“GRAND CANYON!” I THOUGHT YOU SAID, “GRAND CAYMAN!”, December 2003
Sara (wife) and I (David) and a few friends have a tradition of hiking and camping in the winter, between Christmas and New Year, when sensible people are curled up in front of their fireplaces with cups of hot chocolate. It’s usually in Southern Illinois, but in 2003, I had one of my brilliant thoughts, “Hey! How about the Grand Canyon? We could drive 1,500 miles in two days, stay at the South Rim, hike down the next day, camp out for three nights, hike back up, get hotel rooms again on New Year’s Eve, then drive home again and go back to work on January 3rd!” I assumed that most of our friends would say we were crazy, and refuse to be involved. Our friend, Carrie, said, “Are you crazy? I refuse to be involved!!” She had been there with us before in the summer. Even though I assured her that winter was cooler and much more fun, she was not impressed.
Not all of our friends are like Carrie, some are shorter on common sense. I mentioned the idea to a few friends. Before we knew it, we had twenty willing participants. Great! I thought, the more the merrier … until I started the permit and planning process. “Ordeal” was more like it!
Because there were several Canyon first-timers and quite a few children wanting to go, we decided to take the Bright Angel Trail, the main and most heavily used trail, and camp half way down at Indian Gardens. Sara and I had done Bright Angel six or seven times already, but we always love it.
It seems that the National Park people have had problems in heavily used areas with campers trampling on the desert visiting friends, creating “social trails”, so their remedy is to limit the size and location of large groups. No two sub-groups from the same large group can be at the same campground. So, a large group has to split into two. One sub- group would have to camp at Indian Gardens, 4½ miles down from the top, and the other at Bright Angel Campground, another 4½ miles down, at the bottom. The biggest campsites available between Christmas and New Year were for six people. Six people!! Aaarrgghh! Two times six is twelve! I had twenty!!
I booked the spots for the two groups of six, and told the other eight people to book their own campsites, that we had never met before, never even heard of each other, but if we happened to meet up on the trail and take a shine to each other then there’s no harm in that! So, we had two official groups of six, and Unknown Groups of six and two. The unknown groups chose to camp at Indian Gardens to avoid the full nine mile hike from the bottom on the last day.
Here was another slight problem: who were the six “Bottom Dwellers” going to be? Especially, who were the six to stay the last night at Bright Angel and hike out all the way on the last day? Some people just couldn’t do it, like our friend Patricia, who has two knees that could best be described as … well, it’s probably better that they’re not described at all. One of these days, they’ll be replaced by titanium and plastic. Also, the kids shouldn’t be made to hike that far, and at least one parent should stay with their kids. We had three family groups with children. Some sensible people would plain refuse to hike nine miles uphill in one day. The pool for Bottom Dwellers was quite limited, so in the absence of six volunteers, we just had to use conscripts.
Sara and I were volunteers, as was our buddy, Tip, a young man (40-something) who insisted that he would love it (as I remember). If we snuck one person up to Indian Gardens on the second last day and hid them in a tent, that would leave only two spots. We made some suggestions, but left it open to adjustment in the field. As it was, it worked itself out, more or less.
Road Trip Days 1 and 2. December 26 and 27. 2003
Two vehicles headed out in convoy from Belleville, Illinois, two people flew from Denver, three people flew from St Louis, one was catching a bus from Las Vegas, and a family flew from Louisville. The plan was that everyone would be on schedule without any delays or mishaps. Good plan.
somewhere in Kansas. Fortunately, it’s so big, there are other food
stands in there and you don’t have to eat McDonald’s.
The first glitch: when the convoy reached Tucumcari, the hotel did not have our Internet reservations, even though we had printouts of our confirmations. But luckily, they had rooms for us anyway. We made mental notes to check our credit card bills in case we were charged twice. We were.
The second day’s drive through New Mexico and Northern Arizona was shorter and a lot more scenic than the first. Sara and I became more and more excited as we approached the rim, and told the novices to watch out for that first glimpse. I am always in awe of that first wonderful, terrible, unnerving sight of the Canyon. It looks like a mistake, a movie trick. The earth shouldn’t just disappear like that! You were driving along nice, flat land with a road on it, then suddenly there’s an edge and a hole. A very big hole! After six or seven times it’s still unbelievable.
