Canyon Odyssey VII: Are We Out of the Woods Yet?

Day Eight: 12 August 2007

Day Four on Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon. Miles Hiked: 14.9

Miles to go: 4.9

Some say the world will end in fire

Some say in ice

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire

But if it had to perish twice

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction, ice

Is also great, and would suffice

–Robert Frost

Day 8 in Arizona. Day 4 on Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon. If the world was to end, it would surely end in fire, and that fire would continue to burn…and burn brightly.

The hot, arid Canyon environment, the “inverted mountain” effect of an easy initial descent followed by a very demanding ascent –combined with the victims’ behaviors – often severed their timelines. In fact, most of these “cardiac arrest” victims were hiking uphill, often under direct solar heat (heat that can be unrelenting even in April and October), and in the dry Canyon air. On top of that, they often were hiking without having drunk enough water.

These complications are further compounded by age. The most well-camouflaged victims of dehydration/heatstroke are fairly young and athletic. Kids and young adults seem to run at full function in the heat, sweating appropriately and seemingly going strong, but abruptly, when dehydration kicks in and core temperatures spike to the point where brain function is impaired, around 105 to 106 degrees, they crash quickly and often unexpectedly. And next they die.

Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon

4 a.m.

It was dark and pipistrelle bats were flying around our heads on the last — and sure to be most difficult — day of the excursion. We had a totally lovely 5 miles uphill to finish out our hike at the South Rim.

Carley and I had oatmeal for breakfast. I had never particularly cared for oatmeal, which was strange considering my diet of almost exclusively meat-bread-potato goods. I rolled my sleeping bag for the umpteenth time, ensuring the rolls were tight enough to fit in its sleeve, and stuck my tent poles in the back before rolling my ground pad and clipping it beneath my pack. I filled two Nalgenes and one went in each side of my pack. I was not sure I was ready.

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The smiles of naive little hikers

Since Meghan, Alison, and Kathryn decided they wanted to continue their fast pace and make record time, they were planning to leave a little later with Christophe as a guide. Meanwhile, Carley and I would leave earlier with the rest of the girls and Skye. It would be MACK versus CASMM.

The hike teased us, starting much like the previous day — flat and easy, in the cool air, the Canyon walls waiting before us. About 1.5 miles into the hike (according to my journal… don’t ask how I know that), Carley and I decided to go ahead by ourselves, hiking at our own pace and taking fewer stops. MACK had already passed us, and we couldn’t stand the discomfort of going too slowly. It was almost as painful as going too fast, because it was too easy — we didn’t need to keep stopping and we certainly didn’t want to drag out a difficult hike up the switchbacks.

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Bye, Bye, MACK

The way was lonely and the road long. Carley and I began to ascend the switchbacks, occasionally resting in minimal shade against the Canyon walls or sitting atop some boulders at the edge of the trail. We moved out of the way for mule trains and snacked on tortillas, some of the only snacks left. I began to feel very uncomfortable, then nervous–nauseous, stomach pains, exhaustion. I wasn’t sure what was happening, until Carley mentioned that it could have been the oatmeal. According to her, the oatmeal “often” could cause a stomach to act up because of the oats or something.

I vowed never to eat oatmeal again. So far, I’ve kept that promise.

Whether or not my severe stomachache could have been caused by oatmeal, or something else, remains a mystery.

The sun was burning down once again, and the upset stomach and sore legs did not help. Each movement was identical, so our legs never got a rest — it wasn’t just one muscle group, either. It was your entire core and each side of the leg. The front muscle seared when we lifted them to take the next step and our calves and hamstrings protested the rest of the way. Like I said — get on a Stairmaster for four hours and see how you feel. Now raise the temperature in the room to 100 degrees and try it.

Get out those water bottles.

Another thing: It is impossible to tie your shoes while wearing an internal frame backpack. Usually, Christophe would have to tie our shoes for us.

But Carley and I were on our own, with our water and tortillas and my funny tummy, and we had to look out for one another. But one thing I liked was that we hiked similarly: we were both short and bulky, had to take stops at agreeable times, and I got to learn a lot about her. It was unusual and different, especially with me being from New England, but also just because of who I was, to be able to connect with another human so deeply. We were alone on the trail. But yet, we weren’t alone at all. We passed families and tourists who waved a friendly “HELLO!” as they passed. We met families from England, France, and everywhere you can imagine. We felt powerful and strong, regardless of our bodies, which felt like they were breaking down.

