Grand Canyon Exploration Log July 19 – 25, 1869

July 19 – “Bradley and I start this morning to climb the left wall below the junction. The way we have selected is up a gulch. Climbing for an hour over and among the rocks, we find ourselves in a vast amphitheater and our way cut off. We clamber around to the left for half an hour, until we find that we cannot go up in that direction. Then we try the rocks around to the right and discover a narrow shelf nearly half a mile long. In some places this is so wide that we pass along with ease; in others it is so narrow and sloping that we are compelled to lie down and crawl. We can look over the edge of the shelf, down 800 feet, and see the river rolling and plunging among the rocks. Looking up500 feet to the brink of the cliff, it seems to blend with the sky. We continue along until we come to a point where the wall is again broken down. Up we climb”.

“On the right there is a narrow, mural point of rocks, extending toward the river, 200 or 300 feet high and 600 or 800 feet long. We came back to where this sets in and find it cut off from the main wall by a great crevice. Into this we pass; and now a long, narrow rock is between us and the river. The rock itself is split longitudinally as well as transversely; and the rains on the surface above have run down through the crevices and gathered into channels below and then run off into the river. The crevices are usually narrow above and, by erosion of the streams, wider below, forming a network of caves, each having a narrow, winding skylight up through the rocks”.

We wander among these corridors for an hour or two, but find no place where the rocks are broken down so that we can climb up. At last we determine to attempt a passage by crevice, and select one which we think is wide enough to admit the passage of our bodies and yet narrow enough to climb out by pressing our hands and feet against the walls. So we climb as men would out of a well”.

“Bradley climbs first; I hand him the barometer, then climb over his head and he hands me the barometer. So we pass each other alternately until we emerge from the fissure, out on the summit of the rock”.

“And what a world of grandeur is spread before us! Below is the canyon through which the Colorado runs. We can trace its course for miles, and at points catch glimpses of the river. From the northwest comes the Green in a narrow winding gorge. From the northeast comes the Grand, through a canyon that seems bottomless from where we stand. Away to the west are lines of cliffs and ledges of rock – not such ledges as the reader may have seen where the quarryman splits his blocks, but ledges from which the gods might quarry mountains that, rolled out on the plain below, would stand a lofty range; and not such cliffs as the reader may have seen where the swallows builds its nest, but cliffs where the soaring eagle is lost to view ere he reaches the summit. Between us and the distant cliffs are the strangely carved and pinnacled rocks of the ‘Toom’pin wunear’ Tuweap’. On the summit of the opposite wall of the canyon are rock forms that we do not understand”.


“Away to the east a group of eruptive mountains are seen – the Sierra La Sal, which we first saw two days ago through the canyon of the Grand. Their slopes are covered with pines, and deep gulches are flanked with great crags, and snow fields are seen near the summits. So the mountains are in uniform, — green, gray and silver. Wherever we look, there is but a wilderness of rocks, — deep gorges where the rivers are lost below cliffs and towers and pinnacles, and ten thousand strangely carved forms in every direction, and beyond them mountains blending with the clouds”.

“Now we return to camp. While eating supper we very naturally speak of better fare, as musty bread and spoiled bacon are not palatable. Soon I see Hawkins down by the boat, taking up the sextant – a rather strange proceeding for him – and I question him concerning it, he replies that he is trying to find the longitude and latitude of the nearest pie”.

July 20, — “This morning Captain Powell and I climb the west wall of the canyon, for the purpose of examining the strange rocks seen yesterday from the other side. Two hours bring us to the top, at a point between the Green and Colorado overlooking the junction of the rivers”.

A long neck of rock extends toward the mouth of the Grand. Out on this we walk, crossing a great number of deep crevices. Usually the smooth rock slopes down to the fissure on either side. Sometimes it is an interesting question to us whether the slope is not so steep that we cannot stand on it. Sometimes, starting down, we are compelled to go on, and when we measure the crevice with our eye from above we are not always sure that it is not too wide for a jump. Probably the slopes would not be difficult if there was not a fissure at the lower end; nor would the fissures cause fear if they were but a few feet deep. It is curious how a little obstacle becomes a great obstruction when a misstep would land a man in the bottom of a deep chasm. Climbing the face of a cliff, a man will without hesitancy walk along a step or shelf but a few inches wide if the landing is but ten feet below, but if the foot of the cliff is a thousand feet down he will prefer to crawl along the shelf. At last our way is cut off by a fissure so deep and wide that we cannot pass it. Then we turn and walk back into the country, over the smooth, naked sandstone, without vegetation, except that here and there dwarf cedars and pin~on pines have found a footing in the huge cracks. There are great basins in the rock, holding water, — some a few gallons, others hundreds of barrels”.

The day is spent in walking about through these strange scenes. A narrow gulch is cut into the wall of the main canyon. Follow this up and the climb is rapid, as if going up a mountain side, for the gulch heads but a few hundred or a few thousands yards from the wall. But this gulch has its side gulches, and as the summit is approached a group of radiating canyons is found. The spaces drained by these little canyons are terraced, and are, to a greater or lesser extent, of the form of amphitheaters, though some are oblong and some rather irregular. Usually the spaces drained by any one of these little side canyons are separated by a narrow wall.100, 200, or 300 feet high, and often but a few feet in thickness. Sometimes the wall is broken into a line of pyramids above and remains a wall below. There are a number of these gulches which break into the wall of the main canyon of the Green, each having its system of side canyons and amphitheaters, inclosed by walls or lines of pinnacles. The course of the Green at this point is approximately at right angles to that of the Colorado, and on the brink of the latter canyon we find some terraced and walled glens. The walls and pinnacles and towers are of sandstone, homogenous in structure but not in color, as they show broad bands of red, buff and gray. This painting of the rocks, dividing them into sections, increases their apparent height. In some places these terraced and walled glens along the Colorado have coalesced with those along the Green; that is, the intervening walls are broken down. It is very rarely that a loose rock is seen. The sand is washed off, so that the walls, terraces, and slopes of the glens are all of smooth sandstone”. “In the walls themselves curious caves and channels have been carved. In some places there are little stairways up the walls; in others, the walls present what are known as royal arches; and so we wander through glens and among pinnacles and climb the walls from early morn until late afternoon”.

