Day Five: 9 August 2007
Day One on Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon.
Miles hiked: 0
Miles to Go: 19.8
It was cold — shivering cold– and dark at 4:30 in the morning. I donned the clothes I’d be wearing the next four days–a coral tank top and khaki hiking shorts, wool hiking socks, and boots. Lastly, I put on a pink hat to shield my face from the incoming sun. By 5:50 we were packed and ready to hike, standing at the Bright Angel Trailhead while Margaret snapped pictures of our group. Since Laura couldn’t do the hike on account of a heart condition, she would stay with Margaret and one other counselor while we backpacked. That left us with Skye, Carley, Meghan, Melanie, Kathryn, Alison, Marcia, Christophe, and myself…a group of nine.
NINE companions. Very well…you shall be the Fellowship of the _________ (fill in canyon-related word here).
The sun had risen by 6:00 a.m., but we were still huddled for warmth, prepping ourselves, giving pep talks,and I’m sure some were praying, too. On the other side of a low rock wall, the Canyon yawned, waiting for us.
August 13. We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown…We can see but a little way into the granite gorge, but it looks threatening.
-John Wesley Powell, Diary of the First Trip Through the Grand Canyon, 1869
Bright Angel Trail was named after a fault line that runs through the Canyon and occasionally causes things like volcanic eruptions (!). As we stared at it, we could only see what every tourist sees–a postcard, a photo opportunity, something to look at and be amazed.
However, we were of the less-than-5-percent-of-visitors who would take a walk beyond the walls separating us. I watched a film once that states the Grand Canyon is more than a place. The majority of people who visit see only the view and then walk away to do something else. However, the Grand Canyon is not just a destination: it is a character. The view is unbelievable, yes, but it’s entirely different experience to see it more closely than a distance and venture a mile down inside the walls. As we stood on the brink, we were excited to get going (mostly, to get warm) and to see what was in store. The Canyon was not the destination; it was just the beginning.
Trailhead Elevation? 6,850 feet.
Temperature? Roughly 50 degrees.
From the top of the South Rim, Indian Gardens looks like an oasis, with a grove of trees following a stream. Christophe pointed out a lone path that stretched to the edge of a flat, green, triangular plateau. He said we would hike out to the edge of Plateau Point that evening, once it had cooled down and we’d rested. From that high up, it looked like no trouble. I pictured us arriving in Indian Gardens, resting, setting up our tents and jogging out to the edge of the abyss. We would sit out in the sun, maybe read, out there on that flatiron-shaped slab of earth. We might play kickball or something, maybe. Run around like kids until it was dark, and explore the very edge of the plateau.
And as we prepped to march, Margaret promised us ice cream upon our return. We laughed that one off. Ice cream? Of course! It would be hot. It was such a small thing.
Unsure really what to expect, we waved goodbye and walked single file to the Bright Angel Trailhead sign, then began our descent.
Christophe pointed to some petroglyphs that were drawn into the walls of rock above our heads, not too far from the trailhead. As we picked our way, the paved road turned to white dust, with water bars securing the downward slope like very long stairs. We stopped in a rock tunnel to take pictures. We could see that the trail wound its way back and forth via switchbacks down one Canyon wall. The way was slow, and long. And this was the easy part.
Most people, if they choose to hike, do not make it to Indian Gardens.
There is a reason there are only two rest houses for 20 miles of trail. They’re rest stops with running water and bathrooms, at the mile-and-a-half mark and three-mile mark. Most people do not make it further.
They walk a-ways, and then realize they should probably turn around and climb back up. Three miles down, three miles back up–that’s a good day hike. And it’s a wise choice, mostly because it is dangerous: the trails are steep and rocky, and many people don’t realize how long it takes to actually hike or backpack a mile-and-a-half steeply downhill. A general speed, for the average hiker, perhaps, we’ll say, is one mile per hour, because that was our speed, in general. To hike back up, one must expect to take twice as much time. The early switchbacks of Bright Angel are some of the most difficult parts of trail because they are taxing. Not to mention, most tourists come to see the Canyon. Not backpack it. And they certainly haven’t planned for it. So, they salute the Canyon and turn around so they can make it back to the Lodge before they run out of food and water. The last thing you want, in the middle of August, is to be stranded in the Canyon because you didn’t properly plan.
