Note from the National Park Service: “Under no circumstances should you attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day! Do not hike during the hottest part of the day.”
Translation: You are strongly advised against “walking” from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (elevation: ~9,000 feet) to the banks of the Colorado River (elevation: ~2,000 feet) and back in the space of one day. You are further advised against hiking during the hottest part of the day (which realistically means any part of the day, light or dark, as evidenced by the tingly beads of sweat I experienced dripping from my brow at 3:00 a.m.).
My brother Sam peered mischievously over my shoulder as I perused the official Grand Canyon National Park website on yet another graybird May morning in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Forced to evacuate Guatemala in accordance with the martial law imposed in response to a massacre committed by Mexican drug lords in the country’s northern Petén region, Sam had traveled west to pay me a surprise visit during my last week in Utah before heading to the Alps for the summer. Needless to say, our subsequent adventure together—certifiably insane, impromptu, and simply stated, a complete whirlwind—was quite befitting of the circumstances that had curtailed his travels in Central America.
While Sam had expressed enthusiastic interest in a quick trip to the stunning red rocks of southern Utah before organizing ourselves for an even grander adventure on the other side of the Atlantic, I was markedly less exuberant. Upon leaving the homely Wasatch for a quick “holiday weekend” in sunny California in the middle of the ski season, I had fallen victim to an insufferable stomach virus that relegated me to a friend’s bed in a college dorm for 19 consecutive hours. (Of note: that is an extreme assessment from a lady who has battled GI distress in Asia, Africa, South America, and beyond.) When he spotted the above stern warning, which is issued in multiple locations on the official Grand Canyon website and, of course, in multiple locations on-sight, he ruled out the possibility of a few short, but rigorous hikes in Zion National park and the quixotic prospect of spending some quality time in our portable lounge chairs—footrests and all—with ice-cold, ice-brewed beers in hand. The decision had been made…at least in Sam’s mind.
With tents, sleeping bags, a bin of Nalgene bottles, some hiking garments, a stove, utensils, pots, and pans from my kitchen (courtesy of Cuisinart and Kitchen Aid, quite camping-appropriate), ten bananas, an overwhelmingly large sack of oranges, a smorgasbord of condiments, a loaf of bread, four pepper-crusted sausage rounds, avocados, ample salty snack foods, a life-sized box of Emergen-C packets (the best we could do to appease a knowledgeable ultra-runner friend’s warning that we wouldn’t be able to replenish salts and potassium readily enough in the desert heat), twelve Snickers bars, three varieties of Clif products, a generous stock of beer that would tragically spoil in the ambient car heat, a shiny plastic cooler, and four two-gallon water dispensers tossed haphazardly into the trunk of the vehicle, we headed south—without any definitive plans.
In our frantic pre-departure preparations, I made a point to stash an extra container of windshield wiper fluid in the backseat, but declined to check the engine oil or to stack a reserve supply in the bowels of the trunk for the excursion. (I’m no car mechanic, but I’m fairly certain that an engine oil shortage would have posed a more pressing problem for us and for the fate of our adventure than would have a scant windshield wiper fluid supply.)
Lovely views abounded on the drive south. We were a bit bummed to be spending such a pristine bluebird day on the road (especially in light of the persistent graybird weather that had preceded in the Wasatch), but we would soon get our fill…and then some.
Upon arriving at the North Rim, we made tailgating and eating our afternoon priorities. Despite the fact that we had consumed almost constantly during the six-hour drive en route to the North Rim, we reasoned that we should shovel in calories before setting out on the hike–which would surely dash our appetites. We felt sufficiently out-of-place in our parking lot perch in the presence of camera-laden tourists and those who required golf-cart transportation to make the harrowing trek from the parking lot to the lobby of the not-so-swanky, but still-a-hotel Grand Canyon Lodge. Even so, SK and I cranked up some tunes, and set to work carbing up, hydrating, and packing in unspeakable quantities of lipid-laden sausage and cheese.
