Hiking the Grand Canyon, part 2

The Grand Canyon, down to the river and up again in a day

#4 – The hike – part 2 – the ascent

While G and D rested at the sitting area near the campground, W and I went to visit the Phantom Ranch, about 0.5 miles up the trial away from the river.


IMG_1173(Phantom Ranch Canteen – beer no soda)


There we could have had a cold beer if we had been beer drinkers, and if we didn’t mind the rule that they had to be consumed within the canteen building. No cold sodas there though. The cabins and grounds of the Ranch were cute, and the area still remains largely isolated. We made the return trip to meet our resting compatriots in about 30 minutes total, and stayed an additional 30 minutes to eat our lunches. We also refilled our water containers (for this leg I chose to carry 3 quarts) and used the rest rooms. D adjusted his knee brace and the rest of us stripped of more layers of clothing, as the heat was noticeable by now.


The Bright Angel Trail is very well maintained and easy to follow, but it is very long and filled with seemingly endless switchbacks. The hardest part of the trail is the very last 3 miles, so pacing yourself is important.


(G crossing the Silver Bridge)IMG_1182


Leaving the sitting point we crossed the silver bridge to get across the river to the Bright Angel Campground itself, and then turned to follow the river for about 1.5 miles. From here the views of the river are superb, and we could look back to see the black bridge at the bottom of the South Kaibab trail. The edge of the river is filled with small boulders, suggesting that the edge of the river was once high enough to carry them down. So many different ecosystems in this area! Even without any elevation gain during this portion, the hike was tough


IMG_1184(The boulders along the river)


because it’s all sand (the dunes go from the rocks to the boulders lining the river, and the trail goes through the dunes). This was like hiking on the beach, but without the bikinis. The end of this portion is the River Resthouse, which has pit toilets but no water.


The next portion of the trail turns away from the river and begins a long uphill, parts of which are steep. However this section is very green, and has several small streams running over large boulders on their way to the river.


(Turning up the trail)IMG_1207


I climbed out on one to get some good pictures, and only later on the hike did my friends tell me how insane they thought my climb out was. Funny that it didn’t look that dangerous up close; I probably did take more of a chance than I needed to though. It was at this point that we met some trail runners; the majority of them were running from the North Rim to the South rim (they call this R2R, or rim-to-rim), but one group of four was going back to the North rim (R2R2R, running!) I call it insane, but perhaps I was just jealous. It was also along this portion that we started to notice the heat. The weather report later told us that it had gotten up to about 88 degrees, but our first awareness was G starting to get leg cramps. Luckily I had extra potassium with me, and between this and D requesting ibuprofen, I felt like the resident pusher. Better to be prepared though. Only later did we learn that it’s not recommended to ascend this portion during the afternoon because of the heat. I wonder when they would recommend ascending this part. And we had a relatively cool day – some summers it can reach 130 degrees at this stretch.


IMG_1221(The waterfall along the Bright Angel trail)

We had all agreed at the beginning that, though we were all going to be hiking at our own pace, we would not leave anyone behind. This meant more frequent stops for the faster hikers in our group, and eventually it meant pairing up to accompany those who were struggling at any particular portion. We finally reached Indian Gardens with D and W well ahead of G and me. That was predictable because W had been our pace leader and D was especially comfortable going uphill. It seemed as if they were well ahead because they were out of sight for about an hour, but they only arrived about 10 minutes before we did – a testimony to how hard it was to see ahead on that part of the twisting trail. But at the gardens we rested and again refilled our water. I filled 4 quarts for the next leg and we redistributed things from some packs into others to re-divide the weight. G’s cramps were intermittent, but now they were complicated by having one of his socks failing to stay out of his shoe. We had all decided to wear double socks, one man-made and one wool to enhance the wicking of the sweat away from our feet. G’s outer sock kept trying to crawl down his foot into his shoe. Adding to his misery was the strain on his lower calves from the continuous uphill climb (something for which his workouts in the gym couldn’t adequately prepare him), and only his chronic good mood saved his trip.


