What I Learned from Hiking the Grand Canyon for the First Time …
If you are going to hike the Grand Canyon in mid-May, you really have to start on the trail by sunrise, or no later than 6:00 am. We found that out the hard way when we left Flagstaff at 6:00 am, only to get to the south rim, and specifically the Hermit Trail to start just after 9:00 am. This is fine, if you like to suffer and you have enough water to avoid real problems. By the time we reached the canyon floor and could follow the creeks, it had been over 100 degrees and upwards of 109 F for two hours. And the part I didn’t fully realize when starting out is that going down for 10 miles on that trail (not maintained) with the loose rock, where every footfall is a challenge to avoid slipping, may take a few less hours, but is every bit as difficult as going uphill. Going uphill the mental strain is certainly more difficult, but going downhill the physical strain is, arguably, stronger. Downhill takes a serious toll on your lower calves and quads, essentially because you are constantly arresting slippage and sliding. I primarily learned what my friend, Don Miller, advised too -“there is no reason not to do this hike without hiking poles.” Hiking poles are, in my view, a must not just because they provide added contact with the ground, but also because they take some strain off the lower body.
On the way down the Hermit Trail to Monument Valley with the Colorado river in the background with Geoffrey LaFlair, Nick Velde, Ian, Don Miller, Randy Rebman, and Damian Koshnick [Photo by: Don Miller]
There was some debate between all of us about the right amount of water to carry on trail. The dilemma is a familiar one; water is heavy, but also critical. I brought a 3 liter bladder (which when stored in the backpack keeps the water cool for a longer period than a bottle), and I brought 2, 1 liter Nalgene bottles. This is ideal because in one Nalgene you can mix up an electrolyte drink, and with the other you can keep a flexible, smaller supply of water available for additional filtering, etc. (for quick stops at Santa Maria Springs when, in the rare instances, water is available to filter quickly). Although a diuretic, I like to also have green tea with for a small, but refreshing hit of caffeine (which, in the right amounts, helps with energy and muscles). I packed in 5 liters which, given the heat we were hiking in, was ideal. On a cooler day, I could see 4 liters working for the 10 mile hike down. But, I would never leave with less than 4 liters (because as the on trail saying seems to go “it is not a race” after all). I assume that even in the heart of summer there is typically enough creek flow to filter. Many people, as it turns out, do not like to filter from the Colorado river directly. In part, I think this is a precaution based on the fact that depending on your proximity to the little Colorado river, that flow is known to be contaminated with uranium from now defunct mining operations. Before going, I was informed about the value of a “rat sack”. Rats and mice are the most consistent problem in the canyon and I was entertained to see that a rat sack is actually like a chain mail bag, strong enough apparently to keep rodents from chewing through. I bought mine for about $30 at my favorite outdoor supplier in Flagstaff, Peace Surplus [http://www.peacesurplus.com].
My new rat sack
As to food, my wife had heard something that seems obvious otherwise, but given my familiarity with camping in Montana, northern Minnesota, etc. hadn’t occurred to me. Chocolate doesn’t travel well in heat. I wanted to bring a bunch of chocolate as there is no better time for it than heavy exercise outdoors, but I decided to avoid the mess. Instead I brought granola bars and licorice for the quick sugars. I should have brought more similar types of snacks heavy in salt. We had a conversation about how valuable those marathon gels would be for this kind of hiking -good, quick, accessible, easy to carry energy hits when on trail. Next time, I will certainly bring a few of those for the low energy spikes that inevitably occur. There is very little that is more fun than being intuitive and guessing what your body needs at different moments. You will know, but I always need reminding that often feeling “tired” has as much to do with some deficiency in electrolytes, salts, sugars, carbs, basic calories, etc. It is excellent to get that rush of energy that results just when you thought you were otherwise reaching a very tough stretch. As to bigger meals, my favorite discovery this trip was Uncle Ben’s ready rice medleys. Nearly no matter how good you pace yourself, or keep hydrated, etc. there are bound to be some surprises and difficult moments. On our trek down, Ian over-heated a bit and got a bit dehydrated (headache) and Randy got a pretty significant bloody nose. Despite his relative misery, his bloody face added to the journey.
