Day Seven: 11 August 2007
Day Three on Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon. Miles hiked: 9.9
Miles to go: 9.9
…Mountains often weed out the unfit so early in the game that, once they realize they have bitten off more than they can chew, they can often return fairly easily downhill to their staging zone. In complete contrast, canyons do the opposite. While descending most Canyon trails, the ease and coolness of the descent are seductive. It’s a breeze even for the unfit or the unprepared. Until the time comes to hike back up. Then, when it’s all too often a hot, dry, hard, agonizing, and often torturous physiological contrast to the descent, the unfit get weeded out late in the game and get weeded out brutally. Sometimes fatally.
No one was stung by scorpions in the night, presumably, so we packed our things and ate a quick breakfast and departed by about 5:30 a.m., as usual, to avoid that careless mistake hikers make when they attempt to begin a five-mile hike (particularly uphill) at 9 or 10 a.m., and then are suddenly overwhelmed with how HOT the Canyon can get.
We were told a thousand times, by park rangers, Christophe, and park signs posted numerous places around the trails and campgrounds, that hiking uphill would take at least twice as long as hiking downhill, and to account for the extra physical stress with extra water and snacks.
If it wasn’t a risk of dehydration-heatstroke-hyperthermia, it was a risk of (and we were taught to fear this above all), hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is water intoxication. It is what happens when the body registers dangerously low levels of sodium. Hyponatremia symptoms are vague and can easily be confused with dehydration: nausea, fatigue, headache, confusion. But it can also lead to seizures and coma. And in this case, drinking water will ensure a fatality rather than prevent it. So, while on the trail, we made sure to drink plenty of water–followed up with salty snacks such as pretzels, peanuts, and crackers.
Christophe let me lead for the beginning of the hike, so I set the pace. I tied my bandanna around my head and we waved a solemn goodbye to Phantom Ranch and the river. This time, we’d be hiking along the river (THANK GOODNESS) in the shade of the early morning hours, and finishing the uphill hike during the hotter portions of the day. Also (THANK GOODNESS) we were no longer backpacking a mountain in reverse. We were, aside from the desert summer air, hiking traditionally: starting at the bottom and making our way to somewhat-cooler temperatures. That didn’t mean, of course, that it wouldn’t be difficult, or that I had my reservations. Especially when I looked up, gulped, and looked at my eight companions behind me.
Like Frodo, I felt pitiful and small in a landscape that was much greater than me.
The trail followed the river into the Canyon and then we followed Pipe Creek to Devil’s Corkscrew. The river roared beside us, red and angry. John Wesley Powell rafted the river in 1869, in the throes of the Civil War, about a decade before America’s worst Yellow Fever epidemic in history. This was before modern medicine, and the one-armed Major Powell rafted the Colorado (then called the Grand) with, well, one arm and four small boats, on a rapid-filled river before it had been explored before. He wrote in his diary on August 14, 1869, so the temperatures would have been comparable:
The walls now, are more than a mile in height — a vertical distance difficult to appreciate. Stand on the South steps of the Treasury building, in Washington, and look down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Park, and measure this distance overhead, and imagine cliffs to extend to that altitude, and you will understand what I mean…A thousand feet of this is up through granite crags, then steep slopes and perpendicular cliffs rise, one above another, to the summit. The gorge is black and narrow below, red and gray and flaring above, with crags and angular projections on the walls, which, cut in many places by side canyons, seem to be a vast wilderness of rocks.
We picked our way slowly. The trail beside the river was dusty and dry, but when we met up with Pipe Creek, the air was more humid, there were plants growing, and parts of the trail dipped into wide pools where we could soak our bandannas and rub water over our faces. The creek was clear and cool. We didn’t have water purifiers, but if we did, I would have gladly taken water out of that running stream and drank it up.
At times, the trail was even muddy, probably as a result of the recent (?) storms. Believe it or not, there were even waterfalls pouring out of Canyon walls, and wherever there are waterfalls, there is a thick growth of moss and leaves to accompany them. The running waterfalls ensured that there would be a supply once in a while of running streams. There were periods, with the River at our backs and Devil’s Corkscrew far ahead, that we slogged through water, between tall reeds and whipping away bugs from our faces. We took time, where there was clean, cool water, to wipe our faces and necks (and I liked to rub my arms down, too) and soak our bandannas to keep our heads at optimal temperatures.
