We Hiked The Grand Canyon Backwards Part 2.
When we left off last time............ it was 12:05 am, we both awoke, checked the time and looked at each other. We grinned in the dark then sat up and started breaking down our campsite.
With headlamps on and our soggy gear stowed, we set off at 1am for "the box". We didn't know it then but this was the last time we would camp inside the canyon on this adventure........
We felt surprisingly rested and even a little buoyant as we set out on the trail.
The stars were bright overhead and the moon glowed into the canyon as we plodded along. The going was steady but slower as the rain from the day before had flooded the trail and we often found ourselves skirting it slightly in a mostly futile attempt to keep our feet dry as long as possible.
Our next landmark on the map was the bridge crossing the Colorado River. However, night hiking proved to be a mixed bag of benefits.
On the upside we were quite cool and comfortable and we had the trail completely to ourselves. Literally we saw no one for hours. We also had the benefit of generally feeling like we were getting a head start which buoyed our spirits and helped us pick up the pace.
In the "in between category," night hiking did slow us down at times. The trail eventually wound along a narrow ledge with slick steps for several miles. We had to watch our step and without the ability to see far at all, we were more cautious at times as we couldn't see over the edge or what lay ahead.
On the downside category night hiking made it extremely difficult to judge distance. We couldn't see far behind or far ahead. Without those reference points or even the ability to see landmarks that the map pointed out, we quickly lost perspective on where we were on the trail.
The roar of water and the dark snaking shape of the Colorado River brought us some comfort, a few hours in, as we realized we must be getting closer to the bridge. Though proximity to the river also brought sand on the trail.
The sand dramatically slowed down our pace! Hiking in sand has been described as taking two steps forward and one back, and I would certainly concur.
In addition, we were taking great care to keep the sand out of our shoes and socks as we knew that developing blisters in the middle of this 24 mile hike would be disastrous.
With a slow pace and careful steps we finally made it out of the sand trails and caught our first glimpse of the bridge and another light.
Bobbing in the distance on the other side of the river was what appeared to be a red and white headlamp. Our first sighting of other people since we had camped!
We would go another 6 hours before we saw another hiker.
We crossed over the Colorado River without incident and made our way through the Bright Angel Campground. Still in the wee hours of the morning we walked past rows of cabins and pitched tents.
We were resting every half mile or so, mostly at my insistence. Despite being pregnant and carrying a 30lb pack Mariah was feeling great. The air was fresh and cool and our spirits excited at the challenge we were facing.
Two miles after the bright angel campground the canyon began to lighten as day slowly dawned. As it did so we crossed the bridge and entered "the box". As I mentioned earlier "the box" was an extremely narrow 4 miles of the canyon. It was aligned such that after 10am the sun could heat it to 30 degrees hotter than rim temperatures. With an 80 degree high that day we knew we had to get through well before it hit 110 degrees!
With some trepidation and plenty of excitement we picked up our pace and headed in.
It would prove to be the most pleasant, beautiful, and enjoyable part of our entire journey!
Completely alone we hiked along a thin narrow path at the base of the canyon walls and watched the sun rise and stream beautiful rays of light into the canyon around us. Still early in the day, we were shaded by the canyon wall and cooled by the early mountain air.
A crystal clear stream flowed within 20 yards of the trail for the entire length of "the box" and we enjoyed the incredible relaxing sounds of the water crashing into and rushing past the rocks.
Even with frequent breaks we set our fastest pace of the entire journey as we determinedly pressed on. As beautiful as it was, we knew that we needed to get to the other side of the four mile "box" as quickly as possible.
Still struggling to accurately gauge distance, we knew "the box" officially ended when we passed two bridges in a row. To our great joy and near amazement we hit the second bridge by 6AM!!!
We had successfully traversed "the box" and believed the hardest portion of our journey was now behind us - we were wrong......
We hurried on a little farther and then took a longer well-earned break. We filled our water packs with a water filter from the stream, checked our gear and then pulled out our map.
As we munched jerky sticks and peanut butter sandwiches, we considered our next steps. Thanks to our midnight start we were running far ahead of our plan. We were currently only 3 miles from our next campground - Cottonwood!
We had originally scheduled our shuttle for 8am the next morning. The Cottonwood campground was still 7.5 miles from the top of the North Rim and our shuttle pickup. That would mean we would have to once again wake in the wee ours of the morning in order to have the time to make the 7 mile hike up the shear face of the canyon to reach the shuttle.
It was at this point we began to consider a different option, what if we hiked straight to the top today? We had the option to reschedule shuttle pickup for 2pm. Could we make it?
It was only 6:30 in the morning. Could we hike the final 10 miles in 7.5 hours? We thought so!
So we slung our packs and set out at a steady pace. Our plan was to measure our time to the campground and make our final decision then.
In the back of our minds we both knew there was one factor that would be hard to predict..... how slow would we be when we were scaling the canyon wall?
According to our map the trail would begin a steady uphill bent after we reached the Cottonwood campground, it would then become quite steep as we traversed the final four miles.
Another complicating factor was water. The trail water stations on this side of the canyon were all off due to maintenance. The last place to fill our water packs (3 liters each) was about 6 miles from the top. We would have to do the hardest part of the hike without the opportunity to refill our water!
When we reached the campground we paused and considered what we should do. The campground itself was incredible! The views were spectacular and if we stayed we knew we could relax and explore for the rest of the day.
However, we were both restless. The thought of finishing the hike a whole day sooner and enjoying a hot shower by 8pm seemed irresistible. Our camping gear was still damp and we both felt great and had been setting a great pace. It seemed like the sensible thing to go on!
We were wrong!
