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  • Writer's pictureIzzy Risitano

Grand Canyon 40-Miler: New Hance, Tonto, Hance Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Tonto, South Kaibab | Spring Break 2024


Left to Right: Brent, Willow, Gretchen, Izzy, Swapnil, Ben, Eliza, Owen

Before

In anticipation of many waking hours flying from Burlington to Phoenix for Spring Break in the Grand Canyon, I downloaded season 3 of The Sopranos to keep me entertained. In episode 11, Paulie and Christopher end up in the snowy pines of South Jersey after a collection gone wrong. As the episode progresses, the two ordinarily tough and proficient mobsters end up helplessly lost in the woods, resulting in a desperate rescue by Tony Soprano and Bobby Baccalieri. As the credits rolled, I silently chuckled at the irony of the first “wilderness” episode of the Sopranos coming up as I was in transit to my expedition and re-checked our route on Gaia before going on to the next episode.

 

I’d looked over this route countless times now. A steep jaunt down the New Hance Trail, meander down Tonto, up Hance Creek Trail to the top of Horseshoe Mesa, down Cottonwood Creek Trail, then continue down Tonto Trail until ascending South Kaibab on day 5. The route was colored by the day and I had almost every turn committed to memory. Though steep at times, I read over the topography with confidence and a general sense of unconcern. I’d soon find out, however, that I had more in common with Paulie in the likes of overconfidence than I thought. Topography can be deceiving in the canyon- especially by comparison to the Northeast.


Bag wrangling

Tight ride to the airport

Day 1

After a day and a half settling in above the rim, we woke up at Mather Campground (which had me singing “Mathers, the fun and games are over” from Eminem’s Brain Damage all week) at 5 am. The 8 of us, all from Saint Michael’s College Adventure Sports Center, silently got ready and hopped into the rental cars at 6:30 am. We dropped one vehicle at the Visitor Center then went a ways down Route 64 to the unmarked New Hance Trailhead. Other than one sing-along of Gretchen’s “Check the Rhyme,” the chatty bunch was quiet. As we arrived at the trailhead, we suited up in an unpleasant wind tunnel. Soon, the eight of us marched single-file down the road for the start of our 5-day trek.

Vlog footage that got mysteriously deleted two days later

Our group was composed of Ben, the Assistant Director of the center as lead instructor, myself as assistant instructor (really, just the one who has a Gaia hyper-fixation), seniors Eliza, Willow, and Swapnil, sophomore Owen (OB), and first-years Gretchen and Brenton.


Was not bold, did not start cold

As we began the descent of the New Hance trail, an officially unmaintained but somewhat tended to trail, exposure and loose footing quickly became the norm. By the 6,530-foot line to about 5,600 feet we endured our first of many exposed sections, then got a brief relief as we comfortably followed a drainage until the 1.7-mile mark, at 4,932 feet of elevation. After a spacious knob, New Hance Trail follows the unforgiving Redwall which has been obliterated by several rockslides.

Early views on New Hance

An early high-exposure section

Knob atop Red Wall

Early morning light over the Canyon

Though losing little elevation in its ~0.6 mile duration, the side hill over these rock falls was “sporty” as Ben would say. My pace turned to a crawl in these sections, a fear of heights combined with unstable footing was less than pleasant. At the last of these crossovers, I had gotten into the routine of passing my poles over but still had to take a hand on the other side. For members of the group not so scared of heights, this section was faster but still cautious. If anyone from the Northeast is reading this, I would describe this as a close comparison to descending the North Tripyramid Slide, but in the most horizontal manner possible.

Typical footing of the 0.6 side hill

Perhaps the sportiest rock slide

After the Red Wall side hill, we enjoyed a steep but more stable descent of dry-plant plains and red sand hills. There was a section of technical exposed-rock descent, but the footing was much more reliable in these times. As we got to the base of Red Canyon an old streambed took up the trail and though it was objectively easy, it was painful on my feet. This trip was the first time in two years I’d worn hiking boots instead of trail runners- and my feet desperately missed the wide-toe box of my Altras.

Stream bed for the end of New Hance Trail

Fascinating layers of geological history

As the Colorado River came into earshot, the tired state picked up speed briefly until we arrived at camp alongside Hance Rapids. The river was running brown, on account of snow melt coming down the Little Colorado. Despite its color and the long time to come through the gravity filters, the taste was surprisingly pleasant. After filtering, we cooked dinner and settled into camp. I broke from the group after brushing my teeth, to have my second cry of the day under the stars. I had never seen so many stars in my life- even with how bright the moon was on the North end of the Colorado, every planet and star was effortlessly visible.

Hance Rapids camp

Brilliant night sky from the bank of the Colorado

As I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I was constantly jolted back awake with visions of falling off of canyon side hills. Despite this, our 7:30 bedtime still got me plenty of sleep.

