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Happy Campers - October, 1995 - Matt && Gil

October, 1995
Matt & Gil
South Kaibab, Phantom Ranch, River Trail, Clear Creek Trail, Bright Angel
Photos from the trip
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Bright Angel Canyon Another view of BA Canyon Matt & Gil at BA trailhead Celebrating at the AZ Steakhouse

To begin, we headed to the Canyon without a backcountry permit in hand because we planned the trip in about 1.5 months (too little time to get a permit in advance). As luck would have it, we arrived at the Backcountry Office at about 5AM after an all-night drive from Phoenix. We were about 4th in line, and we had no problem getting a walk-in permit for two nights. Since we had to drop by the office the next day to pick-up the permit, we spent the first day on the South Rim and shopped for food and misc. supplies. We spent the night at Mather campground.

Upon picking up our permit, we discovered that we had inadvertently picked the best month to visit the bottom of the Canyon as far as weather was concerned. The forecast was sunny and starry, and the temperature at the bottom was averaging between 60-80 degrees. Armed with our permit and the blessings of good weather, we took the Fred Harvey shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead to begin our adventure.

My friend and I thought we had a fair amount of hiking experience under our belt. Gil was an infantry man in the Israeli Defense Forces and had hiked over a good part of Israel and other countries with a 60-pound pack on his back. I had been hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail for a number of years, and I thought that was a pretty good preparation for the Canyon trip. We also told ourselves that our jogging habit would serve us well for leg strength.

We had also fooled ourselves and were completely unprepared for the rigors of the Canyon.

We had decided that we wanted to travel in style and eat sumptuous meals on this trip. The result was that we were each carrying packs weighing between 60-70 pounds. We knew that we would pay a price in terms of fatigue, but we rationalized that we could handle it, and that our packs would certainly be lighter coming up after we ate all that spaghetti and sauce, etc. The Coleman stove, and electric lantern, etc., weren't going to be any lighter, however.

We made it down South Kaibab in about five hours. Certainly not a record time, but we were just aiming to get down safe and sound, especially considering the weight of our packs. We brought nearly 1.5 gallons of water each to ensure that we would have plenty; we figured that the extra weight might mean greater consumption. Besides, better to have too much water, right? We finished about a 1.25 gallons each on the way down.

When we reached the bottom, we were pretty nearly zombies just plodding toward the campground. Somehow all the joke-telling and smiles had stopped during the last steep decline to the suspension bridge, and we were simply focused on dropping our gear and making camp.

When we got to the bottom, I was a bit surprised that we didn't feel euphoric and that we didn't immediately start relaying the high points of our just-completed adventure, but I quickly dismissed the thought as a result of fatigue. Gil said he was feeling exhausted and wanted to take a nap. I said that I would go to replenish our water stock. I encouraged Gil to drink more water with me to ensure that we hadn't dehydrated ourselves on the way down.

Somehow I instinctively felt that something wasn't right. After getting more water for us, I decided I'd drop by the Ranger's Station to talk to him about the symptoms of heat exhaustion/dehydration. The Ranger was out, so I dropped by Phantom Ranch to talk to one of the employees at the canteen. I shared my story and the gent and I agreed that Gil and I would be OK if we just kept up our water intake and took it easy. Obviously, the hard part was over. We would be getting better with each passing hour even if we had overdone it on the way down.

During the next few hours, Gil and I both both proceeded to feel out of sorts. Gil felt a little nauseous and dizzy at one point, but mostly just a general sense of fatigue. Surprisingly, neither of us could really sleep. We also began to feel increasingly uneasy about our condition.

As dinner time approached, we both had a sense of impending doom. We knew something was not right, but we couldn't quite put our finger on it. I started to think about intense vomiting, seizures and helicopter rides out of the Canyon. And I'm the optimist of the two of us. Not a good sign.

About this time, Ranger Pat dropped by to check permits and see how everybody was doing. Gil was lying down again, but I told the Ranger that we were feeling a bit out of sorts. We thought maybe we had some dehydration, but we had been drinking plenty of water. Ranger Pat said that we should make sure that we ate something, and that we looked to be in OK shape to him. My sense of impending doom still in full force, I caught up to Ranger Pat in the campground and asked him if he would check on us on his way out. He agreed.

I promptly got Gil up and we proceeded to wolf down food. Three cans of tuna, two cans of veggies, apples, nuts. You'd think we hadn't eaten all day. In fact, that was the problem. Gil and I had feasted at El Tovar that morning, but on the way down South Kaibab we had only eaten a couple of apples and shared a package of peanuts. When we reached the bottom, it didn't even dawn on us to eat. Of course, this was another obvious sign in retrospect, since Gil and I are first-rate chow-hounds.

When Ranger Pat returned, we related our story and he told us about hyponutrimia. Hypo-what? Hyponutrimia occurs when your electrolyte balance is thrown out of wack from too much water and not enough food. The layman's term is water intoxication, since a person appears to be drunk in its advanced stages. Gil and I have taken to calling it water poisoning.

