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GC II: The Return to Glory

GC II: The Return to Glory
November 1996
Matt, Gil and Steve
South Kaibab, Clear Creek and Bright Angel trails

Upon completing our hike in 1995, Gil and I immediately began making plans for our next trip. We planned to hike down South Kaibab, hike Clear Creek, and hike out Bright Angel. We had only been able to hike Clear Creek to Phantom Overlook, and we were determined to hike the entire trail upon our return. The "return to glory" in the title reflects the allure and awe that this place holds for Gil and me. Our stories of 1995's trip even inspired a friend of Gil's, Steve, to join our adventure vacation this year.

Day 0

The rendezvous occurred at 11PM on Halloween at Phoenix International Airport. Gil drove up from LA to meet Steve (Lexington, KY) and me (DC). Though we were to do many things smarter this year, we still decided to make the all-night drive from Phoenix to the Canyon to save a day of vacation. Gil gratefully relinquished the driving responsibility to Steve and me, and Steve proceeded to do the lion's share of the driving to the Canyon.

Day 1

We arrived at the Canyon about 5AM after making various stops en route to snack, re-fuel, etc. We were disappointed to find that the Denny's just outside the Park where we planned to have breakfast was closed. This was a first. In fact, there wasn't a single restaurant open in the whole town. At one of the hotels where we stopped to see if their restaurant was open, the night clerk took pity on us, let us hang out in the lobby for an hour till Mickey D's opened, and even gave us coffee. Since the hotel's outdoor sign said the temperature was in the 20's, we were grateful to be inside instead of in the car with the heater going full blast.

We began the descent at South Kaibab about 7AM, not too long after sunrise. We had been warned by Bob, this Web site's creator, that our first day's planned hike was pushing the limit and that we risked hiking into the dark on rough terrain if we didn't get an early start. Coming from Bob, I knew this wasn't an idle warning. Our plan was to hike down South Kaibab, have lunch at Bright Angel campground, and then hike Clear Creek and make camp at the end of the trail.

After asking some fellow travelers to take the obligatory photo at the trailhead, we carefully began to navigate our way down the icy trail. The ice and snow were in evidence for about the first 100 vertical yards of the descent, but it wasn't perilous enough to merit crampons. Steve took one tumble, but thankfully only injured his ego.

About half-way down, we were fortunate to see some bighorn. I had read about them in others' reports, but it was good to finally see them myself. Gil and I also remarked that the cooler temperature (hiking two weeks later in the year compared to 1995) was significantly decreasing our water intake--by as much as one-third. To prove that the lessons of 1995 were not lost on us, we also made several food stops on the way down. :-)

The most striking aspect of the hike down for me was the sensation that the inner Canyon was as majectic and visually daunting as the first time. It was somehow familiar and new at the same time. Just as one can never really capture the essence of the Canyon on film, so it seemed that the Canyon could not be adequately captured in memory.

We broke out our dehydrated food (lesson #2, for those keeping count :-) for a hot lunch at Bright Angel campground around noon. Gil had cheated by trying one of the meals at home prior to the trip, but we were all still pleasantly surprised by how decent the food was. Of course, it didn't hurt that we were hungry; none of us has cooked up any of the meals at home leftover from the trip.

The temperature at the campground was probably in the high 50s or low 60s with bright sunshine. We enjoyed the sun, soaked our feet in the creek, and replenished our water. Fortified, we began to hike Clear Creek around 1:30.

Gil and I had vivid memories of the rigors of the beginning of Clear Creek trail from our 1995 trip. Steve confronted it with a sense of exasperation and exhaustion. This was our first uphill hiking of the day, and we began to feel the effects of no sleep and a morning of hiking.

(BTW, one lesson that we did not manage to learn from the previous year was to lighten our packs. When all was said, done and discarded, we estimated that our packs once again weighed between 60-70 lbs. Gil and I have given a fair amount of thought to this, and we're not sure how folks do it much lighter when you figure in gear, food and water. We've decided that the only way that we could make an appreciable difference would be to spend big bucks on high-tech, light-weight gear, and to carry less water. We're not inclined to do either. We're certain, though, that Steve could have lightened his pack by leaving the Baby Wipes and mag lite topside. :-)

As the shadows grew longer in the Canyon, we began to debate how far we had hiked and whether we could make Clear Creek by nightfall (or at all, based upon our fatigue). I reiterated Bob's warning about the last part of the trail being the most challenging, especially in darkness. We estimated that we had hiked one-third to one-half of the trail and decided that we should make camp at our present location.

It was a wise choice. Later the next day we were embarrassed to learn that we had only hiked about 2 miles of the trail. We had made camp on a plateau below Sumner Butte, inside of Sumner wash. (Incidentally, camping on Clear Creek trail is forbidden inside of Sumner wash. Oops!) The first 2 miles of Clear Creek trail are the most rigorous of any that I have hiked in the Canyon (or anywhere else for that matter).