 


Day 2

When we got up, it turned out several folks had the same visions before bed. The situation of the setting I suppose! 

Sunrise from Hance Camp

The day got started ascending some dunes as we took the Tonto Trail away from the river. The footing was thankfully more stable, but the trail was in frightening proximity to a drop into Mineral Canyon as we moved around its exterior. When Swapnil called out the fall severity potential, I kept my eyes down and left- feverishly avoiding looking down several hundred feet to my right. Each drainage necessitated careful, often unhurried footing for the sake of safety. Willow joked we were like the Police song- “every step you take I’ll be watching you," through these high-anxiety treks.

Early steps on Tonto


Looking up at Horseshoe Mesa at right

At the base of Ayer Point, we again applied sunscreen and came around a loose and dry tributary to Hance Creek. Some 45 minutes later, we got to Hance Creek where we filtered water for our 2.2-mile carry to the top of Horseshoe Mesa. My already calloused feet were killing from the descent to the creek, so I was somewhat excited to start going uphill. With the addition of 4L of water, my pack was nearing 60 pounds as I brought way too much food. The beginning mile was only lightly sketchy and just rose 300 feet. This was alarming because we had another thousand to climb in a mile- again, I refrained from looking up and followed each footstep ahead of me. But, as we reached 4100 feet, shit got real. I shut down my fear as best I could until the knob outside Last Chance Mine. We took a pack break here, curiously peering into the gated cave in the wall behind us, and then continued upwards.


Last Chance Mine

Thin, crumbly trail

Mine artifact

I had never climbed topography so steep it formed a shadow rather than a series of lines- especially not with such a heavy pack. Each step was slow and laborious, it was challenging to center myself on the 8-12 inch single track. Discrete focus and according to everyone else, a lot of talking to myself, got me through. In three sections over this climb, I relied heavily on Ben’s coaching and assistance as I did not trust my balance with the pack at all. Though it was difficult to be so vulnerable while holding up the group, I found comfort in my ability to make moves that scared me. After coming through the final exposed climb, Ben told me to “walk towards the light” and crest the mesa. Those words, combined with the strong sun, let it all go.

The outright shadow formed by the ascent of Horseshoe Mesa

As I walked towards Gretchen and Liza at the top of the mesa, I cried beneath my ridiculous sunglasses out of pure relief. Once I put my pack down the same feelings rushed over me again and I shamelessly let it out. Climbing Horseshoe Mesa was terrifying and overwhelming, yet, when reflecting on the trip it nearly slipped out as my favorite part. Though it’s happening wasn’t my favorite thing, the fact I did it feels ecstatic. 

The top of the Mesa

Atop the mesa, there were several artifacts and ruins of the late-1800s mining operations on Horseshoe Mesa. Copper deposits averaging 30% made the area a hot spot for prospector hopefuls in the area. Some ore even contained 70% copper (Historical Marker Database). I remain curious about what the current class-4 Hance Creek Trail may have looked like for mine access some 130 years ago…

 

When the sunset that night, burned in a rich pink over the South Rim. As I ate the always disappointing “Three Sisters” Backpacker’s pantry meal, I supplemented it with an entire log of summer sausage for a reward. It was delightful to end day 2 with such glorious sunshine, as it was not promised for the rest of the trip. 

Sunset over the South Rim

Day 3

The descent of Horseshoe Mesa was thankfully far more tame than its ascent. The switchbacks more gently descended the feature and gradually dropped us atop Cottonwood Creek, where we saw the most concentrated groups of the trip. Coming down the creekbed was an easy stroll back to Tonto Trail, where we’d remain until the last day.

A chiller, but still steep descent off Horseshoe

Each of the steep-walled canyons we crossed on Wednesday rode immensely close to the edge. Just as before, I tried my best to not look down and take each step intentionally. I did, however, look all the way down to the water when we stood across from Newberry Butte from across the Colorado. When we completed our canyon-side walk, we got down to Grapevine Creek to enjoy our first “long day” at camp. We had the area to ourselves for several hours, and enjoyed long foot soaks, grazing on extra food, and plenty of much-needed stretching.

The reappearance of the Colorado


The bliss of a much needed foot soak

Camp relaxation

The original location of the boy's tent

Eventually, another couple came by but opted to camp at the neighboring West Fork after seeing a lack of available tent sites. We remained alone until 7:30 when a group of four came through. Though in my tent, it was easy to decipher that the boys were moving their tent to the middle of the stream bed, underneath a potential rockfall, to accommodate the incoming group’s three tents. Amongst the grumbling, Owen and Swapnil decided to cowboy camp, where OB was unexpectedly greeted by a ring-tailed cat in the wee hours of the morning. 

