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.

The Nankoweap: Don’t Look Down – Part 1 of 3

I’m glad I didn’t listen.

If I had listened, or paid attention to the YouTube videos of the Nankoweap Trail, I might have missed out on a once in a lifetime hike. [I mean that figuratively and literally — I’m not going back.] But I’m glad I hiked the Nankoweap last month [Oct. 16-23].  It was beautiful beyond words. Challenging, too, a high risk, high reward adventure.

The Nankoweap Trail is in the Grand Canyon National Park, in what’s called “back country,” and when I was invited to go I went to the Internet to see what the National Park Service had to say about it.

The description wasn’t too worrisome.

This is a mostly waterless trail, with significant exposure in places,” the park service said. “This trail is not recommended for people with a fear of heights.”

I’m afraid of heights but it wasn’t too worrisome because this wasn’t my first rodeo. I was a Grand Canyon backpacking veteran, or so I thought. In 2012 I hiked rim to rim, down the North Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and back up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. I thought I knew what narrow looked like.

I was greatly mistaken.

This is a wide spot in the tail where I sat down to rest, leaned over, and took this photo.
This is a wide spot in the Nankoweap Trail. When I sat down to rest I leaned over and took this photo.

Significant exposure,” it turned out, meant that part of the trail, a mile or more, heck, several miles by my reckoning, is 12 inches wide or less. Some of it is boot wide and tilted toward steep slopes that end in cliffs. Sometimes the cliff is right there beside the trail. If you fall you could get hurt, bad. You could get killed.

In a word, the Nankoweap Trail was hairy beyond anything I had ever seen, and I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

I’m not the only one saying that about the Nankoweap, either.

This trail is not one to be taken lightly,” an outdoor photographer posted. “The Park Service lists it being the ‘MOST difficult of the named trails in Grand Canyon’ and after hiking it once I would have to say that I must agree with that classification. The Nankoweap in many places is simply trouble waiting to happen…”

Now, let me pause right here.

A lot of it look like this, or worse.
A lot of the Nankoweap Trail looked like this, or worse.

A lot of you, backpackers especially, think I am exaggerating. I understand — I know why.  When I hiked the A.T. in 2015 I ran into right many folks, bless every one of them, who overstated the difficulties of the trail they had just hiked, and that I was about to hike. I might even have done that myself a time or two.

But there is no exaggerating the difficulties you will encounter on the Nankoweap. The National Park Service recommends that you allow two days to hike eight miles, from the trail head at the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park to Nankoweap Creek. Two days? That’s a clue, friend. On almost all of the A.T. I can hike eight miles before lunch, backwards. Well, OK, not backwards, but you get my point.

On the rim to rim hike in the canyon I did five years ago I was on what’s called a “corridor trail” and what I now call a “tourist trail.”

Phantom Ranch in the Fall.
Phantom Ranch in the Fall.

There were scores of other hikers out there with us. We were in the canyon three days and two nights and we stayed at campgrounds with picnic tables and a bathroom. There were rest areas with water. We ate supper at a restaurant at the bottom, near the Colorado River, called Phantom Ranch. There was a water fountain on a side trail in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoyed that hike. I did, a lot, and the friends I hiked with too. But in no way did it prepare me for the Nankoweap.

* * *

You may be wondering, so? Didn’t anyone slip and fall on the back country hike?


And I’ll get to that.

* * *

Jim McDonald, L, Pat Stith
Jim McDonald, L, Pat Stith

I was invited to hike the Nankoweap by a new friend, Jim McDonald. Jim emailed me last April about a review I had written about the movie, “A Walk In The Woods,” a comedy about the Appalachian Trail. [I didn’t like it.] I wrote back and we began corresponding. Jim told me he was a backpacker too, mostly in the Grand Canyon, and in June he invited me to hike the Nankoweap Trail.

For years I had wanted to go on a back country hike in the Grand Canyon, but I wanted to go with someone who knew exactly what they were doing. And when Jim told me the hike organizer’s trail name was “Canyon John” I told him to count me in. You don’t want to go hiking in the back country with someone who’s called “Lost Again;” you want to go with “Canyon John.”

Canyon John Lavene
Canyon John Laneve: This was his 29th hike in the Grand Canyon.

This would be Canyon John’s 29th hike in the Grand Canyon –a total of more than 100 nights– and he tried to warn me about the Nankoweap, a trail he had been unable to hike the first time he tried, in 2007.

When Jim told Canyon John, whose real name is John Laneve, that I had accepted an invitation to join them, John responded:

Jim – you can forward this to PAT. As he may want to view these to see the most dangerous part of this trail.”

Go to YouTube, he said in his email, type in “Chris Eacker” and take a look at his Nankoweap videos.

[You might want to look at them yourself, paying closest attention to #4 [0:35]; #5 [0:19]; #9 [0:13], #10 [0:27], #11 [1:11] and #14 [0:42]]

Jim is the main reason I ignored those warnings. He forwarded Canyon John’s message to me along with one of his own:

All this is very helpful, but the only way to truly understand this is to do it. It is not nearly as intimidating in person as it is in these videos.”

I wanted to believe him, so I did.

Canyon John told me after the hike, “I wasn’t trying to scare you. I just wanted you to know what you were getting yourself into.”

Continued tomorrow.