Mike's knees had become a focus of conversation in the months leading up to this backpack. Jenn and I had convinced him to take 40lbs of water and make test hikes up and down a 1300-foot rocky peak near their hometown. It was while doing this that Mike discovered that his knees... hurt. Fortunate to have this knowledge in advance of the backpack, Mike visited his physiotherapist, reviewed what types of exercises he could do, of the mitigations he could take, and what braces he could wear. As we switchbacked down the slopes of the Hermit Basin on the Waldron Trail, I queried Mike (our Mike) about his knees. Today he was using a stout pair of hiking poles to help lighten the weight and impact on his knees and, now that we were partway down the first 'serious' descent on our backpack, we needed some feedback on how his knees were doing. After all, this was only the first few kilometres of a sixty-plus kilometer backpack. His knees had lots of work yet to do.
We were pleased to hear that although there were a few twinges here and there, overall his knees were doing quite well. I'd also explained to Mike that our Boucher route descent was not all about downhill; I described it as a three-step process. The first step being this very descent we were on on the Waldron Trail; the second being a steep scramble partway along the Boucher trail, and the third being a steep scramble near its end. In between were long stretches of either flat of undulating up-and-down. Ergo, his knees would have time to recuperate in between.
Cathy and Mike doing well
It wasn't long before the steep switchbacks gave way to a straighter trail down less-steep slopes, and soon after that, a nice flat path between fields of prickly pear and stands of Utah Serviceberry and Pinyon Pine trees. We soon crossed the creekbed in the bottom of the Hermit Basin and climbed somewhat before meeting up with the Hermit Trail (in retrospect, we probably could have just wandered down the creekbed until we crossed the Hermit Trail).
Although it was still sunny, the winds had really picked up. Every once in a while there was a truly powerful gust of wind that was strong enough to pick up a bit of dirt and blow it in your face. I knew that there were some trail sections with steep dropoffs coming up ahead; for the peace of mind of those who might be somewhat afraid of heights, I hoped that these winds would subside.
We stopped for a quick snack break here, and I briefed Cathy and Mike on the next section of trail - the traverse of the head of Hermit Gorge. cue dramatic music: dum-dum-dum....
Hermit-Dripping Springs Junction
This junction marked the lower end of the Waldron Trail. From here, our route would take us briefly along the Hermit Trail before reaching another junction. We pressed on, heading back downhill and recrossing the creekbed at the bottom of the Hermit Basin, then very shortly thereafter we arrived at the Hermit Trail / Dripping Springs junction. We would be veering left here, heading along a traversing trail towards Dripping Spring. This would connect us up to the Boucher Trail a short distance below the actual spring.
Now, the 'nice' thing about this section of trail towards Dripping Spring is that it skirts the head of a very impressive and very deep chasm: the Hermit Gorge (nice is in quotes because perhaps not everyone found it entirely to their liking). Furthermore, the trail runs fairly close to the edge of the Esplanade above vertical ochre cliffs of the Supai Group, and with the tan colored cliffs of the Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone towering above. It's a type of trail that is common in the Grand Canyon - a super-spectacular traverse along a sloping bench between two sets of monumental cliffs.
Andrew and Jenn at Lookout
Unfortunately, Cathy and Mike didn't quite see this section with as much positive zeal as the rest of us did. They have yet to arrive at a good sense of 'what's cool' and 'what's frikkin' scary'. At this particular moment, they were firmly in the latter category. When Mike, who was walking right behind me, saw the first stretch of exposed traversing path, all I heard was 'ooh, Cathy's not gonna like this...'. Indeed she did not, but to her credit -- to both Cathy and Mike's credit, they managed quite well along the exposed traversing trail. In a somewhat stiffly robotic, boot-shuffling kind of way, mind you, but they managed.
On another positive note, the towering walls above us seemed to shelter us from the strong gusts, and along this entire section we didn't have to contend with any wind.
In and out our trail went, tracing along the edge at the head of Hermit Gorge. Every turn in the trail revealed a different angle on this narrow, immensely grand defile. As you can see from the pictures in this section, the gorge heads pretty much straight, making a beeline north-eastwards towards the main part of the Grand Canyon.
Cathy rounds another corner