Thunder River - September 11-13, 2010

Submitted by Pat

Day 1

This was the big trip, the true backcountry experience, the trip I had labored over for months, planning food, buying gear, nearly lighting my kitchen on fire trying to figure out how to use the little ultra-light cook stove, and reading everything I could find about the trail. This was our first time carrying heavy packs on a hike - and mine felt very heavy - I was surprised, a little discouraged, and determined. I couldn't believe that carrying a tent, a thermarest pad, a small stove, freeze dried food, powdered milk, an emergency beacon, kitchen implements, a first aid kit, a change of clothes and water for one day could weigh so much. And we had to start the hike by carrying two gallon jugs of water to cache on the trail for our climb back out three days later.

While we were preparing our gear, the grace wave swept over us - a group of four men arrived at the trailhead. One of them was familiar with the trail and they were going for a day hike. They asked us about our plans and we told them. Then the guide offered to carry our two gallons of water down the trail. His offer felt like a dash of kindness coming at us from the middle of nowhere. Nancy loaned one of them her pole to ease the strain on his knees so it felt like the wave was going both ways.

When we were finally ready, we started off walking the trail along the rim, through mesquite and juniper, over rolling hills, seeing evidence of a long ago forest fire. We were at a little over 7,000 feet in altitude and with the heavy pack and my difficulty breathing Nancy soon left me behind. I struggled to keep up, to breathe and to stay positive, but I have to admit I was pretty disappointed in myself. Feeling like this I wasn't going to last an hour, let alone three hard days. But I had already turned us back once and I was not going to turn us back before we had even started climbing down. I sucked it up and breathed.

The Bill Hall Trailhead was two cairns sitting on the rim of the Canyon with the trail going straight down the side, through white rock, sharp, steep, with big steps, straight down. We moved slowly and I was able to stay with Nancy. I even led the hike a couple of times as the steepness leveled out and we started traversing the side of the cliff on a rolling path, with the side of the cliff straight up on our right and straight down on our left. The trail was easy to follow, but nothing like the well manicured and switchbacked corridor trails. The views were magnificent, the sky cloudless, the temperature perfect - I wanted so badly to just feel strong and happy to be alive, but underneath I felt anxious - Am I going to make it? This pack weighs a ton, my legs feel like lead, and we have ten more miles of this before we rest?

We reached a place in the trail that a trip report had described as the 49 switchback section - it was a 15-foot downclimb - where we met the men who were carrying our cache water. They generously offered to take our packs so we lowered them down and downclimbed the section with relative ease. We stood and talked with them for a while. They had decided not to hike all the way down to the Esplanade and said they would cache one gallon of water at the end of their day hike, wherever that turned out to be. Nancy grabbed the other gallon and we started down a series of less steep switchbacks, with a huge expanse of Canyon below us. The Esplanade is a layer that is visible only West of Powell Plateau on the North side of the river, and Garnet Canyon on the South. It is a relatively flat area full of red sandstone and amazing rock shapes carved by wind and water. We reached the intersection of the Thunder River Trail, our first major waypoint.

Walking along the Esplanade was an exercise in staying upright - the views were amazing and everywhere were huge rock shapes and water carved overhangs offering a bit of shade. The footing was good and I spent more time looking up and out than at the trail so the occasional stumble became part of my ritual. We came to a deep overhang with a cave scoured into the rock that went back maybe 30 feet. A perfect spot to cache our second gallon of water. We had written on the bottle Piper - please leave! - and we left it on a shelf of rock about halfway toward the back of the cave. It should be safe there. We had already seen evidence of other water caches and knew no one would take it. Everyone would know our survival depended on it being there for us on the hike out.

I began feeling better as we sat in the shade and ate. Our overhang was part of a huge amphitheatre of red slickrock - we memorized the location and knew we would easily find this place again on our way back. After a brief rest we resumed our trek toward the next major downclimb to Surprise Valley. We crested the redwall cliff and started down a jumble of rocks on an unmaintained but recognizable trail. It was hot. I was feeling it. My pack was heavy and a muscle in my back was in spasm - high on my back, unrelenting. The worst part was that as the day wore on I realized that as soon as I put the pack on the muscle would tighten up and as soon as I took the pack off it released. I tried to ignore it, to put it in a place where I wouldn't feel it, to keep it away from my awareness, but I'm lousy at compartmentalizing and the discomfort stayed right on the edge of my consciousness.

