Northern Arizona XC skiing and hiking; January 2017

Monday, January 23: 18 members of Seattle-based One World Outing Club flew to Arizona for six days of winter adventuring in the high desert of the American southwest.  Lance Young, director of the club, was our guide.  IT freelancer David Stuart drove and assisted with herding cats.

Our first hop, to Phoenix on American Airlines, was happily uneventful.  When we approached the gate for the second leg of our flight, the adventure began.  The Skywest/American Eagle hop up to Flagstaff was delayed; then it was cancelled! The problem; too much snow in Flagstaff — the very reason we were going there.

All we could do was get rooms and come back in the morning.  SkyWest didn’t offer to pay for our rooms, reasoning that the snow wasn’t their fault.  Lance advised that, if we could scrape by with what was in our carry-ons, it would save time.  Nobody retrieved their luggage.  A pair of shuttle vans delivered us to an Econolodge outside the airport.

I checked Google Maps for places to go for dinner.  A scouting party hurried to the Phoenix Ale Brewery, only to confirm what I told them, that “Light Bites” meant no dinner.  We regrouped across North 32nd Street at the Knock-Kneed Lobster, queueing up at the counter.  A sign on the register warned, “We will not serve anyone who acts or looks obviously intoxicated.”  Good thing we bypassed the brewery!  Nearly all the fish was breaded and deep-fried; so I had a grilled chicken sandwich.

Rain set in as we walked around featureless vacant lots to our motel.  This was the edge of the Flagstaff storm.  Visions of snowflakes danced in our heads.

img_2558I was rooming with Lance.  He spent a long time on his phone and laptop, repairing our trip arrangements. The Monday me was very grateful to the Sunday me for the few overnight things I’d put in my backpack; clean underwear, toothbrush, and a set of long underwear for a quick change in case we had the chance to ski on arriving in Flagstaff.  My long underwear served as pajamas; the motel supplied Crest Toothpaste in little sample envelopes.

Tuesday, January 24: We had an early breakfast in the motel and shuttled back to the airport and our departure gate.  The scheduled departure time came and went.

  • Skywest explained that they were waiting for an absent flight attendant to report for duty; the plane must be fully crewed.
  • I explored the concourse’s slim retail offerings, and returned to hear that the Captain of the plane needed to determine his weight restriction for the upcoming flight.  Depending on this decision, there might not be enough capacity for all of us.
  • I bought a book; Dead Wake; The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (excellent).  Now Skywest announced that the Flagstaff runway was icy, so our flight was delayed.
  • Just as I was starting to enjoy my book, I heard that the flight was cancelled; there would be no flights to Flagstaff today.

Our choices now; stay in Phoenix for a second night, or drive to Flagstaff.  The airline didn’t offer to pay for shuttles to Flagstaff, reasoning that the ice wasn’t their fault.  Even imperturbable Lance was annoyed; they’d known all along that it was icy, and they’d wasted our morning.

We reclaimed our luggage.  Lance booked us on the next two shuttles.  I let the first shuttle go, since it didn’t have many open seats and others might feel more urgent about getting to Flagstaff.  Those of us who were left took turns watching our mound of luggage and  sausage-like ski bags.  I had a sandwich in the Baggage Claim Starbucks.

At noon we left for Flagstaff.  the shuttle was a long van with a baggage trailer.  We made a pit stop at a gas station mimi-mart, and I bought a bag of large, woody roasted pumpkin seeds. (Pat’s are infinitely better.)  We got back on I-17, but soon came to a mass of stuck traffic.  The driver called his dispatcher, who said there’d been an accident.  Perhaps two accidents?  It seemed that the snow we were trying to reach had gotten in our way again.  Then she said that the Interstate had been closed due to “police activity.”  “That probably involves guns,” I joked.  We decided to try detouring thru Prescott, adding an hour to our trip.  Later I read that the police had blocked I-17 while pursuing a stolen construction truck (the truck crashed).img_2555

We saw a heavy snow shower drift past to the north, and wondered if the lucky passengers in the first van were skiing in it.  (They were.)  As we went on, I saw a spackling of snow along the side of the road; then large scraps of the white stuff; then continuous snow except for bare circles under each tree; and at last, lovely uninterrupted expanses of snow between one and two feet deep.  Happily, there was hardly any snow on the highway.

In Flagstaff, we unloaded our skis and luggage in the portico of a comfortable-looking Days Inn on the east end of town.  I helped transfer our gear to an orderly mound on the plush carpet opposite the check-in desk.  One of the ladies tipped the driver and we said goodbye to him. Then there was a commotion at the check-in desk; “Stop the driver!  This is the wrong hotel!”

Luckily, he hadn’t left yet. We took all the skis and other things back outside and loaded them into the trailer, and drove to a spartan-looking Days Inn at the west end of town.  This time, we made sure it was the right hotel before unloading.  By now the sun was setting; there would be no skiing today.  But there was always tomorrow!

