Isis Temple, Cheops Pyramid

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By: Bob Cates

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There is a mountain in the desert. It is more beautiful than South Guardian Angel, as remote as the Cerro de la Enacantada. Most Desert Peak Section members have probably stared at it, as have several million sane individuals, and not realized its true potential. Only 200 feet of net gain separate most viewers from its jagged summit, but a round trip involves around 10,000 feet of gain, miles of exceptional1y rugged cross-country and some technical climbing, as well. Known as Isis Temple, it is located in the heart of the Grand Canyon, and, as you can see, it offers every attribute to which Desert Peakers traditionally respond.

An ascent of Isis will take more grit than usual, though. For on this Canyon giant the unusual number and variety of natural barriers is augmented by the unknown & true, trailess, and wilderness for which there is no published climbing data. What follows is an account of one meager attempt to scale Isis Temple and the adventure that ensued. It is a story of failure on Isis, uplifted to joyful success with the unexpected ascent of Isis's lesser neighbor, Cheops Pyramid.

At 7,012 feet, Isis Temple is one of the Grand Canyon's highest summits. Both its remarkable physical appearance and its isolated position directly opposite the South Rim Visitor Center make it the Canyon's most notable monument. As one of the most photographed natural objects in the world, one would expect that it would have been climbed often, and that there would exist several published accounts of those accents, Not so! Nor is 'guide-book' information available on ANY of the 130-odd named Grand Canyon summits. Like a few others before me, I discovered that within the Grand Canyon I was dealing with one of the last virgin climbing territories in the West!

Although there is a dearth of printed matter regarding Canyon climbs, there is at least one Canyon expert (No, not Colin Fletcher!) available for consultation. Dr. Harvey Butchart, of Flagstaff, Arizona, has written a valuable, information packed volume, 'Grand Canyon Treks' published by La Siesta Press. This little book wee a real find, and a boon to my Isis plans, for its contents deal with both trail, and cross-country routes. Careful reading indicated that the author is possessed of a climbing eye. I soon established a lively correspondence with Butchart, who proved to be as interesting as the knowledge he revealed. He has climbed throughout the West, but has specialized in Grand Canyon peaks, of which he has ascended around 70. I found the Doctor to be a very helpful expert and would recommend anyone attempting a Canyon climb to start by contacting him.

According to Butchart, Isis Temple has been climbed only twice, both times via a route originating on the North Rim. This route is circuitous, winding around to the southeast extension of Isis prior to turning upward for the summit, but it has the advantage of gaining the peak at a point above the Redwall. This is a 600 foot high limestone cliff that forms the Canyon's most formidable climbing barrier. In the end, it was the prospect of several hundred feet of 5th class on the Redwall that was to prevent us from putting up & new route via the S. buttress of Isis. It was also the Redwall that provided us with the means for an unexpected excursion of Cheops Pyramid.

Picture us now; myself, Jon Hardt, and Dolores Holladay. Having decided to attempt a new route on the S. buttress, we have delivered ourselves upon the northwest spur of Cheops Pyramid. Here we can look down upon the Cheops/Isis saddle, and we can also examine the SE buttress head-on. An adventure has placed us here: the descent down the Kaibab Trail to the shaded oasis of Bright Angel Campground; Jon's labor-saving discovery of water-filled basins in the Tapeats; the cross-country route into upper Phantom Canyon, with overlooks into the surrealistic grandeur of Phantom and daunted Canyons; the traverse across the base of Cheops and the attempt to reach the Cheops/Isis saddle via a sloping shale ledge that eventually petered out; and finally this detour onto the shoulder of Cheops pyramid. From here, the SE buttress is fully exposed to view. It is terribly awesome, this naked, near vertical cliff. We are loaded with extra water and bivouac gear, but we go no nearer to Isis Temple; the SE buttress is more than we are prepared for. Off to our left, along an extension of Isis, the Redwall sweeps for a mile or more without a break, magnificent in its perfection.

