Nick and I decided that since we’d traveled over 500 miles, overcoming leaky radiators, leaky noses, and multiple-car-pileups on our way to the Grand Canyon, we couldn’t call our trip complete without hiking our way to the very bottom. But since park authorities “forbid” visitors from attempting a round-trip journey in one day, we called in our reservations for an overnighter at the base. Apparently, every year around 250 people die or have to be helicoptered out because they think they’re fit enough to complete the round trip. Then they pass out from exhaustion or dehydration. But not us. No, sir.
To keep the trip interesting, we decided to take different trails in each direction: South Kaibab down, which takes an average five hours to complete, and Bright Angel up, which takes an average eight (according to the clerk at our lodge). My dad, with his injured knees and hips (from the motorcycle accident I mentioned two posts ago) didn’t join us, but stayed near the rim doing shorter hikes on his own – and driving back into town to fix the car’s leaky radiator. Nick and I set off at about 8am, much later than we’d initially planned.
The hike started off easy enough – South Kaibab was a very well maintained trail, and we had tons of convenient water to sip on. I even started out in my flip-flops, attaching hiking shoes to my backpack in case the trail became too rocky or treacherous. But to my surprise, there was nothing even slightly technical about the hike – the real challenge came from the sheer length and steepness coupled with the heat. I ended up going with the flip-flops the entire way down, and back up the next day. My feet looked pretty ravaged, but I’m convinced that the extra air circulation made it worthwhile 🙂
Also to my surprise, the hike down proved to be much more difficult than the hike up. One reason was undoubtedly due to our choice of trails: Kaibab is entirely in the sun, with no water sources, and quite a bit steeper than Bright Angel. The switchbacks hugged the cliff so tightly that you could often toss a rock from the path and have it strike the same path again nearly a thousand feet below. That’s a thousand feet of pounding on your legs, absorbing impacts, under the scorching hot sun.
I’ve done quite a few big hikes in my life, and I have to say that I was surprised at how challenging it was to walk down that canyon in the July heat. Definitely more difficult than Mt. Fuji in the temperate evening air, with regular rest stops providing food and water along the way. By the time we’d made it to the bottom and started talking with some of the other hikers, we learned that two groups had already been rescued – both of whom we crossed paths with on our way down. One was a pair of Asian couples who’d started from the bottom with a shortage of water. When one of the men came down with dehydration sickness he sent his friends ahead for help and supplies. All of them eventually had to be rescued.
The other was a cocky twenty-something-year-old who we saw sweating his way up under the noontime sun, bragging that he and his friends had made it to the bottom in only a couple of hours. Since it was such an easy trip, he said, he figured it would be reasonable to head back to the top on the same day – with just one bottle of water. A number of hikers tried to dissuade him but he was just too sure of himself to give up. Later, I heard that he’d attempted to pay one of the mule riders $100 to hand over their mule. He was refused, and rescued by a park ranger not long after.
Speaking of mules, that’s the only thing that I’d like to say truly disappointed me about the hike. The views were magnificent, the challenge enjoyable, and the experience memorable. But I really think that if you want to experience something like the Grand Canyon, you should do so on your own two feet, not by paying a guide to shuttle you around on an animal’s back, filling the trail with feces and urine to be stepped in by those who’ve taken the trouble to make the walk themselves. As I was walking down that trail, I was loving every minute of it – until the moment that my nostrils were filled with the smell of urine steaming in the 100-degree sunlight. Get out there and get some exercise, people! It won’t kill you!
Anyways, I digress. After about three and a half hours of hiking through some of the most magnificent panoramic views imaginable, Nick and I at last arrived at the bottom – a bridge over the Colorado River. By this time the temperature had reached 115 degrees (or just over 46 degrees C), and although the trail had completely flattened out, the simple act of walking felt more challenging than ever. The water in our Camelbaks tasted like it had just come off of a stove, and the joints in my knees and feet were really starting to ache from the hours of impact. Every gust of wind felt like I’d just walked into the kitchen, opened the oven, and stared directly into it.
We had originally planned to jump into one of the small creeks that feeds the Colorado River to cool off, but once we reached Phantom Ranch and stepped into our air-conditioned cabin, neither of us could even think of leaving that room. We tried a couple of times, but the second we opened the door the heat would hit us like a ton of bricks, and one of the other hikers would yell from their bunk for us to shut it. We stayed in bed relaxing until well after sunset, when the temperature dropped to a cool 95.
And after a fantastic all-you-can-eat dinner of Beef Stew and Cornbread, we turned in for the night. Groups of hikers had scheduled departures throughout the morning, some of them as early as 2am, to put as much distance between themselves and the canyon floor by the time things started to heat up. Our breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 5am, but considering how tired we were from the trip down – and that my headache indicated that I’d actually experienced a bit of dehydration sickness myself – we decided to rest up and conserve our energy for the morning’s ascent.