Grand Canyon Hike
March 2008 Grand Canyon Hike
I'm still psyched by what Jack, Ian, and I did on Thursday, March 27: Hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again in one day. It was a trip of a lifetime.
I started training for the hike at the beginning of 2008. First task: Find a place near Philadelphia to practice uphill hiking. You'll be shocked to hear that Philadelphia doesn't have anything comparable to the Grand Canyon's 4400-foot vertical ascent. The Wissahickon Creek gorge (200 feet vertical) was the best I could think of. So I found the steepest hiking trail in Wissahickon Park and hiked it over and over again as fast as I could ... for 1.5 hours straight. That was about halfway up the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, my Wissahickon trail got muddy when the ground thawed, so I couldn't train there any more. Instead I worked out indoors on a stairclimber: four consecutive 30-minute sets with a five-minute break between each set. The five-minute breaks were necessary because my feet started developing pins and needles. Now that's a workout! Each of these workouts was the Grand Canyon's entire vertical ascent.
In the days before our Grand Canyon hike, the three of us did some practice hikes in Sedona – I'll talk about those in another post. Those hikes helped us make a few adjustments and gave us confidence that we could indeed complete our Grand Canyon hike.
Arriving at the Grand Canyon on Wednesday night, March 26, we got some bad news: The tops of the trails were still very icy and the National Park Service strongly advised wearing crampons on the trails. Not wishing to slip off the side of a trail and plummet 1000 feet to untimely deaths, we decided to buy crampons. Unfortunately, there was no place to buy them within 70 miles of the Grand Canyon, unless you happened to wear size small. Up until then I hadn't been using a hiking pole during any of our hikes, but now I bought "cheap" one for $90 at the general store. (Jack and Ian already had $15 walking poles that they brought with them – but theirs didn't have adjustable tension, so there.)
Our plan was to hike down the South Kaibab Trail and return on the Bright Angel Trail. These are the two main "corridor trails" into the Grand Canyon. The South Kaibab trail follows a ridge line whenever possible, giving it more sun and arguably giving it the superior views of the two. The Bright Angel Trail follows a stream bed and a fault for much of the way, so it gets a fair amount of shade. Also, unlike South Kaibab, the Bright Angel Trail has drinkable water at the Indian Garden oasis about halfway up – we figured we'd need more water and shade hiking UP in the afternoon than hiking DOWN in the morning.
The news of the icy trails forced us to reconsider our plan. With its sun, the South Kaibab would have less ice, so we might have to return that way too. That would also require us to carry more water, as we wouldn't have the luxury of a refill halfway up the canyon. We were disappointed about possibly changing plans, so we decided to play it by ear based on the conditions we found during the hike.
Upon arrival at the Grand Canyon Village, Ian purchased the book Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. It describes in grim detail the many ways people have gotten killed there, including falls, cardiac arrest, hypothermia, sun stroke, flash floods, drowning in the Colorado River, lightning, boulder crushings, airplane and helicopter accidents, etc. (Fortunately, no one has ever died there from rattlesnake bites or scorpion stings, even though both animals are plentiful.1) All too often tourists treat the Grand Canyon as if it is an amusement park in which everything has been idiot-proofed. To the contrary, the only thing preventing a person from walking off the edge is common sense – a slim thread indeed.
Ian instantly got absorbed in the Death in the Grand Canyon book, almost to the point of getting freaked out by it. It had some medicinal value. During our Sedona hikes Ian had demonstrated an unnerving tendency towards acts of derring-do. But the stories of unfortunate people hanging by a small tree-root before finally plunging thousands of feet may have tamped down the derring-do during our Grand Canyon hike.
After Wednesday's dinner I prepared my gear for the next day. I would be carrying a lot of crap! Including:
Two things I should have taken but didn't: a good flashlight and an ankle brace. Fortunately, I didn't need either item.
Jack was the main planner of our trip, and his plan said we had to be on the trail by 6:00am. (Yikes!) That would get us hiking 20 minutes before sunrise. Accordingly, our alarms went off at 5:00am. However, we were at the mercy of the local cab company, so we didn't actually get to the South Kaibab trailhead until 6:20am. (In truth, it was nice having the extra 20 minutes to get our act together.)
The weather at the rim was brisk – 37 degrees and very windy! The trail was icy for the first five or six switchbacks, but with a hiking pole it wasn't too difficult. The ice was mixed with dirt and rocks, so it wasn't too slippery. Still, we didn't want to make a mistake either!
I took 867 photos during our entire Arizona trip, including 308 (!) during our Grand Canyon hike. In truth, I wish I had taken more! The canyon looked different and uniquely spectacular every few feet, and there was always something amazing to see in every direction. I thought I would carry my heavy DSLR camera in my pack and remove it when needed. Turns out it was ALWAYS needed. The camera hung around my neck the entire day.