Now we must turn our attention toward Cheops Pyramid. This lesser neighbor to Isis Temple is a flat-topped mesa located to the SE of Isis, almost exactly centered in this portion of the Grand Canyon. Although considerably lower than Isis, at 5392 feet, the summit of Cheopa still requires 3800 feet of gain from Bright Angel Campground, all of it cross-country. And Cheops is surrounded on all sides by the Redwall barrier. Only the NW spur, which we are standing upon, seems to offer any real chance.

We begin to climb. After turning several obstacles, the ridge becomes a steep arrete, and soon the rope is out. Jon, Dolores, myself; myself, Dolores, Jon; we leapfrog several pitches and it still goes. The arrete is constructed such that we can never see beyond the pitch we are climbing until we top out, so we are in constant doubt all the way. Feeling that the summit is near, I start up a steep, narrow pitch, only to backpedal due to a startling discovery. A bright patch of sunlight falling on the otherwise shaded rockface below indicates that I was about to traverse a rather unsteady appearing natural arch. The view through our eye is tremendous; The inner Canyon and the Colorado River, nearly 3000 feet beneath us, are reflecting the golden tones of late afternoon. One more pitch brings us to the summit plateau.

Those precious moments spent upon the summit of Cheops Pyramid provided one of those rare ultimate climbing experiences that occurs when all physical and mental conditions are 'just right'. To climb well and safely, to overcome all physical barriers in a cool, 'professional' manner, is always a boost to the ego. Having met these parameters while immersed in one of the grandest spectacles of nature seemed to provide a spiritual boost an well. However strong the feeling of pride of achievement may have been, is was quickly and quietly subdued by the greater awe of a scene so titanic as to reduce any mere human undertaking to near nothingness. A late afternoon sun cast long shadows, accentuating the ragged relief of a hundred thousand Canyon faces, while the distant, tortuous thread of the Colorado reflected first gold, then silver, then darkness, as shadows progressively consumed the Canyon. The flat summit of Cheops Pyramid, several acres in area, was covered by a yellow carpet of wild grass that glowed in the last rays of the day. Here we stood for a fleeting instant, bourne upon a golden raft, surrounded by an ocean of ever-changing, ever-constant, pastel-hued cliffs. It was a subtle and moving and memorable experience.

A register is discovered, consisting of a weathered film can containing one slip of paper and a single entry. A party of three had attained the summit in January of 1972. They recorded that Cheops had been previously ascended by 'Butchart, Clubb, and others'. With satisfaction, we sign and deposit a new register, replacing the Kodak cannister with a spacious, reclaimed bandaid box. Then we give vanity her due, pose for a few quick summit pictures, and begin a hasty descent.

At the arch the sun disappears for the day, and a short time later, as Jon belays me, I look up the arrete to see him silouetted. against a dark blue sky that is punctuated by the first evening stars. We arrive at the last tricky pitch in time for Dolores and me to downclimnb before darkness really sets in. But there is Jon, marooned 30 feet above us in the blackness, with a pair of flashlight beams playing over the face, down he rappels. Two more hours of careful probing and stumbling by flashlight bring us to our blessed camp among the prickly pears.

The ascent of Cheopa had satisfied our appetites for adventure, and the next day we made the long haul back to the South Rim. Our only casualty of the trip was myself. Having slept the sleep of the righteous on the top of a prickly pear pad, I required some rather delicate, and discrete, surgery before getting underway. It IS a long way out of that hole in the ground.

Looking back, I am eager to return. Isis Temple still waits. For those who are interested, Cheops Pyramid can be climbed as a day hike from Bright Angel Campground, avoiding time-consuming cross-country backpacking. Apart from following your nose, the only other advice I can give is to obtain a camping permit as far in advance as possible.

The Grand Canyon contains other heights even more difficult than Isis Temple, and, according to Dr. Butchart, there must still be around 20 virgin summits. If you give Canyon climbing a try, you may become addicted to it. For one of the best photographs of Isis Temple, I refer you to pp. 148-149 of 'Arizona', by David Muench, a large format book available at most bookstores.


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