Three quarters of the way down we stopped in the shade of a boulder to rest. Both of us were feeling the relentless heat and sun and we could see that as soon as we got down to Surprise Valley there was no shade at all until we reached Thunder River. The walk across Surprise Valley was hot, no way around it. And it seemed to go on forever. As we came over a rise we saw more valley ahead of us, hot, arid, dry desert. Not very welcoming, the Canyon showing its fangs, making us realize how small and how fragile we were in this desert landscape. With each sip of hot water I was aware of how close people who venture into the far reaches of the Canyon really are to their own death. When Nancy stopped and said, "Do you hear that?" I heard water, loud, rushing, clear, cold water - spilling out of the side of a cliff - Thunder River, the shortest river in the world - a series of tumbling waterfalls that run a half mile before descending below ground again. Tears flashed into my eyes. We were going to make it. And we finally had access to cold water.

We started down our last descent of the day, but it was bliss compared to Surprise Valley because it was in the shade. As we wound our way down the steady switchbacks, we could hear the sound of the water getting louder and louder. We took the spur trail to the base of Thunder River where we met others who were resting, bathing, getting water. Nancy had been here before on her river rafting trip and urged me to walk up close to the falling water. It was like stepping from an oven into a freezer - my skin stippling with goose bumps - wow, how could it be so cold? The rush of the water created a strong breeze and on the one hand I was happy and grateful for the coolness and the water and on the other hand I was freezing. Such a strange juxtaposition of two very different realities.

Once we had refreshed ourselves we realized we only had about an hour before the Canyon would plunge into darkness so we started back down the switchbacks to the Upper Tapeats campground, our first stop. To say that I wasn't exhausted by the time we reached a nice spot next to Tapeats Creek would be a lie. My hips were screaming, my back ached and spasmed, my legs felt like tree trunks - no strength or flexibility left - and my feet, my feet, were just plain finished with walking. I couldn't believe how good it felt to stop moving and sit down...

But we didn't have time to rest; we needed to set up camp, cook dinner, prepare our sleeping space, hang our food and put away any extraneous gear before we could actually lie down and rest. I made beef stew, freeze dried, and although there wasn't enough for seconds it tasted so good, warm and savory. I was surprised and happy. I had been worried about the food - it was really important to me that we eat well and have enough food to maintain energy.

If I hadn't been so tired the whole process of preparing dinner would have made me laugh - so many little steps and parts and pieces, hidden in zippered pouches throughout my pack were needed to reach the place of actually being able to sit down and eat. Putting the stove together was a task in and of itself, lighting it, always a nervous moment, finally a steady blue flame, then filling the single pot with water and waiting for it to boil, meantime setting up a thin metal windbreak around the stove so the wind wouldn't blow out the flame. And then finding the bowls and the sporks - spoon/fork combination utensils that folded down to a small size that nested in the bowls, which nested in the mugs, which nested in each other which nested in the pot which nested in a drawstring bag. While I was cooking, Nancy prepared our sleep area - it was hot down this far into the Canyon and the idea of sleeping in a tent was not appealing. So she laid down the ground cloth, our thermarest pads, our sleeping bag liners - Coolmax cocoons shaped like a mummy bag, and our luxurious camp pillows - and as it grew darker, turned on our little Black Diamond lantern.

We ate in relative silence. There wasn't a lot to say. We were both tired and by the time we had finished eating and cleaned up darkness was taking hold of the Canyon floor. The sound of Tapeats Creek rushing by our campsite erased all other sounds, perfect for sleeping. We crawled into our sleeping bag liners and I faced that inevitable and stark moment where I knew it was time to rest and I could feel my body thrumming with exhaustion. It felt like I was still walking, still humping that heavy pack, and my mind was not ready to stop thinking and worrying about the next day.

