Grand Canyon 2003

South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails

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This hike at the Grand Canyon, down the South Kaibab Trail and then up the Bright Angel, was a long time in the making. Originally I had wanted to go in late May, shortly after the South Kaibab hike (down and up the same trail), but summer came on schedule and the extremely hot (105 degrees plus) weather made any day hike possibly suicidal. To punctuate this cancellation, I fell on the trail at Squaw Peak injuring my left ring finger and having my wedding ring cut off in urgent care as a precaution. Was someone was trying to tell me this hike was a bad idea? Training a bit here and there in the summer, I decided that mid-October would be a good time to try again as the weather turns cooler at this time. Ron, who always keeps himself in shape for some upcoming marathon (he's completed 10 so far), wanted to join me again. We set a tentative date for the third week in October, but the 199 mile Providian Relay came up on that very weekend and we moved up the Canyon two weeks prior. Fate intervened again as a training run at Squaw Peak produced another accident, this time a hiker cut me off going up and my right knee hit a retaining wall. It hurt so badly and was so bloody I knew instantly my canyon run was not to be and in fact I worried that I couldn't even run in the upcoming relay. But it healed quickly and the knee was good enough to run in the relay. So Ron and I rescheduled for the very weekend after the relay because it was basically the last weekend we were both available until the end of the year. This time it was heavy rain that made us cancel. Instead, we ran in a half marathon through a very light drizzle. The trails were so bad at the Grand Canyon they were actually closed. You have to really start wondering, someone really doesn't want us to do this hike!

Squaw Peak Park in Phoenix - The training ground!Even though there was no possibility of a November or December trip, I was keeping myself in relatively good shape by doing a lot of running. Well, a lot of running by my standards. Maybe 20 miles a week. By the end of December (and the end of the holidays), weekends were now available, but I hadn't done any training at Squaw Peak. Ron was going to be at the Grand Canyon over the Valentine's Day weekend with Nicole and the kids, so that was his first choice! The only drawback was that we would be driving separately. His plan was to drive to Williams, AZ, and take the Grand Canyon Train (which amazingly, goes to the Grand Canyon!) In mid January I made my first visit to Squaw Peak since last October with surprisingly encouraging results. Three trips up were relatively easy. The following weekend was even better Three trips up and taking the circumference trail turnoff on the way down. There was no doubt that all the running over the winter was paying off. I was satisfied that a hike was possible. Cindy was available that very weekend and the prospect of staying overnight at the canyon was very appealing. Everything was falling into place!

On the Sunday before the Sunday of the hike, I tested myself by doing a full workout at Squaw Peak. Before my second hike in the Canyon (the one that went so well), I did the summit trail three full times and then on the fourth rather than complete it, I took the 4.5 mile circumference trail turnoff. After doing the summit a couple of times, the ups and downs of the circumference trail simulate the feeling you'll have at the Grand Canyon (GC). I finished well under three hours and though I was a bit tired, it was far from a debilitating tired (my definition of exhaustion.) I was now very excited about the upcoming hike and very satisfied with my preparation.

I began checking the weather reports daily and then hourly (or so it seemed). The reports were mixed at best. There was midweek rain predicted for not only the GC, but Phoenix as well. On Tuesday there was a bit of rain, and real rain began on Wednesday; continuing for 36 hours straight! This is very unusual for Phoenix where normally our rain comes down in buckets and is over in 15 to 20 minutes. I really wanted to do some running, but I had no desire to exercise in the rain. Heavy rain in Phoenix can often mean even more in the high country to the north. At this time of year that means snow and possibly a lot of it. This could spoil the hike by denying us a passable route! (My consolidation was they weren't getting much snow in Flagstaff which is at 7500 feet. They were getting a lot of snow at the Arizona Snow Bowl which is just north of Flagstaff on the San Francisco Peaks, almost 20 inches, enough to reopen the ski slopes!

By Friday the reports had partly cloudy skies and normal winter temperatures predicted for Flagstaff and GC. This would be great for the hike if we could make it through the snow. That is, if once again someone didn't want us to go.

