In the Summer of 2004 we took a family trip to Las Vegas. On the way we stopped off at the Grand Canyon. It was a very impressive sight, and I announced on that day I would be back to Hike to the bottom and back.
Although people do hike to the river and back in one day, it is strongly advised inexperienced hikers not attempt this. When I checked on accomodations at the bottom, I learned there are 4 person cabins, 10 person dorms, and campgrounds. I also learned the cabins and dorms take reservations up to two years in advance and book up early. Back country campground permits are available 4 months in advance. I didn't want to wait two years, so I requested and recieved a camping permit for April 26th, with the notion that I would continue to try to get a dorm or cabin if one became available through a cancellation. I also reserved dinner and breakfast at Phantom Ranch. Either way, cabin/dorm or camping out, I was committed to making the Hike.
Prior to this trip, I had zero hiking and camping experience. I did a lot of research on the Internet to learn what to expect and what I would need. I also purchased and carefully read every page of "Over The Edge: Death In Grand Canyon". It's a very interesting and informative read, and highly recommended for every prospective first time Canyon hiker. I bought my boots about 10 weeks in advance and wore them everywhere to break them in. However, I did not do any actual backpack hiking or camping prior to the Canyon hike. I was banking on my conditioning from running an average of 25-30 miles per week consistently for over 1 1/2 years (plus a little stair climbing) to make up for my lack of experience. Big Mistake!!
Fortunately, a cabin became available two days before the hike, so I eagerly took it. This meant I would not have to carry a sleeping bag and tent down along with everything else. I would later learn what a tremendous bit of good fortune this was.
Around 4am I left my wife in Las Vegas with a clear understanding I expected her to recover the cost of the trip, and arrived at the park's main entrance shortly before 9am. I made my way back to Grand Canyon Village to find a parking spot, confirm my room and meal reservations, surrender my back country camping permit, have some breakfast, rent and pack a backpack, and catch the park's free shuttle system to the Kaibab trailhead. I learned that a dorm was now available, so I downgraded from the cabin and saved $50. All that took about 3 hours so it was 12 noon, when I was ready to start down. One of the intelligent decisions I made was to plan the trip for late April. The weather was perfect, with temps at the rim ranging from the 30's to the 60's, and 40's to 70's down at the river.
Standing there at the Kaibab trailhead would be the first time I would wear a backpack. Inside the pack was the recommended 1 gallon of water/GatorAide and 3-4 pounds of food for the trail, first aide kit, knife, binoculars, a pancho, a complete spare set of hiking clothes, plus some cool weather clothes in case I couldn't handle the forecasted morning temp of 45 (huh?). I read on the Internet that one shouldn't carry more than 1/3 of their body weight in a pack. I didn't bother to weigh my pack before hand, but I was sure it was less than 50lbs, and considerably less than 1/3 of my 195 lbs of body weight. Still, it felt quite heavy when I got it on. Not just heavy, but top-heavy. Due to my lack of experience, I just figured that's how it was, and started the 6.9 mile hike down to Phantom Ranch.
Unfortunately, the only thing I didn't pack was a camera! Doh!! However, you can follow my trek and see many excellent photos of the sights I saw by visiting the following two excellent websites, put up by hiking/Canyon enthusiasts:
Gene Hanson's Virtual Hike of the Grand Canyon
Bill Qualls Grand Canyon Hike
Starting down with me was a tour bus full of European students/tourists going only partway down on a day hike. I hurried to get started before most of them because I didn't want them to hold me up.... ha! What a laugh that was! Tetering along the trail in my top-heavy condition, it was all I could do to keep pace. Before long, I was stepping out of the way so petite young ladies wearing tennis shoes and chatting non-stop in a foreign language could go by me. Soon, other day hikers were pushing down from behind. A couple of 6-8 year old youngsters darted by, followed closely by their mother. Next to go by while I was taking a brief rest was a family of 5, with dad carrying his youngest on his shoulders. Then some folks who appeared to be about my age (50's) also sporting backpacks came by stroking their walking sticks. I had opted not to use walking sticks figuring I would be happier with my hands free, now I already wish I had them.
