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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.