Saturday, November 08, 2008

Do you dare hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?

Just got back from a wonderful trip with my wife to the Grand Canyon. We arrived on Friday, October 31, 2008. Hiked down the South Kaibab trail to the river on Saturday, spent two nights camping at the bottom of the canyon, then hiked back up the Bright Angel trail on Monday, November 3. When we did this together over a decade ago, we hiked down one day, and back up the next. This time, we spent two nights at the bottom, although on our "day off" at the bottom, we took two hikes for a total of five or six miles.

This is a short note about our experience for the benefit of anybody else who might be considering such a trip. I'm writing especially for folks who have never done a big hike like this, and most especially for other middle-aged folks. Folks who do this sort of thing all the time and already know what they're doing don't need to read this, because they're the source of most of the info I'm passing on here.

The way up is not the same as the way down
Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back is a pretty serious physical challenge. And it's an unusual hiking challenge, in that, most of the time, when you visit a state or national park and go hiking, you go up first, and then down, but in the Grand Canyon, you go down first and it seems deceptively easy. But then you have to get yourself back up and the challenge may be a bit of a surprise.

We used the two most commonly used trails from the South Rim: the South Kaibab to go down, and the Bright Angel to go back up. There are many other trails in the park, but these are the two that leave from the South Rim and take the hiker to the bridges that cross the river to the Phantom Ranch bunkhouse and the Bright Angel campground, where you will be spending at least one night unless you're crazy. The average walking distance of these trails is about 8 miles, and as you walk, you experience a change in altitude of nearly 5000 feet, almost a full mile down or up. How high is that? Well, the Empire State Building in New York City is about 1400 feet tall, to the top of the tower, so you could fit three Empire State Buildings into the canyon, one on top of the other, and you still wouldn't quite make it to the South Rim. But don't let that scare you too much. Hiking the trails in the Grand Canyon is not quite like walking up several hundred flights of stairs. The trails are steep at times, but overall, they're not as steep as the stairs in an office building.

The general practice seems to be to take the South Kaibab down, and the Bright Angel up, which is what we did. I used to think that this was because the South Kaibab is the harder, steeper trail, but I was set straight on that by an expert hiker that we met on our way down. He pointed out that the Bright Angel does indeed have a number of places that are pretty easy hiking, where the incline is pretty shallow. But precisely because of that, the other parts of the Bright Angel are more challenging than they would be if the trail had a consistent incline the whole way. And the most difficult part of the Bright Angel trail is at the top, which means that, if you're coming up from the river, you'll be doing the hardest part of the hike at a point when you're most tired. 

I would note also that descending presents some challenges that climbing doesn't. As you descend on the South Kaibab, you inevitably find yourself dropping heavily from one step on the trail to another, and all this can be pretty hard on your legs and knees. On the way down, we met an Australian couple who seemed to be savvy hikers. They were coming up the South Kaibab. The fellow said that he finds ascending easier than descending. Might be something to that.

Still, the usual practice (Kaibab down, Angel up) has other things to recommend it. 

At the time of our trip (first week of November) there was no water at all on the South Kaibab trail between the South Rim and the river. Two compost-toilet rest stops, but no water. The Bright Angel trail has (if I recall correctly) four rest stops (Pipe Creek beach, Indian Gardens, Three Mile and One-and-a-Half Mile) and there is water available about midway through the hike up, at Indian Gardens. We drank more water going up than going down. If we had decided to hike up South Kaibab, we would either have had to do with less water (not good - see below) or carry more water from the start (and water is heavy).

Another point in favor of the usual practice is that the South Kaibab tends to keep you walking along the ridges, rather than at the bottom of the canyons, and as a result, the views as you go down are more open. I don't want to say that the views on the South Kaibab are better than those on the Bright Angel trail, because if the view from the top were simply better, then heck, you could stay on the South Rim and skip the hike completely. But it's easier to appreciate the views on the South Kaibab when you're walking down and facing the views. Walking up the Bright Angel, it makes less of a direction which way you are looking.

One final point. There's no rule that says you have to take one path down and the other path back up. You could use the same trail both ways. But the views are quite different on the two trails, and it's really worth taking both trails just for the difference in views.

Smart hiking
When my wife and I made the same trek twelve years ago (when I was in my forties and not yet even joking about being an old man), I didn't do so well. I found the hike pretty challenging. My knees started to hurt pretty badly on the way down. And I was not in a great mood on the way up. Part of that had to do with the fact that, when we did this twelve years ago, somewhere a few miles from the summit on the way up, we ran into swarms of gnats that were very annoying. I finally put the netting part of the inside of my lightweight jacket over my head and got some relief, although I suppose I looked like an idiot, hiking up with my jacket covering my head. But even apart from the gnats, I wasn't in a great mood back then.

