With Those Rim Views, What Blistering Feet and Heat?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007; Page P01

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.

The Bright Angel Trail features knee-crunching steps for hikers headed toward the river. Mules have right of way.
The Bright Angel Trail features knee-crunching steps for hikers headed toward the river. Mules have right of way. (Photos By John Deiner -- The Washington Post)

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.

It's hard.

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