Sandworms of Dune

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Mules going down the South Kaibab Trail


For wimps only


The trail at dawn


Downhill, downhill, downhill...


Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon


A welcome watering hole


The view from the Canyon bottom,
with both suspension bridges




There and Back Again 

The great Grand Canyon trek. Tim and I were planning to hike down the 7-mile, steep but spectacular South Kaibab Trail into the heart of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River and climb back up the gentler, but longer and less scenic Bright Angel Trail. However, the two trailheads on the rim of the Canyon were separated by about two and a half miles. After 18 grueling miles on the trail, the last thing we wanted was to walk an extra couple of miles to get back to the car. Fortunately, the Grand Canyon park runs a special "hiker's express shuttle" from one trailhead to the other at 6AM. We knew we had to make that bus.

So, I set the alarm for 4:30, which gave us time to get up, get ready, pack, and drive to the trailhead in time for the bus. Unfortunately, the people staying in the room immediately above us were having what I could only imagine to be a polka party for obese people until well after midnight. I got about three hours of sleep before our huge hike. But that wasn't going to stop us.

Dawn was barely touching the sky when we left the room to drive. I ate a Zone bar and an apple for breakfast and hotel-room coffee (real coffee shops weren't open at that time of the morning). We parked the car in a public lot not far from the shuttle stop (atop a set of old decommissioned railroad tracks) and trudged up to the shuttle stop with our walking sticks and heavy backpacks, loaded with as much water as we could fit in the Camelback reservoirs. The weather forecast was for a warm and windy day, high of about 60F, reaching 80F in the inner canyon, and we had packed accordingly.

Imagine our surprise when, after waiting no more than a minute at the open shuttle stop, we were FREEZING. The temperature was only about 40, with thirty-MPH winds. This was going to be very cold hiking. I ran back to the car to snag two extra pairs of light gloves I kept in the back and returned to the stop just in time to see the bus pull up. We were the only hikers. The rest of the bus was empty.

Cool, we might have the trail to ourselves. At one other stop, a family got on; they were also planning to hike down the Kaibab trail and stay at the Bright Angel campground at the bottom. They had cleverly arranged (for a fee of $60) to have mules carry their tents and sleeping bags down for them. At the trailhead we disembarked and got ready. Despite the repeated Park Service warnings of "Do not attempt to hike down to the River and back in one day!" the bus driver didn't think we'd have any problem.

Tim and I got on the trail mere minutes after the first mule train of the day had gone down ahead of us. The mules walked faster than we did, so we could never pass them, and they covered the trail with a delightful carpet of lumpy poop and smelly piss. Not quite the experience I had hoped for.

We descended steeply, winding down switchbacks, crossing ridges, then descending again, with occasional breaks for Red Bulls or Cliff Bars. By now the sun had just risen and the whole canyon was painted with the most glorious colors. The wind also picked up, blowing dust and sand in all directions. Not to be deterred, I had taken out my tape recorder and set to work on my "Seven Suns" chapters -- I did complete five chapters that day, mostly on the downhill, though I'm afraid the harsh wind might have blurred some of the words.

On the way down, we passed a few backpackers making their way up, and a Swiss man strolled past us. He had seen the Canyon twenty years ago and had always dreamed of hiking it. He had returned to the US just to do this particular hike. We wished him well. Another mule train came back up, strictly hauling supplies to the Phantom Ranch down at the river. After three and a half hours, I finally got to the black suspension bridge crossing the Colorado. The wind was furious (a Ranger told us the gusts reached 70 MPH on the South Kaibab trail that morning), and when I stepped out on the long bridge, the whole structure was swaying and rocking; quite unnerving!

By now I had pulled quite a ways ahead of Tim so I could dictate my chapters. I crossed the bridge and got to the other side, where several rafters had pulled up to the beach there. I found a fresh water faucet and refilled my nearly-empty Camelback, rinsed off my head to cool myself off, and put my hat back on. After only about half an hour of hiking up above, I had stripped off my gloves, and then my jacket, and felt actually warm. I went down to the beach and knelt beside the mighty Colorado River, dipping my hands in the current. Tim caught up with me a few minutes later, and we hiked our way up a side canyon to the famed Phantom Ranch, a self-contained ranch and guest house in the middle of the Canyon. We took pictures, snooped around, and found the Cantina -- a little watering hole where we could have refreshments, all of which had been carried down by mule. We could even write postcards for the Phantom Ranch mail, postmarked "Carried by Mule".

