Grand Canyon 2019, The Hike Down

On a whim in early December, 2018 I searched for hotels on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Usually you have to book hotels at the popular canyon a year in advance.  To my surprise Phantom Ranch which sits at the bottom of the canyon had several nights open.  Wow, Phantom Ranch!  In 1979 as the pack mules passed me on my first and only hike down to the bottom, I spotted a beer can, and knew if it was being packed out, then there must be more where that came from.  By the time I had reached the bottom after hiking 4 or 5 hours in 100 degrees a cold-one was what I need on that June day forty years ago and Phantom Ranch had them.  After a couple days of thought, I booked three January nights in the bunkhouse at Phantom Ranch.

Over the next six weeks I prepared for the hike.  I began taking 2 to 4 hour walks, first with nothing in my backpack, then adding weight.  I had to be prepared for every weather condition that might occur during January, rain, snow and ice, and warm temperatures.  It would be the dead of winter with 28 to 38 degree days or colder at the Rim which was at 7000ft above sea level, and 2400ft at the bottom of the canyon where the weather would be at least 20 degree warmer.  Ice cleats, wool base layer, gloves, etc. would be needed and it all added weight.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was staying at Phantom which would supplied shelter, bedding and meals.  What did I absolutely need?  In the process I eliminated a lot of weight but my camera gear was the one group of items I could not lighten.

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The trip turned to tentative when a big project at work began to overlap the dates of my Phantom stay.  About two weeks out, I finally got the all green when the project was pushed out a few weeks.  Grand Canyon here I come!

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I arrived at the South Rim on Sunday so I would have time to settle in and adjust any last minute details before my Tuesday descent.  Sunday was also when a full moon occurred, a full blood moon.  It was a great sight to see especially after watching the NFL playoff between New England and Kansas City.  The moon brought me back to where I was, The Grand Canyon.  It was a quiet experience as I watched the full moon turn dark as the earth’s shadow covered it.  Only a few hashed voices could be heard in the wind.  There was no city hum from cars speeding along the highways, just the dead silence of the night.

Monday morning was very different.  I stepped outside of the lodge to get pushed around by very forceful winds.  The sky was dark and gray as a big front moved in.  After breakfast, there was a great sunrise as the sun’s rays bounced and shined in between the clouds.  The moment only lasted a few minutes and I had left my camera back in the lodge.  I hurried back to my room and grab my camera.  I got two shots before the moment was gone forever.  Lesson learned.

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Tuesday morning I woke at 5:00 AM.  I ate the breakfast of potatoes and chicken that I brought with me just for this morning.  No restaurant would be open at 5 AM.  As I ate, I finished packing my backpack trying again to cut down the weight.  At 6:00 AM I called for the Taxi.  I did not know the bus service was running so early.  I got to the South Kaibab trail head around 6:30 AM.  I put my ice cleats on and began my descent.

Crunch, crunch, crunch was all I heard as I walked in the dark silence.  It was like walking in a tunnel of darkness because I could only see what my headlamp illuminated.  I turning off the light for a few minutes and the surroundings opened up.  I could see the canyon in its darken nighttime blue moon light.  I stopped.  Oh so quiet.  Oh so beautiful.  The day old full moon was still very bright and the air was still, very different from the previous day’s winds.  I removed my tripod from my pack and attached my camera to it.  With tripod in hand, continued to walk until the sun provided enough light to handhold my camera.  I stopped along the way to take some long exposure photographs.  My first photograph was of the moon through the branches of a pine tree.

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The beauty of the South Kaibab trail was the ridges it follows down into the canyon.  In some places the trail is not much more than 3 or 4 feet wide and because it follows the ridges it has some of the best views of the canyon as you descend.  It is also steeper and shorted than the other top-to-bottom trail, Bright Angel.

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While I walked, I looked for unique angles of what has been photographed hundreds of thousands of times.  To prevent from being disappointed if I did not capture something unique, I said to myself that I was simply documenting the South Kaibab Trail.  Even so the morning twilight was perfect.  With crystal clear blue skies over head, I watched as the full moon set and the sun rose.  I loved watching the subtle shades of light.  How the moon added its blue light so the shadows of the canyon had details.  With every step I marveled at the quiet grandeur of this place before me.  Some may wonder why I elect to hike solo.  I hope these photographs provide the explanation.

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Above: The photography above shows the restrooms at Cedar Ridge, it’s the gray rectangle in the bottom center of the photograph.  I’m still very high on the trail and it would be several minutes before I reach Cedar Ridge.

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I reached Cedar Ridge rest area as the sun began to crest the canyon rim.  (7:45 according to my camera)  After a quick rest, I was ready to continue down the trail.  As I turn to look uphill before departing, to my surprise the first mule-train was about to pass by.  “Right on cue” I joked to the lead rider.

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Above: For perspective, you can see the mule-train in the lower left-of-center corner.

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Above:  The sun cresting the ridge.

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Above: For even more of a perspective, the mule-train is about center-center.

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Above: Looking at Skeleton Point.  Below: The switchbacks that can be seen in the lower center of the above photograph.

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I had a few more curves to hike through before I hit these switchbacks.

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As I stepped over and down at each water-bar (erosion control), I began to feel the hike in my legs.

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For me this was where the hike turned into an endurance test.  From this point forward the erosion prevention bars had created 12 to 15 inch drops about every 36 to 40 inches.  Later at the bunk house I heard how a pair of hikers trained by walking up the stairwell of the tallest building they could access, but these were not city steps that are 7 inches high and 10 inches deep.  By all accounts these were knee killers for many people, although great for mules.

Another descending hiker caught up with me.  We chatted for a few turns of the switchbacks.  He was from a ski resort town where he snowshoes and cross-country skis.  That’s where he got his leg strength, I thought.  I was doing OK, no pain, but I could feel each step was taking its toll.  Before he continued on at his pace, I ask for the time and his estimate of where we were in the 7 mile trail.  He pulled out his GPS device.  “9:05” he said, “and we are at the 3.5 mile mark”.  Perfect.  I was making good time.  1:15 hours to Cedar Ridge which was about 1.5 miles from the rim, and now a little pass Skeleton Point at about 3.5 miles after 2.5 hours on the trail.  However, it wouldn’t be until after 1:00 PM that I crossed the S Kaibab bridge over the Colorado River.

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The sun was higher in the sky and the morning light was well gone.

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It’s a whole different perspective when you are in the canyon.  Those who stay on the rim miss this view.

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My spirit lifted as I looked at the Colorado River, but my legs screamed “more steps!”

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This was the last photograph I took on my hike down.  It was now all about reaching the bottom.  I put my camera away and brought out my trekking poles to help my legs.  Each step was painful but with each step I was closer the the bottom.  For the first time I felt old as I watched a group of college age kids leisurely walked by with boundless energy.  I must have been the same way when I hiked the canyon at the age of 21.  My progress became 50 to 100 yards then rested for several minutes.

I started out on the rim in 20 degrees temperature.  Now as I near the bottom, it must have been 50 degrees.  My water consumption increased and I could feel my clothes were soaked with sweat, but comfortable.  I was so glad that my base-layer was wool and it kept me from getting chills.

I couldn’t imagine that I first did this hike in June 40 years ago.  The temperatures must have been 90 to 100 degrees.

It was approaching noon and the trail-mix of raisins, nuts and chocolate-chips were not satisfying my hunger.  I took out my lunch and devoured it.  Finally I felt full with new energy.  I was still 1.5 hours above the river at the pace I was traveling.

 

To be continued . . . .

JSH

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