After satisfying our seemingly bottomless appetites, we embarked on the tourist-trodden trek from the main parking lot to Bright Angel Point, a stunning viewpoint from which the North Rim falls precipitously away from higher ground. A National Park Service sign informed us that spotting the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks (visible in the distance in the above photo) proves a rare treat with pollution levels often compromising the visibility of the horizon. I was thrilled to see some snow accenting the mighty red rocks–which represented quite a shift from my daily environs in the Alta white room.
Sign at the Grand Canyon North Rim Parking Lot:
SLEEPING IN CARS IS PROHIBITED.
The above warning, staked in multiple locations around the primary North Rim parking lot, was fundamentally at odds with our game plan—which was fundamentally at odds with the stern warning posted in multiple locations on the Grand Canyon website. When I write, in the crudest of terms, that we had determined to go big, I mean to say that we planned to sleep for a few short hours in the car (why waste time, energy, and resources on camping?), to rise at 12:45 a.m., and to begin the taboo 30+ mile to the Colorado River and back in the extreme dark of night.
Eager to conduct some in-the-field product-testing with the MSR WhisperLite stove that he had procured cheaply in Central America, Sam took the reins of our curbside kitchen, and set to work boiling some water.
After placing our dirty pots, pans, bowls, and utensils into a plastic bag and tossing said bag carelessly into the trunk, we climbed into the same seats in which we had already spent a significant chunk of our day. It was time for some shut-eye, however limited by our surroundings.
Sam articulated our insanity quite aptly upon our uncomfortable reveille at 12:45 a.m.: “Are we freaks?”
To which I responded: “Well, yes, of course.” As our alarms sounded jarringly from the center console, we had each been enjoying some quality REM sleep. But it was go-time, and we reluctantly traded our dreams for personal battles against the midnight chill of the windswept parking lot and the breakfast spread that we had assembled in the trunk prior to bedtime: for each adventurer, a peanut butter Clif Builder Bar (20 grams of protein? yes, please!), two bananas, half of a Nalgene’s worth of water, and a packet of Emergen-C. Needless to say, we were still digesting our dinner feast of orecchiette with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, sausage, and avocado, and we emulated cows chewing cud as we stomached some instant energy.
After dodging a potential headlamp/flashlight calamity (it would have been a calamity, indeed, as there was scarcely a trace of moon accompanying us on the trail), we each loaded our daypack with eight liters of fluid and quite the cornucopia of caloric treats, many of which would return to the car with us at the conclusion of the adventure. I cranked down the laces on my boots, Sam tightened the straps on his open-toed Keen sandals (I will reserve judgment), we switched on our GPS device to reap the benefits of sometimes-inspiring and sometimes-disheartening mileage and elevation stats, and with that, we initiated our lightning-fast descent of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on the highly exposed North Kaibab Trail. (We only fully appreciated the exposure on our return ascent in the sun–and heat–of day. Our relentless and rowdy middle-of-the-night descent had guided us to the edge of 1,000-foot precipices and inhospitable gullies. Talk about no-fall zones…)
We arrived on the banks of the Colorado River at around 6:15 a.m. after hauling downhill for approximately 16.1 comfortable-enough miles. While SK contemplated pinky toe amputation and completed an impressive duct tape procedure, I chewed morosely on a Snickers bar. Sam punctuated our bouts of delirious laughter with a follow-up remark to this midnight commentary on our zeal (read: insanity): “We are raaaaaving lunatics!” I was much too humbled by the 16-mile ascent ahead of me to experience the full extent of my disappointment that the Colorado River hadn’t been wilder…grander…a closer reflection of the romantic image that I had conjured in my mind during the sixteen miles downhill. The clock was ticking; it was time for forward motion. In our tired haze, we realized that the high overhead cloud cover would afford us some added protection from the notorious Grand Canyon sun. Well, that, and the fact that it was still only 6:15 in the morning. As we passed the Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch en route to a long, narrow, and demoralizing canyon, we became the quick recipients of “good morning” greetings from countless other hikers enjoying lazy hot breakfasts and preparing for horseback transport. Yeah, it had already been quite the morning…
A glimpse of the aforementioned “long, narrow, and demoralizing canyon.” Or, perhaps more accurately: “Gatorade Canyon.” We arrived at the mid-point of this segment approximately 45 minutes after departing from the banks of the River. Stated simply: I did not feel well. At all. I thus declared to Sam with as much verve as I could muster in my feverish reverie that the time had come to pour some of the contents of our life-sized, two-liter bottles of Gatorade into our well-loved Camelbaks. The proceedings went predictably uphill from there…
As both a side note and a centerpiece: the Grand Canyon was humbling in its craggy splendor. I felt compelled to consciously remind myself of my surroundings along the way, lest my exhaustion overshadow the dramatic grandeur in my midst. Somewhere in the pictured vicinity, I announced determinedly to Sam that I would be taking a siesta under the shade of some shrubbery upon arriving at the Cottonwood Campground, our projected lunch location.
