What began as a “what if” question among friends, became reality last month. My nearest and dearest camping women had organized a backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon, trekking from the south Rim to the North, complete with back country reservations at the only campsites in the Canyon. Our group of 11 included seasoned back packers (8) and some backpacking virgins (3). I include myself in the latter group, having backpacked nearly 4 decades ago. Sensing that my entire being was very different than 40 years ago, I felt safe being so labeled.
As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Actually, before ever taking the first step on the Bright Angel trail, we prepped and trained for this event for many months. In order to reserve a group camping trip, one needs to apply to the rangers about 4 months in advance. Our group had selected later in October for this adventure, primarily for fear that earlier in the fall might be too hot for our Floridian bodies! We received the go ahead for 10/22/16 back in June of 2016. That set the ball in motion to get ready for the trip.
The entire trek is 22 miles and some would say it can be completed in one day or even two. Our group elected to take the scenic route, and planned to camp 3 nights in the canyon, with one night on each rim.
What does one need to do to get ready? There is the gear of course. Packs, tents, cooking apparatus, sleeping bag/pads/pillows PLUS food and water. One of my other camping friends had a complete storage bin filled with excellent gear that she generously lent to us. Her guidance was invaluable and we took most of what she offered!
I did not even have a pair of boots that I would wear, so that began another level of research. I found a pair that I liked on eBay; with the receipt of the boots, it was time to start training. I also bought a book, The Endurance Athlete, to get a feel for what the training regime needed to look like. I read the chapters on trekking with backpacks, once. I could not bear to revisit those chapters, already feeling like I was behind on my regime and would never catch up. Thankfully, I had completed a tough hike last year with one of my daughters; The Grouse Grind. The Grind is a 75 minute climb up the side of a mountain, at a ski resort. Who ever thought it would be more fun to hike than to take the gondola? Apparently, the residents of Vancouver do! The “Grind” is a part of their weekly workout routine and the trail was well marked, well-traveled and a bit more populated than I would have expected.
I crawled up the Grind even though it was only 75 minutes. It did give me a great point of reference for the R2R, so I felt that I knew what the training needed to include, Endurance Athlete guide aside.
I live close to the Tampa Convention Center, and started my training there. I loaded a daypack with a 10 pound weight in it. I climbed three sets of stairs on the West side of the TCC, a total of 40 steps. I completed 10 loops and called it a day. Since I had inkling that the pack weight would be greater than 10 pounds, I smartly began to add weight to my day pack and then increased the loops. At the end of the 60 day “get ready” period, my GC group was doing over 30 pounds and 30 loops per work out.
We also added hours of training in our loaded up, full size backpacks. In an attempt to simulate the trail conditions, we packed our gear, food water and clothing into our actual packs. Then added a weight or ten to make it even more authentic. On average, we would walk around Tampa for about 2 hours to get used to carrying fully weighted packs. While the trail down is straight down and the trail up is straight up, we were not able to fully replicate those conditions into our training regimen; we knew we were going to face tougher conditions, and anticipated that cooler, drier weather would carry us through.
My group packed up and headed to Phoenix a few days early, to take in the scenery and explore the West. We added a warm up hike on Camelback Mountain to keep our legs in shape for the big day.
The rest of the group assembled on the South Rim, and enjoyed seeing the GC at sunset, some of us, for the very first time. Words cannot convey the breathtaking views from the South Rim. And photos fall far short as well. Just know that there is a reason the Grand Canyon is one of the 7 wonders of the world.
The next day we packed up, and somehow those packs were even heavier than planned. All of those last minute additions, like a paperback book, binoculars, Gatorade powder and an extra shirt added far more than the ounces we had tallied.
Our first day was a shorter hike, about 5 miles from the south rim to Indian Garden campground. I felt very comfortable in my pack. I also was grateful to have heeded the suggestion to obtain hiking poles. I was cautioned about how hard going down the trail would be on my knees and thighs. I literally used the poles on every step and never felt fatigued in those areas. The rest of my body was truly fatigued and happily so.
Arriving at Indian Gardens, a bit of an oasis in the dry desert that is the Grand Canyon, the campground is adjacent to a good size stream. In fact, all three of our in -Canyon sites were adjacent to flowing water; it made for a great footbath and white noise for sleeping.
We stopped here rather than going to the very bottom on the first day so that we could witness the sunset over the canyon, while in the canyon. There is a flat path, about 1.5 miles from the campground out to Plateau Point, which provided an unforgettable vantage point for that memorable sunset.
(I want to go on record as saying, at first, I was not in favor of this intermediate stop at Indian Gardens. It was a logistical matter for me: if you were to go straight to the bottom, mules would carry your pack all the way down. I had signed up for this service and was really looking forward to it! Alas, I was outvoted and resigned myself to carrying my pack for the duration.)
Our second day was much like the first, although with 1/10th the number of tourists! The trail was quiet and majestic as we wound our way deeper into the canyon and its branches. We arrived at Phantom Ranch, a property that is listed in the National Historic Register. One can stay in a cabin or a bunk house and take a mule to this “resort.”
We were camping close by and made the most of it. Well, we really did! See, they serve wine, beer and lemonade at the Phantom Ranch until 4 pm! Our group made sure there were only empties for the mules to carry out.
We sent postcards that are postmarked “carried by mules from Phantom Ranch.” I sent them to my family and friends, if only I could remember their addresses. Naturally, there was a USPS zip code book next to the post card station, should you need to look up the zip!
Our third hike was much like the first two. Except that it stormed that third night. Imagine the sound of thunder echoing through the Grand Canyon. After the storm cleared, the star gazing was better than ever. I never saw the Milky Way until last month! The sky was awash in stars, against a solidly black backdrop. Simply magnificent.
The last day, we awoke to cooler temperatures, with cloud cover floating throughout the canyon. It was a good omen as we began what would prove to be the toughest hiking day, ever! On this hike, we had to cover about 7 miles and gain about 4,000 Feet in attitude. I thought I was prepared based on our training, and the great warm up the first three days had provided. And, my resolve was strong and steady, enhanced by knowing that I could do the Grouse Grind, why not this last leg?
My boyfriend Jim was giving me a pep talk as we left camp that morning. He said there was a good chance his very dear friend Keith might offer to carry my pack on this leg of the hike. I replied that if that were true, no offense to him, but I would be marrying Keith!
Well, it all worked out fine, because it had to. It’s not really feasible to go back to the south rim, and the group was headed to the north rim. Onward, as best you can one step at a time.
Throughout the days before, I really did not concern myself with the daunting last day. I simply stayed in the moment of each day and completed that hike. I knew the last day would be a huge day and I accepted it. Not that I was celebrating the pain after hours in the pack, I just knew that every step forward was one closer to the goal.
True to Jim’s prediction, Keith came back down the trail, about 75% of the way to the top. He dropped his pack up the trail and circled back to carry my pack for about 45 minutes. He then continued to the edge of the north rim, and returned to help me in the last mile. He is a saint! And a friend for life. We all finished the trail together and high fived one another.
At the north rim, our group of 11 camped out for one last night together. We debriefed about the last day and all concluded it was really tough. It took us about 7 hours to reach the north rim, and with that leg behind us, we were now R2R hikers!