On the Tuesday before the GC weekend, Nova aired, "Mountain of Ice," which chronicled a team of hikers who were climbing the highest peak in Antarctica. This mini-expedition required a lot of preparation and planning if they were going to succeed. Lack of either could be deadly. They compared their adventure with the early Antarctica explorers in 1911 who were the first to make it to the South Pole. There were two teams (one from Norway headed by Roald Amundsen and the other from England headed by Robert Scott) that ended up heading out in what turned out to be a race to be the first to the pole.

Amundsen, the Norwegian, loved exploration and adventure for it's own sake (and the snow!) and had spent his lifetime preparing for this moment. He learned how to use dogs from the Eskimos and learned how to cross-country ski, skills that would be critical for a long trip in the snow and bitter cold. Robert Scott, on the other hand, had done very poorly in terms of both planning and preparation. It seemed he was there simply for the glory of being the first to the South Pole. The first time Scott wore skis were in Antarctica and because he didn't research, he didn't use the correct bindings so quickly concluded they were useless. Instead of dogs, Scott brought ponies which were ill suited to the snow and cold and mechanical sleds (very advanced for 1911), but they broke down quickly in the cold.

The Amundsen trip, in the words of Amundsen himself, "Went like a dream." In many ways Scott was expecting an ordeal and he got it. The going was very tough and without any help to pull the sleds, the men had to do it themselves (man hauling) without the help of skies. When Scott's team finally reached the South Pole, they were already near exhaustion and had to face the torturous trip back. They arrived at the Pole to bitter disappointment when they found a tent with a Norwegian flag waving in the wind. Amundsen had not only gotten there first, he beat them by over 30 days! This story would almost be comical if it weren't for the fate that awaited the Scott team. They would not make it back - the entire team died on the return trip. Their entire story is well known, however, because of the photographs and the detailed log that Scott wrote during the journey.

Writing about their modern adventure in Antarctica, Jon Krakauer described his view of adventure:

"There is a quote I think about all the time when I'm climbing or on expeditions. It's by the great polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanson: "Adventure is a sign of incompetence." Stefanson was a guy who bragged that he never had adventures. He said that if you have an adventure, you're doing something wrong, that if you really plan things out in the vein of Amundsen, you don't have adventures. (Now, having said this, Stefanson relates sort of proudly how he almost got ambushed by a polar bear. Stefanson had plenty of adventures!)"

"We're deliberately hoping we have some adventures, but not too much adventure. We'll be miserable at times, and we'll wonder what the hell we're doing here. But we know what we're doing here. We came looking for this sort of thing. I like that quote because it speaks to the sense of absurdity of this whole business. That sense of absurdity has been there from the beginning of polar exploration. People have always gone to the poles for a sense of adventure. They wanted to go out and get scared and get miserable and enjoy themselves in a way you can't really understand unless you do this stuff, and like to do this stuff. That's what Stefanson was speaking to."

"I think the motivations for doing something like this are many, and they're hard to comprehend. There is a certain perversity, at least other people would regard it as such. But for me it's a wonderful thing, for all kinds of reasons. It's the joy of physical effort. The joy of feeling confident in a harsh place."

This is a lesson that should be well learned if you're trying to find a little adventure. A little adventure is okay, but it must not turn into an ordeal. Hiking to the river and back at the GC is not to be taken lightly. It requires preparation or you will have an ordeal.

Me and Cindy were able to book a room at the Yavapai Lodge which is within the Grand Canyon National Park, even though it was on short notice. Good luck in the summer where the rooms need to be reserved months in advance. Rain or no rain, snow or no snow, Cindy now had her heart set on going so as long as we could get there, we were there! It was cloudy as we left Phoenix and amazingly it cleared up quite a bit on the drive north. This is just the opposite of any other time we've driven north. As we approached Flagstaff, having risen to over 7000 feet elevation, there was a conspicuous absence of snow. A few patches could be spotted her and there, but it looked like it hadn't snowed in at least a month. Just 15 miles north of Flagstaff on the San Francisco Peaks they'd received over 18 inches of snow!

