The International Writers Magazine: Grand
FROM THE FRONTIER: TOROWEAP & THE LAVA FALLS ROUTE
the 80s Toyota 4X4 hydroplaned sideways across the sea of
mud, Mark and I giggled stupidly. We had lost control over the
vehicle and waited for destinys 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.
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 roads 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.
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 Rangers 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 fools 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
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 oclock, 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 wasnt 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
& The Mummies
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)
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
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,
dont 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. Dont
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.
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