Leaving Indian Gardens at 2:35


(Indian Gardens rest area)IMG_1226


we wanted to believe that we were almost back to the top, but we still had the toughest part of the climb to go, one that included 5 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. At least the majority of this portion was shaded by the cliffs from the afternoon sun, and it cut down on both our heat-related misery and our water consumption. I actually ended up with 3 full quarts left at the top. Along this stretch we were also leap-frogging at least 3 other hiking groups. We would pass them as they rested, then they would pass us again several hundred yards up the trail. The trail seemed endless, and people really were dragging themselves up the trail. G’s sock never really got better, but after a while he was too tired to complain much.


IMG_1233(G fixes his Devil Sock while W and D look on)


Along this portion were two rest-houses, at 3 miles out and at 1.5 miles out, and two short tunnels. The first tunnel we came to was only 0.75 miles out, but it seemed like 10 more miles.


And then, suddenly, we could see the lodge, grey against the cliffs, still barely visible in the fading light. The finish of the trail is actually a few yards beyond the lodge, and we managed to run the last few steps, finishing at 5:43. Our total time was 11:05 including the hour for lunch, and the total elapsed distance was 16.3 miles.

There were many onlookers at the top, asking how long it took us, but assuming we only went down to Indian Gardens and back.


(The trail up from way down there!)IMG_1244



A few of them actually cheered when we told them we had gone to the river and back. We talked to a few of them, one group from the Basque region of Spain and one mother-daughter pair from Michigan. Then we noticed that all of this talking was causing us to miss the shuttle bus – people at the rim are happy to chat! We were all sore, all tired, but all feeling very accomplished. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but I would encourage others to make sure they are well trained on uphill slopes and not just in the gym. Choosing a cool time or the year was vital, as was choosing good hiking partners.


That night G treated us all to steaks at the same local steakhouse. The World Series game was a blowout that night, and the waitress had run out of the special cheesecake, but we didn’t care.


(Best view of the South Kaibab Trail, looking down from the top!)IMG_1269


We had mastered the Grand Canyon and were the Kings of the World. Not until the next day would the soreness and discolored toenails set in.







(Done, and on our way to dinner! Well, a shower first…)IMG_1311



Hiking the Grand Canyon, part 1

The Grand Canyon, down to the river and up again in a day

#4 – The hike – part 1 – the descent

This two-part post is the final installment of my training to get ready to hike the Grand Canyon down and up in a single day. In the last month D and I did 4 practice hikes together, two of 10 miles (up and down 2.5 miles with repeat) and two of 12 miles (a 3 mile loop of ups and downs, 6 miles of up and down a peak, then repeat of the loop). I did two additional practice hikes of the 10-mile course. I think I’m going to be ready! I wasn’t actually sure about this until about a week prior to the trip. My eating has been good and I made my weight goal. Eating better and losing weight was about becoming stronger, as well as not having to carry any extra weight back up the canyon – my backpack full of water would be enough!


Driving out to the Canyon meant having 3 of us meet the 4th at a pre-determined destination and combining into one car. From Southern California it’s about an 8 hour drive to the canyon on a weekday, so stopping along the way for lunch and gas was required. There is a cute diner in Needles named Juicy’, just before the border, that suited us well for lunch – no one got dysentery so it registered as a win. After lunch it was back on the road – it’s amazing how many things 4 excited guys can find to talk about when being confined to a car for 8 hours. The portion of the drive from Kingman east on the I-40 was pretty desolate, but at the last intersection where the route turns north is a town called Williams, and it’s bigger than it looks on the map. We managed to get our final supplies there. We missed getting to the canyon in time for sunset by about an hour, but skies darkened slowly, so we were able to find our hotel without any problem.


IMG_1060(There they are – the three lug nut studs!)


G and D are baseball fans, and they observed that our hike occurred during the World Series. Watching Game 5 the night before might have stirred some blood, but it was a nice distraction from the day ahead. We managed to eat a small dinner at the local steakhouse because they had the TV with the game on. The waitress there, Jennifer, promised us some special home made vanilla bean cheesecake for dessert if we came back the next night after our hike. Yum! It was pretty chilly out when we left to go back to the hotel, and this was a promise of things to come. This was the beginning of the temperature range at the canyon I had been warned about – hot during the day and cold at night. This trip requires layers of clothing, both in the canyon and at the rim! None of us slept very well the night prior to the hike, probably due to excitement. Oh, and the biker club that pulled into the hotel next door created a background rumble to soothe our nerves. Well, D said he slept well, and he was pretty quiet during the night but for all I know he was just “mostly dead.”


