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Trip Report - December, 1987 - Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails

After many, many years of visiting the Grand Canyon and only seeing it from the rim I finally decided to venture down into the Canyon. What inspired me to do this I do not know; it was like a calling or something, some invisible voice beckoning to me. I was a little worried about it at the time because I had never done anything like this before. I had done some very short hikes in the Rockies, which were really just short walks away from the car, nothing more than a couple of miles.

All I was doing was a day hike to Plateau Point and back, a 12-mile round-trip down and then back up the Bright Angel Trail, the freeway of the Grand Canyon. How hard could this be? I knew I was in no shape for this and that was probably part of my concern. I was very much overweight (by about 60 or 70 pounds) and I was also a smoker (1+ pack/day) so what made me think I could do this? Just that invisible voice. Robin was worried. I told her I would call her when I got back out and told her what to do if I didn't.

I arrived at Grand Canyon very late at night after a long drive from Los Angeles where I had been attending some kind of computer convention. I was up early the next morning, had a good breakfast and was ready to hit the trail. I remember standing at the rim, on the patio of the Bright Angel Lodge, and staring down at Plateau Point like I had some many times before. What would it look like to be standing down there and looking back up here? I had to know. I had to see it for myself. I had to experience the "inner" Canyon.

I set myself to the trail with unprecedented determination. I could do this. I knew I could do this. I was smart enough to leave my cigarettes behind. I knew I shouldn't be smoking anyway and under no circumstances should I be smoking while attempting something like this. I knew this was likely to take most of the day and being without my cigarettes for that long was not something I was looking forward to. But this was important to me. Why, I don't know.

The morning was cold and I started stripping of the layers of clothing as I descended, as the day warmed up. It was a grayish, overcast day and there was no bright sun, no fabulous colors. Everything was sort of dull and muted. But I was finally inside the Grand Canyon heading for a place that I could only dream about before today.

I remember being in total awe as I descended down through the cliffs of Coconino sandstone, petrified sand dunes, hundreds of feet deep. There were even places where you could see cross-bedding, where one sand dune had been blown up against another. This was so cool. I remember looking at the cliffs of the Redwall limestone, far, far, below. These cliffs were even higher.

I passed the Mile-and-a-Half rest house without giving it a second thought. I did stop at the Three-Mile rest house and walked out behind it to look at Indian Garden and the Redwall cliffs directly below me. I had done my reading and I knew that it was the Redwall that ruled the Canyon and that the only way into the inner canyon was through breaks in these cliffs. The break along the Bright Angel Trail was created as a result of faulting of the rock layers. The Bright Angel fault was a big one, an obvious crack in the Canyon that ran from rim to rim. It was much more obvious on the other side of the Canyon, on the north side of the river, where Bright Angel Canyon actually looked like a slice through the main canyon. This fault had broken the both the Coconino and the Redwall cliffs and had created slopes of debris upon which the Bright Angel Trail had been constructed. The trail itself was a work of art.

The canteen I was carrying was tiny and held perhaps a pint of water. This was dumb but I was clueless at the time. I also had a bottle of soda with me that was intended for lunch and I also knew I could fill that up with water for the hike out. I figured I would not need much water at this time of year since it was very cool and I would probably not sweat much. I did not realize at the time that a great deal of water is expelled from the body through respiration. I had no problems at all on the way down and I got by with my pint of water, refilling it at the Three-Mile rest house and again at Indian Garden.

I reached Plateau Point just a little before noon and I felt wonderful at having made it to my destination. My feet still felt good, my legs still felt good and I was very hungry. I looked back up at the rim, at where I had stood about 4 hours ago, and it seemed so very, very far away. For some reason it looked further away than Plateau Point did from looking down at the top. It also did not seem as high as I expected it would. But this was just because Plateau Point was out in the middle of the Canyon and not close at all to any of the cliffs.

It was also wonderful to see the Colorado River close-up, only a little more than a thousand feet below me. I could actually see some of the rapids now and I wanted to be down there, next to the river and next to those rapids. And I guess that's when and where it all began. I knew that this hike was not going to satisfy me, this was just a teaser. I knew I could get this far and now I had to get to the bottom. I started thinking about the next trip and since that time it has never stopped. I am always thinking about the next trip. My life was about to change for the better; I just had not realized it yet. I would not come to that realization until during the hike out but it was not time for that yet.

