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Awake at the Whisk: Surviving the Grand Canyon

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Surviving the Grand Canyon

What do I do when I'm not eating food, growing food, and talking about food? I go outdoors and enjoy the wonderful environment that I am so devoted to protecting. Hiking through nature is just one way I live la vida locavore. 

“Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year… DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day…” the National Park Service website warns about hiking the Grand Canyon.

Note the warning in the upper right.
At the trailhead to the South Kaibab Trail, a large sign displays the image of a runner who completed the Boston marathon in three hours. In large letters, the sign reads, “She didn’t have to die.” The sign warns hikers not to make the fatal mistake this runner made by overestimating their physical abilities and attempting to hike the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back in one day.

Well, my husband and I attempted it anyway.

Several months ago when I was feeling quite depressed over the loss of my fairy god sister, my husband decided we were long overdue for a vacation—just the two of us. He planned the whole thing. I merely sat back and shrugged at his suggestion. I didn’t have the energy to dream.

When he said we were going to the Grand Canyon, I merely blocked the dates off my calendar. As the trip drew closer, and I was feeling better, I realized what he had signed me up for. “Yikes!” I thought. “People die there!”

Surviving the Grand Canyon. Notice the steep switchbacks in the distance?
My husband is not the type of guy who takes hiking lightly. While many of us might consider it a “hike” to stroll through the woods for a few hours and stretch our legs, my husband only considers it a hike if backpacks, headlamps, and supplies are employed. And generally, there’s a far-away destination as the end goal, like the peak of a summit or a high mountain lake.

To him, three hours is not a hike. It’s a warm-up. 

So, as our “relaxing” vacation drew nearer, I became ever-conscious of the feat that lay ahead. Gulp.

I warned my husband that I had no interest in hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. We had only one day scheduled for this visit in our tour of Arizona, so camping at the bottom overnight wasn’t even a consideration. We weren’t packing such supplies. He reluctantly agreed to stick to a short hike.

The evening before said hike, we arrived in Tusayan, Arizona. It was a few hours before sunset, so we decided to get our first look at the canyon. As we pulled into the massive parking lot, I was immediately reminded of visits to theme parks. People were swarming everywhere!

Children were screaming. Cameras were flashing. Elbows were knocking. Cell phones were ringing.

“This is hell,” I thought secretly. This wasn’t my idea of experiencing nature.

My husband and I fought the crowds to snap a few scenic photos, and then headed to our hotel to pack our supplies for the next day’s short hike.

Once safely in the quiet of our hotel room, I heard myself saying, “How long would it take to get to the bottom of the canyon and back? Can it be done in one day?”

I somehow knew that in the bottom of that canyon there would be peace and quiet. I wanted to get away from the zoo that was sure to crowd every trail near the top of the rim. Suddenly, the bottom of the canyon had great appeal.

My husband’s face lit up like a puppy being offered fresh bacon for the first time. My competitive side started kicking into overdrive. We were going to do this!

“But we’re going to time ourselves,” I cautioned. “When the clock strikes noon, if we haven’t made it to the bottom, we’ll have to turn around.” I might be competitive, but I’m not crazy. I didn’t want to join the others who never made it out.

My husband and I have hiked long distances before, so I knew we were capable of completing a difficult hike of at least 14 miles in a single day (the farthest we’ve gone in one day). I pulled out my laptop and started doing some research.

The National Park Service website states that the average hiker walks one mile per hour. The total distance of the shortest route in the Grand Canyon was 14.2 miles. We knew we could hike faster than one mile per hour, but having never timed ourselves, had no idea how much faster we might be.

The website also warned about taking enough food and water, so we had to pack smart. We were hoping to travel light with only our fanny packs, so space was limited. I decided to forgo my camera in lieu of a second large water bottle.

The trail near the top is fairly crowded.
Since the morning temperature was scheduled to be 35 degrees, and the afternoon temperature in the canyon would be 85 degrees, I knew I needed to pack layers of clothing.

For food, we almost always hike with fitness drink mix packets to pour into our water bottles, nuts, fruit (dried and/or fresh), chocolate, granola bars, and something salty. This hike would be no different, but we packed more than we thought we’d need—just to be safe.

Because I’m worthless unless I get at least eight hours of sleep, we planned to be at the trailhead by nine o’clock the next morning, hoping to complete the trek out before sunset just after 6 P.M.

The next morning, right on schedule, we arrived at South Kaibab Trail amid a minor swarm of people. There were three teenage guys carrying backpacks and headscarves. They looked ready for serious hiking.

There were also parents with their small children, young couples who appeared to be on vacation, and tourists in jeans and Converse tennis shoes. From the looks of this mostly unprepared crowd, it became obvious how the canyon might grab onto someone and never let them go.

