Testing the Grand Canyon
When I boarded the plane two years ago from Phoenix to Detroit, I told myself that I would come back to conquer the Canyon again, because my May 2003 attempt with 5 others was sort of a “mission unaccomplished”. I tried to do a rim-rim-rim in two days and that being my first time ever in the Canyon, I realized I was not as trained as I should have been. The end result – I hiked about 26 miles after starting at the South rim only to end up there 26 hours later and after an unplanned sleep-over in the middle of nowhere. In the process, I learned a few lessons too.
The 2005 Canyon hike…
We landed at Phoenix on May 19, 2005 at about 8:30 AM local time. By the time we picked our minivan it was almost 10:30 AM. By the time we hit I-10 W it was past Noon. We reached Tusayan at about 4:30 PM that evening and by the time we checked in to our Holiday Express rooms, it was almost 5 PM. After making the family comfortably settled, my wife and I decided to drive to the park to do a quick dry run for our next morning’s rigor. Even though I had realized that I had forgotten to pack my knee band to give support to my ski-injured right knee, I was hopeful I would be able to get something in the general stores near the village. What a surprise! I couldn’t find any after an hour long search. So, I ended up shopping for a few more calorific items to fill my back pack. Some peanuts, some dates, some pretzel bits, some Triscuits, trail mix, apples, some Gatorade and 2 liters of water in pouches – I was all set for my Friday diet.
I called it a night at around 9:30 PM after washing the pasta, pizza, salad dinner I had earlier with a few glasses of water. Boy could I sleep! Because I had planned on leaving the hotel at 3 AM, as I wanted to reach the North rim by 5:30 PM in order to catch the Trans Canyon shuttle (I got lucky that day as they had an unscheduled one going in the evening) from the North rim which was scheduled to leave at 6:30 PM, I kept twisting and turning, till I saw the clock saying 2:30 AM.
May 20, 2005
At 3:05 AM, my wife, my father, father-in-law and my 1 year old son (who by the way woke up as per his Detroit clock) were all strapped-up, in the van and we were ready to go. When we reached the Yaki point, driving around the barricaded road leading us up there, it was 3:40 AM. I had my wife take a quick snap of mine as I adjusted my hiking pole – phew! Why did I have to do that? I broke it – or at least a part of it. They left at around 3:45 AM and there I was in absolute darkness literally not knowing where to go. My head lamp was bright enough but not enough to tell me where the trail head was. After a few nerve-wracking moments, I stumbled upon the trail head sign and it was 3:50 AM.
3:45 AM – At the South Rim Trail head
The first few minutes of my descent down the South Kaibab trail were terrible as I was finding it hard to walk in dark, even though my head lamp was guiding me enough. I did not need the pole for my descent so I had folded it and had been carrying it in my arm. There were a couple of occasions when I stepped over some rocks and skidded only to balance myself in the last second by resting my palm. At about 4:40 AM or so, I saw the first co-hiker of the day – the man was planning to do a rim-rim-rim in a day – of course it goes without saying, he was jogging the trail.
The Black Bridge
Once I saw the sun’s rays break through the dark clouds, the beauty of the tall and naked mountains around me hit me hard. But unfortunately I was a man on mission which means I had no time to enjoy that beauty. My descent from that point on was consistent, healthy and to my own surprise, amazingly quick. Before I knew, I went past the Skeleton point and the Tonto Trail crossing. I reached the Phantom Ranch at about 6:35 AM. This was much sooner than what I had in my mind. I knew I could go down this trail real fast as it is pretty steep and takes you down from 7250 ft. to 2200 ft. (at the river) in a matter of about 8 miles. As I reached the canteen area, I decided to soak my face, feet and head with some cold water. Because of my running down the trail for some stretches, I had already developed some blisters on my feet. The cold water on my feet did help me and they felt better, albeit momentarily. I snacked on some sodium rich food and then on some energy bars. I was hoping the canteen would have something more solid which I could take for the rest of my hike. Unlucky or Ignorant was I. I couldn’t have gotten anything there till it was 8 AM. So I decided to ditch that good food urge and started at 7:05 AM from the ranch towards the North Kaibab trail.
There were a few more hikers walking up the trail and I knew everyone was trying to beat the sun at the canyon. The hike up to Cottonwood is an ascent, alright, but the way trail goes along the creek, it makes you feel that it is not all that bad. Deceiving!
A few miles away from Cottonwood
I reached the Cottonwood camping area at about 10:35 AM. This was way ahead of my planned schedule. I was impressing myself again. I reenergized myself with some energy bars and some pretzel bits along with some trail mix. I refilled all my water containers as I exchanged pleasantries with some hikers going the other way. At 11:00 AM, I knew I had the toughest 7 miles of my life to walk.
The ascent from Cottonwood is bad. As you hike higher, the trail inclination just gets worse and the hike becomes exponentially difficult. I cannot recall any reasonable stretch in this trail that can be considered easy. The North Kaibab trail is about 15 miles on the whole (including some plane canyon walk). In these 15 miles, you go from 2200 ft. to 8250 ft. But the last 3.5 miles or so is the worst as you got to climb almost 4000 ft.
I had slowed down considerably at this point. When I left Cottonwood, I was hoping I would be able to make it to the top by 4:45 PM or so. But as the climb progressed, I had to revise my estimate a few times. I was able to reach the Roaring Springs by 12:55 PM. A few hikers who were attempting a South-North rim-rim hike in a day, like me, went past me. As far as I know, they all must have started after I did. But I had no time for demoralizing myself with such thoughts. My goal was to make it to the top before 6 PM.
A gorgeous view of the Roaring Springs
When I reached the Supai tunnel, the last water stop along the way, I had been walking in shade for more than an hour and the rest of the hike only looked cooler. It was 4:45 PM and I was ready to roll the last 2 miles. At some point, I felt like I had a second wind. The quadriceps in both my legs which had probably been severely punished till that point and were giving me quite a bit of an agony during real steep climbs, suddenly seemed to have given up their revenge act. I was ascending at a faster pace. I now knew I had only less than a mile left. But it was almost 6 PM. I had started making fall-back plans. When I was about 500 ft. way from the destination, I conversed with a gentleman who was kind enough to offer me a ride from the trail head to the lodge.
Finally, at 6:20 PM, after 14 ½ hours of hiking, I did make it to the North rim. I had a couple of pictures of myself taken right in front of the landmark at the North Rim, before I got my ride to the lodge. There, the Trans Canyon shuttle driver was another nice person who was waiting for me for those few extra minutes, that I had delayed her. After desperately and frantically trying to reach my wife to let her know that I did make it to the North, so that she would not start driving, I just managed to leave some voice messages.
“Yes. I made it!!”
The North Rim Trail head
The shuttle dropped me at the hotel lobby at 11:55 PM. My wife was happy to see me in one piece and I was happy and thankful for all the courage & support she showed.
My legs were sore beyond words. I needed a hot water bath and that’s what I had before I hit the sack that night.
Today is May 22, 2005. My thighs and calves are still terribly sore. But all good pain. After all, I proved to myself that I could challenge myself and take upon that challenge successfully.
I made it!!! Wooohooo…
South Rim – 3:50 AM
Skeleton Point – 5:05 AM
Phantom Ranch – 6:35 AM to 7:05 AM
Ribbon Falls Diversion – 10:00 AM
Cottonwood – 10:35 AM to 11 AM
Roaring Springs view/diversion – 12:55 PM
Supai Tunnel – 4:35 PM – 4:45 PM
North Rim – 6:20 PM