By the time I got to Cedar Ridge just 1.5 miles down I was already tuckered out. But worse than that, my back was getting sore! I was seriously contemplating if I was biting off more than I could chew. I concluded that my backpack must weigh a lot more than I estimated. Imagine what kind of shape I'd have been in if I had not secured a room and had to bring a sleeping bag and tent along for the ride! To lighten the load, I dumped nearly 1/3 of my water, and drank another quart. I ate as much of the food as I could get down. I also completely repacked, distributing as much weight as possible to the bottom of the pack. After a full 30 minutes of rest, I resumed the hike.
Another thing I had not considered was the condition of the trail. It was nice and wide and lined with a continuous row of rocks on both sides, so I had no fear of falling off or getting lost. However, virtually the entire trail is littered with rocks anywhere in size from pebbles to some a little larger than a softball. Some were embedded in the trail with their tops sticking out like icebergs. I was forced to focus on the trail directly ahead pretty much anytime I was moving. Most of the time, any sightseeing required stopping. I had not expected this, and was a bit disapointed this was the case.
The sights were magnificent, however, and frequent. Looking back up the trail I could see the rim of the Canyon, and people moving along on parts of the trail where I had been a short while ago. The distance covered seemed impressive. Looking down, I could often see the trail heading down for long distances, then disappearing into the depths of the Canyon. Looking out into the Canyon, I just never got used to the size of this thing. It is expansive beyond words.
I don't remember exactly when I saw my first mule train, but I do remember marveling at the surefootedness of these animals. It's hard to believe they navigate that trail without tripping and stumbling all over the place. I think I would be too nervous to enjoy the trip riding a mule, but they do have an exceptional safety record.
The weight reduction and redistribution made a huge difference, and I was now doing better and keeping up with traffic, which was also thinning out as I went lower. But I was still stuggling some with the weight and my back was still complaining. That first 1.5 miles of improperly packed overload had exacted a toll that would cost me the rest of the trip. I also began to notice that my back problem was due at least in part from leaning back all the time as I descended the trail. I guess it's natural to do that, but the extra weight aggrivated the strain.
As I worked my way down to Skeleton Point (3.0 miles down - marked with a sign), I began experimenting with all the straps on the backpack and eventually figured out how to get more of the weight off my shoulders and onto my hips. This was the second major factor in improving my comfort. I now felt confident I could make it down (and back out), although my back would continue to be an issue the entire trip down. If I had started out with a properly packed and adjusted backpack from the beginning, I would have been much better off.
The trail descends much more steeply once dropping below Skeleton Point, and I was very much alone once on this section of the trail. It seems most day hikers turn around at or before Skeleton Point. It was during this section that I felt my only pang of anxiety about the safety of the trail. For a short way, the trail appears to actually be cut into a sheer cliff. So you have to navigate what is basically a 3 foot wide ledge with vertical walls going up and down. I did not have the guts to look over at this point and see how far down it was, but my sense was that is was a hell of a long way down. To make it even more interesting, the trail was curved so that I could not see much of the trail ahead. As I ventured on I had no idea how long it would last, or if a mule train might suddenly appear from the other direction (which would have been nothing short of a crisis for me on that section of trail). Fortunately, it only lasted for a little ways, maybe 20-30 yards, as best I remember.
After another 30 minute break at Tonto Point (4.6 miles down) I headed down another very steep section called the Tip Off. By now I began to really feel my toes being pressed into the front of my boots. I was happy that I had found this info on properly tying boots for downhill hiking. I had mid-high boots rather high-tops like in the photos, but the technique was still helpful. I was also wearing a pair of bright pink Danztech ToeSaver Elites inside my boots. I could feel my toes pressing against the ToeSavers, and at the time I wasn't sure if it might have been better to have the extra room by not wearing the toe thingy's. But the bottom line is I finished the entire downhill hike with not one single blister, abrasion, or bruised toenail. So the safe assumption is the ToeSavers did their job.
I made it the rest of the way down without much fanfare. My back complained all the way but held together, and I was soaking my feet in the icy Colorado river by 4:30pm (6.0 miles). I got to Phantom Ranch (6.9 miles) around 5pm, making the entire downhill trip a 5 hour affair. I've heard of some getting down in around one hour, but 3-6 hours seems to be more typical, so I was near the slower end of the average.