As we laid there trying to find a comfortable position I heard some rustling in the leaves near my head. I turned on my headlamp and saw the hind end of a mouse scuttling into the shadows. I had read cautionary tales about mice and squirrels and ravens who haunt the camping areas looking for food. And here we were, lying under the stars, right on the ground with only a thin piece of material covering our bodies. I turned out the light and hoped for the best. Five minutes later Nancy yelped and sat up - a mouse has just run through her hair. This was seriously not ok, but again the idea of sleeping in a tent as hot as it was felt too much. Maybe it was just one mouse and it was gone now.

But, no, five minutes later a mouse ran across my feet and I yelled and sat up. Nope, this wasn't going to work. It was either set up the tent or get no sleep. We set up the tent by the light of our headlamps. Great tent, by the way, easy to set up, lots of mesh to let in the huge expanse of sky and what little breeze blew through, and two separate doors so we didn't have to crawl on top of each other to get out in the night to pee. I breathed a hot sigh of relief - at least I didn't have to lie there anticipating a mouse crawling on me. It was hot, but no creatures could scare us. We just had to deal with turning off our brains and finding a place where we could actually rest. Not easy. Long night. I have no idea how long we slept between waking, but morning dawned awfully early.

Day 2

My recollection of the morning has dulled as time has passed. Consciously or unconsciously I have pushed away the details of what I did and said and felt. I lit the stove for coffee and tea water, then made breakfast. Granola with milk (powdered), Tang and a fruit bar. While we were packing up I started really thinking about the day. Nancy read the trail description for the section of the trail from Upper Tapeats to Lower Tapeats and over to Deer Creek along the Colorado River. As she was reading, I caught snippets like Although the Park Service recommends using that trail, it is accessible only when the creek is low and the route requires a second ford farther downstream and occasional scrambling and two downclimbs en routeā€¦ The trail that follows the west bank is equally as rough...You must lower your backpack and downclimb two ledges in order to proceed...The rugged trail continues...One trail leads straight ahead, continuing the traverse. That high trail is marked with cairns and has led many a hiker astray. It dead-ends high above Bonita Creek and 400 feet above the river. Do not follow that trail! It's not like I hadn't ever read this description, but I was actually feeling the reality in the moment right in the actual place rather than safe at my computer at my desk in my house in Jaffrey, NH!

As we were packing up I did a mental inventory of our food situation and realized that while we had just enough food we didn't really have enough snack-type food to keep us fueled and energized on the actual hike. Our dinner food was just enough, one helping, not enough for seconds. We started to sterilize water from the creek for the day's hiking and after one liter Nancy asked why the light on the device was red instead of green. The Steripen (a device that looks like a pen that uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and nasties in backcountry water) we were using to sterilize our water had run out of batteries! You have got to be kidding. I cursed myself for not replacing them - I had even thought about it, but when I saw it was some esoteric battery that I would probably have to order on the Net I decided to ignore it and hope. Yes, I had a backup - iodine pills - which we dropped into our Camelbacks and Nalgenes. My confidence took a huge blow.

The trail to Deer Creek, our next camping area, was only 5 miles or so, nothing like the 10.4 we had done the day before, but the description of how rugged it was, the uncertainty of crossing the creek or not, not having enough food, having to use iodine pills to sterilize our water, and the fear of getting lost eroded my confidence. I questioned my ability to safely carry myself and my pack over challenging terrain for another three days. My courage took a punch in the gut.

Nancy brought my attention back to our decision point. To go on or to go back. Either way it was a long hike out. I knew neither option offered much fun or comfort. Neither option guaranteed I could make it back. Two days ago I had turned us away from reaching the Colorado River on the Lava Falls route. Here I was contemplating turning around again. I could barely stand to think about it, let alone look Nancy in the eye and be honest. I was exhausted, I was sore, and while I knew I could probably make it to Deer Creek, the idea of spending two more really long, hard days hiking in the heat on poorly marked trails was pushing me over the edge.

