Waterfalls and Rescues: The Descent to Mooney Falls

There are some things in life that, though painful or terrifying, we choose to do more than once, because the payoff outweighs the discomfort: childbirth, tattoos, the cost of Foo Fighters tickets . . . Time heals all wounds, after all, and climbing down to Mooney Falls was, for me, one of the “wounds” that had healed.

Mary was excited and had no idea what to expect. I’d told her about it–explicitly–but she either didn’t believe me or wasn’t paying attention. So, when we set out for Mooney Falls Mary was bursting with excitement. I, on the other hand, was mentally psyching myself up the entire way, because I was starting to remember exactly how terrified I was the last time I’d done this climb. It’s kind of like when I got to the hospital to deliver my second child. I knew I’d feel unimaginable joy when it was over and I had my son in my arms, but also I knew what I’d have to go through to get there.IMG_5386

Mooney Falls is a 200 foot waterfall, half a mile past the campground. The trail follows a “natural staircase” down the side of the cliff to the bottom of the falls. The first 100 feet or so are gradual, and relatively protected, finally passing through two narrow tunnels in the cliff side to a small observation area. Once you pass that point, however, shit gets real. The last half of the descent is virtually a vertical drop, climbing down old wooden planks, small jutting rocks, notches in the rock face, and a series of chains and rebar leading to the bottom of the canyon. The massive spray from Mooney covers everything in its fine mist, making the climb slippery and somewhat treacherous.

 

It was when we reached the first tunnel that Mary and I switched moods. I’d sufficiently pumped myself up and, upon seeing Mooney, was even more determined than ever to make that climb my bitch. Mary, on the other hand, was looking at me like, “are you effing kidding me?” She went from excited curiosity to horrified silence in a matter of seconds.IMG_5400

We made it to the halfway point and, though nervous, I was excited. Mary, however, looked like she wanted to die. I remembered all too well that paralyzing fear, debating whether or not you’re even willing to attempt it, and deciding you’ve come too far to turn back, even though you’re scared shitless. I was so proud of her when she kept going.IMG_5395

Despite my excitement, my body was physically manifesting the fear I’d been fighting to keep at bay. My knees were shaking so badly I had to stop several times to allow it to subside. One foot at a time, very slowly and carefully, we made our way to the bottom. When my feet finally hit the ground, knees still trembling, I had so much adrenaline coursing though my veins that I screamed like a lunatic, just to release some of it.IMG_5409

I turned around to watch Mary take the final steps, and when she let go of the ladder she burst into tears. “Why didn’t you tell me we were gonna have to do that?!” she cried. “I did tell you! Multiple times. With pictures.” I laughed back. I hugged her while she let out a few sobs, and then we both sat down for a second while our bodies calmed down.IMG_5415

The rest of our group arrived and we all dispersed, taking our time and exploring as we made our way to Beaver Falls. Mary and I stopped for a snack and a swim, and when we started moving again, we were met by Mark, who was coming towards us. His face and the urgency of his gait told us all was not well.

While we were having fabulous time splashing around in the river, Heather, a member of our party, had slipped while stepping into the water, and rolled her ankle. She’d barely made it a mile downriver, and she couldn’t walk. Mark was going for help. Fuck.IMG_5447

We reached Heather to find her sitting on the riverbank with an ankle that was purple and swollen. She’d brought a splint, but even with it on, she was unable to bear weight on the leg. The commotion had started attracting the attention of other hikers, including a nurse and her friend.

We sat with Heather for a while, until she insisted we keep going to Beaver Falls. There was nothing we could do for her at that point. Her friend, Randi, was going to wait with her. I think having all of us standing over her was making her feel worse instead of better, so off we went.IMG_5462

The hike to Beaver Falls took longer than I’d expected, but was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked through a valley that was covered in green foliage as high as our shoulders, climbed up and down hills, and through the river. At one point, we even saw two rams staring down at us from high above on a rock outcrop. I wasn’t sure if they were real until one of them turned its head, and I felt like he was looking right at me. They were so beautiful, and so intimidating. We kept as much distance as we could, avoided eye contact, and slowly continued down the trail.

We weren’t entirely sure where we were going. We knew we had to follow the river, but there were a couple different ways to do that. The route we took led us to a couple small ladders (though I’d promised Mary there would be no more ladders. My bad) that spit us out high above Beaver Falls, at a makeshift Ranger Station. To get down to the falls would’ve required another harrowing descent, so we opted to take a snack break and enjoy the view from the top.IMG_5501

Beaver Falls was beautiful; a series of cascading falls, surrounded by red rock canyons and lush green trees. They looked like the perfect falls to jump off of, if only we could reach them. I still can’t figure out how we ended up where we did.

