Seeking Something Grand

View at dusk the evening we arrived at the South Rim.

View at dusk the evening we arrived at the South Rim.

The perfect antidote…

Need a remedy for that lethargic feeling you get during the winter months?  Here’s an antidote that works for me.  The plan?  Assemble a group of good friends and hike one of the natural wonders of the world:  The Grand Canyon. 

The Grand Canyon Crew

The Grand Canyon Crew

Our crew included father/son duo, Scott and Boone Hardy, Bob Cable, Steve Cattaneo, and Dale Fudge.  We came from a variety of career backgrounds but were united in our love for the beauty of the outdoors.  We’d backpacked the Ozark Mountains together but this would be a more involved outing.  A trip of this type is only as good as each participant.   By the time you’ve spent a few days backpacking with someone, you know if there are major character flaws.   I could vouch for each of these guys and knew they would work well together.

Directions for getting to the canyon are easy; drive west to Williams, Arizona then north.   Directions for being ready to enter the Grand Canyon are a little more complicated.  We completed training hikes and runs for conditioning.  We requested backcountry permits four months in advance and waited nervously until approved.  We combed through piles of backpacking gear in repeated attempts to eliminate all but the most essential items.  I felt a great sense of accomplishment after packing four days of food, clothing, and shelter in under thirty pounds.

Weighing packs at the Back Country Office

Weighing packs at the Back Country Office

Too much weight could be a trip-ender while attempting to hike up the nearly 5,000-foot elevation gain from river to rim, the equivalent of climbing more than 500 office building floors while covering miles of uneven terrain and ever-changing conditions in winter.  As Bob said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather… just the wrong clothes.  Pack wisely.”  A small percentage of the nearly five million visitors who see the Grand Canyon each year hike below the rim and several hundred of those are rescued inside the canyon.   Lack of preparation is commonly cited in trips that end badly.

South Kaibab Trail

South Kaibab Trail

We entered the Grand Canyon on December 28, 2012, on the South Kaibab Trail.  Temperatures ranged from the teens on the rim to the forties at the bottom of the canyon. We spent two nights at the Bright Angel Camp Ground, allowing time to explore the Clear Creek Trail on the north side of the Colorado River. Then came a strenuous climb up to Indian Gardens Camp Ground.  At the top of a series of brutal switchbacks called “Devil’s Corkscrew,” Boone said, “That section of trail definitely lived up to its name!”  The final day would include about 3,500 feet of elevation gain during the hike up to the South Rim.

Devil's Corkscrew on Bright Angel Trail

Devil’s Corkscrew on Bright Angel Trail

A visual feast…

Having dined on holiday food during the previous weeks, we were now enjoying a wide menu of visual feasts.  That first night Scott was full of energy and wanted to explore the silver bridge since we’d crossed the more historic black bridge earlier on our hike into the campground.   This turned into three miles of night hiking but was well worth the effort.  While standing at the Colorado River, we watched a full moon rise over the canyon rim.  Reflections of moonlight softly painted inner canyon walls and reflected on the churning river’s surface.

Moon rise from the Colorado River

Moon rise from the Colorado River

On day two we hiked Clear Creek Trail, filled with remarkable rock formations every step of the way.  The trail seemed to pull us along sweeping views of the river and inner canyon.  Scenes continuously opened up and changed with the steady passing of the sun.  While pausing at one overlook, Dale, who was visiting Grand Canyon for the first time, said, “I’m so thankful that I got to do this trip.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  It’s just amazing!”

Along side of Clear Creek Trail

Along side of Clear Creek Trail

View of the Colorado River from the Clear Creek Trail.

View of the Colorado River from the Clear Creek Trail.

A constant companion while camping at the bottom of the canyon was the soothing sound of Bright Angel Creek, named by John Wesley Powell during his exploration of the area in 1869.  It is clean, clear, and cold!  I took an hour to explore the creek with my camera, wishing for a longer day as the sunlight faded.

Bright Angel Creek flowing through the campground.

Bright Angel Creek flowing through the campground.

On our third evening in the canyon, a short hike from Indian Gardens Campground turned into a wildlife outing on Plateau Point.  A California condor enjoyed showing off his aerial finesse, swooping so close that I heard a deep whoosh from his wings slicing through the air.  The introduction of condors into the park appears to have had some success and this condor exemplified confidence in his new canyon home.  Several mule deer were grazing close to the trail.  They gave me a dismissive glance as if stoically accepting my visitor status in the canyon.

Condor at Plateau Point

Condor at Plateau Point

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

A winter wonderland…

After a dinner of homemade dehydrated pasta at Indian Gardens, a light snow began to fall as darkness came over the canyon. All sounds were muted except the gentle crackle of icy snow against the roof of my tent.  The next morning we woke up to a winter wonderland.  Several of us softy sang the song by that name as Steve, the early riser, fired up his stove for coffee and oatmeal.   Then it was time for the final push up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.  This would be a personal test for me physically and I felt some nagging anxiety about the severe elevation gain on a snowy route.

Breaking camp at Indian Gardens for the for the hike up the Bright Angel Trail.

Breaking camp at Indian Gardens for the for the hike up the Bright Angel Trail.

As we progressed up the trail I found myself walking slower and slower, not from the climb, but from a desire to make the experience last longer; I didn’t want it to end!   Every few minutes I’d stop and stare as the sky and light changed our view back into the canyon.  One minute the canyon appeared dimly through a frame of clouds.   Moments later, clouds would dance gracefully as they roamed freely through the upper canyon, sunlight slicing through and settling along the face of fire-red walls trimmed with snow.

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail

View while hiking up Bright Angel Trail

View while hiking up Bright Angel Trail

One elderly dayhiker said in passing, “I ran out of adjectives a long time ago!”  Pictures and words fail in the presence of the Grand Canyon.   Reaching the rim I continued to gaze into the chasm for a few last visual morsels from the beauty below.  I paused and bowed slightly toward the canyon whispering, “Thank you.”  Then I turned to walk away from the edge, carrying images that will nourish my spirit and fill my memories for years to come.

View from close to the top of Bright Angel Trail

View from close to the top of Bright Angel Trail

To learn more:

Grand Canyon National Park web site: nps.gov/grca

Ozarkmountainhiker.wordpress.com

Published in the February, 2013 issue of Urban Magazine, Fort Smith, Arkansas

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