Cheops Plateau and Cheops Pyramid

Cheops Plateau 5401′ and Cheops Pyramid 5206′
Total Time: 15:30
Roundtrip Mileage: 25 miles
Elevation Gain: 11,100′
Crux: Cheops Plateau- Class IV, Cheops Pyramid- Class III
Trailhead: Yaki Point/ South Kaibab Trail. Water, pit toilets, trash, shuttle bus

 



I had been somewhat disappointed in how little I had made it to the Grand Canyon since moving to Arizona. I had anticipated it would become the hub of many desert adventures, but had only visited twice in the past 8 months. Furthermore, most of the buttes and peaks I had bagged in the Grand Canyon were short approaches off the rim; certainly not easy, but not requiring miles of cross country approach that the Grand Canyon is notorious for. I set out in mid-February to change that, with the goal of dayhiking Cheops Pyramid and Cheops Plateau. The Cheops group is a pair of summits below Isis Temple, a prominent landmark north of the Colorado River. The summits are on the edge of a region of the park where most of the features are named after Egyptian Gods, pharaohs and temples. While the park service will tell you this is due to an old surveyor really, really liking Egyptian stuff, conspiracy theorists believe it stems from an ancient Egyptian underground city in the Grand Canyon, reportedly discovered by S. A. Jordon and G. E. Kinkaid in 1903, funded by the Smithsonian. The park service stands that those reports (published 16 years before the Grand Canyon was a park) were a hoax, but suspiciously make it illegal to explore every cave within the park aside from the Cave of Wonders on Horseshoe Mesa. My interest in Cheops (named for an Egyptian pharaoh) did not stem from this lost city, but from the solid scrambling found on the NE arete of the plateau. I found a trip report of someone who had managed both the pyramid and plateau in a day, and set out to replicate the challenge. I woke up at 4AM and set out for the South Kaibab Trail by 4:30. Since the trailhead is only accessible by shuttle bus, I parked in the picnic area off the highway and hiked the road in. I hadn’t hiked on the South Kaibab Trail in several years, and was briefly turned around by the various use trails leading to overlooks along the rim. The South Kaibab Trail tends to be icy for the upper 200′ this time of year, but warm weather the week before melted the majority of the ice, with the remaining layer covered in a mix of dust and pack mule shit- not exactly pleasant, but at least providing some traction. The moon was near full and had the trail been a bit flatter, I probably could have gone without a headlamp. Shortly after 5AM, right around the level of O’Neill Butte, the moon set and was able to enjoy some impressive stars for the rest of the hike down. Just as I was hitting the bridge over the Colorado I was able to turn off my headlamp, taking just over 2 hours from the highway.

Phantom Canyon Ranch CG.
Phantom Canyon Ranch CG.

I took a sizable break at Phantom Canyon Ranch, using the bathrooms (one can never underestimate how nice it was to have a flush toilet and running water mid-hike), filling up water, and eating a quick breakfast. I headed up canyon, looking for the turnoff for the Utah Flats route, an unmaintained but well traveled route that heads over a ridgeline towards the upper reaches of Phantom Canyon, bypassing some falls and tricky spots lower down. The route starts from campsite #1, the northern most campsite in the ranch, and quickly and steeply heads upslope above the campground.

Use trail past campsite #1.
Use trail past campsite #1.

There was a number of use trails that I would occasionally get off track on, but the main idea was to head for a notch about halfway up, then follow the trail on an ascending traverse above the side canyon to an even higher notch where the grade eased. From there, I could see the plateau above with a boulder strew gully to ascend, affectionately known as Piano Alley for the size of the boulders one must scramble over. The trail was actually better defined in this section and snaked to below the cliff walls above before ascending the gully directly, requiring the first bit of scrambling for the day. The route was very clean, the rock had good grip, and it was one of the more enjoyable parts of the day.

