What was the best part of the trip
A couple months ago I met a fascinating girl through Kelleher International who is passionate about climbing and backpacking. She possesses the cardiovascular fitness of an Olympic marathoner and climbs with ease and grace while burdened with a 25+ pound backpack. Her name is Renea. She showed me some cool photographs taken during her eight trips to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and other treks to beautiful locations throughout Colorado and Arizona. While I have rafted from end to end through the Grand Canyon and, back when it was legal, landed my helicopter at the bottom and flew through it countless times in various aircraft, I have never hiked down to the bottom and back out. Renea told me about Phantom Ranch, and while I had heard about this place since I was a small child, I don’t know many people who’ve actually been there. Millions of tourists visit the Grand Canyon every year, the vast majority of them only walk to the edge and look down. Fewer than 5% of Grand Canyon visitors actually walk even a few steps down into it and only a fraction of 1% trek all the way to the bottom. With this in mind, Renea and I decided to go about organizing a two-person expedition together for Valentine's Day.
I was excited all week looking forward to this pack trip. We drove up the evening before and stayed in a small cabin not too far from the El Tovar Hotel on the South rim. In the morning we made a final check of gear before driving to a parking lot where we would take a shuttle bus to the Kaibab trail-head. There was a foot of snow on the ground at the top of the trail-head as we donned our ice cleats and headed over the edge. I expected it to be scenic but still I was stunned by the indescribable beauty in every direction as we headed down that pure white ribbon of snow and ice. For the first mile or so we encountered a number of hikers without packs who would only be walking down to the first scenic overview called Ooh-Aah point.
Within 2 miles we had descended 2000 of the 5100 feet and our snow-covered trail had turned to mud. We stood aside as two strings of pack mules passed by us on their way up, one of them carrying tourists and the other carrying compacted trash out of the bottom from Phantom Ranch. The trail is very clearly marked and it would be impossible for one to get lost. From time to time I had to stop and just look around, trying to take it all in. It was like being on another planet as we descended deeper and deeper into the Earth’s crust. About 5 miles down the trail, having descended about 4000 feet in elevation, the Colorado River came into view for the first time. There were very few people on the trail that far down and the majority of the time we were alone in one of the most spectacular places on earth. 6 miles in, my knees had taken a pounding from stepping down off ledge after ledge on a trail engineered more for mules than human beings. I could almost taste the first ice cold beer of the day waiting for me at the bottom. It was Valentine’s Day and Renea gave every hiker we came across a cheery greeting and she told me some interesting stories about past trips as well.
On our first morning in the bottom of the canyon we slept in late and did a short day hike along the Colorado River where we had lunch and spent a lazy afternoon before returning to Phantom Ranch for cold beer and a farewell evening dinner. The 25 or so people at the ranch that night were from all over the world. Many of them had been there several times and very few were from Arizona. An interesting bunch to be sure and the people who had hiked down there looked upon the mule riders with a mild level of disdain. The oldest hiker was a 71-year-old woman who had carried her own pack and had been to Phantom Ranch five times before. Women hikers outnumbered the men.
Up at 6:30 AM on our final morning, we disposed of everything possible to lighten our burden on the way up, ate a hearty breakfast, shouldered our packs, and headed back up the Kaibab Trail. The initial ascent is steep and within the first mile we were 1500 feet above the river and amazingly, I felt pretty good. I read on the Park Service website that most hikers are only able to average about 1 mph during the ascent. At that rate the 7.3 mile trip would take over 7 hours. But the further we went, the stronger I seemed to get so I picked up the pace. Our climbing poles made a huge difference for me on the way up as I used my upper body and arms to drive myself forward. We made it out of the canyon in three hours and 45 minutes. I consumed every bit of my water and I still had over 20 pounds on my back (I weighed our packs at the end). Not bad for an old man. Renea, whose pack weighed one pound more than mine, was in good cheer as always and after changing into some dry shirts we drove to the bar at the El Tovar Hotel for celebratory cocktails. I felt like the king of the world.
Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is not for the infirm, the elderly, or the very young. It doesn't require super-human abilities but one must be in pretty good shape to make that trek. The 5100 foot ascent in 7.3 miles carrying a pack is certainly a gut check. But it’s honestly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and I've done a lot of cool things in my life. Would I ever do it again? Hell yes! I can’t wait to do it again. What was the best part of the trip? It was Renea!!!
Thank you Matchmakers!