The Kaibab Loop Challenge…by Field Instructor J.L.

This week, we headed to the Kaibab, or “mountain lying down,” to make an ambitious backpacking loop. This loop would be about 26 miles, with over 2,500 vertical feet covered, mainly on the first day.

We started at the southernmost part of the cliff band at an elevation of 6,300 feet, surrounded by juniper, sage, darkling beetles and sand. After a night’s sleep full of high winds, with thoughts of spirits and voodoo dolls, the group woke up with the plan to hit a spring for water. This would require a climb up to about 8,600 feet in about seven miles. The canyon trail followed the transition of ecosystems from sand to dirt, from Junipers to the sweet butterscotch smell of Ponderosa Pine. The last part of the trail proved to be steep and covered in fallen trees, creating an obstacle course for our seven fully-stocked backpackers. Water was flowing in the canyon. Determined to find the source, we trekked on until the sound of trickling water diminished. 

Camp was called and teamwork took place to get dinner cooking and evaluate the day’s trek. As night rolled in, the slope of our site allowed us to slip away into dreams (and downhill off our sleeping pads!) protected by the tall pines and evergreens that held in the day’s warmth. 

Morning brought anew a reminder of the need for success in finding water. We continued on to the spring, unsure of what we would find. 

We hit the plateau at over 9,000 feet, completing the uphill portion of our travels. Our leader’s sharp compass skills landed us water in a well, where we followed the Continental Divide trail in search of our destination.

Finding the spring after another six-mile day brought smiles and comfort as the trail opened onto an alpine meadow, with streams running to a pond. We were truly thankful for plenty of water and a flat, grassy surface to sleep on. We later enjoyed the warmth of hot cocoa under the stars, as the clear sky and high altitude chilled the evening.
Gratitude and appreciation was felt for the way the trip had played out so far. With the option of a day hike to a much anticipated sinkhole, the group decided it best to instead head down off the plateau towards a water tank, putting us closer to our vehicle. With a guesstimated 90% chance of the tank being dry, we carried extra water for the possibility of dry camping. 
Following the canyon, we traveled through the ever-changing ecosystems once again. The gurgling sound of flowing water stayed with us as we dropped down to the canyon floor and into a dense, rainforest-like area. The soil was topped with nautilus shells, reminding us that this area was once completely underwater. We found a site with rocks for seats, blocked one way by a boulder and protected by giant trees that looked as if they would embrace us in their arms and tell us the tales of the Kaibab. This was the perfect shaded lunch spot. Group members were feeling the hard work of the previous days. Breaks were welcomed as we continued down to the sand, juniper and sage once again. We arrived at the tank in late evening with nine miles behind us, to discover that there would be no opportunity to replenish our water. It was indeed dry.
Thirst, tiredness and sore feet all set in as we counted the few liters of water remaining. Thoughts of full jugs at our vehicle only 3 miles away helped us decide to eat a quick dinner and dig out our head lamps for a night hike back to the vehicle. Frustration set in with the need for more bushwhacking. The idea of being team members held the group together as we pushed out the miles. With each step, the sky grew darker and stars glowed brighter. Cheers upon arrival at the vehicle were shortly followed by snores earned from the day’s work!
In this supremely challenging expedition, the lessons of teamwork and having backup plans were well learned. Each member led a leg of the loop, while also keeping in mind the big picture of how his day would affect the next. Satisfaction in our abilities to navigate and arrive at each destination brought gratitude. Water brought revival in energy and comfort. Individuals learned how to “let go” of frustrations and doubts by communicating to the team in order to take forward steps together.