The core of the body, I read many years later, has its own cooling system, dependent on hydration, much like a car uses coolant so its radiator can prevent the car from overheating. A lack of this hydration will result on the body steadily climbing to higher and higher temperatures. Heatstroke can occur once the core reaches above 104 degrees. Wherever there was water to be found, we drank more of it, and we did our best to keep the heat at bay. I did not want to bake my insides.
That is, until we approached the section of trail that wound up from the level ground and up the cliffs via Devil’s Corkscrew. Still leading, I marched ahead of the group, and the sun beamed down on the other worst part of the experience: The long, steep, uphill climb after winding up the switchbacks of Devil’s Corkscrew. There was a spot where we could rest in relative shade once we made it past this section of the trail, but by no means was it quick. We labored upwards. Every step was deliberate and painful.
Going uphill is no fun. Especially in the heat of the morning, sun down in the bottom of the Canyon. The walk from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens again took roughly four hours with breaks. The worst part of the trail was the steep, uphill winding path called Devil’s Corkscrew, and then a steep climb all the way to the top of that same peak…
We paused to eat our snack in the shade of an overhanging rock, which looked down over the ridge and the Devil’s Corkscrew trail far below. I sipped water slowly and carefully. A squirrel leapt onto my pack, trying to get snacks. I shook him off, giggling with my friends. We groaned, looking up at the long stretch that loomed before us, winding upwards. My feet were sore, and my back and shoulders ached from carrying the pack for now the third day. Our small breaks were too quick, now that we were working overtime to hike uphill, to allow us to recover before setting off.
The nine of us quickly established a pecking order after that, based on who was comfortable traveling certain speeds.
Meghan, Alison, and Kathryn made up the “fastest” hikers in the group, along with Christophe. As we started going uphill, these four were fit enough to lead the pack, didn’t need as many breaks, and quickly placed some distance between Carley and myself, who were both about five feet tall, similar weights, and with similar little legs. We hiked together, too slow for the first group and too fast for the last.
We felt bad and at first tried to wait for Skye, Melanie, and Marcia, who hiked leisurely and took more breaks, but it was difficult and frustrating. We couldn’t keep the pace of MACK because it quickly became exhausting. Our legs burned as if we were on a never-ending Stairmaster in an oven. We needed to stop and pant and rest once in awhile, especially during the latter parts of the trail, but we were definitely in good enough shape to keep up a pace brisker than plodding. We weren’t taking it easy, but we weren’t pushing ourselves to the brink, either.
This was probably not the safest thing, because different speeds of hiking can easily lead to a quarter mile…then mile…then two mile gap between hikers as one group continuously goes faster than the other. And two miles is a long time to wait.
So we quietly kept our pace and kept moving along with the slower group, with quite some distance between us and MACK. At this point, Carley and I knew we only could rely on ourselves to get through the hike. To hike much more quickly was to cause injury or illness, and we didn’t want that. But we didn’t want to slog along at a pace too slow for comfort, either. The trick was to keep moving. The more we slowed and took it easy, the more difficult it would be. The trail was steep and difficult, and the sun was rising.
The last stretch was difficult — the trail went up, between two cliffs before coming up into the trees and shrubs and opening into Indian Gardens. Carley and I finished the day’s march into Indian Gardens alone, where the group of MACK was waiting for us. We had decided to march on ahead, and made mental notes to ask Skye and Christophe if we could hike at our own pace tomorrow.
Once we got to Indian Gardens, I had some food and (more) water immediately before our group got lunch food to take to the creek and eat. This part was not as seculded but a lot cleaner with more space. A small cliff overhangs the creek, and it’s littered with rocks instead of mud and moss and slime.
I went off on my own, wanting some seclusion, to make rock pyramids (“cairns,” I explained) and to sit and breathe “for a spell.” There was a French family nearby, and I thought I might try a little harder in French class next year. There were, in fact, many French tourists there. We saw a train of mules pass through while sitting in the creek — the same set of mules we had pet the day before.