We crossed the highway and made our way up an icy driveway to a little shopping mall, where we had dinner at a long table in the Delhi Palace, with wine courtesy of Lance.  I had saag paneer, rice and garlic nan bread, and shared my neighbors’ chicken and lamb dishes.    We all ate ourselves silly.

Wednesday, January 25: Breakfast in the small lobby was odd; no protein, soupy oatmeal, pastries, bread, sugary dry cereal and a waffle maker. One of the ladies in our group showed me how to drain the water out of the oatmeal by squeezing two paper bowls together.

Lance and David had rented a couple of vans.  We loaded up, and in two hours drove to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  I skied with some of the group, while others walked, proceeding down the west side road and trail from Bright Angel Lodge toward Hermit’s Rest.img_2567

The park wasn’t set up for skiing, perhaps because this much snow at the Grand Canyon is a rarity.  We had to break our own trail between the road and the canyon’s edge.  Where the space was narrow, we skied in the lumpy debris field cast by snowplows.  At least it was clean; Arizona doesn’t use road salt.  Where the space was wider, we veered into the trees.  If the canyon rim didn’t look too treacherous, we skied along it.  We had great views from the canyon rim into the deep heartland of the Colorado River. And, away from the road, the snow was immaculate deep powder.

img_2559I’d set an alarm to remind me to turn around half-way to our rendezvous time.  On the return leg, I tried to ski an arc thru a wide section of woods to the road.  After a lot of awkward climbing amidst fallen logs and steep slopes, I began to worry, altho thanks to my own tracks I couldn’t get lost.   I studied the National Park map, and found the notice “Warning; not drawn to scale.”  I remembered a property manager whom I’d once done some work for, saying “That’s not a map — that’s a cartoon!”  I checked my compass.  I was heading east and uphill.  But to reach the road, I should go west.  But that was downhill and, I was certain, toward the canyon rim.  I decided to just follow my tracks back to the parking lot and ski the distance over again along the edge of the road.

While side-stepping down a hill that I’d climbed up with great effort twenty minutes before, the collar of my parka got caught in a tree branch; it retaliated by dumping snow down my neck.  I fell in a heap and wallowed around.  The snow was so powdery that I couldn’t lift myself up; my arms just sank into it.  I took off my ski poles and crossed them on the snow to make something I could push against.  When I put some weight on my skis they shifted downhill; I’d forgotten to put them across the slope.  I flailed around, trying to get them back under me.  I was at 7,000 feet (2133m) altitude and… out … of … breath …

I stopped struggling to pant and think.  I brought my skis next to me, downhill from me and across the slope, and pushed myself up against my crossed poles.  I checked myself for telltale globs of snow.  But it turned out that everybody else had fallen too, and I could wear my snow with pride.

I got back to the van in plenty of time.  Back in Flagstaff I had dinner with some of the ladies at a Mexican hole in the wall whose hot sauce was utterly alien and quite effective.

Thursday, January 26: I had breakfast at the IHOP restaurant next-door; a fine garden omelet with fruit and hot herbal tea.  We drove to the Arizona Nordic Village, 8000 feet (2438m) altitude.  This resort has a small log-cabin lodge and a scattering of rental cabins, and 40km of groomed ski trails.  Lance had warned us to dress for cold, and it was cold; 19 F. (-7 C.) with a life-sucking crosswind.  The snow on the groomed trails was dry powder that creaked under my skis and gave off a shuddering groan at each pole-thrust. The virgin snow off-trail felt like a cloud to ski on, and it glittered with small crystals.  My ski gloves were not enough protection to keep my hands from stinging; so I went to heavy mittens with chemical hand warmer pads in their tips.img_7920

I had a long climb up Goshawk, the layout’s most challenging trail.  At the top, I had lunch with some other skiers.  There was a yurt overlooking a wide meadow with a mountain looming beyond.  We couldn’t go into the yurt because it had been rented.

They took off, and a few minutes later I was ready to go.  But I couldn’t get my left ski back on.  I scraped out the little vampire-jaw of the ski binding with the point of a ski pole, but it didn’t help.  Luckily, an employee drove up on a little tractor and came over to help.  He got on his knees, scraped ice off the toe-bar of my ski boot with his car key, and guided it in.

After a long glide down, I followed the Thunder trail to the west edge of the resort.  I’d had quite a workout, and decided I was done for the day.  But the trail map was deceptively small, and I was still three miles from the lodge.

Karin made us reservations for dinner at Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff’s Old Town, a boisterous bistro with great food but slow service.  I had a nice salmon tostada.

Friday, January 27: When I woke up, I could hear powerful gusts of wind outside.  From the lobby I could see the entrance awning flapping and dumping snow.  The wind blew snow under the fire exit door.  The Grand Canyon weather forecast predicted a wind-chill of -12 F. (-24 C.).  Two pair of long underwear bottoms seemed prudent today.