As we stepped onto the trail, my husband set the timer on his watch. I wanted to keep strict track of how far we’d come and in how long. We immediately broke into a brisk walk, something akin to a gallop.

Below, we could see the switchbacks cutting into the valley at precipitous angles. Down, down, down they went. From our view at the top, they looked like a child’s toy train tracks cut into the rock. “Can we really make it down?” I wondered.

My feet gave way on the dry, bare red earth that was sliding beneath my feet like an escalator. My arms spun wildly around in a circle like a cartoon bird as I quickly regained my balance. Falling from this height would be lethal. Yet, we had to keep up this dangerously steady clip if we hoped to complete the trail before dark.

The wind howled and ripped through my fleece jacket. I wrapped my arms around myself in a hug to stay warm. I didn’t dare look out at the view around me, but instead, had to watch my every footstep carefully. We were hiking fast on loose dirt heading down steeply. I was taking no chances to miss a step.

We quickly passed by the groups of parents and children. We passed the young couples. We passed the three guys with their backpacks. We were traveling lighter than them and making faster time.

One and a half hours into our decent, we passed a trail marker indicating that we had come half way. We also passed a group of four teenage girls.

“We left at seven this morning,” I heard one of them say.

“Let’s see,” pondered another.

“If it takes us four more hours to reach the bottom…” the third girl was saying as we passed by.

“They’re never going to make it,” I told my husband. “Should we tell them we only left at nine?” I asked.

“They’re figuring it out,” my husband said. I could tell he wanted to keep moving.

Moments later, one of the girls from the group of four came sprinting past us. Her decision was clear: she was obviously hoping to run down to the bottom to make up for lost time while her three friends headed back.

By now, the sun had risen high into the sky and was sending warming rays our way. I peeled off all my layers and was now wearing only a tank top and shorts. I applied an extra layer of sunscreen while we walked. A sun burn would zap any energy I needed to climb out of these rocks. I was taking no chances.

Before long, the Colorado River came into sight. Twisting around the rocks, it still looked unbelievably far away. Could we really make it?

I started to gallop a little faster. I didn’t want to run and waste precious energy. But I was afraid we’d never make it if we walked.

Down, down, down we continued. We came upon a mule train and had to wait along the side of the trail. We took the opportunity to refuel with a fresh orange. The juicy sugars slid welcome down my throat as I gobbled my food. I probably looked like a wild dog, scarffing rapidly, barely chewing, a combination of hunger and urgency overriding my manners.

“Come on, mule train!” I impatiently wailed inside my mind. “We’re on a schedule!”

I was worried. We were getting closer to the bottom—close enough that the river could only be seen in small stretches like sidewalk, not like the giant snake it appeared to be from above. But the clock was inching closer, too, to the appointed hour of noon—my self-imposed deadline that would give me piece of mind that we were on target to make it out of that canyon by sunset.

As if those donkeys read my mind, the mule train moved through. By now, the number of bodies hiking down had grown thin. There was only one couple ahead of us, and we were hiking on their heels, all of us jumping and, well, at this point, we were running, toward the bottom.

Before I knew it, we were there! The river rushed below. A large metal bridge hanging by cables swung above the massive body of water. It wordlessly spoke of an earlier time—of the Wild West. This was the kind of moment where normal human beings stop to ponder, reflect, and perhaps take a few pictures.

But not us! We were on a strict schedule! We snapped a few fast photos and continued on our quest.

Next stop: Phantom Ranch. Beneath the barren reds and creams of the canyon rocks that stretched endlessly as far as the eye could see, along the swiftly flowing river, lush green trees and bushes grew with vigor. Tiny birds twirped and flitted about. A clear, refreshing creek bubbled happily alongside the muddy river.

Phantom Ranch--wayyyy down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
I wanted nothing more than to sit and rest at that moment, to take it all in, this gorgeous view and the joyful sounds of nature.

But as I’ve said before—we were on a mission! We kept moving.

We reached the ranch house, where my husband knew they had a mail drop. He wanted to send postcards from the bottom of the canyon. After all, how many people can say they’ve done that? He pulled two postcards from his pack, and I dug for a pen in mine.

When I hike, my hands and fingers swell. They looked like they belonged to a teddy bear—not to me. I gripped the pen awkwardly in my puffy hands and scrawled a shaky note to my mom and grandma. “We’re insane,” I wrote.

With postcards delivered, we hopped back on the trail. Upon the advice of the park ranger, we decided not to return the way we had come. There was another trail that ran along the creek that offered more shade and a watering hole. 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. 

To be continued... 

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What an adventure story, complete with cliffhanger! Can't wait for part two...

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