You'll notice that most of my photos of Jack and Ian show them hiking away from me. Because it was necessary to take so many photos I always lagged behind them. It would have been nice to get some photos of them walking toward me, but that would have required me to run ahead, thereby missing some shots. Besides, Ian was such a speedster it would have been difficult to get ahead of him.
In the last photo above you can see some potentially loose rock poised precariously above the trail. This is fairly common in the Grand Canyon. However, only rarely has rock fall actually killed someone here2.
At Skeleton Point another rim-to-river-to-rim hiker gave me some disturbing information: There was no drinkable water at the river because of a problem with the pumps. We had been counting on getting a refill at Phantom Ranch, the cabin "resort" at the bottom of the canyon. Now we were stuck between a rock and a hard place: We didn't have enough water to go back up the South Kaibab Trail, so the only way back up was via Bright Angel Trail (which had drinkable water halfway up). But the Bright Angel Trail was very icy and treacherous at the top. Well, we weren't going to give up now.
Overhearing our predicament, a day-hiker who was about to return to the rim kindly offered Jack a 16-oz bottle of water. We accepted it when the guy showed us how much water he had for his three-mile hike (2000-foot vertical ascent).
Hiking uphill is more aerobic and hiking downhill is more jarring. In many places the South Kaibab Trail consisted of a long series of crudely formed stairs (see photos above). After a while, my left ankle and my right knee started hurting from clomping down those stairs. I wondered whether this pain might get worse and ultimately immobilize me, forcing an emergency extraction. I didn't dare tell Jack about my concerns, gambling that I could make it through. For insurance, I altered my gait: Everyone has a natural foot that steps first when going up and down stairs. For me, my right foot wanted to step down first, thus pounding my right knee and flexing my left ankle (still not quite right from a severe sprain back in 2006). I switched that, stepping down with my left foot first instead. That helped a lot, but it was difficult to unlearn my natural right-footedness – my legs always reverted if I didn't pay attention.
After a while the wind died down and the day warmed up. In the above-left photo Jack is no longer wearing his fleece. The temperature at the river can be 20 to 30 degrees warmer than the temperature at the top. We had to be prepared for a wide range of conditions: 37 degrees at the top in the morning; possibly as high as 85 degrees at mid-day at the bottom; and 55 degrees when we got back to the top in the late afternoon. In the summer the inner gorge can be 120 degrees. (And yet people still go there.) The Grand Canyon can get snow storms in late March, but we got perfect weather for our trip.
We never faced a shortage of outhouses during the hike – they were spaced several miles apart along the trail. Pictured above is the solar-powered self-composting outhouse at the junction with the Tonto Trail. These outhouses didn't have any plumbing, but were remarkably clean. Jack brought along a couple small bottles of Purell for washing hands.
The two photos above show to a small degree the danger of walking the trail. The photos show a portion of the trail and the steep slope falling away from it. The people on the trail are just specks, so the slopes below the trail must be a couple hundred feet high; below that there is an even steeper cliff. All is well as long as you don't accidentally walk off the side of the trail!
Mules have the right-of-way! Fortunately, the rule is that mules go on the outside of the trail and hikers go on the inside. If it were the other way around, I wouldn't have gone on the hike. Although it's true that the mules have four legs to balance on, I was glad I was on my own two feet rather than five feet in the air staring over the side of a cliff. In over a half-million mule rides, no passenger has ever died in a fall from a mule3, but there have been close calls.
Most of the time you can see the mules coming well in advance of their arrival. The ideal strategy would be to look for the widest spot in the trail that you can get to and wait there for the mules to pass. But did I do that? No way. I was always in a hurry to catch up with Jack and Ian, so I would keep walking until the last minute and then grab the best spot I could scrounge. Sometimes this left me with my back flat up against a rock wall while the mules walked by within inches of me. Not the most pleasant situation, as I imagined what sort of disaster could occur should a mule knock into me.
That's Ian in blue in the above-left photo. On the way down to the river he spent a lot of time with the three hikers ahead of us.
Almost to the river! Left photo above: The tree-lined valley to the right is Bright Angel Creek; the bridge crossing the Colorado is the "Silver Bridge," which leads to the Bright Angel Trail. Up Bright Angel Creek is Bright Angel Campground, and beyond that is Phantom Ranch. Right photo above: South Kaibab's Black Bridge.
We made it! Jack waited for me at the tunnel to the bridge. I had fallen behind by four minutes. Anyway, nothing's easy – at the bridge we were still about 40 or 50 feet above the river, and after hiking all morning, even that 50 feet seemed like a long way.
