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Grand Canyon Hike: South Kaibab to Bright Angel

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:01pm

No where else to go but down? The trailhead of South Kaibab, Grand Canyon

Standing at the South Kaibab trail head I leaned forward and look down. I felt so grateful to be able to do something this amazin g. I am about to walk off the rim of the Grand Canyon, follow the South Kaibab trail down to the Colorado Rive r and then back up using the Bright Angel trail. What will happen over the next eight and a half hours was affirming, awesome and not the hardest thing I have ever done.

Usually when you think of hiking, your subconscious rationalizes that your going to go up first then come back down. When one considers the Grand Canyon, the subconscious become conscious, hiking about 5,000 feet down over fe w hours and th en hiking 5,000 feet up over twice as many hours. Using this formula it is easy to see why people get so anxious about entering a rock world that geologically ends up two billion years into the past; almost half way through the earths crust. Not me though, this felt like Christmas morning.

Going down but looking up South Kaibab

For all of us, it is not so much the fact that when you look out across the horizon you see the majesty the canyon but you can't help but look down at the path you will be taking to the river. It switches back and forth and back an d forth, almost like a one sided drain pulling you towards a great unknown. People stretched thin along this roughed ou t trail carved out of solid rock. As my group stepped off I teasing made the comment, " The o nly way out, is up."

It is easy to smile and have a good time when your going downhill. Especially at the start of something. And it is with this joy that I entered the canyon. Based on my goals for the day I took it quite easy, considering the pull of gravity towards the bottom. An easy pace, a few stops for no reason. I am not a competitive hiker. To run down this for my first foray is a disservice to my love of the outdoors.
author, Deep in the canyon

It's easy for me to talk to people and met quite a d iverse group along the way. Ironman finishers like myself; some hiking like me, others running it out in full ultra-marathon kit. A firefighter from Sequim, Washington who was surprised I knew the place thanks to a relative that lived there. A heavyset woman who took a head start on her friends, expecting them to arrive at any time. A camera man deep into a three week rafting trip wanting the latest sports news. As I continued to drop closer and closer to the Colorado, I felt strong , happy and awake.

As all of us on the hike, almost three dozen people, r egrouped at the river, I was towards the last to arrive. Fine by me, miles on the South Kaibab trail went by just right, I didn't let anyone dictate my pace. I know most of these people I'm with don't have the outdoor endurance legs I do and that their energy and ego will finally catch up to them on the way up. It was extremely busy on our little beach below the black suspension bridg e. A rafting group of three score and our merry band equaled nearly one hundred people on a sliver of heaven. Man I wish I'd brought my rod and some tackle. Behind me the Colorado River and 5,000 ft. of decent on South Kaibab

As the backpacking guru, I was asked to inspect the pla cement of moleskins and questioned how to better sit a pack on ones back. Although I advised everyone to bring some sort of pain management, I dispensed a good deal of Tylenol to help with backs and knees and muscle soreness. I thought I had done a great job on my own hydration and nutrition but it was not to be the case. I fueled myself well but did not drink nearly enough water or Gatorade, each in separate 100 ounce bladders in my pack. This is f oreshadowing, (which is the key to higher cinematography) or in plain English: this will come back to hurt me.

Back on the trail we walk through a mule station and campground called Bright Angel. It is here for the first time that people can refill with purified water. While the icky's are gone the pure, clean taste of cold river water remains. It is an intoxicating drink unlike anything bought in the store or pulled from a urban tap. Its a unexpected reward for those who have never partook before. There smile is my smile because you can't forget that feeling. Our thirst slacked we crossed yet another short bridge over the Colorado and walked through a mile of soft sand before reaching the rough hewn trail back up. Only nine miles and 5,000 feet to go.

While you can technically hike up and down the Bright Angel trail year round, it is best to avoid the dead of winter and heat of summer for such a strenous hike. In the summer the temperatures are 90 degrees on the rim and 120 degrees at the river. In the winter, there is snow reaching at least a quarter mile off the rim which can make trail passage extremely technical without the proper gear. Also in the winter, water is turned off at two of the resthouses along the trail, 3 miles below the rim and 1.5 miles below the rim. As these sites are fed from the lodges above with exposed pipes they are shut off when freezing temperatures arrive, usually the middle of October each year. Let me look at the date of this hike, October 10. Yup, cut it close. I called two separate ranger stations daily, sometimes getting conflicting advice t o get the latest intel. Luckily for our date the water was on.

Several of the people who rushed down, rushed out and up the trail. Deciding once again to hang back of the pack, I felt really good at this point. I was drinking with a purpose to prepare for the sweat output to come. After a few miles, my little group caught up with the rest, the caboose on a thirty person train. I cannot abide by the accordian affect this presents to my pace so I decide to indian run past the group with what turned out to be about ten people peeling out to follow along, just waiting for someone to break ranks. While I did not maintain my fast pace, those that had the capacity continued their run upward. I merely wanted to be at my own pace. After this unclogging, I was only past by two other people.