About a mile after the campground the trail started to raise significantly. We were going up and down hills but steadily gaining elevation. Our legs had felt so fresh earlier but had all-ready hiked 13 miles with heavy packs and they began to slow.
We also became aware watching the sun's shadow in the canyon that we would soon be doing our hike in the full sun. We picked up our pace again but like a cruel and foreboding sun dial the shadow kept receding.
When the sun finally reached us, we seriously considered just turning around and heading back to the campground. However that was all-ready over two miles back. The thought of having to backtrack two miles and then turning around the next morning and hiking it again was too much. We pressed on with determination.
One mile later we took a 30 minute break to scamper down the now steep valley to the flowing creek. Looking at the map it was clear that this would be our final water fill. With just a little bit of growing unease, we made the rough climb back up to the trail and pressed on.
We soon reached the final ascent. Steep switchbacks on a trail cut info the narrow face of the canyon. Sweeping views offered moments of relief but the now hot sun and our tired legs were hobbling our progress.
Mariah began to really struggle to keep pace and the heat and exertion of our now very difficult hike had us drinking water heavily trying to stay hydrated. However, in spite of Mariah's incredible effort our pace had slowed to the point that making it to the top by 2pm was seriously in doubt.
That was a crippling thought! If we missed our 2pm shuttle we would be on the top of the North Rim without a campground and without a ride until 8am the next day!
Something had to change or we were going to be in a big mess! So against Mariah's wishes I shouldered her pack on top of mine and we headed off again.
I was now carrying 80lbs of gear up the mountain. With no way to secure the second pack I simply flopped it loosely on top of my other pack on one shoulder or the other. Being very off balance I had to switch shoulders every few minutes and tried to keep the extra pack on the side away from the sheer drop off the trail. That way if I tripped it would pull me down towards the canyon wall and not plummet off the side of the trail.
As difficult as it was, this change sped up our overall pace significantly! As Mariah's newly increased pace was now nearly even with my newly reduced pace.
After a mile or so of this new pace we were back on track and looked like we would reach the top about 20 minutes ahead of our shuttle. It was here that disaster struck!
Our water packs were 3 liter pouches with drinking straws. Since the pouches were tucked into our packs we could not see them. Which meant we did not have any concept on how much water we had left. So it was with a sense of dread that I slurped on my straw and got nothing but air!
We had gone through nearly all our water and still had 4 miles to climb.
Despairing, we prayed and trudged on. At this point we saw up ahead a group of hikers all stopped on the trail. As we approached it became clear no one was going further. When we reached the group of hikers they informed us that the Park service had closed the trail up ahead for the next 45 minutes to do repairs.
We were floored! We had no water, were on a super tight deadline to make our shuttle and to make it worse where we were stopped on the trail had no shade cover. We were baking in the sun.
We watched the park service ranger bob around in his hard hat for 30 minutes. He made exactly no changes to the trail just wrote some things in a notebook and then announced we could continue.
With only two miles left to climb, we were now completely exhausted and demoralized. Without water our muscles began to cramp and our throats dried out. We had gained an enormous amount of elevation (we were basically climbing a mountain) and so the thin air was lower in oxygen and we began panting for breath.
Our pace slowed to a snails pace as we trudged out twenty paces and then were forced to take a break by wheezing lungs and exhausted legs.
Only by sheer force of will and mutual encouragement did we continue on. Up up up the trail. We began to pass a few hikers coming down the trail and made inquiry about how much further we had to go. They said about a mile.
Buoyed but also exhausted we slowly trudged on up seemingly endless steps. Sometimes we were forced to break after only 5 or six because of exhaustion and dehydration.
It was at this time that the Lord sent provision. Another nice couple who came along us on the trail saw our exhausted faces and me carrying Mariah's pack and asked if they could help.
The young husband offered to carry Mariah's pack so I only had to carry one and his wife offered us two packs of sliced apples. They had no water to share but the juice of the apples refreshed us and we pushed on.
It was in this way, slow agonizing step after slow agonizing step ;hand in hand we reached the top. A water spigot sat at the trailhead and we eagerly filled our water packs and guzzled water.
It was at this point I checked the time. It was 2:35. Our shuttle was nowhere in sight. After placing a call to the shuttle service we learned they had waited for us for 15 minutes but had left at 2:15 and would not turn around.
The news was crushing! Exhausted we sat for about an hour and just thought of options. We finally decided to just ask for rides and hope we could find someone heading to the south rim.
We did not. However we did meet Bob and his wife. I am confident God sent Bob to us then. He gave us a ride in his car two miles over to the North Rim day hikers campground (we didn't even know it existed). He made sure we got a spot to camp and food to eat.
At this point we could barely walk. In fact it was more like waddling. Nothing worked correctly and we were mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.
However our campground was only about 30 yards from the North Rim of the Canyon the sunset that evening and Sunrise the next morning were absolutely incredible.
It was cold and windy up there. Just like a mountain peak but we got our tent pitched, collapsed inside and woke early at 5am to make sure we were packed and didn't miss our shuttle. The day dawn clear and we rode the shuttle back to the South Rim.
There we met my parents and the boys who had been enjoying the views on a sunny day at the South Rim.
Once back at the house, we pondered our trip. In 23 Hours we had hiked 24 Miles -4000 ft. of Elevation Down + 6000 ft Back Up- with full hiking packs.
We also learned that we had done the hike backwards. Apparently it is dramatically harder to hike from from the South Rim to the North Rim. We should have started on the North and headed south.
But we couldn't go back in time. Having completed this epic journey we had plenty of things we would do next time but none we would change about the trip - except packing extra water bottles :)
Blessings from your crazy adventurous farmers!
-David and Mariah