I did not get ‘punched in the face’ until much later in the hike. A slip here, an almost lost hiking pole there, a recurring twinge in my right foot throughout. But these were not that one knockout punch – the one that puts you flat on your back on the canvas looking up at lights that slowly spin above you as a man in a white shirt with a black bow tie bends over you and deliberately moves his arm in a sideways chopping motion as he counts to ten. These and a number of other misfortunes on my hike did exact a toll, much as body punches and glancing blows eventually weaken you as you move around the ring attempting to evade disaster as the rounds slowly advance, but they did not put me on my back. You see, I had a plan. But you know what they say about plans, everybody has a plan until…
May 16, 2016: The alarm clock went off at 4 a.m., but I did not need it as I had been drifting in and out of a light sleep since midnight. I did not feel overtly nervous, but there must have been a stream of anxiousness moving through me that manifested itself in my inability to get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps being at the 8,200 ft. elevation of the north rim of the Grand Canyon and the lingering cold that I had been fighting for over three weeks had something to do with my restlessness as well. I was rising at this ungodly hour not to shoot sunrise, as I have done many times on this trip, but rather to complete the final preparations before beginning what would be a very long day. Today over a year’s worth of preparation and planning would culminate in likely the most challenging single-day endeavor that I would ever undertake: I was going to walk from the north rim of the Grand Canyon all the way across the deep gouge in the Earth to the south rim.
This plan had been hatched well over a year ago when I was trying to come up with some sort of challenge to commemorate my 60th birthday. When I turned 50 I had ridden my bike across the United States, and at 55 I finished a masters program in liberal arts at the University of Chicago. I cannot honestly remember how I came up with the idea of doing a rim to rim hike, but somehow I did and once conceived, it seemed like the perfect thing to do.
On this morning I made the sandwiches that I would eat at the bottom of the canyon, ate a heaping bowl of oatmeal, a couple of yogurts and some turkey and cheese for the protein, and finished packing my backpack with an extra t-shirt, two pair of socks and even though water was available at different places along the trail, a water filter, just in case. I also packed a couple of bananas, a large bag of trail mix, three energy bars and three energy gel packets. I knew that this old engine would need plenty of fuel to get me through the day and I did not want to run short.
Laura and I left for the North Kaibab Trailhead at 5:15 a.m. and arrived at the starting point for my trek at 5:30 a.m., just as the sun was coming up. It was 37 degrees with a clear sky, and I knew that it would warm up as I descended. I wanted to get a very early start because I also knew that the total distance that I needed to cover was 24 miles with a descent from the north rim of 5,700 ft. and an almost 4,700 ft. ascent once I started up for the south rim. I had calculated that the hike would take me between 13 and 14 hours depending on how things went on the trail and how often I stopped for breaks and to take photos. Laura was going to finish packing the car and then make the four hour drive around to Bright Angel Lodge on the south rim where I would finish my day. She also planned to come down the Bright Angel Trail to the 1.5 mile water stop and meet me so that we could hike back up together. I really appreciated her being willing to do this.
After a photo at the trailhead and a quick kiss, I told her that it was time to light the candle and that I would see her on the other side. I then started down the trail. Over the last year I have thought about this hike often and when I did it was always about starting the hike and never about the end of the journey. I am not exactly sure why this was the case other than I knew that there was a lot of trail to cover from that first step to the last, and I simply was not sure what I might expect along the way, what was in store for me with the climb at the end, and what kind of condition I would be in to tackle it.
My route today would take me down the North Kaibab Trail 14 miles to the floor of the canyon and the Colorado River. From there you walk 1.5 miles along the Colorado before hopping on the Bright Angel Trail to start the eight miles or so up to the south rim on the other side of the canyon. There are a number of water sources along the way and fortunately all of the water was turned on, with seven miles being the longest distance between water stops. I also planned to stop at Phantom Ranch located at the bottom of the canyon to eat lunch.