Looking up Piano Alley.
Looking up Piano Alley.
In Piano Alley proper.
In Piano Alley proper.

Hitting the top of the gully I could finally see Cheops Plateau for the first time all day, towering over the namesake red slickrock flats that look like they belong in Utah. At this point, it still looked very far off, but a faint use trail brought me across Utah Flats to a saddle along the ridge going up to the plateau.

First look at Cheops above the Utah Flats sandstone.
First look at Cheops above the Utah Flats sandstone. Pyramid on the left, plateau on the right.

I took another short break, eyeing the loose Muav Limestone and Bright Angel Shale that I had to negotiate to reach the southern slopes of Cheops Pyramid. The terrain was fractured with multiple deep gullies, and I set out without a clear plan in mind, making an ascending traverse and aiming for some cliffs bands at the edge of the pyramid. It did not go well. Starting out at midslope, the rock was steep and loose, and I was constantly slipping. The gullies carving out the slope were surprisingly deep, and required some sketchy loose scrambling in and out of to get across. I rationalized that climbing higher towards the cliff bands might be steeper, but the gullies should be less deep near their origin. Ultimately, this wasn’t much help, as I struggled over the loose rock for nearly an hour to reach the base of the Pyramid.

Shitty, loose slope.
Shitty, loose slope, just before many deceptively deep gullies.

Up until then, I had been feeling and hiking well, and felt I would have no trouble tagging both summits. But the combination of seeing the south rim look impossibly far and the exhaustion beginning to set in from the tedious traverse made me rethink my plan. Reaching the corner of the plateau, I could finally see the line up the South Face to the summit Cheops Pyramid. The climbing was quite typical of many climbs in the Grand Canyon: a series of class III scrambles up layers and tiers.

Looking up the class III route from the base.
Looking up the class III route from the base.
Looking down the class III towards the Colorado.
Looking down the class III towards the Colorado.

This was my first time climbing through the Muav Limestone, and I found the rock surprisingly sharp, almost feeling like fresh lava rock cutting into my fingers. I found occasional cairns along the way to the top, but the route finding was fairly straightforward and I hit the summit at about 10:30AM, about 6 hours from the start. I took a long break on the first summit, and was disappointed, although not surprised, to find the ridgeline connected with the higher plateau horribly rotten and narrow, probably doable, but certainly not without a rope. I found the summit register under a small summit cairn, and found only 3 parties had visited Cheops Pyramid since the register was placed in 2013.

Nasty ridge connecting to the Plateau.
Nasty ridge connecting to the Plateau.
Summit register.
Summit register.
Summit panorama.
Summit panorama.

After grabbing a few more pictures I headed down, and decided to try a new tactic to traverse this loose shale: stay low, just above the cliffs of the Tapeats Sandstone. While it required a bit of extra climbing to get back to the ridge off Utah Flats, it ultimately was much, much easier and would be the way to go for anyone looking to replicate the trip. It was about noon when I reached the saddle above Utah Flats, looking at another tedious traverse to reach the Northeast Arete, the prominent rib of rock coming off the saddle with Isis Temple.

View towards the NE arete, Isis Temple high above.
Looking towards the NE arete, Isis Temple high above.

It was difficult to tell exactly how far off that was; I could just see the saddle with Isis Temple, but not the ridge itself going up. I checked my phone/ GPS, and somehow squeaked out enough service to see that from where I was the ridge was actually quite close, probably less than a mile to the summit. Already knowing I would finish in the dark, I decided to go for it, and found the Hermit Shale slopes heading towards the Northeast Arete were a bit more forgiving then towards the Pyramid. It seemed the better path was to stay high near the cliff bases where there were a number of game trails one could follow. I took the faint trail to the start of the route, which is actually well above the low saddle with Isis.

The start of the route, above the saddle with Isis Temple.
The start of the route, above the saddle with Isis Temple.