The San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff.We had a scheduled stop in Flagstaff for lunch and I chose a hamburgers at BunHuggers which is right on their main strip. The last time I'd visited this restaurant was after Ron and I had completed our canyon hike in May. We got gas and headed north out of town, passing a fairly large anti-war demonstration, a reminder of world events. We passed the snow covered San Francisco Peaks which were simply a beautiful sight. Many of the cars sharing the road with us turned off at the Arizona Snow Bowl, one of the two main ski areas in this state. I should mention that elk warning signs were out in force. In all there were 60 miles of elk signs and not a single elk!

Yavapai Lodge - Our building.Yavapai Lodge - Unloading the car.The 75 MPH speed limit makes a huge difference to travel time. I recall a minimum of 4 and a half hours to get to the canyon years earlier. We were at the gate of the south entrance 4 hours from the start of our journey, and this time with a lunch stop. I missed a turn that would get us quickly to the Yavapai Lodge that drove us right by the rim so we got our first look into the colorful canyon early. The Yavapai Lodge is not a single building. It is actually a series of small one-level buildings. After check in, you then get back your car and drive to your room. The small buildings reminded me a classic Motel 6, but they were all nestled within the ponderosa pine trees that are everywhere on the south rim. The room was pretty basic but comfortable.

The GC Bus. The path leading to Yavapai Lookout. Yavapai Pt - View of O'Neill Butte and sections of the South Kaibab Trail.

We drove back to the parking lot of the lodge lobby where there is a gift shop and cafeteria to catch one of the buses. Being after 2:00, I wanted to hit Yaki Point first, before the view was obstructed by the late afternoon shadows. Yaki Point lies just beyond the South Kaibab trail head and offers the best view from the rim of that trail. Unfortunately we caught the wrong bus and we ended up going in the opposite direction toward the main Grand Canyon Village. We got off at Yavapai Point where there were quite a few visitors stopped for the view. This point lies almost exactly between the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails. Because the Colorado River lies within the inner gorge, from many outlooks it's completely invisible. From this spot you can see two tiny sections of the river, but one of them shows the Kaibab bridge! You could also actually see Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. I was happy we had remembered to bring along the binoculars.

Closeup showing Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab - Near the center of picture. Cindy at the Yavapai Overlook - A Grand View! Wide angle view showing Phantom Ranch and a small bit of river.

Being in the center of the trails and seeing small sections of it here and there, the enormity of the following days hike was very apparent. For a few moments I actually thought this was a really dumb idea. I suppose if I had never done it before I would be oblivious and wouldn't be bothered. But I have done it before and knew how great the task. I was comforted by the thought that I was really well prepared.

The trail you see is Plateau Point Trail.  The Bright Angel goes into the small canyon. P80380.JPG P80381.JPG

Gene in foreground, South Kaibab in background. Phantom Ranch and Kaibab Bridge at the bottom!

Back on the bus we headed west toward the village. The next logical stop was at the famous El Tovar Lodge which sits very near the rim. If you want room reservations, you need to do so months in advance in the winter and a year or more for summer accommodations. There is a very good restaurant there which requires reservations, but a quick glance at the menu showed no "Cindy Friendly" food. We learned later that Ron and Nicole had reservations that very night.

The Grand Canyon Train. Grand Canyon Train leaving for Williams, AZ. P80387.JPG

El Tovar Lodge - Make your reservations half a year in advance. P80389.JPG P80393.JPG

View from El Tovar. Long view of the Bright Angel Trail.  Closeup of Indian Gardens.

The skies were only partly cloudy so all the overlooks were simply stunning. This was making me feel very good about our prospects for the following day. I decided that I would take my 35mm camera as I did the last time and got enough film to shoot 200 pictures.

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The Battleship. P80409.JPG P80410.JPG

P80413.JPG The top of the Bright Angel Trail. P80424.JPG

P80421.JPG A very muddy trail - The Bright Angel. Many Deer Friends in the GC!

A little over a quarter of a mile from the El Tovar is the top of the Bright Angel Trail. The top of the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails are for me genuinely happy places. There is great excitement (and some anxiety) when you begin your hike, and great relief and joy when you return. I couldn't help but think what I'd be feeling like at this very spot the next day.

