The hike out was proper payment for the landscapes we had seen over the last three days. 10 miles and over 2000ft of climbing, most of which came all at once in the last mile. The 30lb packs piled on our backs didn’t seem so difficult on the gradual hike down to camp on Day One, but the ~40 miles of hiking over the last 48 hours was beginning to take its toll. And to make matters worse, my Camelbak was dry…
Friday afternoon we packed our bags and set off for Northern Arizona. A five hour drive had our seven-man expedition sitting atop an off-shoot of the Grand Canyon with only a few hours of sleep standing between us and the trailhead to Havasupai Falls. Truthfully, nobody got much sleep. The colder temperatures at the top of the canyon and the less than ideal sleeping arrangements (three guys each in the cab of two trucks and one lucky volunteer…guess who… in one of the truck beds) made the pre-trip night’s sleep more of an intermittent series of fifteen minute naps.
Saturday morning we pop up, strap up our packs, and head for camp. We leave the parking lot filled with over a hundred cars and immediately begin dropping. Only one mile in and we’ve already dropped 1000ft. After the initial decent, the slope becomes more gradual while the conversation gets drastically more abrupt. Throw seven immature guys together in any setting and the discussion topics will quickly become anything but appropriate. More often than not, our speeding up on the trail was a result of getting other hikers out of earshot rather than trying to get to camp more efficiently. The majority of the trail was winding through deep desert canyons painted with every shade of orange and red. The walls jutted up hundreds of feet on each side showing the multitude of sedimentary layers, each formed over millions of years of deposition and compaction. The path would change from sand to rocks to bridges to boulders and back to sand again.
8 miles in and we’ve arrived at the reservation. This was one of the more fascinating caveats to the trip; there was a reservation of 200+ Supai American Indians happily living their lives tucked at the bottom of this canyon. There were dozens of houses, a school, a church, as well as a few other community buildings. Amongst our group, the best explanations we came up with as to how they got the material down to the bottom of the canyon we just spent 4 hours hiking down was either the by mule or via the helicopter we would hear a couple times each day hauling the campers who didn’t have the desire to pack out their bodies, no less their packs.
The Supai community was an interesting one. We knew there was a remote reservation prior to arriving, but hadn’t seen any pictures to give us an idea of what it might look like. We began forming an expectation of teepees and clay huts and wild horses running everywhere. Although there were traces of these things here and there, it was a bit of a shock to see vinyl sided houses with giant Direct TV dishes atop the roofs. There was one part of the isolation that made itself very apparent: the price of food at the convenient store (yes, they have a convenient store) was a good three or four times retail value. How they are able to restock their shelves being in the middle of nowhere, nobody knows.
After checking in and getting our wristbands for the weekend, we continued our hike with only two more miles between us and the campground. The remainder of the hike was spent stomping through fluffy sand that kicked up dust with each passing hiker, mule, or ATV. Eventually, the trail brought us right up next to the turquoise waters of Havasu Creek. The brightness of this color is astounding. Between the chemical composition of the water giving it that blue hue and the reflective limestone creekbed, these are some of the most beautiful waters you’ll ever see. We continue along the creek until we hear the roaring of a waterfall. And just like that, we pop out at the top of Havasu Falls. The waters drop an impressive 98 feet, crash into the water below, and settle into a cool blue pool where we can see the people below have already begun cooling off after the long hike. We take a few pics of the iconic falls then rush to the campground below. We’ve decided to find and setup a campsite before rewarding ourselves with a swim and every minute we aren’t in that water is a minute too long.
We found the perfect site to host four hammocks and two tents. We get our shelter set up, throw on our swimmies, and make our way back to the falls. Teates had the genius idea of packing in a couple floaties and apart from having to donate a lung to get them blown up they were great to have. Him and I waded out into the water and plopped down on the full body floaties and laid back in awe at the situation we found ourselves in.
The group eventually split up for a bit. Some stayed lounging in the water, others went exploring around the smaller adjacent falls, and Cadby hiked back up to the top of the falls to get some shots with his fancy camera. The entire weekend operated in that manor. If you wanted to do something, see something, try something, you’d go do, see, or try it. The beauty was that nobody was at the mercy of another’s agenda, and more than likely you’d have a guy or group of guys that wanted to join you on that particular adventure.
The cold mist blowing off the base of the falls eventually cooled us off enough and we decided to head back to camp. We caught a quick nap to rejuvenate from all of the morning hiking (12-13 miles at this point) and got ready for our next expedition. Day packs on and Camelbaks full, we set out for Mooney Falls. The only thing that separated us from the bottom of the falls was a leisurely climb down 100 vertical feet of tunnels, ladders, and chains. It also didn’t help that we were going against traffic on a one-way road.
