First descent of X Creek, Grand Canyon

We think this was the first descent of X Creek in the Grand Canyon. I’m calling it X Creek so that a web search for its real name doesn’t lead people to this report. I’d hate to take away the opportunity for others to re-pioneer it! It was a technical canyoneering descent from the north rim, followed by a trail along the inner gorge shelf to Bright Angel campgrounds, exiting up the Kaibab trail to the south rim. It’s possible it’s been done before of course, but Dave’s searches found no reports online. We didn’t see any gear left at rappel sites or any other signs of humans. Whether or not we were the first, the entire trip was planned and executed as if it was a first descent, so the excitement is the same! Enjoy the photos and narratives and get stoked on getting outside in the beautiful world! May 15-17, 2014, by Tyeen Taylor., David A., and Diane T.

We camped at Lee’s Ferry to get an early morning shuttle to our North Rim drop-in point. I spent a long time that evening talking with an “old guy”, as he called himself, about his climbing days in the Sierras. He liked going alone, like I do, and doing things other people thought he shouldn’t, like sleeping on the peaks. He wasn’t a mountaineer, just a guy who liked to go climb mountains, a lot. I think to him, I was he. His ages blended as he met his younger self, and got to tell him all the things he should go back and do. I think I will go visit his grounds. I was infected by the Sierras during a Yosemite winter trip, and would love to know them better.
Nice moon shot from Lee’s Ferry by Dave.
Our little crew: Diane T., David A., Tyeen Taylor (L-R). I’d never met Dave before. I read in the Alpinist and American Alpine Journal about these teams that come together for first ascents based on their unique aptitudes given the route. Well, Dave planned a technical first-descent route into the Grand Canyon. Diane sent his trip plan my way, suggesting that the level of uncertainty and off-trail abuse might be of interest to me. Yep. Dave was the captain, Diane has tons of canyons under her belt and takes abuse with grinning enthusiasm, and I, with the least canyon experience, am comfortable building very uncomfortable anchors, navigate well, and don’t get tired off trail. It just felt like a mini version of those Alpinist epics and their hand-picked teams, and that felt like a small landmark to me in my outdoor development.
This is X Creek. The red cliff at the base of the canyon is the 350 million year old Redwall Limestone, formed when a western sea advanced across the continent, laying down marine limestone and fossils throughout Arizona. Limestone subsidence created bays that filled with layers of silt and mud, forming the Supai and Hermit Shale groups above it with their distinctive cliff-slope-cliff style. About 290 million years ago a desert climate formed and dunes spread across northern Arizona, while the western sea alternately washed in and retreated in the south. Those ancient dunes are the source of the thick white band at the top of the canyon, a six-hundred foot wall of Coconino Sandstone. Apparently the tracks and trails of insects and reptiles are visible on some of the dune slopes frozen in the wall. The band is clearly visible on the map as a forebodingly contiguous dark mass of joined contour lines. It apparently does break up some in the headwaters of these canyons though. (All geological facts from Halka Chronic’s Roadside Geology of Arizona) (Rant note: I wanted to stitch a piece of the map on top of this photo to show those contour lines, but the new online version of NatGeo Topo! mapping software abandoned most of the features that made the old version good, including the ability to generate multiple image types instead of just PDFs. Bastards.)
First rap!
Photo by Diane (cropped and edited by me).
This first rap was a one-way door. We looked for opportunities for lead-climbing out, but it all looked extremely difficult and unsafe. So before pulling the rope here, which would fully commit us to the unknown challenges below, we scouted ahead and matched views to the map as carefully as possible, considering the changes of rock type and loss of tree anchors in the narrower gorge. Once we were confident that none of the rappels would exceed our 200 ft rope lengths, and that we’d be able to build rappel anchors the whole way, we pulled the first rope and committed to the canyon.
Beautiful rap out of the Coconino and onto the Hermit Shale.
Chucking the rope bag for rap 3 off a tree. Stout trees for anchors were in abundance on this route. That was nice and all, but we were a little disappointed at the lack of anchor challenges. We had all these tricks up our sleeves and just didn’t get to pull them out at all. Oh well. The next one will be harder.
Dave demonstrating the ‘biner block and pull cord system for the camera. This is a method for rappelling the full length of your rope. The black webbing (strap) over his knee is extended from a tree out to the edge of the cliff. At its end is a small steel carabiner. The blue rappel rope runs through the steel ‘biner and is clove-hitched to a large carabiner so it can’t pass through the small one. The white pull-cord is attached to the tail of the rappel rope by sort of a three-wrap sheet bend. Now we can rap the full length of the rope, and then pull it through the steel ‘biner with the pull cord from the bottom. In general, I’m not a fan of clove hitches for life support because if it goes loose and there is movement in the system, the tail can be walked out of it. But with tension maintained (which the long rope does on its own), a long tail, and the tail secured by a pull cord that also has tension on it, I feel completely comfortable.
