The Nankoweap: Don’t Look Down – Part 3 of 3

The weather was perfect for our Nankoweap Trail hike: cool at night, not too hot during the day. A little windy one day, a couple of drops rain, literally, on another day. And that was it. We were lucky.

[If it had rained on the day we were going to hike out, I wouldn’t have. A narrow and muddy trail? No way.]

Canyon John
Canyon John Laneve, our leader.

Canyon John Laneve planned the whole thing and got the permits we needed from the National Park Service. He said we would hike eight miles and descend 4,240 feet from the Grand Canyon National Park boundary to Nankoweap Creek on Day One and hike out on Day Six and that’s what we did. [That left us a day on either end to hike from the rim, where we left our cars, to the park boundary and back to the rim.] The other four days we camped by the creek and day-hiked, including an easy three-mile stroll down to the Colorado River and back, to the Anasazi granaries. Until this trip I had never camped two nights in a row in the same place. I liked that. I needed it, too.

David McDonald
David McDonald: He initiated the “rescue.”

David McDonald was the strongest of the five hikers in our group and he got to the Nankoweap Creek first, right at dark.  Because he had often waited for me, I wasn’t far behind.  I hadn’t known how much further we had to go, it was getting dark, and I was getting anxious — I was out of water, both of us were. And then I heard it, what a sweet sound, water rushing headlong down Nankoweap.

We didn’t know what had happened to David’s brother, Jim, or Lenny Frye, or our leader, Canyon John. Maybe they had decided to stop and camp. Or maybe they had switched on their headlamps and were still on the trail, coming down the last steep, slippery section covered with crushed shale and scree.

Several miles of the Nankoweap Trail look a lot like this.
Several miles of the Nankoweap Trail look a lot like this section.

We knew Jim had fallen and we knew they might be in need of water, as we had been, but I was too beat up, mentally and physically, to go back for them in the dark. That would have to wait for morning.

The “Rescue”

We had seen no one on the way down, but when David and I got to the creek we had company. There were 10 people camped there, a Grand Canyon Association Field Institute hike led by a woman named Christa Sadler.

Christa Sadler
Christa Sadler

David told her that his brother and two other men were still out on the trail somewhere and Sadler, bless her, said she and one of the men in her party who was experienced in search and rescue would go looking for them — and take them water.  David offered to go with them, but she said he would just slow them down. Sadler found them on the trail a mile or so out, head lamps on, headed for Nankoweap Creek.

What Sadler did was a good thing, but Canyon John was not pleased. He told me later that he had rationed his water, had two ounces left, and didn’t need rescuing.

“We’re coming down and I see the two lights pop up from the creek,” Canyon John said. “I think it’s you and David. I kept saying, ‘Why are they coming toward us?'”  But it wasn’t David and me, it was the search and rescue fellow and Sadler, a woman John had read about and whose name he recognized.

[“Christa Sadler is a geologist, educator, wilderness guide and writer with a serious addiction to rivers, deserts and mountains,” according to the National Geographic Expedition web site.]

Jim was more generous.

“Lenny and I needed water,” he said. “We would have made it, but we would have been miserable.”

But, Jim said, “’assisted’ is a better word than ‘rescued.’”

The cliff

David knew that his brother had fallen once, and he had been worried about him. What he didn’t know was that Jim had fallen again, off a cliff he was trying to climb down without taking off his backpack.

Jim McDonald, bruised but unbroken.
Jim McDonald: Bruised but unbroken.

The first fall was just bad luck, or good luck, depending on how you look at it.  The edge of a narrow section of trail gave way and down the slope he went, 10 or 15 feet, Canyon John said. The fall skinned him up some and gave him a black eye – he must have banged his head against something – but he got back up.

Jim said the trail had “crumbled” under his boot. He was lucky.  The spot where the trail crumbled could just as easily have been next to a cliff.

This is the cliff where Jim fell and that's Jim, climbing out the way out of the canyon.
This is the cliff where Jim fell and that’s Jim, climbing it on his way out of the canyon.