After taking a break, we made our way back to the river downstream. We had left our packs on the picnic table outside the Cantina, and now when we loaded up again, I couldn't find my trekking pole -- a very necessary thing for the long hike ahead. Other hikers had come and gone while we sat in the Cantina, and I was afraid someone had walked off with it. But that just didn't sound right. Hikers have a standard of ethics, and anybody who came all the way down to the heart of the Grand Canyon would be a die-hard hiker and not at all likely to steal a walking stick. So I decided I must have set it down somewhere when taking a photo. I retraced my steps with growing discouragement. Finally, back at the Colorado River and the rafting beach, I found the stick by the water faucet where I had drenched my hair.

Back on the trail. We crossed another suspension bridge, and then walked a two-mile River Trail to reach the intersection with the Bright Angel Trail and our ascent up. Tim and I have walkie-talkies that are supposed to keep us in touch, and we hiked at our own pace. I had pulled ahead of him, found the trail junction, and began trudging uphill immediately. We had 7.8 miles of this, in which we would ascent 4500 ft. One foot in front of the other.

The Bright Angel trail followed a side canyon along a swiftly flowing stream for most of the way, giving an unexpected lushness of cottonwoods and river vegetation. Most of the time, though, I could only stare at my feet and the impossible-seeming switchbacks ahead. Halfway up, I stopped at a backpacker campground and forested oasis called Indian Garden -- 4.6 miles from Phantom Ranch and 4.6 miles from the top. By now my legs were very tired, and it was the heat of the afternoon. The Arizona sun beat down, and the open canyon offered very little shade. By now I couldn't even see Tim, and when I tried to reach him on the walkie-talkie, I got no reception. But the trail was wide enough for mule trains, so no one could possibly miss it. Tim had all the supplied he needed and he knew how to take care of himself.

I kept going. Another Red Bull...then a packet of "power gel" called GU, which gave me an energy burst. I had finished dictating my fifth chapter and even though I had hours remaining in my hike, I couldn't find the energy to walk and talk at the same time. So I packed up the recorder and just concentrated on putting miles under my boots. A while later I climbed to the "Three Mile Resthouse" with more water, restrooms, and a sheltered and shaded area to sit down. I tried to reach Tim again on the radio, but got no response. Even though I could see a long extent of the winding trail down the canyon behind me, I saw no sign of him. We had already made plans to meet each other in the Bright Angel Lodge, since we were sure we would separate over the long extent of the hike, so I knew he'd eventually catch up. Only three more miles to the top. By now my legs were so tired my pace had slowed to a crawl. I took nearly an hour to get to the "1.5 Mile Resthouse" -- a mile and a half in an hour is a very slow pace for me. I still couldn't raise Tim on the radio.

By now it was 3 PM, and the winds continued to blow, but now the temperature began to drop. As I neared the top of the trail, I began to encounter a great many dabblers, people who came down the trail for a mile or two, then went back up. Many of these people were gruff and unfriendly, not acknowledging a greeting, not even looking at another hiker (which is drastically different from what you encounter much farther down the trail, where other hikers and backpackers eagerly share information). I finally got to the top, very chilled, exhausted, sweaty, and sore -- I had done it, 18 miles, down to the river and back up in a day, the trip the Park Service stringently warns against (mainly because too many amateurs try it without having a clue what they're getting into). Even from the top of the rim, I still couldn't raise Tim on the walkie-talkie.

Back at the car, I changed my dust-clogged and sweat-soaked T-shirt for a clean one, put on a sweatshirt (it was cold outside!), then removed my hiking boots. My feet seemed to let out a sigh of relief. I peeled off the two layers of socks (ewwwww) and put on clean socks and comfortable tennis shoes. Then I took some pages from the METAL SWARM galleys I was proofreading, and went to the Bright Angel Lodge to wait. Tim showed up an hour later, tired but exhilarated at what we had done. No disaster had happened to him, but the winding canyons had simply blocked the radio signal. I had done the "impossible" loop hike in 9.5 hours, Tim had done it in 10.5.

We had a pizza dinner, returned to the hotel and its blessed (and unoccupied) hot tub for a soak. Tomorrow, we can leave at a comfortable time to begin the drive home. We're going as far as Albuquerque, where we'll stay with my good friend and coauthor Doug Beason (we wrote ILL WIND and several other novels together in the 1990s).

For now, it's time to get a good night's sleep.

-- KJA

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