The first day was the easiest. We did 4.6 miles to the trailhead and an additional four miles in the canyon. After a mile of descending trail, the snow near the rim ended and walking became easier and required less caution. We found the junction with the Royal Arch Route and turned west on the plateau. It was easy walking with distant vistas across the canyon.
About 4:30 we selected a camp site. The wind had increased and the sunny skies were gone. We unsuccessfully sought a spot out of the wind. Todd had an A-frame tarp and a piece of plastic as a ground sheet. I had taken the footprint and rainfly from my summer tent. As a precaution against wind we placed large stones over the tent pegs and tied two windward corners to bushes using some cord.
As we prepared supper dark grey clouds to the north began dropping precipitation and moving closer. I began to question my decision not to bring a tent. I pulled the rainfly closer to the ground to prevent rain from blowing too far under the sidewall. Before long snowflakes fell and I breathed a sigh of relief. Snow was better than rain!
Todd and I standing with our backs to the snow coming across the canyon. (Larger version)
Day two welcomed us with a light dusting of snow and the promise of some sun. We were up by 6:30 AM, fixed coffee, had breakfast, filtered water, packed and leisurely set out by 9 AM. Had we known what awaited us and that the day wouldn't end until well after dark we would have started earlier.
Todd and my son filtering water from beneath a skim of ice. (Larger version)
I pick my way up hill where a thin layer of snow covers the upper canyon. (Larger version)
Some ledges were covered with a thin layer of ice so we chose our steps cautiously but basically it was easy going. We took an extended lunch break. After lunch we dropped into Royal Arch Creek and the going became a little more difficult. In early afternoon we came to a drop of over 100 feet that required bypassing on the left via the "ledge" route or on the right via the "alternate" route. We chose the alternate as agreed months ago.
Todd follows as I lead along the alternate route. (Larger version)
At one point high above the canyon floor there is an overhanging ledge and a tree. It's necessary to remove backpacks, get on hands and knees to crawl under the overhand and push or pull the pack along. As I walked up to the tree I heard a voice from the other side.
"Hello, want some help with the pack?"
We met a man and two young men (his sons?) returning from two nights at Toltec Beach. It was their vehicle that we had parked beside at the ranger station. They had come down the route from Point Huitzil and were returning that way. They has passed an older and younger man, the group dropped near the trailhead by the woman and her son.
Once we returned to the canyon floor the going became rough. Rather than walking on slick rock were were boulder hopping, avoiding pools of water and searching for the way around huge choke stones.
Finally we came to a large stone at an oblique angle that dropped us into a pool of water that couldn't be avoided. Using a trekking pole we measured the depth and decided we could unzip our pant legs, remove boots and socks and wade. I led the way, removed a boot, placed it near the edge of the pool and knocked it into the water as I removed my second boot. It began to fill with water but I managed to grab it before it sank. C'est la vie!
Todd drops his pack to my son. (Larger version)
My son, followed by Todd, is removing his pant legs and boots to wade a pool of water. (Larger version)
About 30 yards from this pool was another stone and another pool. A deeper pool. Our only recourse was to strip from the waist down. Strangely, this pool felt warmer than the first pool. It must have been at least 45 degrees.
By this time it was obvious that we wouldn't get out of the canyon onto the plateau before dark. Camping in a canyon entails the risk of a flash flood. A small rain up canyon can cause a flood fifty feet deep or more to come down the narrow part of the lower canyon. We decided we had enough water so, without stopping, we continued with headlamps.
We found the route out of the canyon and began climbing in the dark. This is a route marked by stacks of stones. In the dark we missed some turns and came to dead ends, walls or brush that forced us to back up, retrace a few steps and search for the correct way. In the dark we didn't know if a fall would end 10, 20 or 100 feet below.
Finally we made the plateau and decided to take a break. Our intention had been to get to Toltec Beach on the Colorado River. However, the river is over 800 feet below the plateau and a rappel from a narrow ledge to another narrow ledge is part of the descent.
I didn't feel good about doing this in the dark and there was not compelling reason so I decided we would stop for the night. We found the best of several bad spots, dropped a ground cloth, mats and sleeping bags. To keep from sliding down the gentle slope we placed our backpacks at our feet.
I felt good. No pain. No worries. It was a good tired feeling.
I'm about to slide into a sleeping bag for the night. The temperature dropped to the mid-twenties. (Larger version)