P80428.JPGBack on the bus we headed to the vistors center where we caught a bus to take us to the South Kaibab trail head and to Yaki Point. The sight of deer is common within the park and we spotted at least a dozen during the visit. We briefly looked around at the displays but the full tour would wait until the ride back. I was hoping to see part of the South Kaibab Trail before it was engulfed in shadows. The bus first stops in the parking lot of the trail, and it was quite a contrast to what we saw last May. The parking lot was now full whereas it was completely empty that May morning. At Yaki Point I noticed the same thing. There were a lot of cars. Apparently you didn't have to take the bus, but it was very convenient, so why not?

The area of the South Kaibab Trail in the shadows of the late afternoon sun.Cindy and British vistor beyond the railing.We got to the overlook too late for a great view of the trail. Too much of it was no in the shadows. As we admired the view there were three kids (yeah, I call them kids, they were probably in their early 20's) from England going over the railing which is not uncommon to stand closer to the edge and generally joking around. (See picture at the left.) They had completed a day hike down and up the South Kaibab Trail and were pretty tired. They managed to do it in 9 hours. To me this was impressive (and a little bit naive) to try a hike without prior preparation.

The visitor center. The visitor center. The visitor center.

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Cindy was not keen on eating at the cafeteria for dinner. She preferred a sit down restaurant. Near the El Tovar we found the Arizona Room which offered Cindy Friendly food. I had a steak and she had chicken. It was a nice spot with a view of the canyon until darkness fell.

Back to our room, there was only one detail left. I had attempted to call Ron's cell several times and it quickly went to messaging. After the third time this happened I knew there was a service area problem. We thought we would run into him at one of the overlooks. I was anxious to know if he'd made it. Within minutes, Ron called from the Maswik Lodge, to say he was there and to say his cell phone wasn't working. We were on for the following morning and I got to bed by 8:15. But the weather reports were now suddenly turning. Instead of mostly clear to partly cloudy, the prediction was cloudy. The following morning before sunrise the weather channel was indicating cloudy conditions with a cloudy forecast. I decided if these were the conditions I would not bring the camera that would add a lot of extra weight. Instead I would pick up a disposable camera in the gift shop.

Our plan was to meet in the cafeteria at the Yavapai the following morning. Cindy would join us where me and Ron planned on scarfing down a very large breakfast to fuel our bodies and see us off on the bus. I wished that she would be coming along to the top of the trail to take a few pictures, but studying was on her mind and she'd planned on using all the hours of our hike.

It was finally time to get to the trail. 9:00 was our target time and it was now 8:40. I made a quick stop at the gift shop which is right next to the bus stop to pick up a disposable camera. The first bus was not the right one - disappointing because now I wished to get started. It was a little chilly, but I didn't think it was too bad. I was trying to decide if I'd bring my yellow windbreaker or leave it behind. Ron and Cindy were absolutely freezing so we all went back inside the gift shop to keep warm and wait for the second bus. As we waited for the bus, it suddenly occurred to me how ridiculous it was to be waiting for a bus. I chuckled and announced, "What are we doing?" We have a car and Cindy can drive us directly to the trailhead! Mentally me and Ron were still thinking of summer where the bus is your only option unless you want to walk all the way there and back.

Posing before the big hike.Cindy spots the warning sign!The parking lot was mostly full with maybe two parking spaces available. There was a group of six milling in the lot and given the time of morning and how fresh they appeared, you figured they about to head down the trail. They were outfitted for an overnight stay with full backpacks and climbing sticks. Our start was delayed slightly as the group asked me to take a group picture with several of their cameras. We walked up to the short path to the trail head and Cindy took a couple of pictures. I decided to wear the parka because if I took it off it would not be a lot of extra weight to lug around. On closer inspection of the information sign that we posed next to, she noticed the warning about no attempting a day hike to the river and back in one day!