I didn't do this hike alone. Far from it. I did almost every step with a trail partner. Someone in my company who also has a lot of hiking experience. Between my kidneys and his bum knee, we felt we would have a fairly close pace and it turned out it was almost exact. Turned out great for us both.

Five miles from the river and four and half miles from the rim is a rest area called Indian Garden. It's a beautiful ranch area with natural tree cover and hardened park facilitie for resting. For those coming down the Bright Angel trail this is the usual dayhike turnaround point. I ran into a one of the rabbits that blew past me earlier. He was completely drained and cramping. He would stay there two hours before he continued and finished the climb. I however only stayed long enough to fill my water up, make contact with some of the others that past me and kept moving on.
The middle of the photo shows a smear of trees between the ridges, this is Indian Garden.
The trail lead away from that into the shadows.

From Indian Garden there is a small rest house ever y 1.5 miles up the trail until reaching the rim, at 3 miles and 1.5 miles from the rim. As it t urned out it took my partner and I just under one hour to cover each of these distance. It doesn't sound terrible to say that each 1.5 miles was only about 1,000 feet of elevation gain, however the trail switchbacked every 50-100 yards, making it quite the vertical hike, over 14% grade, steeper than most treadmills highest incline settings. The trail itself is not rocky at all. In fact its rather hard compacted dirt. To help with erosion, there are logs staked into the ground and some of these presented a step of 12 to 18 inches. Again, this doesn't sound hard, except this is after you have already covered 15 miles of terrain and every effort that is not in sync with what your body causes cramping.

By the 3 mile resthouse I began to cramp a bit. Very hard a few times but its pain I know and can push away. Eventually it didn't bother me at all. My partners bad knee and ankle held up just fine but his right hip flexor completely locked up on him making every high step, more of a throwover than lift up. Our conversations went from free flowing to more of just me blathering about nature and warnings of, "big step" by whomever was in the lead. When we would reach a rest house we would stop for several minutes to catch our breath, refill water and converse with other hikers. It turns out that three other groups had a similar pace and we all would leap frog each other all the way to the top and encourage each other until we got there.

Sometime just before reaching the 1.5 mile resthouse I bonked hard. (This is were the foreshading pays off). Its like you know your moving slow but all of a sudden its as if your walking into this invisiable wall. Its the only place I looked at my hike buddie and said, "I promised my wife that I if felt like this I would stop and rest." No complaints from him and we sat down letting our empty bodys regain energy. After five minutes we were no where near 100% but it was enough to get to the resthouse and enjoy some proper seats and shade.

The last 1.5 miles to the rim was a mixed bag of happiness, frustration and anger. I knew our pace would have us at the top in under an hour which made me very happy. I also knew that I was physically not going to have the energy I wanted doing it. It was gone. I was at the place where it is all mental. If I could feel my muscles ripping protien apart for fuel, I would have. I could almost sense the thickening of my blood and the damage I was doing to my kidneys. But I had to go up. And up I went.

The anger really didn't happen until about a ten minutes from the top. The trail had become a constant downstream of tourists coming down for pictures. Here I am covered in dirt and mud and sweat and drained of all energy and I pass a tourist in a suit and tie with a camera in his hand. Grandmas and toddlers. Big fat designer purses carried by big fat women in designer jeans with their cork heels drinking diet cokes, laughing and saying, "Look, I hiked the Grand Canyon," to their equally impressed significant other.

Once on top we both shuffled towards the main lodge. Like other hikers we dodged gangs of tourist standing in wide groups in the middle of the path, licking ice cream and not moving out of our way. We must have looked post-apocolyptic in our ragged mess but they did not care, not even as my partner collapsed in the shade next to a soda fountain shop. I went in to purchase a cold soda and almost lost it as a very nice group of elderlys held up the line sampling all 15 flavors of ice cream before deciding on brownies. But by then I had eased passed them, paid my fare and savored the bubbly tingle of an ice cold Coke.

I could second guessed my hike or wondered if my time was slow or fast or whatever, but it didn't matter. What mattered, is that I did it. Was it as hard as an ironman? No way. Not even close. How about a marathon? Yes, pretty close to a hard marathon. It gave me a great indicator of where I am at with my recovery and how to insert myself back into a competitive racing environment come 2010.

But the story is not over when I reached the top. What happens over the next four hours is in and of itself a story I will tell very soon. Remember, there was at least twenty people behind me that had to finish, some in very bad shape. But in my case....

There's treasure everywhere.
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