Grand Canyon Phase. We never fully believed our team Mountain Leader, Maj Les Webb, when he told us about the early warning signs of an impending lightning strike. He briefed us that an early indication was head hair starting to go up in the air as it got increasingly charged up with electricity. However, we certainly started to believe him, with a new-found seriousness, wishing we had paid more attention, when Gillian’s (team 2ic), hair shot straight up in the air whilst we were sitting on a rock promontory during a trekking exploration on the Tonto North Plateau of the Grand Canyon.
We had arrived in Las Vegas just 2 days before, jet-lagged but wide-eyed and nervously anticipating what was to come. We had been sorted into 4 groups. Our group comprising Gillian, Sophie, Kevin, Emily and Ahmed were teamed up with Maj Les Webb. We called ourselves the ‘Tumbleweed Team’. With Les, a Grand Canyon and SW USA veteran of many previous expeditions, we knew we were in good hands. A day of ‘Mission Specific’ training and preparation followed amidst the trees on the fringes of the Grand Canyon before we were taken to have a ‘Ground Brief’ from a viewpoint overlooking the Bright Angel Trail. It is hard to take in the immensity of the Grand Canyon but, at that point, even harder to imagine what adventures we were going to have way down in the inaccessible depths of this natural wonder of the world.
Les explained the 5 things that can kill you in the Grand Canyon, Water (too much or too little), Falls, Animals and Plants, Getting Lost and the Environment. All thought-provoking stuff but specifically how to avoid becoming a casualty from any of these things. He then informed us that on the Met forecast there was a 20% chance of rainfall over the next 3 days. He also explained that as a group we would be operating at the very bottom of the Canyon and that we would be the only group that would cross the Colorado River to trek on the North Tonto Plateau. Not knowing whether to feel privileged or concerned, we got a shuttle bus then set off down the South Kaibab Trail just after dawn the next day to experience an awesome ridge line trail that took us all the way to a sheer cliff (called aptly – The Tipoff ) and then down a zigzag switchback path and through a tunnel to a rickety suspension bridge across the Colorado River. On the way down, we passed heavily laden mule trains, sweating their way up to the rim in long lines. Once across the river we set up camp in between the cacti, alongside Bright Angel Creek.
It was far too hot to hang around down there during the afternoon heat, the thermometer in the campground said 123°C so we spent a lot of time cooling off in the creek.
The following morning dawned fine and sunny so after a good breakfast of cereal and oatmeal we set off early to explore the Tonto North Plateau by climbing up a winding side canyon past huge rock falls and weaving in between massive boulders. After about an hour of straining uphill we stopped for some water on a prominent rock outcrop and it was at this time that Gillian’s Hair went straight up in the air. At this point we started to wish that we had taken Les’s briefing about electrical storm dangers a bit more seriously but there wasn’t time to reminisce. Les immediately ordered us down off the rock outcrop and breaking into a jog straight back down on the trail that we had just come up. There was a series of lightening flashes followed by thunder claps but once off the ridge Gillian’s hair went down again. Then it started to rain and then we got peppered with hailstones the size of M&Ms. The rain got worse.
By the time we had got back to the campsite we were soaked, freezing cold and despite being pegged down, found that all our tents had filled with water, uprooted and blown into the cacti. Everywhere was flooded or flooding. The deafening thunder was still echoing down the Canyon and wondering how long it would be before the Creek would flash-flood. The Rangers came around and told us they were not happy that we were damaging the vegetation with our tents (have you ever tried to extract a tent from a Cactus without damaging either – it’s not easy, or quick !!) and told us to pack away our tents. At this Les decided that we should prepare to leave the Canyon to walk out by 1,600 that afternoon. He was concerned that if we did not get out before dawn we might become fixed in the bottom by flash flooding on the number of (normally small) creeks that we would need to cross to get up to the rim. This would involve a night ascent. A total of 5,600ft upwards through the rain and the lightning. To re-enforce the point there was a noise like a train approaching and we witnessed a classic flash flood as the Bright Angel Creek turned into a torrent of mud and rocks at least 8 feet higher than usual. The crunching noise was disturbing.
By the time we left at 1600 hrs it was hammering down with rain and there was water cascading off the canyon walls, sometimes onto our heads. On the way up the inner slot canyon towards Indian Gardens
We had to cross areas that had recently been in flash flood or were gushing red mud. Luckily, we were able to cross them all by skipping across the boulders, but it was easy to imagine the situation getting worse as time pressed on. We got to Indian Gardens in darkness and holed-up in a flooded lean-to that was looking more like a sewer than a rest house but at least the roof wasn’t leaking. The rain continued to hammer down as we tried to make a brew and have a meal. Eventually we left to continue our upwards journey to the rim, passing through flooded areas in the rain with the sky lit up by lightening flashes and with the sound of thunder all around we eventually got to the rim at 0300 hrs and caught our breath.
