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Shiva Temple and Wotans Throne

Shiva Temple and Wotans Throne

Walter A. Wood, Jr.

THE American Museum of Natural History Grand Canyon Expedition,1 which for brevity’s sake became known as the “Shiva Temple Expedition” or “The Lost World Expedition,” had as its purpose the biological investigation of two buttes in the Grand Canyon which through the processs of erosion have become detached from the North Rim. Organized and led by Dr. Harold E. Anthony, Curator of Mammals of the Museum, it was hoped that the party would find that small animals had remained on the flat tablelands as they became separated from the rim of the Canyon and had become marooned there either through the physical barrier of sheer cliffs or a possible climatic barrier suggested by the 1300-ft. deep depression linking butte to mainland. If such turned out to be the case, then interesting comparisons would result between present day descendants of animals living at the time the buttes became isolated (roughly 25,000 years ago) and similar species inhabiting the Kaibab forest barely a mile and a half away.

A series of aerial photographs exposed over and around Shiva Temple and Wotans Throne, for so are the buttes known, indicated that the mountaineering difficulties to be overcome in reaching their summits might be considerable and at the invitation of the Museum, the writer secured leave of absence from the American Geographical Society to take charge of the climbing.

Although both Shiva and Wotan rise from the N. bank of the Colorado River (at about 2500 ft.) to the same general elevation as the North Rim itself (8000 ft.) it was by no means necessary to climb this entire height, for as mentioned above the ridge connecting butte and rim falls only 1300 ft. from the brink of the Canyon. In the case of Shiva it was a question of descending to the saddle and then climbing to the tableland. The descent presented no difficulties whatsover of a mountaineering nature but involved considerable discomfort, as did almost every moment spent exercising below the Rim, through the extraordinary dryness of the air which, combined with the September heat of the sun, dehydrated us in a very short time. Water, being totally absent in this part of the Canyon, was carried in limited quantities due to its weight, and was rationed by the thimbleful. An example of this bodily dryness is afforded by the fact that among nine persons in the Shiva saddle after a late afternoon descent from the Rim, 12 gallons of water were consumed by the following morning, and it was drunk sparingly in proportion to thirst.

The climbing problem on Shiva Temple was limited to two steep bands of rock, the lower, formed by the Coconino sandstone of about 350 ft. in height and the upper, or Kaibab limestone, of somewhat lesser thickness. Steep talus slopes separated the rock pitches and abutted against the foot of the Coconino wall a few hundred feet above the saddle.

Of the two walls the sandstone appeared the more formidable but as we approached, it became more and more apparent that its difficulty was of a relatively low degree. Previously unobserved cracks came into view and the eye of faith could even discern a complete series of chimneys and terraces leading to the talus below the limestone cap. And so it turned out to be. Roped in two parties we progressed rapidly up the sandstone cliff checked only by the caution required in handling the miserable crumbling rock and maneuvering the rope so as to avoid injury to those below. Even our best efforts along these lines could not avoid an accident as a small rock dislodged by the second rope hit the man below and laid his scalp open, fortunately with no serious consequences. Near the top of the sandstone cliff we met with our first serious obstacle. From a firm base on a small terrace rose a 10-ft. cliff seamed with a crevice of fairly generous proportions. The difficulty lay not in climbing the crack, but in emerging from it, for in its upper foot was firmly rooted a luxuriant Mescal plant. I had been the butt of a good deal of bantering over my insistence on carrying an ice-axe up Shiva, but at this point strangely enough, nothing but the kindest remarks were to be heard as the axe came into use and demolished sufficient of the bayonets to afford a comfortable, if awkward, passage around them. Shortly after this episode we reached the talus slope below the limestone bed and. as on close inspection this was even more broken than the sandstone wall, we all stood on Shiva Temple five hours after leaving our camp in the saddle.

Relatively easy though the ascent of Shiva was, it was anything but adapted to the transport of supplies and equipment so necessary for a protracted occupation of the plateau. Six packers from the Mormon community of Kenab in southern Utah were engaged to undertake this transport, and did so efficiently and well. They were, however, spared inestimable effort and time through the coming into play of the aerial unit of the expedition. Miss Amy H. Andrews of New York very kindly put her services and her Stinson plane at the expedition’s disposal for the dropping of supplies by parachute to the party on Shiva. Five loads were dropped of which four were entirely successful while the fifth either through my own underestimation of a rope’s strength or the faulty tying of a knot, broke loose from its parachute and crashed with extraordinary thoroughness on Shiva’s “Airport.” Thus were eighty pounds of food, including a dozen eggs, and twenty gallons of water (about 200 lbs. with containers) delivered to Dr. Anthony and George B. Andrews.

