For years, I’ve been a fan of mountaineering stories. I’ve relished the tales of extreme challenge, powerful drive, and supernatural scenery in “Annapurna”, “Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine”, “High Exposure”, and “Conquistadors of the Useless”. Eventually I did take a glacier skills course, and I summited a couple (as in two, out of the five attempted) peaks, both in the North Cascades. I have not experienced what appears to be common in this genre: mountaineers holed up in tiny, stinky tents for days, waiting for the weather (usually a blizzard) to improve, so that they can proceed safely.
I did get a small taste of it last week, while hiking out of the Grand Canyon, although the thermometer and specific muscles used were doing something a little differently than they would have, if snow were involved. Full disclosure: this was one downright pleasurable and spacious wait. The self-portrait above was taken on hour four or so of our 6-hour layover in the shade, during our return ascent out of the Grand Canyon. It’s surprising how much entertainment a compact camera can provide, after meals (2), cards, a cool creek, socializing with everyone who came by, and attempts at dozing have already happened. For six hours, we waited for the sun to pass completely over the Canyon, so that we could finish the hike in the comfort and safety of shade.
Our Trip, in Brief
Main Plan, Day 1: Start at North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at elevation 8,241 feet and temperature around 70˚ F. Hike down the North Kaibab Trail for seven miles, and camp at Cottonwood campground, elevation 4,500. Temperature at arrival: low 90’s.
Day 2: Hike down another seven miles, just past Phantom Ranch, and camp at Bright Angel campground. Elevation: 2,460. Temperature at arrival: over 100˚.
Day 3: Hike all the way out, the way we came. 14 miles, almost 6,000 feet up. Temperature at start: at least 90˚, maybe 100˚. Temperature at arrival at top: 69˚.
The mission above was accomplished, along with a few low-intensity days in Zion National Park, Flagstaff, and Phoenix added in for prep and recuperation. Fun, challenge, sun, wildlife were all awesome. Props to Flagstaff for the great outdoor gear stores, beer, wine, and food. I still love Beaver Street Brewing. My trip photos are here .
The Flavorful Morsels
Sleeping at Phantom Ranch
Or rather, at Bright Angel Campground. Either way: not a lot of sleep happened, but our 17-hour stay at the bottom of the canyon was truly surreal, in any sense of that word. Elements of the uncomfortable included: walking WAY too far in cheap flip-flops, in terrain that included such abrasives as heat, sand, prickly-bear spines, and a hot but still clean blister; nighttime heat so high that my body refused to sweat, and cruelly steep steps into the cantina (where cool air, lemonade, and chairs with backs awaited). Elements of the glorious, however, included Steve’s backflip into Bright Angel Creek (the rest of us were content to just sit right down in it, then later lay back); the aforementioned and icy lemonade; gazing down at the Colorado River, from the Silver Bridge (4 days prior, we stepped into it, at Lees Ferry); using the bear box as an ottoman at camp; and the hot egg-and-pancake breakfast that we got at the cantina, just before departing at 5:30, our last morning.
The BoxAfter our ascent, we met up with Laura’s parents, who were touring the southwest, as well. They asked me what my favorite part of the trip was, and at that point, what I thought of was the reedy refrigerator we’d walked through, a few miles up from Phantom Ranch, on our return ascent. It’s a slot canyon called The Box: a relatively flat area that is actually swampy in parts – I think there were cattails and I know there were frogs – and walking through it felt like walking into a refrigerated, oddly moist room. Screw the hydraulic misters at the Phoenix Farmer’s Market: these steps were heaven. The Box is actually larger than just the cool part – and I also loved the other part. It had a very gradual incline, so our calves got a break, but it was a cliffside trail that just kept winding around corners, and each time, revealing a new, blindingly tall vista, more yards of river, and every time but one, no Phantom Ranch.
On the very first part of our trip and descent, we passed several groups of travelers on mules. Being the horse-camp girl that I am, I love every single possible interaction or sight of a horse or horse-type animal, so I loved even having to step aside to let them pass. However, a trainee and his rider/trainer approached us at one point, and we got to meet Eli, the Pack Mule Trainee. Seeing the rider was a pretty awesome Canyon experience, too – over his jeans were cow-hide chaps, he had a shovel and axe slung over his shoulder, and he very charmingly asked us to interact with Eli. These mules, every single one of them we saw, including the ones in the holding pen at Phantom Ranch, were beautiful creatures. And huge! They defied the stereotype of beat-up, surly, smelly farm implements – and I’ve known mules who fit that description. Even I am wary of standing anywhere near the hindquarters of a beast with kicking muscles that big, but these animals were unflappable. The edge of the trail – 1.5 feet away, at most – was easily far enough from those hooves.
