This is the story of our hike down and up the Grand Canyon, on Sunday and Monday, June 29 and 30, 2008. Or rather, this is only my story. No doubt the other seven adventurers in our group—in total we were seven women, one man, all hovering around 30, with varying fitness levels and heat and fear tolerances, from the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas—all have their own. But at least this one thing is surely universal among us: It was an unforgettable, tremendous thing.
Led fearlessly and tirelessly by trip organizer LP, we set up at Mather campground on Saturday night and tried to get to sleep as early as possible for an early-morning wake up. Racked with adrenaline and nerves, I don't think I slept for more than two 45-minute intervals; I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
We intended to wake up at 4 a.m., but I was up at 3:30, and so was most of the rest of our crew, everyone filling their hydration bags and packing and repacking their packs by light of headlamps. Mostly on account of our need to take two shuttle buses to the trail head, we got a slightly later start than planned, but were generally still on track: At 5:45 a.m., we set off down the South Kaibab trail.
The reason for the necessity of an early start is the rapidly rising temperature in late June in the canyon. National Park Service posters, displayed prominently throughout the park, generally seem to try to discourage hiking altogether, particularly in the summer heat. These signs basically warn you that your death is imminent, no matter your age or fitness level, so don't do it. Or if you must, then for god's sake be prepared. But probably just don't do it. (One of these posters in particular, which described the overheating death of a 26-year-old girl, made quite an impression on me, and probably accounted in large part for my lack of sleep the first night.)
But around 6 a.m. the thermometer had likely not hit 80 yet, and we were in good shape. From the top you head straight down at a tremendously steep grade (hikers often take this trail down, but rarely ever take the same one up on account of its arduous angle). And the view is wide open (I believe this is called "exposure" in hiking circles) as the trail follows the ridge line. You really have to suspend your disbelief to imagine that humans can get all the way down there, and then can get all the way up. To start, my pack was about 25 pounds, and I believe many of our other group members' were fairly comparable.
We stopped for rest and snacks a couple of times, saw a pair of condors with massive wing spans, and generally took our time to enjoy the view. With the temperature still mild even around 9 a.m., and the trip strictly downhill, our crew seemed to be holding up just fine. But during one break for shade, BC began to reveal her discomfort. We encouraged her to try to take some salty snacks to replenish some electrolytes, but she had no appetite, and she vomited here. My guess was that the problem was nerves.
You see, hiking into the Grand Canyon is a head trip. Generally, when you embark on a big hike, you know that you are free to reevaluate your goal at any point and go back down. You do the Grand Canyon in the reverse of a typical trek: first down and then up. So every step you continue to take into that abyss is one you know you must match during the crawl out. This can be a serious psychological disadvantage, particularly as you gaze out on that expanse from the South Kaibab trail. After managing a few peanuts and absorbing some pep talk, BC summoned her strength and we headed down again; I believe her new goal was to get to the bottom and find a ranger to inquire about an alternate way out, maybe on a mule. Onward we went.
We passed dust in all colors—bright red and white in addition to some greenish landscape—and much evidence of mules on the trails in the form of their prolific excrement. On one set of switchbacks, we stepped off the trail to let a mule train pass.
On the 6.9-mile, sharply descending South Kaibab—although it is a terrifically groomed trail befitting a park visited by 5 million oglers annually—there are few markers to encourage hikers. There are no potable water sources, and neither is there any visible water. At some point we saw off in the distance a shelter containing composting toilets, and we hustled toward it. The tiny glimpse seemed to take months to become a reality. Once there, AK, MIG, and I sat down against the structure, elevating our legs on our packs (which we'd read was a smart plan to reduce swelling whenever possible during breaks). As we waited for the rest of our group, we acknowledged that we were leaning against a toilet shed, and maybe that wasn't the most sanitary nor the classiest thing for ladies to do. But who cared? It was shade. MIG asked me what time it was, and I noted it was 10 a.m. We were both shocked—it already seemed we'd been up for days.
We scarfed down some more electrolyte chews and snacks, and talked to a couple of other hikers who passed. When you're this far down into the canyon, there are few others: It's too far for a day hike (except for a pathological few), so it's only the small group of committed campers who populate the trail in that area. We saw perhaps 10 other hikers between there and the bottom.