Overall, the hike went pretty well. I certainly was not the fastest person on the trail, but then again I was not attempting to set a personal best for the crossing either. I had initially planned to take few photos and just push on, but almost from the start I found myself stopping to take in the magnificent vistas and while stopped use the opportunity to take a couple of photos with my smartphone, deciding to forgo carrying my heavier Nikon. As it turned out, I ended up taking around 425 photos and while this probably added an hour or so to the trip, it was well worth it. The most interesting group that passed me was a team of eight all in matching t-shirts who were running from one side of the canyon to the other. I suspected that they were ex-military as I heard words like Afghanistan, Iraq and Centcom trail behind them as they passed. Most of the others that I saw on the trail were planning to make the crossing into a two to three day event by camping along the way.
Descending the 14 miles into the canyon I was careful to use my hiking poles to reduce the impact on my legs and feet as I knew from experience that without doing this blisters and very sore toes were soon to follow. I also found myself constantly monitoring my body for any issues: water intake, check…sunscreen coverage, check…fuel level, check…knees, check…feet…feet, twinge on middle toe of right foot, alter stride slightly and monitor closely…I knew from other hiking and cycling endurance events that without this constant attention, a little problem could become a big problem real fast and potentially jeopardize the completion of the task at hand. Not a particularly desirable outcome when one is at the bottom of a mile-deep canyon.
How wonderful it was to finally see the sign for Phantom Ranch, which is near the Colorado River, and know that I was over half way done with my hike. It was noon and the temperature was already 90 degrees as I made my way to the primitive canteen where I would stop for lunch, including a couple glasses of the wonderful lemonade that they sell at the canteen. I really did not feel like eating which was a major warning sign to me, but knew that I needed to eat as much as possible given the number of calories that I had already burned over the 6.5 hours that it took to get to Phantom, and that the most difficult part of the hike was still ahead of me. I forced myself to eat the two sandwiches, a bag of corn chips, a banana and some trail mix. After about an hour break I was as ready as I would ever be to conclude this thing, so I finished tending to the blister on my right foot, and set off to complete the final 10 miles.
Leaving Phantom Ranch you go by a corral where they keep the mules that bring supplies and day visitors who ride down from the rim. As I passed the corral I could not help but think about my friend Bill’s suggestion that perhaps I could call an Uber mule to haul me to the south rim if I got tired. I had to smile and walked to the bridge that would take me across the Colorado River to the Bright Angle Trail, the final leg and my way up to the south rim. What I did not realize is that much of the 1.5 mile hike along the Colorado is in sand, which was not terribly welcome at that point in my trek, but I trudged on, stopping twice to dump the sand from my trail shoes.
The climb up Bright Angel Trail is at an average grade of 10 percent. While I was definitely climbing, I knew that it was not even close to a 10 percent grade, which meant that this thing was going to really kick up at some point farther up the trail. One thing that I noted as I walked along was that the scenery was not nearly as striking as what I had seen coming down from the north rim. Beautiful in its own way, but the trail was leading me through a narrow canyon of rock without the open vistas that I had enjoyed coming down into the canyon. The rock was also absorbing the heat of the sun and making sections of the route as if I were walking through a furnace. I continued to walk on hoping that I would see the next water stop at Indian Garden around each successive bend in the trail.
I finally saw a few trees, then a larger group of them on either side of the trail, and then I could hear running water. I had arrived at Indian Garden, the place Native Americans had visited thousands of years ago from south rim to retrieve water. I was pretty well spent at this point and could not remember how much farther it was to the top, but was hoping that it was not much more than three miles. While filling my Camelbak I asked a couple of guys if they knew the distance to the rim. One of them responded: “Four and a half miles.” The first direct punch in the face. Then he countered with the second punch of the combination: “It becomes progressively steeper and is all switchbacks.” My plan was beginning to unravel. And finally the right cross: “It is one bitch of a climb, easily the most difficult part of the entire hike.” A quiet, “damn” was all that I could muster. I was not flat on my back, but the guy in the black bow tie was giving me a standing ten count. So I did the only thing that I could: I ate all three of the energy gel packets, drank as much water as possible, shouldered my pack, and moved on as I still had another two to three hours of climbing ahead of me. Damn.
