And so the day came and the adventure finally began
Laura and I stayed at El Tovar, the huge 100+ year old resort hotel built by Fred Harvey on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Originally built with 103 guest rooms and 21 bathrooms, now there are 70 some odd guest rooms, each with its own bathroom — a big improvement. Although I had made reservations months ago for the two nights before and the two nights after the hike, they couldn’t give us the same room for both stays, which was actually okay. It wasn’t as if we would be leaving our stuff in the room for the two nights we were hiking — not without paying for the room. Rather expensive way to go, especially since the bellman stored our luggage for free for us anyway.
The first two nights’ room was on the “Terrace” level, which at any other place would be called the basement. Except there is one level lower (at least) that really is the basement. Our room had two full sized windows that looked out to the main entry of the hotel, and yes, it had a bathroom of its own, complete with small black & white floor tiles and pedestal sink and not enough places to place or hang things.
We dined early, both of those first two nights in the Harvey House Cafe in the Bright Angel Lodge, about a quarter mile to the west of El Tovar. The Rim Trail, which overlooks the Canyon, was full of tourists speaking in many languages. This being January, it wasn’t packed as it would be in warmer months, but we still had to keep our eyes open to not bump into folks. People tend to just stop where they are when captured by the view. They have to try to comprehend the immensity– truly an impossibility — and to capture something of the grandeur in a photo. I was certainly guilty of stopping in my tracks, too.
I’m also already guilty of forgetting what we had for dinner. I remember the table we sat at, but darn. Food is not that high priority for me that I’ll necessarily remember what I ate. Mostly I want to enjoy the taste and that’s good enough for me. [later note: spaghetti & meatballs… so good I got it again the last night, second dinner was a chicken dish that was only okay because the chicken was dry].
I’ve already mentioned accidentally soaking my backpack that first day we were there, so I’ll move on to the night before our descent to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.
As per usual I couldn’t sleep, not the eve of a major life event, and not in a place I’m not used to, with all its strange noises, lights, and occasional people walking by just on the other side of the door. So that’s likely why I was awake to hear one not-so-strange and most unwelcome sound, which was that of a mouse chewing on something. I flashed a light that way but of course saw nothing (note to self: you never will see anything as small as a mouse on a mouse-colored carpet, across the room, by dim flashlight in the middle of the night, if you aren’t wearing glasses). Okay, maybe my imagination.
Of course that meant I now really couldn’t sleep. The second time I heard that noise I decided it wasn’t my imagination and even if it was I had better just move my pack from the floor to the tub in the bathroom. I figured if there actually was a mouse it wouldn’t bother making the big leap over the side of the tub.
When my head hit the pillow I was finally able to sleep. If there was a mouse, it would go to Laura’s pack and not mine, and she’s a deep enough sleeper that it wouldn’t wake her.
Hey, I was tired.
Monday morning, time to get on the trail
The next morning I discovered my pack had a hole chewed in the mesh that held dark chocolate Kisses in a plastic bag. The hole was about an inch in diameter. The plastic bag had not yet been breached. Laura’s pack had not been touched.
We packed the stuff that was staying and headed downstairs to El Tovar’s dining room for some grub, watching the trees bending with gale force winds under scudding clouds that soon began dumping sideways-falling snow. I ran outside at one point and snatched a photo of a brief break in the clouds that allowed the rising sun to bathe the canyon walls in orange glow. I ran back inside even faster, shivering. [Photos will be posted on Facebook after I get home and can use my office computer]
We had decided on Bright Angel Trail for both ways for a number of reasons, including that South Kaibab — the trail I’d taken down into the Canyon two times before — follows a ridge much of the way. Exposed, the wind would be brutal. We were told that South Kaibab was extremely muddy, too, but I don’t know why I paid any attention to that since it was extremely muddy before and we got down it just fine.
Wind or no, I don’t think if I do this hike again I’ll take Bright Angel either direction. It’s beautiful, but even in winter it’s got more people on it than I like. South Kaibab does have more steps built into the trail but I don’t know if that’s as bad a thing as I once thought. Seems to me there aren’t such prolonged distances of super steep on South Kaibab. The top 3 miles of Bright Angel is killer steep!