July 21, — “We start this morning on the Colorado. The river is rough and bad rapids in close succession are found. Two very hard portages are made in the afternoon. After dinner, in running a rapid, the ‘Emma Dean’ is swamped and we are thrown into the river; we cling to the boat, and in the first quiet water below she is righted and bailed out; but three oars are lost in this mishap. The larger boats land above the dangerous place, and we make a portage, which occupies all the afternoon. We camp at night on the rocks on the left bank, and can scarcely find room to lie down”.

July 22, — “This morning we continue our journey, though short of oars. There is no timber growing on the walls within our reach and no driftwood along the banks, so we are compelled to go on until something suitable is found. A mile and three quarters below, we find a huge pile of driftwood, among which are some cottonwood logs. From these we select one which we think the best, and the men are set at work sawing oars. Our boats are leaking again, from the strains received in the bad rapids yesterday, so after dinner they are turned over and some of the men caulk them”.

“Captain Powell and I go out to climb the wall to the east, for we can see dwarf pines above, and it is our purpose to collect the resin which oozes from them, to use in pitching our boats. We take a barometer with us and find that the walls are becoming higher, for now they register an altitude above the river of nearly 1,500 feet”.

July 23, — “On starting, we come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decide to name this Cataract Canyon. From morning until noon the course of the river is to the west; the scenery is grand, with rapids and falls below, and walls above, beset with crags and pinnacles. Just at noon we wheel again to the south and go into camp for dinner”.

“While the cook prepares it, Bradley, Captain Powell, and I go up into a side canyon that comes in at this point. We enter through a very narrow passage, having to wade along the course of a little stream until a cascade interrupts our passage. Then we climb to the right for a hundred feet until we reach a little shelf, along which we pass, walking with great care, for it is narrow; thus we pass around the fall. Here the gorge widens into a spacious, sky roofed chamber. In the farther end is a beautiful grove of cottonwoods, and between us and the cottonwoods the little stream widens out into three clear lakelets with bottom of smooth rock. Beyond the cottonwoods the brook tumbles in a series of white, shining cascades from heights that seem immeasurable. Turning around, we can look through the cleft through which we came and see the river with towering walls beyond. What a chamber for a resting place is this!! Hewn from the solid rock, the heavens for a ceiling, cascade fountain within, a grove in the conservatory, clear lakelets fro a refreshing bath, and an outlook through the doorway on a raging river, with cliffs and mountains beyond”.

Our way after dinner is through a gorge, grand beyond description.
The walls are nearly vertical, the river broad and swift, but free from rocks and falls. From the edge of the water to the brink of the cliffs it is 1,600 to 1,800 feet. At this great depth the river rolls in solemn majesty. The cliffs are reflected from the more quiet river, and we seem to be in the depths of the earth, and yet we can look down into waters that reflect a bottomless abyss. Early in the afternoon we arrive at the head of more rapids and falls, but, wearied from the past work, we determine to rest, so we go into camp, and the afternoon and evening are spent by the men in discussing the probabilities of successfully navigating the river below. The barometric records are examined to see what descent we have made since we left the mouth of the Grand, and what descent since we left the Pacific Railroad, and what fall there yet must be to the river ere we reach the end of the great canyons. The conclusion at which the men arrive seems to be about this: that there are great descents yet to be made, but if they are distributed in rapids and short falls, as the nave been heretofore, we shall be able to over-come them; but may be that we shall come to a fall in these canyons which we cannot pass, where the walls rise from the water’s edge, so that we cannot land, and where the water is so swift that we cannot return. Such places have been found, except that the falls were not so great but we could run them with safety. How will it be in the future? So they speculate over the serious probabilities in a jesting mood”.

July 24, — “We examine the rapids below. Large rocks have fallen from the walls – great, angular blocks, which have rolled down the talus and are strewn along the channel. We are compelled to make three portages in succession, the distance being less than three fourths of a mile, with a fall of 75 feet. Among these rocks, in chutes, whirlpools, and great waves. And rushing breakers and foam, the water finds its way, still tumbling down. We stop for the night only three quarters of a mile below the last camp. A very hard day’s work has been done, and at evening I sit on a rock by the edge of the river and look at the water and listen to its roar. Hours ago deep shadows settled in to the canyon, as the sun passed behind the cliffs. Now, doubtless, the sun has gone down, for we can see no glint of light on the crags above. Darkness is coming on; but the waves are rolling with crests of foam so white they seem almost to give a light of their own. Near by, a chute of water strikes the foot of a great block of limestone 50 feet high, and the waters pile up against it and roll back. Where there are sunken rocks the water heaps up in mounds, or even in cones. At a point where rocks are very near the surface, the water forms a chute above, strikes, and is shot up 10 to 15 feet, and piles back in gentle curves, as in a fountain; and on the river tumbles and rolls”.

July 25, — “Still more rapids and falls to-day. In one, the ‘Emma Dean’ is caught in a whirlpool and set spinning about, and it is with great difficulty we are able to get out of it with only the loss of an oar. At noon another is made; and on we go, running some of the rapids, letting down with lines past others, and making short portages. We camp on the right bank, hungry and tired”.

Major Powell often writes paragraphs that run to great lengths and his punctuation is a bit heavy handed, but his descriptions are beyond delightful, they are superb.

Walter Mow




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