Part 3: Into the Winter on the North Rim
10 more miles was also that separated this long day from sleep and relaxation. We pivoted immediately from the North Rim trailhead towards the AZT across the clear highway. Snow lay in small patches here and there, but nothing intimidating. Overhead, blankets of blue sky spread out from the mountain clouds. Things looked great. As we crossed the highway towards the AZT, we peered down the trail into the thick woods which lay sliced and lashed with snow embankments that we knew would take time to climb up and over. Plus, we read that someone had done the trail proper in this area only a few days before and used snowshoes for a good portion. Given that beta, and the late afternoon chasing us, we decided to hike the snow-free highway out of the park.
Man was I feeling good. It was even mildly sunny now. I felt that hardest part was behind us. This was nothing. This was merely a road walk on with a slight uphill and then we would descend. The snow wasn’t even that bad! We’d easily find a place to camp tonight, even after dark. The storm looked like it was giving in.
A mile or two in and keeping a good 3 mph pace, the bikepacker we had passed up the Canyon passed us on his now reassembled bike. He was starving, out of food, and going to bike the 40 mile to Jacob Lake Inn tonight to catch a hot meal before the last push to finish the race. We bid him goodbye has he pushed ahead. The daylight was fading, but we had a solid 4 hours left until total darkness.
What we didn’t plan on, and what I had totally forgotten, was that the North Rim sits at 8,000 feet but rises as your move inland on the Kaibab Plateau, rising to over 9,000 feet. As we walked, I began to realize our pace was slowing from going uphill combined with our fatigue. As we gained elevation slowly, the tree diversity was awesome: firs, spruce, aspen, pine, and more. But the snow that started patchy and uneven became an even, constant carpet. There was a direct relationship between the further we walked, the higher the elevation we gained, and the thickness and spread of snow around us. Plus, the innocuous clouds I had thought away were thicker here as we were truly in the alpine. They moved fast and low, leaping overhead and smashing into each other. The threat of a storm in the late hour became real. The temperatures were also starting to drop, both from the elevation and the setting sun.
By 6 pm, the reality of the snow set a slow anxiety in me. We were walking a paved road through a corridor of 6 foot deep snowpack. It was clearly at my body height and only seemed to be rising next to us the further we walked. I realized we were going to have to climb the 6 foot side drifts to even walk on top, let alone find a place to camp. I was prepared for snow camping, but the thought of constructing snow anchors after this long day was a major turn-off. Nearing 9,000 feet in elevation, the road had a pull-off complete with trashcans. Janna and I sat down on the wet pavement and ate a cold-soaked dinner. A porta potty sat behind us, its roofs and walls collapsed and crushed by the monstrous weight of deep snowpack here on the remote Arizona Strip. We ate quickly, steadily, if only to gain calories and get moving again. I found myself not hungry again. My appetite had waned as the snow drifts grew. After 20 minutes, we were back on the road.
Now, splintered fallen trees lay wedged horizontal in the snow. What low and flat ground was available had pooled slight snowmelt into ribbons of ponds and streams. Everything else was snowcapped and vertical. The choice in campsites was becoming equally thin and we were still four miles from the park boundary. The North Rim is composed of vast, thick, and remote alpine woodlands interspersed with massive high-altitude meadows. I was planning on crossing these meadows at the park boundary to make the woods and secure some wind blockage as it looked like a winter storm was building up for the night.
We pushed on, racing the clock and loss of sunlight. A sign appeared warning of bison. I thought, “Dammit. I don’t want to run into a massive herd of cold-stressed bison in the dark alone.” We kept moving, the snowpack grew thicker and deeper. Janna and I grew quieter and quieter. A blazing sunset lit the plumy clouds in front of us in an orange sulfur glow as evening approached. It was beautiful and we stopped for a few quick photos. We were so close to the park boundary, but we were wedged in on both sides of the road by a nearly 8 foot snowpack in places.
At 8 pm, we finally reached the park border. A single ranger booth blockaded with plywood and sealed tight for the abandoned winter months stood stoically in the magenta glow of dying light. I noted on a sign that one could break in for emergencies in the winter, but would definitely face a federal charge. A massive locked gate stretched across the road. In the last vestiges of light, we climbed through gaps and stood on the park boundary.
A massive winter scene and impending blizzard lay before us.
The temperature was now firmly in the upper teens as the clouds unleashed by the absence of the sun billowed 20 - 30 mph constant wind across the open alpine snow. On either side of the road a 6-8 foot snowpack stretched for hundreds of meters to a distant treeline. The beautiful meadows of summer were now frozen lakes and streams. Literally. A veneer of ice indicated that most of what were looking at were snowbridges that could punch through to frigid water of unknown depths. There was no way we would walk across the ice to the treeline - it was a terrible risk. Janna pulled out her headlamp and found the batteries completely dead. The prospect of navigating these snow fields in the dark with a single headlamp while avoiding plunging into water and potential frostbite hit me hard. I started to panic and felt warm despite the temperatures. Janna kept coolheaded and reminded me we could keep walking. We had food, we had water, we had all our winter clothing on. If it meant doing over 40 miles, we would do it until we found a safe place. But still, that thought fucking SUCKED.
The wind began to pelt us with snow as we walked quickly in twilight. The winter storm began to snow heavily on us. The temperature was now in the lower teens. Another mile or so and Janna saw that the treeline seemed to grow closer to the road. We could just make it out with my headlamp in the dim and flurries. I carefully ascended the adjacent snowpack and began to carefully navigate across the snowy meadows. I used by trekking poles to prod the space ahead of every step I took for weakness indicating I could posthole or plunge into water lying below. After 10 minutes, we made it to a thick pine and aspen grove. We began walking up and down uneven mounds of packed snow in the trees, searching, searching, searching for a spot to camp. Then, there! Behind a thick stand of aspen densely packed together was a completely flat and snowless spot in a size manageable for the Triplex. The constant barrage of wind had piled snow on the windward side of the trees leaving the lee essentially barren. It was perfect.
I cannot express how FREAKING HAPPY we both were to have found this spot. Quickly, but with attention to detail, I began setting up the Triplex in storm mode, using every tie-out, grommet, and guy-line to secure it to the earth and prepare it for a snowstorm of unknown length now hitting us. It was fucking COLD. My hands were freezing. The shelter now standing, we climbed inside and blew up our Neoairs that were already frosted over from what little condensation had been in our breath. I put on every article of clothing I had, shells and rain-gear included, and placed my pack under my pad for additional warmth. The shelter sealed up tight, massive gusts of wind began wracking the shelter, bringing bursts of cold and spindrift inside.
Out loud, I said, “Did you check for widowmakers or dead branches near us?” Almost immediately, a gust hit us followed by a tree groan and the smashing sound of splintered wood as a branch landed on top of us. We were fine but it scared the shit out us both. Quickly, I went back outside into the snowstorm and wind, my headlamp on high beam to examine every tree nearby. The trees were solid and that seemed to be the only branch over us that was dead. I scampered back inside and bundled up again.
The storm would whip us back and forth for several hours throughout the night before dying out in the early morning in a total silence. We had hiked 36 miles and nearly 8,000 feet of gain. None of that helped me to sleep as the bitter cold and adrenaline-pumping of the wind/storm made for a sleepless night. Hail, sleet, and snow pelted us in waves. I did sleep some, but found myself shivering and doing sit-ups several times that night to keep warm before a calm dawn broke with dark snow clouds looming over everything.