Funny, it was at that point that I thought we were close to the bottom. In fact, there was still a vast stretch of switchbacks separating us from the Bright Angel campground where we'd sleep that night. We caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River, and it motivated us to add a little extra spring to our step. And then we zigzagged across a few more switchbacks. And then we saw the river again and again and again... like an oasis that was hardly getting nearer no matter how much we walked. Eventually we got close enough to see the current moving (at an impressive clip), and to see the Black Suspension Bridge that spanned it, and the small tunnel that led onto it. I'd expected to be terrified of this bridge (my fear of heights had reared its head mercilessly on Half Dome), but from above, it actually looked like a thrill, beyond which was the reward of a cold creek and an end to the day's hike.
As we descended this set of switchbacks, I was feeling my first real physical symptoms. The continual pressure of my big toenails against my hiking shoes was causing seriously painful tenderness, of which I was acutely aware with each step. Also, we were nearing the bottom, and I'd say the temps in the sun were getting close to the 115-degree range.
Finally, we reached the tunnel (a few feet of shade!) and crossed the bridge. And to my delight, I wasn't afraid at all.
We could see down to a small beach on the river, exposed to full sun, at which a few folks were taking dips into the cold water. At that point, LP was suffering pretty bad from the heat, and my toes couldn't take much more. Everyone was close to their physical limits. According to my trusty Polar heart rate monitor, I'd burned about 2,200 calories by then. (It would be about twice that on the ascent.)
We wet our shirts and towels in the river, and walked the last half mile to camp. I changed into my swimsuit right there in the open (privacy is an irrelevant luxury when things are that raw), and we all got into Bright Angel creek... overjoyed.
The creek, which runs through the meandering row of camp sites, is rocky and cold and spectacular, and it's the thing that saves some hikers' lives who may be close to expiring from heat exhaustion by the time they reach it. (Seriously: One of the park service's strongly worded signs at the bottom encouraged summer hikers to get in the creek stat upon reaching it.)
That evening was one of the more surreal and wonderful of my life. After cooling down in the creek, a few of us headed into the canteen at Phantom Ranch for some iced tea and—shockingly—light air conditioning. There, you can buy postcards and stamps, and deposit the cards in a leather sack, from which they will be retrieved and brought to the post office on the rim by way of mule train. I amused myself by attempting to write five of these postcards without any sort of motor skills (the hike and the heat, not to mention the complete lack of sleep, had rendered those skills ancient history by this point, about 3 p.m.). I didn't have addresses with me, so I guessed on the ones I didn't have memorized (and who memorizes in the age of technology?), and I'm not sure I wrote anything that made sense. I imagine that reading one of these cards now would be something like writing a note to myself while high on hallucinogens, and then looking at it later, wondering whose creepy handwriting that was and what the heck that person was even trying to say. (So, apologies to those of you dear friends and family members who may actually receive these strange missives. But know they were written with love! And unfathomable fatigue!)
MC, whose profession is travel planning, had made persistent daily calls to the Phantom Ranch to try to secure some meals for us (which generally must be booked a year in advance), and had succeeded. So the eight of us were able to eat, depending on our preferences, steak or vegetarian chili with salad and cold drinks. Our group had these meals in two shifts, the first at 5 p.m., and the second at 6:30. Since MIG and I were on the second shift, we first played cards at a picnic table in front of the small dining hall, and then attempted to play hangman on a small notebook I'd carried with me. The word she'd selected was cougar, but the stick figure woman representing me almost met her fate before I could guess that simple little word. I guessed "S." And then after a long pause, "Um... S" again. I was so spent, I'd forgotten most of the letters in the alphabet.
The doors to the dining hall opened, and DML, LP, and AE—the first shifters—emerged happy and refreshed after their steak meals. Just then—and this is not for dramatic effect, it's actually true—monsoon-force winds began to blow. It was an ultra-hot, powerful wind, as if produced by a hair dryer. It was like nothing else.
