North Kaibab Part V28 December 2011 in Trails/Hiking, Traveling
The other day I realized we never completed the saga of our journey into the Grand Canyon. I know it’s a little late and maybe you’ve forgotten or maybe never read the first four parts. But I felt this tale warranted an ending. This blog is for us as much as it is for our readers. One day we’ll look back on these adventures when we are no longer able to live so brash. And this, our first back country experience will be an enduring example of what we were capable of. Going in we had few notions of what awaited us. We knew it would be a challenge and we certainly prepared ourselves via the literature provided by the backcountry office. But while this can ready a hiker by insuring he or she has enough food, water, and shelter it can do little to prepare him or her for the physical and mental challenges lurking thousands of feet down in the depths of the twisted trails of the Grand Canyon.
Continuing from part four – we awoke in Cottonwood Campground. This had been our first stop and our first night down below the rim. Another seven miles of trail lied ahead of us so we had a quick breakfast of banana chips and animal crackers. Thankfully the rain had passed in the night and besides a gray canopy of clouds the weather was clear and warm.
In contrast to the previous day’s continuous descent of knee pounding trail today we meandered through rolling hills along side a strip of wandering water. After the first few miles we entered a misplaced marshy area. With thick swathes of reeds towering over us on either side it was a small ecosystem that seemed out of place in the vast stretches of arid desert that surrounded us. To make things even stranger this was our entrance to “the box”, a portion of trail that straddles the creek with high walls of dark stone closing in tighter and tighter on the trail and very little vegetation. It feels like you’re an ant in the crack of a side walk. This section might get an hour or two of direct sunlight per day, but apparently it can be one of the hardest spots to hike in the summer. Heat gets trapped in this area and temperatures shoot up well over 100 degrees. But it was now fall and we found the temperature in the box to be quite pleasant.
After making our way through the box—which we found very beautiful and breathtaking—we were again in the rolling hills. We soon saw signs of life – man made structures. We had made it to Phantom Ranch! Though this section of the trail had only taken us 3 hours piling that on top of the previous days 5+ hours we were ready to shed our packs and relax a little. We had the whole day to see the Colorado River and explore the area, but first we had an early lunch and stretched out on the picnic table to rest our weary bodies.
This didn’t last long as I am always anxious to see new things and so we were soon back on the trail, but sans packs and lighter on our feet. After shedding 40 pounds in an instant it feels like you’re on the moon where gravity is weaker. There’s a slight bounce in your step and walking feels weird. It’s sort of similar to walking after roller skating for a few hours. Anyways we hiked over to the river which looked like a melted chocolate milk shake heavily rolling by. While it is famous for it’s green color the recent rains had increased it volume which allowed it to pick up more sediment producing an opaque medium brown. The portion of the river by Phantom Ranch looks harmless and much like a lot of the rivers I was used to seeing back in Wisconsin, but its unassuming nature has taken many lives. While it looks calm and slow it is actually very swift and powerful. There are many tales of individuals, usually young males, usually drunk who fall victim to the current while attempting late night swims.
Making our way up the bank we stopped at some displays marking the ruins of a Native American dwelling. Many natives in the surrounding area consider the Grand Canyon a sacred place and for hundreds of years were the only people to live in and cross the Canyon. For years they deceived white settlers into thinking there was no way to access and cross the canyon while they themselves were doing it quite frequently.
There are two bridges crossing the Colorado. One leads up the South Kaibab Trail which is steeper, shorter and provides no access to water. The other is up the Bright Angel Trail which is the exact opposite. The bridge to the South Kaibab Trail was the first bridge built and it’s construction was an amazing feat of human strength and endurance. Due to the nature of the trail and the size, length and weight of the cable needed to span the river mules could not be used and therefor men carried 250 pound spools of cable the 7.5 miles down to the river. After reading this I could no longer feel the same entitlement to complain about the 40 pounds I had carried upon my own back.
We made our way across the bridge and up a portion of the Kaibab. I had seen a picture referencing a beautiful area a few miles up the trail, but after the past few hikes, in the hot midday sun we just didn’t have it in us. Later, on my solo rim to rim venture I would find this area to be well up the other side of the Canyon and the spot from which the photo was taken seemed completely illusive. So we made our way back down to a short trail that followed the river and connected the South Kaibab to the Bright Angel. Alongside the trail were several sheer, knee shaking ledges that dropped straight down hundreds of feet to the river below. We made our way to the other bridge and crossed back across the river to Phantom Ranch and once again it began to rain. After a brief drizzle it stopped and we made some dinner.
At this point we had decided to skip our last night in Cottonwood and hike straight out the following day. There were a couple deciding factors – one was the on and off rain. It had spoiled both of our evenings now confining us to our tent for hours on end. Another was the prospect of another night in Cottonwood. While it was a nice little campground it offered little in the way of scenery or nearby trails for day hikes. With a fourteen mile hike looming ahead of us we hit the hay early.
