Rim to River to Rim

October 10th, 2020

We’re out of bed at 4:30 a.m., dressing in layers and stuffing the last few necessities in our backpacks. Do I really need my headlamp? I’ll take it just to be safe but hopefully we won’t be hiking in the dark.

We drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and park in front of Bright Angel Lodge — a plan we scoped out the night before. Anxious butterflies flutter in my stomach as we get on our bikes and the adventure begins. We ride three miles, eventually meeting the edge of the canyon where we trace the rim on the bike path and get our first look at what we’re in for as the sun lifts higher in the east. We could have taken a shuttle here but with the pandemic still going strong in the US, we’ve opted for leg power instead.

We lock the bikes to a tree, make our last backpack adjustments and take our first steps down the South Kaibab Trail. The route clings to the side of the canyon, dropping steeply for the first 45 minutes to Ooh Aah Point. Trail etiquette is good — everyone in masks, with high awareness of social distance and willingness to step aside for others passing by.

From Ooh Aah Point, it’s about two more hours to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. The trail twists in steep steps, skirting the cliff in a couple places, putting us mere inches from disaster but seeing the deep red layers of the canyon’s sediment wall from this perspective compels us forward until we finally see our first glimpse of the contrasting blue-green river below us.

Reaching the river is a major milestone, fueled by excitement and the release of remaining anxiety about getting to the bottom and completing the first half of the hike. Doing this trip in a day is an exercise in water, food and time management. Manage it wrong and you’ll end up making your hike far more difficult than it already is.

We reach the bottom, cross the bridge and spot a nice sandy beach where we refuel, wash away the sweat and soak our feet in the cold water. As spectacular as it is to sit and take it all in — the intense beauty, the vast depth, the incomprehensible age of the canyon — the second, uphill half of the day still looms in front of us. Anxiety returns. After a relaxing 30 minutes, we’re back on our feet, hiking along the river to the Bright Angel Trail.

We reach Indian Garden where the trail turns away from the river and back into the canyon. It’s about 1:30 p.m. and the sun burns relentlessly as we begin a slow slog up the trail. Looking at the canyon wall in front of us, it seems impossible that we’ll ever make it out of the canyon today. The mental game begins, volleying between feeling defeated and feeling optimistic as we move ahead switchback by switchback.

We have five miles up to go and I’m already feeling exhausted. We stop, redistribute weight from my pack to J’s pack, drink more water and eat more food. The sun is almost beyond the canyon depth, adding shade to the trail. In the coolness, I begin to feel my strength return. Just in time! We begin a steep section of switchbacks leading to a verdant stretch of trail alongside a stream. From here, it only gets steeper and rockier.

Finally in full shade, we begin the last push up. We’re accompanied by about 20 other hikers whose timing coincides with our own. We leapfrog one another as we walk, stop and start again. Two men behind us estimate they’ll finish at 7:30 p.m. — a forecast which sounds far too late since it’s only 5:00 p.m. (but ends up being accurate). Someone else says, “Doesn’t it feel like we left yesterday?” Yes, yes it does. Like we’ve packed two days into one. Aside from stopping at the river, we’ve been in motion all day long.

The long slow climb continues. Getting into a rhythm is essential. Rather than pushing and stopping, I go even slower and try not to stop at all. The setting sun lights up the canyon’s north side in a glow, inspiring me to keep going. For the 210,000+ Americans who tragically are no longer here and can’t experience this, I keep going. Looking at how high above me the canyon rim is still, I just keep going, one step at a time, focusing on the simple fortune of being here.

Finally, at 6:21 p.m., we arrive at the 1.5 mile stop below the south rim. It’s nearly dark so we don our headlamps, eat our last snacks and resume our pace. Looking up, I see the lights of hikers ahead of us, still switchbacking up the side of the canyon, but eventually I get far enough up to trace the string of lights and find the last long switchback from right to left. Now in darkness, I know where the last climb is and I hear the hoots and hollers of people being cheered on as they reach the rim.

I plod on in the dark, seeing only the small cone of light from my headlamp and the trail within it in front of me. I have no idea what the terrain around me looks like but I do know at this point I’m on a cliff face so I hug the canyon wall, being careful not to step near the open edge of the trail.

J is ahead of me, being pulled by the reward of the end. But on the last steps of the last climb, I catch up with him as he stops to put on a warm shirt. We take our last steps to the top together. At 7:28 p.m., we summit at Bright Angel Lodge and celebrate the day, the achievement, the dream. It was a spectacular, brutal, epic, endless hike of a lifetime. I will never do it again.

And I’ve never been happier to see the car. After picking up the bikes, we drive to our camp, hobble into bed and can’t wait to do nothing tomorrow as we savor all the sweat, beauty and grandeur of today.

13 hours
20 miles
1 bike ride to the South Kaibab Trail
4,780 ft descent from rim to river
1 dip in the Colorado River
2 bridge crossings to Bright Angel Trail
4,380 ft vertical climb from river to rim
6:37 a.m. start
7:28 p.m. finish in the dark, by headlamp
1 big birthday
1 grand, spectacular Grand Canyon
1 epic hike of a lifetime

More from the road tomorrow,

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.


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