Last week I had a chance to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. What follows is a harrowing tale of danger, mistrust, greed, and treasure.
How it started
This all started shortly after Christmas when my friend Mike Anello (from DrupalEasy) reached out to me to replace a friend who had dropped from the previously planned trip. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I was pretty sure the answer was going to be yes.
The plan was to hike down the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and to the Phantom Ranch, which would provide bunk beds, breakfast, and dinner. We’d stay for two nights. The day after arriving, we’d go on a 14 miles (22km) hike to Ribbon Falls, and then on the following day, we’d trudge ourselves back out of the canyon.
The hike down and up was in the neighborhood of 15 miles (24km) and has about 4,800 feet (1,460m) in elevation. This is about four Empire State Buildings!
Gearing up and training
I knew this was going to kick my ass in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I’m fairly out of shape, and I also live at sea level, while the rim of the canyon is about 7,000 ft (2,000m) above that.
We don’t have mountains in Florida, but we do have stadiums. In Gainesville, the University of Florida keeps the 93,000 capacity Ben Hill Griffin Stadium open to the public for workouts. That’s where I started.
I also went to REI and became their best customer. I purchased new hiking shoes (my previous ones gave me blisters), a new backpack, microspikes, hiking pants, a “shell” (waterproof jacket to keep rain off), etc.
I trained in my new shoes so they could break in as quickly as possible. When the stadium wasn’t open (due to holidays), I started running around my neighborhood.
When the date approached, I was still woefully unprepared. I wasn’t able to train the whole time due to a bad cold, and I was still struggling to do more than 4-5 runs up and down the stadium.
Luckily, a couple other people on the trip were sending down some of their heavier gear on a mule. I did the same, which substantially lightened my load. At this point, my backpack would only be full of stuff I needed for the actual hike.
Getting to the Canyon
I arrived in Phoenix around 10:30 am on a Tuesday, and was subsequently picked up by Mike and his friends. Everyone was super nice and excited! The drive to the canyon from Phoenix was estimated to be about 4 hours (including stopping for food and a pit stop at a REI to get more gear).
My first view of the Grand Canyon was from the South Rim near the Visitors Center. I’ve seen pictures of it before (of course), but it’s hard to express how weird it is in real life. To be honest, I still don't comprehend it. It was bigger, badder, and definitely snowier. Evidently, the area had been hit by a snow storm a few days beforehand.
That night, we stayed at the Bright Angel Lodge and I tried, and failed, to get good sleep because of the excitement running through my mind.
We woke up at 6:30am and started putting on our gear. I had
- a t-shirt
- A REI fleece hoodie
- My blue shell jacket
- Hiking pants (that could zip off and become shorts)
- Super expensive hiking socks
- Hiking shoes
- Microspikes attached to my shoes for traction in the snow
- Hat (gift shop special that said, “Grand Canyon”, so people know where I am in the pictures)
- Osprey backpack
In my backpack, I had a ton of stuff
- Medical stuff (Neosporin, medical tape, ibuprofen, etc)
- A bladder full of water
- A Nalgene bottle full of water
- Extra Socks
- Lots of cliffbars
- A fan (not kidding)
To the bottom!
We stowed our non-canyon stuff in our van and started to the bottom around 7:30 am. The beauty was incredible. I was frequently stopping and taking photos.
At about 2 miles in, the snow was mostly gone, so we took a break to remove our microspikes and grab a bite.
I was still feeling pretty good at this point. I could feel my calves, but they weren’t yet hurting. The views were unbelievable, and the trail was dangerous because of narrow drop-offs.
Around this time the sun started really hitting the sides of the canyon. It was gorgeous.
We took another rest break near Havasupai Gardens, which had beautiful views of the canyon rim overlooking Cottonwood trees.
Below Havasupai Gardens, we entered the “Devil's Corkscrew”, which is a series of switchbacks on the trail where you rapidly lose (or gain) elevation.
By this time, my feet, calves, and ankles were really getting fatigued! I slowed down a bit and took extra care to not make a mistake.
We came into a beautiful canyon with a crystal clear stream running through. We crossed this stream several times, and this eventually took us to the muddy-colored Colorado River. At this point, it was around 1pm, and I was getting pretty tired.
The trail followed the river for a few miles and we came to a suspension bridge.
From here the trail led up a smaller canyon to the Phantom Ranch.
I was beyond exhausted. I laid down my gear, took some ibuprofen, found my bed, and laid down for a few minutes.
After an hour or so, I was feeling a bit better, so I ventured up to purchase a beer from the “canteen” ($8) and chill out a bit.
We had prepaid for our dinner, which was a NY strip steak, baked potato, salad, and carrots. After the long hike it was soooo good.
We spent the evening playing bocce ball in the dark (with our headlamps) and drinking a bit more (although I was taking it easy!).
The “rest” day
The next morning, we had pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, and fruit for breakfast! It was the great start of a great day.
The plan was to hike up a narrow canyon to a waterfall called Ribbon Falls. The entire hike was going to be about 14 miles (22km). Since it was an out-and-back hike, I figured I’d go about halfway and turn around when I wanted to. I wanted to take time to relax and rest, before the next day’s hike out (which at this point I was really fearful of).
The trail was narrow, yet easy, with a beautiful stream running next to it.
I turned around about halfway, and started heading back slow and easy.
I ran into some folks near the stream with a lot of gear (no pictures). They were stunning the fish with electricity and then when the fish floated to the top of the water, they’d pick out the invasive trout, and let the native species go!
I got back to the Phantom Ranch and wandered around.
When Mike and his friend Chaz got back to the camp, they had a special surprise! They had snagged some trout from the fish-electrocuters and proceeded to cook it up!
After eating the trout, we had second dinner at the canteen, with a huge hearty pot of beef stew, cornbread, and salad.
After another episode of drunk bocce ball, and hanging out, we turned in pretty early (around 9pm), because we knew we had a helluva day coming up.
The climb out
Friday morning, we woke at 5am and gathered our gear. Our eggs and pancake breakfast was at 5:30, and before that, I threw as much as possible into my duffel bag so the mules could carry that to the top.
We started out around 6:30 am, while it was still dark and hiked along the Colorado River using the light of the moon and our headlamps.
We made it back to the Devil’s Corkscrew, and I took it slowly up the steps (because I knew I had a long way to go). I used a technique called the “rest step”, where you literally take a small rest after every single step. Doing so allows your legs to recover, and I was able to make it to the top in good shape.
We got back up to Havasupai Gardens and took another break. I was feeling slightly fatigued by now… but was still excited.
The final third of the hike really kicked my ass, and was the culmination of the most physically demanding effort that I’ve ever done.
I used the “rest step” most of the time, and was breathing heavily to keep my oxygen levels up (since we’re rapidly gaining elevation).
The final mile was torturous. It was nearly vertical, and I’m pretty sure it was steeper than it had been on our way down. Obviously some geological event occurred that raised the rim a few more thousand of feet while we were below.
Yet through it all, Mike hung back with me (probably to make sure I didn’t die) as I slowly trudged up the rim.
At the top, it was a pretty big celebration when I finally arrived (everyone knew how difficult this is for a first-timer). Luckily some of our friends got upgraded to a house right on the rim of the canyon. We joined them to celebrate and drink some beers!
We went out for dinner that night, but I couldn’t last. I went to sleep around 8pm and was out like a ton of bricks. This was absolutely the most difficult physical challenge that I’ve ever done.
Although there was no mistrust, greed, or treasure (I totally fooled you). This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We left early for Phoenix, and I was home by midnight to see my two doggies waiting for me by the door!