Eventually, we found Phantom Ranch.
It was...disappointing. What was a popular canteen has now become a simple grab-and-go place with no hot food, no beer, and nothing appetizing. Thank you, COVID. I choked down a bagel and some gummies. There was loose talk of opening an In-n-Out Burger (can you imagine?!). I peeled off my shoes and socks to give my feet some air and was immediately bitten by 200 red ants in the dirt below the picnic table. Ow.
The climb began. It was after 1pm at this point; my dreams of a 3pm finish time dashed. I figured it would take us about four hours to climb out. At least we were still feeling good and had seen some incredible stuff. This was truly the hike of a lifetime. As long as we got out of this canyon before nightfall, we’d be in good shape.
We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. We avoided mule poop and the rivers of urine; we pulled ourselves up and over the giant wooden stairs. The blisters on the sides of my feet from the descent began to scream. I ignored them. I realized why there are so few pictures of people on their ascent in the canyon; sure, we see the happy-go-lucky folks starting out, cruising down those switchbacks, but what about the climb? No one takes photos during the climb because you are still busy swearing under your breathe.
It was tough, to say the least. Most frustrating was that the mileage constantly seemed to be off. My watch was dead at this point, so I annoyed Dan with repeated questions of our altitude, mileage and overall time. I reasoned we'd hike between 25-26 total miles, additional mileage courtesy of our little sojourn to Ribbon Falls. We'd likely climb to close to 7,000 ft in order to get out, an elevation gain of about 4800 ft, and I was guessing we'd finish up in 12 hours total, around 2.3-2.4 miles per hour. If you think that's slow, try climbing the stairs at your house for 12 hours and let me know how fast you are going on hour 12. Throw some sand and mule poop in there for good measure, too.
All of the water taps at the South Rim were on, which was incredibly helpful. The three liters I added at Phantom Ranch were necessary, as sweat poured off of us. The temperature hovered in the mid-90s and I was down to my running shorts and tank. I suddenly and very clearly understood the concept of “cardiac arrest” from the book - and we were essentially fit, athletic runners. How did other people do this?
We climbed. We shuffled. Our pace was shockingly slow. I prayed my heart was healthy and Dan’s was too.
About an hour later, we hit the Three Mile rest house. Almost there! Except...we weren’t. We were at motherf*cking Indian Garden, a full 4.5 miles from the rim. WHAT?! I thought we had passed that hours ago. How was our mileage so screwy? I kicked a rock. I swore under my breath. I looked at the other hikers draped casually around the picnic tables - happy, clean, chatting, clearly on a day hike from the south rim - with pure annoyance. My mood plummeted further when we hit three - THREE! - water crossings directly outside of Indian Garden. All day, I had been so careful to not let my feet get wet. And with four miles to go, on the third crossing, my left foot slipped in off the rock and went directly to the bottom. My whole shoe was soaked. I had no dry socks left. I limped into the sand, my foot making squishing noises as it exhaled the water. “It would have been nice if they warned us about the water crossings!” I yelled to no one in particular. Dan turned around, trying to stifle his laughter.
The difference in mileage AND my soaking wet left foot was demoralizing, to say the least. It’s like that well-meaning spectator at mile 18 of a marathon shouts, “You are almost there!” and you want to punch them in the face. No such luck, friend. We weren’t almost there. And the roughest part lay ahead.
My foot gurgled with every step.
At this point, I started to worry about my mom. I had told her I would call her as soon as we exited, no later than 4pm that day. Dan’s watch said we were closing in on 5pm. I began to fret. At what point was Karen going to call Search and Rescue? Those flights aren’t free. I didn’t have an extra $30,000 to spend on an unnecessary helicopter ride out of this canyon. Even though we were still miles from the rim, I checked my phone and was delighted to find I had service again - thank you, Verizon tower! One quick text later, my mother was reassured.
We finally hit the Three-Mile Resthouse. Good gravy, that was a long 1.5 miles. I was shocked to find that in order to use the restroom at this stop, you had to rock scramble a good 50 meters just to get the bathrooms. More steps? Nooooo....While Dan rested, I dropped my pack and headed upwards to the potty. There was a deer standing about 10 feet off the trail. I don’t remember it, but apparently I waved to the deer and said, “What’s up, bro? Are you having a good day?” Dan just shook his head. Later, he told he me couldn’t understand my apparent fear of small woodland creatures, but when faced with an 8-point buck less no more than two social distances away, I was all casual.
I could keep tabs on him based on his headlamp, even though he was behind me. At that point, I started working out several contingency plans in my brain. If he collapsed or could not go further, I was going to wrap him in my Mylar blanket and go find a ranger. There was no way I could physically carry him, as he was a foot taller and almost 80 heavier. Provided he stayed upright and continued to put one foot in front of the other, we'd be fine. All of sudden those blisters on the sides of my feet stopped hurting as I worked through these scenarios. I couldn't tell if my headache was from stress, my headlamp, or my ponytail. Why did this seem like a good idea, again?
Puking - and then taking a Roctane gel - seemed to help. With a second wind (third? Fourteenth?), we managed to finally, finally drag oursevles past the 1.5 Mile Rest house. Knowing we had such a small distance to go definitely helped, and nighttime went from being scary to being my old friend - hello, Darkness. No drop offs to look at here! Back to hiking in the warehouse. I could see the ridge line above us and the lights from other hikers exiting the Canyon. We were so close! Almost there, almost there....we hit “Second Tunnel” - thank God - then First Tunnel! Then, out of nowhere, there was a weird house to our left. They wouldn’t build a house without being close to the rim, right?
I felt like sprinting out when I saw two girls standing at what appeared to be the trail head for Bright Angel. “Is this a parking lot?” I asked. They blinked at me, totally confused. I guess that's not someone's first comment upon exiting the Grand Canyon. I didn't care - I saw cars! It was! It really was! We had made it!
As much as I felt like laying down and weeping on a bench, we still had to get to the hotel, about a half mile down the road. But it was a road! With pavement! Mostly flat with only a slight incline! And no poop!
We dragged ourselves up the steps of the hotel, amid guests in rocking chairs, sipping cocktails in their cute, clean North Face gear with faces full of makeup and curled hair. The noisy din of cocktail hour muted almost instantly upon our arrival. We must have looked like we just crawled out of a swamp. Dan told me later that he was still unconsciously using his trekking poles WITH his headlamp on, making our entrance that much weirder. I crack up just thinking about it.
I made a beeline for the registration desk, intent on ending this day as quickly as possible. When the kind woman told me our room was on the third floor - "It’s a historic hotel with no elevator" - I laid my head on the partition and cried. Gwen, as we would later learn her name, took pity on me. Because of our super late arrival, she started click-click -clicking through her computer and found a closer room on the second floor. It just so happened to be the Presidential Suite; the nicest room in the entire hotel. She upgraded us for free.
If I ever have another child, I will name her Gwen.
So there you have it: two exhausted hikers, covered in dirt and grime, one still green at the gills, hauled themselves up another set of stairs, only to collapse on the floor in the nicest room on the South Rim. At no extra charge.
Once the Hokas were off, I practically skipped through the giant suite with total joy. TWO sets of fluffy robes AND slippers! Look at that bathroom! We have a sitting area! And a couch! Hooray! I proceeded to take the longest shower known to man, with the bathtub looking like a murder scene as the red dirt swished off.
I can't help but look back on our hike and smile. Within a 60-minute window, our lot changed considerably. We went from muck and dirt with aching feet and vomit to devouring French onion soup, a New York strip, and a nicely chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
Life is nothing if not surprising.
The conclusion and final thoughts tomorrow. :-)