The “wake up knock” comes on the Phantom Ranch women’s dorm door at 5:00am. I’ve signed up for the 5:30am early breakfast in order to get on the trail as early as possible. The sun doesn’t rise until 7:15, so this will mean hiking for about an hour in the dark, but I figure it’s better to put in the dark time at the bottom of the canyon rather than risk having to hike in the dark at the top where it’s covered in snow and ice.
My legs and feet ache from the twelve mile hike to Ribbon Falls yesterday. That’s now 20 miles in two days. I realize putting in twelve miles on a day intended for rest was perhaps not my smartest move. Instead of being rested after a planned day off, I am weary before my feet even hit the floor. For a moment, I even contemplate asking if there is space in the dorm for one more night so I can rest my aching feet…
But as I lay there trying to wake up and get dressed for breakfast, I think about the speech the dining room attendants give at each mealtime…..how only 1% of the five million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon actually make it down to the river. This is a staggering statistic, and I begin to realize how privileged I am to have the wealth of good health to make this trip on my own two feet. This is a bit of an epiphany at 5:00am, and I arise motivated and excited to make the climb out of the canyon.
The Canteen feels electrified, filled with the buzz of energy of eager hikers. Breakfast is a feast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes. I’m not typically hungry so early of a morning, but I know I will need the fuel to not only keep me moving, but also keep me warm. It’s a brisk 25 degrees in the pre-dawn hour as we file out of the dining room, heavy boots echoing on the wooden floor and headlamp beams pointed toward the trail.
It’s still dark when I begin watching for the signs toward the Bright Angel Trail. I have my “miners” headlamp on, which illuminates the fog on my glasses caused from the vapor billowing upward as I exhale. It’s a bit eerie hiking alone in the dark, particularly after I unknowingly pass the mule pen, and one of the mules snorts, fluttering his nostrils, scaring what little daylights I had out of me.
But soon, the sky begins to lighten, turning from inky black darkness to steel gray. Although I hate getting up in the mornings, I have to admit this rapid change of morning light is one of my favorite times of day, albeit infrequently seen.
The Bright Angel Trail crosses the “Silver Bridge,” then doubles as the River Trail for the first mile, running parallel to the Colorado, slowly rising in elevation as the river appears to grow smaller. The River Resthouse is at the 1.5 mile mark along Pipe Spring, where the trail turns away from the river and begins the increasingly steep ascent toward the “Devil’s Corkscrew.”
I did not anticipate the Bright Angel Trail to be so scenic. I’d read that it was a maintained dirt trail up a side canyon, used as the primary mule route, “graded for stock.” So I expected muddy switchbacks and a more limited views and sparse vegetation. But hiking up through the Bright Angel Fault alongside a creek proves to be beautiful, and such a different scene than the South Kaibab trail. There are golden cottonwoods along the babbling brook, so seeing water and lush vegetation in tight, pancake-rock canyons is an inverted view to the wide open scenes from the South Kaibab ridgeline trail.
Another aspect that feels different on the hike up is camaraderie. By the time I have spent two nights and four meals in Phantom Ranch, faces on the trail are familiar, while some have become friends. So even though I might be the “caboose” in the train, I still feel connected to those who started out from the same breakfast table. We meet up at all the rest stops comparing experiences, sharing food, and discussing the trail conditions ahead. Estimates of time of arrival and mileage still to hike. Layers of clothing donned at pre-dawn, shed and packed away mid-way, and now donned again. A full day hiking from dawn to dusk, from temperate to freezing, from sand to snow is an evolutionary experience, and I wish for a time-lapse video to show the variations.
I catch up to my newly found friends at the halfway point, Indian Gardens. By this time, I have stripped down to a long sleeved shirt with the sleeves shoved up above my elbows. But Indian Gardens is a milestone of another sort. It’s cold here in the shade. Like shivering cold. Before I delve into my sack lunch, I layer up once again, and think back to my original plan to do this hike in June of 2015. Back in those planning stagest, my friend BJ advised that I wait out the mid-day here because of the cool shade and availability of water. I can see what a nice respite this must be from the intense summer heat.
I read if one hikes from rim to rim, they have covered all the ecological life zones, the equivalent of going from from Canada to Mexico. Geological descriptions talk in terms of “billions” of years accounted for in the multiple layers of rock, nearly forty different layers, from the 2-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of “The Box,” layer by layer, a mile up to the 230-million-year-old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim.
The second half of the trail is definitely the steepest. As the trail becomes more tedious, the switchbacks endless, I face the walls of the canyon head-on, staring them down with each turn. The milestones help give me a goal which I need mentally more than I do physically. I meet friends again at the Three Mile Resthouse and the 1.5 mile Resthouse. Conversation takes my mind off the monotony of the switchbacks, as does a fully charged ipod.
I know I’m getting near the top a half hour after I leave the 1.5 mile Resthouse, but it’s the first glimpse of the historic Kolb Studio, perched on the rim that tells me the end is near. It’s a sight that takes my breath away to realize not only have I made the 10 mile climb, a mile high before dark, but I am still smiling. I give my friends a hug goodbye at the rim, and head back to the Winnie, still parked in the Backcountry Information lot. A drop my bags and do a quick check to make sure everything is just as I left it, then head over to the Maswik Lodge a block away to have my way with a pizza and a cold draft beer!
Three days ago, when I first arrived to the Backcountry Information Office, I read on an information board a phrase, “…you will be left with one of two reactions: either you will never hike again in your life, or you will find that your life up to this point has been meaningless and you will be forever enslaved by thoughts of returning to this torturous paradise.” I took a photo of the quote, wondering “which will it be for me?” Would I be enslaved with thoughts of returning?
Tomorrow, if I could….