Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

1/26/98, Monday Night.
Bright Angel Camp, Bottom of the Grand Canyon

Oh, to ache in every muscle, so much so that any movement at all produces a peculiar, involuntary groaning noise, much like father used to make. Reaching for an object involves a grunt. Something more complex like bending over to pick something up involves a near symphony of noises, as though each muscle and joint felt an undeniable need to voice its disapproval for doing anything other than succumbing to gravity in a somewhat controlled fall onto the ground, where at they could at last all be still.

And of course, when that wish is finally granted in the form of climbing into my sleeping bag, those same muscles and bones let loose with a sigh of relief. It takes five, maybe even ten deep breaths just to get enough air to let loose with enough ahh… And it is indeed well deserved.

I got a very leisurely start this morning, having stayed at a lodge last night. I slept until 10AM, got breakfast, back-country permits, packed my backpack, and hit the trail head just before 2PM. To hell with "Alpine" starts — I’m here on vacation.

The canyon has several peculiar qualities to it. One of which is that from the top, there’s not a damn thing that makes it stand out at all. But approach the rim at one of the overlooks and the sheer grandeur of this place is overwhelming. I took a few photos, but knew intrinsically that no photo could do this place justice.

The upper part of the trail, at 7,260’ was covered with ice, making travel quite difficult. Much to my chagrin, the only true indication of the likelihood of slipping on the ice was the amount of mule droppings one could hit upon falling. Fortunately, that part only lasted about 1/4 mile. After that, the trail became more walkable, though it was indeed rather steep, filled with one switch back after another.

All along the decent, the rock would change from one formation to another as I traveled through older and older periods in geologic time. There were signs along the way indicating the Devonian, Algonquian, pre-Cambrian, and other periods, but I mostly notice that the color of my boots kept changing as the soil transitioned between periods.

In about 4 1/2 hours, I’d managed to walk 6.4 miles, descending 4,860 feet, and crossing 6 million years of geology.

So it’s no wonder that I’m tired. But when I finally arrived at Bright Angel camp, there were other things to do, despite my desire to simply go to bed. There were the chores of cooking, making camp, eating, and cleaning up which needed to be done. So with more care and dedication than I typically spend at home, I made spaghetti with green peppers, tofu, tomatoes, and two cups of hot cocoa.

While eating by candle-lantern, I noticed this peculiar set of ears across the picnic table from me. They looked like they belonged to a cat at first, until this tiny paw reached up, followed by a tiny face and eyes more like an overgrown hamster. I turned on my headlight in time to scare it away before it absconded with my muffins. It had a long, slender body, and a big puffy gray tail with black rings on it. I later learned it was a "Ringtail," which I had never seen before.

* * *

1/27/98 Tuesday Morning
Bright Angel Camp, Bottom of the Grand Canyon

By morning, I’m well rested, but could easily sleep in until noon, were it not for the need to use the restroom. Slowly, begrudgingly, I exit the warmth and comfort of my cocoon-like sleeping bag, pound my feet into cold, stiff boots, take one step forward, and land on my face.

My feet and calves are not at all happy about what I did to them last night, and they just wanted to make sure I knew about it before I did anything like that again. They probably don’t know about the uphill part yet, and I’m not going to tell them.

For now, I’m sitting at a picnic table across from a gently babbling brook that feeds into the Colorado river. There’s about 30 yards of grass, shrubs, and small trees on either shore before the land takes a sharp turn upwards towards the sky in what is literally a mile of vastly spread out vertical rock. But from most any part of the canyon, it only looks to be a few hundred feet high.

It’s like for an ant standing at the base of a wedding cake, seeing only the ledge of the first layer. Once crested, there’s still another layer that was not visible from below. Except that here in the canyon, I am the ant, there are more layers than I can remember, and they range anywhere from 200 to 1500 feet high.

It’s difficult to imagine that this vast macrocosm of the canyon could have been deposited as a sea-bed, then carved away by something as simple and soothing as the stream now before me and others like it which join the Colorado river. It’s a question of scale — from the towering rim, the river can barely even be seen. It is but a tiny trickle running through the channels between these vast walls. How could the walls themselves have been carved by something so very far away?

