2 Takes on 1 Hike
I have always said that a journalist has incredible ability to slant a story. “I could make Hitler look good” has been facetiously uttered as an example, and as abhorrent as that reality is, it’s true. We read and hear what we want to believe.
I believe the way to the truth is not to align our thoughts with what we want to be true, but to hear/read both sides of a story and know that the truth is a compilation of both or at best, somewhere in the middle. What follows is two takes on one hike.
The Prelude: Take 1 and 2
Reservations for Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon need to be made more than a year in advance, Kay and I had been planning for months. To tackle the almost twenty-mile round trip hike, I employed Jenna, a trainer about six months prior to the hike. We met twice a week at the gym for two months as she strengthened my core, worked on balance, demonstrated lunges, and increased my aerobic base. By Thanksgiving, I was working independently.
Kay, my wife and hiking partner, had gall bladder surgery in early November and was gradually regaining strength and developing her own routine for the trek. However, her health issues became more complicated than typical post op expectations and by January 1st we gave ourselves by mid-January to go to plan “B” or “C” if she was unable to make the hike.
I really wanted to hike the Grand Canyon one last time. The first time I hiked I was thirty-five years old. Preparing to turn 70 in May, the trip meant far more than just a vacation to a place I’d been before. This would be my sixth-round trip over the years and each time I was struck by my own insignificance in this magnificent force of nature. There was something special in not only accomplishing the physical challenge but experiencing an emotional epiphany.
Plan A was for the two of us to hike as planned. Leave on Thursday from the South Rim descending the 9.7-mile South Kaibab Trail across the Colorado River bridge to Phantom Ranch, spend the next day relaxing and allowing muscles to slowly recover, and then ascend on Saturday via the longer but less steep Bright Angel Trail. Plan A was off the table. Kay was still having medical issues that precluded being out of touch with medical care.
Plan B? Cancel the trip. I didn’t want to cancel. The emotional strain of the last few months had drained me and the one positive I had held onto was this adventure, this “goal.”
Plan C was a long shot. We went through our list of friends who might be capable of this challenge. Tough time in life to find peers willing and able physically to complete this hike. My niece Judy lived in nearby Utah and was in excellent physical shape. But she was teaching fulltime. Her daughter Jenn (my great niece) was a student who worked part time who was also a half marathoner and, at twenty-five, in excellent condition. Jenn jumped at the chance!
We picked up Jenn at the Phoenix airport and headed north. The weather was perfect! After spending weeks following the Weather Channel and preparing for winter temps and potentially snowy precipitation, we had to readjust our wardrobes. No winter gloves or wool hats were necessary. A light weight rain poncho would suffice, a baseball cap, and sun screen. Temps at the rim were in the 30s in the morning, but quickly warmed as the sun rose and we descended to the mid-60s. The forecast would hold through the weekend, so the heaviest items in our backpacks were food and water.
The sun was just beginning to set after we checked into the Maswik Lodge and dropped our bags. We checked in at the Bright Angel Lodge to confirm our reservations at the ranch, strolled the South Rim, and treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner at El Tovar.
The next morning, we rose around seven, had a pancake and/or omelet breakfast at the lodge and Kay drove us to the hikers’ shuttle near the railroad tracks. She had originally planned to stay at the rim the days we were on the trail but opted instead to head back to Phoenix to relax with friends at a lower altitude in the sunshine.
The excitement was infectious on the bus as more than thirty hikers were preparing to hit the trail. Jenn and I started down around 8:30. The trail was wide but rugged. Stone barriers were placed across the trail to prevent erosion and because of the high usage and low budget for repairs, it often felt like stepping over a double-sized curb and stepping down into an uneven hole. Jenn knew that my pace would be slower than hers for sure and as it turned out it was slower than everybody’s. Everyone was pleasant. “Good morning!” “Have a good hike!” “Beautiful day!”
Even with a light pack, I leaned heavily on my hiking sticks for balance on the descent. About a half mile in I sat down on a rock and wondered aloud “if we shouldn’t turn back?” I had started the hike concerned for Kay’s well-being and was struggling with my pack, heavier than usual with a full volume of water. But Jenn was positive and encouraging and we persisted.
We stopped for a snack at one of the lookouts and removed a layer of clothing. By this time (noonish) it felt like the canyon was ours alone. The faster hikers had all passed us and the magnitude of the expanse as far as the eye could see was only surpassed by the quietness. The echo of an occasional breeze broke the silence.
The layered colors of the canyon reminded us how far we’d come as the dust turned from tan, to red, back to tan, and then brown. Crossing the bridge signified only another half mile to the ranch and dinner and shower and bed – in that order.
Day 2 was quiet. Jenn hooked up with a hiker to explore a different viewpoint. I sat in the canteen for a while, drank lots of water, and then relocated to a nearby picnic table to watch Friday’s hikers straggle in.