The parking lot hikers on their way!Muddy but frozen!The top of the trail looked very muddy, but it was a frozen muddy! Very quickly, however, it turned into genuine mud with a lot of standing water which often pooled in the middle of the concave trail. This section of the trail is shielded from the sun most of the day so this was hardly a surprise. Me and Ron would switch running from one side of the trail to the other avoiding the water and mud, sometimes walking or running over the rocks that line both sides of the trail. My concern was not safety as much as the thought of the added weight the mud would add! I figured as soon as we emerged from the side canyon where the South Kaibab Trail begins, the trail would dry out. This turned out to be wishful thinking because the water and mud continued. After your quick initial descent from the limestone layer (and thus fairly hard limestone trail), you hit the softer coconino sandstone and then the red hermit shale. In order to keep the trail from washing away, they have laid enumerable 6-inch wide logs across the width of the trail. These would often form nice pool areas for the water and mud. Ron called our navigation of these sections "log hopping." It may sound funny, but you really have to pay attention because a slip could end the hike in an instant.

On our way!  Ron starts his monitor. "We'll you at the top of the Bright Angel!" Our jog to the river commences.

P80456.JPG Not the best viewing day. P80457.JPG

Though the overcast sky dulled the colors of the canyon, the visibility was good, but we weren't doing too much sightseeing. We were keeping a very good pace which feels like eight minutes per mile, but my experience has shown it to be actually about 10. Our only pause at this section of the trail was at the Ooh-Ah Point which Ron remembered me taking his picture at this very spot last year. I took the short break as an opportunity to remove my yellow parka because I was already feeling warm. I didn't need to take it along. I placed it in my fanny pack which held my Gatorade bottle and disposable camera. My thoughts often were on the familiarity of the trail. There were very few spots I could not remember. The trail now seemed like an old friend. We arrived at Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles from the trail head) in only 16 minutes so with the brief stop, we were nearly at that 10 minute per mile that I estimated. Along with the lack of sun there was a conspicuous lack of hikers. We would pass about four hikers coming up and maybe eight going down.

Near the top of the trail.  A long way to go to reach the river.After a bathroom break at the Rest House at Cedar Ridge (a consequence of drinking a lot of fluids that morning), we were back jogging down and avoiding the trail that was still surprisingly muddy in places, even though we were now in the wide open expanse. We briefly stopped at the top of the long switchbacks because ... well ... you just have to! It is such a wonderful view with the switchbacks in the foreground and the rest of the canyon in the background.

After the long switchbacks the trail became mostly dry. The trail straightens and heads directly to the abyss of the inner gorge. Our only stops were a brief one to view the bottom and a two minute one to let a mule train pass. In 01:08:30, we were in the tunnel leading out to the Kaibab Bridge. This beat my time nearly 10 years earlier by a minute and a half.

The river - that didn't take so long! ;)The river was muddy but not as bad as I'd imagined, but it was flowing much heavier than last May. The first thing you notice coming out of the tunnel and onto the bridge is the roar of the flowing water which seems to fill the gorge. Ron immediately pointed out that the beach was missing! This beach was our stopping point the last time where Ron went for a swim. It wasn't actually missing, we knew right where it was, but it was now under water. After passing the sign that warned of no swimming, (we would obey it this time ;) we were now on unfamiliar trail. I experienced a brief burst of excitement as everything I was seeing was new. This was tempered by the thought of the upcoming difficulty we might experience.

Bright Angel Creek very near Phantom Ranch.Short bridge over the Bright Angel Creek.Less than 100 feet from our stopping point last May there was a fresh water station, complete with a well crank! With the high temperatures of that hike, it would have been nice to refill my water bottle. I didn't pass up the opportunity and I refilled my bottle so now it was a mix of water and gatorade. Very quickly the trail split, one path leading to the nearby Phantom Ranch, the other leading over a short bridge crossing the Bright Angel Creek with it's beautifully clear running water. The area was not exactly new; I had seen this area from the trail (almost looking straight down) and from the Kaibab Bridge. But the look did not match my mental image. There were trees! A water supply will do that. We passed the helipad and the picnic ground and onto Silver Bridge to cross back over the Colorado River. Like the Kaibab Bridge, it is said to be "one mule wide." It could also easily be described as "one hiker wide" since we got behind two hikers that were walking with full backpacks very slowly (actually painfully slow as far as we were concerned) across this span. We figured the hikers were together, but as the bridge ended, one headed left back to the South Kaibab Trail while the other just stood there and made no expression or response when I said, "Hi!" Ron didn't say anything to him thinking the guy looked to him like he was just plain unhappy. I joked, "Unhappy? That's not good. There's a lot of unhappiness left to go. He shouldn't be wasting all of it here at the bottom!"

