Steck's Tapeats Creek - Kanab Creek Loop
A Close Call

Late September, 1990

NOTE: Click here to view a map of our route.

Preface. The following essay was one of twenty-seven Grand Canyon backpacking stories that were included in On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, edited by Rick Kempa (Vishnu Temple Press, 2014).  

The George Steck Memorial Toenail Trip

One of my earliest off-trail backpacks in Grand Canyon ended up in near disaster, with the lives of a couple of people in real danger. I learned a lot from that experience. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to recount the experience here.

The hike took place in early October, 1990, soon after Steck’s first book, Grand Canyon Loop Hikes I, was published. Although I had been an avid backpacker since I was 13, I had previously done only one short off-trail hike in Grand Canyon—along the river from Tapeats Creek to Deer Creek. I used the one-sentence description in Butchart’s book, Grand Canyon Treks, which said, “It is not hard to follow the bench east beyond Granite Narrows and then go down to the riverbank.” And it turned out not to be difficult, although it was a little harder than we expected. So, when Steck’s book came out, I probably didn’t take his “warnings” as seriously as I should have.

After reading Steck, I was so thoroughly excited about doing one of his loops that I aggressively tried to recruit a group of backpackers to do the Tapeats Creek-Kanab Creek Loop.  I ended up with a group of eight—four men and four women, one being my wife, Kathey. None of them had any Grand Canyon experience. We were all in our 30s and early 40s. I distributed copies of the route description, as well as Steck’s “Comments and Caveats” chapter. I held a meeting in which gear, food, and water were discussed, as well as route details. I emphasized the importance of wearing sturdy hiking boots because of the steep, off-trail nature of the route. In retrospect, I should have limited the trip to only those individuals who were extremely strong hikers, and serious about doing the trip without any cajoling on my part.

We camped at Indian Hollow Campground the night before the hike. We drank beer and partied until 10 or 11 pm. People were slow getting up the next morning, and none of my coaxing had much effect. I remember being somewhat dismayed that some people were cooking bacon and eggs, and taking their time doing it. We finally got going at 9 am, about two hours later than I had planned. Everyone was told to carry at least four liters of water. I later found out that a couple of people thought that was too heavy and not necessary, and pared it down to three liters. Clearly, I should have been much more forceful in getting everyone up and on the trail by seven. And I should have checked to make sure everyone had enough water. 

Once we turned off the Thunder River Trail and onto the Esplanade, the pace slowed way down. It seemed there was always someone who had to fiddle with something—adjust their pack, get a snack or a drink, remove a layer of clothing, reorganize gear, adjust boots, etc. And they always wanted to know which way to go, even though I pointed out a distant object and told them to head for that. They wanted to know if they should go to the left or right of the large boulder up ahead. At that point I started to get a little worried that not only were some of them not taking this hike seriously enough, perhaps some of them shouldn’t even be doing this hike.   Despite growing misgivings, I urged them on.

Our first rest stop was at Ghost Rock. As we sat in the cool shade, one of the women in our group, Catherine, mentioned that she had always had a problem with heat. Yikes, I thought, great time to be telling me this. I also noticed that several in our group had ignored my footgear warning and were wearing lightweight trail running shoes because they were “more comfortable.” We had gone no more than 200 yards past Ghost Rock when Catherine collapsed backwards on her pack. The heat was, apparently, already causing her to feel faint. She drank some water, put a wet bandana on her head, and seemed to feel better. We went on.

 We got to Cranberry Spring in mid-afternoon, and managed to collect a little water (perhaps two or three liters total) before we moved on. I was really pushing them hard at this point. It was late afternoon by the time we got to the point overlooking the river. I realized that there was no way we would make it to Deer Creek before dark, so I decided that we should set up camp right there. Since we only had a few liters of water left, two of us hiked back to Cranberry Spring to collect more water. We spent almost two hours collecting water from the drips. I can’t remember exactly how much we got, but I think it was only seven or eight liters. With our headlamps we hiked back to our camp to join the others for dinner.

Feeling rested and optimistic, we headed out early the next morning with a little more than one liter of water each. We reached the top of the Redwall chutes soon enough, but which chute was the correct one? There were no ducks or cairns, no footprints, no sign of humans anywhere. I remembered Steck saying that you can’t see the bottom of the chute from the top, so that you might think you are off-route. Steck also said that he once went too far and found a chute that was much harder than the correct one, and ended up going back a ways. So I was expecting something that looked very difficult. This led us to try a couple of dead-end chutes before we found the correct one. The wrong chutes were very steep and ended in huge drop offs. This futile exploration took a lot of time and energy. It was late morning by the time we found the correct chute, and it was getting very hot. We made it down the correct chute without much difficulty, but people were moving very slowly. By the time we exited the lower end of the chute and climbed up and onto the talus slope, it was already early afternoon. And now it was seriously hot. 

For those not familiar with this route, the talus slope, in my opinion, is physically the most demanding part of the route. It is about a thousand vertical feet, and very steep. Steck describes it as being at or above the angle of repose. 

