The hike down: 4.5hours 7.1miles
The hike up: 5hours 9.9miles
Elevation change: ~5000ft
You know those experiences that are just so magical and personal and "the-best-day-of-my-life" that you can't properly describe them in words? I'm talking about the experiences that are equally soul-filling and gut-wrenching; the ones that, when you describe them, make you sound like you've smoked too much of something - like you've drunk too much of the Kool-Aid and are now making no sense at all?
The Grand Canyon was one of those.
To be more specific, hiking INTO the canyon was one of those. And the hike up.
I've kind of been dreading this blog post, and putting it off, because I know that no matter how hard I try, I'll never be able to capture in words the effect that this experience had on me.
Not just physically had on me, because, let's be honest with yourself here Emma, you're less in shape than you thought. But emotionally and mentally and spiritually.
The hike down the South Kaibab Trail was, in some ways (the physical way especially), harder than the hike up. It was definitely steeper, and the recent thaw left huge puddles to clamber around if you didn't want to soak your boots. The constant pounding of your feet as you stepped down step after step after step, sent shudders up your legs, leaving the knees stiff and shattered by the time you reach the bottom.
But the view.
The view was worth it. In so many ways, it was worth it. It was worth camping in the snow and the rain. It was worth driving hours and hours in a sweaty, stinking van. It was worth all the nights of powdered soup and the dozens (and dozens!) of boiled eggs.
When we were planning our trip, the Grand Canyon wasn't really the "destination" - it just happened to be in the area that we wanted to visit, and I really didn't know much about it. I hadn't done my research.
But hiking down that cliff - there was no denying that THIS was the trip. THIS was the destination.
We stayed overnight at "Phantom Ranch" - the quaint little village of cabins at the bottom of the canyon, nestled back from the raging Colorado River. The cabins are each fit with two bunk beds, a water closet, garden of prickly pear, and a picnic table out front. There are also dorms (one for men, one for women) - a more affordable option for accommodation. You can also camp, in really beautiful sites along Bright Angel Creek.
Phantom Ranch is aptly named - during the day, most of the overnighters are either coming down the canyon or hiking back up (most people only stay one night), or they've gone for day hikes to the beach or creek. The ranch is a ghost town during the day. The odd sighting of staff, but largely uninhabited until the early evening.
The ranch is complete with a canteen (where the hikers go to eat their meals and grab a beer... or several. We opted out of these meals to save some money and instead carried all our food and cooking gear down with us.) We went for a beer the night we made it to the bottom, and shared in the camp-like atmosphere with the rest of the hikers. One dude was playing a guitar. Small groups were laughing over games of cards. Some were drawing, some were singing, some were writing postcards home (sent up by mule to the post office), and just about everybody had a drink in their hand - toasting to the adventure, and applauding their hard work in making it down.
Instead of high-tailing it the next morning, we decided to stay for two nights, and spent a full day relaxing in the warm weather (it was 10 degrees warmer at the bottom than at the top). We visited the beach, took a slow meander along the trail, and spent a lot of time reading, and napping. We sat on our picnic table drinking tea and watching the staff saddle up the mules. (All the garbage produced in the bottom of the canyon must be packed out on foot, and you can also pay to have them carry your gear (or you!) along the trail).
Our calves were killing us, and it was nice to have an "indoors" for the first day in weeks.
The morning of the hike out, we were up before dawn and were headed out with headlamps on. We wanted to get a good head start to the hike, as they estimated 8-10 hours to hike up. We took the alternate trail up, the Bright Angel Trail - this trail was longer, but less steep, and had a camp halfway up where we could refill our water bottles.
The first half was a breeze! The trail slowly climbed, gently following the edge of Bright Angel Creek. Half the time it didn't feel like we were going "up" at all. We made it to the halfway point, had a snack (more boiled eggs), filled up on water and continued.
We didn't realize that though the first half of the trail covers half the mileage, it only climbs a third of the height. We were quickly embraced by switchback after switchback, following the cliff's edge and steeply climbing up from the depths. All you could do was keep climbing, staring at the red soil ahead. I started to count groupings of 100 steps in my head. I told myself "make it two more switchbacks, then you can have a rest", "300 more steps and you can have some water". The rests became more frequent. We started to ration our water consumption so we wouldn't run out. Our calves, still sore from the climb down, stretched and creaked with every step. Jesse's boots (which he had thought had been broken in well enough) started to rub his feet raw.
Nearing the crest, each step was harder. It seemed so close. It was just up there! But the trail continued wandering back and forth and back and forth, climbing SO slowly that it felt we would never reach the finish line. It dangled in front of us like a carrot, the temperature dropping as we increased in elevation. My t-shirt was so soaked with sweat, that when we stopped to take a break the loss of body heat sent shivers up my back. I had to put a sweater on, only to take it off 5 minutes later when we were hiking again.
As we climbed the ground grew icy, and we started to see more hikers taking day trips partway down the canyon. They offered words of encouragement "You're almost there!", and exclaimed when we said we were coming from the very bottom.
My lungs were exploding. We ran out of water with another mile to go, and all I could think of was a quote from Chery Strayed's WILD.
“I stopped in my tracks when that thought came into my mind, that hiking the PCT was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Immediately, I amended the thought. Watching my mother die and having to live without her, that was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
This quote circled round and round in my head for the last hour. Except instead of mother, it was my dad. Watching my dad die and having to live without him - that was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Not this.
I thought of all the bullshit he went through the last few years of his life - all the treatments and appointments. Travelling by train to a center in Toronto, three times a week for a year, all for a procedure that never fixed anything. All the probing and prodding, the pain and the heartache. And he suffered through it all with very little complaint.
I could make it up this fucking canyon.
And I did. And when I got to the top, I collapsed on the trail and sobbed. On my knees, head bent over the edge, body shaking sobs. So loud and violent that passersby stared. And it went on and on until there were physically no more tears left.
It was one of those soul-filling, gut-wrenching experiences that I can't put into words. A feeling both heart-breaking and uplifting. One that I will chase for the rest of my life. I pulled myself up, and kept walking.
I'll hike that trail a dozen more times. I would hike it every day if I could.