Surprisingly there were very few people down there. There was another couple here when I arrived but they had left shortly after. I was alone for most of the time, just me and the ravens. I sat down on the rocks at Plateau Point and I ate my lunch and stared in wonder at the beauty surrounding me, part of me still not believing that I was really here. The ravens watched every move, waiting for an opportunity to steal anything they could get. I had to shoo them away several times as they would occasional get bold and try to sneak in for a closer inspection. I have always admired ravens, as they are very clever and opportunistic animals. Never underestimate the intelligence of a raven, they just act like fools, it's a game they play for the benefit of us humans.

While I was sitting there on the rocks I noticed the strange patterns in them. Worm burrows I think they were. The rock I was sitting on was part of the Bright Angel Shale, which was basically petrified mud from an ancient river delta, from a river that no longer existed. Things lived here millions of years ago; hundreds of millions of years ago and this mud had been their home. I found it fascinating.

I spent maybe a hour down there and then I knew it was time to get moving, to start back to the rim. Winter days were short and I had the same six miles to cover and now it would all be uphill, over three thousand feet of uphill. I knew it was going to be close to dark by the time I got out. I just hoped it would not be dark yet. No, I did not have a flashlight with me. That would have required more planning than I was willing to do in those days.

The hike back to Indian Garden was easy enough and now I was down to only 4? miles from the rim. But this is where the fun begins, the constant uphill climb, sometimes more steep, sometimes less steep, but always, always uphill. What was I thinking? What made me think I could do this? My lungs were screaming by the time I got to the Three-Mile rest house. I had refilled my soda bottle and my tiny little canteen at Indian Garden and now they were empty again. I could refill them here again but that would be it as the water at the Mile-and-a-Half rest house had been turned off for the season to prevent the pipes from freezing.

Up I went, slower and slower the closer I got to the top. What was I thinking? What made me think I could do this? As I slowed, I rested more. I was still in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. I was amazed at myself for being here, for doing this. I wanted to do this. I wanted more of this. I knew to achieve that goal I would need to make some changes. I would need to stop smoking. I would need to loose some weight. I would need to get into much better shape. I had to change my life. I thought about this a lot for those last couple of miles, as my lungs screamed for air, as my body longed for water.

It was getting late, it was getting dark and it was getting cold. I now had every stitch of clothing I had back on. I was rationing my water and used the soda bottle to get me from the Three-Mile rest house to the One-and-a-Half mile rest house. The water that remained in the little canteen was starting to freeze. I took a swig and got a mouthful of slush. I started wearing it under my jacket to keep it from freezing solid. I still had a mile to go and I needed that water. I probably could have used a lot more water but this was all I had. The last couple of switchbacks at the top of the Bright Angel Trail are killers. Even now I dread them. It's good to finally get to them because you know you are near the top but they seem to go on forever.

I remember a feeling of total exhilaration at finally reaching the trailhead. I had done it! Even though I thought I was going to die, I didn't. I was back on the rim. It was now dusk on the rim and the inner canyon was very dark. I could still make out Plateau Point but not much of anything else. I started back down the trail with a feeling of major accomplishment. I went back to my room and called Robin. I went back out to the patio of the Bright Angel Lodge and smoked a cigarette and watched as that last smidgen of daylight withdrew from the Canyon. I went and had dinner, maps in hand, and started planning the next trip? and the rest of my life.

It snowed that night and the next morning the Canyon looked like a winter wonderland. After breakfast I took a short stroll down the South Kaibab Trail. I was addicted.

View larger trail map camera Photo map

Plateau Point from south rim

Grand Canyon Bighorn, Bright Angel Trail

Three-mile rest house and Indian Garden

Mule Deer, Plateau Point Trail

Inner Gorge from Plateau Point

South rim, Bright Angel Trail from Plateau Point

Fog, snow, south rim

Sun, clouds and snow, South Kaibab Trail

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