My first sentence uttered upon seeing the giant pothole: “Wow. that’s...big.”
Please excuse my simplicity - seeing the Grand Canyon in person on the North Rim, even from the edge of the parking lot of the Lodge, was enough to render the chattiest of us speechless. And then it hit me:
“We have to go in there?”
Our little adventure had started a few hours earlier, on the second to last Monday in September. Brimming with supplies and good spirits, we set off from Vegas that morning, ready to tackle this canyon thing. We had gone over our supplies and gear, so I knew we had exactly what we needed in the event harm came our way. From compression socks to a fully-stocked medical kit, snacks, a tomahawk, several knives, a topo map, waterproof matches, my Boston Marathon Mylar blanket, and a tiny speaker with music (“to keep the energy up”), I thought we had covered all our bases.
We hadn’t even reached Arizona when the first injury happened. Waiting in line at a corn dog stand in Hurricane, Utah, I wandered over to a nearby rock store to look at the rocks. On the lot, there was a giant prickly-pear cactus with bright red buds. The buds looked so squishy. Careful to not harm the plant, I picked up one of the buds that had already fallen off, thinking I’d bring it home to Scotty as a little treasure. While I was careful to avoid the one-inch needles, I had no idea the bud was also covered in tiny, microscopic needles that immediately implanted themselves into each of my fingers. As much as I tried, rubbing them only pushed them in farther.
I sheepishly approached the truck and asked Dan for the medical kit. He looked up from his phone right away, surprised that we had not even reached out destination and I was already in need of aid. Sadly, there was no set of tweezers in the kit, so I was forced to pull each individual needle from my fingers one by one. It took hours.
I never finished that corn dog. (Remember friends: there are no vegan police.)
By the time we were both gazing over the side of the wall on the North Rim, mouths agape and speechless, those needles quickly were forgotten. The sheer enormity of the task ahead of us was daunting. But this is how I’ve felt on the eve of every marathon ever. The questions swirled. Did I do enough to prepare? What will go wrong? What did I forget? I wasn’t concerned about time or mile splits this time; I was mostly worried about temperature, heights, sheer drops, the weight of our packs, rock slides, flash floods, lightening, the aggressive Arizona grey squirrel, heat stroke, dehydration...to name a few.
Yes, some may think that reading “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon” was a poor idea in the weeks before this trip. I beg to differ. While the first chapter “Falls from the Rim” made my palms sweat, the rest of the book was incredibly helpful. All 556 pages gave me an incredible boost of confidence - not because of my hiking abilities (which are poor), but for the simple fact that I, demographically speaking, was at a far greater rate to survive the canyon than pretty much anyone else. High five to all the other 42-year old women out there!
The book laid it all out. The highest risk group to fall from the rim? Males, 20-29 years old. Why? Because they are rock scrambling, showing off, or just simply goofing around by the edge. As of 2018, out of the 64 total victims that have accidentally fallen from the rim, only 10 were female. Of those 10 women, two were thought to be on drugs or alcohol, one could have been a murder-suicide, leaving the last seven having pitched over the edge because of vertigo, stumbling over their feet, or a simple but deadly attempt to take a photo. “Just one more step back” is a local joke. Death by Selfie is also a real thing too. But these numbers, instead of freaking me out, did the opposite: it made me feel better. I was not planning to use drugs or get drunk; I was fairly confident Dan was not going to murder me, and there was no way I was taking a selfie near the edge. We all know I am a terrible selfie taker. May the odds be ever in my favor.
The book had even more helpful information. Since less than 1% of the Grand Canyon’s total visitors ever venture below the rim, I knew the numbers were on our side. (“What are the odds of having a visitor go below rim AND be Auntie Anne’s winning pretzel maker from 1998?” Dan mused on Wednesday. I guessed .000000001%. I had no idea of his pretzel making skills). Of environmental deaths, men were the most likely to die, again from falling from cliffs within the canyon, heat stroke, or cardiac arrest. The age group 22-35 year old men had the greatest chance of experiencing heat stroke and dehydration, whereas as the 45+ dudes were most likely to die from heart attack as they climbed out. Note to dudes planning their Grand Canyon adventure: you have a very small window to make this happen. Dan happens to be 37.
