Grand Canyon Report
Since I completed my Camino walk a year ago, I have remained in contact with Micki, a wonderful soul I met on that journey. As we walked together, day after day on that trip, she listened to my story about the loss of Sam and helped me explore ways to get through it. Her deep faith and keen insights were immeasurably helpful to me. When we parted in Santiago, we knew we would see each other again. A few months ago, when she invited me to join a group of women to hike the Grand Canyon, there was only one possible answer. Yes!
We departed on May 19 for a four-day trip.
We departed on May 19 for a four-day trip.Our group was made up of seven women, four from Arizona, two from Kentucky and me. The Arizona ladies were part of a group of avid mountain bikers and hikers, who frequently scale peaks over 10,000 feet. The rest of us knew we would have a huge challenge to keep up with their energy. Ages of the group ranged from 51 to 61. I was, of course at the high end of the range. I had walked the Camino, hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand, but never done anything as vertical and challenging as the Grand Canyon. On my prior treks, I had carried a 20-pound pack. This time, we would be camping, so I needed a big pack. Mine ended up at 32 pounds, including food and water. A beast on my back! I trained as well as I could and then plunged in.
Our original plan was to apply for a permit for three campsites inside the Canyon. The lottery did not go our way, so we decided instead to book a campground on the Canyon rim, and hope for last minute walk-up backcountry permits to camp down in the Canyon. They’re hard to come by, especially with a group of 7. This would require coveted large group campsites, of which there were only 1 or 2 at each campground. The odds were not in our favor. The out of state ladies were schooled on the perils of hiking in extreme heat, with maximum temperatures of 110 degrees or more.
As the trip date arrived, so did a freak cold weather system. The shorts and tank tops we had packed were swapped for pants, rain gear, down coats, beanies and gloves. With the crazy, winter-like weather came campground cancellations and, all of a sudden, we had permits for 7 adventurous ladies to backpack and spend 2 nights down in the Grand Canyon!
Our first night
Our first nightwas spent on the South Rim, where we huddled around a fire, as snow fell (on May 19th, mind you). Our summer weight sleeping bags proved inadequate in the 30-degree temps. After a night clenched with cold and zero sleep, we departed the rim in pounding hail. Every one of us was questioning our judgment in pushing forward, but down we went into a Canyon that was completely socked in. The magnificent views we had expected were nowhere to be seen.
Our descent on the South Kaibab Trail, from rim to river was 7.5 miles, with an elevation change of 4,700 feet. We began in head to toe rain gear over down coats, wool shirts and everything else warm we had. As the precip stopped and our bodies warmed, we removed layers, each time going through the difficult process of taking our packs off and then on again. The initial cloud cover gradually dissolved into a bright sunny day and the Canyon revealed itself. Layers of multicolored rock with dramatic buttes carved by eons of water and wind fascinated me.
As the hours passed and I focused on my footing, instead of the scenery, I found the descent to be incredibly difficult. The trail was in good condition, but had endless steps and switchbacks. My pack’s weight caused severe hip and lower back pain. Near the end of the six-hour hike down, my hip flexors rebelled and I found I couldn’t raise my knees more than a few inches. My strides were shortened to less than a foot. I shuffled, not marched, into our destination for the day, Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River.
Our camping spot, at the Bright Angel Campground, was heavenly. We were assigned a covered stone shed, with 3 concrete floored stalls (perhaps a former mule shed). One of our group opted for a real bed in the Phantom Ranch bunkhouse, so we set up 6 tiny tents in a row in our open shed next to a rolling creek.
To celebrate our success, we hobbled to the Phantom Ranch Cantina for glasses of wine (transported down by mule train) and a toast.
Since campfires are not allowed in the Canyon, I used a JetBoil to heat water for some dehydrated mushroom risotto. It was terrible, but I ate the whole thing. I needed fuel and couldn’t be choosy. Here’s Jane, “enjoying” her reconstituted chicken and dumplings. Nothing says comfort like eating right of the bag.
That night’s temps bottomed our around 50. I slept for 10 hours, snug and warm in my stall.
We all awoke refreshed. I described this as the Camino Miracle, where you go to bed in pain and wake up as good as new. In this case, almost as good. Everyone was stiff and limping a bit. Nevertheless, we shouldered our packs and began our ascent. This time, on the Bright Angel Trail. Our destination for the day was the Indian Garden Campground, about 5 miles away and 1,254 feet up. I knew this would be my easiest hiking day. As we crossed the Colorado River on a cable bridge, we watched a helicopter fly into the Canyon, zooming precariously close to the Canyon walls. It didn’t land, just seemed to be practicing its swooping and dipping maneuvers. That would have been one exhilarating ride.