It’s tough to describe the climb to Mooney Falls since none of us (a group of guys who have seen their fair share of unique trails) have ever experienced anything like it. It had some similarities to the cave in the Goonies or something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, but nothing we have seen in real life. The decent has two tunnels that are maybe five feet tall by two feet wide. They’re both about twenty feet long with a ten foot gap between them that opens up and gives climbers their first view of the falls. Magnificent. Mooney has a similar look to Havasu Falls with its long, skinny flow, but these waters come falling down from twice the height. The people below look like ants. Unfortunately, the one thing we were able to depict from the small figurines below was that they were coming up and we were going down. We move back to the nearest passing zone and let a dozen hikers by before we are able to take our turn down the chains and ladders. A guy passing by told us the line to get down was an hour long when he went down just a few hours earlier.
Once through the second tunnel, the fun part begins. Steel chains hang from metal eyelets drilled and set in the rock. The chains and rocks are forever saturated by the mist blowing off the falls, so proper foothold and handhold are key. As you get halfway down the “trail”, you’ll get to the first of the ladders. These are also soaked by the mist and are as slick as wet bathroom tile. Finally, you get to the ground below and that first look up at the falls is unforgettable. Mooney Falls is 196 feet tall…twice as tall as the falls that just blew our minds a few hours earlier. The concave shape of the canyon around it shields it from the sun more than at Havasu Falls which gives it a less picturesque view, but there are few things more impressive than standing at the base watching the water crash down.
Eventually, we all make it to the bottom and before long we are flying off rope swings and exploring the caves behind some smaller falls. There’s something about taking a trip with such like-minded guys like that. The setting certainly helps, but the camaraderie and adventure seeking is why we all go.
The sun began dropping and we felt it’d be a good idea to get up to camp before we were climbing those chains and ladders in the dark. Back at camp, we made up some MRE’s, passed around the whiskey, and hit the hay.
We failed to wake up with the sun like we had planned, but it’s hard to blame us after the workout we had the day before. We refilled our water from the spring (a half mile from camp), had a breakfast MRE, and planned out our day. Ben Fox, Cadby, and Peek were going to hang out at camp for a bit then make their way down to Beaver falls (about 3.5 miles down river from camp) to get some photos. Billy, Steve, Teates, and myself were headed for the Colorado River confluence. This hike is 16 miles roundtrip and includes a dozen river crossings (each way), prime rattlesnake real estate, and many other obstacles standing between us and our objective.
Once again, we set off. Down the Mooney Falls trail (this time much quicker with less traffic and some experience under our belts) and down the canyon we went. We opted for no boots in an effort to reduce the need to stop at each river crossing to take them off, cross, dry our feet, and put them back on again. Instead, we all went with our choice of trekking sandal: Tevas or Chacos. Early on, this seemed to pay off. The trail wasn’t abundantly clear as to where we were supposed to cross, but the sandals allowed us to cross and inspect the other side for trails without worrying we might have to take off our boots and cross back over.
The hike itself was fairly easy. Mostly a gradual downward slope with some more Pirates of the Caribbean climbing features here and there. It was the distance that we had to account for. We looked to Steve for our time management to make sure we made it back before having to hit the Mooney Falls chains and ladders in the dark. He was also keeping an eye on our water consumption. We had a water filter that had yet to be assembled, let alone used, and there were no instructions, but if everything went according to plan we didn’t think we would need it.
We estimated our distance along the trail using a map on Steve’s phone that was more than likely created around the time Lewis and Clark were exploring this side of the country. We continued to overestimate how far along we were on the trail, but once we were a half mile from the confluence it became clear that we were actually “right around the corner” this time. The canyon walls looked like a blend of red, orange, and yellow chalk and their wavy shapes resembled that of the iconic slot canyons found in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. The canyon began closing in on us while the walls continued to rise. Next thing we know, we’re rounding the corner to the Colorado River.
The meeting of the two rivers was indescribable…but I’ll do my best. The last few hundred yards leading up to the confluence the water seemed to get even more turquoise and the canyon walls even more orange. The trail works its way upwards and just before we round the corner to the Colorado we are looking down to find the hundreds of massive fish swimming around where the water makes a definitive shift from a bright, clear blue to a dark, murky greenish brown. The color shift looked brilliant, but what was even more captivating was the force behind which the Colorado River flowed. An accidental slip and fall into that stream likely meant the end of you.