On the way back, we’d barely walked past the spot where we’d left Heather when we came upon the rescue operation in progress. She was being carried out on a stretcher by two Havasupai tribesmen and several members of our group, all taking turns, and pausing for frequent rest breaks. We’d hiked for hours and poor Heather had barely made it a quarter of a mile back. This was going to take a while.IMG_5524

They’d inquired about a rescue helicopter. It’s the only way to access the village if not on foot or horseback, and one made daily runs to the Hilltop. Apparently it was, indeed, available . . . for $80,000. Talk about a good motivator to get out on your own.

The tribesmen helping carry her out were wonderful. I’ve never seen people more determined, more calm under pressure, more positive and upbeat in the face of countless obstacles, as Frankie. He was cracking jokes the whole time and totally confident that we’d get her back up to the top. It took 4 hours get her back to Mooney Falls, alternating between the stretcher, hobbling on a makeshift crutch, and floating her upriver, and he never once lost his can-do attitude or his sense of humor.IMG_5530

Mary and I went ahead and began making the ascent back up the cliff. I was more nervous about going up than I’d been about going down, simply because of how difficult it had been the last time (Uncle Mark had been above me, pulling on my backpack, while my dad was below me, literally pushing my butt just so I could climb up). When I took those first steps I expected it to be difficult, but it was a breeze. I was in great shape, and going up was nowhere near as frightening as coming down. I began to giggle, it was actually fun. My knees were steady, my body was strong, and I climbed up that cliff so fast I blew my own mind.IMG_5547 (2)

Mary still wasn’t loving the climbing, but she did better on the way back up. When we got out of the final tunnel and onto more stable, flat ground, she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief and feel pride in having just conquered such a huge challenge.

Randi had come up ahead of Heather and was running back to camp to get her a change of clothes and something to eat. Meanwhile, members of the tribe had brought rope and harnesses, and after some logistical maneuvering (and the help of a fellow camper who happened to be an expert climber), they began to hoist Heather up the mountain.IMG_5559

A large crowd had gathered at the top of the falls to watch this all go down. Mary and I talked to a dozen different people, all of whom had seen parts of this rescue at one point throughout the day, and all of whom felt invested in the outcome. I was approached by a woman who told me she was a photographer, and that she’d gotten some really great shots of the event. She gave me her phone number and said she’d be happy to send them to Heather once she was able to laugh about it. The nurses from earlier were there, they offered pain meds once she made it to the top. There were even tribe members watching, just because they heard about it. I was amazed by how many people were coming together to offer help, or even just moral support.IMG_5566

After eight long hours, countless people helping, and an ATV waiting at the top to drive her to the village (where Mark, not wanting her to have to get in and out of her tent on a torn up ankle, had rented her a room at the lodge). Cheers went up when she finally emerged, and after gathering a few things from camp, Heather safely arrived at the Lodge, where she, I assume, slept like the dead.

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Heather and her Supai rescuers

Thanks for stopping by and reading about our Mooney Falls adventure! I hope you’ll come back for the next chapter in my 40th birthday Arizona Ladycation. And be sure to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

Conquering Havasu Canyon: The Trail That Once Conquered Me

The main event was finally upon us! It was time for our ten mile trek to Supai. An extension of the Grand Canyon, but outside the National Park, Supai is located on the Havasupai reservation. This was what I’d been waiting for: to finally conquer the trail that had defeated me a decade earlier.

We were up at the break of day to get to the Hilltop. The sun was barely starting to rise, and the morning air was crisp and chilly. I’m not a morning person, never have been, but I was so excited for the adventure ahead of us, that I practically leapt out of bed when our alarm went off.IMG_5220

The four of us (Mary, Mark, Peter, and myself) stopped for breakfast (Mary and I having some shenanigans at the faux jail across the street before getting back in the car), then drove to the Hualapai Hilltop, where we met a group of Mark’s friends. There were eight of us total. Some of them knew each other, but we were mostly a motley crüe of random people, all connected through Uncle Mark.

Before we even bought our plane tickets Mary talked about wanting to ride a donkey. To hike with a donkey. To pet a donkey. To at least see a donkey. Despite repeatedly telling her they were horses and mules, not donkeys, and that they would not let her adopt one, she’d hear none of it. When we arrived at the hilltop the pack horses were IMG_5226corralled near the parking area, and that was good enough for her. Mary, as giddy as a schoolgirl, asked one of the caretakers if she could pet one, and when he said “yes,” her face lit up like a Christmas tree. As she pet and talked to him like he was a precious unicorn, he let loose the longest, most powerful stream of urine I’ve ever seen. I think a little bit of the magic died for my Mare-Bear in that moment, but it sure was hilarious to watch her expression go from love and joy to “WTF,” while she stepped out of the pee-path. I could not stop laughing.