Mike Arrived Via Ark
July is smack in the middle of monsoon season in Arizona. Fortunately, it only rained on the evening before we headed down into the Canyon. And boy, did it! We had just set up our new ultralight tents, and put some gear into them, when suddenly, some rain came. We threw the remainder of our gear into the truck, and headed for the lodge. On our way, we got pelted with hail and torrential rain – enough rain to make us worry about the tents, but also enough rain that I feared that handling the tents would just get everything wetter. So, we kept on our way to the lodge. Mike dropped us off and went to park the car, and we hoped that he’d find an umbrella tucked into the truck somewhere, as the downpour became even more powerful. Alas, about ten minutes later, a huge black mountain-limousine of an SUV rolled up, and he stepped out. A friendly Texan driver headed our way from the parking lot had offered the rockstar a ride. Later, we returned to tents that had weathered the storm very well.
We did it! And followed our plan (as detailed on our backcountry permit, deftly procured by Mike, earlier this year) almost perfectly. We arrived a little later back at the North Rim, due to our decision to hike from 5:30-10am then from 4-8:30pm, rather than all as one straight hike up to the top. There were no serious wounds: just a few blisters and sore calves for everyone. Tons of smiles, laughs, photos, and stories.
Things that made this trip great
- My husband
- My brother Mike and sister-in-law Laura
- All the planning that Mike & Laura did, in preparation for this trip. Plus freeze-dried meals.
- The Grand Canyon. Plus Zion National Park and Flagstaff.
- After the backpacking: a one-night stay each, at a North Rim Lodge cabin, and at Zion Lodge. Mmm, pillows.
- Hikernut’s Grand Canyon Companion
- The Hippy Bars I made for the trip
- The Cambelbak hydration fizzy tabs were my fave electrolyte/flavor supplement. We also used Nuun tabs and Gatorade packets.
- Ribbon Falls: A short side trip that was a great idea.
- Big Agnes Copper Spur tent, a splurge that I picked up at the Midwest Mountaineering Spring Expo (at least it was at a sale price).This was worth way more than its 3 pounds-and-12 ounces weight in gold, as it took up so little space in our backpacks, and its dome was all mesh. This didn’t seem to help much with cooling, while at Phantom Ranch, but at least we could see the stars while we weren’t sleeping.
- My Black Diamond Speed 28 backpack. It’s a great size, is lightweight, and it’s comfortable. It continues to be one of the few good things that came out of the aforementioned mountaineering class (it was a recommended purchase, then).
- My glutes. Seriously: the half-marathon training, including Melissa’s Boot Camps and Drew’s Kettlebells classes, helped me almost sail through this hike. Curious about the crazed elevation changes? Here’s an illustration.
- The amphibians. The reptiles were pretty nifty, too. In my efforts to keep my eyes peeled for a rattlesnake, during my turn as lead hiker on the last day, I counted 23 lizards. Steve spotted the only rattler, and we were safely distant from it, as it crossed the trail (in the Box).
- The creeks, Roaring Springs and Bright Angel, to which we had ample access, alongside the lower part of trail. Never did dipping my toes (or whole body) into cool rippling waters feel so incredibly good. However: getting up out of that water with cold wet clothes almost felt even better, in that heat.
- So many colorful (and sometimes big) flowers in July!
- Gambel oaks. The leaves are so small and adorably wobbly-edged.
- The farmer’s markets in Flagstaff and Phoenix. We sampled some great za’atar bread, fudge, and English toffee.
- A great Café Mexicano & breakfast at Macy’s in Flagstaff.
- A Tasty Thai lunch of Geang Kari at Dara Thai in Flagstaff.
- Starbuck’s Via instant coffee packets. Instant has come a long way, and it was nice to not worry about packing out messy used coffee grounds.
- Games. And this is despite the fact that Mike still beats me, consistently. He may or may not cheat. On this trip we played Sorry!, Yahtzee (both while sipping wine at Vino Loco), Hearts, and Cribbage. Plus a slow-witted (read: very tired) round of Bananagrams, in the Phantom Ranch cantina. These games passed the time, taking our attention away from the heat, and were a great way to spend time with family, two of whom I see very rarely.
- Additional creatures. Which included: silver fox, ring-tailed fox, mice, black caterpillars, purple dragonflies, a hepatic tanager, a raven, canyon wrens, mule deer, and a grasshopper. Plus: bighorn sheep, beetles, Kaibab squirrels, and chipmunks.
- Backcountry campgrounds with toilets. Yay! Last time I was in the Canyon, we had to pack out EVERYTHING. That was money well-spent. Thank you, National Park Service.
- A thank you also to the NPS for the rangers who were there during our visit. They were helpful, friendly, and added greatly to our experience.