Not long after crossing the Black Bridge we arrived at Bright Angel Creek. As a result of starting 20 minutes late and because of all my lollygagging (i.e., taking photos), we were behind schedule. Our plan called for us to make a detour to Phantom Ranch, about a half-mile up Bright Angel Creek. We unanimously decided to stick with the planned route rather than try to make up the time, even though we didn't expect to find any water at Phantom Ranch.
It is important not to be overly cavalier with a schedule when in the Grand Canyon. You don't want to be groping your way up an icy cliff-trail in the dark! But the day was still early and we were all confident we could get back to the top in plenty of time.
Now we really made it! From this point on, all hiking would be back to the rim. It was 10:30am, and Jack said we were a half hour behind schedule. No matter; the schedule included a half-hour break at Phantom Ranch, and we gladly availed ourselves of it.
Some of the other people at Phantom Ranch were mildly curious about us. Most visitors either hike or ride in, camp in a tent or cabin, and make the return trip a day or more later. They seemed impressed that we were doing the whole thing in one day. I wasn't ready to be impressed with us yet, given that we hadn't yet proven that we could do it. Maybe I'm superstitious, but I really wasn't willing to say that we would definitely get to the top on our own two feet, though what was the alternative?
As exhilarating as it was to complete this hike in one day, there is a lot to be said for stretching it out over multiple days, camping at both the bottom and at Indian Garden. We flew through the Grand Canyon so fast that we hardly got a chance to savor the beauty of it.
It turns out that the no-water-at-Phantom-Ranch rumor was false. There had been a glitch the day before, but all was well today. This opened up the possibility of returning via the South Kaibab Trail to avoid the ice at the top of Bright Angel Trail. Out decision was easy: We all wanted to see what Bright Angel had to offer. South Kaibab Trail? Been there, done that!
Jack and Ian topped off their 70-oz CamelBaks. My CamelBak still had 70 ounces of water and I hadn't even touched my two extra 16-oz bottles, so I didn't bother. I figured I had plenty to get to Indian Garden.
Unlike the composting toilets along the corridor trails, the toilets at Bright Angel Campground actually had a flush capability, though the procedure was involved: First, do your duty; next, pour in the contents of the five-gallon jug sitting next to the toilet; finally, walk down to Bright Angel Creek and refill the jug.
When I got home someone asked me how big the Colorado River was. I said it was about the size of the Schuylkill River. I thought perhaps I had done a disservice to the Schuylkill. Turns out I had actually insulted the Colorado. (Assuming that every river secretly wants to be bigger than it is.) I'm sorry, but in the photos above, the Colorado does not look as big as the Schuylkill River I know. Gees, it looks like you could almost walk across it without getting your knees wet. Well don't try it! Somewhere lurking in those photos there is a deep, fast channel that could blast you right down the river. In the Grand Canyon the flow in the Colorado River is almost always greater than the average flow in the Schuylkill, sometimes by a lot. (But by the time the river reaches the Gulf of California there is literally nothing left; people use all of it.)
The Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years by the steady drip, drip, drip of water slowly, one grain of sand at a time, eroding the rock into the masterpiece that it is, right? WRONG! Yes, it did take millions of years. But the process was (and is) violent! Plate tectonics lift the whole plateau bit by bit. During the winter, water seeps into cracks in rocks, freezing and thawing over and over again until the rocks break apart. Weaker rock erodes, forming cavities under harder rock until finally the hard rock crashes down of its own weight. In the summer, monsoonal rains trigger flash floods that barrel down the slopes of the Grand Canyon carrying mud, boulders, water, trees and anything that gets in its way4.
Beware of flash floods! You may not even know it's raining in the watershed above you. But you'll usually hear the flood. It sounds like a freight train thundering your way. When you hear it, get to higher ground immediately. You have anywhere from a few seconds to a minute to save yourself5.
We made it to Indian Garden at 1:30pm, a half hour faster than budgeted. The hike was now officially on schedule for the first time all day!
Indian Garden is the Grand Central Station of the Grand Canyon hiking trails. It's a campground; it's the turnaround point for many day-hikers; and it's the junction between Bright Angel Trail, Tonto Trail, and the spur trail out to Plateau Point. It has outhouses, it has shade, it has a nice supply of clean cool water, and it has benches to sit on. We saw dozens of other hikers while we stopped there.
Jack had budgeted one hour to hang out at Indian Garden. It was a good opportunity to relax and do some people-watching. (And squirrel-watching. The squirrels were quite brazen. They'd steal your food from right next to you if given a chance.)
By now I had finished all 70 ounces of water that had been in my CamelBak at Phantom Ranch. This time I filled my CamelBak with 100 ounces of water.
