Condor!

My 1st excursion to the Grand Canyon was with neighbor and bear hunting guide, Rob Fritts. Even though Rob was fighting cancer, he was a strong hiker. We trekked the mile vertical drop and spent a week in the canyon. I was excited at the prospect of getting a glimpse of the California Condor. A bird with the largest wingspan in North America, near 10-feet, that was once perched on the edge of extinction. Only 22 birds remained when they were captured for protective breeding. The program was a success and the Condor numbers are now approaching 500. They were reintroduced to their historic range, including the Grand Canyon. The highlight of the trip was a side hike into Utah Flats, above the Phantom Ranch. We were accompanied that day by 5 California Condors soaring overhead for the entire day. To see the Condors was exhilarating and gave a glimpse into the timeless expanse of the Grand Canyon.

I returned a few years later, solo. Rob was now flying high above the condors. Hiking solo has its benefits; other solitary hikers are very conversant and eager to share stories. The majority of people that I encountered on this hike were solo hikers. A college professor, an accountant, and others. I had not yet seen any Condors as I traipsed down to Granite Rapids on the Colorado River. I basked in the sunshine and decided to explore the shoreline. I ran into a large elderly gentleman, camped out in the brush. He elaborated that he was a poet, accompanied by two women in their 70’s. The two women did not wish to take a “rest day” and were anxious to move on. Our conversation turned to Condors and the great expectation of witnessing one. As I departed our brief sojourn, he opined that the giant winged creatures could not be far. Heading back downriver I heard incoherent shouts, echoed by the chasm. Whirling, I see the big guy charging along the river’s edge toward me, wildly waving his arms & pointing. One of the words crystalized… Condor!

I looked up and there it was. It looked like a small airplane wheeling above, but it was alive, and had the distinct wing pattern and coloration of the California Condor. I managed a few photos and observed another Condor perched on a promontory nearby. It was great to see the Condors, but not as grand as the day at Utah Flats. I decided to take the Hermit Trail back to the top. The National Park Service cautioned this as an unmaintained steep trail, rocky and strenuous. The entire trail was very narrow, I spied only one wide spot in the trail where my small two-man Marmot tent would fit. Little did I know, this site would later become a refuge.

Once again the allure of the desert southwest was overpowering. My daughter Ingrid joined me on my next Grand Canyon trek. Ingrid was an avid skier. As a guide for Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH) she assisted in training the Air Force Para-Rescue Jumpers (PJ’s) on Matanuska Glacier. She earned an environmental science degree from the University of Alaska (UAA).

As we drove north from Phoenix, the weather was deteriorating into one of the largest winter snowstorms on the continent. Cars and trucks were spinning into the ditch. We finally made it to Flagstaff. A foot of fresh snow had fallen and another foot of snow was in the forecast. I called the Grand Canyon Taxi and queried the road conditions on the rim. They assured me that all roads were passable in the park but warned me to take the interstate to the park road junction.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon backcountry office at 12:02 p.m. The office had just closed and would reopen at 1:00 p.m. The winter storm was increasing. Ingrid & I headed to the rim for a photo. The whiteout conditions allowed no view of the canyon. We returned to the backcountry office promptly at 1:00 p.m. to obtain our backcountry permit. A benefit to hiking this time of year was that it was possible to get a coveted hiking permit without an advance reservation. The Park Ranger listened to my proposed route description down the Grandview Trail. He then offered advice that this trail would be in the teeth of the storm, probably obliterated by snow, and downright dangerous. I quickly scanned my memory banks for secondary routes. The Ranger was receptive to my idea of heading down the Hermit Trail. He said that this route would be somewhat protected from the storm, but we would have to hurry to make it down that afternoon. I called the taxi on my cell phone as I signed the permit. The Park Ranger incredulously stated that the only people crazy enough to head down in a winter storm were Alaskans, Canadians, or Germans.