As soon as I left Indian Garden the terrain changed and the grade became progressively more pronounced. My next stop would be at the rest house three miles from the rim with a waiting Laura another 1.5 miles beyond that. I continued to climb using my hiking poles as much as possible to help propel me up the trail and tried to settle into a pace that could never be comfortable at this juncture, but was at least sustainable. It was now approaching four o’clock and the sun had wonderfully dipped behind a tall ridge off to my right. I shuffled into the Three-Mile Rest House area and only paused to eat a couple handfuls of trail mix before pushing on.
I had planned (there is that word again) to meet Laura at the 1.5 Mile Rest House at around five o’clock, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that target time would come and go before I arrived. It did help knowing that she would be there waiting for me, but what got me over the next 1.5 miles was not thinking about how much in total I had left to do, but rather simply hiking to the end of the current switchback that I was on and then the end of the next one, and so on, and so on, and so on. As I was climbing up a particularly long switchback, I heard someone shout and realized that it was Laura and that she was now only a short distance from me and that I was almost to the rest area 1.5 miles from the rim. It was 5:40 p.m. As welcome as this was, I also realized that I still had another mile and a half to climb before I could call it a day, but the end was within sight.
I was completely soaked in perspiration despite the dry climate and the cooler temperature after the sun disappeared, so I only gave Laura a quick peck, thanked her for coming down to meet me, and then moved to a boulder to sit down. She produced a large bottle of Gatorade which I downed in a number of very long gulps. It was not like I had not drunk a sufficient amount of water during the day, I had actually gone through the equivalent of 18 liters of water using my Camelbak, but it just tasted so good. She then pulled out an Almond Joy and I am sure that my grin went from ear to ear. It was perfect. With the additional sustenance on board, Laura led out and we began the final push to the top, the south rim at an elevation of 7,000 ft.
During that final stretch I did not think about how far I had come (over 23 miles), or how long I had been on the trail (around 13 hours), or what it would be like to finish. Rather, I just focused on Laura dancing up the trail in front of me yelling back occasional words of encouragement like a domestique on a cycling team pacing a team leader, while I wondered if this climb would ever end (I later captured the last four miles of switchbacks and the photos are in the last photo set below.). One step after the next I trudged on attempting to gain as much leverage as possible with my hiking poles and fatigued arms. Finally, I looked up and was upon the shallow tunnel that I knew was very close to the rim. As I went through it I could see people just a bit farther up sitting on rocks next to the trail looking out over the valley and watching the light of sunset cast its warm glow. They looked at me somewhat oddly as I passed by probably wondering how someone who looked as I did was still upright. With a final push I stepped up on the rise next to the trail sign at seven o’clock and stopped. I turned and looked out over the extraordinary canyon that I had just traveled through. My day was done.
Epilogue: The 24-mile hike had taken me right at 13.5 hours (including an hour for lunch and an equal amount of time shooting photos) and was indeed the most difficult single day activity that I have ever attempted. True, riding my bike across the US was overall more difficult, but that spanned a 27-day period. Laura said that when she dropped me off at the trailhead I commented that this hike would probably be easier than I thought it would be. As it turned out, this was a miscalculation of epic proportions. However, over the following two days Laura and I did do about four miles per day along the rim just to stretch out the legs. Health wise, I came through the hike in pretty good shape other than some incredibly sore muscles and a blister that became so bad that my foot swelled up and I had to pay a visit the park medical clinic.
Since the rim to rim hike I’ve had a number of people ask me what will be the next thing, the next challenge. I normally just say that I’m mulling over a few ideas, but have not landed on anything yet. This is true, but there is this one endeavor that has intrigued me for many years. Something that would definitely push me to my red line physically, emotionally and psychologically, and perhaps a bit beyond. Maybe, just maybe, I wonder if I could…
Images from my walk across the Grand Canyon are below. This is a larger photo collection than I would normally include and as you have seen a longer post, but I wanted to provide those interested with a true perspective of how incredible the trail through the canyon really is. And perhaps it is also so that I can be more fully reminded of how truly extraordinary this experience was.
Click on photos to open gallery in Flickr –