After 45 minutes at Indian Garden we pushed on. We still had 4.5 miles to hike, and 3000 vertical feet to climb. Based on our hike so far, I developed a formula for estimating how long it would take to get to the top: a half hour for each mile plus a half hour for each 1000 feet of vertical, including breaks. (We took five, ten, and even fifteen minute breaks here and there.) By my formula, we would arrive at the top in 3.75 hours, at 6:00pm – possibly even later than that because the last 1.5 miles of the hike would be on icy trails. Sunset was 6:46pm and twilight ended 7:12pm. We figured twilight would provide enough light for hiking.
Hmmm ... now they tell us! Actually, signs like the one in the photo above were posted all along the trail. In fact, a guy had just died of a heart attack while hiking back from Indian Garden two days before. People also die of sun stroke and hypothermia. And both are possible on the same day: On the day of our hike a person could easily become dehydrated and suffer sun stroke; likewise, if we got stuck on the trail after dark, we'd have to deal with temperatures in the 30s. I would not attempt this hike in the summer or the winter or during adverse weather conditions.
While we were at Indian Garden a helicopter landed at the helipad there, and then went down to the river. We wondered whether a rescue was in progress.
The photo on the right above shows where we had to go – straight up that rock face ahead of us. That 3000-foot climb looks impossible from this vantage point.
By the time we finished any of our Arizona hikes we were always covered in dust. It took a toll on my camera. By the end of the Grand Canyon hike I could hear dust grinding in my $800 lens whenever I rotated the barrel to zoom.
Everyone of those exhausted people sitting in Three-Mile Resthouse was going the same direction: up. A thermometer in the sun outside the resthouse said 95 degrees, but I think it was really no higher than 80. Jack and I stopped there for 15 minutes. Ian, as usual, had charged off ahead somewhere. I expounded to our fellow hikers my theory of how long it would take to get to the top. They didn't seem particularly impressed. Anyway, with three miles of trail and 2000 feet of vertical climb remaining, we were a few minutes ahead of my estimate.
You can see Indian Garden in the two photos above. It is the dark green area near the middle of the photo on the right. The right photo also shows the trail out to Plateau Point: the white line that goes right up to the edge of the plateau. Plateau point was the inspiration for our hike. Jack and his family visited the Grand Canyon several years ago. On the spur of the moment, he and Ian had hiked out to Plateau Point and back without any training – a nontrivial accomplishment. They enjoyed the hike so much that they vowed to come back and go all the way to the river.
The thermometer in the shade at 1.5-mile Resthouse registered at 65 degrees. From that point on (the last 1000 vertical feet), the trail was either muddy or icy. We had to be careful, but it didn't slow us down too much. Closing in on our goal, we kept a strong aerobic pace. As we approached one icy section I started feeling vaguely light-headed. On solid ground I would have kept going, but the last thing a person needs is to faint while walking along a cliff. I sat down, ate some Gu for a quick shot of energy, and was ready to go in a few minutes. (Jack, Ian, and I all agreed that the Gu and the Clif Shots all tasted horrible; I kept using them because they mainline the sugar right into your bloodstream.)
Just before I shot the left photo above, Ian lost his footing on the ice but quickly regained it without falling. The right photo shows why you don't want to slip there.
An incredible feeling!
We arrived at the trailhead at 5:30pm. The entire trip was about 17 miles. Between Indian Garden and the rim I drank 90 ounces of water, for a total of 190 ounces (six quarts) on the hike. I never touched my two extra 16-ounce bottles of water, so that was just bonus exercise. I ate about 1600 calories during the 11 hour hike; the internet says this kind of exercise burns at least 400 calories per hour, so I probably should have eaten more. But I did have my standard breakfast (cereal, banana, juice) before we started, and afterwards I more than made up for any lost calories with a big steak dinner at the Grand Canyon's fanciest restaurant, El Tovar.
The guy who took the above photo had had his own adventure that day. He and his son hiked down South Kaibab Trail an hour after us. By the time they got to the river, he was feeling exhausted and nauseous. He couldn't go any further, so his son went to get a park ranger at Phantom Ranch. They came back and found him on the verge of passing out. A helicopter was sent down to extract him. He was cared for at the small medical clinic in Grand Canyon Village (the nearest hospital may be as far as Flagstaff). Now he and his wife were waiting at the top of Bright Angel Trail for their son to complete the hike! Their son had telephoned from Indian Garden at 3:30 – he was more than an hour behind us, so he was in danger of losing the daylight.
After taking a wonderful shower, I walked back to the trailhead. (Hiking in the canyon seemed so easy, but now I was so tired it was tough just to walk a quarter mile on level ground!) I got to there at 7:00pm. No one was around, and it was VERY dark. I was thankful that we weren't still hiking down there.
Jack and Ian, Thanks for a great hike!