But behind it all was the idea that we were on a well-maintained trail, with only five miles between the Rim and the campground, and hikers were abundant, and so…nothing really bad could happen because someone (namely: Park Rangers or fellow hikers) would take care of us in the event of tragedy.

Young hikers, especially athletes, often possess such a well conditioned cardiac system that they –especially males–are able and accustomed to blasting along where other people move more slowly. Second, all too many of them do not understand heat or what it does. In extremely hot climates these [young hikers] are a lot like muscle cars with big engines but undersized (unacclimated) radiators. They drive at their usual high speed, spurred additionally by…thinking that denies the consequences of breaking the speed limit, until they overheat. This potentially lethal overheating takes them almost completely by surprise.

-Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon

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“Beware the switchbacks, cut and dry, that carve the mountains steep and high.”

As we hike along, and you imagine hiking inside an oven, we can talk about geology, which is something that I had not particular knowledge in until learning about it long afterwards. At the time, hiking the Canyon was admiring the rocks, colors, and layers without truly understanding what they were, unless someone were to point it out.

Climbing the Grand Canyon’s trails is like traveling forwards in time as the geological record slowly changes, whereas as you hike down, the opposite occurs. The billion-year-old Canyon’s walls are familiar and friendly, kind of peering over you in introspection, as if asking, “what are you doing walking around down there?” and at the same time, humbling. Staring into their layers was slightly disrespectful. These were, after all, my elders. I peered myself over the ledges many times, gazing out into the abyss, and felt it wave back at me. I didn’t feel worthy enough to wave back.

I felt a dizzying confusion of thinking of the Canyon walls in terms of a familiar and acquaintance, as well as a wall of many layers of stone: some that used to be sand and mud, some that used to be lava, some that used to be the bed of ancient lakes and seas, and some that simply were the dirts of a great plain. I knew that once I went back — and I would go back — that I would great the Canyon as my equal, as an old friend. I would spot the familiar crumble in that particular piece of rock, and the way that trail twisted and turned, and the way the walls leaned back as they watch me go.

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I am a blindingly red Canyon wall, full of geological and historical artifacts that are probably very important. Please don’t touch my rocks. It’s illegal.

The thing about the Canyon was that I didn’t have any kind of religious epiphany. If anything, the sense of awe was heightened by its natural wonder. Like millions before me, I experienced many periods of breathlessness, where the only words I could exclaim were muttered “Wow,” and “Oh my gosh.” Since Bright Angel Trail followed an old route used by generations of Native Americans, I felt like I was experiencing something special and antique. Like when I bounced in my seat while en route to Stonehenge, I felt a sense that something to do with wisdom was blossoming inside me just from participating in Grand Canyon. It had nothing to do with a Catholic upbringing, but a sense of respect and humility when faced with what can happen on its own accord.

Backpacking tends to turn your brain on full-speed as it attempts to comprehend many things at once: The profound, the not-so-profound, and the mundane. It was difficult to juggle staring at the stars at night, boyfriends, water bottles, desert survival, and billions of years of history without getting a migraine.

Sometime while becoming a Junior Park Ranger in Phantom Ranch, but also moreso much later after coming home, I learned about the Canyon’s geological history.The earth’s tumultuous past, especially the Canyon’s, was bewildering. I looked back many times and whispered, “Wow.” This was not the work of God’s hand, or Poseidon’s whim, or Apollo’s canvas. This was the product of the Earth simply behaving as earth typically chooses to behave.

Convection currents in the mantle circle the inside of the earth, churning the plates into motion, causing them to crash into one another and create landscapes, time and again. I learned about the stages of the Canyon’s development: the inland sea that covered the land before the Pacific plate slammed into the North American — the same activity that causes earthquakes in our friend California — and caused the land to rise out of the sea, and then, the mighty Colorado appeared after the Rockies formed, carving a gash into the land that was uplifted further. The land buckled. And finally, the Canyon was eroded over millions of years. Rockslides slid, volcanoes erupted, and the river carved more. In pictures, you can see the curving parallel lines that resemble the paths left when ocean water laps up against a wall of sand and washes it away.

This behavior stunned me. I was in awe of what planet could do. Would do. Has done. And it needed no prompting from Celestial figures pointing it in the right direction, making life fit for us, and making everything just so. In fact, I felt even luckier to be alive in an era of stability and warmth in a history of snowball earths, many ice ages, supercontinents and tropical wetlands. I felt like getting on my knees, head down, like the ancients before me, and appreciating the Earth for arranging a climate that was far from volatile and could support human life, especially since the planet floats in an icy, black sea of gases and rocky or fiery, lifeless places.

