By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007
It was early afternoon in the bowels of the Grand Canyon, and after 6 1/2 hours hiking in 100-degree heat, death seemed like a good idea.
Or at least a nap. Mile after blistering mile down the Bright Angel Trail, we had trudged along, taking frequent breaks for salty snacks and water, dousing our shirts in brackish pools and sneaking breathers while pretending to admire the striated walls and gaping maws at our feet. Small boulders littered the path, and run-ins with mules carting tourists had left a distinctive whiff in the torrid air. What had started as a chatty quartet in the predawn hours on the South Rim was now a silent, exhausted foursome looking for the end of the trail.
It was a peculiarly perfect moment.
As we neared the Colorado River, the distance between us lengthened, with my wife taking up the rear 15 yards behind me. "Save yourself," Janet wheezed. "Somebody will find me later." A group of 20-somethings who'd sauntered smugly by hours earlier at Indian Garden, an oasis of cottonwood trees, picnic tables, running water and toilets, passed us on their way back to the South Rim. They looked absolutely miserable.
We were just sort of miserable, knowing full well that in a matter of minutes we'd be at Phantom Ranch, where we could pry off our hiking shoes for two days and relax. Sleep. Drink beer. Mingle with other hikers. Splash in Bright Angel Creek. Exult in our triumph and plot our trek to the North Rim.
Our friends Michael and Jenni, the only people we knew crazy enough to do this with us, led the charge (actually more of a glassy-eyed stumble) across Silver Bridge, a narrow span fording the Colorado. We ignored the river churning below us and focused on the path leading to the ranch.
A half-hour later, Michael collapsed into the last lower bunk of the men's dorm and started snoring. Beaten down by the sun and the rigors of the trail, we'd taken care to help each other out when ankles began to buckle and panting replaced conversation. But the heat had taken a particularly hard toll on Michael. From the sound of things, he'd be out for hours.
I was on my own. I stared forlornly at the bed above his, then took three painful steps up the ladder, my calves screaming in angry disbelief.
My legs refused to move any farther. Then, as I started to retreat, a hand reached out from the bunk below, positioned itself on my butt and gently pushed me onto the mattress.
* * *
Although more than 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon annually, fewer than 1 percent see the canyon from the ground up. Even fewer make it rim to rim, and it's easy to see why.
We made our descent on the 9 1/2 -mile Bright Angel, a steep, bumpy path replete with knee-knocking steps, mule poo and blood-curdling switchbacks. For the climb out of the big hole, we followed the 14-mile North Kaibab Trail, deceptively flat for seven miles before it climbs rapidly to the North Rim. What began as a pleasant stroll along a creek would become a heart-pounding ascent up thousands of feet on narrow, unforgiving cliff sides.
To prepare, I'd worn out a pair of sneakers on cardio equipment, walked six miles to work a half-dozen times, used less air conditioning to acclimate myself to the desert heat. My new hiking shoes were broken in a month ahead of time, and I overfilled my daypack with food, clothes and water to test the endurance of my spine, shoulders and spirit.
But just days before the smackdown, I finally cracked open "Hiking the Grand Canyon," a captivating, horrifying tome by author-photographer John Annerino. Jenni -- a rim-to-rim vet who probably could have cartwheeled down and up the trails if we hadn't been holding her back -- had painstakingly marked up the guidebook, her choppy script highlighting the important stuff. Under "Training" ("This section is good!"), I spied this quote from Mount Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary: "The only way to get in shape to climb mountains is to climb mountains."
Game over. Strolling down 13th Street for a few hours in July may be a sweaty challenge, but it's no Everest . . . or Grand Canyon. I arrived on the South Rim without climbing a mountain, or even considering it.
But there was never any question that we'd proceed, since the legwork before the legwork had been considerable. Phantom Ranch can sell out months in advance, and you have to book quick-to-fill rooms on either or both rims. Most meals at the ranch must be ordered ahead of time, and if you don't have a ride back to your starting point -- yep, more reservations. For our late-August trip, we started planning in September of last year. Oddly enough, all three places we stayed (Bright Angel Lodge, Phantom Ranch and Grand Canyon Lodge) had rooms or bunks available when we checked in because of late cancellations.
We didn't think twice about following groggily behind a mule team clomping along a narrow scarp or braving a pounding rain while we climbed a switchback. But not make reservations at the Grand Canyon in the summer? Now that's crazy.
* * *
Blister talk is popular at Phantom Ranch, a clot of tree-shaded stone buildings, campsites and corrals. So is anything having to do with trail mix, walking sticks and moleskin. Politics, sports, current events and what-do-you-do-for-a-living? Not so much.
After wondering how we'd kill a full day there, I still don't have a good answer. In a blink, it was over. We played dice games and napped, stretched our muscles and hiked back to see what the Colorado looked like while we were coherent, and ate family-style meals with people we didn't know and would never see again. With tiny pipistrelle bats flapping overhead, I watched as a full moon crept over the canyon, flooding the ranch with light like a beacon in a prison yard.
Later that night, having become a pro at scaling Mount Bunkbed, I lay in the dark and pondered the long haul ahead with more trepidation than expected. I remembered the words of Matt Slater, a ponytailed, highly excitable park ranger with a flair for the dramatic. During a geology tutorial, he'd implored his weary audience to focus on the positives.
"As you climb back to the rim, you may be afraid to look down. You'll plant your face against the cliff and close your eyes. But do me a favor and don't waste this opportunity," he pleaded. "Open your eyes. And look at the rocks."
For more than 11 hours up the North Kaibab Trail, I looked at the rocks, and the backsides of pack animals, and the epic topography of this Southwestern Mordor. I marveled at Janet's stamina and Jenni's unbounded enthusiasm and Michael's ability to crack wise when a thunderstorm threatened high on the path -- with no shelter in sight.
And I wondered how long my legs would hold up. Somewhere, somehow, I'd strained my left knee. It started as a nuisance throb about two miles out of Phantom Ranch. By the time we reached Cottonwood Campground, the trail's first major resting point and water source, the pain alternated between negligible and please-just-shoot-me excruciating. After discovering that skittering like a crab alleviated much of the discomfort, I settled into a rhythm and plodded along.
We came into contact with few other hikers that afternoon, but one of them -- a stocky Oregonian whom we called Major Tom for no other reason than that his name was Tom -- became our hero. Concerned that we didn't have a ride to the lodge at the North Rim (an additional two-mile hike from the trailhead), Major Tom promised us a lift in his rental. Then he shot ahead and disappeared from view, keeping in touch with a series of hoots and hollers that became increasingly fainter.
He kept his word. The first thing we saw when we emerged from the canyon was Major Tom, merrily waving his walking stick in the air. He seemed as happy as we were.
Weeks later, the sense of accomplishment remains palpable, and those three days in the canyon are so intricately carved into my brain that the Colorado might as well be flowing from one ear to the other. The knee? Still sore, and I can't look at my Merrells without wanting to rip out their laces.
But I love the smell of Ben-Gay in the morning. It smells like victory.