The Bright Angel Lodge did have our reservations, thank goodness, because it was 15ºF outside! A little chilly to be sleeping in the car.
At the Lodge, Madeline, aged 13, walked across the brittle, crunching snow, wrapped up in layers of clothes, a big woolen hat, scarf and gloves, her face red with the bitter cold wind, and stood and looked down into the vastness of the Grand Canyon for the first time. I took her expression to be one of awe and wonder, until she turned to her mother and said the immortal words, “Grand Canyon! I thought you said Grand Cayman!”
In order to console her, I told her to just think about tomorrow, hiking down the trail and being right in the middle of the most beautiful place on earth. She replied, “You mean the Mall of America?” And her younger brother, Luke, looked up excitedly and asked, “You mean there’s a Game Boy store down there?” I shook my head sadly, “Modern Youth!”, I thought to myself, and went to check on some late arrivals.
Lodge bar, sampling the good beer on tap, a-rarin’ to go!!
The three flying from St Louis had failed to show. They had arrived in Phoenix to find that their connecting flight to Grand Canyon Airport had been cancelled, although somehow their baggage had gone on. The airline’s office was closed, and all the staff had gone home. There was no one to help with any advice. I don’t want to mention any names for fear of embarrassing the miserable Northwest Airlines for their cavalier disregard of their passengers. There appeared to be no rental cars available at first, but upon further enquiries, the three Lost Girls teamed up with two Lost Boys, strangers, to rent a compact car which was not permitted to travel past Flagstaff, still 80 miles from the Canyon.
Just to throw a spanner (or a wrench) in the works, the Grand Canyon Airport, where their luggage had gone, is not at the Grand Canyon! It’s in Flagstaff! Keep that in mind if ever you want to fly! At 11.00pm, we managed to contact the Lost Girls holed up in a hotel in Flagstaff, with no baggage. Frantic phone calls located the Friendly Taxi Service, which would bring the Lost Girls to us in the morning. But the question of baggage was still unsettled since the “Grand Canyon Airport” was closed. The Lost Girls had paid for that night at the Grand Canyon Lodge, so they were not happy.
We had accounted for everyone else, thank goodness.
Hike Day 1. December 28, 2003
a Linda, Tom, Kelsey and Tracey at one of the Bright Angel trailheads.
Don’t ask me how I know there are two trailheads!
After an unsettled night’s sleep, we woke to more phone calls, learning that the Lost Girls had recovered their luggage, restrained themselves from causing bodily harm to the NW Airlines representative, and were on the way by Friendly taxi, hoping to arrive before we left to hike down, but not certain. They arrived just as the large group was standing at the trailhead for group pictures, before heading down. Talk about Nick of Time! It was about 11 am.
It was still 15 degrees! We all had our crampons, which proved to be very necessary for the first couple of miles. They were just $2 El Cheapo’s, but worked well. We were all excited and thrilled to be starting out, except maybe Madeline, and headed down the trail singing and talking excitedly. That soon abated as the effort of walking downhill with heavy packs made itself evident on our inexperienced friends. “Downhill will be easy,” they had said.
Kids kept insisting on charging ahead and getting out of site, much to the chagrin of their mothers. I assured them that there was only one trail and they couldn’t get lost, and that it was better than them dragging behind, a solid probability on the way up in a few days, so enjoy it now. We all arrived more or less together at Indian Gardens except for Patricia with the bad knees, who was happily going at her own pace with Tracey to keep her company. They are both capable, sensible women with lots of outdoor experience, so we weren’t worried about them. It was in the 30’sF at Indian Gardens.
off! Or “tampons” as the children loved to say.
At Indian Gardens, one of the Lindas (we had three), who was scheduled to continue to the bottom, refused to go any further, claiming exhaustion. Despite such unauthorized use of common sense, we spoke to the ranger, who consented to allowing Linda to camp with the Unknown Group of Two.
We had been very fastidious in keeping our Known and Unknown groups carefully apart, but the ranger suspected something and later simply asked the children, “Who do you know around here”. Of course, in complete innocence, they pointed to all the three groups camping at Indian Gardens, and mentioned that there was another group at Bright Angel Campground. The ranger didn’t take things any further, since it was a done deal, but still I am grateful that he didn’t take any action other than cautioning people not to walk on the natural vegetation.
