: the terrain on the ridge was too difficult to navigate to make it worth trying by headlamp. After I did get up around 4:45, I spent a while packing up too, because today was a special day. I double-lined my pack, one cuben fiber pack liner inside a trash compactor bag, and carefully packed so that everything fit inside. I wanted to make sure things would stay dry.
Bushwhacking the ridge I camped on was slow. I initially followed the ridge proper to its end, a narrow rock platform that dropped 50 feet down on three sides. Obviously that wasn’t the way to go. Looking back up the ridge, I could see a safe place to bypass the cliff bands that appeared and ran the length of the ridge to the nose where I stood. I had to backtrack, fighting the stiff shrubs that grew densely to about chest height. Once I found the right way off the ridge, descending through some scree and more shrubs back down to the drainage bed was straight forward, though mildly more entertaining because the dirt was all very soft from all the rain and I slipped down it quite a bit. Still, eventually I got back down, having bypassed a pour off I never saw. I started heading down canyon and very quickly came to the first plunge pool. The plunge pools! Saddle Canyon narrows and travels down through the Redwall formation which typically is an impenetrable band of cliffs rimming the top of the canyon. The Redwall is all limestone, capable of being sculpted by water into stunning architecture, so this limestone canyon had potential to be very interesting. Where the canyon narrowed substantially, the only way through was to slide down a limestone chute into a pool of water below. The plunge pools had a reputation. I knew they were coming. Multiple people reported taking ten hours to travel four miles (including the bushwhack I just finished) in previous years, though no doubt the difficulty of getting through the plunge pools varies year to year depending on how much water has collected in the pools.
The very first pool there is no way around. I took off my pants, put of my shorts, made sure everything was battened down on my pack, and I slid down the first chute, grabbing my pack from the top once I was at the bottom. The water was waist deep though not as cold as I expected. I waded out of the pool only to immediately have to wade another. The weather was still cloudy and rain threatened, and I wanted to get through this section of pools as quickly as possible before I got too cold, before it started raining hard on all the limestone (which tends to be slippery when wet, though it’s kind of slippery all the time), before the wind picked up. I had about one and half miles until the plunge pools would be done. After the first couple pools, I was able to walk the limestone mini-ledges to bypass the pools for most of the rest. I did have to lower my pack with a rope once and then down climb a chockstone, at one point hanging in space, feet dangling five feet above the mud, while I hung on to a small boulder wedged in the top of the chockstone. At the end also I had to go through a few more pools that I couldn’t bypass, one of which had a long chute leading down to it that I tried to have a controlled descent down but failed when my shoes slipped on the polished rock and I went zipping off to the bottom and crashed into the pool, scraping up the backs of my upper thighs pretty good. The deepest pool I encountered was belly deep, maybe rib cage deep, on the edge, and it was also the last pool I had no choice but to wade. In all, the trip through the plunge pools was beautiful, exciting, and easier than I thought it would be. It took me four and a half hours to travel the four miles from Muave Saddle down Saddle Canyon, not including last night’s camp, which is a sprightly pace given the circumstances. The challenge of Saddle Canyon mostly centered around the fact that I was alone: it made choosing to go down a chute when I couldn’t see around the corner to the next obstacle feel risky. If I slid down a chute I couldn’t get back up and the next obstacle was an impassable pour off, I would be stuck in a deep canyon where my GPS doesn’t work well and I don’t know how effective my SPOT would be. I was careful not to commit until I had explored my options and I was reasonably certain I wasn’t making a mistake.
After the plunge pools, I had a tolerably slow couple miles down Crazy Jug canyon hopping from rock to rock, jumping the modest Tapeats creek, navigating boulder chokes, before I came to the robust tributary of Tapeats creek, a gushing stream whose roar I could hear upcanyon well before seeing it. The water came down white and intense, and shortly after I began fording the creek, working my way back and forth between Tapeats walls, even waking in the creek downstream for a time when the walls narrowed and there was no where else to walk. The fords were all relatively easy, again easier than I had expected, and the roaring creek was sweet to walk next to. Right at the end of my time with Tapeats Creek, the Thunder River joined the party. It was easily fifty percent more fast, more voluminous, more frothy white than the Tapeats. I had to ford it too, just once, and it was fast and straight forward. The water came to my thigh.
From the ford I climbed up, passing the crack in the base of the Redwall from which Thunder River issued as though the canyon were peeing. There must be quite a system of limestone aqua ducts in this region of the park because multiple times today I passed springs burst forth from the rock. I climbed past the birth of Thunder River, up over a thousand feet, to Surprise Valley, crossed it’s lovely undulating surface of Bright Angel shale (back on the Tonto, though it’s different here than in the center of the canyon),and descended down to Deer Creek. Around the time I was in Tapeats creek it started to rain and since then it’s rained more than not. The canyon looked like the Pacific Northwest: steady drizzle, low hanging gray clouds moiling about the cliff tops. Sometimes it would rain harder and I walked with my umbrella. Once it rained so thunderously I took shelter under some fallen rocks and waited for it to weaken.
I’m camped next to Deer Creek, stopping earlyish but it’s the only plausible choice given the upcoming terrain. Everything is tucked into the shelter of my tent, and I’m hoping that ambient moisture doesn’t mean I’ll wake up to a wet sleeping bag.