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Surviving the Grand Canyon: Part 2

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Awake at the Whisk: Surviving the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Surviving the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Last week, Awake at the Whisk left you on the edge of the cliff (or, at the bottom of a cliff in the basin of Grand Canyon, as it were). Will we make it out in one piece? 

The Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
...We decided this option might be worth the two extra miles it would add to our hike. We hoped it wasn’t a decision we would live to regret. 

But before we started out of the canyon, I just couldn't resist that gloriously bubbling stream. My feet, which had been pounded by the downhill jogging, were aching for a dip. My shoes were filled with dust and dirt that had made its way into my socks and was chaffing my poor skin.

We stopped. For the first time, we took off our packs and sat. Still. I plunged my feet in the cool stream. The red earth washed my toes. The sun wrapped around us. I forgot about our timeline. We filtered water from the creek and drank it. It tasted fresh, clean, like the air in cold liquid form. No bottled water could ever match that!

Resting by the stream
We pulled nuts and granola bars from our packs. I could barely eat, but I made myself swallow. I knew I’d need energy to start the trek upward.

My husband, a quiet man of very few words, wore a smooth, worry-free face beside that creek. Peace.

“When I was here ten years ago,” he said as if starting an old campfire story, “I sat right here by this stream and wondered if I would ever get to come back.”


“I’m really glad we made it,” he finished.

My little heart fluttered. My husband is the world’s nicest guy. He is perpetually trying to make me happy (which has not been an easy task this last year as I have been so depressed). I sometimes forget how much his soul needs replenishing, too. I was so glad I had made the decision to attempt this hike. He had never even hinted at how much it would mean to him. What a selfless guy!

Life flourishes near the river, beneath the barren rock walls of the Grand Canyon
Moments later, our rest was over and we were back on our feet, upward bound.

Our decision to take the longer Bright Angel Trial back turned out to be a visually pleasing one. The charming trail was lined with lush trees and a gurgling creek—a wonderful juxtaposition to the forthright and ominous rock walls surrounding us on all sides.

Not that I had the chance to look around me much. Once again, we were flying, hiking at a jog, ever-conscious of the looming deadline before us: 9.4 miles before six o’clock. It was one-thirty when we started back up, and it was all uphill from here.

We mixed fitness drink packets into our water bottles and sucked on them like a baby calf suckling from its mother. Our bodies craved the sugars, the salts, the electrolytes, and the fluid. We hiked up one switchblade, around the bend, up another, and another, and another. At each bend, or so it seemed, we guzzled from our bottles.

The dramatic landscape--surrounded endlessly by the rock walls of the canyon.
“Where are all the people?” I wondered. Our downhill hike had been cluttered with people. Even at Phantom Ranch there had been a steady stream of hikers milling about. But on our upward hike?—it seemed as though we were completely alone.

“Will we make it?” I thought aloud—yet again.

“When are you going to stop worrying?” my husband asked politely.

“When I’m sitting in our car,” I answered. The stories of the people who never completed the hike kept whirling in my mind. Without anyone in sight, I felt completely isolated. Was it a sign that we were too far behind the stronger hikers?

The half-way point of the upward hike came surprisingly soon—and yet not soon enough. I could feel the blisters forming on my toes. My knees were aching from the pounding. Every muscle in my legs burned with overwork and weary. I hobbled in to the rest area, threw my shoes and socks off, and gave my heavy legs rest across a park bench.

Even though I didn’t feel hungry, I ate. And I drank, gulping more water and taking advantage of the refilling station for the journey back up to the top.

I took the long-overdue chance to rest. We stayed a full 30 minutes while I rebooted. When I finally placed my feet back on the ground, my knees resisted, my legs threatened to buckle.

“Must keep moving,” I told myself.

Seemingly endless switchbacks
It had taken us 2 hours to hike up 4.6 miles. We still had 4.7 miles to go—the distance most people probably consider a normal hike.

The rest of the hike is a blur. The trees disappeared, the creek faded down below, and the crowds of people returned. I felt like I was willing my feet to take every step, commanding my legs to move, to bend, to straighten. The sun sank behind the cliffs, and I pulled on my long sleeved shirt once again. The top of the canyon still stretched frighteningly high above. I hoped my feet would carry me out.

Every 10 minutes I asked my husband for the time. I think I needed to reassure myself that we were making progress, though each time he answered I felt certain an hour must have gone by since my last inquiry. I was fading—perhaps faster than the sun.

8.2 hours and 16.5 miles after we started the ominous journey, we stepped across the trailhead marker. Mission—finally—accomplished!

I felt amazed that I had actually done it! I half expected a crowd to be standing, waiting, and cheering upon my return. But no one even noticed. The same crowds swarmed along the rim, snapping photos, talking on their cell phones. We were just two bodies in a sea of tourists.

I wanted a medal I could place around my neck, as they do when you finish a hard race. But no, there was nothing. Just my tired, aching legs and my exhaustion.

Back at the rim. You can't even see how far we've come!
Was it worth it? To see my husband’s joy, it most certainly was. Do I remember much of it? I feel like the whole scene flew past in a flurry of flying feet. Thankfully, my husband has photographic evidence (and was somehow agile enough to take photos despite our rush)—so I know this story’s true.

Would I do it again? If you asked me the day after our hike, when my legs were throbbing in pain, I would have said, “Hell, no!” But today? I’d say, “Maybe.” 

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Amber, I am so impressed! You really should have had a cheering crowd and a medal waiting for you. Thanks for the inspiration!

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