While men died from thirst, women, on the other hand, were more likely to die from hyponetremia, an imbalance of sodium within the body caused from drinking TOO much water countered by not enough food. This, again, made total sense to me. Of course we, as women, would be hyper-concerned about our hydration needs and overdo it. I’ll admit, hiking was a total appetite killer for me; I struggle to consume real food simply due to lack of appetite. But if that meant my kidneys were going to blow out and my brain was going to swell? Pass the gummy bears.
Armed with this knowledge and much more (Most dangerous animal: that damn squirrel. Likelihood of a flash flood: low. Potential to drown: extremely low; we weren’t setting foot into the Colorado River. I skipped that whole chapter), I felt as though we had trained and prepared as much as we could. Perhaps the best part of the book is when it points out that mountaineer is much different than canyoneering. “Mountains let people know just how hard it really is gain elevation solidly via one’s own power....Mountains often weed out the unfit so early in the game that, once they realize they have bitten off more than they can chew, they can often return fairly easily downhill to their staging zone. Canyons do the opposite.” Provided no rabid squirrels bite me and I don’t trip over my own feet, my likelihood for survival was high.
Our plan was simple: Day 1, we traverse down North Kaibab Trail starting at 4am. Get through “The Box,” the hottest part of the Canyon, by 10am. Depart Phantom Ranch, the very bottom area, no later than 11am, and then hike back up Bright Angel Trail. With two routes at the South Rim, most hikers prefer to go down South Kaibab - only 7 miles but very steep - and go up Bright Angel - at 9.3 miles, it’s a much more gradual climb. I figured the whole thing would take close to 8 hours and we’d pop out on the rim no later than 3pm on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, we’d take South Kaibab down to North Kaibab. Since this was Day 2 (tired legs) and more uphill, I estimated it would take us around 12 hours.
I did exactly what the book suggested, which was leave a note in the car stating our names, descriptions, routes, and estimated times of arrivals and departures, hence anything go wrong and rangers could easily find the vehicle with our itinerary. For good measure, I sent the whole thing to my mother the day before we left. I knew Karen would call Search and Rescue and keep us safe.
And Tuesday morning, at 4:08am, amid total darkness, we arrived at the trailhead of North Kaibab, jittery and full of anticipation.
We passed Coconino Overlook with little celebration; we were only .5 miles into the trip. Supai Tunnel came out of nowhere; that was about 1.7 miles down. Dan stretched out his massive wingspan, all 6’6”, and touched both sides of the tunnel.
The trail began to get more gravely. I had on gloves, a shirt, a swifty, and my hoodie - while the temp at the top was around 40 degrees, we were warming up quickly. Considering we still couldn’t see anything around us, I opted to not remove any clothing until we had better lightening.
About two miles down, there was a small rustling sound to our left. Dan pointed out a tiny grey bunny. I looked over to see a large rabbit with red eyes and long teeth. It jumped. Near me. There was a thump. I screamed. Dan laughed. Wth? Rabid bunnies on the trail? He pointed out it was completely harmless, but I strongly disagreed. That bunny had a look in its eyes and it was not normal. Dan then pointed out my scream most likely scared away anything else living on this side of the Canyon. Fine with me.
Around mile 4, we were delighted to discover a bridge - bridge! That’s novel! I thought there was only the bridge across the Colorado River. In reality, there were probably 7-8 bridges in the Canyon and we greeted each one with the same level of excitement and wonder(“A BRIDGE! OMG!”) Clearly, hikers are an easy group to impress. We crossed the Redwall Bridge like champs.
By the time first light broke, I realized two things: the mule poop had stopped and we were going down what appeared to be an epic number of steps on the side of the Canyon wall. In certain parts, it was narrow. Like, really narrow. And the Canyon walls caved in, making the path that much smaller. How the hell did people run this? I held my breathe, taking baby steps, and concentrated on Dan’s feet in front of me. These traverses were short to be sure, but holy moly. No rock wall, no trees, nothing but a sheer drop of about 400 feet directly to my left. And no mule poop meant...this trail was officially not for mules anymore. My palms began to sweat in my gloves.