We were no Boy Scouts, but we definitely followed the eternal law: Be Prepared.
There is only one god, and his name is death. And there is only one thing we say to death: Not Today.
Picture hiking a mountain. You start at the bottom and hike to the top. As you ascend, the air gets thinner and cooler. You’re advised to wear layers in order to keep your body temperature stable. Your body warms up as you keep up the physical activity, but you’re in the trees, and you stay mostly cool from the mountain breeze. You wind through the forest for about five miles and you make it to the top in good time. You rest, take in the view, and have a snack. On the way down, you’re warmed up. The trip gets easier and easier. You take off your jacket and drink more water, because you’re sweating. The temperature increases.
The Grand Canyon is just the opposite of hiking a mountain. We were hiking into a furnace: a vertical drop of one mile and a physical distance of 10 miles in just two days. The temperature difference would be staggering: 50 degrees when we began, and 100 degrees at the end of the day. On the last two days, we would head the opposite direction and hike the steep vertical trail for two days in a row, trying to avoid the searing heat. There is no cover of trees; it’s all rock walls and (if we were lucky) some shade from them. The rest of the time? You’re on an open trail, my friend.
Plan your hike before you start. • Balance your food and water intake. Eat salty snacks and drink water or sports drinks. • Go slowly, rest often, stay cool. Allow the weakest hiker to set the pace. • During the summer, hike during the cooler, shadier times of the day.
The Bright Angel Trail offers wonderful views all along the trail making it very easy to lose track of how far down you have hiked. Additionally, the steepness of the trail is very misleading on the way down. Plan on taking twice as long to hike up as it took to hike down.
The above quote is courtesy of The National Park Service.
We stopped at each rest stop, very tired and very happy. There was an audible sigh of relief when we realized we had made it to the next milestone. After three miles, though, there would be no more rest stops. No rest stops until camp. No rest stops on the entire 5-mile stretch from Indian Gardens to Phantom Ranch, on hike day 2, at the bottom of the Canyon.
We were getting warmer, and took hundreds of photos: of each other, of the Canyon. And then there were the animals. The animals in the Canyon are friendly because they’ve grown accustom to human food and interaction, so the squirrels do not give much personal space. We were taught to scare them off so that they would learn to fear us and not take advantage of our supplies. Meghan, accidentally, while we threw rocks at the squirrels to scare them away from our backpacks, struck one and he fell off the cliff. All’s well that ends well.
You might also notice that we’re all wearing necklaces in different colors. I have a green whistle and flashlight around my neck, along with a green dog tag with my name and other information. Can you tell my favorite color is green?
The whistle and flashlight are–you guessed it–in case we got lost or needed assistance because of an injury. The steep, rocky slopes make it very easy to twist an ankle, break a leg, or worse–fall off the Canyon walls. The dog tags were for precaution in case anything happened to us and we needed to be identified. For example, in case our bodies were found along the trail.
Here are some statistics. No, don’t groan — statistics are FUN.
Since the 1870s, there have been about 685 deaths at the Canyon, for multitudes of reasons: drowning, hypothermia, heat, falling, dehydration, and even murder. According to the article linked above, about 4.5 million people visit the Canyon annually. As I had mentioned earlier, about 5 percent or less of these people actually wander out to the trails to hike. The rest are spectators. Out of these 4.5 million people, there are about 12 deaths a year. According to another article, Mount Everest in the 1990s had about half as many deaths as the Grand Canyon.
In short: the risk to our lives was real, which is why the application process was so involved.
But with the awareness of our mortality, there was still room for fun, and there were still awful (and I actually mean awe-full) views of the Canyon. There was no denying its beauty. As we got deeper, the rock layers changed the trail from tan to red. The deeper you go, the older the rocks. There are many layers: the lighter-colored ones at the top are a mere several millions of years old, but the deeper you go, that time capsule suddenly exponentially changes — you’re now in a layer of earth several billion years old. Baby Earth, preserved and revealed forever in the Canyon.