Later Monday morning — NOW we’re hitting the trail
We were weenies. We didn’t even get to the trail-head till 10 a.m. Even then it was bitter cold with gusts that came darn near to blowing me right off the icy path. Visions of sailing out and then down, oh, maybe a thousand feet or so flashed through my mind. Did I mention that there are no safety rails just about anywhere in the Grand Canyon? It’s part of the charm. Anyway, we wore crampons for secure footing (wonderful things, those) and we had our poles. I’m a believer in layers so I wore many layers (if I’d have gone off the trail maybe I’d have bounced my way down, unharmed) so I was actually comfortable temperature-wise. Even if I did look like a bag lady in winter. No disrespect meant towards bag ladies.
The trail was so steep at that point that it only required working our way down a few switchbacks before the cliff itself blocked the wind. All right! We were on our way! A year’s worth of planning and more and here we go!
Almost immediately we started meeting people who were coming up from Phantom Ranch. Ten miles and they were already at the Rim. The animals. We had traveled a whopping half a mile by then.
Going down was great until the last few miles before we reached the Colorado, when my right IT band made itself known, particularly at the point where it attaches outside at the knee. I thought I had worked that out through adjustments in posture and the way I moved my body, but no. Each time I stepped down and my weight transferred to my right leg, the ligaments or whatever at the outside of my knee felt like someone had taken a blowtorch to them. I kept telling myself it wasn’t an issue because the pain would go away quickly. Until it didn’t.
Fortunately we hit that long, long two mile stretch along the river that’s not super steep anywhere (though an amazing amount of ups and downs anyway for a river trail) and I was able to ignore the pain. We reached Phantom Ranch, supposedly just under 10 miles in trail descriptions but 13 miles by both Laura’s and my Fitbits, in 6 1/2 hours.
Let me tell you, it was hard waiting for the second seating dinner (stew) that night. We both crashed right after. In spite of sharing a dorm with Laura and eight other women (a group of friends, young, and very giggly), I fell asleep quickly and slept like a log.
The next day I was impressed at how my calves weren’t cramping as they had the first two times. Was it because South Kaibab trail has got so many steps vs Bright Angel, or was I was simply in better shape for it this time? Nah, more likely it was the tremendous amount of ibuprofen I ingested after the descent. Whichever, I pretended I didn’t feel my IT. I kept working the ibuprofen. I pretended it wasn’t way too soon to be smug about lack of pain.
So Tuesday was our break day at Phantom Ranch. After a yummy second-seating breakfast, Laura and I decided to take a short, easy hike to loosen up. We ended up going up a steep, not well maintained trail that goes to a lookout over the Ranch. Bad idea. The sets of tendons/ligaments on the outsides of both knees were stabbing me at every step, so we turned around and I managed to hobble back to the dorm. After a hot hot hot shower, I spent most of the rest of the day either laying on my bunk reading or sitting in the canteen/dining room reading. And counting the hours till the next dose of ibuprofen. By dinner I felt good as new.
Truth. I did feel good. The outhouse toilets are two-story solar powered composters and I was fine running up and down the stairs. Whoever invented ibuprofen is my hero.
Ladies and gentlemen: the second act
Next morning breakfast was at 5:30, first-seating. None of this lazy 7:00 second-seating stuff. Laura and I gobbled down our food like a pair of starving beasts, but before we could get our butts back to the dorm to get our stuff and hit the trail, we were treated to a talk by our server, whose name I unfortunately never caught.
Phantom Ranch, if my (admittedly faulty/selective) memory serves, has fourteen (or maybe it is seventeen) full-time, year-round employees who live and work down there at the bottom of the Canyon. Everything that can be packed in by mule – food, supplies, replacement parts — is packed down the Canyon by pack string. All the garbage and anything else that can be packed out by mule goes out the way it came in. The repairs and maintenance, plus cooking, cleaning, etc., is done by the staff that lives there. As far as I could tell, most everybody does a lot of everything.
Each meal is served by one person (maybe two sometimes but I only ever saw one). The first night we were there thirty-seven people (including me and Laura) enjoyed an excellent beef stew dinner, family style. Please pass the bowl, may I have the cornbread, who wants salad, is there any butter left?
The routine is the same whether breakfast or dinner (lunches aren’t served): Meal times are strict. You’ve paid in advance for the food and for the time you’ll eat it. When it’s your meal, you gather with the other hikers and river rafters at the (locked) canteen door, chatting, moaning about sore muscles, talking about the trail with friends and strangers. Something about being there erases social barriers. No conversations are private. If the words can be overheard then anyone can add their two cents. There’s no rule, it’s just what happens when you’re living in such close quarters.