The Bottom Dwellers continued. We split up into two groups after Taree (50-ish female) wanted to rest longer at Indian Gardens. This trip was the hardest physical thing she had ever done, so she was being wise to take things slowly. Sara stayed with her. Tip, Dana (a 30-ish female), and I (50-ish, male, fitter than most but not an Olympian) took off.
Dana, while young and an outdoors person in the summers, mainly canoeing, is not particularly fit, and was struggling after the Devil’s Corkscrew and along the flat portion before the river. She was very slow. Tip took off to find a campsite and start setting up, while I stayed with Dana. It was dark by the time we reached the river, and Dana almost cried at the little bit of uphill on the River Trail. But we persevered, cheered when we saw the Silver Bridge, and found Tip with a stove going and hot chocolate. But, it was a bad sign when after we had pitched Dana’s tent, she just wanted to lie down, said she felt sick, couldn’t eat anything, and could only drink water and Gatorade.
Sara and Taree arrived about 10pm. Taree had become so exhausted that Sara had suggested that she leave her backpack on the River Trail. I wished I had thought of that for Dana. Taree recovered well, with some soup and hot chocolate, but Dana was feeling very bad. Sara and I went back for Taree’s pack. It was no problem for us, as we love every second of walking in the Canyon, no matter how we feel, summer or winter, day or night. A little good attitude verging on euphoria (“insanity”, according to Carrie) goes a long way.
Hike Day 2. December 29, 2003
We woke up to a sick Dana. She still couldn’t eat, and was throwing up even the Gatorade. The temperature was in the 30’s at night, and about 40 in the daytime. Pleasant camping weather, but Dana wasn’t sleeping well in the tent. We were worried enough to find a ranger, and arrange for a bed in a dorm that night. A nurse in the dorm suggested that if she was still throwing up, then cut out the Gatorade, have her drink water only. It seemed to work. We assumed that Dana was suffering from exhaustion, combined perhaps with a cold. Exhaustion can make a simple cold seem like pneumonia, and we were worried about whether she would be able to walk out in two days, let alone salvage any enjoyment from the trip.
During the day, Tip and Taree walked around the Phantom Ranch vicinity, up the first few miles of the Clear Creek Trail to the wonderful overlook. (Highly recommended if you haven’t done it.) And the two bridges loop.
Sara and I walked up to Indian Gardens to visit with the other groups, and from there we took the Tonto Trail over to the Tip-Off at the South Kaibab Trail. We had never done this part of the trail before, because the last time we had the opportunity, it was over 100ºF at 7:30am in August and getting hotter by the minute. We had let discretion prevail, there being no water and no shade on that part of the trail. So, we were looking forward to it this time.
Two “unknown” friends, Tom and another Linda, came with us part of the way. Tom had a new GPS unit that he was proudly showing off. He’d tell us, “We are only about a hundred yards from a creek.” “I know.” I said, “I can see the side canyon from here.” “No, no, it’s not a canyon, it’s a creek! You gotta look at it on the screen. Look! Look!” So I looked, and said, “How nice.” That seemed to satisfy Tom, except he was incredulous that I wouldn’t swear to buy one at the very next opportunity.
The Tonto Plateau is a lovely world within a world, alternately huddled in and spread out as it is between the Redwall and the Inner Canyon. The trail winds back and forth between the edge, with views down to the river, and right up to the Redwall itself as you skirt the side canyons. And always there is the panorama across to the north side, with Vishnu Temple and the multitude of other formations rising out of the other half of the Tonto platform. We found plenty of climbing to do over saddles, and beautiful little groves of cottonwoods and reeds in the heads of washes. Tonto can be very forbidding in the summer with its lack of water and shade, as we well know (they don’t call one side canyon “Cremation Canyon” for nothing). But this day it was enchanting.
Tonto Plateau. Tom located the creek behind us on his GPS unit, thank goodness!
Sara and I paused at the Tip-Off, remembering the time we set out east from there for three days, to Grandview Trail, via Cremation Canyon, wishing we could go again. But we headed down the South Kaibab’s spectacular drop to the Black Bridge.