Yes, that small stripe is the trail!
Eventually, we zigzagged our way down the Canyon cliff. Now below the Canyon walls, were walking steadily downhill to Indian Gardens, a campground under the treeline along a stream. The view was much different halfway down the Canyon. Instead of looking down at it, wondering how the heck we were going to do this, we were walking with it…alongside it. The giant Battleship Rock that we looked down upon early in the morning was now far above us.
Instead of gazing out at the Canyon that looked like it could eat us whole, we were walking alongside it. The greenery that seemed smooth and grassy up above now revealed itself as cacti and sharp bushes. The Canyon was deceivingly full of life…but it was not life with which we cared to interact. We kept on the trail, sparing our calves and knees thorn scratches and spines.
The paths are dusty, with water bars and the rocks are RED. We’re not setting up the tents, only one if someone wants it. I’ll try sleeping out in the open tonight, under the stars.
We took this picture just before entering Indian Gardens–our victorious first day! We entered the cover of trees next to the mule trains that also walk on the trails, set up a single tent, and hung our packs on the metal T-poles that prevent animals from eating into them.
It’s somewhat between 10 and 11 a.m. right now. We’ve seen a lot more desert wildlife today– mule deer, mules, lizards, birds, and squirrels. The squirrels are invading the campground right now– trying to get in our food and bags. We’re going on a hike later where we can see the bottom of the Canyon. It’s called Plateau Point, I think. Last night it was so cold, probably in the 50s, or colder. Right now in Indian Gardens the temperature is probably close to the 80s or 90s. But it’s breezy, and the campsite is under a big tree, so we’re nice and cool now.
First things first: refill water, use the composting restrooms, take off hiking boots and socks and rest my hot and sore feet (now crisscrossed with lines from my heavy hiking socks), and roll out the ground mat.
I spent the morning resting on my ground mat and journaling while the other girls sat at our picnic table and played cards. I wanted to rest my eyes and my body. I was also extremely hungry, so I opened up a pack of Ramen noodles, sprinkled seasoning on it, and ate them raw. My throat was burning and my skin was hot, too. I drank sip after sip of refreshing water. I’d learned from sports that it’s not good to chug mouthfuls because you’ll hurt yourself, so I drank slowly and rested in the shade.
Later that afternoon, we took a walk to a creek called Pipe which eventually meets up with the Colorado River and ate our sandwiches there, dipping our feet in the cool water while sitting among the roots. When we got back, we found that the squirrels had chewed through the only standing tent and Meghan’s backpack, which she left in the tent, to get in her trail mix. They didn’t stop raiding the campground all day, even after hanging ALL the packs on the T-bar.
Later that Day…
Around 4:30, Christophe led us on a walk to the end of Plateau Point. Bright Angel Trail continues through Indian Gardens and then junctions off. One trail leads across the plateau and to the overlook, and one veers to the right and continues down the Canyon walls, below Plateau Point, to the river. Christophe pointed out as we walked along the trail that we’d be taking the right fork the next day to get to Phantom Ranch, the campground at the bottom of the Canyon.
The ground was fairly level, but it was still a much longer walk than we anticipated. The distance to the end of the Plateau Point overlook was 1.5 miles, and there was one slipup–there was no shade once we got away from Indian Gardens and out in the open, even in the early evening hours, which were “cooler.”
And the thing about hiking in the desert is that it’s yes, hot, but it’s a dry heat. “Dry heat” would become a favorite joke amongst my field hockey team because I talked about it endlessly. It’s a phenomenon that you don’t find in the northeast because of our wonderful albeit terrible humidity. In the desert, it’s like having a hot winter. You know that uncomfortable feeling that persists while you shovel snow that something doesn’t quite feel right? That’s what hiking in the desert is like–suffocating, at times exhausting, mostly hot. You don’t sweat, because it quickly evaporates off your body. You don’t smell. It’s just dry, and hot…like an oven. And you don’t feel thirsty until you’re already dehydrating. That nasty tidbit is a big problem. Christophe had to remind us, once in awhile, to drink even if we didn’t think we needed it. Even if we weren’t thirsty.
