Happy Campers - July, 1995 - Dan Singleton & family
I hope no one who reads the story carefully will take it as an endorsement of the rim to river to rim dayhike for anyone unprepared. I hope the true hiking Jedi Knights will forgive the melodrama; we know we lived, and as I suggest, we've done worse.
We also had a good family summer trip. A variety of southwest parks, two days at Disneyland, a 9-day backpacking trip at Sequoia. I will only tell you about one day, our version of the Bataan death march at the Grand Canyon, where we hiked from rim to river to rim in one day. Down the South Kaibab and up the Bright Angel, it was exactly the trip that every park pamphlet and sign and ranger says not to do, with statements like "People have died attempting this trip." We had to do it. It was to be 16 miles long, but heck, I've ran farther than that. It is also one mile vertical -- interesting, gee, I had not done that. The kids have hiked more than enough to know what the numbers meant. They had fresh in their mind the hard 7 mile hike we had taken two days before at Chiracahua National Monument, with less than a 1000 ft of climbing. So I did not tell them exactly; I just said it would be the hardest hike of our lives.
We left at dawn from Yaki Point, and slowly meandered our way down the steep Kaibab trail. For perspective, they do not take the public on mule trips on this trail because it is too rough for the mules. There is no water, either. The first link was down to Cedar Ridge, a major hike in itself, which lost 1500 feet of elevation. Eric was not feeling well at the start and we made poor time. At Cedar Ridge we faced our first go/no go decision. I would have been willing to turn around, but Eric was feeling better and we kept watching older or out-of-shape looking, unprepared people with barely a small water bottle go on down the trail past Cedar Ridge. We had prepared and practiced for hard hiking; we were in shape and well supplied; I was carrying food, three gallons of water, and a variety of emergency supplies. We could not turn back while the others went on. (We later figured out that none of those people were doing the same hike as us. They stayed at the bottom that night, and many rode mules out the next day. As far as we know, no one else did the hike we did that day.)
Our descent continued. Corkscrewing around buttes and along ledges, ever downward, in three more miles we hit the Tonto plateau. Still 1600 feet above the river, we faced another place of decision at a trail junction called The Tipoff. I suggested that we cut the trip short, hiking along a plateau (Tonto) trail to Indian Gardens and out from there, completing what the guidebooks call "a long hike for those in very good shape." The rest of the family said go on down. I reminded them that for every foot down we still had to hike back up. The kids said that we could not get this close to the river and wimp out now. Down we went, into the inner gorge.
The inner gorge is carved from a beautiful, rough black granite called Vishnu Schist. The only problem with black granite is that it gets hot in the sun, very hot. It was about 10:30 am when we entered the inner gorge, and the temperature went up with every step. The morning had been cold, and we had sweaters. We thought about throwing them away (not seriously), but did not; later we needed them again. By the time we crossed the cabled suspension foot bridge over the Colorado the temperature was 110 F.
We have now many times hiked the hard hike, where at the end you can feel yourself pushing close to your limit. It is a good feeling in a way, at the end of a journey, to feel you have been challenged. However, it was a different feeling at the river, having pushed hard to get there but realizing that a longer uphill journey remained, an uphill climb that by itself would be almost twice what we had attempted before. No, we haven't always finished the climbs that we start.
We were saved by a delightful refuge from the heat. The Colorado itself is unfit for swimming, its water coming from the permanently chilled 34 degrees bottom of the forever cursed Glen Canyon dam. However, at a point the trail along the river passed over Bright Angel creek, and below the thin wood bridge was swift but wadable cold water, and shade.
We stayed at our cool lunching and siesta spot for as long as we thought we could get away with, too long in the end, but that was hard to judge in foresight. The cool water said stay but other senses said go. The canyon assaults the viewer on the rim with intimidating emptiness; now, at the center of the emptiness the feeling is not agoraphobia but claustrophobia, the need to get out, to be somewhere. We were in a tight closet with walls a mile high. Back to the hot trail, onward and upward.
The trail out is different, longer, but with water half way at Indian Gardens and every 1.5 miles above that, slightly less steep, much better graded, being the regular mule trail. Most of all from our point of view, it would be uphill. Not at first, though, as the trail first recrossed the river on another long high narrow footbridge and winds along flatly through the inner chasm, just close enough to the water to add humidity. After two hot flat miles we wonder if our cool rest was imagined. Will this river never end? We want to climb!??
