I know I ended a bit abruptly last post – it is a lot to re-evaluate after walking out of the canyon the next day. As a reminder, here is where we left off…
Heidie and I had spent a substantial amount of time researching and readying ourselves for this hike. Heidie already had a long history of hiking up and down the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails during the summer months to meet the river runners on the Colorado (specifically her husband!) I haven’t been on the Grand Canyon trails but I’ve hiked Angel’s Landing at Zion and a few 10+ miles hikes inside Glen Canyon. We already had most of our gear and spent an entire afternoon making sure it all still worked/fit/etc. We looked up the weather before we left and spent time talking with the rangers at the backcountry office to ask questions about weather, packing, food…we felt like we were really prepared!
As we huddled under a rock outcropping, stuck in “the box” and unable to backtrack to Cottonwood (it was at least three miles away at that point), we discussed quickly our emergency plan. From our research, we knew to keep our backpacks away from us, sit as low as possible, and try to keep a good distance apart. As the lightning around us increased, we felt very fortunate that we had listened and made the right decisions up to this point. We knew there was a storm, but later even the seasoned veterans we met at Phantom Ranch said that the storm we got caught in was more powerful (and later in the season) than they had seen in years previous. We were on the other side of the waterfall (in the picture above, that waterfall is blocking the trail we had just ran through when we first saw lightning only minutes before), and we were protected. We were far enough back that I was able to sit down and stretch out my legs and we still had a few feet between us and the trail.
After about 10 minutes, we saw a couple approach from the other side of the waterfall. They tested to see if they could cross and then walked down the side to cross the fast moving stream that the waterfall produced. We tried in vain to yell “stop”, and we HIGHLY recommend that you never 1. walk in a lightning storm and 2. try to cross a fast moving body of water. Regardless of your excuse, this is how people get hurt or die. In any case, the couple didn’t die…and almost walked right past us. We are not ones to preach, but we did stop them to remind them that it was lightning and to be careful. Lucky we did this, because as we talked we all heard a sound like lightning striking right next to us. It made my heart stop. The guy and I watched as a huge piece of rock dislocated from the side of the canyon wall only 50 feet away from us and fall to the ground, shattering and blocking the trail ahead. Who knows – if we hadn’t stopped them, how close would that couple have been to that rock?
The couple continued on, but Heidie and I stayed another 15 minutes and waited for the lightning to pass and the pounding rain to lessen to a constant drizzle. If I didn’t mention this already, I was SOAKED. My rain jacket only went down to my hips, and I had quick dry pants that definitely worked…if I had time for them to dry. They had dried before the storm came, but with it’s quickness and ferocity I didn’t make it far without the rain completely going through my pants. I also realized that the rain jacket I had, while reliable for many years, had finally succumbed to it’s many years of hiking, camping, and backpacking. Along the shoulder seams, it slightly leaked over time. At this point in the trip, between sweating from hiking and the slight leak in the shoulders, I was pretty wet. I had wrapped most of my camping gear and clothes in waterproof bags and/or trash bags before packing them in my backpack, so I wasn’t too worried about those items. Heidie and I started walking when we heard another sharp crack like lightning. We watched, across the now roaring stream, rocks fall from near the top of the canyon walls to our right. That hurried us up!
It was two hours later when we arrived at Phantom Ranch. We were behind by a few hours and were very tired. Because the storm did not let up as we walked, and hearing crashes of rocks in the distance, we didn’t stop. When we arrived at Phantom Ranch we stopped at the nearest table and had a wonderful talk with a hiker. Doug has been hiking north-south rim for the past five years! He walked us through the campground (we were nervous about rock fall or the water swelling around the river and wanted his recommendation) and it was really cool hearing his stories of past years. We found a nice site near the bathrooms and were able to get out of our wet clothes and set up camp. We had also already pre-ordered our dinner at the Ranch, so we headed to the tables and waited for the dinner call.
As we waited, Heidie and I assessed our situation. Frankly, we were exhausted. Because of the storm, I had stopped my regiment of eating each hour. While I had drank plenty of water, each time I tried to each a cashew or a granola bar it felt like chalk in my mouth. My anxiety was up and I tried to calm myself, but while that helped me keep going (we did try to stop, but everything was wet and there was really no areas to duck out of the rain) it didn’t help enough. I tried to eat dinner but could barely finish the stew broth and a few bites before pushing it aside. Knowing that you need lots of calories, water, and SALT, when hiking I made sure that I at least kept drinking water. We had been mixing our water bottles with a packet of electrolyte (Gatorade mostly) solution as well. Our backpacks were soaked, and while we had packed our stuff in dry bags or trash bags to keep them dry if it rained, the relentless rain for two hours had still soaked through one of my older bags. My sleeping pad was a little damp when I went to bed that night! Because we had arrived later, and the sun was already going down, we knew that we wouldn’t have the opportunity for our back packs and items to dry out. Overnight, it ended up raining…knowing this, we covered our backpacks with the poncho Heidie brought, but nothing dried overnight. Later we would be very thankful for the decision we made that night – we decided to have the mules bring up our backpacks the next day.