Day 2

Since we had not achieved our goal of making Clear Creek on Day 1, we needed to revise our plan for the rest of the trip. Gil and I are intimately familiar with planning on the fly :-), so we weren't particularly concerned. We agreed that we would make a day hike to Clear Creek and then return to our present site, taking only one backpack to replenish our water supply (wise choice #2, for those keeping count :-). Although we were drinking less water due to the temperature, we were using a significant amount with the dehydrated food.

The weather was once again idyllic for hiking, and the terrain on this part of the trail was mostly level and smooth. After several hours of hiking, however, and still under the belief that we had hiked a much greater distance on Day 1 than we actually had, we began to question whether we were on trail or had become lost. We also began to consider the fact that our water supply was running low and what options we had to replenish it if we didn't make Clear Creek.

At the inception of this discussion, I had two revelations that will stay with me a lifetime. The first was the seemingly infinite expanse of the Canyon, our current isolation within it, and its potential to lure the unprepared into harm's way. We had not seen any other hiker's on the trail, and for all intents and purposes it seemed as if we were alone in the Canyon. I had a new-found respect for those who had made the trails in this Canyon, and I marveled at how they had made their way without benefit of a trail or modern aids and conveniences.

Second, I now understood how bad decision-making could lead one dangersously astray on such a trip. We were really not in imminent danger despite our water supply, yet there was definitely a sense of unease in our discussions. I imagined how easy it would be to err if one were seriously fatigued, dehydrated, or subject to any other infirmity. We were in fine shape, and yet we were already beginning to disagree about how to proceed.

We agreed that we would hike until a designated time, and that if we had not reached Clear Creek, we would retrace our steps to make our camp by nightfall. We had seen some puddles of water on some rocks while hiking earlier in the day, and we decided that we would make use of this as best we could for water on our return.

As the time approached, we neared what we believed to be Clear Creek, or at least a creek, based upon the lush ground cover and trees below. The descent to the bottom, as Bob duly warned us, was treacherously steep. We were thankful that we didn't have all our gear with us.

Indeed we had made Clear Creek, and we had the entire campground to ourselves. Exquisite. I instantly appreciated Bob's comment on the Web site that Clear Creek must resemble what Bright Angel was before it became so popular. We cooked up a hearty dehydrated lunch, replenished our water, and kicked back in the sun for a while. Although our visit was much too brief, we were all enamored of the place. We'll be back someday.

The return hike was pleasant and uneventful. Our spirits were buoyed by the splendor of Clear Creek and our full water bottles. As twilight settled on the Canyon, we met our first hikers of the day. They were a couple of miles outside Sumner wash and were not planning to make Clear Creek. It was when we tried to describe to them where we had camped the night before that it began to dawn on us how little of the trail we had covered the first day.

Day 3

The revision to our trip plan worked to our benefit for this day's hike: we had a reservation for Indian Gardens. From Sumner Butte, this was a moderate day of hiking. We reached the campground in the early afternoon and had our first bit of relaxation. I elected to visit Plateau Point, while Gil and Steve decided to lounge in the sun, talk and nap. We had not been able to take the time to go to Plateau Point on our previous trip, and I was determined to make it this time. Without any gear to schlep, I felt like I was floating down the 1.5 mile trail from Indian Gardens. As luck would have it, I was able to enjoy the vistas alone for .5 hour before other hikers arrived.

That night I turned in before Gil and Steve. Gil informed me the next morning that my snoring was so loud that the folks at the campsite across from us (probably 20ft. away) were commenting on it. Sensing that he was not kidding, I simply laughed it off and took it as a badge of honor. :-) I guess that ~30 miles in 3 days does that to a man.

Day 4

Although Gil and I had hiked Bright Angel in one day on our first trip, we decided that splitting it over two days would be the smarter way to go this time (wise choice #3 :-), especially since we originally anticipated that we would be coming from Clear Creek. Nonetheless, our accumulated fatigue made the final hike out challenging. Gil and I began to mindlessly plod ahead of Steve, who was having backpack and boot problems. Upon catching up to us, Steve rightly chastised us for leaving him behind, complaining that his heart had been racing at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, Gil and I knew this feeling all too well from our first trip. For his first hike in the Canyon, Steve was a hell of a trooper; hiking with Gil and me has its own sense of adventure. :-)

We made the Bright Angel trailhead late in the morning. Much to the disappointment of Gil and me, there would be no celebration at the AZ steakhouse this year because of the time of day. We did, however, have the second best showers of our lives at Mather campground. :-) Lunch was at Denny's- -too bad it hadn't been permanently closed. The food was palatable, but the service was atrocious. Steve then proceeded to drive the entire way to Phoenix for our afternoon flights home (he has developed a reputation as a driving machine in the face of our fatigue), and Gil somehow successfully managed the drive back to LA by himself.

Gil and I have once again begun planning the next trip. We originally decided it was time to do Rim-to-Rim, but we have now settled on a trip down North Kaibab, hiking Clear Creek and spending a couple of days at the campground there, and then hiking back out North Kaibab. We're hoping to spend a total of six nights in the Canyon this year. :-) One of these years we still need to make that trip to the Havasupai Reservation.

Finally, a hearty thanks to Bob for all his good counsel over the years, and this incredible resource of a Web site that has so greatly benefitted our trip planning, enjoyment and safety.

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