Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest Post - Grand Canyon Adventure!

Guest post by Will's better half:

The masses have been clambering for a guest grand canyon blog post, so what can I do but oblige? A year ago, we booked our trip to the grand canyon for spring break, and in a year-long effort, Will convinced me that we should do a hike from the rim to the river and back one of the days we were there. I honestly didn't think too much of it until about a week before we left. I asked Will what we were planning on doing again, and then made my first mistake of googling the hike he was planning on dragging me on. Almost all results quite clearly state that one should NEVER try to complete our planned hike in one day under the high risk of death, injury, or sheer embarrassment of having to be one of the hundreds evacuated from the canyon each year.

After some discussion and further research, Will convinced me that I was in shape enough to complete this hike especially since it was April and the highs at the bottom of the canyon would be in the 80s instead of over 100 degrees. I also lobbied for hiking down the South Kaibab trail, but back up the Bright Angel Trail in order to have a little more reasonable ascent with a water stop on the way up. On Thursday, Will ran the South Kaibab trail to scope it out, and then we started preparing for our hike when he returned from his run. I asked our concierge at El Tovar about doing the hike and how much water to bring. He lived down at Phantom Ranch for 10 years, and he said this was a good time of year to do the hike and that 3 liters of water each would be plenty. That helped put my mind at ease a little more. And hey, if I got too tired, I figured I'd just make Will piggy-back me out of the canyon. We went to the store and bought a bag of trail mix, some clif bars, nuun for our water bottles, and the makings for pb & j (this was my excellent idea). We also rented trekking poles for me from the main store, which turned out to be very helpful. Thursday night, we packed up all our food, filled up our camelbaks, and tried to get to sleep early. In my camelbak, I had 3 liters of water, 3 clif bars, a first aid kit, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, a pb & j, a hat, and my trekking poles. Will had 2 liters of water, a few clif bars, 2 pbjs, trail mix in his cargo pocket, 2 handhelds with nuun, and he carried my camera bag. We were prepared!

I had a hard time sleeping because I was a little nervous, and Will had a hard time sleeping because I think the Thursday run took it out of him, though he wouldn't admit that to me until later. We woke up at 4:30 or so, drove to the trailhead, and got going at about 5:45. Friday night was a full moon, so even before the sunrise the moon completely lit up the canyon. We had 2 headlamps, but we decided to leave one behind because it was so bright. We never even ended up using the headlamp, but figured it would be good to have just in case our hike went past dark.

It was about 30 degrees when we started, and it was very windy. It was really windy on Thursday, but it was an east-west wind so as soon as Will got down into the canyon he said it was calm. Unfortunately for us on Friday, it was a wind from the North, so it was pretty windy almost all the way down. We parked about a mile from the actual trailhead, so we started out with a nice flat mile along the rim. We got to the start of the South Kaibab trail (pictured), where the trailhead sign once again warns us against trying this hike in a day. The trail was really steep, but it is very well maintained, so with my hiking shoes I never felt like it was slippery. It was much less technical than the hikes we've done in the Shenandoahs, so I gained a little confidence. On the way down for the first couple miles or so, the sun was rising, and every step we took the canyon changed color. It was truly amazing to see the light start to hit more and more of the canyon. At first everything looked really red, and then for a few moments during sunrise the rocks would look fire-orange. I started to get hungry for my breakfast clif bar pretty much immediately, but Will was a little chilly (he has so little insulation), so we powered on until the sun rose a little to warm us up and the wind died down.

The Kaibab trail has tons of steep switchbacks, and I was happy I was going down those instead of up. On our way down, a few runners passed by, and mule trains passed on their way up, but other than that the trail was fairly empty. I was really surprised by how many spring flowers we saw along the rocky, dry, red trail. There were lots of little wildflowers, but I think the most beautiful were the pink cactus flowers that we saw every once in a while.

At tip off point, there were bathrooms, and we met a few cowboys riding up giving their mules a break. The vista from this point was pretty incredible - even the panoramic shot doesn't quite do it justice. Looking up, I could barely see the rim, and looking down I realized how much further there was to go. Shortly after tip off point, we got our first view of the Colorado river. As we started to descend the last main set of switchbacks, the bridge across the river came into view.

In this photo, you can see the river and the bridge at the very bottom of the switchbacks.

When we got to the river, I was still feeling great. It was about 9am, and we made good time. I was definitely happy to start going up instead of anymore down, but I was feeling confident. We crossed the river across a very rickety seeming bridge, and hiked along the river towards Bright Angel Camp ground. Will asked me if I wanted to see Phantom Ranch, which would have added a mile or so. I of course felt fine, but with concern for my hiking partner, I decided to forego the extra mile.