Having the mules bring up our backpacks did relieve our bodies of the extra weight, but it also changed our plans. We had one night at Bright Angel, and one at Indian Garden. The mules don’t ‘deliver’ your bags for you – we weighed them, put a ticket on them, and picked them up later on the top of the south rim – so that meant we wouldn’t have our sleeping bags/tent/sleeping pad to camp. We would have to wake up the next morning and get out of the canyon that day, instead of knowing we had two days to split up the hike. While it did dramatically change our plans, I think it was the best decision. We had a great night listening to the stream next to the camp ground, and the stars were absolutely gorgeous. We had amazing talks with a father and his 12 year old son from Iowa and other hikers who had either started at the north rim like us, or had started at the south rim. Most south rim starters were walking back up the south rim and we not necessarily doing the “rim-to-rim”. It was pretty cool being a part of a small back packing/hiking community at Phantom Ranch and I definitely recommend trying to stay a night there!
We woke up early for breakfast, and grabbed our to-go lunch before starting up the south rim. We had tagged our backpacks early (by 6:30!). Heidie’s backpack included a fold-out day pack, which we had removed from her larger pack to take with us out of the canyon. We had water, rain jackets, and food. We started on a pretty good pace through the canyon until we got to the first set of switch backs. One of the best reasons that Heidie was such a good hiking partner was her ability to motivate me when I felt like I had hit a low point – halfway up the switch backs I started to feel the strain from not eating as much as I had wanted the day before. I’d like to say I motivated her as well during our trip at certain points, but I specifically remember this point of the trip as needing some assistance!
Indian Garden had a helicopter pad, a park ranger, and the first stop for the mules that carry humans. It was very strange being in “civilization”, but we found a picnic table and spread out our to-go lunch. I was able to eat a lot more than I thought I originally would, and drank a good amount of electrolytes. After living and working in the desert for the past three years I’ve learned that my intake of salt vs. water is sometimes very low. Recognizing that, I made sure to try to overcome that during the hike. It was a good thing that I did! As we continued our hike to our next destination – Three Mile House – I had a new hiking plan. At each switch back, I would wait for Heidie to catch up. By this time, Heidie had the back pack and the hiking poles, and her steady walk allowed me to catch my breath and continue up ahead to the next switch back. It was a good method as I tried to also catch glimpses of the gorgeous area. I have to be honest – after Indian Garden I didn’t take as many pictures as I could have, mostly because of a snafu from earlier before our hike. In a bit of confusion in the morning, I had packed my battery pack…but not the actual charger cord. I had taken lots of pictures on the north rim, but since my battery was dying I didn’t want to continue to drain it – especially because our plans had changed and I needed to call Clinton.
When we finally made it to Three Mile House, we talked with a nice couple that had started from the south rim and were turning around towards the top. We ended up walking past each other a few times on our way up – it was very interesting seeing the same people as we got closer and closer to the top. At Three Mile House, I was able to call Clinton and tell him that he needed to pick us up that day instead of the next day. We had already discussed a few scenarios and since this was one that we knew could possibly happen, it was no problem for him to leave and meet up with us.
Heidie and I made it to 1.5 Mile House and rested before heading up, and I will admit at this time I had again stopped eating. I know my body pretty well, and could feel that I had been drinking water to the point where it wasn’t beneficial, so I decided to switch to gatorade packets. While I think I made good decisions regarding stopping, drinking, and trying to eat…it was a struggle. I had to stop frequently. Everything everyone writes about those last miles is so true! We had a few hikers who were “local” who encouraged us when the realized we were near completing a rim-to-rim, and I when we called Clinton about .5 miles from the top and he said he was heading down to meet us…that was all the motivation I needed! I was going to walk out of the canyon myself – DAMMIT! And I sure did. When I got to the top, I looked to my right and then to my left and there was Clinton. I gave him a big hug and was so happy that we had made it out of the canyon successfully. What a day! We made it out later than we thought because of the pace we ended up going, but all in all it was such a great feeling getting out of the canyon and checking off such a high bucket list item.
We changed and got our backpacks from the mules, and Clinton drove us home. While we didn’t get the exact trip that we had originally planned for, it was still such an amazing experience. I could not have imagined that heading into the canyon would be so breathtaking and yet so demanding. Heidie and I were forced to make a few fateful decisions along the way, but looking back I think we made the best decision we could have made for the time, location, and knowledge. I was able to use all my experience and ‘training’ to make the best of each bad moment. Overall, I love that we had such a great and original experience in the canyon. Between camping for two nights on the freezing north rim, to experiencing a lightening storm before camping at Bright Angel campground…I sometimes can’t believe I actually accomplished the hike. I hope you all enjoyed reading about my crazy experience!