The Ascent, Day Three: Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part Six

A year and a half ago, my brother called me and said, “Let’s hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!” The time had finally arrived. What follows is the third and final day.

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Looking back during the climb

Either well rested, or restless due to the unfamiliar sleeping environment, my brother Aaron and I both woke before our alarm clocks. Having mostly packed the night before, we did not have much to do before breakfast. I finished a little journaling on the bench outside our cabin in the cool morning air while Aaron craftily snuck away for a short solo morning hike, and I’m so glad he did.

There is nothing like being alone in nature. It’s always safe to have someone with you while in the wild, but when it is just you and the sky and the breeze pushing through leaves, everything seems more present, more connected. The sun flashing on canyon walls while leaving others in shadow; the sound of creek water rushing over river rock; the exchange of morning bird songs, all there for you, not to be observed, but to be a part of; this is the beauty of solitude in nature. I recommend it fully.

Our plan was to eat breakfast and hit the trail immediately afterwards, being that we were told the hike up South Kaibab Trail was arduous and exhausting. After a hearty helping of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and pancakes (to be fair, there were peaches as well) we filled up our respective water containers and headed out, leaving the very pleasant  Phantom Ranch behind.

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One more crossing of the Colorado River

Ten minutes in, we crossed the Colorado River for what would be the last time, and on the opposite side were greeted instantly with switchbacks. The work had begun. The numerous hikers who told us South Kaibab was a trail with almost constant increases in elevation were not exaggerating. There was only a handful of portions along the trail where the hiking was flat, and those did not last long.

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The hike was difficult. The consistent rising elevation gave our legs, which were already sore, quite the challenge, along with our cardio/lung capacity. We had to stop multiple times, but that was okay; we weren’t exactly in a hurry. The rest time gave us opportunity to look back and see where we had come from, observing the Colorado growing smaller and smaller as we climbed. It was also a time to talk with other hikers, which generally are a friendly group of people.

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The switchbacks begin

 

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Looking back to the bridge we crossed

The first major stop was Skeleton Point, located at what I called the first plateau, which was the intermediary point between the upper and lower canyon. Here was an exposed, arid, and mercifully flat-ish area of scrub brush, cacti and rocks. Skeleton Point serves also as a crossroads for another trail called Tonto which runs perpendicular along the plateau (if plateau is even the correct term). Here we had our first snacks of the climb. We had been climbing for about two hours and needed some fuel.

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What I call the “First Plateau”

The trail did not stay flat for very long, perhaps a quarter of a mile if I’m being generous with an estimate. The next set of switchbacks were particularly unforgiving. We pushed through it, taking the occasional breather. I thought how much more difficult it would be to actually go down the trail with the constant jarring punishment on knees and ankles. After an hour and a half we reached a point between two promontories which provided a beautiful view of the canyon and the Colorado River, now so much smaller. We could see where Phantom Ranch was as well, but only because of the surrounding cottonwood trees. We sat here and rested a bit, eating a little more, keeping a close eye on our water. We were probably about half way.

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Looking back at the switchbacks

The next major stopping point was Cedar Ridge, the second bathroom stop and a typical place for people who are coming down from the top to turn around and start heading back up. Again, the point offered a stunning overview, and the multiple cedars that surrounded us held their own haunting beauty. We were about five and a half hours into the ascent at this point.

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There was quite a few people on the trail after Cedar Ridge, and remained so for the rest of the climb. By the way, as public service announcement meant in kindness: when you’re coming down a trail and you encounter someone coming up, step aside and let them pass; they are likely pouring all they have into keeping their legs pumping and any disruption to their rhythm costs valuable energy.   

As we got higher and higher, we began to find more pine and cedar trees. Soon the temperature was cooling rapidly and we knew we were getting close. Finally the end of the trail could be seen which gave us much joy, but tempered by a bit of sadness as well; the thrill of accomplishment also meant the journey was over, but what a great time it was.

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Back in the pines, near the top

We thought surely there would be people celebrating our arrival with a banner or something with our name on it when we reached the top, but we were just one of the crowd and blended right in with all the other park visitors (though likely we didn’t smell as good). We called my wife and our mom to let them know we had made it and would see them soon.

I would like to thank my brother for the experience. It was his idea and he made all the arrangements. He is a perfect hiking companion, and for me, of course, I get the added bonus of him being my brother. I know many people who in their adult life are not friends or have difficult relationships with their siblings. I am blessed in this respect. He even puts up with me when I adamantly insist that we saw an owl (still in dispute).

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I wrote a little meditation along the way, a poem of sorts, and will just leave it here at the end to sum up the experience.

 

No place speaks so clearly

to my innerself

than the mountains and deserts

of the American West.

 

It is a mirror to my humanity,

and restores my soul.

 

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