The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part One: Eat All the Things
Part Two: Whose Dumb Idea Was This?
About an hour before the alarm was set to go off, the temperature finally dropped low enough to make it worthwhile to get halfway into my sleeping bag. We hadn’t eaten all the food allotted for day one, but opted to take all of the extras in our packs rather than stick any in the mule duffle. In our minds it was still possible that we would get halfway up the canyon before one of us would break a leg and we’d need to survive on food ratios for days as we awaited rescue. At least, that’s how I justified bringing twice the recommended amount of food. I don’t know what Nikki was thinking.
After a successful breakfast and a slightly late start, we were at the trailhead at 6AM. The first 30-60 minutes is spent crossing the river and getting to the lowest point of the Bright Angel Trail on the south side, which means that the map shows no elevation change between the trailhead and the first water stop. There is no net change, but the trail does wander up and down a lot, something neither of us were thrilled with after four hours of straight downhill the day before. When we got to the water stop, we did as instructed: soaked all of our clothes to keep cold, sat in the shade, ate a snack, and drank some water. This process would be repeated more times than I could count.
We saw more people in the first two hours on the Bright Angel Trail than we did on the entire Kaibab Trail, which makes sense considering the easier slope, water stops, and outhouses that Bright Angel provides. Stopping so often meant we would pass and get passed by other hikers time and time again. My sister and I can be pretty competitive, if not with each other than with those around us. It was hard being passed by a family with young kids early on, but after a certain point we overtook them and they never caught up again. They may have been full of energy at the start, but kids just don’t have the staying power. Suckers.
We made it to Indian Gardens before the heat of the day, as planned. Indian Gardens is an oasis in the canyon, and has been since the earliest canyon tourists. In addition to drinking water and bathrooms, Indian Gardens has a lot of trees for shade. We found a nice picnic table and ate a few choices pieces out of the sack lunches they’d given us at Phantom Ranch. After an hour, Nikki suggested we keep going. It was just after 10AM, the official start of the heat of the day. Absolutely everyone and everything had told us not to hike at this time, save for the one ranger the day before. That ranger said if we felt good and stayed smart, we could hike through the heat of the day. I was hesitant, but Nikki had it in her mind to reach the top before 4PM so we could pick up our duffle before the mule barn closed. I found this idea to be utterly insane, but the first three hours hadn’t been as draining as I had expected, and I did feel fine to keep moving. The worst that could happen (we hoped) was that we’d get worn out and have to wait out the day in a less comfortable and less beautiful spot. We loaded up our water and went for it.
We made it about 15-20 minutes before we had to stop. We found a place in the shade to sit, ate a snack, and drank some water. I was concerned about getting stuck, and tried to ration my water a little just in case. We started moving again. We would pass by other hikers, which gave me solace that we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to hike in the middle of the day. Of course, they were all going downhill. We were the only ones dumb enough to go up. Another 15 minutes went by and we stopped again. When you include the breaks, we were going at the speedy pace of 0.5 miles per hour. Of course, the elevation change for every half mile was about 300 feet. Each time we finished our break and stood back up, there was a brief moment where I could feel all the pain in my body at once – the blisters on my feet, my worn out calves, the sore shoulders. For a short second the rest of the journey seemed absolutely impossible in my current state. But I took a few steps, settled my weight back into my feet, and kept going.
Nikki led the way most of the time, which was for the best. She could keep a faster pace, and my competitive nature meant I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to slow us down. One could argue that because she had been training for a half marathon and doing yoga every day she was in better shape than I was, which is probably true. But I know that wouldn’t have mattered. When Nikki gets it in her mind to do something, no amount of pain or hardship will stop her. When she graduated high school and decided to move to New York City without a job or apartment lined up, almost nobody believed she would make it. They would make well-meaning jokes, saying she would be back home within a month. I knew better, and so did my mother. I suppose because we had both seen what happens when Nikki decides she is going to do something. And this time, Nikki had decided to climb the Grand Canyon.
We made it to our next stop, the Three-Mile Rest House, and took another long break. There were a lot of people at the Three-Mile Rest House, since it’s about as far as most rangers would recommend you try to go in a single day. I still had plenty of water, which meant my rationing was unnecessary. I still had plenty of food, but I already knew the amount we took was too much. I kept us at the rest house a little longer than Nikki wanted, because I was still concerned about us being in the sun so much. I was being overly cautious for sure, but it seemed appropriate against Nikki’s overwhelming determination.
One of the pages I’d read on the Grand Canyon website listed the “Ten Essentials” for hiking in the canyon. Most were obvious, like water and salty snacks. A few were things a casual hiker might not consider, like a rain jacket and flashlight. Number ten on the list was a Positive Attitude. Nikki embraced this wholeheartedly, and whenever she sensed I was having a hard time (or perhaps whenever she was), she would remind us that we were going to be fine, because she had the number one essential item: a positive attitude. I would remind her that a positive attitude was number ten, but that seemed generally irrelevant. She also got a kick out of being named “Team Leader” on our permit since she was the one who made the reservation. “As team leader, I think we can make it to the top by 4PM. You know why? Because I have a Positive Attitude.”