Suddenly the dinner bell rings. The light over the door goes on and the door is opened. Out steps that meal’s server, who gives The Lecture Part 1 which pretty much goes like this: You’ll come in and give your reservation name and the number in your party. You’ll be told where to sit. At the end of the meal pass your plates, glasses, and utensils down to the end to be picked up by your wait person. You have about 45 minutes to eat. Wine and beer available on the honor system, pay your server before you leave that meal.
At the end, when most of the dishes have been sent down to the end, your server will speak again. Not so much Lecture Part 2 as a little chat. I’m not sure the servers have anything specific they’re supposed to say because it seemed this was time to share their thoughts on whatever a topic they chose, long as it was related to the Canyon and maybe Phantom Ranch.
No matter how full the room, the moment he or she opened her mouth all talk stopped. We listened intently. Sometimes it was a bit about the history of the place. One woman told us what I’ve told you above — how many people worked there, how long the longest had been there, that when they had days off and wanted to get to the rim, they hiked it.
A shortish, older, dark-skinned man with graying hair was our server for breakfast on the morning we left. Laura and I had rushed in a little late, so we missed hearing him introduce himself so I can’t share his name, more’s the pity. When he spoke I could barely understand his thick accent, so I really had to focus to get what he was saying. I know I missed some of it and probably misinterpreted much of it, but that’s not important. What was important was the whole concept of the spirituality of hiking the Canyon.
He explained that the Canyon was sacred, had been since prehistoric times — long before there was a Grand Canyon National Park, or a Phantom Ranch, or tourists. He said the Canyon wasn’t just steep cuts in rocks that people negotiated to get to the Ranch, but ancient oceans they passed through, seven of them. That we who hiked the Canyon were part of the sacredness of the place as we chatted and laughed our way down and then huffed and puffed our way up again.
He told us up again was part of the sacredness. Up again was the only way out. The only way. No one could do it for us. His last words, as he scrubbed his hands together and let us go, were: “Rejoice, rejoice, you have no choice.”
The little bit of laughter at that was uneasy. What he said gave me shivers. I felt blessed. And then he kicked us out so the staff could clean up and get ready for the second-seating.
Wednesday, 6 dark 30
We were on the trail. Our red hikers’ flashlights helped us avoid stumbling over the rocks. The moon was bright overhead but where we were going was mostly in blackest shadow that not even the silver reflected from high up the canyon walls could relieve. The temperature was mild, in the low 40s, cold enough to be glad of the layers and the gloves.
I hadn’t gone very far when I realized that I was fooling myself about the pain. It wasn’t gone. It was there and it was just as bad as it had been two days before. Going down even the mildest of descents already made me whimper. I kept reminding myself that we were ascending the Grand Canyon now, and it would mostly be up.
You’d be surprised how much down there is in up.
We shed our jackets where Pipe Creek hits the Colorado River, two miles or so from Phantom Ranch. The sky was grey now, bright enough to negotiate without supplemental lighting, which was good because the clip on my light wasn’t nearly as reliable as it could have been and it had dropped off of me several times.
We had forded the smallish stream four times, with me only getting one toe wet, by the time we the first steep climb out of Pipe Creek [note: I might be wrong as to its name — you’d think there would be detailed maps here but there don’t seem to be]. Energy-wise I was feeling pretty good. I was concerned about the ITBs but long as I was going up the pain was no problem. No problem I kept telling myself.
When we got to Indian Garden I took more ibuprofen but didn’t eat anything because it had only been three hours since breakfast. Laura said she wasn’t hungry either. Foolish me, breaking my own rules about making sure to eat on the trail. Foolish Laura, for taking my word for it being too soon to eat. In my defense, I did swallow more ibuprofen. And electrolytes. And Vit B-12 energy supplement. I washed it all down with about 8 oz of water. That’s a meal, isn’t it?
As we started up again we met our first hiker coming down headed for Phantom Ranch. I don’t know when he left the Rim, but I liked it that we’d met each other at the mid-point of the trail instead of down at the bottom. I was feeling kind of smug that at that point nobody from Phantom had caught up to us. Of course, it is not a race so who cares about those things. Besides, the hardest part was ahead of us and that’s where we’d be passed by anyone who’d come up on the Bright Angel.
The first half mile out from Indian Garden was not bad. My ITBs were definitely unhappy, though. And then we hit the tough part, where the switchbacks are, where the stairs are, and where steep is given a new meaning.
By the time we reached Three Mile Resthouse (three trail miles from the top) I was in agony. Not only were my ITBs hurting but so were the backs of my knees. And up into my thighs. But worst, and most scary for someone who (I suddenly and inconveniently remembered) had had hip surgery on a second hip — the one that was now stabbing me with pain each time I put weight on it — less than two years before.
