The International Writers Magazine
Grand Canyon Country

Nickolay Todorov

s the 80’s Toyota 4X4 hydroplaned sideways across the sea of mud, Mark and I giggled stupidly. We had lost control over the vehicle and waited for destiny’s mercy. How things had changed! Only a few seconds before we had been screaming in ecstasy as we barged at 70mph through the flooded "Primitive Road" as the sign half a mile back had called it. "Proceed at your own risk," it had added.

Outlined behind us against the vermillion cliffs of Zion was Colorado City, the remote polygamist town of excommunicated Mormons and a frequent host to FBI raids. If the truck toppled over, we would have to trudge back and search for help in one of those massive dark houses we had just passed, like unsuspecting characters in a horror movie.

Luckily, the stars had aligned in the right way. The truck lost momentum before it climbed over the shoulder and hit dry dirt. We screamed obscenities, laughed and gave each other hi-fives. Then we jumped into the mud, locked the hubs and proceeded, with the comforting growl of the four-wheel drive, across seventy miles of mud, dirt and rocks towards Toroweap, perched on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Toroweap (or Tuweep, depending on the Native American dialect) outlook is one of the most remote spots in one of the most remote parts of the country. The Arizona strip, the last mapped area in the lower 48, stretches along the northern edge of the Grand Canyon, from Lake Mead on the West to Glen Canyon on the East. Towards the middle, removed by seventy miles from the nearest maintained road, stands the Toroweap outlook, the most awe-inspiring vantage point of the Grand Canyon with a head-spinning three-thousand-foot drop to the Colorado river. The spot, equipped with a small camping site, is visited by less than 1,000 people per year. Compare this with the five million at Grand Canyon Village and the half-million at North Rim.

As we came within several miles of the road’s end, we started to roll over some seriously rough terrain. A giant full moon rose to the East. We established camp at the deserted site and set on foot to find the rim. Thank God for the moon and our guiding stars for keeping us from walking right over the edge: a massive flat boulder formed the ledge on which we crawled and peeked into a kilometer of black abyss. Down there, flickering like a firefly, was the bonfire of rafters resting on the banks of the Colorado. Over the next two days, this would be the only sign of life we would encounter.

March nights in a tent in the high desert are glacial. Thick gusts of wind threatened to blow us over while we slept. You could hear them coming from miles away in five-minute intervals throughout the night. They would push the tent to one side and vanish, leaving only silence and the smell of dust. I was grateful when the sun arrived, even though at 7am the scale barely touched forty.

The reason we had chosen to come at this chilly time of the year was our next destination: a descent to the Colorado so precarious that it is not even considered a trail. The Lava Falls Rout, a 55% grade, dirt-and-gravel slide is the steepest and fastest plunge from the Grand Canyon rim to the Colorado river. At the bottom await a series of intense river rapids called Lava Falls. In the summer, the temperatures can hit 120 degrees, in the winter snow blocks the way, and in the fall the lightning and flashfloods threaten constantly. The best time to attempt this route, therefore, is from late March to early May.

From the campsite, we drove to the trailhead on a nasty road; when it rains, the road gets flooded and even a 4X4 cannot make it through. The Ranger’s log warned matter-of-factly: "Lava Falls Route is not for the faint of heart. Be fully prepared for self-rescue." There were sporadic entries of people who had gone down, about one or two per week.

We dove into the Canyon nervous because of provisions. The steep course required a balance between a sufficient amount of water and food and the light weight we needed to keep. It was a gamble either way. For similar weight considerations, we opted not to take the tent.

Our path was indicated by cairns piled at every twenty feet. We slid over crushed volcanic rock at a precipitous angle. My feet could not find steady surface, so I jogged in the steeper parts, protecting my ankles from a potential sprain or, God forbid, break; a broken ankle here could mean death. Around us, low-growing cacti hid among the boulders. At one point, Mark slipped and a two-inch thorn impaled his hand. He was in bad pain but there was nothing we could do. We trudged down for a couple of hours, jogging and sliding, arms stretched like surfers, until we rounded a bend and the Colorado appeared below. It was brown and wide; even from far up we could recognize its powerful current. Behind us, the canyon walls rose vertical and impenetrable. Going back seemed a fool’s dream but I put off such thoughts. My thighs already pulsated from the zealous workout I had forced them into.

