Adventure Camel Trip: Grand Canyon Part 2
The first steps of this journey didn’t waste any time. The South Kaibab starts out by immediately dropping down a lot of very steep switchbacks, so you drop altitude fast. It was a bit disconcerting starting these with just the headlight on, as I couldn’t always see the next switchback below me. It was like walking into an abyss.
I also realized after about 10 switchbacks that I was really committed to the Adventure now. To turn around after that first ½ mile or so would have been possible, but I would have paid for it. The punishment for failure on this one would have been more mental than physical. The trail is extremely steep at this point, so the march of shame back up those switchbacks would have been brutal, yet short. The memory of failure would have lasted a much longer time.
This felt a lot like the risks we take every day in life to me. We start down a path where not only can we not see the end, we can barely see the next steps. Certainty just isn’t something we can expect if we’re taking on any kind of Adventure to expand our lives. We can plan extensively to mitigate risk, but a true Adventure that will cause you to grow will always have an aspect of uncertainty.
If there was never risk or uncertainty, we’d all be rich and famous, wouldn’t we? Life would have guarantees of success, and we wouldn’t have to teach our kids to understand that the world doesn’t treat us fairly. An advantage you’re given on Monday can be gone by Friday, throwing you right back into the fray you rose above. Taking the uncertainty on is what teaches us that we can fight back and lift ourselves right back up.
After the first mile or so, the trail alternates between sections of switchbacks and running down a ridge into the canyon, offering more gradual descents. Of note is that you don’t actually see the river at the bottom of the canyon until you’re almost halfway to it. Even though your path is more clear now, you’re destination is still somewhat unknown.
That first river view is really a tease, though. You first catch it at Skeleton Point, but then lose it as you descend deeper. Your first whole view of the destination for the descent isn’t until a mile and half later, almost 75% down. It’s tough to keep “eyes on the prize” sometimes, isn’t it? People tell you to begin with the end in mind, but is it always that clear? I think this is probably a great example of why visualization can be a useful tool. You’ve got to be able to “see” where you’re going on your own, because it probably isn’t going to be clear until you’re almost there.
This was a really enjoyable part of the hike. The views were spectacular as the sun was rising, it wasn’t too hot yet, and it was all downhill! New Adventures always have a lot of momentum as we start, don’t they?
I found out why the trekking poles I bought were such a great idea. To keep moving at a good pace, almost a jog, I could plant both poles ahead of me and swing my body forward as I descended. This took a lot of pounding off my knees and feet. I’ve no doubt this was very valuable on the trip back up, as my whole body felt terrible by the end of the hike. For those of you considering any outdoor adventure with some walking distance, the poles are must have gear.
Overall, the descent to the river was beautiful and uneventful. This part of the trail only took me about 2 hours and 45 minutes. I really enjoyed the suspension bridge over the river that leads to the Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch at the bottom.
Getting to the campground was a little strange to me. After nearly three hours of desolation, you can walk right into the canteen at Phantom Ranch where you can buy a fresh cup of lemonade and sit a spell. You can even buy a souvenir from the bottom of the canyon–of course you then get to carry it back to the top!
Think about a project where you reach that first big milestone. You just accepted an offer for your dream job, you walked the stage at a graduation, you received a license you’ve been working towards, or another important marker along your path to success.
These are all just midpoints, though, aren’t they? Even though you’ve struggled to get to something that’s a great accomplishment, it’s really all been downhill so far. True success starts once you take the next step. The real challenge starts now; where every step leads you up. You can’t stop at the gift shop at the bottom of the canyon. You’ve got to finish your lemonade, fill your water, set your jaw, and set off on the hard part of the journey.
Here’s a practical tip I learned from this point forward. Probably my third most valuable gear item on this trip ended up being the two pack of bandannas I bought at Wal-Mart the day before I left. Yep, they cost like $1.99, and they’re exactly what you probably remember hanging out of Grandpa’s back pocket covered in dirt and snot.
These little gems did a lot for me. Things start to heat up pretty quick on these trails, so I was able to use one to keep some extra sun off my neck first. I’d wet it down to keep me cool and I even pulled it over my nose and mouth a couple times when I passed mule trains that kicked up excess dust. As I got to the upper parts of the ascent, I used the second rag to keep cool by wetting it and wiping down my face and arms or just putting it on top of my head under my hat. Best two dollars I’ve ever spent.
As I left the campground, I hiked back across the river via suspension bridge, turned away from the South Kaibab and toward Bright Angel trail. I knew it would be tough, but I was surprised that it doesn’t waste any time breaking you in. Almost immediately after stepping off the bridge, the trail turns to sand.
This isn’t firm, pretty, beach sand to enjoy a little frolic on, either. This crap is dry, powdery, deep, and slippery. It’s hell to trudge through and kicks up to get everywhere on you. This stuff is the first day at training for your new job. It’s the day the HR guy hands you an 800 page manual and says “learn this.” It reminds you that the comfort of previous accomplishment is firmly in your past and it’s time to refocus and get down to work again.
This section of trail is where a big chunk of unexpected mileage creeps into your day. Technically, this 1.7 miles of sand is the River Trail, even though it’s essentially part of the Bright Angel trail. It’s distance isn’t listed in the Bright Angel info, though. So, everything I read says you descend South Kaibab and ascend Bright Angel. Somehow I missed the fact that they’re separated by almost two miles extra. Of deep sand. In the hottest part of the canyon. Oops.
After the slog through the sand, the first switchbacks leading out of the inner canyon are welcome. You start to get a few shady spots as you hug the canyon walls, but you quickly realize that it’s a long ways up. As soon as you leave the inner canyon you look up to the rim and it kind of blows your mind. This was way different than the descent.