The second fall, off a cliff he was trying to climb down, was his bad.  This was Jim’s sixth overnight trip into the canyon and his second hike down the Nankoweap Trail and he told me he was “shocked” at how comfortable he felt.

“That’s why I fell; I was too comfortable.  I was  careless.  I’m very, very lucky I’m not dead.”

Jim got up again, bruised, but all in one piece. He had prepared for the Nankoweap by hiking Piestewa Peak, which he can see from the backyard of his home in Phoenix, and he thinks that’s why he wasn’t injured: “You don’t walk away from that if your body is not strong.”

Canyon John told me, “I actually saw it.” He said he heard Jim yell, “And when I turned, he was right at eye level. My first thought was, he’s gonna die.”

“It shook me up,” Canyon John said.  “It shook Lenny up.”

Lenny Frye: He gave Jim a "9" for sticking the landing.
Lenny Frye: He gave Jim a “9” for sticking the landing.

The backpack Jim was wearing must have partially cushioned his fall. When Lenny saw that Jim appeared to be OK, Canyon John said “Lenny, was like, ‘Dude, you stuck the landing. That was like a 9!’”

[Canyon John told me he thought Jim fell 15 feet vertically, maybe a little more. After looking that cliff over on the way back, I think he fell vertically about 20 feet; Jim thinks he fell about 25 feet. After more time passes, and this story gets retold a few times, Canyon John will be saying 25 feet, I’ll be saying 30 feet and Jim will be saying his parachute didn’t open.]

[Oh, yea, I fell too, once. It was a little, bitty fall, right before I got to the creek. Nothing to it, really, except for one thing — I rolled across a cactus.]

Will there be a next time?

Stick a fork in me, I’m done with the Nankoweap Trail.   But Canyon John says he is going again, so he can hike from there to Kwagunt Creek, and I think Lenny and Jim and David will go with him in spite of any reservations anyone has now.

At first Lenny said he told himself, “There is no damn way in hell I’d do that trail again.” But after a couple of weeks, he said, he started thinking, “You know, that wasn’t so bad.”

“I’m kind of 50-50,” he said.  “I’m not going to go out of my way to do it again,” but his “No” has become a “Maybe.”

Jim told me, “I would hike it again. Will I hike it again? I don’t know. I go where John goes.”

When I asked David if he wanted to hike the Nankoweap again he was clearly conflicted.

“The first time I did it [spring, 2016] I was absolutely, 100 percent sure one of us was going to die,” he said. “The second time [this time]… I was fearful that someone would die, but I didn’t have the [100 percent] confidence I did the first time.”

That's me, trying to get around the place David hated. I didn't like it much myself.
That’s me, trying to get around that tight spot David hates. I didn’t like it much myself.

“I thought the trail was terrifying,” he said, especially the tightest place, where a bolder prevents you from leaning away from the abyss.  “I hate that spot.  I hate that spot!” he repeated.

So, do you want to go back or not?

“I guess the answer is, not really. But if John said, ‘Hey, I’m going to the Nankoweap,’ I’d go. I feel the pull of going back.”

NOTE: I feel the pull too, David, but I’m determined to get over it.

Coming Friday: Motivating With Money

The Nankoweap: Don’t Look Down – Part 2 of 3

There were five of us on the Nankoweap Trail hike last month: Canyon John, AKA John Laneve, 58; David McDonald, 60; David’s brother, Jim, 62; Lenny Frye, 63, and me. I’m 75.

Lenny Frye [LtoR], Pat Stith, Jim McDonald, David McDonald, John Laneve
Lenny Frye [LtoR], Pat Stith, Jim McDonald, David McDonald, John Laneve
Those guys all grew up in Lynchburg, VA, and went to school and played basketball at Holy Cross. Lenny and Jim played together [Catholic League state camps, ’72] when Laneve’s father was the coach. David and John played on later teams.

Lenny and John still live in Lynchburg. The McDonald brothers moved away. Jim lives in Arizona, David in Connecticut.

