Throughout Grand Canyon National Park, messages strictly warn against hiking from the canyon’s rim down to the Colorado River and back in a single day. They all scream: Don’t Do It!
At the Visitor’s Center, giant boards outline hikes, and beside the descriptions is a graphic of a man vomiting, along with a list of health risks, including over exertion, heat-related illnesses, and a condition called Hyponatremia. That last one is described as a “common hiking illness [that] occurs from overhydration and low salt ingestion during a strenuous hike—a deadly condition if ignored.” The park experts advise balancing hydration with salty snacks, resting often, and knowing your limits. And then there is this highlighted caution:
DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.”
This sort of warning also appears in The Guide, the park’s information handout, and on signs along the trail. And it nearly had its way with me! For my day to myself, I had chosen to hike to Skeleton Point and back on the South Kaibab trail, a safe, 6-mile roundtrip hike. That is, until I met Christine and Jean-Claude.
Christine is Pierre’s cousin from Switzerland. He hadn’t seen her since he was a teenager but had learned that she happened to be visiting the Grand Canyon while we were there. So, he invited her and her partner, Jean-Claude, to come to our campsite for a BBQ dinner, and they did.
The couple was lively, animated, and fresh, even though, as I learned, they had spent the day hiking from the South Rim down to the river and back up again, all in eight hours. “Oh, no. Didn’t they see the signs?” I thought. But they were not limping or sluggish or complaining. Instead, they were chatty, enjoying the steak and wine Pierre had provided. Even more, they were older than us.
That did it. I decided in that moment that I would do exactly what they did: hike down the South Kaibab trail and back up the Bright Angel trail, a 16 mile hike with an almost 5,000-foot (1,500 m) drop in elevation, all in one day. If they could do it, my thinking went, so could I.
My Swiss husband disagreed. “They are Swiss. They hike long distances in the Alps all the time. They are fit in a way you are not.”
“But I jog every day. I can do it!” I insisted.
“You’re not fit for this, but yes, you could do it,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time I have been overly (and perhaps blindly) optimistic about my athletic abilities. In college, a friend invited me to ride down the coast of California with him on our bikes. At the time I was training with a track club called the Reebok Aggies. “I’m super-fit,” I thought. “Biking would be cake.” Of course, it wasn’t. Biking uses different muscles, for one thing, and then we bicycled all day, every day. I would just make it to 50 miles before I would bonk. We had to hitch-hike a couple of times because I just couldn’t go any farther.
Doing It Anyway
That experience was lost on me the next morning, when I awoke at 4:12 a.m. determined to beat the heat and do the hike, and in fact do it in less than eight hours, as our friends had done.
The night before, I prepared my backpack with 3 bottles of water, 2 apples, 1 banana, 2 Cliff bars, and some trail mix, along with my journal, my Swiss knife, tissues, a pen, and my car keys. It would later contain my raincoat, in case a thunderstorm broke out. But in the early morning, I wore it against the cool dawn air.
I parked at the Visitor Center and took the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trail, getting to the trailhead at 5:27 a.m. There were three groups of hikers standing around, and I hurried past them and into the rim. I didn’t want to get stuck among others. I wanted to be alone.
The light and scenery against the layers of rock and canyon below threw me into complete awe. It’s one thing to take in the Canyon’s layered magnificence from the surface, and quite another to drop into its depths and witness its variety of colors, textures, and life.
I hurried past a large group of young adults sitting on a big rock at the Ooh Aah point, waiting for the sun to rise, and then saw almost no one until I reached the bottom. At one point, I came across a young bighorn sheep standing on the trail. I snapped his picture and quietly scooted around him.
When the first glimpses of the Colorado River came into view, I got excited and moved faster, half hiking, half jogging my way down. Near the river, I passed two women using hiking poles, heading down in matching tank tops and black stretch pants, like a tag team of experienced hikers. They were from San Diego and told me they were hiking to the North Rim, 21 miles, and they were taking their time. Looking back, I think that was a warning, because I was obviously racing. I knew from the one time I stopped to reapply sunscreen and sip water that my face in the mirror was beet red, looking as though I might explode from overheating, but really, I felt fine.
In my enthusiasm I blurted out, “I don’t know why they give such strict warnings, that you could die doing this.”