On the way down, the going was fairly easy, but I couldn’t see the destination. On the ascent, it’s the exact opposite. I could see the “end” at the rim for much of the hike up, but every step was difficult. The rim never seems to get much closer until you’re within about 2 miles of it.
All-in-all, the next few miles were hard, beautiful, but fairly uneventful. Hindsight being what it is, I realize I forgot to look back as often as I’d liked. I do this every day as well. Sometimes I just put my head down, focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and forget to remind myself where I’ve come from. This look back isn’t just a reminder, our journey is typically beautiful. The parts of our lives that were really difficult are usually the most striking and memorable, aren’t they?
I guess I get concerned that I’ll lose momentum and slow my progress to the ultimate goal by looking back. Maybe that’s true, but I know that when I took time to stop for a second and look back, I gained some extra motivation. I’d turn back around with a smile on my face and step out with more energy in my stride. The few seconds lost were easily made up in the next hundred steps or so. There’s a lesson there if I’m willing to learn it.
Overall, I was cruising now. I stopped with about 4 ½ miles left to the top at Indian Garden, filled my water bladder back up and let my feet rest a few minutes in the shade. I was feeling great, but I knew there was a good chunk left. Because of this I decided I’d try out some of the energy gel blocks I brought with me. I think I ate 2 or 3 of them as I sat. I didn’t think anything of it…then.
I started trekking out of Indian Garden very confident. The trail is more crowded now, as this upper section of Bright Angel is probably the most common area for day hikers in the canyon. There are water stations, the trail is fairly wide, and most of it is of pretty manageable steepness.
This last 4 ½ miles has two major landmarks along the route. After leaving Indian Garden, there’s a “rest house” with water at 3 miles from the top and one at 1.5 miles with water and a restroom. Shortly after passing right by the 3 mile rest house I discovered that my body didn’t care very much for energy gels.
I’m not going to give great details, but let’s just say from about the 2.5 mile point until the 1.5 mile rest room, the trip was a bit more challenging. There was cramping, cringing, clenching, excessive sweating, and I’ll admit, quite a bit of swearing under my breath. Ugh.
To add insult to injury, once I got to the glorious restroom oasis at the 1.5 mile point, I had to wait about 10 minutes for somebody to get out! I’m pretty sure I was doing the worst bathroom dance ever outside that little hut. I can only imagine what I looked like to people passing by. I was glad to be by myself on this trip or there may have been photographic evidence.
Aaaaaaaah! After the 1.5 mile stop was finally complete, I felt a bit less energetic, but really ready to finish. I was a little past 8 ½ hours since I’d started the hike, and I was feeling it. I was leaning on the trekking poles again to really pull myself through every step and keep as much pressure off my legs as possible.
The worst part of the last mile was unexpected. I figured it would be hard, but I had not thought about the fact that this part of the trail would be VERY busy. Let me tell you, covering the last mile of something like this while being forced to play frogger around fat tourist joe and his screaming kids was not pleasant. Can you people not see what I’ve been through already? Surely you can smell it! Get out of the damn way!
Wow, haven’t I become Mister entitlement all of a sudden? When did this National Park become all about me? The tunnel vision of finally accomplishing something made me very selfish and kind of rude. Not a good choice. These people had no idea of my journey and I had no idea of theirs. We were just passing through a common point. Lesson here, don’t forget who you are as you push to a goal. It’s not worth damaging others just because you’re excited to accomplish something great for yourself.
Thankfully, other than the frogger, the last mile was fairly uneventful. I made it to the top, recruited someone to take some obligatory pictures of me at the rim, and hit the rental car. As I sat down in the driver’s seat my entire legs weren’t just in pain, they were throbbing with it. I drove off wondering if that would continue for the entire drive back. I was happy to note that it settled down pretty quickly and was just a dull ache for the next 3 days instead.
I’ve never been so relaxed on a 4 hour drive than this. I wasn’t falling asleep, but I’d never felt a seat more comfortable than that car. I gorged on the first fast food I saw, dripped ketchup and mustard on my chest as I ate, and went a bit brain dead on the trip back.
Honestly, I wasn’t that reflective about the trip until a couple of days later. The only thought that I kept having was “Wow, that was way harder than I expected, I’m glad I did it.” I couldn’t really grasp what lessons I could learn from it until I’d physically recovered from the trip.
After it was all over, I learned a ton about myself in that nine-plus hours. Here are 6 lessons I learned from this trip.
Early in the journey, the end might not be clear. Sometimes you just have to start making forward progress and focus on what’s right in front of you.
After you start, new projects typically have great momentum. Enjoy it, but don’t be surprised when it gets tough again. This is where some people lose their progress due to dashed expectations.
Significant accomplishments are really just midpoints in your success journey. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that success is a single point to reach. Be ready to refocus and get back to hard work.
The difficult parts of the journey are usually the most meaningful and memorable. Try to keep perspective when things get tough. You’ll end up growing more than you realize.
Don’t lose who you are to accomplish a goal. A success that damages others along the way is diminished.
Don’t use energy gel blocks unless you test them first. They might make you poo.
This was a great little Adventure for me. I’m no special snowflake. Many people have done it and many people have done much harder things, but that doesn’t matter. This was personal. There’s no value in comparing one person’s Adventure against your own. We may all have different “levels” of what Adventure is to us, but the value can still be the same. Don’t consider your Adventure less if it doesn’t take you the same distance as the person next to you. Just accomplish it for yourself.
Thanks for reading.
Adventure Camel Herder