Day 3 starts at 5:15 a.m., breakfast at 5:30, and on the trail with headlamp in place to start our ascent in the dark at 6. Trail conditions to Indian Gardens (about halfway) were excellent. Not too many steps. Crossed over a few streams, turned on occasion to say “good bye” to the Colorado River and four yellow rafts preparing to continue their journey. Half a bagel with cream cheese and a few peanuts, along with a good drink of water made lunch.
Arrived Indian Gardens around eleven. Temps totally perfect. Now the steady climb began. At the 3 Mile hut, sat and relaxed with some day hikers, stretched hamstrings, and snacked. The next leg was the hardest after a long day, all switchbacks with steps and considerable altitude gain. The wind picked up and Jenn and I donned jackets to ward off chill and swirling dust. Stopping frequently for water and rest, we reached the rim at 3:40 met by Kay and her camera for a picture by the new trail sign.
Luckily, she had brought a bag of Doritos and a bag of Lays Sour Cream and Onion chips that Jenn and I devoured along with bottles of water.
The drive to Flagstaff took about an hour and we pulled into Big Mama’s hamburger joint for the “after hike” meal Jenn and I had been talking about all day – milk shake, fries, and hamburger. Excellent!
Checked into the hotel at 7 and I was in the shower by 7:10. Kay was a rested trooper who reorganized our luggage and packs and made the morning checkout easy.
Another beautiful day and drive through the desert of Phoenix. We said good bye to Jenn at the airport and headed home to Seattle.
Picked up Jenn at the Phoenix airport early Wednesday morning. Kay and I had spent the last few says visiting friends in Scottsdale which consisted of a few lunches with more friends, watching television, and generally relaxing. One morning Kay went to the pool and I spent a half hour on the treadmill. The weeks leading up to the trip were not high intensity training as I would have hoped. The weather was cold and rainy and uninviting and emotionally I was apprehensive about Kay’s health.
She had accepted the fact that the three-day hike was off the table, but she wanted to do as much as possible.
“Maybe I’ll just hike to the first lookout of the trail with you and Jenn (a mile down) and turn around?” Terrible idea. I would worry the whole time. Altitude was an issue (we live at sea level) and the medication she was on causes her blood pressure to drop. I could only imagine my level of concern.
“OK, I’ll ride with you on the bus and take pictures of you and Jenn as you start your hike and then catch the shuttle back to the lodge.” Again, not a terribly reassuring plan.
After it was decided that the hike itself was out of the question, the plan was for Kay to stay at the lodge for the two nights we were gone and use the time as a photographic event, spectacular sunrises and sunsets! She had even researched the best spots and the best times of day.
Waking up on Thursday morning, Kay said that her unpredictable but persistent symptoms started during the night, shortness of breath and pain. We canceled her reservations at the lodge and after dropping us at the shuttle, she headed back to the room to pack up and head back down to our friends who lived at a more reasonable altitude.
The feeling I had getting into the car on the way to the shuttle is hard to describe. Should I stay? How could I possible be out of touch for three days not knowing how she was? Would she have an incident driving? I felt nauseous.
When Jenn and I got on the shuttle, I waved good-by to Kay not with excitement for the journey ahead but with trepidation and self-doubt.
My pack was heavier than I was used to because of the water weight and my knees started to wobble almost from the outset. About a half mile down, I sat on a rock and seriously considered whether to turn back. I said to Jenn, “You know if something happens to Kay, all our friends will wonder how I could possibly leave her during this time. They’ll hate me for being self-involved.”
Jenn helped me up. Her positive attitude, completely void of judgement was remarkable. But I was wobbly. The steepness of the trail and the constant stepping over the trail stones caused me to stumble not once but three times I fell backwards, and three times Jenn had to help me up. Luckily, my pack acted as a cushion. I was so unsteady that I would take a step and hesitate with my foot in the air, fearful of my lack of ability. After the third fall, my frustration was tearful. “What am I doing here?”
I was in better condition than this, but my emotional base was zapped before I even started the hike. After the third fall, Jenn offered to carry my pack, saying that my balance would probably improve. I stumbled and fell one more time and this time without the pack, I hit my back, backside, and elbows hard against the trail.
We stopped shortly for a snack. I found it hard to eat but forced some trail mix and peanut butter pretzels. I took several bites of the special apple I had shown Jenn how to make – core removed and stuffed with peanut butter and raisins. It proved a refreshing treat.
Since Jenn was carrying my pack it meant that she had my water. Normally while hiking water is sipped at will along the way. Now I had to stop and ask her for water.
We started looking ahead at the different geological layers. Neither of us knew anything about the science of the canyon but we knew when we reached red dirt it would be more of a trail and the tan dirt meant more steps. It was getting late and I was concerned about making it in time for dinner. I also knew that it would be impossible for me to climb a ladder to a top bunk if all the lower bunks were taken.