I had read that the crux was a bit intense- some exposed class IV, and that caused some parties to turn back just below the summit. I headed up the narrow ridge of class III, punctuated by occasional ledges and shelves. Although not as solid, the route reminded me of Mount Harrington in the Sierras: somewhat narrow and exciting class III with a painfully long approach. About halfway up, the route became noticeably steeper, and some larger blocks were bypassed to the left to bring me to the base of the crux. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good picture due to the sun just overhead, but the crux is basically a near vertical rock rib that pushes you out to the left side. While short (probably 10-15′) with surprisingly good holds, my back was to thin air and a 200′ drop down to the Hermit Shale below. The only sketchy part is exiting the crux on to the next ledge where the rock becomes a bit looser.

Best look at the crux I could give. Rock rib on the right, thin air on the left, loose rock for the exit.
Best look at the crux I could give about halfway up it. Rock rib on the right, thin air on the left, loose rock for the exit.
Looking down from one or two shelves above the crux.
Looking down from one or two shelves above the crux.

From there, the climbing became much easier class II-III. The exit off the arete on to the plateau is actually pretty cool- a narrow, natural bridge on to the summit, going over a small cave. I imagine that most people coming this far wouldn’t be afraid of this collapsing, but for those looking for a safer alternative, there’s an easy class III crack off to the left that bypasses the bridge. Finally on the plateau I hiked over a small false summit to the high point, complete with a summit register and elk antler. It had taken me just over one hour from the high saddle above Utah Flats, faster than I had expected. The views were similar to the Pyramid, although looking North I had a nice look at Isis Temple, hopefully to be climbed another day.

Summit register, antler, and Isis view.
Summit register, antler, and Isis view.

I took my time on the summit, knowing it would probably be one of my last long breaks for the day. I descended down the arete, taking the class III crack to take some pictures of the bridge before heading down.

Natural bridge up to the summit.
Natural bridge up to the summit.

I tried once more to get some shots of the crux, but the sun directly overhead again made it too difficult. I dropped back down to the Hermit Shale and hugged the plateau cliffs a bit closer this time until nearly above the ridge leading to Utah Flats, which I found a bit easier. In short time I was back to the trail along Utah Flats, and picked up the pace, now with the goal of trying to make it to the rim by 8, and above all to get food before all the kitchens close in the park. Dropping down into Piano Alley, I saw the first people since Phantom Ranch hours before. They said they were dayhiking from the ranch into Phantom Canyon for the day, and were surprised to hear I had climbed Cheops and still had to hike out to the South Rim.

Descending the Utah Flats route towards Phantom Ranch.
Descending the Utah Flats route towards Phantom Ranch.

Pressing on, I was back at the ranch at about 3:30, and refilled my water (I had drank 4.5 liters since leaving Phantom Ranch that morning), and soaking my feet briefly in Bright Angel Creek. It was almost 4 by the time I left, and I felt reaching the south rim by 8 PM was a reasonable goal, with about 7 miles and 5000′ of climbing ahead of me. Having been hiking strictly downhill for the past 2 hours, things initially went well climbing out of the canyon, and I hit the Tip Off in just over an hour from the bridge, and took a short break.

The Tip Off, moon starting to rise.
The Tip Off, moon starting to rise.

I passed plenty of people hiking down to the ranch along the way, many looking somewhat surprised to see someone hiking out this late. From the Tip Off, things got a little rough. I started to bonk hiking the steep switchbacks up to Skeleton Point, roughly halfway between the rim and the river. I started to feel a bit nauseous, likely from a combination of dehydration and exhaustion, and lost most of my steam with the sun setting at around 6:30 in the shadow of O’Neill Butte.

Sunset.
Sunset.

The remainder of the hike to the rim was in darkness, and I topped out at the trailhead shortly after 8PM, just missing my goal by a few minutes. I headed directly to Yavapai Tavern for some comfort food and beer after shattering my PB for elevation gain with 11,100′!

 

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