After some introductions and group pictures, we loaded on our gear and began our descent down the Havasupai Trail.IMG_5230 The trail is 8 miles from the hilltop to the village, and another two miles from the village to the campground. It begins with a series of switchbacks that drop 1200 feet over a mile and a half to the bottom of Havasu Canyon, and IMG_5265follows the path of an old, dried up riverbed. The steep canyon walls rise up on either side of the often rocky trail, prickly pear cactus and other desert flora dotting the landscape.

There’s great benefit to starting this hike early in the morning. While it was chilly at the hilltop, the steep descent at the start of the trail means it gets very warm, very quickly, and there’s virtually no protection from the sun. It’s Arizona after all, so temperatures above 100 degrees are common, particularly in the summer months. But even late in October, we were feelin’ the heat.
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Around the halfway point we regrouped for a rest and snack break at a spot where the canyon wall opens up along the ground, like a long, shallow cave. It’s the perfect place to stop, crawl under the cliff, and cool down.

As we got closer to the village, signs of the natural springs that feed the waterfalls began to appear. The landscape got greener, and as we entered the outskirts of Supai, the dry, desert sand gave way to crystal clear, turquoise creeks. Mary couldn’t believe such an oasis existed in the middle of the such a desolate landscape. There’s something truly magical about hiking all day in the hot, desert sun, and coming upon the icy-cold, flowing creeks, and lush foliage surrounding the village.IMG_5317.JPG

“Can I touch it?” Mary asked as she pointed to the river, her face full of amazement. I laughed, both at her asking my permission, and because it’s exactly this enthusiasm for the little things that makes Mary who she is.

When we arrived at the campground there weren’t too many campsites left, but we managed to find a space large enough for our entire group. We got set up quickly, and Mary and I pulled out some protein bars and crackers for dinner. We were too tired to cook. IMG_5357

As the sun set, the temperature began dropping, and I was freezing. Just when I thought I would have to bust open a fourth hand-warmer, the strangest thing happened. An inexplicably warm breeze began to sweep through the canyon. It was like a giant space heater had been turned on. It reminded me of how it feels to walk through a warm spot in Lake Superior–except in this situation I wasn’t concerned that it may be due to someone’s pee. Crisis: averted. It felt like Mother Nature totally had my back.

I made the decision when I started this blog to remain apolitical in my stories. Social media has made it impossible to not know where everyone stands on everything. We look at Facebook and are bombarded by news, and the thoughts and opinions of everyone we know, on both sides of every issue. Everybody’s an expert, it seems, and I’m as guilty of that as the next guy. It’s on Facebook that I spew my opinions like someone actually asked to hear them (they didn’t).IMG_5300

In the 2016 US election, things got ugly. Suddenly, it felt like the entire world had lost its damn mind. Everyone was a “nasty woman,” or in a “basket of deplorables,” and the middle ground seemed to break open, creating a massive fissure between “us” and “them.”

With that being said, I had some nervousness about the trip. My family in Arizona falls squarely on one side of that divide, while I am passionately planted on the other, and if there’s one thing I’ve always been, it’s outspoken. I worried that discussions could get heated, I worried that the group of people my uncle invited (whom I presumed would align with him politically) would bring up an issue that I feel strongly about, and that I wouldn’t be able to hold my tongue. I worried my cursing would offend, I worried I’d make people uncomfortable when I busted out my cannabis. . . I worried.

Those fears turned out to be unnecessary. Apart from Peter, upon arriving at our campsite, jokingly gesturing towards the tents nearby and saying, “Have we met our neighbors? What do we know about them? Have we seen their voting records?” and me replying with, “Have you seen mine?” while my uncle gave Peter a, “please don’t get her started,” look, the subject of politics and current events never came up. We were just eight random people, all at different stages in life, all from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, and allegiances; united by our love of nature, hiking, and camping, and a desire to have a great time, in a beautiful place. The rest of it didn’t matter.IMG_5298

Unbeknownst to me, my uncle had informed everyone in our party that this trip was to celebrate my 40th birthday. So while I thought our traveling companions were making dinner, they were actually doing something far more amazing: deep frying dough to make birthday donuts. These people, these complete strangers that I’d feared I wouldn’t mesh well with, had brought the dough, oil, cinnamon, sugar, and even a candle to help make my 40th birthday adventure even more special. They didn’t care what side of the political fence I sat on, and they reminded me that we’re not as different as the internet would have us believing.