The taxi quickly showed up to take us the 8 miles to the trailhead at Hermits Rest. The driver shouted above the increasing gale that we needed to proceed immediately. We threw our full backpacks into the taxi and departed. The taxi driver was visibly shaken by the storm- I offered to jump out and clear the ice from the windshield. After about a mile he got on the radio and questioned the idea of heading into the whiteout. The radio operator told him to proceed cautiously. After another mile, an announcement came over the radio that all roads were closed due to whiteout conditions. I cajoled him to take us to the trailhead but he refused. I ordered him to stop, we exited the cab and started hiking to the trailhead. I quickly calculated that the added hiking time would mean the loss of daylight before we reached the bottom of the canyon. A Park Ranger was making a last sweep of the road before closing. We told him our destination and he gave us a word of cheer. A short time later a 4-wheel drive taxi showed up. He had been specifically directed to take us to the trailhead. He refused any payment. We started down the 9-mile Hermit Trail in whiteout conditions, with little daylight remaining.

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The snow on the rim was close to knee height. From my past canyon experience, I assured Ingrid that we would walk out of the snow and into the heat of the inner canyon. We donned our crampons and headed down. The Hermit Trail used to be well maintained but has now lapsed into a scramble on sections, with many slides entirely wiping out the trail. Due to our unexpected late start, we found ourselves hiking in headlamps. I lost the trail altogether a couple times and had to backtrack. Not my most brilliant endeavor I surmised, alongside thousand-foot vertical drops. My hypothesis that we would hike out of the snow was losing credibility with Ingrid. I held out hope for the small campsite that I had spotted on my last hike. It suddenly appeared, just when we needed it. We bivouacked at the break in the Redwall, just big enough for the Marmot tent.

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The morning sun greeted us as we hiked through the Cathedral Stairs, down the talus slope and out of the snow. Soon we disappeared into the Tapeats Sandstone gorge on the way to Hermit Rapids on the Colorado River. It was warm and sunny on the river. As we hiked I would scan the sky for the giant wingspan of the Condor. The bright sun on the river seemed to be a reward for the snowy hike down. I scanned upriver with my 10-power binoculars and observed what appeared to be gliders in the sky. Condors! Three were circling several miles upriver. The sun had generated enough thermal action for the Condors to glide with nary a wing beat.

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The next few days we explored downriver past Travertine Canyon, Boucher Creek, Topaz Canyon, and Slate Creek. We spotted mule deer with some impressive large bucks. The Tonto Trail was bordered by a narrowing band of Prickly Pear cactus, which begged our attention. One careless leg swing could result in the needle sharp barbs penetrating hiking boots. Our thermometer reached the hottest reading of 75 degrees along Boucher Creek. Many small birds hid among the rocks and vegetation including the Rock Wren and Canyon Wren. Western Scrub Jays, Pinyon Jays, and Stellar Jays were also active. Groups of Western Bluebirds were very noticeable with the bright blue and orange plumage. We heard the trademark hooting of the Spotted Owl at night. We scanned the sky from the vantage of Scylla Butte but saw no more Condors. The Bright Angel Shale of the angular butte struck a stark pose on the skyline.

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We headed back upriver with 2 days left in our week-long hike. Below the Hopi Headwall at the head of Horn Creek we rounded the corner and surprise- Condors! A couple in the air and also on the ground. As we walked up toward the two Condors on the ground, two Ravens appeared stationed as sentinels. We walked closely by them and they did not leave their posts. The trail brought us within 20 yards of the Condors. A mule deer backbone appeared to be the source of their interest. We observed and photographed them for about 30 minutes. The Condors on the ground were tagged as numbers 23 and 27. The condors in the air were soaring around us.. As we departed, the two condors headed downslope, increased speed dramatically, and ducked into a creek canyon. The sky was suddenly empty of their presence.

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5 thoughts on “Condor!

  1. Steve, that was a wonderful story and you two sure have a shared memory there. I bet field and stream or nat. Geographic would pay and print it?? also your ski story was good. thanks

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    1. mark merrill April 24, 2017 at 7:08 am
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      Steve, that was a wonderful story and you two sure have a shared memory there. I bet field and stream or nat. Geographic would pay and print it?? also your ski story was good. thanks


      Like

      Like

  2. Great article on both hiking and the condors! My husband and I visited the Vermilion Cliffs in Arizona shortly after they were reintroduced in 1996. While we did not see any condors that particular day, we did see the place where they had been introduced back into the wild. Very exciting that their numbers have increased to 500 when they were on the verge of extinction.

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