The trail opened with a breathtaking view of the canyon. We stood on the edge of the world and gaped down. It was the stuff of magic, forged by the forces of earth and sky. Astounding from every angle, the layers of rock tell the story of time, the cut of the walls shaped by the rush of water from the past.
The Grand Canyon is a perilous place for people. The walls of the Backcountry Office are plastered with warnings, statistics and fatalities. Many dangers are climatic due to the exposed nature of the canyon; the sun beats down over areas without shade or water; the Colorado River rages its way through valleys, its strong currents and icy temperatures claiming lives.
Other dangers are posed by the creatures of the canyon. The scorched earth may appear uninhabitable but the ground is crawling with poisonous spiders, snakes and scorpions. Worse yet are mountain lions.
After emerging from our hike, I stood mud-splattered in the Backcountry Office studying the map on the wall. I was shocked to discover that our journey, an immersive multi-day adventure, covered no more than a corner of the canyon.
We had first strolled into the Backcountry Office on Friday afternoon and were lucky to secure a permit for the next day. People book months in advance to hike the canyon but, fortunately, 15% are reserved for walk-ins.
The ranger was friendly and knowledgeable. He advised us on which hike to do and what to expect. He also informed us of the dry, harsh conditions we would encounter. Our hike would begin at the South Kaibab Trailhead and end at the Bright Angel Trailhead. It would take us three days and two nights. We secretly believed we could hike it in one day but were happy to spend time enjoying the sights of the canyon. We didn’t realise how ambitious this was at the time!
Day 1 – South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground
It was here that the trail opened with a spectacular view. It was unexpected. More than that, it was surreal; views of this magnitude are reserved for mountain summits, gifted for the bold after an arduous climb.
But this is the source of the magic; astounding from every angle, it’s possible to get a taste of the canyon from a single snapshot.
The first day of the hike was the driest section of trail. There was no water source, man-made or natural, and we’d been advised to carry four litres of water per person. We had invested in two Camelbaks. These water containers sit comfortably in your pack with a drinking tube attached. I thought they were great.
Fraser and I stopped for a morning tea break on an overhanging ledge which dropped down into the beautiful abyss. We joked that when rangers found our dehydrated bodies they would exclaim:
“It appears they used all their drinking water for tea and coffee!”
It was a downhill trudge all day. The trail descended 1350 vertical metres to the Colorado River. The path was buzzing with chattering day hikers but the further we ventured the quieter things became.
I made the mistake of asking Fraser to tighten my boots; my toes were rubbing painfully with every step. The tight laces alleviated this pain, however, by the time I took my boots off at camp the top of my toes and feet were numb! The feeling still hasn’t returned to them…
The descent was strenuous on the body. My neck ached from staring downwards and my knees creaked with every step. Stairs were particularly brutal and the bouncing pack ached on my back. By the time we reached Bright Angel I was exhausted.
We finally reached Boat Beach along the Colorado River and couldn’t wait to get into the water. The river had been drawing tantalisingly closer as we trudged in the sun. Groups of hikers were casually dipping in and we ran over eagerly…
…It was FREEZING. I couldn’t believe people weren’t reacting to the temperature. I’d seen warnings for the fast current and icy water but believed it would be refreshing after a thirty degree day. I was wrong. We took a brief plunge and returned shivering to Bright Angel campsite.
Enjoying a well deserved rest at Bright Angel
Day 2 – Bright Angel Campground to Indian Garden Campground
A set of stairs loomed out of nowhere. They towered above us steep, sandy and uneven. This would be a harder ascent than the Devil’s Staircase.
We hadn’t known what to expect from the second day. We only knew we would climb four hundred vertical metres to reach Indian Garden. The ranger had informed us that there was no need for an early start as we would walk along the creek…
I don’t think he had 10:30 in mind!
It took 2.5 hours to ascend 470 vertical metres. We completed the climb in the burning midday sun. By the time I reached the campsite my body felt broken.
I have to mention the trail runners here. These were people running the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails in one day – the route that took us three days to hike. Most of these people were women and I found them incredibly inspirational. The runners flew past me on the stairs and I didn’t see them again.
That evening we joined other campers for the sunset trip to Plateau Point. This viewpoint is perched precariously above the Colorado River. Steep drop-offs on all sides plummet down to the rapids below. Condors glided all around us, floating up and down in the afternoon thermals.
We could hear only the call of the condors and the rush of the rapids.
The serenity of the scene contrasted with the raging river and deadly animals of the canyon. Somehow, the perilous place became peaceful, the vastness of the canyon muting the dangers within.
The walk back to camp was nerve-wracking. Fraser and I walked alone as the sun set. The wind howled and whipped the sand into a frenzy around our feet. My neck prickled and my mind was on mountain lions. But it wasn’t mountain lions we had to fear; we stumbled across a rattle snake on the path, coiled up and rattling. Fraser was brave enough to capture a photo.
After our hot ascent to Indian Garden we wanted an early start to beat the heat but our slumber was broken at 3am by unexpected rain. I was surprised to see rain in the canyon at all and we jumped up to attach the waterproof fly. Headlamps flashed all around us as everyone else had made the same mistake.
Day 3 – Indian Garden back to civilisation
We rose at 06:30. Outside the tent wind howled through the trees and rain hammered down. Reluctantly emerging, we found the campground deserted. I couldn’t believe it.
It would be a long morning of climbing; no flats, no downhills, no rest.
I went ahead of Fraser. It was a beautiful solitary morning. The rain had cleared and this section of trail was surrounded by lush greenery and spectacular views of the canyon walls. I didn’t encounter another person for an hour. It was wonderful.
Before long the canyon wall stood threateningly before me, barring my way, the trees mere specks at the top.
There was nowhere to go but up.
Halfway up I entered the realm of day hikers; the trail was busy with packless people sauntering up and down. As a ‘backpacker’ I was in the minority. I must’ve looked a sight; I had worn the same filthy clothes for three days, I was carrying a pack so large I could curl up and fit my body inside it and I had gadgets hanging from every strap and pocket. I looked like a nutter.
Two thirds of the way up it began to rain. Hard. Now I was a soaked nutter.
The day hikers were an entertaining bunch. Some made it a good way down the canyon. Others simply stepped in for a photo. Some wore sandals or carried no water. Others openly oggled me but many wanted to talk to me, asking where I was from, how far I’d walked and praising my efforts. I felt proud pointing out the greenery of Indian Garden far below on the valley floor.
I finally staggered to the top after 2 hours 45 minutes. Fraser was already at the top, having passed me a quarter of the way up. He had completed it in 1 hour 59 minutes!
We were proud.
No sooner had we made it to the van than a thunder storm broke out. Hail stones lashed the car, thunder roared overhead and lightening lit the sky. It caused a small flash flood as water and debris cascaded down the roads. I have never been more grateful for shelter. It would’ve felt as if the sky was cracking in two if we had been in the canyon at this moment.
I thought of the day hikers in their sandals.