“You need it,” he’d say. “Believe me.”
Public Service Announcement: DRINK MORE WATER!
We were running low on water before our bodies could register it. If we came down with a headache, we were already sick from the heat.
Marcia became dehydrated during the hike and we shared water with her. She was seeing spots, dizzy, hot. We slowed down, but there was nowhere to rest to escape the relentless sun. The Canyon walls didn’t help. They just loomed, bouncing the sun’s rays off their surfaces and back to us. The grasses and shrubs, which from afar look like a big savannah-ish meadow, were not what I expected: there were thorny bushes, spiky leaves, and small bunches of cacti growing out of the dust. One false move and you’d have a foot full of stickers.
It looked like my “evening leisurely jog to the edge of the Canyon cliff where I can run and play with my friends” was becoming the hike from hell…literally.
We shuffled along, and felt better once we finally reached the end. The sun was going down and it was getting cooler at last. Plus, we were excited to see the view of the River and the trail down below that we’d be hiking tomorrow. Meghan took off–leaving her Nalgene behind on these slabs of layered rock, and I quickly followed her, leaving my green water bottle next to hers. A single, thin guardrail was all that separated us from walking back to camp or making one wrong move. The slabs of rock were interesting. The sun was still high, and hot, and everything was reflecting back off the rocks with a vicious glare. I think about it sometimes when we are enjoying a particularly mild Connecticut summer, such as in 2014 when our Fourth of July Lake House Party was interrupted by 60-degree windy, rainy days. The entire Canyon is always a sun-soaked labyrinth. It is the opposite of England, which is perpetually rainy and cloudy. The Canyon has hardly any rain or summer storms, and if it does, they’re over within 20 minutes. The other amazing thing is that it snows at the rim and snow falls just along the tops of the Canyon formations (called “Temples”) when Fall arrives.
Alison, Kathryn, Melanie, Meghan and I stood with our backs to the cliff and took a wonderful picture–my favorite actually–that could have gone horribly wrong but didn’t, and I still chuckle when I see it. We enjoyed the views of the Colorado river winding its way relentlessly, still grinding down the Canyon Walls and driving forward, carving a path through the Canyon for probably eternity. Tomorrow, we’d be down there. Tomorrow, we’d be walking along the river, with no rest stops to speak of. It would be dangerous, hot, shade-less, and long.
If only I had some solar panels. Just sayin’. We walked back, the sun thankfully setting now. My journal states that “tomorrow we’d be up close and personal with the Canyon,” which was true. We had enjoyed a beautiful, scenic first day, even if we did hike six miles, but it was not “up close and personal.” Not with our resthouses and comfortable temperatures. Tomorrow? I thought about it as I dug into my sleeping bag. Tomorrow is going to be tough.
Meghan, Carley and I didn’t sleep in a tent–we laid our bags out under the stars, even though every small rustle made us gasp. But the view of the sky was incredible. No light pollution meant we could see the arms of the Milky Way and the stars above us as if Meghan had just thrown armfuls of snow in the air. The sky was unbelievable. I wished there was a way to capture it. To pass the time, we tried stargazing, but didn’t know too much about where things were located aside from Orion and the Big Dipper.
It was the first time I had ever slept out without being inside a house or a tent. The second time would come six years later, when I climbed into a hammock at my friend’s lake house and slept outside, under a tree where an owl lived, next to the lake’s lapping.
Eventually, I fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to Meghan shrieking that a mouse bit her foot. We all were a little spooked after that…I for one kept imagining creepy crawlies coming into my sleeping bag…namely, tarantulas. But we shushed Meghan and went back to sleep, telling her it was probably nothing.
Goodnight Cactus. Goodnight Runcible Spoon. Goodnight Milky Way and the Light of the Moon. Goodnight Tarantula. Goodnight Brush. Goodnight Camp Rangers who are whispering “hush.”