We each hiked at our own pace, often walking in groups, sometimes alone. I enjoy hiking by myself. If someone is with me, I can feel rushed and am not careful about my footing. Alone, I walk at a natural pace and stop when it feels right for me. I rest, enjoy the scenery and take pictures. It’s a good thing. So, there I was, walking solo on a sandy portion of the trail, when I looked ahead and saw a small mule deer coming straight down the trail toward me. We made eye contact, briefly, then he sprinted off. That was my Sam sighting. I knew he’d be on the trail with me. He always is.
Minutes later, with no apparent tripping hazard, I found myself flying through the air, ending in a face plant on the trail. (Perhaps the mule deer/Sam decided I was feeling a little too confident.) Since I was hiking with sticks, I couldn’t catch myself with my hands; instead, I took it on the chin.
I sat stunned on the trail, trying to figure out what had happened. Blood was dripping from my lip, down my chin. Since I couldn’t see it, I had no idea how bad it was. I stood, pulled my buff up over my chin to soak up the blood and got moving again, slightly shaken. I passed a dozen people on their way down as I made my way toward Indian Garden. Obviously, I was bleeding. My buff was soaked, my hands were covered in it. Yet, no one stopped to ask if I was okay. That never would have happened on the Camino.
I crept into the campground, determined to find a water source to wash so I wouldn’t show up to my friends as a bloody mess. Once I thought I was relatively clean, though still weeping blood, I sauntered into the campground and showed my wounds. Needless to say, I was given a careful looking over. We couldn’t understand why blood kept leaking out of a cut in my lower lip. Michelle, a retired police officer, with plenty of medical training and her own history of mountain bike injuries, examined me carefully and determined that I had bitten all the way through my lower lip. Really. After applying pressure and swishing part of an airline bottle of whiskey in my mouth, I was bandaged by 6 women in headlamps, from a collection of first aid kits. I have never felt so cared for.
Since the day’s walk had been relatively short, we decided to add 4 miles, with a sunset/dinner stroll to Plateau Point. I was game, especially since the walk would be done without backpacks. The trail was flat and edged with beautiful, blooming prickly pears.
Of course, the way my day was going, a jacket tied around my waist brushed against the prickers, without my knowledge. Next thing I knew, the spines were imbedded in my pants, and then, in my leg. Quite an unpleasant introduction to the prickly pear. Plateau Point was, however, amazing. On this magnificent freestanding stack of rock, we gazed down at the Colorado River, where we had begun our day.
We made dinner nearby, hoping for a sunset that never came. One more score for the uncooperative climate on this trip.
That night, I knew I would have trouble sleeping from the moment I got into my tent. The ground had looked flat when I set up, but I spent the night sliding sideways and down into the corner. It was too dark to re-stake it, so I resigned myself to a poor night’s rest. Rookie camper mistake.
On our final day, climbing from Indian Garden to the Bright Angel Trailhead at the rim was 4.5 miles and 3,060 feet up. It presented a serious cardio challenge, with too many steps and switchbacks to count. I knew I would be slow, but never doubted that I would make it to the top. The Camino had taught me much about persistence. My strategy was frequent stops, just to lean against a rock and catch my breath. As I approached the rim, climbing Heartbreak HilI, the distances between stops became shorter and shorter, but I got there. I know it may be hard to believe, but I definitely preferred the uphill to the down. I shared this challenging day with Cathy, one of the Kentucky ladies. We were well matched in our pace and enjoyed each other’s company thoroughly. In the toughest moments, hiking alone will not cut it. We were grateful for overcast conditions. The climb would have been much harder in bright sun and high heat. To the contrary, as we approached the rim, it began hailing…again! I arrived at Bright Angel Lodge cold and wet, but feeling triumphant.
On my way up, I crossed paths with two of our fastest hikers, who had reached the top, dropped their packs, and returned 2 miles down the trail to help a struggling hiker at the back of our group. They shouldered her pack for the rest of the climb, so that she could finish on her own. Her joyful face at the top was evidence that great things are within us all, sometimes, with a little help from our friends.
What an amazing time we had getting to know each other and ourselves as we hiked among some of nature’s most stunning scenery. I loved this trip. I experienced an injury and returned home with bronchitis. I doubt I will ever do it again. But the images, the comradery, and the triumph over adversity will be etched forever in my mind. Oh, the crazy adventures Sam sends me on! I can’t wait to see what’s next.