Harvey's Hiking Boots

Harvey's boots!

Wontans Throne Climb by Harvey Butchart!

From Summit, September 1965

 



 

 

The finest scenic drive in Grand Canyon National Park is along the northeast rim over the Walhalla Plateau to Cape Royal. The road winds through the fir and aspen forest, but at three viewpoints you command a hundred-mile sweep of the Painted Desert from Navaho Mountain to the Hopi Mesas. Nine miles to the east, a row of great buttes hides the Colorado, and still closer towering pinnacles divide the creek beds. Cape Royal itself is a fitting climax to this marvelous drive. From one position you can see Unkar Rapid in the river through Angel's Window, a large hole through a projecting fin whose top is a tourist promenade. From the cape you look not only to the east, but to the south you see the San Francisco Peaks, 70 miles away. To the west, you see the pinnacles, walls, and promontories of the canyon 10, 20, and 30 miles to the skyline. But most startling are two great forms nearby. To the southeast is Vishnu Temple, a Matterhorn in the desert, and to the southeast is Wotans Throne, a wooded mesa that looks as impregnable as Vishnu. Actually, both of these have been climbed.

In 1937 a party of four men and a woman climbed the Throne. They represented the American Museum of Natural History which had an expedition on Shiva Temple to study the possibility that rodent species there differed from those on the plateau. George Andrews wrote an account of their Wotan climb for the December, 1937, issue of Natural History, and the leader, Walter Wood, wrote the story for the American Alpine journal. They spent two nights below the rim of Cape Royal, one on the way and one on the return. The only illustrations show the take-off at Cape Royal and a rappel below the rim. Wood details the number of rappels required in getting down from Cape Royal, but his climb of a more difficult looking ridge to the top of Wotan is treated very casually. Neither of these articles is very helpful to one who would like to repeal their feat.

The next man to become interested in Wotan was Merrel D. Clubb, a professor of English at the University of Kansas. He became a Grand Canyon buff before the second world war, and for several summers he concentrated on Vishnu Temple and Wotans Throne. After patient study he succeeded in climbing the Temple twice and the Throne three times. The closer I come to the base of Vishnu, the more I despair of ever climbing it. However, after a college boy, Allyn Cureton, and I made the top of Shiva and returned in record time, I was ready to listen to all the information Clubb could give me concerning the route up Wotan.

Five hundred feet below the rim there is a wall or causeway connecting Cape Royal to Wotan, but it is useless as a route because of a hundred-foot notch near the middle. In discussing the route it is helpful to use the names of the three formations concerned. Below the top 500 feet of Kaibab Limestone lie 350 feet of Coconino Sandstone, and below that is a steeply sloping bench of Hermit Shale. A nearly continuous shelf lies at the base of Kaibab, and the Hermit Shale is always a slow but possible route for the hiker.

Dr. Clubb indicated that the main problem is to get down to the shale on the east side of the cause way. Because of a curve in this wall, one cannot see from the Cape that the Coconino below Wotan is broken into hummocks. Then one should follow this Kaibab cliff around the north side of Wotan until h comes to a forested slope rising to within a few fee of the rocky rim. Clubb had found two ways to get from the main rim down to the shale. His first trip had used a ravine about a mile and a quarter north of Cape Royal, but he regarded the two miles of Hermit Shale to the beginning of the causeway as about the most disagreeable walking he had ever done. Without saying whether he himself had used a rope in this ravine, he remarked that it would go without one, lie had pioneered another route for his second and third ascents. It leaves the rim at Cape Royal near the rustic seats where the naturalist gives the lecture. By an intricate route along ledges and down breaks, when not using brushy talus slopes, he could go down first to the left and then to the right and reach the north end of the causeway without a rope. Just east of this wall is a ravine and, according to Clubb, only at its lower end is a rope needed. He distinctly remembered the root of a certain redbud tree where he tied the 120-foot rope.

At the end of May, Allyn Cureton and I went to Cape Royal to see how well we could follow Clubb's instructions. Just as I was ready to give up trying to find a ropeless route to the bottom of the Kaibab, Allyn, who was bird-dogging ahead, shouted that he had it made. His route involved crawling along a ledge under an overhang. When we came to the trough next to the causeway, we found its head blocked by a huge chockstone with a hole behind it. This well was too broad for easy chimney climbing so I left our light rope here with knots in it for better gripping. Walking to the lower end of the trough was easy, but even though expected, the drop-off was a shock. We couldn't be sure our rope would reach the bottom, and retreated.

By the middle of the following September, I made a reconnaissance of the other presumably ropeless route, a mile-and-a-quarter north of Cape Royal. A parking lot and a wayside exhibit now mark the place. The display tells about contemporaries of William the Conqueror who lived in these Walhalla glades. You can walk a few yards to the end of a path and see what is left of one of the homes, a low pile of rocks beneath the pine needles. The exhibit doesn't mention it, but on the top of the promontory, 200 yards east, are 10 or 12 better preserved rooms. Getting up to this citadel is difficult enough to be interesting. One way is to climb a tree and step over to the rim, but I was interested in seeing how they reached it 900 years ago. I went to the north side, climbed to a ledge and followed it to the tar end of the butte. Here there is a break in the rim, and the exposure adds spice to the scramble. You can see how two or three sentries could stand off an army.