Imagination can be a wonderful thing except when you use it the wrong way. I was finding it harder and harder to pretend I wasn’t hurting and easier to dream up the worst possible scenarios. Had I caused a stress fracture of my pelvis? Was my hip dislocating because of overuse to the point of abuse? Was I going to do myself serious, perhaps permanent damage? Would my legs just give out?
But there was always this to keep me going: Did I have any choice but to take one more step, and then another?
No, I had no choice, not one that was acceptable to me. Over and over I told myself, rejoice, rejoice, I have no choice.
When I was endurance racing my horses on those 100 milers, when I would be riding in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, maybe in the fog and wandering around off the trail (that happened), or maybe facing a short fence that needed to be only stepped over but my horse absolutely refused to go forward and the clock was ticking and I wondered if I’d have to ride back the 60 miles or so I’d already come (that happened), or when I gave my coat to a junior rider and ended up with hypothermia (that happened), or when I was in such pain that I believed I could not go on (that happened and was happening right now), I did go on because I believed I had no choice but to keep going.
Oh, all right, of course someone could rescue me on the trail at Grand Canyon. I had been rescued on endurance rides, too — sometimes that’s just what happens. But the belief I had to keep going had kept me going more often than not. The belief that I had no choice but to keep on keeping on.
We were less than three miles from the top and day-hikers were skipping and laughing their way down to Indian Gardens — one guy was running down the trail — but so what. Hikers we’d had breakfast with that morning, and who started out an hour or more after we did cruised on by up to the Rim, but so what. That was their hike and this was mine, and that was what mattered to me. My hike was to go on, step by step. I would make it to the top on my own two crummy legs, thank you very much. Yeah, I moaned. Sure, I groaned. I felt light-headed with pain (or maybe hunger, hmmm?). I felt nauseous at times. I feared my legs would not hold me up anymore and I would plunge down the cliff.
When I wasn’t whining, I was chanting. Rejoice. Rejoice. No choice. Rejoice.
Step. After. Step. After. Step.
Laura did not make fun of me. She says she was huffing and puffing and was dealing with fatigue and painful joints, and maybe so but I didn’t hear any complaints. I couldn’t hear anything over my own gasping for air.
It took forever, but we made it and Laura’s watch said 12:30. Wait — 6 1/2 hours from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim? That painful climb? It took us no less time to come up than to go down? How is that even possible?
There was no brass band. No welcome committee. No confetti. Laura thought she had a couple airplane shots of Bailey’s but she couldn’t find them in her pack, so we couldn’t even celebrate before we took off our crampons. So there we were at the top of the Grand Canyon again, just two unfashionably disheveled older women with packs and hiking poles. The tourists were still taking selfies, the babies who didn’t want to be there were still crying, the couples were still ignoring the view for each other, and the tour guides were still bellowing at their charges. It was lunch time. We couldn’t even check into the hotel.
While we leaned against a stone wall, stunned, trying to figure out what to do, three guys stopped to ask if we thought they could get a cabin down at the bottom.
At the bottom? Phantom Ranch? Did they have reservations?
No? Well forget it. You don’t get to stay at Phantom Ranch by just showing up. You don’t do the Canyon just like that. You make reservations. You plan. You condition. You work for the Canyon. You suffer for the Canyon.
No, of course we didn’t say all that. We wished them a nice hike. Then we headed for El Tovar’s bar.
About ITB Syndrome (ITBS)
The Iliotibial band (ITB) is the connective tissue (ligament) that begins from above the hip joint and that extends to the shinbone on the outside of the leg. ITB syndrome is a common overuse injury when there is repeated squatting kind of action involved — such as descending stairs or a steep slope down into the Grand Canyon. The whole ITB can become painful, or just the hip or knee. It can come to feel like your whole leg is on fire or maybe the hip joint you had replaced has failed. And wouldn’t you know it, ITBS is more common in in women because our hips are often tilted in such a way that knees can turn in slightly.
You can get therapy for ITBS that won’t go away or you can get steroid shots in the knee or hip area or wherever the pain is that keeps on keeping on. Or you can rest and take ibuprofen, and then stop being stupid and instead up your level of squatting type action gradually.
Rejoice, for I had no choice but to take a photo of the bathroom just because the light was beautiful this morning and because even though it hurts to walk, I’m already scheming on when and how to get back to Grand Canyon to do it again.