IMG_1077(These signs warning against exactly what we were planning are all over the rim)


The weather report had predicted cool temperatures at the rim during the night and they were right. It was 30 degrees when we got up to drive to the shuttle bus stop; the half of a pumpkin muffin for breakfast didn’t really combat the cold. But the rest of the day the weather would be perfect for this hike. One can’t drive to the trailhead, so taking the shuttle bus is the only way there. Once you enter the park (and pay the park fee), the roads to the shuttle areas are well marked. We parked the car and left the first layer of


(Ooh-Ahh Point, looking out of the isolated butte at sunrise)IMG_1089


clothing we weren’t going to need (gloves and wool hats). There are several bus lines depending on where you want to go; we followed the Orange line to the South Kaibab trailhead. For as early as it was (about 6:00am), the busses were full of other fools, I mean hikers, and we had to wait a bit to get the second bus. The buses came every 20 minutes, so the wait wasn’t long.


By the time we got to the trailhead it had warmed up by about 15 degrees. We set out at 6:38am. The top of the trail was pretty crowded, and it reminded me of the beginning of a race, with everyone trying to find his own pace. One of the early hikers had hiked the canyon multiple times and pointed out some of the more obvious features, and offered to take our pictures as long as we backed up “just one more step to the edge”. We also noticed that everyone had to let their packs settle into place as well, having been adjusted with last-minute additions and subtractions. I decided to bring only 2 quarts of water for the descent (I actually made up my own Gatorade-like mix that included extra sugar, potassium and caffeine), a decision made primarily by my experience with drinking on the practice hike, and the cool temperatures. W took water in bottles as well, while the others took 2-3 quarts in camelback bags. We all ingested a potassium supplement prior to starting in order to ward off cramping. It turned out to be vital, and I was glad to have brought more along as well. Our water rations were a carefully calculated risk – carrying too much would mean being extra tired before the trip back up, and running out of water, especially on a hot day, could mean death. It would not be a good day to die.

IMG_1097(The same butte an hour later, with the trail way down at the bottom of the butte)


The South Kaibab trail is a very steep descent trail the entire way down, but the views of the canyon are spectacular – infinitely better than anything you can see from the rim. The first stop is Ooh-Ahh point, and the view is just that. Well, no, the first stop is to read the first of several warning signs stating the hiking down to the river and back up in a day is strongly discouraged. At least it requires a substantial amount of conditioning beforehand. Continuing on down the steep switchbacks, down, down, down you go until you get to Cedar Ridge rest point at 1.5 miles. Here there are pit toilets but no water or emergency phones. And the service for most cell phones has been lost by now as well – thank goodness the cameras still work! The next portion of the hike is the easiest part of the descent, as there are no switchbacks. At 3 miles from the rim you arrive at Skeleton Point. This is the point recommended by the park service as the maximum for day hikers. If you plan to stop there, at least go on for a few minutes more to get the first view of the river at the bottom.


IMG_1119(Can you say switchbacks?)


The next portion of the trail continues to provide steep switchbacks, intermittent views of the river, and breathtaking views of the canyon reflecting the sunrise colors. The stratifications of the canyon, with layers of reds and whites broken by the greens of shrubs are fabulous. After 1.4 miles we reached Tipoff point, where the South Kaibab trail meets the Tonto Trail. Here we took a break to use the pit toilets and to strip off the long-johns and outer shirts, and to apply more sun block. I ate my first breakfast bar and had a bit to drink despite not being hungry yet.


(Hiding in the tunnel near the river, waiting to surprise our friends)IMG_1155


The next 2.6 miles were very different, having entered the lower canyon, with unusual colors and formations. The descent here was quite steep, and we passed a mule train going the other way near the bottom of this portion. We could see them in the distance ahead as they crossed the first bridge (the black bridge) over the river, but they caught up to us as we were still descending. At this point D started to let us know that his knee was really bothering him, and G walked along slowly with him while W and I hiked on a slightly faster pace. Just before the river bridge is a tunnel, dark enough inside that you can’t see into it from the trail. Once in the tunnel, it’s easy to see both ends and to witness people approaching. W and I decided to surprise the other two with the flashes from our cameras as they approached, but they were so slow getting to the mouth of the tunnel that we gave up. From the tunnel to the rest stop at Bright Angel Campground we were all concerned for D’s knee. But he limped along the now flat portion of the trail by the river, and we got to the sitting area at the campground at 10:38, or exactly 4 hours for the descent.





