01 December, 2010

"The descent beckons..."

backdate: 27 November

Our Friday visit to South Kaibab trail left us worried about packed snow and ice. On the precipitous edges, one slip could be the difference between a good hike and a rather bad day - yet the slick surfaces weren't thick enough for crampons. Kara and Joe, who'd signed his name as trip leader on the backcountry camping permit, had the solution: screwing 3/8-inch carriage bolts into our soles to bite into slick surfaces. On the hour and a half ride north i struggled with them; Vibram soles are tough to get a screw into. 

Of course, reaching the trailhead (elev. 6,640 feet) we found that compared to icy South Kaibab several miles east, Hermit was bone dry. Noon. We passed encouragement to hiker after ascending hiker short on breath, then as we passed Santa Maria spring we found ourselves alone on the narrow trail. It wound over rockslides barely marked with red sandstone cairns and along steep edges. At Cathedral Stairs (4422 feet), a trio of ravens displayed tight aerialism, spiralling down like black rocks, spilling air loudly from their feathers as they disappeared below the precipice and emerged in level flight far below. Then it was quiet again. 

Besides being only my second time carrying a full pack into the backcountry, this hike is different from any other i've done. The simplest i can explain it, mountain climbing is foremost a matter of ascent; the objective lies above. Entering the canyon, things are reversed; though no less spiritual a journey, it has a different resonance. More life-like, it strikes me, where the most substantial experiences begin by entering depths - of reflection, of memory, of trauma - and finding a way back to the level plain. "The descent," to echo a line from William Carlos Williams, "beckons / as the ascent beckoned." 

Beginning a hike with downward steps provokes a different sort of reflection, and gives Williams's poem new context for me. Heights are ephemeral; depths leave you changed. As i sit typing up this post in a cafe days later, i cannot find the same perspective. There are two separate thoughts here, hard to separate. Something that made so much sense inside the canyon becomes hard to explain.  On the last mile before the trail junction, Marcus sees two mule deer. The animals blend so completely into the eroded rock and shrub that i miss them completely. 

Just past the junction of Hermit and West Tonto trails (on the Tonto Platform, elev. 3389) we crest a low rise to see the river emerge nearly a mile distant and still a thousand feet below. The trail wound in and out around each crease and wash. Dusk fell quickly, clouds wisping yellow and orange over the canyon west. We made the last mile to Monument Creek by headlamps, pushing through massive clumps of beargrass as rock periodically gave way to sand beneath our feet.