Silver Bridge - like the sign says! Ron removes a stone from his shoe.  Silver Bridge in background. The sand dunes on the River Trail.

This part of the trail is technically the River Trail, but nearly everyone (including myself) think of it was part of the Bright Angel. In comparison to the rest of the trails this one is flat, but it does go up and down along the path. We did our fast walk when the trail ascended and ran whenever the trail descended. A surprise on this River Trail was the sand! Sand? You'd think there was water near by. ;) For a good portion of this trail we were walking on pure sand, obviously deposited from long past floods from the river. This was a moment I was very happy I had the disposable camera to snap a picture.

Garden Creek - another clear running stream.The River Trail ends as it hits Pipe Creek. This is the actual start of the Bright Angel Trail . There is a rest house here and another chance to get fresh water. The creek was much smaller than the Bright Angel Creek, but it was also very clean and it's noise was music to my ears. The trail would basically follow this stream and cross it several times during our ascent.

I'd seen no photographs and I was very surprised by the look and feel of this section of the trail. In my imagination I'd pictured the lower part of the South Kaibab, but with a little more vegetation. The presence of any amount of water always makes a huge difference in the foliage. But this turned out to be a clean flowing creek! Dirty water would indicate the water came from very recent rains. What did not surprise me was this lower section offered almost no view of the overall canyon and my first thought was it didn't belong within the GC. The beauty of the Bright Angel is the local scenery. The walls are right there! The creek divided (from our viewpoint going up) and the trail followed a new very small stream that reminded me of a spring. It was now fairly quiet on the trail. We were still encountering very few hikers, most of them in full backpacks heading down. As the trail diverged from even this trickle of water, most of the vegetation vanished. The trail got steeper at this point in a series of switchbacks I learned later they call the Devil's Corkscrew. Half a mile later, however, the silence very abruptly ended by the roaring sound of a nearby waterfall. I could not see it, but that sound was unmistakable. Within a minute the trail joined back up with Garden Creek with the sight of a beautiful little (but loud) waterfall.

The trail follows Garden Creek. gc2003_11.jpg The inner canyon.

Part of the Devil's Corkscrew.The trail crosses the creek - one of many times.I assumed the lower portion to be a steeper grade (like the South Kaibab) and then leveling out for a long section which runs through Indian Garden. We could clearly see this section the day before from the top of the Bright Angel Trail. But the grade was very moderate and as we emerged from the inner gorge there seemed to be no change whatsoever. At this point the trail opened up and much of the South Rim was suddenly visible. It looked a long way up! The trail was now fairly straight and was lined with trees that would give very welcome shade under a hot sun. Right then, however, it was neither sunny nor hot, though it looked like it might be clearing up. I knew Indian Garden had to be close.

Nice view of the Devil's Corkscrew. A spectacular overhanging wall.

The Bright Angel Trail as it approaches Indian Gardens.Indian Garden is truly an oasis. There is Garden Creek, shade trees, lots of other vegetation, and a natural spring to provide drinking water. Looking through binoculars from the rim the day before, there appeared to be three large buildings and at least a dozen smaller ones. I was sure they must be small cabins, but they turned out to be ramadas with picnic benches underneath. During the summer I think this would be a wonderful place for a picnic! Before Indian Garden there were only a trickle of hikers, all of them decked out in full gear for an overnight stay at the bottom. That all changed at this spot. Suddenly there were hikers everywhere, and many appeared to be day hikers. There was also a group taking the mule trip, all mounted up and ready to move. This gave a moment of anxiety for Ron who did not wish to be behind another mule train. He had no thoughts of stopping or even taking even a short look around, so continued without pause. Being some 30 feet behind, when I spotted the mules the wrangler (who leads the train) turned them in my direction indicating they were on their way down! A few minutes later Ron turned around and said we have to stay ahead of the mules. I was happy to tell him they were heading down. Unfortunately I had no opportunity to get any pictures.

