Adventure Camel Trip: Grand Canyon Part 1

Six years ago, I took on a small, personal Adventure trip that had a great impact on me. I traveled by myself to the Grand Canyon and took a little walk. I hiked to the bottom of the canyon and back up in one day.

One of the things I like when I read different blogs is when I get very specific, actionable information about a topic. For example, I like to get very detailed recipes so I can recreate a dish I’m interested in. For this trip, I’ll also give you an “Adventure Recipe” for you. This will list all the specific information on this adventure, so can you’ll know exactly how much to save or what gear to have if you do choose to undertake something similar.

IMPORTANT:  You’re personally responsible for your own safety!!​

I am making no recommendation that it’s safe for you to repeat these actions. I am simply reporting the details of my trip. I am very in tune with my own physical abilities, your ability may differ significantly.

On to the Adventure!

I previously alluded to this trip in my post about dismantling failure. I can’t remember exactly what lead me to the idea of the trip. It was the summer of 2009, and I was looking for a challenge. Over the last 6 months or so, I’d been transforming my workouts through crossfit-style work at an amazing facility called The Fit Pit. (More to come on the Fit Pit in the future.) I was feeling very good about my fitness that summer. In the 12 years since leaving college and any kind of organized sports, I felt like an athlete again.

I’m sure when my amazing wife looks back at our history together, she is going to see the internet as my gateway drug to bad ideas. I’m shocked she hasn’t taken it away from me after things like this. Somewhere online that summer, I started reading hike reports of people that had hiked the Grand Canyon. The more I read, the more excited I got!

I learned that there were several different ways to tackle a hike in the Canyon, some about as long as a marathon, others only a few miles or less. However, to really feel like you’ve accomplished anything, you should get to the bottom and back. That meant that the minimum trip length was about 12 miles.

As I researched the trip a little more, it seemed the best route for seeing great territory with the easiest access was to hike down the South Kaibab Trail (6.3 mi) and return up the Bright Angel Trail (7.8 mi). There must be some extra distance at the top or bottom of the canyon, as I measured at the end of the day just shy of 17 miles total versus 14.1 claimed.

Another little thing I noticed was this paragraph:

“Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year.The difference between a great adventure in Grand Canyon and a trip to the hospital (or worse) is up to YOU. DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day, especially during the months of May to September.”

And of course this little gem was printed in red a few times: “Under no circumstances should you attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day! “

This is where you know you’re on to an adventure! If you see statements like this, you should make sure you ask questions like “Is that a law or a recommendation?” In my case, I dug a little deeper to figure out that it was just a recommendation. As I write this, I have the same stupid grin on my face that I did the first time I saw those warnings. This is what it feels like to to get that “gleam in your eye” or “fire in your heart!”

That was it, I decided to do it. It wasn’t a novel idea, tons of people had done the same thing. Most people explained in their trip reports that the warnings are really for “tourist Joe” that spends more time on the couch than engaging in any real physical activity.

Overall, I’d make it a quick trip, just 3 days total. I scheduled myself to fly down on a Thursday, hike Friday, and return home Saturday. Lots of margin for error, huh? I kept the cost down by using Southwest points for my flights and Hilton points for one of the two hotels.

As far as gear prep, I only made 3 purchases that were key to the trip. I bought a cheap pair of hiking poles at Sam’s Club, a pair of Merrell hiking shoes, and a pair of UnderArmour zip-off hiking pants. I already owned a Camelbak day pack that was the perfect size for a day hike, so hydration and storage were taken care of. To keep the sun off, I’d use my old Air Force boonie hat from my desert deployments and a pair of polarized Oakley Half Jackets that I already owned.

Those were the large essentials I carried. Other than that, I have a pretty basic set of “uh-oh” gear I take for this type of trip. A Gerber multi-tool is handy instead of just a knife. A basic blister kit, travel size sunscreen, and some Tylenol are useful. For true emergency gear, I keep a plastic poncho, foil blanket, and about 50 feet of 550 cord stuffed tight at the bottom of my pack. Since I was likely to start in the dark, I had a small LED headlight to light the way. I don’t worry about a separate camera anymore, it’s easier to just carry my smartphone. I put it in airplane mode so the battery will last, plus I can record voice notes along the hike if I have thoughts worth remembering.

On top of the gear and water, I carried a bit of food. I kept it simple by buying a large bag of trail mix at Wal-Mart on the way up and separating it into about 10 smaller bags that were easier to manage. Just in case I needed a pick me up, I took a long two bars of energy gel blocks as well.

Although this list sounds long, it’s really not very much. The cargo room of the small pack I used is only about ⅓ of what a child’s school backpack might hold, and it was far from full. The water was the heaviest part, as I usually filled up with 2 – 2 ½ liters, which is about 5 ½ pounds.

The trip down was fairly uneventful. I’m one of those weirdos who really loves traveling, even by myself. I flew direct from KC to Phoenix and arrived just before lunchtime. After grabbing the rental car, I grabbed a bite for the road. Just a thought, many of you would probably choose to eat a lot healthier than I did for lunch. I grabbed a fast food burger, fries, and a Coke and headed north.