Ranger Pat told us that we probably had a mild case of hyponutrimia and that regular eating and a cutback in our water intake would take care of it. He also recommended that we pick up some electrolyte replacement packets at the Phantom Ranch canteen. We were heartened by Ranger Pat's advice and professional manner, but I was still tempted to ask if we couldn't sleep at the Ranger's station that night on the floor so he could keep an eye on us. This sickness had obviously almost completely robbed me of my fierce self-sufficiency streak.

That night Gil and I trudged over to Phantom Ranch and drank Gookinade electrolyte replacement while everyone else drank beer. We were still in pretty bad shape. It did occur to us, though, that Gookinade was probably the worst name that we had ever heard for a product. Obviously the makers of it didn't care about the marketing aspect; they knew that their product sold because there was a demand for it.

When we awoke the next morning, we felt like Nietzsche's superman. :-) All the food and a good night's sleep had almost restored us completely. We started out with hot spaghetti and sauce to keep up our food intake and prepare us for the new day's adventure.

We wisely (for a change) decided to take it easy. We hiked the River Trail in the morning and caught some rays and Zs in the afternoon. Later in the afternoon we hiked the Clear Creek trail for a couple of miles till we could see the Colorado and had a good vantage point for the sunset. Our next trip we hope to hike the entire trail.

That night we walked out to the Silver Bridge to see the stars, watch the river, and just marvel at the Canyon. Our situation much improved, we even decided that a beer at Phantom Ranch would be in order. It was there that I spied the drop-dead gorgeous woman I had seen at the backcountry office getting a permit one of the days we were there. Somehow we ended up at her table and fell into a conversation with her and her friend and the others at the table. Another gent who had made their acquaintance on the hike down offered that we might like to escort the ladies back to the campground later since he was going to head to bed early for tomorrow's hike out. It is such simple acts of kindness that give real meaning to the term "male bonding." :-)

After a thoroughly enjoyable evening talking to the beautiful Britisher and her friend, Gil and I walked back to the campground with them and shared our awe and love of nature. We parted without fanfare, but much richer for having shared our hiking experiences and the evening with them.

After another sumptuous spaghetti breakfast, we began the hike out via Bright Angel trail. We had several packages of Gookinade and enough food in our packs to make sure that there would be no encores. The hike to Indian Gardens was strenuous but not overly difficult; we passed some folks who had left Bright Angel Campground as much as .5 hour ahead of us. We made Indian Gardens in about three hours and took about 45 minutes for lunch.

The hike from Indian Gardens to the first rest/water house was a bear. We stopped a number of times for water and snacks. We knew that the weight of our packs was finally beginning to take its toll after a rather good hike to Indian Gardens. The hike between the first and second rest houses was excruciating difficult. We took more frequent breaks and began to take short standing rests at about every other switchback. Whenever I needed a short break, I'd tell Gil that this switchback was a great photo op and I would stop to take a picture of the Canyon from that vantage point.

The last 1.5 miles was embarrassingly slow. People old enough to be our grandparents passed us; women and children passed us; parents carrying children passed us. We knew that we would make it out, but we thought that we might get a chance to use our flashlights before it was all over. :-) Our heartrates were so fast that I was convinced that they were fibrillating. Not a good sign. We were stopping at just about every switchback to catch our breath.

At that point I heard the glorious sounds of a Harley riding along the South Rim. That unmistakable delicate sound of thunder was like a rush of adrenaline. Gil, always the pessimist, suggested that we could still be .75 of a mile from the end. No matter, we both had gotten a bit of a second wind.

We reached the top at 4:30. It had taken 8 hours, bottom to top. We were glad to have made it considering our load. We vowed for the millionth time that next year would be different. Gil and I had decided that a steak dinner was in order, and a gent at the Bright Angel Lodge had recommended the Arizona Steak House which would be opening at 5:00. I asked if they would serve us in our present foul and sweaty condition, and he assured me that they would serve us with underwear on our head. This guy spoke our language. :-)

We made quick work of some appetizers, all the table bread, and the 16 oz. Hiker's Cut of prime rib. Our waitress was capable and helpful, and gave no indication that we smelled as bad as we thought we must have. She even graciously agreed to snap a shot of us toasting our triumph with Phantom Ranch amber ale. That night at Mather campground I took the best shower of my life, happily putting in additional quarters to ensure a steady stream of hot water across my body.

We've already started to make plans for next year. We plan to hike to Havasupai Falls prior to the Grand Canyon (3 days) and then spend about 5 days in the Canyon. We'll spend a night at Bright Angel campground after hiking in, hike Clear Creek Trail, spend a night at the trail end, and hike back, spend another night at Bright Angel, and then a night at Indian Gardens so we can see Plateau Point. We'll also have packs that will be about 40 pounds lighter.


Send mail to Matthew O'Brien (buffettology@juno.com)

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