Clubb had told me to go down somewhere along the saddle leading to the promontory. The first two ravines I tried went down about a hundred feet and then ended in vertical walls. A well defined deer trail leads down through the Kaibab on the north side of the saddle. The deer trail led me down 500 feet and I went below the promontory to the southwest. Clubb had mentioned three parallel ravines in the Coconino, one of which should take me down to the Hermit Shale without a rope. The first was impossible right at the top. I went down the next two without trouble until I was within 50 feet of the bottom of this 350-foot formation. If a man can do the rest without a rope, I would like to see it. Frustrated, I returned around the base of the promontory to the deer trail.

Two wrecked cars serve as a startling marker for the top of the middle ravine. A 1952 New Jersey license plate shows when a nice vacation trip was spoiled. Fortunately, no one was in these cars when they started to roll. After crashing down through the rocks and trees tor 500 vertical feet, they are so smashed and interlocked that it is hard to tell where, one car ends and the other begins. When I got to the top by the deer trail, I looked around and found the short way down from the rim to the wrecked cars. The correct ravine is the closest to the parking lot.

The following June, Cureton flew to the north rim and met me at ranger headquarters. By 2:15 we were parked at Walhalla Glades with our packs ready to go. We carried six quarts of water apiece and a ten pound rope. We went down past the wrecks into the right sandstone ravine without trouble. At the lower end we first tied the rope to a tree so far back that it wouldn't reach the shale, but we found that we could climb past a chockstone and use a clump of shrubbery for the anchor. Rappelling with a sling and carabiner, we got below the Coconino Sandstone in an hour-and-a-quarter from the car.

Travel along the Hermit Shale is necessarily slow. You have to push through brush, watch for skids, and go up or down to avoid steep-walled gulleys and huge rocks. Deer tracks may help you find the best route but you can be sure that the best is not good. To make a mile an hour you have to keep going whether you think you are on the best route or not. In two hours more we were at the beginning of the causeway to Wotan. In another hour we had covered another mile and we were at the break in the Coconino ready to start up Wotan.

It was now 7:30 p.m., and we hadn’t seen a level bivouac site since we left the car. While checking a ravine just beyond the fractured sandstone, we found a good overhang with some level sand beneath. The ravine was impossible, but there was wood for our fires, so what more could we want? We soon found out — a cooler night and no mosquitoes. One hardly ever worries about these pests in the Grand Canyon but there are some notable exceptions, the heat drove me out of my down bag and the mosquitoes drove me in, and I ended the night with only a couple of hours of sleep.

In the morning we followed the talus as far as it went up beside the hummocky part of the Coconino. We left our gear except for water and cameras at the top of the talus. Route finding along ledges and up cracks was slow, and at one place we seemed to be stopped. Careful scouting turned up an easy ramp behind a large rock. Nowhere in the Coconino was there any nerve-testing exposure. Near the top of the formation I came to an Indian rock shelter, a wide ledge under an overhang with wind breaker walls built at both ends. What a place this would be from which to see the half real canyon by moonlight or the morning sun bringing out the rough angles!

Above the Coconino you pass through a convenient gateway in the wall and you emerge on the north side of Wotan. Past an exposed angle you scramble up the lichen-decked rock and are in the forest at the base of the Kaibab cliff. Cureton and I couldn't find Clubb's fine path through this steep forest, his "camino real." We kept rather close to the base of the final cliff where the walking seemed best and where we wouldn't miss any good route to the top. The easy logical way is foolproof. You walk west until the forest is about to end in a bare cliff. Here all but eight feet of the Kaibab cliff is replaced by steep forest. Above a break in the rim is a cairn, presumably Clubb's. We had needed two-and-a-half hours to go from the base of the Coconino to the top of Wotan.

As you explore the summit, you feet that you are in a world apart. There had been plenty of deer signs on Shiva, but here I found only one imperfect hoof print at the base of the final cliff. There were also coyote signs below the rim, but apparently we shared the summit only with lizards, rodents, and birds. For the next two hours we felt like Robinson Crusoe. First we made a sweep of the rim to the west, along the south side, and then to the north. We then cut through the thickets of the pinyon-juniper forest. Clubb had photographed a rather doubtful Indian ruin. We also found a dubious one, but then we came to one with walls still 15 inches high and showing a well defined doorway. Why should the Indians have bothered to build shelters in such a place? Surely population pressure didn't force them to farm these 135 acres in the sky. Perhaps they came here on pilgrimages to prove their prowness.

Cureton and I had water to get us to the car before dark the second day, so we reluctantly left the top of the throne by mid-morning.

Three weeks later Allyn and I ventured down into this fascinating area once more. We wanted to test ourselves on Clubb's trough with the long rappel. Our hope was to get to the top of Wotan and back the same day. In the morning our progress was steady. I left a knotted rope behind the chockstone at the top of the trough. At the lower end of the ravine, we could go farther down by getting out on the sloping slab to the east. We couldn't see Clubb’s redbud tree, but we tied the 130-foot rope to a large pine 20 feet back from the brink of the cliff. For the middle third of the rappel one hangs away from the wall. At the bottom of the rappel we were still on a shelf of the sandstone and had to use a third rope to descend a few yards to the shale. By now we realized that climbing Wotan would mean a long, hard day, so we settled for a first ascent of Freya Temple. Usually I don't care to climb the same summit twice when there are dozens waiting for a first ascent, but Wotan still fascinates me, and I'll be back for another climb.

 


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