This time, I was in a good mood all the way down and all the way up. To be honest, I didn't expect that. I told myself beforehand that I expected to be miserable coming up and I was simply prepared to deal with the misery when it came. But I was never miserable, in fact, I was happy all the way down and up and had a smile on my face much of the time. I really enjoyed the hikes. How could this be? After all, I'm twelve years older and, um, twelve years heavier. And I'm prettier sure I'm not in better shape than I was back then.

I think the main difference is that we hiked smart this time. Well, my wife was pretty smart last time, drinking lots of water. She kept urging lots of water on me, and I accept her recollection that I refused it. I probably declined to drink as much water as I should have back then because I was afraid it would make me pee. I needn't have worried. 

I think there are several factors that made this experience a good one, and I recommend other inexperienced hikers to take these things to heart.

First, carry lots of water with you and drink it. When we left the South Rim to go down, I had about a half gallon of water with me: my Deuter hiker's bladder (similar to a Camelbak) was full and so was my Nalgene bottle. I gave away about 10 oz to another hiker who had run out of water near the bottom of the trek, and I still had a little water left in my Deuter bladder when we reached the bottom - but not much. On the way up, I started out with the same amount of water (half a gallon or so), and I refilled my hiking bladder and my bottle at Indian Gardens, half way up. When I reached the top, my bottle was empty but the Deuter bladder had at least a cup or cup and a half left. I would guess that, on the way up, I drank about three-quarters of a gallon of water. Note that we were hiking in early November. The sun was unrelenting on the way dow - there's almost no shade on a lot of the South Kaibab trail - but the temps were not higher than the middle or high 80s (Fahrenheit). In the warmer months, more water would be important.

Second, we supplemented the water with electrolytes. We put electrolyte powder into our Nalgene bottles, which makes the water into a kind of Gatorade substitute. We didn't put it into our hiking bladders because we were told the plastic in the bladders is more likely to retain the taste of the powder and that this might not be pleasant in the future.  So, in addition to drinking water with electrolyte powder mixed in, we ate electrolyte "gel shots" from time to time. I thought that the liquid packages (you suck the stuff out) were nasty, but the shots that came in cubes were reasonably tasty. You consume a shot then drink some water to wash it down.

Third, we paced ourselves prudently, that is, we pushed ourselves a little but not too hard. I generally felt that I was moving at a pace that took some effort but which I could sustain. There were places where I was breathing hard, but I never had to stop because I was completely breathless. 

Fourth, we stopped from time to time and elevated our legs. I don't remember doing this twelve years ago and I am sure it helped this time. We wanted to stop every hour and put our legs up for 10 minutes. We didn't stop quite that often but we did stop and put up our legs several times on the way down, and several times on the way up. The key here isn't simply stopping but putting your legs up as high over your head as you can. Really seems to help. I stopped fairly often to take photographs, as well, although I don't count these as rest stops, because I did not usually spend terribly long setting up the shot and taking it. Still, even a one-minute pause probably has some small benefit.

Fifth, we ate and snacked as we hiked. We stopped for lunch on both hikes, but we also snacked a lot - trail mix, apples, etc.

Sixth, we used hiking poles. I think I may have had a single wooden hiking stick twelve years ago, and I'm sure that's better than nothing. But the poles really do help, in a couple of ways. I used the poles, going up and going down, to shift some of the work from my legs to my arms, that is, going up, I'd plant the poles on below a step and then push myself up with my arms. (I found that worked better than putting the poles up first and then pulling, but whatever works for you is what you should do.) The other advantage of the poles is that they reduce the chance of a misstep that might cause you to twist your ankle or even fall. When the path got level, I put up the poles. But most of the time it wasn't level and I had the poles in my hands.

Seventh, as we walked, I made a conscious effort to relax the muscles in my legs whenever possible. I did a little reading about "chi walking" before we left and I adapted some of the principles of chi walking to our hiking. Hard to explain this, so perhaps you should read up a little on your own. It's as much mental as physical, but I am convinced it had some benefit. 

Eighth, my wife and I both had decent hiking shoes, and we wore good hiking socks with sock liners. I saw people hiking in ordinary canvas sneakers and in leather-soled dress shoes and I can't recommend either. On the other hand, I saw a number of experienced hikers wearing old-fashioned ankle-high hiking boots. That's what I wore twelve years ago. I still have those boots, they still fit, and I considered taking them. I think if we had intended to do any scrambling, I would have worn the hiking boots. But we stayed on the trails and I found that my Merrell hiking shoes were lighter and quite satisfactory. Here's a link to a good article that compares hiking shoes with boots, but I recommend that you visit the local outdoor specialist in your area and get help buying a good pair of hiking shoes with the proper fit. Reminds me of the scene in the movie Forrest Gump where Forrest and Bubba first enter camp in Vietnam and meet Lieutenant Dan. Says Lieutenant Dan: "Two standing orders in this platoon. One, take good care of your feet. Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin' yourself killed." Good advice for Vietnam and good advice for the Grand Canyon, too. If you think the second piece of advice is superfluous, check out the (thick) book entitled Death in the Canyon. If you're the easily discouraged type, you might want to read it after you complete your hiking adventure.