Back at camp, dinner was already underway by Tip and Taree. A ranger had come up earlier that day to our campsite and spoken to Tip and Taree, worried that we were dumping Dana on that friendly nurse. She came back just as Sara and I arrived, and started the lecture again, on how groups are responsible for their own members, and we shouldn’t think the poor rangers can handle every tired hiker who freaks out and thinks they can’t walk back up to the rim. She was not very happy, but Sara and I were able to mollify her when we explained how often we had been there, how we had helped other hikers several times in the past, and how we would definitely take care of Dana, in fact we were going to visit right then and there. She was comforted, but I understood her concern. We have witnessed groups splitting up and abandoning each other under the stress of hiking the Canyon, leaving the rangers to pick up the pieces.
Dana was still sick. No food all day, but lots of sleep, and lots of water. Better than nothing, but still not good.
Hike Day 3. December 30, 2003
During the day, Taree exercised common sense by hiking up to Indian Gardens to spend the night, and Dan swapped places with her. She started out on her own, but I followed and caught up with her below the Devil’s Corkscrew and offered to take her backpack, an offer she gratefully accepted. I actually like walking with a backpack. More evidence of insanity? Half way up the Corkscrew, we heard a yell. As we got closer, we could make out Madeline yelling at us, “I touched the butt! I touched the butt!” She was with almost all of the Indian Gardens groups who had walked down to the river, and were on their way back up. I figured that she had lost her mind due to shopping withdrawals. But no, she had seen a rock with a crack down the middle, declared it to be a butt, and had convinced the other kids that touching it would be cool, unlike simply walking in the Grand canyon which was boring. Except that she did enjoy the walk down to the river, and the picnic beside it. And the condors at Plateau Point. And cooking at the camp. And a few other things. But malls are better than canyons any day!
On the way back, down, at the Corkscrew, I saw four or five bighorn sheep quite close to the trail. A small group of passing hikers paused and we watched them for a while as they calmly walked up and down cliffs and slopes that looked absolutely impassable. We were all enthralled, with goofy smiles on our faces, watching these wonderful animals.
I was on my own for an hour or so, from the Corkscrew along the River Trail into camp, and I was in paradise. What a great place to be alone and quiet. What a place just to be!
Dan came down in the late afternoon. So we were still five Bottom Dwellers. Dan The Man is an exceptional fisherman, and had us eating trout for supper. Tip followed Dan around to pick up some fishing hints, and was very impressed with Dan’s skills in both fishing and beer drinking. At the Happy Hour in the canteen, when last calls were sounded, Tip had never witnessed two beers disappear with such awesome speed as those two Tecatas did down Dan’s throat.
There was an open cabin at Phantom Ranch, so we took it for Dana’s sake. She was looking better, and ate some supper, thank goodness!! She improved even more when we found out that the mules would take her backpack for $50. We all took advantage of that kindness by the mules, and loaded 30 pounds of camping gear each into the plastic bags tied up with string that they provided for the purpose.
Dan’s trout for supper. Christmas wreath on the door.
The first time that Dana and Taree found out that there were cabins and a dining room at Phantom Ranch, they accused Sara and me of being out of our minds. (“Carrie was right!”) We had billed the trip as a backpacking and camping trip, and it didn’t even occur to us that normal people would prefer to sleep in a cabin, buy their meals, and NOT carry their camping gear and food, so we didn’t mention it. They now know, like Carrie, that when Sara and David say, “This is going to be fun!”, they mean “fun for Sara and David who are crazy”. In fact, Carrie’s New Rule is that whenever Sara says, “Hey, I have a great idea! It’ll be fun!”, everyone (especially Carrie) should immediately yell, “NO!!!” and run away.
Hike Day 4. December 31, 2003
This morning we had a couple of visitors. Actually, we were the visitors and we had a couple of residents walk through our breakfast preparations. First, a spotted skunk snuffled along, taking no notice of us whatsoever, and then a ringtail cat skirted around the perimeter checking to see when we were leaving and if there would be any food scraps. What a great thrill to see them!
Thank goodness Dana could walk! She had some breakfast, and was feeling well enough. She decided to take the seven miles of the South Kaibab Trail instead of the nine miles of Bright Angel. I was happy with that because I had never walked UP South Kaibab, a bad idea in the summer when we’re usually there. Dana, Tip and I headed that way, and Sara and Dan headed to Indian Gardens. Sara and Dan had almost empty packs, thanks to the mules, and were planning on taking someone else’s heavy load to help with the hike out.