The next morning with our packs loaded and our water filled we hiked back towards the North Rim. Through the box and over the rolling hills. It started out easy enough, but we knew the challenge of the ascending a vertical mile out still awaited us as we passed back through Cottonwood. For a brief moment we considered staying, but at the pace we were moving and with our spirits still high we pushed on. This was the point of no return. We were over the precipice and there was no turning back. Up until this adventure we had never hiked more than a few miles with our packs and that was through the level paved streets of Amsterdam. Now we had logged eight miles in the first day, seven in the second, and now seven in the third with eight still to go. All of this over rugged and ever changing terrain. It was slow moving, but we pushed on and soon we found ourselves at Roaring Springs just five miles from the top. We were tired and sore, but we pushed on. And then it began to rain.
At first it was just a light dripping rain, but a rumble of thunder in the distance soon foreshadowed a brewing storm. This was not only disheartening it was downright scary. The threat of lightning along this trail where there is little cover is serious. And as the thunder grew louder the rain fell harder. At one point it was close to a downpour. The Canyon was so thick with clouds and fog that scenery all around us was swallowed up and all we could see was a white, gray monotone wall. The threat of lightning was growing near and the rain was relentless. Our meager two dollar poncho and thrift store jacket were doing little to keep us dry and we would soon be soaked through and cold. We needed to find shelter, but we knew the slight coves along the trail ahead were still well out of reach. At one point we hunkered down next to a slight overhang of dirt and tree roots, but we knew this wasn’t a safe shelter against lightning so we simple marched on. Had it been pleasant weather we probably would have took more breaks, but with the rain making it’s way through our clothes we simply kept moving. Eventually we made our way to the ridge line and found shelter under the slightly arced wall. We sat in the mud and had a snack as the rain let up. Of course. As soon as we find shelter the rain lets up. Feeling wet, muddy and all but ready to give up the most wondrous change began in front of us the clouds and fog stuck down in the Canyon began to separate and rise out. It was beautiful and strange. It was as though the Canyon were slowly drifting down through the clouds.
Without this natural saving grace I don’t know if I would have stood up again. But after admiring this stunning display we had what we needed to soldier on. Or so we thought. With three miles to go it began to rain again. The threat of lightning seemed to diminish, but the rain became a force to reckon with. Trudging on we found some relief in Supai Tunnel where we had a granola bar and sat for a little while taking shelter with the other stranded hikers. But with no end to the rain in sight we moved on. We couldn’t get any wetter at this point and with three miles to go the sooner we got moving the sooner we could shed our miserable gear and lay in the warmth of our little trailer. As the rain steadily continued the ruts of the trail north of Supai Tunnel got progressively worse. See this portion of the trail is used by mule trips they take visitors from the trailhead to Supai Tunnel and back. Along the way the mules relieve themselves at various points producing small piss lakes and shit mountains. The steady rain was now combining with these deposits to create a raging piss river with rolling turd boulders. There was no escaping it. It engulfed the entire trail. But at this point neither of us cared. We had been through the ringer so what was a little piss and shit going to do. That said neither of us wished to be covered in it and it took everything we had to remain upright at points where the trail was steep and the mess below our feet very unforgiving.
At this point I have to reflect inwardly and attempt to describe my thoughts, some of which I know Lindsay shared. For most of us there are very few, if any challenges in life that we simply have to overcome. When faced with any particular challenge it is often easier to give up than to push on. We are afforded too many easy exits allowing us to give up on ourselves and never discover our true limits or potential. Marching through a river of piss and shit, soaked to the bone and freezing after seven hours of straight hiking with a 40 pound pack on my back I was up to that point the closest I had ever come to reaching my physical and mental limits. I would find myself close to this point again three weeks later on my solo run/hike of the Canyon. On the surface it would seem an unlikely situation to celebrate, learn from or ever have any desire to return to. But there is something in these moments that can give you an unbelievable feeling of accomplishment. For most, myself included the only way to get to this point is to put yourself in an inescapable scenario where you have no choice but to complete the challenge. Hiking out of the Canyon that day we had no choice but to proceed. The only other way out was a $5000 helicopter ride. We couldn’t give up on ourselves. We couldn’t stop. Our legs and bodies would carry us out of there or it was there we would remain. Our minds that so often pave the road to the easy way out could do nothing to deter us. There was no easy way out. There was only one way out and so we marched on and on and on. We would finally make our way to a small stand of metal. An old tower chopped off and left to rust. This, we knew marked the last stretch to the trailhead. Here we held hands and walked the final tenth of a mile with smiles on our faces even though we still had a mile to hike back to the trailer.
As I stated there is something beautifully invigorating about stretching the bounds of what we see as our limits. And the often the only way to do this is to engage in an activity in which there is no easy way out. Here we deny our minds the manageable routes they are wont to take and force ourselves into a situation we have no choice but to overcome. It is here we find our limits and our potential. A triumph here provides an enduring confidence that transcends into all areas of life especially those we are unaccustomed to.
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