Thursday, December 22, 2011

10 Hours To The River And Back

On Tuesday afternoon, Dr Desert Flower, Nathan Jr, and I drove up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, to survey the landscape, see how much snow & ice there might or might not be, and get acclimated to the higher elevation (6000 ft, compared to Phoenix's 1500) for our early morning hike on Wednesday morning.  After watching sunset from the South Rim, we had a lack-luster dinner at a Tusayan restaurant, and headed to the Best Western (next posting covering the hotel) for our $120 a night booked-on-expedia room.  Alarm set for 5am.

When I started the car at 6am the dashboard computer read 16F outside. Sadly, I'd forgotten the ice scraper back in Phoenix, but by 6:10 the windows were all defrosted.  At 6:20 we arrived at the South Rim Central Bus Depot, and at 6:22 Nathan Jr and I were on the bus headed to the South Kaibab trail head, at 6:25 we saw our first elk of the trip crossing the road in front of the shuttle bus, and at 6:30 were on the barely-moon-lit and VERY icy trail heading down South Kaibab.  Dr Desert Flower headed back to the hotel to sleep, analyze laboratory data, and answer emails.
Sunrise was at 7:30, and by the looks of the twilight at "Ooh Aah Point" we must've gotten there at 7:10 or so, after picking our way down the icy frozen trail, carefully and slowly.  Once the sun was up, the hiking was much more leisurely and less precarious.  Since the "new moon" is scheduled for the night of the 23rd, there was barely a sliver of crescent left to guide our non-feline eyes.  Mercifully, the sub-freezing temperatures kept the smell of donkey dung strewn along the trail to a bare minimum.

[To amuse ourselves, Nathan Jr and I brain stormed names of bands with aliteration:  "Delirious Donkey Dung" or "Donkey Dung Debacle" and "Donkey Dung Diaries" as we picked our way along the well worn, highly traveled, and heavily dung sprinkled trails.  "Hey Man, Triple D is coming to town!"]
The rim-to-rim views were spectacular, even in the twilight, and the adrenalin of initiating the hike we'd been planning for months kept the blood pumping and our extremities warm.  This was the first time I'd ever hiked into the Canyon in Winter snow and it was an interesting endeavor.  the parts of the trail that are in perpetual Winter shade stay snow covered, bordered by areas of semi-melted-and-refrozen mud-ice mixtures.  South Kaibab predawn in the winter is a frozen mudscape and intermittent snow covered path, with numerous dung landmines discernible by moonlight.  It descends rapidly down through the snow line into slightly elevations areas that get more sunlight, and the snow disappears rather rapidly, giving way to a full blown desert scape by the time we reached first Cedar Ridge and the Skeleton Point.
It wasn't until after Skeleton Point that we saw another human during the hike.  Until that time, it was just Nathan Jr and myself hiking peacefully.  After Skeleton Point we began to encounter other hikers who had camped overnight at the river and were heading up, and mule trains of tourists who were not strong enough to hike the Canyon.  At one point, about a mile from the river, we were passed by a Norwegian hiker we called "Mr Swishy Pants" because his track suit "swished" each time his legs moved.  We later saw Mr Swishy Pants eating at the camp ground picnic tables near Phantom Ranch. 
We hiked the extra 1/4 mile to Phantom Ranch and checked out the spartan accommodations.  Dorm-like bunk bed cabins where 8 to 12 same-sex visitors slept (and snored and farted throughout the night).  A spartan cafeteria (Canteen) where only pre-planned meals were served, but many snacks (and alcohol) could be purchased without reservations (we did not partake, just observed).  We also so several groups of very tame deer, who grazed just a meter or two away from the hiking path and did not run away.  We did not try to pet them, to keep the "wild" in "wildlife".

4 hour after beginning our hike, we reach Phantom Ranch, where we shed a layer of warm clothing, ate Cliff Bars, drank 8 to 12 ounces of water each, and refilled our Cambelbacks, with the Nalgene bottle I'd filled back in Phoenix on Tuesday morning.  Altogether, we carried TOO MUCH water with us.  Both Nathan Jr and I wore a Camelback.  Along with the Camelback bladders, my son carried two 12 ounce Kelty bottles, and a 24 ounce Nalgene refillable.  I carried an additional two Kirkland disposable 12 ounce bottles.  As it was Winter, and we were not sweating very much, we opted to NOT refill our bottles at Phantom, and see how well things went on the return trip, knowing that there would be two opportunities to fill up at Indian Gardens and again 2 miles fro the mile on the ascent.  We never needed to refill, and actually carried all the water we needed down and back up, consuming it as we went.  In the summer time, that would have been impossible.