After our own meals of veggie chili, we attended a brief ranger talk at a small amphitheater at Phantom Ranch. I was so fatigued that I was completely without filters, and I found myself shouting out things—even slightly lewd things, and hello, there were kids there—like a heckler at a comedy club. But I think he enjoyed it, this unconventional ranger, who talked at a clip, with deep enthusiasm, using words that indicated he was probably from Santa Cruz. He ended his geology talk with a sing-along—but it wasn't Kumbaya or anything; it was Metallica. It's entirely possible that I hallucinated this out of fatigue, but I'm pretty sure the other girls who were also in attendance will back me up.
We cooled ourselves in the river one last time before sleep. MIG and I had a tent; we'd heard it was going to be about 60 degrees overnight at the bottom, but I believe it had to be closer to 90. The girls in our group with only bug bivies (net shelters) had the smarter idea by a mile. I slept in my swimsuit bottom and filthy tanktop from the day's hike, over (not in) my sleeping bag, and I sweated profusely all over its synthetic materials. Later I would realize that I had been so tired I'd actually forgotten to even open the valve on my camping pad, and thus it didn't inflate. But even this insomniac might have been able to sleep on shards of glass when that exhausted, so it was moot.
At 4:15 a.m., we were up again for day two, our hike out of the canyon via the Bright Angel trail, a much longer route in distance (about 9.5 miles), but one with a lesser grade, some shade along the way, several potable water stops, and the chance to walk alongside creek water for at least a mile or more. It was not too hot yet at that time of the morning, and we were in good spirits. Sweet BC had found her strength and courage, and had decided to set out first to give herself a psychological edge, I'm guessing. She was making great time.
The rest of us were keeping a steady pace, first along Silver Bridge, which unlike Black features only an open grate below hikers' feet, which shows clear through to the river. Again, I found this enjoyable and not fear inspiring to my own great surprise. However it was on this bridge that my camera blinked low battery, and then pooped out for good. Nothing makes me feel more impotent than being without a camera. But, assured that seven other hikers were documenting our experience, I gulped down that disappointment and trekked on.
About four miles into the trip up (which we knew was about half of the distance along the trail, but far less in difficulty), we came to Indian Gardens, a little oasis with shade, potable water, and a creek running through. There, we ate the sack lunches we'd picked up from the Phantom Ranch. (I ate my bagel and cream cheese as if I were a wild dog, hurling pieces into the air and hoping some landed in my mouth. Somehow, DML managed to slice his neatly, and I joked that he might like some capers and roasted tomatoes on his gourmet dish.) We poured what seemed like the thousandth batch of electrolyte powders into our water vessels, and we were already cursing the notion of neon-colored warm water. (But from everything we'd heard, this diligence was going to save our lives, for sure.) I took off my shoes (something that makes you nervous—because you know if you do it you will never want to put those suckers back on, but you must), and went down to the creek to soak my feet in the cold water. LP and MIG slid right into the shallow creek, clothes and all. Afterward, I put more Moleskin on my big toes, which were definitely feeling the impact, and I was already guessing I might lose at least one of those toenails eventually. (At blog press time, the status of the toenail was still indeterminate.)
We'd heard initially that hikers would be smart to wait out the heat of the day here at Indian Gardens until 4 p.m. before beginning the rest of the trek up. But we'd arrived there shortly after 9 a.m., and were satisfied we'd had enough of a break by around 10:30. Plus, I'd asked Ranger Metallica the night before what he'd thought about that theory, and he said don't worry about spending the whole day there—keep going if you feel ready; there's a rest house only a mile and a half above it. So off we went.
The next stretch of trail is dubbed "the furnace." This bit is hot as hell, as you might expect from its moniker, and dusty. It was a long mile and a half until the rest house, known as Three Mile Rest House, as it's three miles from the top of the rim. In my memory, this rest house had a bit of a party atmosphere. There were at least 10 people seeking respite there, filling up at the water spigot, elevating their legs, and scarfing snacks. We met a group of hikers from Flagstaff who were doing rim to river to rim in a single day—attempting in half the time what we were doing in two days (a thing that is so, so discouraged by the park service). The funny thing was these world-class hikers were using Wal-Mart broomsticks for walking sticks. I think because I was absolutely loopy from heat and fatigue, I found this fact unbelievably funny.
There is no toilet here, so I found a tree (pardon). Liquid turns neatly to clay in that soil, which keeps it all very contained and tidy. No fuss, no mess! I ran my tanktop under the spigot and put it on soaking wet. That kept me cool for about 10 seconds.
As AE and I were leaving the rest house in good spirits, a ranger there told us that our group looked like we were in great condition, compared to the state of many other hikers who reach that point. He said he was deputizing us—that we were to give safety tips (regarding electrolytes, water, shade, rest) to anyone we might pass who looked like they were in trouble. He said we looked like we knew what we were doing. Maybe Ranger Rick says that to all the ladies, but I was feeling really good. (Actually, the whole way up, my heart rate never got much higher than 160, which is a vast improvement over the 180s I'd seen on my monitor as I was hoofing up the Vernal Falls stretch at Half Dome last year.)
On the trip up to Mile and a Half Rest House (guess why it is so named), things were starting to feel more treacherous. It was the full heat of the day now (maybe shy of 100 degrees since we were closer to the top, which can be 20 degrees or so cooler than down at the bottom). And plus the impact of my toes against my shoes was getting more intense. That next rest house is cruel in that you need to take several stairs to reach it. Also, it is rather small, with room for only, say, two hikers to sit with legs elevated. Also, this rest house has a bathroom with composting toilets, but those are in another shelter, at least 30 paces away. Thirty backtracking paces feels like a lot at this point in the hike—trust me.
Some N.B.s: By this point my pack was probably around 20 pounds, because I'd drank much of the water and eaten much of the food, and I'd put my camping pad in a duffel bag shared by several group members, which a mule carried to the top. Certainly DML's and LP's packs must have been heavier as they did not make use of space in the mule duffel. The whole trip down, I'd drank about three electrolyte-packed liters of water. On the way up, it was more like six. I was recalling Chris Rock's sketch about "Put a little Tussin on it," because we had conditioned ourselves to think like that about electrolytes. The cure all. Knee hurts? Sprinkle a little electrolyte powder on there.
We knew we were close to the top now, but looking up, the rim still seemed like an unbelievable way up, not to mention it looked like a sheer cliff. But that's what switchbacks are for. And more, and more, and more, and more of them, mostly exposed to full sun. The switchbacks can be demoralizing, and AK was exhausted and frustrated; you can see the top now, but it seems like you'll just never get there.
As we got closer, we saw more people on the trail, day hikers who came down with only a small bottle of water and no pack, and who were looking very, very clean in white Lacoste things. We looked like hell—covered in red dust and sweat and Moleskin, swollen and shuffling—and we knew it. It was a funny contrast to see them, and I wonder what they thought of us.
Finally, almost unfathomably, we crept up on it: There was the sign marking the trail head. We'd done it! MIG and I stood at the top and waved our arms and hollered cheers as loudly as we could as our fellow hikers crested the cliff too. We had all done it, and we'd all done great. It was a feeling of unmitigated joy.
And deep physical pain. My toes were useless, and the consensus seemed to be that our calves all hurt like all get out. LP's knee, which had been ailing her long before the trip, must have throbbed under the red-mud stained bandage she'd wrapped around it. We all tried to be patient through a few group photos with arms raised in triumph before we got on the shuttle to head back to camp. We moved slowly, Thriller-video style, in a limp apparently known as the "Kaibab Shuffle" among Grand Canyon hikers.
On the bus, I told the woman next to me: "Oh dear, I'm sorry if I offend." We didn't smell good. We didn't look good. And we felt like a million bucks.
Sunday night—thanks in part to a combination of Lunesta, red wine, celebratory champagne, ear plugs, and a black-out sleep mask, not to mention a 10-hour trek out of the depths of the Grand Canyon—I slept like a corpse. (And was also thankful not to be one after the harrowing experience.)
The 500-mile drive home to Los Angeles from Arizona via Route 66 with MIG and AK was filled with triumphant giggles, dirty jokes, and quips about electrolytes, water consumption, and salty snacks, which had been both our saviors and our albatrosses on the hike.
And our drive was filled with talk about what impossible heights we'll try for next year, in both the literal and life-goal senses of the word.