Except that it has not always been as it is now. Those placards I passed along my hike to the canyon’s belly "explained" the milestones and the history of the canyon’s formation, but it is an explanation by man. To examine, analyze, explain, and compress centuries, if not eons of history into a few mere signs along the descent is absurd.

The geologic layers on the canyon walls are as the rings on a tree — those rings are not the tree itself, but mere markers of its history of life. So too are the layers of this canyon markers of the life history of this part of the planet.

* * *

1/27/98 8:30PM Tuesday Evening
Ribbon Falls

There are few things more intrinsically satisfying than partaking of a reward for something well deserved. Lying down at the end of a long day is one such thing. Today’s hike brought me 6.4 miles up along Bright Angel Creek, gaining 2.600’ in the process. Following the water course, my grade was much more shallow, and the life along the way more abundant.

My original destination was another 1.3 miles further down the trail, but I decided to pitch camp here by ribbon Falls instead, because at 5:30PM I was already pretty tired and loosing daylight. So because of my location, I had to find a spot that met all the usual criteria for a campsite, but also was reasonably hard to see, should a ranger come by in the morning before I’m out of here.

There was a lovely rock and sand spot, beneath an overhang, around a corner from another rock outcropping, just 30 yards from the sign that said "Day use only." Knowing that part of my responsibility is also to know my limits and take care of myself, that spot is now home for the evening.

My legs were pretty stiff this morning when I got up, and they’re good and sore now. Knowing that tomorrow I go back the same 6.4 miles I came today, then have to go up the 4,860’ the day after that, I’m concerned that my last day to get out of the canyon may take 8-12 hours of grueling uphill push.

Then a demonic voice in my mind calls out "Yes! You must push on! Further! Harder! You’re on vacation, remember? When will be the next time you have another opportunity to torture yourself like this? Pain is weakness leaving the body. Now quit whining and enjoy yourself. This is fun!"

Well, the hiking is fun. Knowing I’m a completely self contained unit is satisfying. The scenery is spectacular. The weather is near perfect. The stars at night are incredible. But the pain I could do without.

Bounded by one candle power, my immediate world is indeed full of splendor. To my side lay my empty boots. Old and worn, they are like trusted friends, for over the years we’ve done a great many miles together. Surrounding my body is a combination of goose feathers and nylon, protecting me from the evenings cold. Over my head is an arch of rock, forming an amphitheater with room enough just for one. Twenty and forty feet away are small trees and shrubs illuminated by my candle, but casting no shadow, for beyond them is nothing but black emptiness.

Off in the distance, the sound of water rushing downhill to the sea can be heard. There are many sounds hidden within the water, all blending together, yet still distinct. There is the sound of the waterfall around the corner as it tumbles over a 50’ drop; there is the steady and constant rush over small obstacles and bends as it passes not far from my feet; and there is the sound of this small tributary as it joins up with the larger stream just out of sight.

And overhead are the stars — my own private planetarium. Orion is directly in front of me, with such clarity that the whole constellation can be seen, not just the belt and sword. Equally clear, to the left is his dog, Canus Major. And to the right, Taurus and the Pleiades.

* * *

1/28/98 3:20PM Wednesday Afternoon
Bright Angel Camp

Having awakened several times during the night, my first sight was that each time I opened my eyes, the sky had changed, sliding all the constellations off to the right a little each time. Then finally, I woke to see the stars slowly fade out of sight against the brightening skyline, and the edges and contours of the canyon walls come into focus again. Being awake for the transition, it was clear that the stars were still out there, continuing their circumferential journey around the pole-star, only masked by the dawning glory of another day.

I made myself breakfast and packed my belongings into my backpack. While doing so, I heard a chopper coming up through the canyon. It stopped briefly over my campsite, but by that time it was no longer clear that I was there all night. My first thought was that they take the regulations pretty seriously here! But the chopper continued on, and was really only there to drop off some workers and equipment to fix a water-line break.