As we continued, the view of the river grew and the distant roar of the Lava Falls, still invisible downstream, reached us. We hit a spot where the canyon wall had broken off and collapsed towards the river. The cairns disappeared and we assumed that the route was unmarked from here on. We slid down the volcanic dirt to a drop that appeared to be a dead end. Retreating would demand an inhuman effort; there could be a possible way down if we threaded across a precarious ledge. A hundred feet lower we hit the real dead end. Under us were two hundred feet of jagged rock before the final descent to the river.

My heart skipped. We had no way to go but to crawl back up hundreds of feet, in the soft dirt we had used to slide down so easily. Resting now would be luxury, every lost second took us away from reaching the river. We bit the bullet and began the maneuver. My feet could not get a hold and my heart raced from the massive pressure. Several times, I started to slide back and only the desperate grasp of a jutting rock saved me from flying over the edge. As I dug heels into the dirt for a foothold, my heart threatened to explode and a black curtain draped my eyes and my lungs squeezed air from nothing. I barely remember dragging my body over a bolder at the top of the section and dropping lifeless on the ground. All said and done, the detour had robbed us of a precious hour.

We gathered our breath and persisted on down toward the river. But will and desire had no say anymore. My legs refused to hold me, bending at the knees with every step. The thigh muscles had turned to mush. It was almost three o’clock, and the sun would set at six thirty.
"We already lost the rout in broad daylight," Mark said. "Climbing back at night is a suicide."
The Colorado flowed barely a few hundred feet below, eternal and massive and smelling of wet earth. I wanted to reach it, to dip my feet in it and wave at startled rafters. The arrogance that we can make it in a day betrayed us, I thought.

We clambered up when a thick cloud parked halfway over the sun. The light broke on the other side and hit the opposite wall of the canyon, setting the red rock on fire. There wasn’t a sign of a living being except for the vultures above. The rush of the river receded below us and an ageless silence settled in. Few souls had laid eyes on this frontier land and we were among them; it was this isolation we had craved. We filled our eyes and shook hands. Then we fought on upward, step by torturous step, without a word.
© Nickolay Todorov May 2006

Guanajuato & The Mummies
Nickolay Todorov

GETTING THERE: From Salt Lake City, take I15S to17S to 59S to 389S. From Los Angeles, take I10E to I15N to 9E to 59S to 389S. From Las Vegas, take I15N to 9E to 59S to 389S. These directions will get you to Colorado City. Just out of the town, look for the dirt road turnouts going south. There are several turnouts and all of them work, but you will need to use a map. Any AAA atlas will do, as will BLM (Bureau of Land Management) maps.
SIGHTS ON THE WAY: Colorado City is a bizarre sight, with huge single-family homes the size of small apartment buildings. Almost none of them are finished, as the men here rely on welfare to support their many wives and children.
LODGING & FOOD: Camping at the Toroweap campsite provides the fastest and most convenient access to the Toroweap Outlook and the Lava Falls Route. Do not plan on finding lodging in Colorado City: this is a town of polygamous Mormons who shun strangers except when they are forced to receive the federal authorities.
As far as food is concerned, your car will be part of your base camp, so bring a cooler and anything that will make spending time in the outdoors a blast. When you think of high-calorie foods to boost your energy, don’t forget your taste buds either: no need to get stuck with granola bars, mixed nuts and other choky, dry hiking grub. The camp site has fire pits as well, so you can cook and roast right there. Don’t forget to bring firewood, however; there is none available and you are not allowed to cut down plants or branches.
PERMITS & COSTS: The Toroweap Outlook and the Lava Falls Route are on the territory of the Grand Canyon National Park but, check out your luck, no entrance fee or even a camping fee is required. The place is too damn remote to enforce any of these. The gas for your car and the food you bring with you will be pretty much all of your expenses.
WARNINGS: As described above, getting into the Arizona Strip and spending time in it is a rough experience at best. Carry plenty of water and be extremely objective about your own skills and shape before venturing into the canyon. The same applies to your vehicle.

World Journeys in Hacktreks


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