And while having thoughts just like that — I had to get back to reality and think about drinking water, the desert climate, what temperature it was, hiking at a comfortable pace, holding onto my backpack, and standing to the inside of the trail when mules passed. Carley and I climbed, and climbed, and climbed.

We suddenly spotted a familiar figure: Christophe had hiked back down to greet us and gave us good-and-bad news: we were almost at the top, with only a mile left to go — but it was the steepest part of Bright Angel Trail. The hardest part. The last part.

Though it would be difficult, Carley and I decided we would just “go,” taking no more than three breaks on the steep switchbacks and the long, steady climb afterward — like a prolonged Devil’s Corkscrew. Ouch.

BrightAngelTrailSwitchbacksMay08
Bright Angel Trail Switchbacks Courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrightAngelTrailSwitchbacksMay08.jpg. Click on this picture to make it larger, and zoom in to see what the trails actually look like traversing those cliffs.

I remember the last part of the trail most vividly (it’s always the painful parts that I remember best, unfortunately). For some reason, I was thinking about vacuums. Like, the household appliance. There were no streams to dip my bandanna and we had long ago passed the “first” rest house. Climbing up would take twice as long. The only thing in front of my field of vision was my next step.

I remember hiking Mount Greylock many years later, and as I hiked along, too breathless to talk to my boyfriend, I would ponder this very same mechanical tendency. I would keep my eyes on the ground, seeing nothing but the gradual incline and my toes as I placed my boots so I wouldn’t snap my ankle, holding my backpack straps with my hands, then taking them away, then pausing to unscrew my Nalgene and take a sip… the pattern continued. I saw reddish dirt turn to gold, then white dust. The incline was so steep that I couldn’t see farther unless I raised my head and looked up.

I thought about vacuums while placing one foot in front of the other and Carley and I looked at each other and breathed “you can do this! We can do this! We are almost there.” Panting, we climbed. We passed all the landmarks of the first day, and I thought nothing except of my sore and sickened body, chugging along, being sucked into a vacuum. I didn’t think I could go a step further, but I kept moving my legs. Our pace slowed significantly.

Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet?Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods?

Are we in the clear yet? Are in the clear yet? Are we in the clear yet? In the clear yet? Good.

But somehow, someway, we made it to our landmarks: the tunnel, which marked the “almost-there” point, and then the dust gave way to paved sidewalk, and we were stumbling — literally, stumbling, out of our packs and into our screaming, cheering friends’ arms. Laura was there, and Margaret, and MACK, and we were all hugging and crying and laughing about how disgusting we were.

We reached the top of the South rim at 10:07 a.m., which was far from good time due to our slow start and finish (so says my journal).

First things first: Packs on the ground, fresh, cool water, and a sit in the shade. We sat in line on a row of benches, waiting for the Melanie, Marcia, and Skye to finish behind us.

When we were all together, Margaret led us into the South Rim shop to get ice cream — yes! That long awaited ice cream! At the beginning, it had seemed a small thing, but now we craved it as one of those simple joys that could not be replaced. We had hiked over 19 miles in four days, a mile vertically down and then back out again, in 90 – 110 degree weather –and on that last day especially, it was not an easy trip. All I wanted was something sugary and cold. Ice cream was perfect. I also grabbed packs of candy to replenish my sugar further while gorging on water in the shade. I really wanted to take off my hiking boots, but hey, we can’t all get what we want.

Picture 154
“You just hiked 20 miles of Grand Canyon National Park and touched billion-year-old rocks. Does your life feel the same?
Picture 156
“In fact, I feel quite profound… all I want to do is shut my brain off and eat this sugary cream.”

And after our ice cream, there were more exciting things to come. We walked out to the rim and gazed down on the view — the same view we cherished the first day, when we were more in awe than comprehensive of the toll the Canyon would take on us. The Canyon yawned, and I knew in that moment that I could never look at it the same way, and better yet, that I would have to go back.

I am writing this eight years later, on a laptop, as I am about to start my graduate degree and turn 24. Eight years later, I still have dreams about hiking South Rim to North Rim — or vice versa — and still talk incessantly about it to Patrick, whom I hope I can convince to come with me.

The Canyon awarded us with the perfect view: Sunlight beaming down into the crevices, allowing us to see the journey we took with clarity. We sat on the rock wall, and our counselors took a picture.

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“This rock wall is the only thing keeping me from becoming a permanent part of this national park!”