After a round of Happy Birthday that literally left me speechless and tearful, we had what I believe to be the most delicious donuts I’ve ever had in all my life. I was absolutely blown away by their kindness and generosity.

We were all pretty tired, and we had another big day of hiking ahead of us, so everyone started hitting the sack fairly early. Mary and I headed back to our little campsite and smoked a bit before we went to bed. We talked about the day, and how excited we were for the next, and about what fantastic people we had hiked in with.IMG_5256

My 40th birthday trip was turning out exactly as I’d hoped. Every mile we hiked, the built up stress inside me faded away. By the time I went to bed I could feel the shift in my spirit, the shadow of negativity that creeps in through the grind of everyday life fading away; light and positivity filling its place.

When I’d hiked the trail in my twenties I had gone to sleep with feet full of blisters, and legs so sore I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to move the next day. This time I went to sleep blister-free, and bursting with excitement for the adventure to come: climbing down the canyon wall to Mooney Falls, and hiking on to Beaver Falls, the waterfall I hadn’t been able to reach the last time. I had no idea as I climbed into my sleeping bag that the hike would turn into an all day rescue for one of the incredible people who’d just made me birthday donuts.

Thank you for stopping in to check out my blog! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday to see what befell one of us hikers, and how the tale unfolds!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Grand Canyon: Going Over THE Hill to Turn Over The Hill

The day after my 40th birthday was going to be amazing. I’d traveled all the way from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon to turn 40 the right way: literally going “over the hill” at my favorite “hill” in the world. Having that adventure awaiting made getting out of bed at the ass-crack of dawn a little bit easier.

I was only slightly hung over when I woke up in the morning, which was surprising considering the astronomical amount of vodka and wine I’d had the night before. Between that and the fact that I was now in my 40’s, I sort of expected to wake up feeling like death (combating a killer headache, needing to vomit, questioning my life choices). What a pleasant surprise to only feel sort of crappy! 40 wasn’t looking too bad.IMG_4845.JPG

We had a big breakfast at a kitschy diner in Williams before we headed towards the National Park. I was so excited by the time we finally got there that I felt closer to 4 than 40. I was practically skipping across the parking lot, unable to fully contain myself, when I got out of the car. As we approached the rim, the magnitude and majesty of the Grand Canyon came into view. My breath caught in my throat and my heart skipped a beat; it was even more beautiful than I’d remembered. The enormity of the Grand Canyon is stupefying. It can’t be fully captured in photographs. There’s just no way to appreciate this tremendously massive place without seeing it for yourself. It’s impossible not to feel small when you’re staring out at landscape so spectacular. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is, it’s awe inspiring.

the Grand Canyon National park

Since Mary had never seen it before, I was almost as excited to see her reaction as I was to see it again for myself. She has such an energetic personality. I’m not sure if it’s her youth (she’s only 25), her seemingly endless optimism, or if she’s just more full of life than most people, but Mary has this incredible ability to make every situation fun, to turn the most mundane task into an adventure. Add to that the fact that she’s easily impressed, and I couldn’t wait to see her face when she saw the it for the first time.

Mary enjoying her first trip to the Grand Canyon

There’s something interesting, and quite lovely, that happens to people when they’re at the Grand Canyon. It’s as if everyone understands its natural sanctity, knows it’s a place to be revered and respected. Everyone gets a little quiet, like they’re in church. So, instead of freaking out, Mary, like so many others, was speechless; but her expression spoke volumes.

After admiring the view, we walked towards the gift shop and purchased some prickly pear margarita mix before  heading to the Bright Angel trailhead. Although we weren’t looking to get any serious mileage in, as we wanted to be fresh for our ten mile trek the following day, we did want to get our legs warmed up. We only hiked about 3/4 of a mile before deciding we were ready for lunch, taking a few pictures, and hiking back up to the top.IMG_4890.JPG

We got our over-priced hot dogs at the Visitor’s Center soda fountain and enjoyed the sunshine as we ate. There were plenty of other tourists roaming around, but despite the number of people, the area is so open that it never felt crowded. I’m sure that’s not always the case (especially in the summer months), but I was pleased that, on this particular day, it wasn’t too packed.