The canyon isn’t what some people would call “close” to Phoenix, but it’s really not a bad trip at all. Right about 220 miles from the airport with highway most of the way. I had no reason to be in a hurry, so I took around 4 hours to make the drive. If you like scenery, (I do) then you’ll enjoy the drive up; it’s quite beautiful. It was a great trip to roll the windows down, turn up the radio, and contemplate the challenge coming next.

I arrived in Tusayan, the small tourist town outside the canyon, around 4:00 p.m. In traveling a lot through the years, I’d become a creature of habit, so I went directly to my hotel and confirmed that everything was correct. There’s nothing worse than arriving somewhere and finding your lodging screwed up, so I always try to settle that first.

I guess my wife’s Montessori mindset of a “prepared environment” is rubbing off on me a little bit as well. To enter the Grand Canyon park, you buy a vehicle pass at one of several places. I took a bit to wander around the visitor center at the iMax theater outside the gate and purchase my pass. After that, I was off to scout parking and shuttle stops for the next morning.

Thanks to the map that I picked up with my vehicle pass, I found my way into the park and found the parking lot that other hikers recommended for this type of trip. Boy, I’m glad I did. Things looked very different the next morning in the dark!

The wonderful thing I learned about the park as I drove up is that you can’t really see the Canyon until you’re right up on it. Even as you park, you can’t see much at all. It really made for a stunning effect as I parked the car and hurried to the closest overlook.

Whoa. The second I got to the edge, I had a little moment of “holy crap, what am I thinking?” Because you can’t see the Canyon until you’re on the rim, the magnitude of hits you all at once. I won’t lie, I had a couple thoughts of just hanging out around the top, taking a short hike of a few miles the next day and calling it good. Thankfully, I quickly flushed those thoughts.

I probably just stood there or slowly walked along the edge of the canyon for 20 or 30 minutes just staring at it. This must be like what the boxers that took on Mike Tyson in his prime felt like at the weigh-in. I was confident, but also wondering what I’d got myself into. I was really glad I had a chance to get there the day before and size it up, because I really needed to process that image before I began.

After a while, it started to rain a little bit, so I headed back to the car and went back to town. Time to load up on some dinner to fuel the next day. I cruised the ½ mile or so that is everything to offer and perused the options. There were some pretty typical fast food joints, but I figured that would be poor form the day before such an event. I needed a real meal. Let’s see, Steak/BBQ place at a decent hotel; too nice. Mexican restaurant; hell no, I’m not that stupid. Here it is; the “Yippee-Ei-O! Steakhouse” looks about my speed. I sat at the bar and ate a huge plate of fettucine alfredo to get good and carbed up for the next day. I can’t remember if it was really all that good or not, but I’m not that picky.

Time to wind down for the evening. Back to the Holiday Inn Express to settle in and rest up. At least that was the plan. It was about 8:00 p.m. by this time, so I went back to the room, laid out my gear on the bed and triple-checked while watching some TV.

It’s interesting, I’ve found that I’m borderline OCD when it comes to gear prep for these types of things. Maybe it’s because it was drilled into me at the Air Force Academy or maybe it’s my way of dealing with the fear of what I’m about to tackle, I’m not sure. It’s funny, because I’m normally not a huge details person. If you follow DISC profiles at all, I’m fairly low on my “C” scale, so I’m not exactly meticulous. However, I’ve become fairly good at situationally modifying my behaviors for a short time when I need to. One way or another, I’d recommend taking that type of attitude toward preparation. It can only serve you well in this type of endeavor.

After prepping everything for the next morning I settled in and tried to sleep. I wasn’t greatly successful. I was tossing and turning for about an hour before finally drifting off. My head was way too busy. I woke up around 2:15 the next morning wide awake. I’d only got 4 hours or so of sleep. I laid in bed for awhile until it was obvious I wasn’t going back to sleep, then decided to start the day. This decision worked to my advantage.

I brewed a pot of coffee and ate a banana and a cereal bar or two to start myself off. I didn’t want to drink too much coffee, but I was counting on it to help “lighten the load” before I started, if you know what I mean. In hindsight, I’m glad I had the extra awake time that morning to let the coffee help a brother out.

After another quick gear check, I filled my Camelbak bladder, packed up everything, and rolled out. It was about 4:00 a.m. and I had planned to start down no later than 6:00 a.m. so I was on track, albeit a touch early.

As previously mentioned, things looked very different in the dark. I would have had a much harder time finding the parking lot had I not scouted the day before. What wasn’t evident was exactly where the shuttle bus to get to the trail head I wanted was supposed to pick up. I parked at about 4:15, so I wandered between three different spots until 4:30 and it arrived. Luckily, I wasn’t too far away when it came. After a 15 minute bus ride, I was at the trail.

So, here I was, standing (literally) on the edge of a pretty big solo adventure. Just like the day before, I’ll admit to standing there for a bit, wondering if it was a great idea. After taking a few pics of the cool sign next to the trail and saying a not-so-short prayer, I remember just saying “screw it” and starting down. It was around 4:45 a.m. with barely a sliver of daylight starting to creep over the eastern horizon and I was marching down.

It wasn’t my intention to multi-post this one, but the words just kept flowing. So, coming next, the hike and an “Adventure Recipe” you can use for yourself. I’ll give you a detailed breakdown of costs and equipment so you can plan for your own adventures.

Scott Parman

Adventure Camel Herder

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