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There was the grove of trees we called home. There was the stream that we followed to the river.

There was Battleship Rock (on the left) which slowly stretched above us as we climbed down.

There were the peaks that stretched like landscape across the chasm from the Plateau.

That crack next to Plateau Point trail was the god-forsaken trail leading to Devil’s Corkscrew and the horrible Colorado river stretch. But, it was also home to Pipe Creek and the sanctuary of Phantom Ranch.

That squiggly trail forgot and forgave our stress and sweat and pain, but we would never forget it. We had marched along the very bottom of the creases and cracks that were too staggered to show the river — I had rested, nestled in a pile of black rocks.

And then, we had walked back out. My boots were stained with red dust, as were my clothes.

We had seen scorpions and families of deer, mule trains, tarantulas, ring-tailed cats, and met other hikers along the way. We had learned about the stars and geology of the Canyon, taking that knowledge with us for a time when we might need it. We had pushed each other to the limits and had fun when we could.

I could not forget the Canyon. I had hiked 19.9 miles. Oh, I could not forget the Canyon.

Amanda decides to go along after some fourteen years

Oh darling…

In a sky full of people, only some want to fly

Isn’t that crazy?

In a world full of people, only some want to fly

Isn’t that crazy?

I had mixed feelings as Margaret drove our vans, whooping and excited, to the showers to clean off for the first time in five days. I scrubbed the dirt and dust off my body and out of my hair, cleaning out the sweat and scrapes and oils. I put on a different set of clothes than before — a blue t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. Margaret did some of the girls’ hair in cornrows and french braids, but I let mine be loose. We were girls again.

Melanie 146
Ignore this picture completely. The Canyon, as much as we like to portray here, is not Disneyworld, and you can fall to your death. Yes, YOU!

We went back to the South Rim Grand Canyon Village to take in the view some more, relish in our adventures, and go souvenir shopping. I picked out Joshua Tree seeds and a tiny silver flower pendant with a turquoise stone in the center, to remind me of Arizona anytime I wore it, because turquoise was the stone of the desert and Navajo.

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This pendant’s life began on a chain in the Grand Canyon, but I have since adapted it into a charm for my bracelet so it can hang with the rest of the kids.

I was both happy to be out of the Canyon (for obvious reasons, like thirst and exhaustion) but sad as well. As I picked through the gift shop and joked with Meghan and Carley, I noticed a woman in a red dress and high heels walking down toward the trailhead.

“What does she think she’s doing?” I said, furious. Where were her boots? Shorts? Bandanna?

WHERE WAS HER WATER, MOST IMPORTANTLY.

The woman kept walking a little ways, then turned around and came back, clearly not dressed for this sort of thing at all.

I quietly divided my world into four parts:

Before the Hike & After the Hike

Those Who Hiked & Those Who Didn’t Hike. 

I bought a tan T-shirt that said “I hiked Grand Canyon National Park” on it, because I needed SOMETHING that I could wear all the time that said it. Meghan called it “obnoxious” because it was tan with bright red lettering.

Like I said, I needed SOMETHING to announce to the world my accomplishment.

Canyon Odyssey 1 209

As a final touch, we went out for pizza and spent the couple hours singing Disney songs and taking advantage of our cell phones to text or call our parents to tell them of our extraordinary feat.

Later, we set back to Mather campground to set up our tents, and to meet up with Group 2, whom we hadn’t seen since running into them on the Bright Angel Trail. It would be a happy reunion.

That night at about 9 p.m., Laura, Kathryn, Meghan, Carley, and I went with some of Group 2’s girls back to the South Rim (AGAIN!) to watch a gorgeous meteor shower unfold over the Canyon. We couldn’t see the Canyon, as there were no lights, so we laid out next to the cliff and let the skies take over our entire field of vision. The meteors were endless. They flitted back and forth across the sky, which was sprayed with twinkling planets, galaxies, and stars, and dusted with the arms of our own Milky Way.

I slept very, very well.

the_map

I have a map like the one above hanging on my wall. You can click on the picture to make it large, then follow the red line all the way on the LEFT (Bright Angel Trail) to where the black squiggly line (Plateau Point hike) diverges and continue following the red line down to the river, where it follows the Colorado and eventually crosses over into Phantom ranch.

The squiggly red line all the way on the RIGHT, following parallel-ish to Bright Angel, is the Kaibab trail. Rather than following the Kaibab back, we turned around and walked back up Bright Angel to the South Rim.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

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