Ninth, pack as light as possible - but not lighter. We paid to have a mule carry our tent and other camping equipment down and two days later to bring the same stuff back up. That saved us from having to carry 30 lbs down and up. We tried to keep our backpacks as light as we could, but we still each carried a fair load. In addition to my clothes, broad-brimmed but lightweight hiking hat and hiking poles, I carried: half a gallon of water (that's over 4 lbs right there), a lightweight windbreaker, lunch and snacks and electrolyte gel shots, a change of socks, a small amount of medicine, gloves, sunglasses, my wallet, cell phone (don't ask why - it was useless), some hiking maps and pamphlets, toothbrush and razor, a moderately-serious Swiss Army knife, some twine, a small but powerful flashlight and an extra set of batteries for it, a small set of Pentax binoculars, and a head net to use in case of gnat attack. My wife carried a similar load, skipping wallet and cell phone, but adding duct tape, moleskin and a small first aid kit. I also carried my Pentax K20D camera with battery grip and two lenses: a Sigma 10-20 ultrawide and a Sigma 17-70 medium telephoto. Next time, I'll leave the 17-70 at the top of the canyon and just take the ultrawide. If you use a compact fixed-lens camera, you can save yourself a lot of weight. Note that I say, "pack as light as possible but not lighter." For most folks the easiest way to cut weight is by carrying less water. Don't do it! Carry that water. And remember the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. The unlikely is not the impossible. And sometimes, emergencies occur. Next time, I think I'll throw an Ace bandage in my pack as well. 

Tenth, and finally, I used modest doses of pain relievers as preventive medicine. I was cautious about this and had talked about it with my doctor beforehand. I'm not generally supposed to take Ibuprofen because I have had some internal bleeding in the (distant) past. I took just one dose of Advil at the start of each hike. On the hike up, in the middle of the hike, I think I took a couple of Tylenol. These pills were perhaps the least important factors in my success. We are thinking of going back next year and, if I can lose a little weight before our next attempt, I may dispense with the pills altogether and see how I fare. Even if you don't take anything prophylactically, I do think it's a prudent thing to carry some normal pain relievers with you on the hike, just in case you do need them.

I should add that I had made a small effort to prepare for the trip by walking more in the months prior to our trip and by occasionally walking up and down stairs in office buildings. I will be honest: the preparation I took doesn't deserve to be called "training." But there's no question that, the fitter you are, the better you'll do.

So, can you hike the Grand Canyon?
Even if you don't feel up to hiking all the way down and all the way back up, I urge you to walk down into the canyon at least a little ways. Even if you only walk down the trail for 15-20 minutes, you'll get a different view of the canyon once you're below the rim than the view you get from up above. It's worth it. 

As for going all the way down and all the way back up, it should be obvious that hiking the Grand Canyon is not for the very old or the very young, or for the disabled, or for those who have medical conditions that make it unwise to take the kind of risks involved in this sort of activity. Do remember that the interior of the Grand Canyon is as close to true wilderness as the Park Service can make it and even with the trails, it's a pretty hostile environment in lots of ways. If you have a heart attack on the trail or break your leg, emergency response time is going to be measured in hours rather than minutes. It's also perhaps not going to appeal to a lot of adults who are normally active back at home but just not up to this particular challenge. If you're a nicotine fiend, or you are really overweight, or you have fallen arches or really weak ankles or you can't stand to be in the sun, or you're really not into walking all day, save yourself some heartache. You can ride a mule down, which eliminates most of the effort, although not all the pain. (Those saddles are not made for comfort.) Or stay at the top and just look.

(Even if you're young, slim, and in really good shape, well, you can still run into problems on the trail, but I'm not talking to you.)

What about the not-so-young or not-in-such-good shape group? I am inclined to think that anybody who is capable of talking a normal walk in the neighborhood of four or five miles and who can walk up and down, say, 10 flights of stairs in an office building, can handle the Grand Canyon, especially if they follow the recommendations I gave above about water, food, weight, pace, rest, etc. And to those recommendations, I would add two more. Be prepared mentally as well as materially. Expect the hikes to be long and hard, then you won't be disturbed or disappointed when you discover that, in fact, they are. And resolve to stay in a good mood and enjoy yourself no matter what happens. You are in one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on the planet. Be happy!

And if you can make it down and back up, well, you will have reason to feel proud of yourself. The ranger down at Phantom Ranch told us that 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon National Park every year, but only one-fifth of one percent of them make it to the bottom and back up.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.