We started at 5.30 am, first light, to have the full day, Dana’s endurance still being an unknown factor. The two groups split up at the junction, the Bright Angel Trail crew heading for the Silver Bridge, and us to the Black Bridge and the tunnel. “Bye! We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when.”
After the steep haul out of the Inner Canyon, Dana was still feeling good. We stopped to take pictures of Tip at the Tip-Off, and say goodbye to the Inner Canyon. I hate goodbyes in the Canyon, I always want to stay longer. I envy Ranger Sjors, who as far as I remember, has been at Phantom Ranch ever since I started visiting there in 1987. I mentioned in a previous story, that I asked him once about his salary, and he said that he has no salary since he’s a volunteer. He knew heaven when he found it, and there was no reason to leave.
the poetry of it. But we didn’t.
While we were on the switchbacks at the escarpment above the Tonto Plateau, a mule train passed us going up. We recognized Dana’s distinctive red backpack, and waved to it. We thanked the mule driver and his faithful beasts, and he told us it was the best $50 we would ever spend. Dana agreed.
and she bought another one at the Canteen as a souvenir of being
deathly ill for three days.
Dana was still feeling well up the switchbacks, and she was able to drink and eat well at our snack stops and our lunch stop. I saw my first condor at lunch! Wow! It was unmistakable with its huge black wings like Batman’s cape, as it landed on the edge of a cliff, stopped for a minute, then took off again and circled for a long time over the plateau. Awesome.
After a while, Dana’s slow pace got to Tip, who went on ahead. I had no problem going slow, it meant more time in the Canyon, delaying the inevitable return to the “Real” world above the rim. I was in no hurry to get back there, to the obligation and stress. Nevertheless, I stayed just ahead of Dana to make sure she kept going. I know she felt like stopping and resting all the time. I kept her in sight, and waited for her quite a bit. At sunset, we had the rim in sight. We were treated to a wonderful western sky just below the rim, and emerged at the top when it was almost dark, 5.30 pm. We had taken 12 hours, every second was bliss for me, I stopped and looked around at every opportunity, soaking in as much memory as I could, and I almost cried when it was over. Dana almost cried, too, for the opposite reason, glad it was over.
We waited for a while, and a shuttle bus came along to our surprise. We thought we were too late. We took it, even though we had arranged with Tip to send a car out to get us. Tip was a couple of hours ahead of us, and when we got back to the Lodge, we flushed out some cell phones and called our ride, which had passed our bus in the opposite direction.
The first person up from Indian Gardens was 15-year-old Kelsey, the last was Pat with the bad knees. Linda 3 made good time, but was disqualified for paying a teenager to carry her pack for her, another completely unauthorized display of common sense.
I was struck again at the vast difference in the time it takes people to walk in the Canyon. Kelsey, a fit 15-year-old, took about 4 hours up from Indian Gardens, Pat took about 8. Dana took 12 hours from Phantom Ranch up South Kaibab (7 miles), when Sara and I would usually do that in about 5. Some people far prefer walking uphill to downhill. Some people are the same speed whether going up or down, others take three times longer going uphill. It makes it very hard to tell people how long a hike in the Canyon will take, and people just don’t believe you when you say that 7 miles could take 12 hours. Walking uphill for so many hours is a big shock to casual hikers from other states. “Flatlanders” our Colorado friends call us. Taree said that she was thrilled to have accomplished the twin goals of the hike itself, and a 50% reduction in the size of her butt.
And the different reactions! Some said, “When can we come here again!”, some said, “I’m never coming here again! I hated it!” and some said, “I’m glad I did it, but I’ll stay at the Rim in a hotel next time.”
At New Year’s Eve 2003 on the South Rim, we had a few very welcome beers and sodas, a nice dinner, and we were all in bed by 10pm. Happily snoozing.
right is Luke, aged 9, the youngest.
Next morning, at the group photo, Tom’s souvenir hat blew off over the stone guardrail. We had bought several copies of the book “Death in Grand Canyon”, and we yelled at Tom not to become an updated statistic, but he hopped over anyway and retrieved his valuable hat. If he had fallen, he could have tracked his descent with his GPS, and we could have printed it out and pasted it on his coffin.
Copyright © 2006, by David Sheppard