It was 5:19 a.m. on Saturday, May 20. Time to take deep breaths and baby steps in my attempt to hike across the Grand Canyon in one day. The temperature was 33 degrees at 7,260 feet on the south rim, but it wouldn’t feel cold for long (especially about 2,500 feet down at Phantom Ranch, where it would be in the mid-80s). It was light on the South Kaibab Trail—no need for headlamps . . . for awhile.
I felt well-trained but anxious. My biggest fear? The steepness of the mostly downhill South Kaibab Trail. For several months I’ve obsessed about the SKT, reading about it, studying photos, and watching videos. But until you actually step on to it, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s really like to hike on it.
The main problem with the South Kaibab Trail, besides the steepness, is that it’s so rutted from mule trains. You have to be very careful about where you step (especially considering what the mules leave behind!). Plus there are literally trillions of loose rocks (yep, I counted them all) and steps made out of logs (some with pieces of toe-tripping rebar sticking out of them) or stones that you have to step over and over and over. Repeat about a trillion times.
Of course, it helps that you’re surrounded by amazing, natural beauty. Under a brilliantly blue sky, the sunrise began to reveal all the different geologic layers of the Canyon. My strategy was to walk slowly and carefully, helped by trekking poles, until I felt compelled to stop and snap a photo with either my iPhone 7 Plus or Nikon 1 V2 mirrorless camera. And that, of course, was often.
Meanwhile, hordes of hikers and runners passed me, almost always exchanging pleasantries. Every time someone ran by, I marveled at that person’s persistence and wondered about their sanity. The SKT is treacherous to feet, ankles, and knees! Surprisingly, I didn’t see anyone trip, but I felt like we all were skating on thin ice. And I’m not good at skating either.
Somewhere around mile five of the seven-mile descent, I felt pain on the outside of my left knee. I probably strained it going over one of the trillion steps. Unfortunately, that slowed my progress as I neared the bottom of the Canyon. It was so disappointing!
But there was never any thought of quitting. After all, the Grand Canyon’s hiking motto is: Down is optional; up is mandatory. Once you go into the Big Ditch, you have to get yourself out. And I fully intended to eventually be enveloped by the cold air of the north rim, no matter how long it took. When I set a goal and work towards it, it sure feels good to achieve it.
So I gritted my teeth and gutted it out. Soon the trail leveled off, and I crossed the Black Bridge over the mighty Colorado River and headed for Phantom Ranch. By this time I had joined up with two members of my group, Alan (who had crossed before) and Nicole (a fellow newbie). Both of them also were avid photographers, so we stopped a lot to take photos.
The three of us spent some time at Phantom Ranch, replenishing our water and refueling for the arduous climb up the North Kaibab Trail. I was looking forward to drinking PR’s famous lemonade, but the line was too long in the canteen. Andrea, who I hiked with early on the SKT, gave me a sip of hers. It was too sweet for my tastes, but at least I can say I tried it. I was more than satisfied with water and Gatorade fruit punch (for electrolytes).
After Phantom Ranch, our trio set a steady pace with our eyes on the prize: The north rim. Nicole was nice enough to dunk my floppy hat in the cold water that sometimes spilled over the trail from the nearby Bright Angel Creek to help me cool off. Meanwhile, Alan tried to distract me from my knee pain by asking me questions. Unfortunately, he had to settle mostly for grunts as answers. Sorry!
Every now and then I would stop my limping forward motion and look up, especially during the seven-mile fairly flat section. We were down in the Grand Canyon . . . the Grand Freaking Canyon. What an amazing feeling! A fraction of the Canyon’s visitors venture below the rim, so few actually hike or run across. It was totally cool beans to realize where we were and what we were trying to achieve. Even though sometimes I felt like I was an escapee from an insane asylum.
I thought I would be stronger on the uphills (featuring more of those darned steps and tight switchbacks) even with a strained knee, and I was. Unfortunately, the Grand Canyon trailmakers enjoyed a cruel sense of humor: After we began gaining elevation (“up is out” was my mantra), they led us downhill once more and over a bridge. What the heck?!? It was pretty demoralizing. Fortunately, the NKT soon resumed its uphill trek. My heart rate started to race a bit in the thin, chilly air. But I knew that cold meant one thing: The north rim at 8,250 feet!
Soon our long day’s journey into night’s crossing of the Grand Canyon would be complete . . . with headlamps. For the last hour of our hike, we needed to light our way as darkness engulfed us. Surprisingly, it wasn’t scary. I felt totally at peace, with only the clicking of our trekking poles disturbing the quiet.
As I neared the top of the north rim, I had one thought: I am one and done! I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the 24-mile north-to-south-rim return trip on Monday with a sore knee. But I also realized that achieving one Rim 2 Rim was accomplishment enough for this old gal.
Fifteen hours and 29 minutes after I started, I “crossed” the finish line on the north rim. It was 8:48 p.m. Once again the temperature was about 33 degrees. The air was cold and crisp, but I was too tired to put on my jacket. Getting into the van to ride the mile and a half to the Grand Canyon Lodge’s cabins where we stayed was almost as difficult as hiking down the South Kaibab Trail. Almost!
After a bite to eat in the lodge’s Roughrider Saloon, I hobbled toward my cabin. It was pitch black out, and I had to use my iPhone’s flashlight to see where I was going. Suddenly I stopped, looked up at the sky, and gasped in awe: What had to be a trillion and five stars sparkled on the immense, dark background. I had never seen so many stars in my life! There’s nothing like the Big Ditch and a star-filled sky in the remoteness of the north rim to make you feel tiny.
And yet this little, old, insignificant speck of dust with dirty Brooks Caldera trail shoes somehow managed to hike 21 miles across the Grand Freaking Canyon! Goal accomplished!!
Next time on the blog: Post-Grand Canyon thoughts