I arrived at the Cottonwood Campground for lunch at about 9:00 a.m. to find Sam stealing some horizontal time on a lovely wooden bench…despite his previous strong words about my ambitious napping plans. Eating is quite a holy experience in our family, but on this particular occasion, we were uncharacteristically doleful about the gastronomical challenge that presented itself: somehow stomaching peanut butter and banana sandwiches and/or tortillas oozing with Nutella. We did the damage that we could muster, and after exchanging some pleasantries with passersby (all of whom thought that we were complete lunatics), we set out for the “final” haul: ~9 miles and 5,000 vertical feet of ascent. With less of a vengeance than we would have preferred, we started the uphill slog, and agreed to meet next at a flat spot near a span bridge where we had heard a man snoring loudly at 3:30 a.m.
This is the face of pain and commitment: earning the ice cream and salt fest that would soon follow. At our final checkpoint, Sam and I groaned loudly, gagged on the raspberry Clif Shots that I insisted we consume, and cranked up some tunes (desperate times call for desperate measures). While Sam woefully reported that he had narrowly dodged a surprise rock fall a few hundred yards prior, I shared some less-than-coherent thoughts about what I perceived to be a quasi-competitive spirit among the transient North Kaibab trail community.
Random female hiker: “What time did you start hiking this morning?”
Me (begrudgingly): “Ummm, at around 1:30. I’m at around mile 28.”
Random female hiker: “Oh, so you went to the River. You know you’re not supposed to do that, right?”
The North Kaibab Trail as seen from the FINAL “final” climb, during which I was overtaken gentleman donning a Canadian tuxedo (jeans on jeans) and another in jorts (those would be cut-off jean shorts). I was clearly brimming with life and energy. As I mounted the final knoll leading to the all-too-familiar parking lot, I spotted Sam grinning unabashedly in my direction. Against my initial instinct to shed a few tears of catharsis and unbridled joy, I instead gave myself a once-over: Gatorade residue on face and arms? Check. Congealed Clif Shot detritus on face and chest? Check. Salt encrusting my body from head to toe? Check. A few salty, sweaty smiles and hugs later, we tossed our tired packs in the backseat, and sped off to the north—determined to be eating a certain pasta, sausage, and avocado dish in our Wasatch kitchen by 9:30 p.m. Now that was crazy.
Heed the word of the National Park Service. Do not attempt to hike to the river and back in one day!
Total hours away from the Wasatch: 38.
Total miles driven: 800.
Total hours in the car: 14.
Total hours slept: 2.
Total hours on the trail: 12.
Start time: 1:30 a.m.
Total feet of vertical ascent: 7,300.
Total feet of vertical descent: 7,300.
Total miles hiked: 32.2.
Toes amputated: 0…but that was a close call.
Liters of water consumed per person: 8.
Varieties of Clif products consumed: 3.
Sausage rounds consumed: 4.
Number of “real” food items consumed: 0.