The overnight stay at Phantom Ranch was appreciated by my achin' back, and I was glad that I followed the expert's advice to stay over one night before hiking out. I had the Hiker's Stew dinner, which was pricey but excellent. The dorm rooms are very cramped, with only a small walkway between the two rows of double bunk beds (10 beds total). Beds are a bit on the small side, and it was difficult for me to keep my 6'2" frame inside the confounds of my own bed. Also, any fidgeting by either occupant shook the bunk noticably. Not a huge deal in my case, but it could have been if the dude in the lower bunk wasn't a quiet sleeper. I might hold onto the cabin if I get one next time.
Next morning I had the early breakfast at 5am which was ok (also pricey). Overnight I decided I would reduce the weight of the backpack as much as possible. So rather than stuff all the extra clothes in the pack, I wore both sets of hiking clothes and tied off all the cold weather wear around my waist (2 long sleeve t-shirts, one pair of sweat pants, and a light warm-up type jacket). Of course, I would still have to carry all that weight out, but getting what I could out of the pack and distributed on my body made a big difference. Based on the previous day's experience, I also stocked up with only 1/2 gallon of water rather than a full gallon. I felt safe doing this since there would be water at Indian Gardens 1/2 way up. I had only about 1/3 of the trail food I started out with. My pack was noticably lighter, and I was in good spirits.
At 6am I headed out of Phantom Ranch towards the River Trail. After 2 miles of mostly level hiking along the Colorado River I reached the River Rest House at the base of the Bright Angel Trail (7.7 miles from the top). This was my route for the climb out of the Canyon. That two miles of level hiking to the River House was the first time I truly enjoyed the hike, rather than generally having the mindset of completing a mission.
After signing the ledger at the River Rest House, I headed up the Bright Angel Trail. In general, the climb didn't seem all that steep for the most part, and I noticed that uphill climbing (I suppose in conjuction with the lighter pack) was not bothering my back at all. There's an early steep section call the Devil's Corkscrew, but I felt really strong through this section. I remember thinking at this point that unlike the downhill hike, my aerobic conditioning from being a runner was actually paying off on the uphill climb. Somewhere around here I took a 15 minute break next to a running creek, then preceeded all the way up to Indian Gardens (4.6 miles from the top), which I reached in a little over 2 hours. There's fresh water at Indian Gardens, but I still had a quart left at this point, I still felt very good and the weather was quite cool, so I didn't take on the extra weight of more water. I read that this trail is a ravine trail down between Canyon walls frequently and doesn't offer nearly as many panaramic views of the Canyon as does the South Kaibab (a ridge trail), and I found this to be the case, especially on the lower half of the trail.
After Indian Gardens, the trail seemed to get a little steeper. I could tell I was beginning to slow down, but still felt pretty good for a while. I began to see a few day hikers at this point. As I worked my way up toward the 3 Mile Rest House, I began to feel fatigue setting in. Somewhere prior to the 3 Mile Rest House I took my second 15 minute break. Then I forged past the 3 Mile Rest House. Now the trail felt really steep and just kept going up, up, up. The day hikers were growning rapidly in numbers, now. I was also getting really tired, but continued without stopping until I reached the 1.5 Mile Rest House. At this point I was pretty well spent. All my leg muscles ached, and I was beginning to take steps that favored the most sore muscles. But there was only 1.5 miles to go, and there were people all around me now, so I knew I was safe and would make it out... it would just be a matter of time. I did manage to notice that the view from here is quite nice. The best I'd seen on the entire Bright Angel Trail. (I've read that the view from Plateau Point is one of the best in the entire Canyon. Plateau Point is a 3.2 mile round trip hike from Indian Gardens, which I elected not to add to my trip).
After a final 15 minute rest at the 1.5 Mile Rest House, I started up the final leg of my journey. I had mixed emotions at this time. I was tired and sore and wanted to get it done, yet on the other hand I was a little sad that the adventure was nearly over. I was moving really slowly now, yet none of the day hikers seemed anxious to get past me. This is a pretty steep section of trail. I emerged from the trail at 12 noon, 6 hours after my start. General estimates say one should plan on taking twice as long to come up as they did to go down, but my uphill hike was 6 hours vs. the downhill which was 5 hours. I do think the conditioning I have from being a runner helped with the uphill hike, but I also think I was pushing a little harder to get to the top.