Look back on the trail. Looking back, just before the trail climbs. The trail begins the big climb.

Since our last hike, Ron had purchased a sophisticated monitor designed for a running and hiking that attaches to his upper arm. It has a timer, an altimeter, and comes with a strap that goes around your chest to monitor your heart beat. Best of all it has enough memory to record all this information for many hours. Another neat feature is a selectable checkpoint. At any point in your journey, press a button and it will record a marker at that instant. If you were running in a race, you might record when you were passing mileage markers. On the trail you indicate landmarks. Later when the data is plotted, you can see your altitude and time at that exact moment. (See the graph at the bottom.) Ron missed marking a checkpoint at Cedar Ridge (the first real landmark on the trail), but it turn out we didn't need it. Since we took nearly a two minute bathroom break at the rest house, the graph shows what looks like a two minute level stretch in an otherwise continuous descent.

My watch has an altimeter, but it stopped working last year. Instead I was able to ask (and sometimes annoy) Ron for the reading which would give me an idea of how far we had to go. Ron's answers would often annoy me because they were seemed low: 2200, 2800, 3200, 3500, ... Annoying because I knew the trail head was about 6850 feet; we had a long way to go!

After Indian Garden the trail was still basically straight heading right toward the steep canyon cliffs that rise 2500-3000 feet above us if Ron's readings were at all accurate. The cliffs and their height were certainly intimidating. I joked that if I didn't know better, I would turn back immediately thinking there's no way any walkable trail could exist that could navigate up these walls. And yet we knew it had to be there (all these people didn't jump!), yet there were no signs of trail even 300 feet ahead of us.

Looking back - half way up. About half way up. Look back around the 1.5 Mile Resthouse.

When we passed Indian Garden my watch read 2:32. Not only were we making good time, but it now seemed that 5 hours or even 4 and a half were very pessimistic estimates. I was starting to imagine completing the route in under 4 hours which would be 30 minutes faster than any time I'd heard. At 2:54 into the hike the relatively straight trail ended and a long series of switchbacks now lay before us. The steepest part of the Bright Angel Trail was at hand. 10 minutes later we hit another known landmark: the 3 mile rest house. During the summer months you can get drinking water here and at the one and a half mile rest house. The rest room facilities are available all year round. As the name indicates, it is 3 miles from the rim, giving us an exact measure of the distance left to sanity. That was the good news. The bad news was I was starting to tire significantly which meant a lot of insanity left to go. I was still moving well enough, but it was an increasing effort and Ron who was 50 feet ahead was starting to put more distance between us. But even worse I was beginning to think that 4 hours was our of reach.

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To add insult to injury the trail (which doesn't ever get a lot of sun) was becoming very muddy again. There were patches here and there on the way up, but easy to navigate without getting your shoes muddy. Now avoiding them would take a bit of energy. Switchback after switchback I knew we were a lot higher by looking back at where we were, but the rim still looked insurmountably high. I was tempted to slow a bit because as the minutes were ticking away I was beginning to realize that 4 hours might be just out of reach, but I wanted to keep Ron in sight, trying not to let him get too far ahead. My thoughts went back to last May when I was totally drained and I held him up. With time ticking away on my watch (my glances at it became ever more frequent) I decided I would tell Ron at the one and a half mile rest house he should not let me slow him down because I really thought at that point I was slowing him. I was tired, but I was otherwise fine, and in a perverse way still enjoying myself. There was no concern that I'd have to stop and rest - I could continue and at worst I would just slow down. I swear the toughest part was avoiding the very muddy center of the trail.

Nearly there!Less than a half mile to go - the sun returns!Ron seemed to take me up on my offer as he was getting so far ahead he was disappearing now and then (or was I simply going slower?) I was comforted by the thought the end couldn't be much further away. But my glances at my watch, now averaging every other minute, were not comforting. 3:30 turned into 3:45 and the top was still a long way up. 4 hours was not to be unless the trail head was a lot closer than it looked. Wishful thinking. One really nice thought was Ron surely had a good shot at 4 hours. He had now vanished from view so we could be easily 4 or 5 minutes ahead.