Later, it rained on and off, so we took refuge in the campground under our pavilion, playing UNO and Signs. Thunder echoed around the canyon walls and dark clouds loomed over the cliff walls. We were tired from the hike and I especially was not keen on being out in the elements during a thunderstorm because I HATE thunderstorms, so we continued our card games for the next hour or two, watching in awe (even me) as the dark clouds rolled in and then quickly out of the Canyon, showering us with rain in small, quick spurts.
August is, I later learned, prime flash flood season for the Grand Canyon. Flash floods occur because in the semi-arid climate during the late summer/early fall, severe thunderstorms and rainfall can develop very quickly as moist air travels from Mexico and southern California northeasterly into the desert. The dry, dusty ground is incapable of absorbing the heavy water fall in Grand Canyon. The water runs off, over the land, like a quick river, dragging debris and stones with it, and can drive forward for many miles.
In Grand Canyon, a flash flood could also come down hard as a waterfall racing down the walls toward the river. Flash floods are especially dangerous in very narrow canyon areas, where the space can quickly fill with water. I once read that you may only get about 10 – 15 seconds of warning if a real flash flood is coming. You would see a rushing wall of red, dirty water, complete with logs and boulders — and then you’ll die.
When Carley and I got sick of the group, we decided to wander off by ourselves to a small spring and stream, where we found some little tadpoles swimming in a shallow stream, likely stirred up by the several cycles of rain prior. By manipulating stones in the water, we could create new waterfalls and larger pools for the tadpoles to swim in. Marcia eventually joined us, while Christophe took the other girls to a cave they’d found. The three of us chatted and relaxed. It was fascinating, the things that we could find to occupy our time.
On the walk back, we decided to sit at a different part of the stream. I pondered that, back home, my best friend Tanya was having her Sweet 16 birthday party. She was probably with all my friends and ex-boyfriend, who was trying to make me jealous, partying in the backyard and playing volleyball under the trees. Later, they would all pull up chairs and sit around the bonfire, giggling about the latest gossip and inside jokes. Meanwhile, I was sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with new friends, with no way to contact her or wish her a happy birthday. I wondered if they even remembered where I was.
All of a sudden, a helicopter with the letters NPS (National Park Service) flew over us. Carley suggested that the helicopter was sent to look for someone who needed rescuing. Solemnly, we agreed that was the best (and worst) possibility.
We continued our slow walk back through the trees to the campground. On the way, we ran into four or five rangers standing around a handcuffed man, only two campsites away from ours… so we hustled to a nearby bench to try and overhear what was happening. Christophe had a friend who was a ranger in the park, Delia, and she told us that the man was camping with a friend without a permit and he already had a warrant out for his arrest. Apparently, he had committed some kind of drug felony and had to be shipped out of the Canyon via helicopter, while his buddy had to hike out.
My reaction? He didn’t deserve a fun helicopter ride. We nicknamed him the Fugitive, AKA the Wrong Felon. In retrospect, I always did wonder if his buddy knew what was going on, and how the rest of his lonely hike went. Oh well.
We made our way back to the camp to relax, talk, and sleep before our last Big Day. We chose to sleep in tents this time, not outside, especially after the fiasco two nights prior with Meghan thinking that animals were crawling over her. I didn’t mind, honestly, sleeping in a tent, safely tucked away under the Big Tree. At least I didn’t have to worry about (or did I…?) the multitude of scorpions like in Phantom Ranch.
Now that I’d been sleeping on rocky ground for several days, I found it pretty easy to fall right to sleep. The day’s hike combined with the storms, games, and exploring made for a complete day that was “carpe diem’d” pretty thoroughly. I snuggled in my sleeping bag, both excited to get out of the Canyon and also a little sad.
But there was one thing I had learned from both the uphill hike and the Wrong Felon (besides, regarding uphill hiking, dreading the next day’s uphill hiking).
And that was: If you were going to be in the Grand Canyon, you’d best not misstep.