The first thing I wanted to do when I got out was reconfigure my backpack to the state it was in when I first started down and see how much it actually weighed. If you'll remember, because of the trouble I had handling it during my initial leg, I decided it must have been quite a bit heavier than I estimated, maybe even pretty close to that 1/3 body weight limit. Well, the sucker only weighed in at 27 pounds!! 27 measly pounds, and it had kicked my ass... it had kicked my ass going downhill! I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that. Regular running does not a backpacker make.
For one final rush of adrenaline, when I got to my car I wasn't able to find my car keys in the backpack. I checked, and recheck all the pockets several times. Then I started pulling everything out. This went on for a good 2-3 minutes. Can you imagine the anxiety rush I enjoyed coming to grips with the possibility that I may have left the keys of my rental car down at the bottom of the Canyon?! What the hell was I gonna do, now?!? Finally, I discovered them hiding in an internal pocket inside one of the compartments, and all was once again right with the world.
Some final observations. Although I didn't need nearly as much water as is recommended, and took more supplies than I needed, the weather was extremely mild during my hike. Anyone planning to hike the Canyon should be very careful about the weather conditions when they plan to be there. The carrying of water and other supplies is kind of a catch 22... the hotter it is and the less experienced the hiker is, the more they should carry with them. But the less experienced hiker will also struggle more with the extra weight, as I did.
Also, many of the day hikers wore tennis shoes, and initially I felt hiking boots were overkill and just added more weight. But as the day wore on, and then especially on the second day, there were many times when the ridged soles protected my feet and ankles on slightly misjudged steps where I would slip off a rock or not quite miss one I was trying to step over. In the end I was glad I had worn decent quality hiking boots.
For now, I'm happy and satisfied to have accomplished this goal. But I don't expect it will be very long before I get the urge to go back to that magnificent Canyon, and do it all over again... and do it right next time.
Actually, I did make a few changes for my second trip to Phantom Ranch. I bought a better quality backpack, one that fit me properly (this totally alleviated the backache problem I had last year). I packed about 1/2 the food and water as last time (still too much food, tho), and less cool weather clothing. I replaced that weight with a backpacking tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. With the contents changes my backpack weight was a little more than last year, 28-30 lbs (I was hoping it would be less, but oh well). I also stayed at the bottom for two nights, rather than one. I enjoyed camping out much more than last year's stay in the dorms. Of course, one of those 4-person cabins would be the most comfy option, *IF* you can get your hands on one (and you wouldn't have to carry a tent and sleeping bag). But all in all, sleeping in a tent wasn't bad (again, the weather was idea in April, with overnight temps around 60).
I also reversed the trail order this time, hiking down Bright Angel and out the S. Kaibab. On the way down I also included a hike out to Plateau Point, which I skipped last year. With steep cliffs and stunning scenery around you every step of the way into and out of the Canyon, it might seem like no one vantage point could be worth an extra 3 mile hike... but Plateau Point is worth every bit of extra effort. In fact, I highly recommend Plateau Point as *the* destination for a first time day trip for those willing to spend the better part of a day hiking 12+ miles round trip. Figuring a hiking speed of 1-2 miles per hour, this trip would be no picnic, but any reasonbly fit person could make it safely in the milder temps of Spring or Fall.
The one other thing significant was the onset of muscle soreness and blisters this time. I was *so* sore the day after the hike down to Phantom Ranch, I really didn't feel like walking around much. I don't remember getting sore or having an issue with blisters last year. I guess the extra mileage going down the long way (Bright Angel Trail) and throwing in that side trip to Plateau Point (basically doubling the distance compared to my hike down the S. Kaibab last year) took it's toll.
That about sums up what was different for my second hike of the Canyon. What didn't change, was the severity of the butt-whooping I took tryin' to climb out of that place. I was hoping a properly fitting and properly packed backpack, and one more year of consistent running would make a difference, but I guess hiking 6-7 miles continuously uphill with a 30lb load and negotiating an elevation change of around 5,000 feet is just not going to be a cakewalk, no matter how you slice it.
Next year, maybe I'll do a rim to rim trip....