As we neared the canyon’s North Rim, we both felt drawn to have a look, however, I did not have a great desire to go down. It’s a 29-mile round trip with an altitude gain and loss of close to 13,000 feet. But knowing we had no chance of getting an overnight permit, I wasn’t worried. We would take a nice hike, see the pretty part, then get on the plane for home.
At first, things were going my way—no permits available—then something I’d said that morning came back to get me: We could head down this afternoon, do the steep part in the light and walk the “flats” at night, problem solved. We would rest along the way, walk with our headlamps at night and not take sleeping bags or a tent. We would carry only food and water and travel as day hikers.
What was I thinking? Big brother always wins.
We left the North Kaibab trailhead at 5:30 p.m. with light packs. The first rest stop with toilets and water is 1.7 miles down, where the mules turn around.
After a short rest and supper we descend through a 40-foot tunnel cut through rock and a long series of switchbacks. This is the most improved, beautiful, awe-inspiring trail I’ve ever been on. You step through several different strata as you descend and there are interpretive signs for each layer.
The trail revetments—the facings used along the edge of the trail—are often built with hewn stone and mortar, with long sections carved out of near vertical faces. I alternate between greeting returning hikers, gawking at the view, and marveling at all this work. Half way down the Kaibab canyon, a steel bridge arches over the ravine 150 ft. long in a seemingly impossible place to build.
All along the way people are coming up past us, some bearing up, some grim, some throwing up. We have a long conversation with a young man bringing up the rear of his 12-man group. He is experienced and he is resting with their slowest man. Ego problems and the need to keep up are the killers. Three to five people are being rescued each day from the canyon. You need to know and listen to your body. We are feeling it.
Two thirds of the way down, near Roaring Springs, is a power house, with a Pelton wheel producing electricity for the lodge. Three lines soar up 5,000 feet to a single set of poles that feed the lodge and park headquarters.
We hike down as the sun sets early behind the rim. It will stay light quite a while longer than usual due to our place deep in the canyon. Just as the light is about to fade completely, we come to an unmanned ranger station with a water spigot and table. Fill up, sit and rest, eat a bit—this rhythm will continue until we finish. I have a feeling about this place, a homey feeling, comfortable, and through this walk it will remain with me, a touchstone.
After a longer rest than usual, we move on, stopping to don our headlamps within a half mile. About a mile later we come to the second bridge, I peer over the edge for an unsatisfying myopic view of the river. We follow along on the south side and while the river’s descent remains constant, ours does not. Fatigue is just beginning. Far off and above us, the lodge on the South Rim floats in the warm air some 20 miles away.
We pass through Cottonwood Camp at 9:30 p.m. A group is setting up for the night and others are already down. By 10:30 p.m., three lights we’ve been watching approach, held by three tired and anxious young men who want to know how far to Cottonwood. Now the trail is empty. From Cottonwood Camp, it is eight miles to Phantom Ranch, and seven to the river.
A single set of eyes just off the trail is staring at me, a young coyote. He does not run as we go by. More eyes prove to be mule deer. We have shifted into a quiet march. It must be 85 to 90° down here, and all looks very much the same.
By 11 p.m. we notice the opposite canyon wall is close enough to make out and it is shear. Suddenly the trail is paved with stone and a stone wall supports it down to the river bed. We don’t say anything yet, thinking we must be close.
Another steel bridge is crossed. It seems we are turning left for an hour, I think of the Labyrinth. A gleaming bridge comes into view. Some part of me is impressed, must be the part that is awake. This bridge is brand new. We cross but in a quarter mile I blow up! Cussing and fuming, I let it all out. My turn-around time came and went hours ago.
It doesn’t take long. I’m chilled don’t have the energy for an extended rant. John waits patiently. He remarks on most of what I’ve been thinking and then we are quiet. Finally he asks to go on ahead for 15 minutes. I agree and lean against the wall and switch off my lamp, take a drink and wait in the dark, have a calm quiet time to think and pray.
John is back within 20 minutes and plops down next to me. We say nothing for a while. It’s 1:30 a.m. Quietly I tell my brother I need to head back. If the river is half a mile away, that’s OK. First I find a way down and wash up a bit.
As soon as we are off it feels right. We have been walking for eight hours and will need all we have left to get out.
I love my brother. As boys I thought we were opposites, but age or perception has brought us together. In our debriefing later at the ranger’s office, we learn we were just half a mile from the river.
Now my goal is retracing our steps to Cottonwood and an hour’s rest on a bench I spied there on the way through. Other than short rests, our only break was stopping to photograph a large scorpion on the trail. The miles dragged on until a creek crossing told me we were almost back to the campground.
Turning round and round on that bench for an hour, passing out finally and waking up shaking, it was no blissful interlude.
“John, you ready?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
Stiff legged, we trip past what I imagine to be blissful campers. It seems to take miles to warm up. Next stop, the unmanned ranger station. It’s 3 a.m.
I’ve been nauseous, not surprising, and in looking for a place to find relief I’m drawn to the “house.” Past the private property sign a white door beckons, closer now I can make out a public rest room. I rush into the cleanest rest room of the trip. It’s warm, with a sink and towels. In my grogged-out state, it lifts my spirit.
Back outside the moon is rising. I hurry over to where John is resting to share my good feeling. Together our spirits rise with the quarter moon. We have 6,000 feet to climb in the next five miles, but it feels doable, with lots of breaks.
Back at Roaring Springs, our lamps are packed away while we rest and listen to the canyon wake up. Soon after we start up again. The first hikers zoom down past us trying to beat the heat. We realize we are enjoying our climb. Color has returned with the light. We are still tired but that’s OK. Half way up we are met by the remnant of the round-trip boys from the South Rim. This morning there are three left of the 12. I really hope they don’t bonk.
At half past noon the trailhead is in sight. It’s been 17 hours.
Sometimes a brother needs a push, thank you.