“Well, you could on the way up, right?” one of the girls said and laughed.
Probably another friendly warning, but I laughed too.
Could I Make It Back Up?
I had reached the bottom in two and a half hours, a full half hour ahead of our friends, Christine and Jean-Claude. Now it was time to rest. I could already feel a soreness in my thighs and I still had the uphill to go.
After crossing the first suspension bridge over the river, I found a drinking water pump and restrooms. I stopped for 20 minutes to eat my banana, drink, stretch my legs, and admire the river. I refilled my water bottle, leaving the two in my backpack untouched, and then headed out toward the Bright Angel trail.
On a steep switchback, breathing steadily but heavily, I had to stop in the shade to stretch, apply more sunscreen, and do what The Guide recommended and eat something. By this time, it was close to 9:00 a.m. and the sun was beating down hard. My skin was a slick surface of sweat, salt, and sunscreen. Although the last thing I wanted to do is eat, I gnawed on one of my Cliff bars anyway. I was surprised at the difference it made. I felt rejuvenated, and so, pushed on after stopping for less than five minutes. The heat, I told myself, is what I was racing against.
I did not want to admit that my thighs ached, that in fact I was tired. I started using my hands to push down on my knees to help move me up steeper portions of the trail. Just before reaching Indian Garden, four and a half miles to the top, the heel of my left hiking shoe broke loose, leaving a flap of rubber snapping behind me with every step. Great, I thought.
I felt like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, because it was at this point that I allowed myself to acknowledge that this hike was above my fitness level. This was confirmed when a young couple that had been behind me since the bridge at the bottom quietly passed me as I sat in the shade at the entrance to Indian Garden. They looked like they were taking a walk around the block: no sweat, no effort, smiling as they passed me by. Meanwhile, I had a red face and a broken shoe.
New Life at Indian Garden
Indian Garden had camping, a ranger station, a water pump, and human life. I was happy to be there. A sign said, “Relax, Rest, Read” and there were people sitting, resting, and someone was even reading a book.
I found an empty campsite and sat at the picnic table there for a long 20 minutes, watching a lizard with a bright red head dart about while I ate my salty snacks (chips) and drank water. I was proud of myself but acknowledged that maybe as usual Pierre was right. I wasn’t ready for this. But also as usual, I had gotten myself in a position where there was no turning back. Maybe it’s the thrill of the adventure; maybe I like to push my limits. In any case, legs aching, body weary, I had no choice but to hike the last four and a half miles back to the top.
Before I left Indian Garden, I stopped at the ranger station to duct tape the sole of my shoe. My pace after that was much slower than it had been, but I didn’t breathe as hard and my face didn’t feel as hot. My goal was to push past the 3-mile Resthouse and stop at the 1 ½-mile Resthouse, because I knew my rest would be long and I only wanted to stop once more.
It was later in the day now, and many tourists were hiking down just the first portion of this popular trail. They walked with perfectly coiffed hair, wearing colorful shorts and t-shirts, some even with purses and inappropriate shoes. When I came upon large groups blocking the trail, all I could do is shout ahead, “Excuse me!” and hope they moved over as I plodded forward, one foot in front of the other.
It was in this last stretch that the bottom of my right hiking boot also lost its grip and fell loose, flopping with each step. I ignored it, but laughed inside. I stopped in the only shade just before the 1 ½-mile Resthouse and forced myself to eat my second Cliff bar. I felt nauseous and rested until that feeling left, which was about 15 minutes. A ranger passed by and asked if I was OK. “Great,” I said. “But do you have some duct tape?”
I repaired my second shoe with medical tape (all she had) and walked that last 1 ½ miles methodically right past the tourists and straight into the Bright Angel lodge bar, looking like an injured soldier. The waiter took one look and brought me a large glass of ice water. I sat there for an hour before I could finally move and head back to our campsite.
I had arrived at the top at 1:18 p.m. It took me 7 hours and 45 minutes to do that hike, and it humbled me. I was thrilled that I had succeeded, but there was a cost. I walked like a penguin for almost a week, as my thighs recovered from the exertion. I also realized that I can’t just jump into any adventure that attracts me, now, can I? I’m strong, but I’m also human, and I have to respect that. Next time, I’ll train first.