By early afternoon, I had made it back to Bright Angel camp, and still had plenty of daylight left, so I took the opportunity to have the mandatory Mac and Cheese dinner. All camping trips greater than two nights long are required to have this at least once, otherwise the nature gods get angry and give you rain, harsh winds, or the runs. Take your pick. Anyway, it’s quick, easy, tastes good, but it’s a mess to clean up. So the extra light came in handy.

I was actually thinking of heading out towards Indian Garden Campground after eating, to get a head start for tomorrow’s journey. All I had to do was stand up to realize that was simply not going to happen. I’ll go to bed early tonight, with hopes of an early start tomorrow morning. So far, I have yet to hit the trail by 9:30AM. Tomorrow, I really need to be walking by 8AM to make sure I’m out of the canyon before dark. I’m giving myself 10 hours to get out, and may very well need all of it.

It’s not pleasant to be amidst all this beauty and have my mind focusing on fears that tomorrow is going to be a long, difficult, painful day of nothing but uphill climbing.

* * *

1/29/98 Thursday Afternoon
Bright Angel Camp

I now have a new found appreciation for watching toddlers try to walk. The basic problem is that their legs simply won’t do what they are told. So as I waddled along the camp trail to the restroom, it occurred to me that that was exactly how I must have looked. I can imagine being pulled over for a random DUI check and being asked to walk a straight line, and failing miserably.

However, most of the pain was gone this morning other than my calves. Whether it was acclimatization or senselessness, I could not tell. Some stretching took care of the calves, and I was ready to head up and out of this thing.

Though I saw the same canyon on my way down, it was all the more impressive on the way up since I had to work so much harder to get there. I basically gave up trying to figure just how much further it was — each plateau only giving rise to the next one in what seemed an ongoing series of ledges without end.

First thing in the morning, I had looked at my bag of remaining food, and could only see it as fuel, not as something tasty to eat. And of course, my choice of what to eat from that bag has always been guided by one principle: eat the heavy things first. Just the other night I was asking myself "How can this thing still be so damn heavy?" The answer, of course, is that it takes a lot of fuel to get out of here: 3 packs of oatmeal, 2 hot cocoas, 1/4 pound of peanut butter, 2 apples, a power bar, two tomatoes, two English muffins loaded with jelly, a hunk of cheese, and a handful of crackers. And when finally out, I was ready for dinner.

The trip out took me 6 1/2 hours, including rest stops. As with the rest of this trip, there were very few other people, save for the campground and the 2 miles near the top. In fact, just as sea-gulls are a sign to sailors that land is not too far away, running into those pitiful excuses for hikers known as "day trippers" let me know I was getting close to the top. Unfortunately, the last 1.5 miles gains 1,500’ of elevation, the grade is steeper, the air colder and windier, and of course there’s the fact that just when I need it most, mother nature decides to make the air a little thinner and to start dumping snow on me. Not just the whole Southern rim, I’m sure — this snow is meant for me personally.

The real Irony is looking forward to the extra difficulties I know I’ll run into, because I know the worse it gets, the closer I am to the egress. So when I finally reached the shit-laden ice field, I knew I was home free! Just 1/4 of this and I’m out of here!

So as I’m walking oh so gingerly, I have this flashback to Kung Fu, where Master Po asks Grasshopper to walk barefoot across a floor covered with rice paper without tearing it. Po says when you can do this, it will be time to leave. Except that my challenge is far less spiritual. All I have to do is go up an ice-covered hill with a 50 pound pack without falling and sliding downhill through the manure. Cain got plenty of time to practice. I, however, had no desire to do this more than once.

So I finally got to the top, and there’s this couple in their late 40’s getting ready to go down at around 3PM, with street shoes, and these tiny day packs. I overhear one of them mention just making to Phantom Lodge by dark, so I asked them "You do have a water filtration device, right?" No, they say. The lodge has water. "Not since this morning it doesn’t. Water main broke." So they turn around and leave. Gee… no point inn going down then, is there? Day trippers — completely unprepared.


Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

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