David McDonald: he can hike
David McDonald: This guy could really hike.

All four of them have desk jobs but they can hike, especially David, a former long distance runner who, according to his wife, spends way too much time in the gym. For this hike he told me he trained upwards of two hours a day for a month, on stair-stepper and an inclined treadmill  – carrying a backpack weighing 35 pounds to start and then adding more weight later on.

* * *

Canyon John and Lenny were the most experienced canyon hikers in our group but the first time they tried to hike the Nankoweap, in 2007, they couldn’t get past the first really narrow part. Lenny said it was “skinnier” then than it is now, i.e., more dangerous.

“I got maybe 20 feet out there and froze up,” Canyon John said. “I couldn’t even turn around it was so narrow. I started to panic is what happened.”

Lenny Frye:
Lenny Frye: He saw the Nankoweap when  it was even more narrow, “skinnier,” he called it.

In 2015 he went back on a day hike and got past that point –the cliff had been chipped out some, he said– before turning around.

And then, in the spring of 2016, Canyon John, the McDonald brothers, and one of Jim McDonald’s sons, Michael, hiked all the way down, to Nankoweap Creek and then on to the Colorado River. Lenny, who has been hiking with Canyon John since 2000 and has spent about 30 nights in the canyon, wasn’t on that trip so he had never hiked the Nankoweap. And, of course, neither had I.

* * *

That's me, at the Indian granaries on the Colorado River.
That’s me, at the Anasazi granaries above the Colorado River.

In the Grand Canyon spectacular scenery is commonplace, there is another picture postcard around every corner. Words can’t describe it; photographs don’t do it justice. You pretty much have to go and see it for yourself.

Outside of the fellowship, and a certain sense of accomplishment, the highlight of the trip, for all of us, I think, was the hike down to the Colorado River and the Anasazi granaries, which were cut into a sandstone cliff above the river around A.D. 1100.  We  climbed up there, soaked up what folks who know more than I do say is the most amazing view in the Grand Canyon, and then had lunch on the beach next to the Colorado. What a day!

The black tip of the hiking pole is a little over three inches long.
The black tip of the hiking pole is about three inches long.

But there are all sorts of other memories:

When we got up on that first morning in the canyon Lenny spotted a tarantula a couple of feet from his tent. Biggest spider I ever saw, two or three inches across. It was a hairy, scary looking thing but, I’ve read, tarantulas are only mildly poisonous. Some people keep them for pets; we left this one alone.

This Mule deer kept his distance.
This mule deer kept his distance.




Later that week I woke up to a commotion caused by a mule deer, a buck with a big rack, who was running hard when he passed close by our tents. Jim, who was up early, was the only one who saw him. But after breakfast Lenny, David and I hiked up the draw and, lo and behold, there he was, a ten-pointer. He saw us but he didn’t run away. Instead, he moved ahead of us up the draw, keeping his distance but stopping sometimes to stare, wondering perhaps, “What are you guys doing here?”

There were a lot of wild flowers in bloom.
We saw a lot of wild flowers.

There were a lot of beautiful wild flowers blooming in the canyon. I don’t know their names, but I brought back pictures.

On the way down into the canyon, at Marion Point, we saw our first petroglyphs.  Later we saw more of them, upstream a little way from our camp, drawn on a large, reddish-brown bounder.  Canyon John looked them up somewhere and told us,

Artwork, 800 years old.
This Indian artwork is 800-plus years old.

“Archaeological studies on these petroglyphs indicate they were placed on this rock around 1050-1175 A.D.”

I looked for Indian pottery but didn’t find any.   However, we saw several broken of pieces of pottery found by others and left at our campsite.

Pottery at our campsite.
Pottery left at our campsite, and a tool.

There was one tool, the white stone at the bottom of the photo.  It was still sharp enough to butcher an animal. We left everything like we found it, of course. Removing artifacts from the canyon is not permitted.

* * *

OK, enough about what we saw. Tomorrow we’ll go back to the trail — The Fall[s], The “Rescue,” and The Future.

Continued tomorrow.