Life is about trying.
Easy or difficult, a smooth path or a journey strewn with obstacles, there are no guarantees. We must try or never know what could have been.
I first learned that lesson from my Grandfather when he drove my young sister and me up the hill to his house every Sunday for dinner, chanting “I think we can, I think we can!” as his old Buick inched up Pill Hill in Rochester, Minnesota. (We always made it to the top.)
Thirty years later, I learned that lesson from my Mother when she counseled me not to walk away from the Bar Exam in Albuquerque, NM after the first of three grueling days of testing. “You don’t know if you’ll pass,” she said, “but you certainly will know that you failed if you don’t try.” (I stayed and I passed!)
Now at 63, I learned that lesson once again. I hiked down and up the Grand Canyon, telling myself “I think I can, I think I can.” (I did, with the help of an angel.)
Reservations were made 13 months in advance for a bunkbed at the popular Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. At the time, I didn’t give it a second thought. As this adventure drew near, my hiking partner decided to cancel, and my doubts crept in.
Could I scale the 4,380-foot elevation drop from the rim to the bottom and back out? A sign on the South Kaibab trail warns hikers: “Hiking down is a choice; hiking back up is not optional.”
I enjoy walking city streets and flat paths, and I consider myself of average weight and fitness for a newly-minted senior citizen.
I’ve been to the Grand Canyon many times, as a child and then again with my own children and, most recently, with my grandchild. The splendid sunset from the South Rim is incomparable anywhere else in the world, but never have I considered hiking down and up myself.
If I didn’t try now, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t get another chance.
I didn’t spend weeks or months preparing. Instead, I decided to crowdsource among friends on Facebook for ideas. Walking sticks to steady me, good hiking boots that were well-worn, a headlamp in case I was out on the trail after dark, moleskin for the inevitable blisters, an emergency blanket to keep me warm, a whistle if I fell and needed to summon help, and water. Carry plenty of water.
The night before my descent, I slept like a baby at the historic Bright Angel Lodge. I didn’t have butterflies or any second thoughts. “I can do this!”
The next morning, the young man at the front desk told me about his experience “slipping and sliding” down the South Kaibab Trail — the trail I was set to embark on after breakfast! The waitress who served me a hearty meal of eggs, hashbrowns and bacon at the Harvey House Cafe told me she had tried to hike down but turned around when she realized how difficult it was. She took the day off from waitressing the following day because her legs were still wobbly. Both these young people were in their late 20s – early 30s. Uh oh!
I waited alone for the bus to take me to the trailhead, with the butterflies beginning to stir. At 8:30 AM I checked my backpack one last time, clicked my walking sticks together, and started down the South Kaibab Trail.
The day was sunny and the Grand Canyon looked just like every postcard I’ve ever seen – perfect! The South Kaibab Trail (7.1 miles) was all down hill and appeared easy to negotiate. No problem!
Nearly everyone I passed on the trail asked me if I was hiking alone. Although my first step was taken solo, I never felt alone on the trail. There were people of all ages with me going in both directions; everyone watching out for each other.
My notion of a peaceful, meditative hike was promptly discarded when I realized the trail was narrow, rocky and dangerous in many spots. My full attention was needed for nearly every step of the way.
Months earlier a woman let her concentration slip for a moment, and it cost her, her life. She politely stepped aside for a hiker to pass her on a ledge, and she fell 300 feet to her death at Ooh Ahh Point.
Since I was probably one of the slowest hikers, I was frequently stepping aside as hikers approached from either direction. I never forgot where the edge was, choosing to step to the inside when possible.
Halfway down the South Kaibab Trail, I was feeling strong and confident. When I saw this sign, I had no doubts that I would succeed. I certainly didn’t think about turning back and climbing out.
The temps rose as I continued down. First, I took off my outer shell, then took off my inner jacket and scarf, and I sipped my water.
I stopped to rest and ate a protein power bar for energy even though I wasn’t hungry. Someone mentioned that it’s important to eat when drinking water because too much water can throw a hiker’s electrolytes off kilter.
I learned so much from my fellow hikers. I was so thirsty!
A ranger approached me. He was hiking up as I was headed down. He called out to me “You must be Lora!” The women hikers I had shared some of the trail with earlier must have alerted him to my solo hike. He asked if I was OK. I told him I was thirsty and mistakenly thought that I could refill my 48 oz bottle along the way. Although there is potable water on the Bright Angel Trail, there’s none on the South Kaibab Trail.
He offered me some of his water but I refused, telling him that he must save it for his long hike up the trail. Imagine having to commute to work on the South Kaibab Trail! Thankfully, they don’t do it every day, but spend 4 or 5 days down in the bottom and 3 days up on top. You’ll never see overweight rangers or other Park Service employees at the Grand Canyon. They get a lot of exercise!
The ranger convinced me that he regularly carries extra water and wouldn’t need it. In fact, it would “lighten his load” if I took some. So I did, and then told him I felt refreshed after taking a deep swig. He reassured me that Phantom Ranch wasn’t far beyond the Colorado River.
And then I saw it – the Colorado River.
It wasn’t much further, but distances can be deceiving!
I was tired but not hurting anywhere. My feet, legs and back all seemed to be working just fine.
The most arduous part of the hike down on that first day had been the strong winds. At one point, I had to stop in my tracks for a few minutes to brace against the wind; it was simply too strong to continue hiking.
I was very thankful for my walking sticks. They kept me upright the whole day. I passed athletes running in both directions (crazy people are everywhere) but I took it nice and slow and never lost my step going down.