Thank you Todd Bridges and Shepard Smith

Robin Williams’ apparent suicide provides an opportunity to reduce the stigma of mental health issues

There has been such an outpouring of grief and empathy across the world in the 24 hours since Robin Williams’ apparent suicide was announced by the press. Written articles, blog posts and tweets have been nearly universal in praising his comedic genius, and grieving the loss of such a bright light. Two notable exceptions to this have been tweets by 1980s childhood actor Todd Bridges (who apparently tweeted that William suicide was “a very selfish act,” a tweet he later deleted and for which he later apologized) and a statement by Fox News’ Shepard Smith (who apparently called Williams a “coward” for killing himself, and later apologized to reporters by telephone). These two comments have been vilified by nearly everyone who has been aware of them, and they certainly illustrate how a moment of poor judgment or poor taste can be captured forever by current social media.

There is perhaps a reason that we should be thankful for these two comments, and not simply label them as “moronic” or “unforgivable.” Mr. Bridges and Mr. Smith have taken it upon themselves to personify ignorance of mental health as a serious public health issue. To call someone cowardly or selfish because depression has led them to suicide are profound examples of just how deep the ignorance about mental health goes. Since the only cure for ignorance is education, there is no better time nor any more compelling reason to learn about what brain health and mental function look like when they go magically right or tragically wrong.

The human brain is the single most complex organized structure in the known universe, and yet it is still an organ of the human body. Our brain is composed of roughly 100,000,000,000 neurons, or nerve cells, each of which can communicate with other nerve cells through portals called synapses. Each neuron is capable of producing 10,000 to 50,000 different synapses, communicating with itself or other neurons. In addition, there is a second network of “supporting” cells, referred to collectively as “glial cells,” which can communicate both with one another and with neurons. Estimates put the number of glial cells in the human brain as high as 1 trillion. Given these large numbers of cells, one can calculate the possible number of connections between cells of human brain as being a number greater than the total number of atoms in the entire universe. Of course, not every possible connection between cells is actualized, and the differences between brain connections are theorized to be  largely responsible for the differences between human personalities.

In contrast, the average automobile has between 10,000 and 30,000 total parts, down to the tiniest little screw. We think of these relatively simple machines as needing regular maintenance, and we are not surprised (although often inconvenienced) when they go wrong in a way that requires significant intervention. Why are we still so surprised when such a complex machine as the brain goes wrong, and why do we assume that it should not need regular maintenance? One group of things that happen when something goes wrong in the brain is what we collectively refer to as “mental illness,” but would probably be more accurately described as “brain disease” (to make an analogy with kidney disease, heart disease, etc.). “Brain disease” can alter a person’s perceptions of the world, their sensations, the form and content of their thinking, their emotional states and their very contact with reality. However, while most people know what a flat tire on a car looks like, most people do not know how to recognize or even understand what depression looks like, to cite a very timely example.

Part of the problem is in our language. We use the term “depression” to refer to a melancholic feeling everyone has experienced from time to time. We use the same term to refer to a “brain disease” state of profound medical importance, one in which many centers of the brain shut down or reduce their function; mood, concentration, hope and interest in life plummet; and the very belief that anything at all could help is eliminated. Is it any wonder that someone in the state does not reach out to friends or family? The inability to reach out is part of the disease. The belief that life itself is hopeless and impossible is part of the disease. The belief that suicide is the only realistic option is part of the disease.

To call someone who chooses suicide as a result of depression “cowardly” or “selfish” is akin to calling a paraplegic “weak” for not standing, or possibly to calling a diabetic “selfish” for not eating dessert. The inability to do these things is part of the disease, and we recognize and accept these limitations. We must learn to recognize and accept the limitations imposed by “brain disease” in various states.

Robin Williams’ brain also operated at the other end of the continuum, in a hyper functioning state we call “genius.” As is all too often the case, the cost of genius is dysfunction elsewhere in the brain, but many of us mere mortals experience brain dysfunction from time to time as well. Thank you, Robin, for your comedic genius, and thank you for the opportunity you’ve presented us to learn about brain function and dysfunction. And thank you Misters Bridges and Smith for volunteering to be the poster boys of ignorance about mental health.