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Surviving a Hike into the Grand Canyon
Hiking in the Grand Canyon is not for the weak of body or faint of heart. My husband Tommy (not his real name) and I did not realize this when we decided to hike into the Grand Canyon one October day.
Many years ago, Tommy was laid off his job for a month, so we decided to take a dream trip from our lush, green home in Ontario, Canada down into the southern United States. We wanted to take in sights such as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Tommy and I were outdoor enthusiasts who often spent weekends hiking and camping all over North America. We felt ready for anything. We weren't. We made a number of mistakes that could have gotten us into a lot of trouble. The Grand Canyon is mostly a barren wasteland that can be dangerous for the ignorant.
When we first drove along the winding road along the rim of the Grand Canyon, I was awestruck. Instead of the bland, bare rock i expected, the majestic walls were ribboned with pale pastel blues, yellows and pinks against the sandy stone. When Tommy told me of his dream to hike into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, I was reluctant. The desert was so different, it was like being on a different planet.
When I peeked over the railing at the Bright Angel Trail, it was narrow strip dangling off a steep canyon wall with a sheer drop of over 1,000 feet. In many places, the trail was only wide enough for two people. I gulped, but agreed that we would do the hike the next day.
At the campground
Staying at one of the nearby campgrounds was unique experience for us Canadians. We were used to the lush woods and ample water of the north. It was the first time I had to pay for water to shower. Instead of trees, there were shrubs with grazing, big-eared mule deer.
We Canadians were used to grey raccoons with the black-rimmed eyes that identified them as the bold thieves that they were. In the Grand Canyon, no grey beasties were lurking. The biggest nuisances were big ravens who pecked their way into food cartons.When we left the campground, a raven was perched on a nearby picnic table, trying to open a tub of margarine. We got up much later the next day than we intended, but decided to hit the trail anyway. This decision was a mistake which we regretted later.
Beginning the hike
The plan was to hike down to Prospect Point, a steep cliff about 1,300 feet above the Colorado River. Our expensive hiking boots were soon clomping down the narrow trail. The only vegetation present were scrubby little bushes, small cacti and prickly pear.
We started meeting people who were coming up from a cluster of green bushes below – a campsite called Indian Garden. When talking to others, we discovered that the hikers had trekked down to Indian Garden campground the day before and camped there overnight. Many of them were 30-somethings like us, but I was surprised to see many fit seniors on the trail. I thought it amusing that many of the hikers who were our age were panting and tired, while the seniors skipped merrily upwards. In many places, there was just enough room on the trail to press our bodies against the canyon wall and let them pass.
At Prospect Point
As we approached the cliff at Prospect Point, we realized that most of the hikers were staying at the campsite below and that we should have done the same. Tommy, however, was sure that we could make it back up the trail before nightfall.
We were concerned about the weather. Some dark rain clouds above cast shadows on the canyon walls that contrasted with the dramatic blue-green of the Colorado River below.
The Long climb home
As we trudged uphill back uphill, our calves quickly became sore because of the steepness of the slope. Our progress was much slower than we expected. It was becoming cold and we did not bring warmer clothes with us. We frequently had to stop and rest. I felt like I was going on a treadmill and not getting anywhere.
A spectacular thunderstorm on the other side of canyon boomed and crackled as it lit our way with the brightness of a laser light show. Our legs ached as we continued the steep ascent, but we both were desperate to get out of this wild and dangerous place. We had to stop frequently to rest as our muscles cramped in the cold night air.
How would we manage if it started to rain? I thought. It did rain some, but only when we were under the only two tunnels on the Bright Angel trail.
Long after the sun had set, we realized how foolish we were to actually try to get out of the canyon that night. We saw some lights below at a rest station that revealed that we weren't the only ones who were caught in the canyon. Then the lights went out and we were alone in the darkness. Fortunately, a distant thunderstorm lit the way home.
Reaching the Top
"I see the top," Tommy called out excitedly. At that moment, our flashlights died and he realized that he had forgotten to bring extra batteries. It was about 2:00 am. There was enough light from the canyon rim above to show the rest of the way.
Have you ever hiked in the Grand Canyon?
A final word
Looking back, We had a couple of breaks during our foolish attempt to hike out of that wild place - the distant thunderstorm lighting our path, the holding back of the rain until we were under cover, and the miracle flashlight that lasted until we were almost at the top.
We should have been better prepared in so many ways: an early start in the morning, warmer clothing for the cooler evenings, extra batteries for the flashlight, and an overnight campsite. I would love to visit this part of the world again, but only the trip was more carefully planned.
Photos are the property of the author.
© 2013 Carola Finch