Be careful what you wish for. The trail turns away from the river and follows a small stream hard up through the devastation of a miniature canyon, an area appropriately called the Devil's Corkscrew. We meet at this point a couple in their twenties who had hiked down to the river on this trail, and were starting their climb back up. Actually, we are doing well, as evidenced by our staying up with the couple till two miles from the top. Jenny is whining the most, but never really shows a single sign of trouble. Eric is a trooper, but stops to wet his bandanna at every one of a dozen stream crossings, a clear delaying action. Am I bothered most by his stops or the heat or my growing lack of patience?
Michael just leads, and we are the test of his patience. I still openly declare that I could keep up with him, if I wished. On a hot day earlier in the summer we had raced a mile and a half home from a mall. I told him before the race that my only advantage was my will. Every second he ran he was faster than me. I ran longer. I won -- a man's trick.
After the usual: over this rise, we must be almost there, will we ever get there, we should be there by now, we can't rest because we are almost there, this must be it, oh please let this be it, only a half mile further, 1 2 3 100 200 400 steps, we must be almost there, we finally arrive at Indian Gardens, an oasis of cottonwoods on Garden Creek. Here is water and rest, and the Tonto plateau at 95 degrees is welcomingly cool. Sharon and I had been there before, but my memory confounds me, the picture in my mind from 1980 matches nowhere with the scenery. It's disorienting and disillusioning; where is the reality of any of my memories? It is kind of like a trip home to Ohio -- why aren't the houses painted and the fences fixed? Were they ever?
The mental plan for the rest of the hike was so simple. It was 4.5 miles to the top, too far to contemplate. We were still 3000 feet below the rim, and it was devastating to look up at Yavapai point, where we'd been the night and a century before. We were that high? However, the meager 1.5 miles between water stops at CCC-built rest houses seemed a manageable distance. From Paul's house to Derwent is too far to walk, but Paul's to the old custard stand and back is doable, even uphill all the way, forget that multiplication by 3. I told myself to just think about getting to the next water stop, and I let Sharon and the kids in on my secret.
I still don't understand. The end of the hike is a puzzle that keeps going through my mind, never settling anywhere. From our experience with hiking, we understand that the end of a hike expands, always seeming twice as long as it really is. Still, I keep reasoning that there must be some limit to misconception, that one may perceive that a 30-ft tall tree was 50 ft or maybe 70 but never 200, that a color was dark blue or light blue or even green but never red. Or could it be, as the kids will swear, that all distances are lies, that the whole idea of a distance is an evil joke played on hikers, that on this popular stretch of trail in the worlds most popular national park that distances were off by at least a factor of 10, or measured in some previously unknown way, like as the crow flies, we just weren't flying. We walked forever and forever and forever, and were still nowhere, and again and again, and still nowhere, and infinite nowheres, and made it to the first water stop. Not quite the manageable mile and a half I envisioned, more like an odyssey longer by itself than the whole vacation to that point. We did it again, twice as long this time, and we made it to the second water stop.
Now it was pitch black out, the Canyon now being a closed closet in a dark house. Our flashlights were safely stored in the van; who wants to carry extra weight that you would never use? We were the last people on the trail up the cliff.
I kept thinking that everyone takes a strange misstep every once in a while. You find yourself unbalanced and falling to the left, you put out your foot and it stops your fall. It happens more often when you are fatigued, and more often on rough ground and more often when you aren't looking at the ground, or can't see it. A mile and a half, five people, 30,000 steps. How much of that distance were we on a deadly ledge? Probably little, we may never know, it felt like every inch.
We walked. Michael led the way, his night vision best, but you absolutely couldn't see him when he was more than 8 ft ahead, and he lost us often. Sharon held Jenny's hand and I held Eric's, or carried him when he needed to regroup his bravery. We tried to warn each other of step-ups and step-downs and step-overs. With nothing to aim toward, the strategy was to aim away, away from the infinite void that was ever to our side, and ever uphill. We were impossibly effective.
The rest is almost a blank, my main visual memory being the faint gray of timbers crossing the trail, marking step-downs and step-ups. Ultimately a faint building light appeared to our left across the void, seemingly a half mile straight away and a football field up above us. The trail seemed now to be along a slope instead of a cliff, and we expected it to end at any moment. It didn't end, but every turn twisted toward the light. In time it became reachably close and in time we reached it. That was the end.
We found a restaurant in the still-busy Bright Angel Lodge, ate dinner (but no one was very hungry), got a taxi back to our van, drove to our campsite, went to sleep. Later, when Sharon woke Eric to see if he wanted to go to the restroom, he quietly stood up and started walking in a seemingly random, but most uphill, direction. He thought he was still hiking.
So ended the second most difficult, second most dangerous day of our trip. The most difficult and dangerous day is another story, perhaps I'll tell it sometime if you get over the excessive prose of this last story.
So many trails, so little time.