After leaving Phantom Ranch at 11am and re-crossing the Colorado River on the Bright Angel trail suspension bridge, we hiked for nearly an hour along the Colorado, gaining no altitude whatsoever.  We were impatient to make it back up to the South Rim before dark, and knew the ascent would take longer than the descent. 

After a long parallel trek along the river, the trail finally turns up a canyon and away from the river, with a babbling brook beside the trail.  Depression Era old power lines dot the landscape, with broken glass insulators here and there, missing copper lines, and poles that are often so short they'd never meet modern safety standards.  I'd say the lines have not been in use for at least 30 or 40 years, if not longer.  Along Bright Angel's ascent after the Colorado, we passed numerous groups of hikers in full back packs who had camped over-night at Phantom Ranch.  Many hikers were Very out-of-shape sporting beer bellies that made their top-of-the-line athletic outdoor attire stretch over their mid sections.  A mule train of tourists descended past us towards the river - the only one we saw on Bright Angel the whole day, compared to the 3 (2 tourist and one supply) on Kaibab earlier that morning - as we climbed to Indian Gardens. 

The River-to-Indian Gardens trek is really leisurely, scenic, shaded, and pleasant.  Often a running stream, or falls, or brook are nearby, and the geology varies greatly.  A great deal of vegetation can be found, but we did not see any fauna on Bright Angel, only flora. Once at Indian Gardens, we snacked on almonds, dried apricots, and dried organic apple slices, assessed that we still had plenty of water, and headed up towards the South Rim at 1:30, confirming with Dr Desert Flower that she'd be there to meet us, via cell phone - signal strength at Indian Gardens was quite strong. 
Taken at 3:54pm, just before the first tunnel (upon ascent) on Bright Angel Trail, 21Dec2011
The next 3 hours was somewhat grueling.  Knee pain (bursa) and leg muscle fatigue (calves, quads, and glutes) began to set in on old JustJoeP.  Nathan Jr had to repeatedly pause for dad to catch up, but slow and steady wins the race.  When we finally crossed from the red rocks to the tan rock layer, I handed my phone to Nathan Jr and told him to go scamper up the remaining mile to find Dr Desert Flower and make sure we had dinner planned somewhere.  What I thought would be another 20 minutes turned out to be a very frigid, wind blown hour of carefully treading up the frozen path alone. 
I made it up to the South Rim by 4:15, and luckily the "Arizona Room" opened at 4:30pm for dinner.  I highly recommend the "Arizona Sampler" plate which had an organic chicken breast, short ribs, and a filet mignon (along with a backed potato that I did not eat).  The "Grand Canyon" label merlot was a tasty accompaniment for only $24 a bottle (or $8 a glass, but we got the bottle).  DDF our designated driver had a glass, and Nathan Jr and I polished off the bottle, along with 2 large carafes of water to sate our thirst, post hike.  We got to see the sun go down over the canyon from our window-side seats at 5:15, and by 5:45 we were heading out of the main Village area.  A 'required' stop at the gift shop later we hobbled back to the car and were out of the park by 7pm, and back home in Phoenix by 10pm. 

10 hours from start to finish, 9.5 of which were solid hiking, in-motion hours.  The 3 hour drive home was punctuated by bath room breaks were Nathan Jr and I staggered out of the car, to avoid lactic acid cramping and post-hike muscle spasms.  A long hot bath and two large glasses of Bushnills and I was in no pain before bed.  This morning was rough for me (not from the Bushmills, I don't get any hang-over at all from quality Irish Whiskey), but I am ambulatory, and as the day progresses, the pain becomes much more dulled.  Naproxin Sodium helps as well, as an anti-inflammatory.

Someday in the future, in the Early Spring or Late Fall, when there's no snow on the ground and the ambient temperatures are cool but not frozen, I want to do a North-to-South or "South to North" rim hike, carrying MUCH LESS water.  Planning it during a full moon when getting an early start by moonlight doesn't pose as much risk of stepping in mule dung as this hike did.   I'll need to have Dr Desert Flower do the 6 hour drive around the canyon to pick us up, unless any JustJoeP followers want to coordinate and exchange car keys down at Phantom ranch, and we'll meet up 1/2 way around the canyon - Vegas Perhaps?


  1. Sounds like a really gratifying day out! I personally really like the DOMS from a previous exertion.

  2. It was great. You should join us next time. It's only a 3 hour drive from Phoenix to the South Rim in good weather (we'd previously misunderstood it to be closer to 4 or 5). If either (or both) of your boys or your lovely wife are up for it, we can make it a group adventure... or they could keep DDF company as she drives the 6 hours around the canyon to get us from the other side =)

    The offer remains open. 2013 or thereafter, we'll likely do it again... but in March or October.


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