During one of our shade and food breaks, a man stopped by to chat with us. When we told him we had started our day at the bottom, he pulled back in surprise, “Wow. You guys look fresh.” This was delightful news to us, since we were covered in sweat, dust, and creek water. My shoes were so filthy they’d changed color twice in 36 hours. I think he sensed how surprised we were that we looked good. “Did you see The Frenchman?” he asked.
Apparently there was a man from France hiking up from the bottom that day. He didn’t have a real backpacking backpack, so he was carrying his sleeping mat in his hands the whole time. According to our new friend, The Frenchman and his lady looked absolutely ragged.
We kept our breakneck 0.5 mile-per-hour pace for the next stretch of trail. We saw one of my favorite signs in the park, informing the reader that “Down is Optional, UP IS MANDATORY.” The park does a lot to try to discourage people from making bad decisions, a department known in the park service as Preventative Search and Rescue (PSR). They place signs at key spots where they know people will be when they are about to make a bad decision, such as right before the Three-Mile Rest House, or a few minutes down the South Kaibab trail. In addition, they have PSR Rangers whose job it is to walk up and down the trails near the top, asking people about their hiking plans and making sure they’re prepared. The PSR Ranger at Three-Mile didn’t ask us anything, probably because she saw we were coming up and not going down (by the time people are walking up, they’ve already made most of their bad decisions). However at the 1 1/2 Mile Rest Stop, a PSR Ranger arrived after we did, and started talking to us as we were filling up our water bottles.
“How you doing?” he asked.
“Great,” I told him, “We’re almost there.”
“Well…” he replied, “It’s a long way up from here.” He was looking at me the way I look at my Sunday School kids when they ask to use the glitter.
“But it’s short in comparison,” I told him, “We started at the bottom.”
He told us to be careful because it was hot out, and I tried not to laugh at him. No kidding, I hadn’t noticed. Nikki felt like we hadn’t convinced him. I thought he just wasn’t used to ending encounters without a warning.
Despite our confidence after several hours of successful hiking in the heat of the day, we were still a bit nervous. We had been told many times that the hardest part of the hike is the very end. And we still had that coming. To make matters worse, the very end of the hike is also when you start to encounter tourists. It is astounding what some people will do when entering a serious situation with a lighthearted attitude. We would see people walking down in flip-flops, tanks-tops and shorts with no water and without so much as a hat to protect them front the sun. We saw children running so far ahead of their parents that we started to wonder if something had happened to them on the trail and the kids just didn’t notice. The day before one of the rangers said she once saw a woman on the trails in sparkly high heels trying to feed a granola bar to a rattlesnake. On our way up we overheard a PSR Ranger talking with some women about their hiking plans. The ranger helped them do the math based on the time of day and how long it would take them to get to their destination. “So do you all have flashlights?” she asked. The women stared blankly. “Well,” she continued, “with your current plans it will be dark for the last hour of your hike. If you don’t have flashlights you might want to turn around sooner.” The PSR Ranger passed us and continued up the trail at a speed that would have seemed fast on level ground. Nikki’s competitive instincts kicked in and she immediately sped up. I had to yell up to her to slow down. “She’s a ranger, Nikki, she does this every day. And she didn’t start at the bottom.” Nikki agreed and slowed down, but I could tell she didn’t like it.
As we got close to the top, it was emotionally harder to take breaks, even though we knew we had to. The canyon is deceptive, because the layered ledges make it impossible to see the top for most of the hike up. All you can see is the top of the next level. What’s more, it’s hard to maintain a sense of scale, because you’re not used to being so close to rocks and walls that huge. It’s easy to look up, see a ledge, and think you’re almost there. In reality, you still have 3/4 of a mile to go and it’s time to take a break.
We were munching in the shade on one such break when we saw him: The Frenchmen. He was unmistakable. He was holding a sleeping pad in his arms, and he looked awful. Both of them did. For a brief moment I considered the possibility that the park dresses people up like refugees in order to scare would-be hikers from venturing down too far. They really looked bad. Like extras from a movie about the Exodus from Egypt. After they passed by Nikki turned to me and asked, “How did they get that dirty? We aren’t that dirty.” Later on we would pass The French on our way to the top, and we never saw them again, Nikki pointed out that not only did we beat The Frenchman to the top, we did so looking “fresh.”
As we approached the summit, the people around us became more reckless, worse dressed, much louder, and more numerous. The hiker we met the day before was right: you do start to hate everyone you see. They don’t know what you’ve been through. They won’t be able to handle it. Lucky for us, Nikki still had her Positive Attitude.
When we finally reached the top, we hugged and yelled, and asked a woman to take a picture of us in front of the trailhead. She seemed oddly unimpressed with our accomplishment, though at that point everyone seemed to be under-reacting, since I felt they should have been throwing a damn parade.
Of course Nikki couldn’t help but point out the time. It was just after 4PM. The walk to the car would take an extra ten minutes, so we wouldn’t get to the mule barn in time, but that didn’t matter. It was 4 o’clock. We had hiked a vertical mile in just over 10 hours, including breaks. It was two hours less than our estimate, and it was exactly when Nikki intended to get to the top. God help us if she ever decides to do anything truly destructive to the world.