It was all mum’s idea. She’s always wanted to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and so in March this year, after a year of planning (by mum), my brother and I found ourselves standing with mum waiting for the bus to take us to the South Kaibab trailhead.
“Legs ache, feet hurt, calves are like rock and thighs are sore,” I wrote in my diary when we got back to the hotel 36 hours later. Here’s what happened…
The Way There
We set off from Pasadena on Sunday morning, after a rather long Saturday. My brother flew in on Friday evening, he and I were up at 6am to run a 5K race, and that evening we went to the Magic Castle and got home at midnight.
We arrived in Las Vegas on Sunday evening, partook of free cocktails, had dinner then headed to bed. Did I mention I’d come down with a rather bad cold? My brother went out on the town.
Next morning, not that early due to certain people’s hangovers (sorry, jetlag), we headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. After an extended wait at the reception desk we got to our two rooms at the Bright Angel Lodge. Mum had one room, heated to the max, and Rob and I had the other. There was snow on the ground but that didn’t stop Rob walking about in shorts and flipflops.
We obtained beer from the General Store, as well as some emergency warm clothes and ice crampons. I seem to remember there being pizza obtained from somewhere, then after we sorted our kit Mum went to bed, and I went with Rob to the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant for a second dinner of a microwaved hamburger and cold, soggy chips.
The next morning we were up at stupid o’clock for a fairly mediocre breakfast at the Lodge restaurant. Then we left all our remaining kit in one room, checked out of the other, and caught the free bus at 8am to the South Kaibab trail.
The Way Down – South Kaibab
Rob decided that he should hike the 7-ish miles to the Phantom Ranch in jeans. I was dressed in running kit with hiking shoes and mum was dressed sensibly. When we got to the trailhead we saw the amount of snow and ice on the trail, so we put on the crampons and very gingerly started making our way down. We had four walking poles between us. The ice was treacherous but thankfully only lasted for probably half a mile. By the time we got through it the bus load of people had thinned out and we had the trail to ourselves. It was really cold.
Unsurprisingly, given that the route was 4780ft (1457m) down, the trail was steep and it wasn’t long before our legs started to feel it. Our first break was at Cedar Point. By now, the sun was up properly and we started to feel warmer.
Going through the layers of the canyon at walking pace allowed us to appreciate the scale of it. It was some hours before we could see the Colorado River, our destination, and often the trail would stretch out into the distance, or vanish over a ledge, or be draped over an impossibly steep cliff. Going down, the sheer number of steps was the main feature. Our knees were shaking long before we were even half way. It was clear we were descending through many layers of geology.
At one point, after our lunch stop (sandwiches obtained the night before at the General Store) we saw Condors riding the thermals off the edge of the cliff.
Soon the Colorado River came into view.
After an age (probably 6 hours) we finally reached level ground. Our route across the Colorado River was through a cool, dark tunnel and then across an impressive suspension bridge. Once on level ground however, we had new problems – our legs, so used to downhill, were now finding it a challenge to walk on the flat. Once we reached river level, Rob went off to take photographs and mum soaked her feet in a tributary!
It was probably another 30 minutes of walking before we reached the Phantom Ranch.
We threw our stuff on the ground outside the Beer Room and checked in. Our beds were in dormitories, a bit of a walk away (becoming difficult). We deposited our stuff and swiftly returned for Beer (Rob), Lemonade (mum), and Tea (me). It was now 3.30pm.
At The Bottom
Due to the unique way the Phantom Ranch operates, we were kicked out of the Beer Room at 4pm so they could set up for dinner. We took the opportunity to have showers and sort ourselves out before walking (now very difficult) to one of the tributaries of the river for an aperitif. Rob had carried down two small bottles of Prosecco which he chilled in the river. We had Pringles and bubbles listening to the sound of the river and looking up to where we had come from. It was pleasantly warm in the canyon, compared to the freezing temperatures at the top.
Then it was time for dinner.
Dinner at the Phantom Ranch is done in sittings. The idea is you come at a given time (us: 6.30pm) and wait outside until the doors are opened and everyone bundles in. You find your allocated seat and start serving yourself and your table-mates with stew, cornbread and salad. You eat it as fast as you can (because, you know, you just walked for 7 hours), and have seconds and thirds. Then they bring dessert (a giant piece of chocolate cake) and tea/coffee. Then you leave: all done in about 30 minutes. After this we looked at the stars for a bit then went to bed (9.30pm). Others had a singalong in the beer room but everyone was in the dorms with lights out by 10pm.
The next morning we were woken by someone’s alarm at 4.45am. Then a staff member banged on the door at 5am to wake those having the 5.30am breakfast (i.e. everyone). We duly creaked and groaned and tried to look dignified getting out of a bunk bed with legs that seemed to be frozen in position. We hobbled to breakfast and inhaled tea, bacon, eggs, and toast. As people left they grabbed their pre-ordered packed lunch. The more experienced people started offloading things they didn’t want, and helping themselves to extras from other people’s lunch bags. By 6.15am, while it was still dark, we were ready to attempt the ascent – this time via the Bright Angel trail.
The Way Up – Bright Angel
We started slowly, mainly because my legs didn’t work really at all. Mum wasn’t too bad, and Rob was fine. It was very cool that morning and it took a while to warm up. We spotted deer sitting by the path. The walk by the river was very nice, and the grade was gentle, which was good. There were sandy bits, rocky bits, easy bits, shady bits, and rivers to cross.
Going up was definitely easier than down: much gentler gradient and more shade. Water was also available at Indian Garden so we didn’t have to carry so much. The disadvantage was the number of people on the trail, that our legs ached from the start, and the fact that the route was 9.5 miles long.
The last third of the trail was steep, and at one point we appeared to have reached a sheer cliff in front of us. We probably had another 500ft of vertical to go, but no apparent way to go horizontal. Of course, the trail just winded around a blind corner and carried on.
As we reached the top the trail became very muddy, where the ice had melted that afternoon, then as we got higher the mud became ice in the shady bits. By the time we reached the mud, the trail was very busy with day trippers. We had to put on our ice crampons again.
The mule train caught up with us as we neared the top. The driver told us to wait around the corner, not realizing how slowly we were actually walking.
By the time we reached the last few feet we were barely moving. We got someone to take a photo of us at the top, retired to our room, put the heating to max, drew a hot bath and then tried to take our shoes off. Turns out bending was a problem, as was sitting, getting into the bath, as well as walking at any appreciable speed.
We went out for cocktails then a massive burger then were in bed by 7.30pm. It was days before mum and I could walk properly again.
I wrote in my diary that night: “It was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed the physical challenge as well as the beauty of the scenery and landscape. I can see myself doing it again one day.”