I didn't just stand up inside my skin and make a firm decision that I felt good about, that I could live with. I stood there and cried, seeing the disappointment in Nancy's eyes as she let in the fact that once again we weren't going to make it to the river. She said she felt she could make it to Deer Creek, but she didn't think she could make it to Deer Creek and emotionally carry me along with her. I needed to do that on my own and the only way I could imagine continuing the hike was to grab my guts and push beyond every limit I had ever known, to force myself to carry a heavy pack for two more days, without enough food, with foul tasting water, on a difficult trail. When I was younger I would have pushed on - on this day I stood in my disappointment and shame and said I needed to turn around.

A pall of sadness descended on our camp as we finished packing up in silence. We decided we would hike up to Thunder River in the cool of the morning and spend the heat of the day by the waterfall, then ascend the last bit of trail to Surprise Valley after the sun had set and walk as far as we could before setting up camp. Then we would get up early the next morning and climb up the redwall to the Esplanade before it got really hot and slowly work our way back up to the rim, picking up our water caches as we went.

The only thing that felt good was that we had a plan. I had made a decision and I still felt awful. I was still exhausted, still sore, and now I felt disappointed and raw. I had worked so hard to plan this hike and if I could have picked one hike to finish on this trip, this one would have been it. But it was not to be and I made the decision. So we threw on our backpacks with a collective groan and started back up the switchbacks to Thunder River.

We arrived mid-morning and found a spot on the spur trail to the waterfall where we could sit in the shade and spend the hours waiting. I spent the waiting time writing and thinking, occasionally walking up to the river to refill our Nalgenes, then made us a late lunch with the meal I had planned for dinner - Tuscan Beef Stew with Polenta - freeze dried of course. It tasted good, but it was hard to sit in this glorious place and just be happy. I knew Nancy had wanted to go on - I wanted to go on too, but not feeling so sore, so tired, and uncertain that I could actually make it and not endanger Nancy. So we sat together in this disappointment - we talked and cried and napped and talked some more.

Around 5 o'clock we packed up, filled our Camelbacks and Nalgenes with fresh iodine tasting water, and walked the last mile of switchbacks until we passed over the rim to Surprise Valley. The sun was directly in front of us, slowly slipping down past the Canyon cliffs ahead. We walked for an hour until we were maybe halfway between Thunder River and the bottom of the next difficult upclimb to the Esplanade. We found a spot that had been used for camping before and set up our tent. We ate a snack, changed clothes and finally, as the last streaks of light faded from the sky, laid our bodies down.

In spite of our disappointment, we watched the stars. Nancy showed me Orion, her favorite constellation, and we both marveled at how big the sky was, how many stars we could see, how small and insignificant we were lying in this orange tent in the middle of the desert. Watching the stars, talking and laughing took some of the sting out of our disappointment. I had done the right thing and coming back up and spending the night in Surprise Valley was also the right thing. Lying in that tent in that moment in time was exactly where I needed to be.

Day 3

We didn't get much sleep. I woke up at one point and it felt like I was lying on cement. My thermarest had a hole in it and although I tried to blow it up, it wouldn't hold any air so I spent the rest of the night lying on hard ground. We were up before the sun, eating our granola and packing up camp as fast as we could. Our goal was to get up to the Esplanade before the heat of the day and we set out to climb one of the steepest sections of the trail. I barely remember the climb up. I know it was hard and I know it was steep and I know we picked the perfect time to climb.

As we were approaching the last pitch we met a couple of hikers on their way down. They were from Boston, very friendly, hoping to complete the loop we hadn't been able to do. We told them our story of woe - turning around, Steripen not working, thermarest with a hole in it, not enough food - and they in turn told us their story. They had spent the night on the Esplanade, but when they went to set up their tent they found they had packed their tent fly, not the actual tent, so it was a cool night - and one of them had a thermarest with a hole in it. We commiserated for a few minutes then we started up and they started down. All of a sudden it occurred to me and I yelled, "Hey, would you like to borrow our tent? We sure aren't going to be using it." They didn't hear me, but Nancy heard me and yelled out to them even louder. They stopped and considered the offer and I think we all felt the grace wave wash over us. They smiled in a big way and said, "Sure, that would be great. We'll mail it back to you at the end of our trip." We even traded Nancy's thermarest for the one they had that had a hole in it. Everyone won - we were all smiles - it was the happiest moment of the trip for me thus far.