After finishing our lunch we decided to try out another trail on the South Rim, the South Kaibab trail. We moved our car and parked along the main drive, near the shuttle bus access road that leads to the trailhead, and began walking. IMG_4945.JPG

Though I’d done some serious backpacking in Washington only a couple months earlier, I wasn’t sure how well I’d fare on the switchbacks in the Canyon. Going uphill for that long, at that elevation, was intimidating. I didn’t want to hike too far down the trail and wear myself out for the next day’s big hike.IMG_4977.JPG

We hiked down to Ooh Aah Point which, as the name suggests, has one hell of a view. It’s a great spot to stop, catch your breath, and really appreciate your surroundings. Mark, however, being the Pro Grand Canyon Hiker that he is, wanted to get a few more miles in, so he kept going while Mary and I had a snack and smoke break at Ooh Aah. We chatted with some Australian tourists, and admired the breathtaking view, while we waited for Mark to return.IMG_4987

Once it was time to hike back up, I got serious. I took a long drink of water, a deep breath, and up we went. I’m not sure how far I’d gone when I realized I wasn’t struggling, but there was a moment when I thought, “I should be out of breath by now,” but I wasn’t. That’s when I really started to feel empowered. All the hard work I’d put in: running, yoga, new eating habits; a complete lifestyle change, had paid off. Mary wasn’t quite as in love with the uphill trek, and was going a bit slower. I was so grateful to Mark for staying with her so I could keep pushing. I couldn’t stop smiling! I was having the time of my life.South Kaibab Trail

Getting to the top was a wonderful feeling. It made me more confident for the big hike in a few days. I was still a little nervous about a ten mile hike out of the canyon, but I knew I could do it. And even better, I knew it would test my limits, push me. I do love a challenge.

We went to refill our water, but were greeted by an elk who’d decided his thirst trumped ours. He was going to town on the leaky spigot, and was not about to move aside for some dumb, thirsty humans. We were sitting at a picnic table waiting out our long legged friend, when we were approached by a chatty teenager. I was instantly annoyed. He seemed to have either undiagnosed or untreated ADHD. He was all over the place, just being around him made me anxious.

 

The kid explained he was on a road trip with some friends from college, and that they’d wanted to hike further than he did, so he was waiting for them to come back. He wondered if he could hang out with us for a while. After he explained his situation, I kinda felt like an ass for being irritated by his very presence. This poor kid was alone, with no way of contacting his friends, and he was starting to freak out a little. I think he just wanted to be around a grownup. However, he was also very awkward and annoying, and I just wanted him to go away.

We planned on watching the sunset, but it was starting to cool down and we’d left our hoodies in the car. Although we felt bad leaving Mark alone with our new, chatty, young friend, Mary and I set off to return the trekking poles and retrieve some warmer clothes . . . and smoke a bowl, cause that kid, and all his nervous energy, was stressing us the hell out.

Thirsty elk at grand canyon national park
Thirsty Elk

Walking along the access road seemed to be taking forever, so we decided to take a shortcut by cutting through the forest. We thought we had a pretty good sense of where the car was parked, so we took a diagonal path, and were feeling like a couple of trailblazing badasses, when we started to notice all the snake holes in the ground. Like, everywhere. Dozens of them–and we were in rattlesnake country. I thought I was going to completely lose my shit. We took off running like we were being chased by a swarm of angry bees, no longer caring where our car was, just wanting to get the hell out of there. We must’ve looked like a couple of lunatics, but I was not about to ruin what was left of my trip with a snakebite. Hell. No.

We emerged from the woods nowhere near our car. I’m not sure if that was due to our panic-stricken dash after realizing we’d wandered into downtown Snakeville, or if we just had no idea where we were going to begin with, but we had a bit more walking to do before reaching warm clothes and cannabis.

enjoying the view at grand canyon national park

We stuck to the road on the way back to the rim (learning from one’s mistakes is so adulty, I was already good at being 40), and found Mark playing cards with Boy Awkward when we arrived. I had the thought, if we’re stuck with this kid for sunset, with him prattling on like that, when I just wanna find some freaking zen, I’m throwing his ass over the edge of this canyon. Obviously, I wouldn’t actually do that, but I was beyond relieved when his friends finally emerged from the trail, and we were off the hook (and no one would be arrested for murder: bonus).IMG_5122

The sunset was as breathtakingly beautiful as I imagined it would be. We sat and watched the shadows float over the canyons, as the sun sank below the horizon, setting the whole world aglow. It was so peaceful I felt like I could almost hear the sun going down, as if it was whispering goodnight. IMG_5120

With the sun went the heat. The temperature was dropping and we were chilly even in our hoodies. We walked back to our car, stopping so I could take pictures about a dozen times, along the access road as the crescent moon rose in the sky before us.

Once back in Williams, we hit up the Route 66 Diner (so. freaking. delicious.) with Mark’s newly arrived friend Peter, before heading back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep. Morning would be upon us before we knew it, and with it came the big day: Hiking to Supai!IMG_5196

Thank you for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday when our Arizona adventure continues!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph