Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Grand Canyon - Up Close and Personal

Three months ago the idea of hiking the Grand Canyon was still in my bucket list of things to accomplish before I kick the bucket.  Then I turned my world on its ear, as I'm prone to do periodically, and thanks to a fantastic teaser by our Arrogant Bastards, I found myself planning a Rim to Rim trip with whoever wanted to join me.  The planing mutated dramatically over the last two months, with 3 people dropping out, trip duration changes and finally not more than a few days before we were due to leave, a final major change in sleeping arrangements.

Then we launched... Nicknamed, Thelma & Louise, Trish and I took off for the Grand Canyon...

We started immediately with a Facebook controversy when Trish (who was designated our professional trip photographer) unbeknownst to me, posted a photo of our travel crack.  Now I don't know what you're like on a road trip, but for the last 30+ years, every road trip I've ever taken has included tons of processed crack to fuel me and my buddies for the long drive ahead.  So, when we stopped to pee a few hours in to the trip, it never even dawned on me to not buy some some.  Trish was apparently raised the same way because she rolled over at my suggestion without batting an eyelash.  I'm telling you we bought it all...  Red Vines, Junior Mints, Hershey's Mini's, Reese's Pieces... and of course, the salties... Salt & Vinegar chips, and something I thought were potato chips but turned out to be tortilla chips.  The reality of our experience was that while we wanted to totally indulge, and were totally able to polish off all the S&V chips, quite a bit of the rest ended up just getting nibbled and pitched.  It seems regular clean eating ruins the taste buds for any serious over indulging.  (Oh, and Trish saved the Hershey Mini's for the trail, so glad since I had left out any Gu's or bars.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and we arrived at our hotel in Tuseyan, AZ, around 2:30.  Plenty early enough to check in and go scout out the park and shuttle routes.  Good thing we did too, because the park is this convoluted slew of looping roads with all the parking lots and roads looking alike. I'd like to say our navigating got better after the first day, but we got turned around over and over again for the entire weekend!  BTW... the park is full of elk and squirrels...  You can look on Trish's Instagram account for a full set of trip photos.

Suffice to say that we found the South Kaibab Trailhead, found the correct parking lot and shuttle to get us back there in the morning and found ourselves on the first shuttle out... 4:30am.  It was in the low 30's on the South Rim Saturday morning and there was a stiff breeze that increased dramatically as we descended the trail.

While I tell you stories of the actual hike, let's start with a clear picture of just what we were committed to accomplishing:

Hike from the South Kaibab Trailhead to North Kaibab Trailhead...

This map only gives you an overview of the scale of the journey.  So, here are the highlights by water stop  including elevation and approximate times we arrived at the location.  The mile markers are also guesstimates, since every map and website I checked gives back different mileage... as do all of the individuals we asked on the North Rim.

5:15am South Kaibab Trailhead 7260' - It was not quite light yet, giving us about 1.5 miles to reach a good view spot for the sunrise:

As the sun was rising so were the winds and we found ourselves moving down the trail having to be super careful for uneven terrain (yes, it was every bit as treacherous as Jane B warned us it would be), flying dirt, buffeting winds, passing hikers (because tons of people were passing us, and even the oldsters were cooking along) and the slowly revealing view - which was so dramatic and distracting that we had to stop to look as much for pictures as for not getting so distracted that one of us would trip and fall.

7:45am Tip Off 4000' - 4.4 mile marker - Just over half was down, the sun was up, wind was gone and it was already starting to warm up.  Tip Off didn't have water (there are no water stops on the South Kaibab) but it did have a very nice restroom with chemical toilets.  The perfect rest spot before the final descent to the river.  (Enjoy one of the very few pictures I was able to capture of Trish.  Why is it that those behind the camera always hate being in front of it???)

Tip Off marked the edge of the last long stretch to the Colorado River.  At one point we crossed the perfect lookout point for Trish to capture the Bright Angel bridge way down at the bottom.  (All those little green "bushes" to the right are actually trees and the campground.)  I LOVED that the Colorado wasn't at all brown, murky or churned up at all during our trip - thank you for missing monsoon season!

We had encountered two mule trains before we were even half way down, the first one was literally right on our heels at dawn, but it wasn't until we had almost reached the river that we encountered our first passenger train...

9:15am Bright Angel Campground 2480' - 7 mile marker - It took us FOUR hours to get to the bottom, a good hour over my worst case timeline, which I instinctively knew meant the entire hike would be longer than the 10-12 hours originally projected.  So, we regrouped, killed a brief detour we had wanted to take along the Colorado and immediately crossed the bridge to bright Angel.

Bright Angel Campground was our first water stop and none too soon.  We had each packed a 2-liter badder for plain water and two 1-liter bottles filled with Endurolyte Fizz... I knew my bottles were down to about 1/4 each, but so was my bladder... Trish too.  Even though it wasn't even close to warm yet, we had gone through 100oz of water each, in just 7 miles.  Wow... Serious note to self in gratitude for packing a water pump just in case piped water wasn't available if we needed it.

I had expected to see loads of campers in Bright Angel, but the place was much smaller and quieter than I could have hoped for.  It's quite nice and had we more time to linger we would have, but I wanted to find us a good place to rest for a long period before stopping, so we moved on after refilling.

Phantom Ranch was less than a mile up the Bright Angel/North Kaibab trail and I was again expecting lots of tourists and campers.  Again not the case.  I suspect this was because the season was just opening.  We didn't immediately see a place to rest, so we walked a short way up the North Kaibab trail, along the Bright Angel Creek (We followed this same creek all the way up to Roaring Springs, a good nine miles up trail) until we found this perfect shady spot under a bridge with a nice sandy spot to pull off shoes and soak our feet in the stream (Trish opted out, but I took full advantage of the cooling to ease the discomfort of 7 miles of serious descent.)

Beth J had given me a tip to pack a lunch of salami and cheese wrapped in cheesecloth.  OMG, mana from heaven!  I had brought a really nice block of Kerrygold Cheddar and Applegate Organics Dry Salami and the cheesecloth kept it all from getting slimy in the heat.  PERFECT!

After about 20 minutes, we started again and it was getting hot.  Trish's knee was starting to get sore, although she was only noticing it at first on downgrades.   By 11:00, it was up to about 85 degrees in the "Hot Box" - that five mile stretch from Phantom to Ribbon Falls.  Ribbon Falls was our second targeted detour because it was touted as being a sight worth not missing.  I suspect that most people approach it from the North, but we were approaching it from the South, which meant that we encountered the back route first... 800m of trail followed by an unassisted stream crossing, on a very aggressive stream.  So we bit... and hiked the half mile to the stream, no bridge, just a given that people would hike it.  One look at the required crossing and I knew that it was not an option for us... it would have been to risky with packs and a bum knee and taken too much time, plus we were already a good hour behind schedule and we were barely half way.  So, we bailed on Ribbon Falls.  Good thing too in hindsight, but that story is still ahead...

The "Hot Box" walk was just that... hot and tiring, somewhere along that stretch, Trish's knee started to really hurt on all of the downgrades, of which there were many.   She never once complained, she just took the descents or stairs gingerly.

Thankfully, we kept crossing bridges that would move us to either ride of the stream, sometimes in to the much desired shade!

2:00pm Cottonwood Campground 4080' - 14 mile marker - FINALLY... after what felt like an endless walk along a desert stream.  Strange concept, but that's what it was.  One side note, throughout the entire hike we were crossing paths with lots of other hikers, some passing us but most coming south along the trail... including a good hundred individual runners.  It was very unexpected to see so many minimalist runners either solo or in small clusters, racing their way from Rim to Rim (with many of them planing to return the same was for a full Rim to Rim to Rim.)

Everyone we encountered was friendly, and if they weren't racing, quite talkative.  We kept leapfrogging this one young couple who were hiking our direction, with the intention of camping on the North Rim (our original plan too.)  They both had large backpacks yet were moving at a goof clip and we would only pass them when they took shade breaks.  As we'd pass each other, the gal would invariably ask us how much farther to Ribbon Falls and Cottonwood... Trish and I slowly learned to NOT ask that question.  The answers were always wrong because they were based off someone else's pace.  As the afternoon was settling in, scattered clouds started to appear and a breeze came up and while we were resting in Cottonwood Campground we actually felt a few brief raindrops.

Cottonwood was our second water stop, and we had again gone through three of our four liters of fluids.  Oh, and as soon as the sun had started to warm up we had also started to eat Endurolyte caps every hour, just to stave off any possibility of hyponatremia.

3:00 Pumphouse Residence 4600' 15.4 Mile Marker - Our leapfrogging young couple had left Cottonwood before us, but we caught up with them at the Pumphouse.  They were sitting on a bench under shady tree while she massaged his shoulders and neck.  I don't envy them those heavy packs, they much have been quite the burden.  By this time, the weather had cooled a bit, so we weren't as depleted as we had been earlier, but by now Trish's knee was starting to hurt all of the time, and while she was still moving at a steady clip, she was starting to tire easily. We were falling farther and farther behind schedule and I was now trying to just keep us on task enough to get to the top in time to make our dinner reservations at 7:45.  Slow but steady was our goal, and it worked until it stopped working.

4:00 Roaring Springs Heliport 5220' - 17 Mile Marker - Something in the altitude, dust and/or backpacks was starting to make it more and more uncomfortable to take a deep breath and we both started to feel the fatigue that comes with inadequate breathing.  I know a number of good meditation methods to counter them and was eventually able to rein in the problem, but even with my suggestions, she continued to have difficulty with regular breathing, no doubt her knees (yep the other one was now acting up too) were adding a factor that I didn't have.  At any rate, it was already 4pm and and we still had another 4 miles to the top.  We had already been on the trail for 11 hours and I now adjusted our timeline to 13 hours and mentally let go of dinner plans while being enormously grateful for our last minute decision to bail on camping and take a room at the North Rim Lodge that has unexpectedly become available.  That was by far our BEST decision!

Roaring Springs was a very cool break place for us because it was so bizarre.  You can't see it well in this photo, but at the top of that water fall is some kind of structure built in the rock face.  We asked all of the locals what it was, but only a few even ventured a guess that it was part of the pumping station.  Looked to us more like a bandit's hideout.

Those last four miles were by far the most beautiful miles of the day, which was the only salve and distraction Trish could get to counter the steadily increasing pain in her knees.  I had given her a couple of Aleve's earlier and we were both hesitant to give her any more, but she finally ate one more about 6pm.

I've already said that everyone we encountered was wonderful and on the climb out, that was ten-fold.  First, the couple we had been leap frogging up to the Pumphouse never caught us again, and I do hope they made it out alright.  Then there were the two young gals Amanda and Adrian, I think.  We chatted with them for a few breaks, but ended up leaving them behind and also hope they made it out okay - although they did have friends waiting at the top for them, so at least they had a ready made search party if needed.

But the best were the group of six we only passed when they stopped to take extended breaks in the shade while their group regathered.  Every time we encountered them, they were full of laughter, camaraderie, high spirits and good jokes... When I asked them at one stop if they knew how much farther (no, it took the last two miles to completely beat that question out of my brain), they said it's only two miles... up and over that giant mountain way ahread of us...

At 6pm, we were finally crossing the last footbridge and only had a little over two miles to go... but they were going to the the hardest two of all.  Still we were super optimistic, had plenty of daylight left, and were feeling pretty darn good all things considered.

That optimism lasted until the first round of wicked switchbacks that left us both reeling.  We stopped to snap a picture at the top, and laughed for a moment when we saw yet another ultra runner jogging up the same trail on his way out of a full R2R2R.  Look closely at the center of this next picture and you'll see the same bridge from the top of the switchbacks, as well as the long meandering trail leading up to it.

6:00 Supai Tunnel 6800' 6pm - 19 Mile Marker
What you may not notice, is that the sun is starting to fade and it's starting to get cold when we stop (high 20's expected on the North Rim at night.)  We are now only little over two miles out, but they are the steepest yet encountered and Trish is in so much pain that she is slowing to a heartbreaking pace.  About 6:30, and over 13 hours since the beginning, I started getting seriously scared about us getting out even this short distance. Night was coming and it was going to get cold, and the more time that passed, the faster Trish's pain would compound.   About then I finally insisted that she give me her backpack, hoping that it would relieve enough burden off her knees that she would be able to move easier and faster.  I didn't yet care that giving up my own treking poles and replacing them with an extra 15+ pound odd object would completely throw off my energy, I just knew she needed relief.  It didn't take me long to realize that I was going to have to dig extremely deep to maintain this and still keep it together.  About half a mile up trail we were passed by Gordo the Trail Angel and his hiking partner.  Gordo easily assessed our predicament and volunteered to sling Trish's pack over his "empty" one and leave it up at the top for us.  I knew it was necessary, even as I knew it wasn't a good idea, but I asked Trish and she agreed, so off they went with Trish's pack... it slowly dawned on me... her headlamp, wimp wear and all fluids were quickly making their way of the trail without her, and she wasn't moving any faster than she had been with the pack.

It was all I could do to not panic and drop my pack to go reclaim hers.  Instead, I calmed down (thank you Eric for a thousand lessons in calming my head) and took a mental inventory of my own bag... a headlamp, long sleeve tech shirt, beanie, gloves and plenty of fluids.  All of which i could give her if necessary.

Just when I didn't think we were ever going to get out we started to hear sporadic screams, which Trish correctly identified as cheers at the top.  We were at least within ear's distance from home!  Then, a couple of unexpected hikers came around the corner towards us, and Trish couldn't resist asking... how much farther to the top?  To which the man said, about a mile.  I thought Trish was going to punch him. Instead, she simply yelled, it can't be another mile, that's what everyone has been saying!  It was too funny... Okay, maybe you had to be there to appreciate the humor...  At any rate, I told her to just keep walking, and we hadn't gone more than another 300-400 meters when we come around the corner to wild cheering.  We were finally home... 14.5 hours after we had started.

8:15pm North Rim, Kaibab Trailhead - 8241' - 21 Mile Marker - It seems all these people were screaming because they thought we were the two young gals we had passed so many hours earlier.  Sadly, we had to decline but were very grateful for the cheering anyway.  Then I saw Gordo and Trish's backpack.  He asked how she was doing and where we were staying.  I told him what I hadn't reminded Trish of for hours... the Lodge was still another 1.7 miles away from the trailhead.

Thank God for Gordo, seriously.  He loaded us up in his truck and drove us to the Lodge while his friends waited for their lagging parties.  He wouldn't take any money but Trish made sure to get his last name and I know she's on a mission to reward him.  He was a serious hero in our world.

When I checked us in, of course they wanted my ID, and of course I started turning my pack upside down to find it.  Seeing what they were dealing with they kindly just accepted a different ID verification method. While I was handling that part, Trish was asking the restaurant if they could get us in, even though we were late and still had all our gear.  Ready?  They welcomed us and immediately sat us, in front of many people waiting for tables, gear and all.  It was enough to almost make us cry... instead we ate to bursting and tottled our way off to bed.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful in an achy sort of way, including a very cool tourist style shuttle ride back to the South Rim.  Trish's knees are still wonky but getting better daily and my only complaint are a couple of slowly darkening big toe nails that I can already tell are destined to leave this body.  Oh well, they are a very small price for this enormous adventure and growth experience. I may have been the strong one on this journey, but that was merely the luck of the draw.  Next time the tables will likely turn as they always do and Roadkill could very easily be again pulling up the rear and holding back the group.  It doesn't matter. It only matters that we are a team and stay together.

I will leave you with this last message.  My amazing friend Trish insisted on recording her arrival.  I'm so very glad.  Please excuse our cussing, it had been a very long day.

No comments:

Post a Comment