We posted up on a flat area overlooking the conjoining rivers for a while celebrating our accomplishment and taking in a view not many will ever get a chance to see. The only regret of the hike: not bringing a beer to sip on when we got there.
It was time to make our way back to camp and we were running low on water. We didn’t anticipate needing the water filter, but we were sure glad we brought it. Fortunately, Teates found the instructions when he looked in the carrying sack. Unfortunately, those instructions were in Mandarin. This is where our friend Steve, the Mechanical Engineer, came into play. We came to him with a dozen random parts in our hands and helplessly asked him to provide us with fresh water. He began fiddling with them, combining one with another, and when we finally felt we were able to successfully filter water we decided to let Steve, our water monitor, in on a little secret.
Turns out Billy had been utilizing his water for more than just keeping himself hydrated. Amidst the periodic water checks by Steve to make sure we wouldn’t have to rely on the unconstructed and untested water filter, Billy felt it necessary to use some of the only clean water we had to WET HIS HANDS. And for no better reason than he “thought they looked a little dry.” Now that we were out of the danger of dying of thirst on our way back, we were able to laugh about the “misunderstanding” and to this day I’m unsure whether or not Billy was kidding when he told us he also used a little to squirt at some ants on the path; wouldn’t put it past him.
Now that our Camelbaks were full we continued our journey back. Along the way we missed a few turns, encountered half a dozen bighorn sheep, and Teates came within five feet of stepping on a rattlesnake. Spooked him pretty good (for good reason) and after that anything that sounded remotely close to a rattler gave him a bit of a jump. We did a little swimming here and there on the way back since we were making such good time, no thanks to our foot ware. About a mile before we even reached the confluence, three of us abandoned our sandals to avoid the ever-worsening blisters. On the way back, I stuck with that decision and suffered through the sharp rocks and unbearable water crossings all the way back to camp. This was mainly because the alternative meant guaranteed blisters that would potentially put me in an even worse situation for the hike out the next morning, but there was certainly a point along the way when that rational explanation was no longer valid and the driving force became sheer pride.
Just before we reached Mooney Falls, we ran into the remainder of our group and finished the hike out together. Before we ascended the Mooney Falls climb, however, we took advantage of our seclusion with a few solo shots with the falls in the background which won’t likely make the final cut of this blog post. There are a number of reasons I won’t be able to publicly run for office, and these are certainly on that list.
Getting back to camp was a relief after tackling 16 miles in a day. We cooked up some more MRE’s, polished off what was left of the whiskey, and crashed. We were going to need our rest for the hike out tomorrow.
Tearing down camp didn’t take too long, and before we knew it we were leaving the place we had called home for the last couple of days. We would soon find out that the hike in left us with a wildly deceiving interpretation of what the hike out was to be. Turns out the people waiting at the helipad for their ride out weren’t as dumb as we took them to be. Sure, it wasn’t much of a climb for the majority of the way, but the steady incline and the toll we placed on our bodies over the last forty-eight hours made all the difference. We slowly broke off into two trains of thought: “don’t lose momentum” and “slow and steady wins the race”. Steve, Billy, and myself were in the former.
Being six foot six had it’s advantages, and for the nine miles of minimal uphill slope the long strides helped a great deal. We only stopped to rest once before we reached the steep portion and we were making better time than we did on the way in somehow. Once we hit the last mile, things became more difficult. By then, we were completely in the sun, dust was periodically being kicked up by the trains of donkeys trotting the other way, and water supply was running low. My Camelbak finally dried up and we still had another half mile to go. My legs were starting to turn to jello under the weight of my pack. My thoughts mainly consisted of plots to flag down the transport helicopter passing overhead and of the Oreos and jugs of water Steve had waiting in the truck for us.
I owe my life to Steve for packing an extra water bottle and Billy for the emotional support otherwise my body would likely still be somewhere on the final steps up that canyon face.
That trip was a one-of-a-kind experience. Those breathtaking views will certainly stick around at the top of my personal top ten list, but eventually that will change. In time, I will require another visit to Havasupai to refresh the images of the bright, turquoise waters cutting through the pastel colored canyon walls. What won’t fade, however, will be the memories of laughing until my stomach hurt when we told Steve about Billy’s water wasting or the stories we told at camp after tossing back some of the whiskey we weren’t supposed to bring or the accomplishment of those final few steps to the top of the canyon before crashing into the bed of the truck in utter relief. I’m sure I will be back there someday, but it likely won’t hold a candle to that trip with those guys.