Les described it as like trekking through a washing machine but…… other than being soaked through we were safe and had had an awesome experience. Having seen the benign Grand Canyon just 2 days previously, sunshine and birdsong, it was hard to imagine just how evil the place can get so quickly.
High Sierra Nevada Phase. We welcomed Sarah–Jane into our team and once again Les informed us that we would be operating as an independent team to the South of the Mt Whitney massif to access the area on the Pacific Crest Trail from a cold place called Horseshoe Meadows. This would involve some long dusty hikes through a desolate area with three high altitude passes to negotiate (Cottonwood, Siberian and Guyot), on the way in and on the way out. We would link in with the other 3 teams somewhere near Mt Whitney.
We formulated an altitude plan that saw us sleeping in areas according to an acclimatisation profile. The place you sleep is important. Our first night at Chicken Spring Lake was warm and sunny with an early morning start to attain Guyot Creek on night two. This was not so warm, and we recorded a night-time temperature of -7°C on the rucksack thermometer. A long day followed to get as close to MT Whitney as possible before the summit bid. We camped at Pothole Lake which is about 200m higher along the approach route from Guitar Lake. The approach to Mt Whitney would see us setting off in the dark at 0200hrs, leaving the tents, to get to the rock ledge at the trail crest around dawn.
As it turned out we arrived at the rock ledge by 0400 and were on the summit of Mt Whitney to witness a beautiful dawn across the desert towards Lone Pine and Death Valley by 0600hrs, thus proving that our acclimatisation plan was correct. Surprised at not having run into any other teams from 2 Med Bde at this point we made our way triumphantly down to our camp amongst the rocks at Pothole Lake and had a huge victory breakfast. We decided to start out exit march at 1200hrs and just as we were leaving another 2 Med Bde team came through on their way up and out (having got permission to exit via the Whitney Portal). We were very proud to learn that we had been the first team to get to the summit with the longest approach march.
The long dusty exit march from the Mt Whitney area was accomplished in 1 ½ days with an overnight bivouac at Rock Creek and another early start to go straight through the Army and Cottonwood Passes to exit at Horseshoe Meadows by 1400 hrs. An exit march of 36 miles in 14 hrs of marching at altitudes above 10,000ft with loaded packs – not bad. Sophie was so pleased that she ran the last 400 yards to the trailhead and on to the transport.
We would like to thank the Ulysses Trust for providing a grant that made a great difference to the expedition finances and certainly facilitated this life changing experience for us. The Grand Canyon was a challenge, even without the bad weather but given the electrical storms and the driving rain the learning opportunity was priceless. The High Sierra Nevada was all about classic soldiering. Heavy loads, long march days, dust, dirt, extreme ranges of temperature, and environmental dangers to deal with alongside a very real and difficult mission to achieve. Having achieved the mission, we had to extract in good order to be ready for re-tasking. This all takes teamwork, fitness, determination and grit. An apt description of the British Army ethos and the underlying characteristics of Army Medical Services. Many thanks to Commander and COS 2nd Medical Brigade for their support and trust. Other than deployment on operations this has been the best thing we have done so far in our careers as Reservists and in many ways just the kind of physical and mental challenge that we joined up for. A special thanks to WO1 Steve Ashcroft the expedition leader without who none of this would have been possible and to Maj Les Webb our Group leader for guiding us safely through the adventure of a lifetime.
“The Grand Canyon! I’d only ever seen it from the top like millions of others, but trekking in and around it was a unique experience. Something I thought I’d never attempt. It was hot, arduous, yet humbling. I learnt the importance of keeping hydrated in such weather conditions, and it was this horrendous learning curve that got me through the next 2 weeks. Successfully. I beat this challenge. Always get something out of a bad situation right!
“Mount Whitney, wow. One of the greatest and most fantastic things I’ve ever done. My group and I leaving our camp site at 2am to reach the top, with head torches as our only light source. It was cold, I was tired and very overwhelmed, but reaching that summit was amazing. I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do such a thing under the guidance of the British Army, and with such leaders. Mount Whitney was bloody hard work, but with a positive mind and banter with the team I did it. Also, I had no altitude sickness, so was very lucky. I ploughed through this mission, resulting in success.
“Thanks mainly to my 2 group leaders WO1 Steve Ashcroft and Major Les Webb. They both supported me when needed, and kept my motivation going. As well as others.
“I’d recommend anyone to apply to take part in this type of Adventurous Training.”
Pte Sarah Jane Forster
207 Fd Hosp
“For me Exercise Northern Integrated Serpent was the most exhilarating and challenging Adventurous Training Expedition I have ever had the opportunity to take part in. This experience exposed me to an element of Adventurous Training which pushed my physical and mental boundaries, whilst unmasking the realms of possibility and a genuine passion to further develop my skills and gain my summer mountain leader qualification. This has no doubt fuelled my ambition to expose and lead others into challenges of intrepid exploration.”
Maj Gillian McConnell
204 Fd Hosp