I was really surprised at the bottom of the canyon how lush and green it was. There were all sorts of plants, and lots of lizards! While observing some lizards, we saw them do lizard push-ups. I've seen lizards puff themselves up before, but these guys seemed like they were just trying to rub in how great they feel compared to the tired hikers. We took a short break, filled up our water at Bright Angel Campground, ate a quick snack, and then continued on. We crossed another suspension bridge, but this one didn't have wood on the bottom, so you could see straight down through the rickety grates. I'm not typically scared of heights, but the view down through the bridge at the rushing Colorado river was a little head-spinning. At the bottom of the canyon, it was getting a bit warmer, so I took off my jacket. The layers I ended up wearing were perfect.

The trail winds along the river for about a mile and a half. It was really nice to be on flat terrain for a while, but by the end Will and I started wondering when we'd start hiking up. I knew I had to start going up sometime, so I really just would have preferred to start it out right away! When we got to the river resthouse, I broke out the trekking poles, which made carrying my camera much more difficult. As a result, we ended up taking many fewer photos on the way up - never fear though, we still took plenty. I needed every break I could take!

I think my favorite and most surprising part of the hike was the part from the river resthouse to Indian Garden campground. The Bright Angel trail was a totally different sort of trail compared to Kaibab. It was much more shaded and enclosed. Most of the time, the trail runs by a creek with lots of little waterfalls; there were multiple creek crossings with some rock hopping. There were lots of flowers, flowering trees, squirrels, lizards, and all sorts of wildlife. Will was in heaven; it was fun to experience Bright Angel trail together for the first time since Will had only run the Kaibab on Thursday.

About a half mile before Indian Garden, we stopped to eat our pb & j lunch and trail mix. I've never had such divine cuisine. The squirrels apparently agreed, as there was one little squirrel who kept inching towards us hoping for crumbs.

At Indian Garden, the trail started to get much more crowded. There's a place with water and lots of benches, and there were quite a few hikers resting, eating and moleskinning their blisters. I felt very lucky at that moment that I was having absolutely no issues with my shoes or socks, other than the fact that my shoes were layered with a thick red dust (they had been such a pretty gray and blue!). Around Indian Garden is about the first time I started feeling a little tired. My legs were definitely speaking to me, but I was hydrated and eating tons, so I felt good otherwise. From Indian Garden on, I felt that I just HAD to stop to enjoy the view quite a bit more than I did before. I think I must have said "this is so beautiful" a few hundred times, but it really was! Every switchback was a little bit of a different view.

So up we continued from Indian Garden. From Indian Garden up, we passed countless totally unprepared hikers. Families with no water, tennis shoes, etc. It made me thankful that we were so prepared. I did not envy their trek back up to the top! We were the bearer of bad news to most folks from about 3 mile point and up. Many asked us how far to the river, and we had to come up with a way to nicely tell them that it was already the afternoon, and it was a LONG way down and up again. In the next picture, the really small person is me. Will was taking pictures while I tried to leave him in the dust :)

After we got to the 1.5 mile resthouse, I really felt like we were almost there. I was really tired, but the end (top) was in sight. In the last half mile or so, I just decided it was probably best to get it over with, and I think my last bit of adrenaline kicked in, so I went pretty much straight up without too much break at the end. I had wanted to finish by 4pm, but then when it looked like 3pm was in sight, we were aiming for that. We got to the trailhead at 2:57 pm! I was very proud, and made sure to point out the part on the sign that warned against the very hike we had just completed. Since I am usually such a rule-follower, this was really quite the personal accomplishment for me.

When we finished, we asked a nice couple to take our picture, and then we celebrated by eating our last pb & j on a bench overlooking the rim. We walked back to El Tovar, and I promptly took a nap.

They say that once people hike the grand canyon, you'll either want to come back or never want to do it again. I am very happy to say that I'm in the former category (but don't tell the blog owner this or it may start to give him ideas); I am really looking forward to more hiking on our vacations this year!



Will said...

Better half is a significant understatement!

Jen has proven herself a better blogger, better photographer, and more naturally talented athlete than me.

I had a ton of fun doing this hike with Jen, and it was a very memorable experience. I'm pumped for Machu Picchu and seeing more of Jen's hiking prowess!

Laura said...

great post jen! you are an excellent blogger :) and you are such a trooper! i can't believe you did this without really preparing for it, even mentally, until the week before. i was exhausted after just hiking in a rainforest for a couple hours. you can TOTALLY run a marathon some day!!

Will said...

Jen could totally run a marathon. But if she did, then it would be harder for her to make fun of me for my marathon running. Can't have that ...