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Exploring the Grand Canyon

By 1974, a year after Merle Wheeler introduced the Mountaineers to the narrow slot canyons on the Navajo Reservation, he also started taking club members on tough one-week trips into some of the most remote areas of the Grand Canyon. The guide books for these trips were Harvey Butchart's tersely written "Grand Canyon Treks." These booklets provided only the most minimal information about how to locate a particular canyon, where water was likely to be found, or whether there were breaks through the major rock layers. The trip participants knew only that the route they had selected would "go," if they didn't get lost.

Merle's Grand Canyon trips taught the Mountaineers a new set of outdoor skills. One skill was to learn to navigate vertically by focusing on the location of the party relative to the well-known strata that made up the walls of the Grand Canyon. Another skill was to learn to travel very light on clothing, but carry 4 quarts of water. On a hot Memorial Day trip even 4 quarts only lasted for the time between breakfast and dinner, and by evening it was essential to find a new water source to make camp by. On the wide Canyon plateaus, the hikers learned to think like the wild burros and follow their trails. The party would spread out in a long line. When the leader lost the burro trail and hesitated, the second or third in line would look around for it and take over the lead. 

The big benefit of a Grand Canyon backpack was that the pack would grow lighter during the week and would be nearly empty of food when it was time for the long hard climb out. Many climbers were smitten with "Rim Fever," a condition that led them to just keep climbing and climbing and climbing on auto-pilot until they were on top and the ordeal was over. During late fall or early winter trips, snowfall could cover the rocks in the Canyon's upper strata and considerably delay the group's reaching the canyon rim. When the party finally reached the rim, they would have to tramp through the snow across the pinon-juniper flats to find their car. On the 1975 Thanksgiving trip, the tired party had walked for over an hour when they suddenly came upon a set of fresh tracks. Yes, they had been walking in a circle!

Fig. 1. Merle Wheeler, Bob Cowan, Peter O'Rourke, Norbert Ensslin, and Larry Dauelsberg starting down the Tanner Trail. Thanksgiving dinner was eaten at the river, and then the party continued downstream and climbed out at Grandview Point (Bob Cowan photo, Nov. 1974).
The first Grand Canyon trip that Merle Wheeler took the Mountaineers on was to Shinumo Amphitheater off the North Rim, in May 1974. This trip started on the North Bass Trail from Swamp Point, went down into Shinumo Amphitheater to the Colorado River, then up and out via (the appropriately named) Merlyn Abyss. Bob Cowan remembers that he went on all four of the 1974-75 Grand Canyon trips, including this first trip.

Fig. 2. Merle Wheeler and Carl Keller in Nankoweap Creek, Grand Canyon
(Bob Cowan photo, May 1975).

The May 1975 trip involved a descent down the Eminence Break to the Colorado River. The party carried a small 4-person raft to cross the river to get into Nankoweap and Kwagunt Amphitheaters. The raft was used again to cross back to the east side of the river. The party made camp on an island at the mouth of the Little Colorado River. On the next day they climbed steeply out to the rim via a route used by John Wesley Powell on his first exploration of the Canyon. Earlier in the trip, on the day that the party crossed from Nankoweap to Kwagunt Amphitheater, almost everyone took off his pack at the saddle and climbed to the top of Kwagunt Butte. But that was the day that Carl Keller was carrying the raft. Carl and Merle raced to the top of the Butte with their packs still on, with Carl still carrying the 40-lb. raft just to show he could do it!

Fig. 3. Dennis Brandt, Carl Keller, and Norbert Ensslin enjoy 360-degree
 Grand Canyon views from the top of Vishnu Temple (May 1977).

While still living in Tucson, Merle Wheeler joined a trip to Vishnu Amphitheater. On that trip, he and his friends became the second party to climb Vishnu Temple, a huge tower in the middle of the Grand Canyon whose top is as high as the rim. The climb of Vishnu Temple is via a challenging route off the North Rim that requires a lot of scrambling and two short pitches of easy class-5 climbing. Some years later, after hearing about Merle's trip, a Mountaineers group returned to that rugged spire for a repeat ascent. According to the summit register, they were the 7th party to climb the tower.

Merle Wheeler, John Sarracino, Norbert Ensslin, and Dennis Brandt continued to lead some Grand Canyon trips in the late 1970's and 1980's. Ginny Bell recalls that, after George Bell retired in 1989, they did a lot of backpacking trips into the Canyon on abandoned trails off both the North and South rims, including one trip with Dave and Faye Brown. They liked to explore remote side canyons, using a rope to get into and out of areas with small pools and waterfalls. The Mountaineers have also done some trips to the Canyon in recent years, although less frequently than in the past. In November 2003, Bill Priedhorsky led a trip down the Tanner Trail, along the Colorado River, and up along the New Hance Trail. They covered some of the same terrain that the Mountaineers had first visited 30 years earlier on one of Merle Wheeler's pioneering trips.


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