 

Day 4

When we got up, the concern of sunburns quickly moved to concerns of moisture. Thankfully the rain held off until the second our tents were away, but it continued for roughly 4 hours until 11 am when we got to Lonetree Canyon to filter water for the night and the following day. Other than the irrefutable chill we began the day in, the overcast and drizzle was a huge help in our 12-mile day. The less dry air and lower temperatures kept me comfortable and motivated until we got to camp, making for the first day I arrived without burning feet. 

A stunning contrast of rain & snow in the Canyon

This section had much closer bushes and brambles, drawing plenty of blood from my legs and arms over the morning. Thankfully, however, even though we came around 3 very large drainages and their many tributaries, we were never as close to the edge as days prior. I can happily say I was not scared of heights on day 4!

The most lively desert plant

The desert plants that drew blood

We camped peacefully in Cremation Creek that night, where each tent had a nice spot atop soft sandy soil. The group enjoyed several rounds of BS and comforting warm dinners- by now we had all discovered how inaccurate the water suggestions were on each bag and hydrated to satisfaction. The incoming clouds made it a chillier afternoon, but thankfully we were all in tents before the rain came in around 8 pm. 

Lonetree Creek

Cremation Creek camp

Day 5

Despite the persistent overnight rain, we were set on an early departure from the canyon and quickly packed up our gear. Most of the group opted to join my gluten-free routine of a bar for breakfast, and we left camp sharply at 6:30 am. The two neighboring drainages, both tributaries to Cremation Creek, had somewhat loose descents that required a little extra focus in their wet states. After coming out of the second, we kept on to a relatively flat desert plain until the trail work camp at the base of the South Kaibab trail.

Looking up to a snowy rim from Cremation "the oreo"

As we fled to the first real bathrooms all week, we were immediately greeted with more people than we’d seen in the last four days combined. Even in persistently rainy and breezy weather, the super-highway South Kaibab still kept a steady stream of people and mules coming down.

Stunning construction of the South Kaibab

After a quick delayering break, Liza took up the front of the group and set a maintainable but efficient pace up the Canyon. Though breathing was at times difficult with the high quantity of mule poop becoming part of the ground beneath us, we took just one break before Skeleton Point. As we looked down, the group marveled at the trail work that had gone into the South Kaibab- particularly by comparison to the rest of the trip. The trail was wide, stable, and switchbacked artfully up to the rim. 

 

By this point, the wind and rain had picked up substantially. Until then I was in my base top and baggies shorts- though I keep the typical Italian heat furnace while going uphill, I put on a rain jacket to make up for my exposed legs and hands. Though I had lost hand dexterity by then, we kept a quick pace filled with the most entertaining stories I could conjure up for everyone. Once we had gotten to the bathrooms beneath Oh-Ah Point, everyone was desperately ready to be out of the canyon. 

 

Ben gave another pep talk/dance and we carried on through the increasing swaths of day hikers descending the Kaibab. Now in the snow, the trail underfoot formed a thick mud that immediately clenched onto our shoes, making each step heavier. Though my mind was still going strong, my still exposed and chilled legs were well aware of the day’s 5,500-foot ascent by this point. 

 

Though rather brief on the map, the final push from Oh-Ah to the rim took all we had. Swapnil, the most seemingly unfazed member of the group, continuously repeated our cross-country team’s slogan, “All it takes is all you got.” I can confidently say we did just that. Emerging from the desert in a snowstorm doesn’t happen every day- and even despite the cramps in my legs and aches under my pack, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. 

Sweet sweet victory

As we re-entered civilization, real-world problems came right away. I had taken the group back to the Mather showers on the bus, but Eliza and Ben quickly came to a stop when orchestrating the car retrieval. Twelve miles from the car, Route 64 was closed due to the snow. Ultimately, Ben was fortunate enough to have a ranger drive him back to the car, but to say this setback was a shock is an understatement! 

Showers/packing/organizing

After

Once showered and reorganized, the group divvied up in the rental cars for a 3.5-hour drive to Phoenix. Our first gas station encounter was nothing short of glorious, each of us pigging out on junk food and caffeine immediately. As we drove North, the snow turned to rain and then sun, leaving our desert snow at much higher elevations. 

 

In reflection of the trip, which I believe will continue for a long time, I couldn’t be happier with who I went with. The jokes, strength, and resilience that came out of the 2024 Adventure Sports Center Grand Canyon trip will last a lifetime and I wouldn’t trade a single moment of it. 


Day-by-day GPX routes:


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2 Comments


wquindley
Mar 18

This is such a wonderfully and eloquently written recap of our trip! The nostalgia is real.

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Michelle Freeman
Michelle Freeman
Mar 18

So so so cool! Forever proud of you, can't believe how far you've come as a hiker, leader, and overall awesome human.

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