With the scientific party atop Shiva and provisioned, the climbing unit turned to Wotans Throne which was to be investigated after Shiva Temple. Here indeed was a climbing problem. From an examination of pairs of the aerial photographs in a stereoscope no obvious line of approach presented itself. In the first place no saddle links Wotan to Cape Royal on the Rim but rather a long nearly horizontal ridge abutting squarely against the wall of the canyon some 500 ft. below the rim and similarly against Wotan below the Kaibab limestone which caps the butte. Nor, even if attainable, could this ridge be followed with any likelihood of success for at several points along it deep clean gashes have been carved into it and all of them present overhangs and a tendency to smoothness which sent our inquisitive glances searching elsewhere for a possible route. The ridge drops vertically on both sides for at least 450 ft. and it was obvious that in order to climb Wotan we would have to descend below it, follow its lower margin and try to break through an apparent lessening of slope where it joins the butte.

From the South Rim of the Canyon we studied the defenses with field glasses and discovered a single weakness in the wall. Immediately below Cape Royal a deep fisure splits the Coconino formation and we felt that if this could be followed we would at least gain access to the rocks of Wotan itself.

The climbing party, the same which had climbed Shiva the week before, consisted of Mrs. Wood, Elliot S. Humphrey, George B. Andrews and Preston Swapp, one of our packers, in addition to the writer. Taking off from Cape Royal we made good progress downward until we were through the limestone bed, and then following along a talus slope we reached the top of the fissure or, more correctly, couloir. What from the South Rim had appeared a mere crack on close examination proved to be a dry water course. Square cut, about twenty feet wide and fifty deep, the average inclination throughout its 450 ft. of height was about 50°. From the top it was impossible to see what lay below due to the first of what turned out to be a series of overhanging steps. To make a long story short the descent was accomplished by five rappels, four of which were over fifty feet in length. Fortunately we had sufficient rope as a single line had to be left on three of the overhangs to ensure our return.

Having left Cape Royal at noon it was twilight before the last load and climber swung over the final pitch and onto the talus slope footing the Coconino wall. Insufficient light remained to scout out a flat camp site and each of us picked out what he considered the best of the available sloping accommodation for his bed. A roaring campfire offset the chill which descends on the Canyon after sunset and we sat around it late into the night, marvelling at the shadowy beauty of the moonlight as it played on the ridges and spires around us, and later when we rolled up in our blankets, each in his separate cranny, I'm sure I was not alone in watching three bright stars move slowly into the square-cut patch of sky formed by the chimney vertically above us, and one by one eclipse themselves.

Shortly before dawn, Humphrey rose and lighted the fire and on being asked the reason for such early enthusiasm, announced that he had been unable to sleep for the past hour. The explanation was immediately forthcoming. We had constantly been on the watch for rattlesnakes and though extremely rare along the North Rim we were prepared for any encounter which we might have with one. On this particular occasion Humphrey had been awakened by something crawling onto his blankets and lying still. Fearing the visit of a rattler searching warmth, a by no means unknown habit of the snake, he played dead for what must have seemed an eternity; then at the first signs of dawn the visitor departed, and cocking an eye over the edge of his blanket he observed a large skunk meandering off down the slope.

Seven o’clock found us making our way along the base of the Coconino wall towards Wotan. Progress was rapid and in an hour we reached the foot of the junction of the ridge with the rocks of the butte. Roping here and replacing nailed boots by Kletterschuhe we worked upwards with little loss of time towards a deep notch in the ridge. The climbing was harder than on Shiva but nowhere really difficult. All untoward remarks about the ice-axe had long since been discontinued and on several occasions it played a vital part in demolishing cacti lodged in cracks. On gaining the notch we found ourselves above the sandstone wall and with only the limestone cliff separating us from the tableland. However, contrary to the case on Shiva, the final 350-ft. wall swept round unbroken and we traversed along the western face, following the top of a steep talus slope to the foot of a buttress which offered the only possibility of ascent. This gave us the pleasantest climbing of the entire trip. The rock was rough and firm. Holds were scarce but available and the buttress soon narrowed down to become a ridge of almost knife-edge proportions falling sheer on either side to the talus above the sandstone. It was over all too soon and at noon we were lighting our signal fire and listening to the thin faraway calls reaching us from the animated specks on Cape Royal a mile and a half away.

We camped that night in our sloping perch below the chimney and the following morning made our way up the series of fixed ropes to the Rim to be greeted by an assortment of liquid foods, brought out to Cape Royal by friends, for which none of us will ever be able to show ample appreciation.

1 Note.—A full account of the scientific aspects as well as a narrative story of the expedition, by Dr. H. E. Anthony, appears in Natural History, published by the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 50, December, 1937, pp. 709-22.