Ian and Randy Rebman suffering just a bit. I hiked in an umbrella as an “experiment”. I would do so again, just a smaller and sturdier umbrella that can handle more of the wind gusts. [Photo by: Geoffrey LaFlair]
In those moments of suffering, there was nothing better than humor. Geoff came up with a genius catch-phrase to utter at those times, “cluck, cluck, mother*cker”. Looking back, it seems to me a concise way of giving voice to the environment’s indifference as we worked hard to transverse the landscape -gossamer human efforts against the consuming scale. I had my own moment late in the journey when, hiking back to camp at night from having dinner on the Colorado river, I slipped in the creek bed and my head hit granite. I saw some black and was certainly disoriented. I was also glad to have some good friends nearby to solve an issues that might have come up from a full concussion at the bottom of the canyon. Thankfully, it was at most a minor concussion, and I didn’t get a headache, nor was I dizzy hiking the 8 1/2 hours out the next day.
[My head the next morning ... Photo by: Nick Velde]
I know people run, hike, etc. the canyon alone all the time, but given all that can go wrong that far away from the canyon rim and civilization, I would never do much hiking on my own down there. As Don Miller put it succinctly, the canyon is, “beautiful, precisely because of its juxtaposition as such a violent place”. On our second full day down in the canyon, in fact, we spent the whole day avoiding the sun by moving with the shade in Monument creek. This was one of my two favorite things about the hike. It had been a long time, too long, since I spent the day outside with nothing to do. We joked, laughed, washed up just a bit in a small waterfall, drank water, snacked, sat in the cool creek, and literally moved with the sun with the merciful shade that the rock provided. We were not that far away from imitating the local wildlife.
Zen in the shade [Photo by Don Miller]
My second favorite time on the trip was down by the Colorado river that evening. We ate dinner, swam, enjoyed the amazingly fine sand, watched a river rafting trip go by, took photos, watched a few fish jump, saw the sunset, etc. The water is very cold (52 degrees or so), but very refreshing. After spending about ten minutes floating in the river, when I got out, I could feel a real deep coldness in my chest. It was nothing, however, that a few minutes in the late evening sun couldn’t fix. The beach at the confluence (trickle) of Monument creek with the Colorado was a fine place to pass some time. We felt lucky to have it to ourselves. Hiking mid-week, I am sure, helped.
Randy, Ian, Don, Nick, Geoff talking near the confluence of Monument Creek and the Colorado river. Monument Creek goes underground a bit before trickling into the Colorado (mid-May). Photo by: Damian Koshnick
Randy walking the watershed toward the hermit rapids on the Colorado river. The sand on the beach was very, very fine at hermit rapids. And there is plenty to explore along the bank: Distance is such a factor in the grand canyon, not just real measurable distances between landmarks, but simply the largeness and expanse as you are hiking between those distances. The eye and the legs have very different perspectives that rarely seem to correspond to expectation.
Nick and Randy passing time by the “waterfall” -Photo by: Geoffrey LaFlair
We all, at different times, brought up the primal feeling that being near water down there evoked. Just as the land relaxes in anticipation of a big rain, so did we away from the sheer expanse of the canyon, hidden in the niches of the watershed.
Knowing how and where to access such water =’s comfort and happiness. I’d go back again in a moment. There was nothing better than being so tired that contemplating the universe simply meant sitting near a stream with an empty head, watching the world and the day pass with shadows across the steady sound of water running in the creek.
There is a poem which I have always loved by Phyllis Webb:
It seems to me that my notion of this poem in the Grand Canyon is to revise this a bit:
The degree of nothingness
to sit emptily
in the shade (and water)
that is the way …
For me, it was great to get away from the computer. After 4 days of recovery (eye, head, and calf muscles), I am ready to plan the next trip. This time, with just a bit more knowledge about what it means to hike the grand canyon.
Hike Profile -3 days / 2 nights 5.15 to 5.17 (2012)- Monument Creek, Grand Canyon via Hermit Trail.
Some resources on hike:
- Hermit_Trail NPS
- a different weblog that captures the whole hermit trail hike with photos by each key section. Pretty cool to see it that way: http://www.downthetrail.com/the-hermit-trail-to-the-rapids-and-back-in-one-day/
- more photos of our trip taken by Don Miller: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3925120491553.2163630.1385864649&type=3&l=1089accbe5
Don Miller’s description of the hike pre-trip:
“Luckily we’ll be on a perennial water source (Monument Creek) and the trail down has enough twists and turns to find some shade fairly regularly (though the last 3 miles or so are pretty exposed). It’s still going to be pretty friggin’ hot down there. Probably low-mid nineties. I’m hoping to spend a good deal of time soaking in the creek and wading in the Colorado. And Damian, this actually is a somewhat “pampered” site in that there is an open air toilet nearby. You just don’t want to use it midday, unless you don’t mind your ass fusing to the scalding toilet seat.”
Geoff’s photo of Nick, a perfect summary of the trip:
Nick Velde, at home in the wild -Photo by: Geoffrey LaFlair