We drove to the Grand Canyon again, and looked at the village galleries and historic buildings. The paths and roads were icy. Knowing that we’d be hiking in Sedona the next day, I went hunting for a set of points that I could attach to my shoes. I found some really good ones in the gift shop at Bright Angel Lodge for $50; “Ice Trekkers.” Each consists of chains of pointy links bolted to a flexible oval ring that slips over the sole of the shoe.  Now, instead of slithering across gray ice from one patch of white snow or bare pavement to another, I could just walk, crunching over hazards like a little tank.

In the afternoon, most of the group set out from Hermit’s Rest to ski the rim; but I didn’t want to ski here again.  It was too cramped, and the rim was too scary, and it was cold.  I had lunch and hot tea in front of the fireplace in Hermit’s Rest.  I talked with a man from Scottsdale AZ who was traveling with his 86-year-old mother.  He’d been hiking in two-foot-deep snow (not with her).  He didn’t want to hear advice about snowshoes.  I roamed around the facility and took tourists’ pictures for them. Here my Ice Trekkers were not a lot of help, due to deep snow. I found one promising icy trail behind Hermit’s Rest, and chained up my boots. It took me about 200 feet along the rim, separated from the view by a screen of trees, to garbage cans at the end of a dirt alley. The skiers returned to report a beautiful trip.

img_7942We did the tourist thing, stopping at lookouts and attractions on the canyon rim. At sunset we reached the Desert Lookout Tower. It was at the end of a maze of trails and buildings. It was a circular stone tower, picturesque and slightly ruinous. Between the loss of solar heat due to the setting sun and the wind out of the canyon, the cold was intense. I had to swing my arms every few minutes to relieve my aching fingers. I had to take off my gloves to use my camera with numb, painful fingers. On my way back to the van I pulled my fingers into the palms of my gloves to get them warm.

I emerged onto a highway instead of the parking lot. I checked the map, but it was too vague to be any help. I backtracked and found Lance, who was looking for me.

Five of us had dinner together at the IHOP; chicken Cobb salad for me. Pretty good. We adjourned to our rooms to pack for hiking and the flight home.

Saturday, January 28:  We drove down a swerving highway with wonderful mountain views to expensive-looking Sedona. From Airport Overlook, we enjoyed views of the forested valley and the scenic mountain range beyond it for a suggested donation of $1.img_7957

Then we hiked the Bell Rock Path; I went 3.5 miles (5.6km).  We’d descended to 4,300 feet (1,310m).  Here it was a warm spring day; no need for Ice Trekkers.  I soon shed my gloves, ear band, jacket, fleece and (discretely and awkwardly) my long underwear bottoms. This was beautiful country, not desert but arid scrubland, loosely populated by cacti, bushes and stunted trees.  Much of the way was on solid sandstone, with stretches of orange soil and viscous orange mud.  I saw scraps of snow on the paddle-shaped cacti. The trail started out well-defined, but soon widened and branched out until one could walk nearly anywhere.  Trail signs were frequent; they were set in wire-wrapped cylinders of loose rock, perhaps because signposts couldn’t be driven into the solid rock underfoot.  I explored icy dry washes and easily climbed partway up Bell Rock.  Quite a few people had come to enjoy the sunny, brightly-colored expanse, including dog-walkers and joggers, tourists speaking many languages, and families with children.

img_7975After this wonderful day in the sun, we returned to snowbound Flagstaff somewhat reluctantly.  At the airport, Skywest had one more trick up their sleeve.  Because they hadn’t flown us to Flagstaff, they’d cancelled our seats for the return flight to Phoenix.  Reasoning, perhaps, that we must still be in Phoenix and didn’t need them.  Lance straightened the snafu out somehow, and we had a 27-minute flight down.

David organized a farewell dinner at the Four Peaks Brewery pub in the Sky Harbor concourse.  I had enchiladas and peach beer; best meal of the trip!

We arrived at SeaTac Airport near midnight during a protest against President Trump’s executive order limiting travel from Muslim countries. The protest seemed orderly and well-led. However, airport management seemed unprepared to deal with it.

Our American Airlines flight disembarked at the north end of the terminal. All entrances to baggage claim were blocked off. I walked the length of the airport looking for a way out. There were no announcements or signs explaining what was going on and how to get my baggage, and no staff stationed on my route to tell me.

When I reached the south end of the terminal, a large group of police and security officers at Gate A6 let me into Baggage Claim.  I had to walk the length of the terminal again in Baggage Claim to get to carousel 16 at the north end. I passed amid the protestors near carousel 13. They were not intimidating, blocking or interfering with operations. If it hadn’t been so late with my wife trying to pick me up, I’d have been happy to join them. I’m impressed that so many people would come so far to protest Trump’s anti-Muslim restrictions, and and that they would still be protesting at midnight.

Pat left the car parked in the “No waiting” pickup zone outside Baggage Claim to come and look for me.  She was parked next to a police car, but they didn’t bother her.


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