Once we began our descent of the talus slope, the situation deteriorated quickly.  The slope faced due south with little or no shade, and the rocks were sizzling hot. Two of the women, Kathey and Catherine, were having a very difficult time hiking without falling. At this point people were starting to go into “survival mode.” Kathey and Catherine took off their packs, and Kathey’s fell over and tumbled about 100 feet down the slope. Luckily nothing was damaged. Before we were even half way down, all of us were out of water and scattered all over the place. We were all getting seriously dehydrated.  I was near the back of our group trying to help some of the slower people who eventually became so discouraged that they ditched their packs.  At first, I shuttled up and down the talus carrying abandoned packs, but after a couple of trips I realized that I couldn’t make much progress that way and was just getting more and more dehydrated myself. The four of us who were together decided to take some essentials out of our packs and make a run to Deer Creek for water. We yelled down to the others to explain that we were abandoning our packs. I remember being kind of astonished that I could hardly think clearly about what items I should take with me in my day pack. I probably spent 10 or 15 minutes pondering the matter. My mind was just a blank. It was like, oh yeah, I guess I need water bottles. After another minute I would think, oh yeah, I guess I need some food and a flashlight. Three of the people up ahead didn’t bother to take anything at all. One of the stronger hikers was way ahead and out of earshot, and he kept on going with his pack.

Near the bottom of the talus, Catherine was having serious problems.  We found her laying on a hot rock in the sun. I urged her to get up and continue on to where I could see some shade. She told us to just leave her there and that she would be fine. I got her up on her feet and literally dragged her along by the back of her pants, wobbling like a puppet, towards the shade. She was dangerously dehydrated, but not yet suffering from heat stroke. When we got to the shade (a small cave-like structure made from the rubble) we had her lie down on a cool, shady rock and remove some of her clothes. At that point I was with Kathey, Catherine, and Rob.  I knew that the four others were below us somewhere, but I didn’t know their condition.

After about 30 minutes I decided to continue on to Deer Creek to fetch water and bring it back to the others. Kathey agreed to stay with Catherine. I expected Rob to come with me, but when he tried to stand up, he immediately started retching. He was obviously in no condition to hike. The three of them later told me that they actually “wrote notes” to their families, using sharp rocks to scratch letters into the overhanging rocks, just in case they didn’t make in back alive. 

I gathered all the water bottles we had (not very many), and started out again in the sun and heat. There is a deep, steep-walled ravine to cross before you get to the flat terrain, where there is a dry lake-bed. When I emerged from the ravine, I saw a huge boulder in the distance and headed for it.  When I got to the boulder, I found Brian lying in the shade and feeling very ill. He mumbled that he couldn’t continue. He said that three others had gone ahead to Deer Creek and that one of them, Tom, still had his pack.  At the lake bed,  I ran into two people who had already made it down to Deer Creek and were now coming back with water for the others. Unfortunately, most of our water bottles were still in the packs that we abandoned on the talus slope, so they only had about three liters of water between them. I drank almost half a liter and continued on. I remember getting to Deer Creek and literally falling face into it to drink. I was intending to drink it all.

It didn’t take long to fully recover. As I was filling my bottles, I met Tina, who had managed to get to Deer Creek with the two who had returned with water. She said that she was just too weak to hike back. I finished filling my bottles and rushed back up the slope to find the others.  It was late afternoon and the temperature was dropping. The water and the cooler temperatures had revived the stranded ones enough to continue. I encountered them just beyond the dry lake bed. They were still dehydrated, but doing much better. They gulped down the water that I brought and we all continued on to Deer Creek. It was almost dark. We only had three flashlights among the seven of us, but we managed to get down without incident. 

We spent the night at Deer Creek without much food and only one sleeping bag between us. But we were ecstatic to be alive and next to the sound of running water. It was a long, cold night. The next morning we hiked back up to retrieve our packs. Ravens had opened some of the zippers and stolen what food and shiny objects they could find. There was a lot of cheering as a couple of the stronger hikers shuttled abandoned packs down to their grateful owners. When we returned to our camp at the creek, there was a nasty note from a park ranger, who was pretty irate that we had started in illegal campfire. Our perspective was quite different; we were just happy that we had survived to read the note.

We decided not to continue on with Steck’s loop. Instead, we spent two days relaxing and rejuvenating at Deer Creek. About half the group had badly damaged toenails from wearing inadequate footwear on the long, steep descent. Eventually, quite a few toenails turned black and fell off. It was suggested that we officially christen our hike “The George Steck Memorial Toenail Trip.” We still refer to it this way many years later.  

A number of things contributed to the near disaster, most of them being my fault. Here is my summary list of the major contributors:

1.  I was not a strong enough leader.

2.  We should have gotten a much earlier start on the first day.

3.  Some of the people should not have been on this hike. 

4.  I should not have done an unfamiliar off-trail route with such a large group.

5.  Cranberry Spring is not large enough to provide water for eight hikers. 

6.  The temperatures were above normal for that time of year.

7.  I should have paid more attention to the details of Steck’s route description.

The following spring I attempted the hike again, but this time with just one other strong hiker who had some Grand Canyon experience. I was so concerned with water and running out of daylight  that we left at first light with about five liters of water each. We found a huge pothole near Ghost Rock, drank all we could, and refilled our bottles. We managed to get to Deer Creek by early afternoon, although we were both very tired,  and over the next five days continued on to finish Steck’s loop without any serious problems. 

Additional Information:  After spending three nights at Deer Creek, Judy and I hiked to Surprise Valley, then over and down to Thunder River.  We picked up about 3 gallons of water and hauled it up the Redwall to the Esplanade.  We hid it in a protected nitch in a large Supai boulder.  The following day we all backpacked up to the Esplanade and spent the night there. 

The following day we hiked back along the Esplanade to Indian Hollow Campground. 

Photos from the trip can be viewed here.