Crossing the Colorado River in the late afternoon felt like a huge achievement, until I realized Phantom Ranch was somewhere beyond, not sure how much further. I was really tired. The National Park Service brochure estimates the hike down the South Kaibab Trail is 4-5 hours, but for me, it was 9-10 hours. Nevermind, it wasn’t a race and I was feeling really good.
Since I arrived later than everyone else, I had a top bunk in the cabin shared with 9 other women. We all sat around sharing stories of our day; fortunately they were all positive.
When I took my boots and socks off, I saw the blisters. The skin on the tip of one toe completely fell off. I thought it was strange that my feet didn’t hurt during the day. I didn’t feel any blisters forming, and they didn’t really hurt now.
At dinner in the main mess hall, I sat next to the semi-retired attorney from Philadelphia with whom I’d shared part of the trail. She bought wine and beer for everyone in our group and then whispered to me that she was celebrating her 81st birthday. Further down the table, a girl (10- 12?) was also celebrating a birthday with her family. The staff brought out a birthday cake with candles, and we all sang “Happy Birthday”.
The stars in the sky that night were the brightest I’ve ever seen because it’s so dark at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When I climbed into my bunk, my legs were cramping with currents of electricity. I took some Tylenol and was out like a light before the cabin lights were turned off. The next morning, we heard the wake-up knock at 4:30 AM on our door announcing “5 AM breakfast”. It was still dark outside, and I wasn’t interested in eating at 5 AM!*!*!*! So I stayed in bed while most of the other women got up and dressed magically without turning on the lights.
With my flashlight on, I followed the path to the main hall about 5:30 AM and waited outside with everyone else while staff checked to see if there had been any cancellations. I wanted to spend a second night at Phantom Ranch but no such luck!
After breakfast, I headed out about 7:00 AM to climb the Bright Angel Trail, about 10 miles to the top. I’d been told the hike down on the South Kaibab Trail was more difficult because of the steep descent. My feet were ready, the blisters covered with moleskin.
The Colorado River mesmerized me that morning, I didn’t want to leave it. I stopped every few feet to take another photo with my phone/camera, and pretended I was one of the early indigenous peoples who saw this mighty river hundreds of years ago. There truly is a life force in nature – the Colorado River is my proof.
When I crossed it, knowing this is probably the last time I’ll ever see it so intimately, I said a quiet prayer of thanks.
Then the climb out began. It was another perfect day, with less wind and no aches or pains. I didn’t even feel my blisters. Strange!
Honestly, the Bright Angel Trail is easier even though it’s a good cardiovascular workout. I wasn’t in a race, so I stopped and rested whenever I felt the need. My goal was to make it to the top before dark, before 6:30 PM.
There were streams to cross, and at one point I stopped because I thought I’d lost the trail. Many hikers passed me in both directions. I spent the day alone, but never alone … really.
Everyone who passed had something positive to share with me, and words of encouragement. I don’t know whether I looked old and tired, but I certainly didn’t feel it. I met young people hiking rim to rim (IN A SINGLE DAY!) and others hiking for the pure pleasure of being in nature. I saw riders on horseback, preferring blisters on their butts rather than their feet, I suppose.
The hours ticked on. About 1 PM, I realized I probably wouldn’t make it to the top before dark because I’d been following my progress on my map. Every switchback led me closer to my goal.
A friend had warned me not to look up, just look back down the trail I’d traversed. That was very good advice.
Then at about 3 miles from the top, my exhaustion set in. I didn’t feel any pain, but I felt very, very tired.
The trail gradient most of the day had been “manageable” for me, but as I got closer to the top, it became steeper and steeper, almost like climbing a difficult staircase without the stairs or railings.
I started moving slower and slower.
At sundown I thought to myself, “maybe I’ll be stuck on the trail tonight, maybe I can’t make it to the top.”
Then my grandfather’s message came to mind – “I think I can, I think I can.”
And I remembered my mother’s encouragement during my State Bar exam. And I told myself, “step by step.”
A few moments later I saw a young woman (early 40s?) walking down the trail towards me. She looked so energetic and full of bounce.
She walked up to me and said, “I passed those guys ahead of you on the trail and they told me that you’re one bad ass lady!” I didn’t know how to respond, I was too tired to speak. She asked me how I felt, and I told her I was tired. She said she was headed down the trail a bit to refill her bottle with water, but said she would carry my backpack for me when she returned.
Annette turned out to be the head housekeeper at the Bright Angel Lodge where she has worked for 20+ years. I’m sure she could have hiked the final 1.5 miles up the trail in less than an hour, but she stayed with me for the next 2 hours, shining her flashlight ahead on the trail. I wore my headlamp, and had a flashlight too. We walked slowly, step by step, talking about family, about our youth (her father was a florist and had 12 kids … they visited national parks in their stationwagon every summer). I tripped once, and had difficulty breathing. I frequently stopped to catch my breath. Annette never left my side. We finally reached the top about 8:00 PM —- thirteen hours, ten miles, and nearly 5,000 feet.
Annette was my angel. Maybe I could have climbed out on my own, probably in tears from exhaustion, but I know Annette’s conversation and encouragement made the final ascent memorable and safe for me. And no tears! I’ll never forget her. My singular regret is that I never got her picture.
The next morning, I made a donation to the Grand Canyon Association in Annette’s name. If you want the beauty of nature to be available for your children and grandchildren, I encourage you to consider making a donation too. I heard stories about shrinking federal funds for the Grand Canyon and our other federal lands. They are relying more heavily now on this nonprofit for basic research, trail maintenance and education.