You can see the extension of the anchor here (black webbing) from the tree to the lip to reduce friction when pulling the rope.
I really like these shoes.
My body hangs heavy, but my shadow raps lightly, rocks drop beats, flights on wings slight my rope-safety, but the shadow is lighter than any bird and I can go there when I want, word.
And then Dave became a bush. So we just left him there to enjoy the sun.
Finally, at least we had to use constriction points between boulders for this two-stage rap into the Redwall Limestone. From the map and our limited views from the rim, we thought this narrow gorge entrance might be tricky, but it wasn’t . Still a nice visual surprise though. Moving through hundreds of millions of years of history really changes up the style as you go.
I’m kind of glad we were able to bypass this awkward rappel past the slop-pool, using a steep gully descent off to the side. The frogs were happy that we didn’t bother them too. I was scouting ahead and tried to holler back to my friends above this wall, but every time I called, the frogs replied with such loud echoing calls that I couldn’t hear any human responses! Frogs are silly.
This was taken at Lee’s Ferry, but inserting it here to show how I slept every night. I was really excited about my new full-length inflatable pad, having finally bit the bullet and decided the weight was worth actually sleeping for once outside (hard to get comfortable on foam in AZ). First night out, the valve failed beyond repair. I had read about sleeping on ropes for mountaineering bivies. I was pretty excited to try it out, and at first I found I could mold the thing to my shape really nicely and it was comfortable. It got uncomfortable really fast! It did keep me off the ground and warm though. (Photo by Diane.)
Diane sporting the signature blood stains of a battle with an agave spear. I believe that pant leg is currently framed on her wall. (or at least that’s all those pants would have been good for after this trip, their lack of coverage encouraged some comments when we hit snivelization…)
Terrifying things, but they do make impressive flowers.
Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody put this puzzle back together in a computer simulation? We could watch the wall splinter from frost wedges and tumble in floods, settle under the sun. That would be an awesome dissertation for a PhD student in art.
Diane and I puzzled over this one. Then we saw the grain size was much smaller in the dark layer than the lighter lines. Mud dried and cracked and was filled with windblown sand! Then smashed. Later fractured at this point of weakness, just like snow slides in an avalanche at sheer planes where grains of different sizes meet (a cool parallel we were observing in other rocks too). What a cool piece of art.
Gorge-ous. By the way, we’re on the X Creek trail now, which runs east-west between Bright Angel campground and X Creek along the shelf above the inner gorge.
If you are inclined, watch the rock decline from the face to the slopes below. This became a fun game to me. The landscape is less static when you shift scales and watch it move.
Photo by Diane (cropped and edited by me).
Echinocereus superpurpleishmagentaii. Right, that epithet is not correct. But what a color. Many of these canyon plants were from genera I know from Tucson, but different species. Cool to see the funny looking brethren of familiar lowland friends estranged in this little indentation of the Colorado plateau.
These little ditches look so enticing. For godsake we’ve got ropes in our backpacks, let’s go!!! Should’a brought packrafts. Oh, and like 200 more meters of rope. By the way, while sandstone shelves in washes look like fantastic places to sleep, cook, stage stuff at your camp, they are full of black widows around here. Better not to camp next to them, nor to spend hours cooking and drinking whiskey next to them like we did before realizing a BW was building access to a new subdivision of webworks on the rock we were leaned against.
Blessed contrails seeding cloud formation to ease our morning descent! Here’s climate engineering in very obvious action for you. Contrails from planes not only make their own little cloud lines, but catalyze the formation of diffuse clouds around them, increasing solar reflectance, cooling the planet and the hikers on it. (At least in the short term; water vapor is also, of course, a greenhouse gas!)
The two-billion year old Vishnu Schist, the most diabolical of GC strata, once buried under twelve miles of rock, which was erased from history before the schist was buried again, occasionally highlighted with the illusively non-threatening pink of Zoroaster intrusions, its dark spires literally lined with dragons. They are why the photos end here. I was eaten. Fortunately, modern dragon bellies have wi-fi, and I was able to send this last report of my existence, before napalm and digestive enzymes reduced me to… schist. (I lied, there’s one more photo.)
Dave was a ways behind but sent an anticipatory, ghostly projection to join us for the victory shot. X Creek is the cut into the north rim in the middle-right. When you visit the grand canyon, I found that it can be underwhelming to view it from the rim. It looks just like the photos—its depth is difficult appreciate. After engaging my body and my attention in the canyon’s sinuosity, absorbing the formations from different angles, the view from the south rim was more dynamic. A difficult traverse internalizes a landscape. When you view it afterward, you are also looking into yourself, at the light and shadow of your inseparable synaptic terrain. (Photo and ghost by Diane, cropped and edited by me.)