Blog Post #2 - Toroweap

Time for Blog #2. This is is hands down my absolute favorite story to tell, no question about it.

I lived in Grand Junction, Colorado for a year between 2014 and 2015. If you have not heard of it, Grand Junction is on the western border of Colorado, only a short drive to Utah. My work schedule at the time gave me Thursday-Sunday off every other week – perfect for short road trips.

One trip I had in mind was to head west to Bryce Canyon, Zion, and then to remote section of the Grand Canyon before heading back home through Page Arizona. This remote section of the GC is called Tuweep and is home to the famous overlook called Toroweap. What makes Toroweap special is that it is the steepest section of the Grand Canyon with a sheer 3000 foot drop to the Colorado River below. You would think that this area would be more popular with such a grand claim (I couldn't resist – puns are fantastic). What prevents many people from making it is the 60+ mile drive down gravel road, with the last several miles requiring a high clearance vehicle. Roads are poorly marked or not marked at all. Needless to say, it is a pain in the ass to get there.

Now that the background is out of the way we can introduce our story. It was early March when I decided to take this trip. Having never been to these places I did not know what to expect. I packed my car, reserved campgrounds in various places and set off to the west.

First stop: Bryce canyon. Bryce is small so I only had one night booked there. I met a couple other photographers, Ryan and Guillermo, while we were shooting sunset and learned they would also be at Zion the next day. We exchanged numbers and planned to meet up there. The next morning I arose early for sunrise in my typical fashion. I ran into the only other person to brave the cold that morning and learned he was a professional photographer from the Netherlands. His name was Marcel and he was the kind of guy who just did not give too many sh!ts about anything. He was driven, determined, and did not let much stand in his way, including the no trespassing sign and fence on one of the trails nearby where we were shooting. In short, he was a pretty bad ass dude (however, I cannot condone disobeying signs in National Parks).

I met Marcel while shooting this image at Bryce Canyon

The next day I made it to Zion and met up with Ryan and Guillermo and we rented dry suits and hiked the narrows that day. What an experience! I had informed them that I would not be spending the night at Zion but instead would be heading to my campsite at Tuweep. They had not heard of it but my description must have piqued their interest and they decided to ditch their campsite at Zion and make the drive with me. We shot sunset at Zion and headed out.

Sunset in Zion before leaving for Toroweap

Now comes the fun part. Remember that 60 mile drive down unmarked gravel roads? Try it in the dark. No bueno. We did get lost a few times as there are many intersecting side roads and it was easy to miss turns in the dark. There was of course no cell phone reception but I had downloaded maps to my phone which was a life saver. After nearly 3 hours of those roads we ran into a road block. As it turns out, the park actually shuts the gate to car traffic into the campground at sunset. This was not the issue though. The issue is that they shut it more than 7 miles away from the overlook with no other way in. We were all dead set on shooting sunrise which was now going to be much more difficult. Stunned, we contemplated our options. Do we just say goodbye to sunrise and still check out the overlook the next day? Do we turn back altogether? Do we hike the 7 miles in to the campsite and skip out on much needed sleep?

It was past midnight, we were tired, and we were miles away from anyone else. Or so we thought. While feeling defeated and trying to motivate ourselves to hike in we noticed headlights in the distance. Who else in their right mind would be heading this way past midnight? We were truly a bit nervous but held our ground as the lights got closer. Can you imagine my face when the car window rolls down and I see Marcel looking back at me? I literally laughed out loud in disbelief. He immediately goes into a rant when he notices the closed gate. After a couple minutes he commandingly states “F*ck it boys, get your bags ready. We are hiking in!”

The drive through the middle of nowhere to Toroweap

That was exactly the motivation we needed. In all honestly I did not have my backpacking bag with me, only a mid sized camera bag. With the gear I needed I only had room for a sleeping bag. I knew we would only be getting a couple hours of sleep anyway so I figured I could make due without the tent and all the other unnecessary comforts. It was dark and cold, and I was hungry and tired, but as Marcel said, we were hiking in.

That hike.  Oh my it took forever! It was flat as could be but having only gotten 5 hours of sleep the past night I can truly say I was exhausted. It was nearly 4 in the morning when we arrived to the campsite. I set my bag down, laid down on the solid rock, sans a sleeping pad, and threw my sleeping bag over myself. I was out. I slept comfortably for a solid two hours before my alarm went off but I woke up freezing. It was still March and the weather at night certainly gets chilly. No sleeping pad was a terrible idea. I could not get warm. The only thing keeping me going was the hope for a brilliant sunrise.

I forced the others to get up and we made the short hike out to the overlook. It was still dark when we arrived with only the fainest glow on the horizon. I cannot describe how weird it is to be on the edge of a sheer cliff but not being able to see down it. We tossed rocks over the edge and heard nothing. We shined our flashlights out but it was as if a black hole was swallowing up the light. As the sun crept closer to the horizon the abyss we had been staring into slowly precipitated into a dizzying view to the river below.  The moment I knew it all was worth it was when Marcel walked out to the edge of an overhang and put up his hands as the sun started to kiss the horizon. He was truly living in that moment. Witnessing and capturing that moment in time was the highlight of the trip. These are the moments I live for.

This is me enjoying the view, hoping not to fall 3000 feet to the river below

We continued to shoot as the sun rose, moving around and posing in the shots, genuinely enjoying ourselves. When we had our fill we headed back to the campground when another sign of good fortune met us. There were only two other occupied campsites but one of them was packing up. He had four empty seats. We bummed a ride back to our cars and made the 60 mile drive back to the a paved road. I said my goodbyes to them all and went right back to sleep in my car on the side of the highway. Let me tell you, those next few hours of sleep were great! I still had a couple days left ahead of me but was already content.

A bit of technical info on the shot itself for the photogs reading this. While Marcel was on the rock the  sun had not quite breached the horizon. I knew it would only be a few minutes later when that would occur so I kept my camera still and continued to shoot sun bursts at a narrower aperture. That shot was then blended into the shot of Marcel standing on the rock.

Nothing special but this is the only photo I have with all four of us

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