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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Grand Canyon Solo

Searching for unique photos puts our columnist in a tough spot

Black Oak, Autumn, Yosemite National Park. Backlight for drama.
Damn the sheep, damn the light, I was alone and I was trapped! I was 20 feet above a deep pool, having squeezed myself behind a truck-sized capstone in an effort to climb out of a canyon narrows. Blocking my exit were several bowling ball-sized rocks, spaced like bars in a cage, sealing a way out!

Okay, I wasn’t totally trapped. I could retrace my steps back down this upper fork of Deer Creek Canyon, but it would take hours and include a difficult climb down. Because of the rough terrain, I wouldn’t make it back to camp by sunset, which would force me to spend the night out. If I could complete these last few feet of climbing, it was an easy walk back to camp.

This adventure in the Grand Canyon occurred in the second week of a 25-day rafting trip down the Colorado River in March 2007. My group’s objective during the trip was to explore the expansive wilderness away from the river. We’d wake before sunrise and leave the river for the day by partnering into small groups, each group setting out on its own unique adventure.

Danger seems to be a constant companion when you explore unknown wilderness. The desert wilderness of the Grand Canyon offers plenty of places to get into trouble. Typically, when exploring off the beaten path, I always travel with a partner as the best form of health insurance, should I get into trouble.

On this particular day, I chose to explore alone. What drew me into the canyon alone was my eagerness to catch the morning light and the potential for good photos. Of course, exploring alone exposes one to risk, but this was a risk I was willing to assume so that I could walk at my own pace with photography as the priority. Yet as I walked up that canyon, I was also aware of potential dangers and kept my eye on my back trail as much as I did on the camera’s viewfinder.

I was excited to visit upper Deer Creek not only to see new country, but also to photograph in a place rarely visited, much less photographed. Owing to the orientation of the canyon to the sun, the light in Deer Creek Canyon is exceptional. High gray limestone walls, stained a reddish hue, act as natural reflectors, bouncing warm sunlight deep into the canyon.

Getting into places like this often doesn’t come easy. I had been hiking for hours when I came to an impasse, a high pour-off that, when there was rain, would send runoff water crashing 100 feet to where I stood. To the left, I saw a possible route up the wall, but I thought it was too sheer to climb without a rope.

On closer inspection, I found desert bighorn sheep tracks pressed into the sand at the cliff’s base. The bighorn are masters of the Grand Canyon’s vertical environment. As a climber, I saw no reason to retreat from the challenge of ascending a desert bighorn sheep route. But I knew a sheep route, even for an experienced climber, could be imposing. With each move I made up the cliff, I was tempting fate, as it’s much more difficult to climb down what you’ve climbed up.

The sheep route followed a series of ledges up 60 vertical feet of rock. I had seen how sheep leap on powerful legs from ledge to ledge. Being bipedal, I moved much slower, pulling on tiny edges with my fingers and smearing my feet on the crumbly limestone rock connecting the ledges.


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