As they dropped out of sight, we topped the rim to the Esplanade and began walking on relatively level ground back to our water cache. We had decided to stop and rest there, eat a hot lunch, and load up on energy for the last nasty, steep climb back to the rim. Today's meal was freeze dried lasagna. Nancy said it was her favorite meal yet - it tasted delicious - and we sat with our backs against a ledge and rested for an hour. The sun was hot and the red slickrock stood out against a deep blue sky. Back on with the packs - my back muscle going into spasm before I had taken twenty steps - and it didn't feel any lighter for the food we had eaten.

We reached the junction of the Bill Hall Trail and started our last climb of the day. Long switchbacks that gradually became steeper and shorter. I kept my head down, concentrating on moving forward, staying hydrated, and feeling my legs start to become more tired with every step. On our way up, we occasionally stopped in the shade of a tree and rested, but taking off our packs was not a good idea because putting them back on was hell. We reached the spot where the hikers we had met at the trailhead cached our other gallon of water. Alongside the plastic jug was a baggie full of trail mix. This time we did sit and take off our packs, drink our fill, and rest for a while. Such a nice gift to find in the middle of a tough day.

We kept going, resting less and less often, and were relieved to reach the steep upclimb part of the trail where we had caught up with our water carrying friends. No one was there this time to lift our packs, so we decided to climb with them on. Not easy, but not devastatingly hard. We were up and onto the rolling section of trail that traversed the cliff. I remembered walking this section in short order, but on the way back it was like it went on and on and on. Around every corner I hoped to finally see the trail turn left to climb the last bit to the top, but the trail wouldn't behave and we slogged on. Both of us were tired, both of us were finished with climbing, both of us were quiet. There was no laughter or joking or talking. We had our heads down and we silently moved forward step by step.

Finally the trail turned off and started up the last pitch. I remembered this climb as being fairly short, but today it felt interminable. We would get so close and think we were there and be disappointed by another long climbing pitch. Step by step, heads down, no more looking at the views or feeling connected to this wonderful place or to each other - I just pushed my body up the cliff until we reached the cairns that marked the start of the Bill Hall Trail. We made it. We didn't celebrate - we took a few pictures and started back to the car. Nancy had two empty plastic gallon jugs hooked to the back of her pack. If I could have found the humor, I would have laughed.

I fell back into my own thoughts as we walked the last rolling stretch of trail and they weren't pleasant. Something had changed - something had changed inside me and between us. I could feel it, but didn't have the words to name it. Mixed with the relief of making it out without sickness or injury was a feeling like acid in the back of my throat. Burning, not easy to wash away with water, reminding me that I had made the decision to turn around. We were zero out of two attempts and I carried that on my shoulders.

Today, almost two months later, I see more clearly that my years of pushing myself, of demanding that I give 100% all the time, and touching the edge of my physical and emotional strength were really important to me. I defined myself by what I could do, what I could endure, what I could conquer - my physical strength was a way I measured my worth. I found joy in pushing myself, making it to the top, even though it was hard and sometimes it really hurt. This, as I said to Nancy, is the good stuff.

Over the past couple of years, and especially in Thunder River, I have repeatedly come face to face with the fact that I don't have the same physical strength that I had 6 years ago when I started hiking and set goals to climb all these mountains. Now hiking hurts, it hurts my body, my knees, my back, it hurts my sense of self and I no longer have fun when I push myself. It's hard to breathe and sometimes I can't keep up no matter how hard I try. Pushing is no longer the "good stuff." I've changed - my body has changed, my heart is changing, and my life is taking a different turn. I'm not sure where I'm going yet, but holding on to what we had during those wonderful years that Nancy and I spent climbing the 67 4,000 footers in NE is simply not possible. That's what hurts so much, I think, that I have tried to hold on and keep it what it was, while at the same time knowing that I can't hold on, that something has changed, and that I need to open my eyes and see it.

Today I see it. The time of pushing myself physically is over. It's not fun anymore and pushing doesn't feed me like it used to. It's time to stop mourning the past, to hold onto the experience as the blessing it is, and look out toward the horizon of a new day.