The sound of a waterfall was like music to my ears. We had hit Roaring Springs, the first “big” moment on the hike. Snapped some photos, admired how far we had come, and cruised on through. Manzinita was up next, at 5.1 miles. This was a rest area, complete with potties, picnic tables, and my favorite: a map. I was really surprised we were only 5.1 miles into the hike. My Garmin was already acting weird; it had clocked us at close to 8. I had a feeling the real number was around 6 miles, but we were feeling good, making good time, and enjoying the scenary. It was almost completely light out at this point; close to 6:30am. A light drizzle started to fall, bathing the Canyon in an eerily, grey light that made the colors that much more vibrant. This was truly one of the most beautiful things I had every witnessed.
At the rest area, I watched a girl at the picnic table eat tuna directly from a pouch, and realized if you had told me it was 5:30pm, I would have believed you. I had no concept of time at this point.
We kept moving, hitting all the normal stops with no problems. We had agreed before the trip that Ribbon Falls, at mile 8.1, was a definite “must-see.” Unfortunately, when we got there, we were greeted with this:
Dan was undeterred. He insisted that we could find a way over the creek via another crossing. Alarm bells went off in my head (“Most hikers that die in the canyon do so because they wandered off the original trail”...the book pointed out numerous times.) Ever the rule follower, I followed him but remained on the trail. He cut through the shrubs; I followed on the path. Eventually, we found a crossing where the water was only several inches deep, but it was still moving fast. I still wasn’t sold on going off-trail when I realized he had his shoes off and had plunged a sock-footed leg into the freezing water. “Dammit!” I cursed. If he jumps, I do too.
Mentally, I calculated how many socks I brought with me. Enough, I reasoned. I gingerly followed. Once we made it over the slippery river rocks in nothing but our socks, I dug around for another pair, ready to put my shoes back on. But instead, I found a pair of outdoor slippers my mom had sent me for my birthday a week earlier; they were to be my “after hiking” shoes. With a thick rubber bottom and neoprene foot covering, they could also double as water shoes. Score one for Karen!
I happily threw on my pink slippers and couldn’t believe how much better my feet felt. I practically danced on the rocks, through the creek, over the cacti on our way to Ribbon Falls. Shunning the Hokas for footwear that actually allowed my feet to feel the ground, I wondered if maybe I was a Vibrams girl at heart. My feet felt AMAZING. It was like wearing ballet slippers, and I was using my toes again. Heaven!
By the time we made it to Ribbon Falls, I realized Dan had been right the whole time: this was TOTALLY worth the detour. It was probably one of the most incredible things I had ever seen. Water cascaded from two separate falls with greenery trailing up the side of the falls and little red flowered bursting in bloom. This was like utopia to us green-starved desert dwellers. Knee-deep, the 50-degree water rejuvenated tired muscles. I was hesitant to get wet - water = chafing in my running world, but today, we were hikers. We got soaked in the little fern-covered grotto, soaked our tootsies in that mineral water, and wished we had a floatie and maybe a beer. This place was paradise.
We marched into the Box right around 11am. My jaw clenched; this was exactly the wrong time to be in the Box. Based on weather predictions, it’s best to avoid the area between 10a-4p, as it can be the hottest part of the canyon, with temperatures soaring to 110-115 with no shade and no wind. It could be stifling. We, however, lucked out - the cloud cover made it the perfect day, and the temperature could not have been higher than 85 at that point. We marveled at the beauty around us - the slot canyons, Bright Angel Creek, the green. So much green! I felt like a brachiosaurus head was going to pop out from around the bend at any moment. It was like Jurassic Park met Jumanji, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in. This was the adventure of a lifetime. I had never seen such untouched, pristine land before.
That’s when it hit me: very few people will ever see this. The process of getting down here - and then back up - will prevent most people from being able to witness the amazing grandeur that is the bottom of the canyon. There was nothing here with wheels. There were no kids. No strollers, no ice cream stands, nothing that would suggest we were living in 2020. We had our phones out to take pictures, but had no service. There was nothing but the sound of rushing water. It was truly the land before time.
Now we have to climb out.