You know the feeling. That dreaded high school or college reunion is just around the corner. Having moved back to my hometown, the usual excuses didn’t work. I went to the social hour, drank a glass of reunion Chablis, talked briefly to a man from Florida (who I couldn’t place from way back when) and quickly left. The short story is that one thing led to another. A proposal made a year later on a Caribbean cruise was accepted, followed by a decision to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim in a single day just before the big event. What was I thinking!
Over 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year. Of those visitors, only 1% ever goes down below the rim into the Canyon. Most of those camp overnight. Fewer still hike the Canyon rim-to-rim in a single day, an activity frowned upon by the Park Rangers. In our age group the numbers who hike from one rim to the other in a single day are infinitesimal.
5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10th
We were dropped off at Yaki Point, the South Kaibab Trailhead (elev 7,260 ft). From here, it’s over 4,700 ft down to the Canyon floor. We estimated our rim-to-rim time at 12 hours as my fiancé, Jack, had hiked it in that time in 2000. A first-quarter moon hung in the night sky and the temperature was a brisk 44o. We traveled light. Our friend, Bill, hiked with us on this first leg to Phantom Ranch. A judge, he would marry us at the North Rim the next evening at sunset and all the special permissions were in place.
Cedar Ridge. A hitching rail is here for mule trains going down to and coming up from Phantom Ranch. Mule trains have the right of way and we’d scramble up off-trail to let them go by. The exposed trail was full of hazards including mule poop! Few protective barriers exist and we carefully descended deeper into the Canyon.
The Tip Off. Just beyond Skeleton Point, the Colorado River slid into view and was a shimmering emerald green ribbon below.
The Tonto Trail Junction. My legs morphed into over-cooked spaghetti so we rested, refueled and rehydrated. Because of climatic extremes created by almost 5,000 ft of elevation change, search and rescue missions are launched every year. I sensed I might be one, but with no taxi in sight, whistling for a mule seemed to be the only option.
The Black Bridge (Kaibab Suspension Bridge). It swayed under our red-dust covered boots. Light bounced off sculpted Canyon walls and danced on the Colorado below. The sun sparked hot. Layers of clothing came off and we put on protective sun hats, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. We passed through the Black Bridge Tunnel and remains of a kiva of the ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi), and the Bright Angel Campground close to Phantom Ranch.
Phantom Ranch at Bright Angel Creek. 7.1 miles from the Yaki Point Trailhead, it is open year-round. At their post office, we mailed 100 postcard wedding announcements. Slower than the pony express, the red postmark said: “Carried by mule from Phantom Ranch of the Grand Canyon.” Bill left us and hiked on ahead. Reality was daunting. Phantom Ranch was still 14 miles from, and a 5,679 ft climb up to the North Rim Trailhead!
From Phantom Ranch. Pushing on, we worked our way through “The Box” over a series of 4 bridges that crisscrossed Bright Angel Creek at right and left angles. Every rock of the water-cut canyon glowed and the creek jittered like a mirage.
Ribbon Falls and Heartbreak Hill (aka Asinine Hill). Lying midway between river and rim, slippery mule poop had disappeared from the trail. In its place was scat full of confetti-colored seeds from flowers of Prickly Pear cacti. Coyote or fox? We’re more familiar with bear scat of Montana, a landscape we measure the world against. Bill had spread the word as he hiked out ahead of us about our intentions to go all the way in a day and follow up with a wedding. Fellow trail-trekkers called out congratulations with some ribaldry attached as they passed by.
Cottonwood Campground. We filled water bottles and fought off swarms of black flies before our next stop at the Ranger House-Pump House just below Roaring Springs. Water is pumped from here up to the North Rim Lodge still over 3800 feet above us. Artist Bruce Aiken, well known for his Grand Canyon art and paintings, has lived and worked below Roaring Springs since 1973. Here he’s tended the park’s water supply, raised his family and made his art. We’d seen his splendid oils of the Canyon hanging at El Tovar Lodge.
Roaring Springs. The sun was down, a crescent, silver moon hung in the night sky, and we inhaled without swallowing a mouthful of flies, only dust!
Fluorescent-yellow eyes peered at us from the trailside and it was difficult to see obstacles. We layered clothing back onto our chilled bodies. My headlamp sent out a feeble glow, I lost my depth perception, the trail looked flat, and vegetation appeared bleached. Unable to identify the switchbacks, I soon led us off-trail. Moving up a rocky slope, we beat through thorny brush tearing at our legs. Ray Bradbury wrote that half the fun of travel is the esthetic of lostness – this esthetic was not fun! Backtracking, we carefully side-slipped down the greasy hillside and finally found the holy trail. Jack’s LED headlamp sent frequent flashes up ahead to illuminate the trail, like a pole star. He kept warning, “stay left, hug the wall” – the sheer drop-off was on the right. His words flew out into the dark, up-trail and back in a continuous loop. The cold chiseled through to our bones.
Supai Bridge. We recognized symptoms of hypothermia, stumbling on through the Supai Tunnel – last stop before the North Rim, After hours of inhaling Canyon dust, which in the light of our headlamps looked like reddish dust motes, we suffered from a constant deep-bronchial hack we dubbed “Canyon Cough”.
12:20 a.m. Tuesday, October 11th
After 21 miles, we stepped onto the North Kaibab Trailhead at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim (elev 8,241 ft). Nineteen hours and twenty minutes earlier, we’d left the South Rim’s Yaki Point. We’d just completed hiking up the steepest, most difficult and dangerous section of the Kaibab Trail in the dark. We stood in the freezing wind and listened to the silence.
Factor in the dangers in the Canyon, and ask why push an aging body so hard? We love to hike and it sounded romantic, challenging and memorable. Like-minded souls understand. It’s about the view from the bottom of the Canyon, moving through the Canyon, touching its magic and mystery with your fingers and feeling it through your feet. It’s about smelling the Canyon, and, yes, barking the “Canyon Cough.” We experienced the Canyon’s staggering raw power and splendor deep in our bones. And, we left our footprints in the Canyon.
That evening, we were married at sunset on Bright Angel Point. Afterwards, we looked back to the South Rim and pointed out our trail to family and friends. Yes, they saw our footprints in the Canyon below!
So, even an hour at a reunion can be dangerous. As to the marriage? After six years, we’re still testing our limits.