By the time we reached the river I was spent. It was warm, and I was tired. As we made our way toward Phantom Ranch the terrain leveled, and I was able to stride. We met the park ranger on the trail and she asked me how I was doing. “Are you hurt? Do you have any blisters?” I know I looked exhausted, but I was so relieved to make it down the canyon I joked with her about possibly hijacking a mule from a rider who became disgruntled on the way down. She said, “No matter how they feel after the ride down, I’ve never known any rider to prefer walking out of the canyon.”
We threw our gear in the bunk house and made our way to the 6:30 dinner. I had ordered vegetarian stew (beef stew for Jenn), but had absolutely no appetite. I ate a few bites of corn bread, a few bites of lettuce, and a few bites of chocolate cake, but I was literally too fatigued to eat.
I gingerly descended the few steps to the canteen and made my way back to the shower. When I collapsed in the bed, I realized that my quad muscles were knotted beyond anything I had ever experienced. I used pressure points and massage and stretched all through the night, but still the next morning the pain remained and the mere act of standing from a sitting position was difficult.
Jenn made plans to hike with some other folks after breakfast. One of the ranch staff handed me an email from Kay that said she had made it safely back to Phoenix. I immediately teared up. It’s so unusual to be “out of touch” in this age of technology which oddly enough is one of the draws of the canyon – just not this trip. I strolled along the creek for a mile or so, spent some time in the canteen drinking water and reading, and eventually taking a nap.
Still not much of an appetite at dinner and too tired to participate in conversation. Just exhausted.
Went to bed around 7:30, packed and ready for an early start out.
The staff is supposed to give a wake-up knock on the door at 5, but the first thing I knew, Jenn was shaking me and saying it was 5:15 and we had to rush. With the anxious anticipation of the long day ahead, I again, could barely eat; two bites of a pancake, two bites of egg and OJ. Peppermint tea tasted good but had no nutritional value.
We paid to have the pack mules take as much gear out for us as possible. Jenn carried my pack with two water pouches, two lunches, a jacket for both of us. I carried my hiking sticks.
The start of Bright Angel was less treacherous than expected, a steady climb to be sure but not too many steps. Plus, I prefer uphill hiking. I asked Jenn to talk to me about her favorite movie, her favorite TV show, anything to keep my mind off the reality of not only the day ahead, but the days ahead of unknowns. We stopped at a rest stop about three miles up and Jenn insisted I eat a protein bar. I had been taking ibuprofen for the last three days to assist in soreness and was now wondering if it wasn’t contributing to my queasiness and lack of appetite.
Onward. Still making pretty good time. We arrived at Indian Gardens at 11:30 feeling okay. The trail started to steepen from this point on. More steps, more switchbacks, and rise in altitude. I started to have trouble. I needed more water which meant we had to stop more frequently. When we reached the 3 Mile rest stop, we took time to rest and stretch but knew with this change in terrain our expected 3 o’clock arrival at the rim was unlikely.
The next stretch was brutal; for Jenn because she really couldn’t develop a pace (though she never complained) and for me. I focused on the end of each switchback as a goal, often resting on a rock and sipping water. About this time, the winds started to pick-up. Dust from the trail swirled and we donned our jackets and pulled out hats low as we plodded ahead. During this section of the trail we were passed by lots of day hikers strolling down from the rim a few hundred yards and then back.
I had remembered two arches (I thought they were tunnels, but hardly) and mentally tried to envision them as my marker near the rim, but my memory played tricks and the lack of seeing them proved more discouraging than I realized.
Cell reception was possible the last hour and Jenn had texted Kay we’d be out around three, but I was so slow the last hour I told Jenn to re-text her 3:30.
At 3:40, Kay met us at the Bright Angel Trailhead sign. Bundled up from the wind and dropping temperature, she showed us to the car and tired and smelly (and did I say tired?) we headed away from Grand Canyon.
This is a trip I dreamed about for more than a year. I trained, I prepared, I thought I was ready, but now I know better.
I didn’t train hard enough. With the constant wavering from Plan A to B to C, I lost focus and my physical conditioning suffered.
Without emotional reserves, I was doomed to struggle from the start. Not sure what statistics are available weighing mental and physical preparedness along with emotional strength, but for me, with my emotions in a quandary before I laced up my hiking boots, I didn’t have a shot.
Am I glad I did the hike? I’m glad I made it. I know I did it on guts alone and that’s not something I ever strive to do again – anywhere, under any circumstances.
Is it good to know that I can persevere? I guess, no, I’m certain.
Was I lucky to have Jenn as a hiking companion? I was the luckiest person in the canyon and I told her when we reached the rim, if she ever needed a kidney, I’d be at the head of the line!
We’re still waiting for a diagnosis for Kay. We have reservation for next March for Phantom Ranch which I’ll keep because she wants me to, but I won’t be taking this adventure again.
Grand Canyon is a magical place for me and always will be, but from now it I’ll be looking down on the magic from the rim.