As I came up to the four hour mark I was somewhat demoralized. I knew I would fall short - there was still too much trail ahead. I suppose I should have been happy to be so far ahead of any time I thought even possible before the hike, but I'd spent the last 2 hours building this goal in my mind. From this point on I didn't even bother avoiding the mud, choosing to walk right through it.

With only a little way to go, I came upon a very heartening sight: Ron was stopped on the trail with Nicole taking out a snack. I gave a Homer Simpson, "Woo! Hoo!" I thought he had completed the climb and had come back down waiting for me. I asked, "What time did you get?" hoping that he had broken 4 hours. But he gave me a puzzled expression as he looked down at his watch saying, "It's 4:04." 4:04? That was the time that was showing on my watch! It turned out that is as far as Ron got. At 4 hours Ron who was incredibly tired himself (he was finding it difficult to move at all - a feeling he's had at the end of several marathons) also felt demoralized when he didn't reach the elusive goal so he stopped there at the 4:02 mark. He was only two minutes ahead of me and he said later that I was never out of his view. Nicole had a video recorder going and as I past them I looked into the camera saying, "I'm absolutely, totally, spent!" But that wasn't quite true. It was true only a moment before I spotted Ron and Nicole. Now suddenly I felt a burst of energy knowing I was virtually finished! A few more switchbacks and I reached the top at 4:11:30 according to my watch. I was now feeling quite good.

The adventure is over!Now it was time to see the bright side. I was thinking how good it was to have done so much better than I could have imagined. I sat down on one of the many rocks that line the trail to wait for Ron and Nicole who would surely arrive in only a few minutes. Sitting there in the wind and no longer exercising, I was feeling a real chill so I took out my parka to use as a wind breaker. Suddenly there was Cindy, coming down toward me! What amazing timing and now we would not have to worry about finding each other. She immediately asked, "How long have you been there?" She was surprised by my answer of, "Maybe a minute?" She said I looked like I'd been there for half an hour and not like someone who had just completed this long hike. Cindy took this great photo of me on that very rock with the canyon in the background.

P80462.JPGAfter another two minutes Ron arrived and our adventure was over. I felt great, although a flight of stairs on the way to the car were a quick reminder that my legs had taken a beating. This was my fourth day hike to the bottom of the canyon, and my second best. Walking to the car there was no question of whether I would do it again. It was a simply a question of when.

Ron's viewpoint is different from mine. His attitude is, "Been there, done that." He has no interest in doing it again unless it's a new trail - which means the North Kaibab Trail. For myself, I love nearly every step (there are some exceptions – especially those near the end) of the hike. As I grow older I must treasure these opportunities. It takes a lot of preparation to make this otherwise potentially deadly hike into a safe adventure. You just can't decide to go one day you're going to do it right then and there. You have to decide months in advance and then go through a rigorous training regiment. If you don't you might just end up having an ordeal and not a nice little adventure!


The Graphical View of the Hike

The jagged line indicates Ron's heart rate for the 4+ hour "adventure." The checkpoints:

1) Just after Cedar Ridge at the first switchback on the face of O'Neill Butte. The straight line just before this point shows our stop at Cedar Ridge.

2) Start of the Long Switchbacks section.

3) The Great Curve.

4) Wait for a mules.

5) Overlook of the river area between Kaibab Bridge and Silver Bridge.

6) Into the tunnel and onto the Kaibab Bridge.

7) Over Silver Bridge.

8) Indian Garden.

9) Start of the switchbacks and the steep climb section of the Bright Angel Trail.

10) 3-mile resthouse.

11) 1 and a half mile resthouse.

12) Finished!


It was not surprising to me that the descending line was essentially straight, indicating a constant level of descent. What was very surprising was the ascending line was also fairly straight! I am very certain we were slowing down as we got to the steeper section of the trail, but apparently our rate of descent was still a constant. Finally, you can see from the slopes that our rate of descent was a little better than twice the ascent.