I’ve never been to the wilderness of America’s Mountain States, never been this far, this high or this cold but as a child, I’ve yearned to see this Red Rock Country of the deepest gorges, eerie hoodoos, sandstone arches and painted deserts.
So, from California, I travelled overland to Nevada then Arizona, stopping in Sedona for two days to experience its mystical energy vortices – Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte before heading to Grand Canyon (GC) National Park.
Sedona felt oddly familiar, like an undersea place I’ve haunted over countless lifetimes. It gave me lucid dreams and strange visions. Even the rosary I carried behaved like a pendulum over its vortices.
Still, the chill of the oncoming winter drained me. I was half-frozen by the time I reached GC at 4:00 PM. The South Rim swarmed with tourists leaning over the rails overlooking the vast Colorado Plateau. Below, the buttes and spires of the world’s most famous abyss glinted red and gold in the setting sun.
I made it to the Back Country Office, where the required camping permits are issued, ten minutes before closing. Because I was a first-timer in the canyon with more than enough odds stacked against me, I chose the two established corridor trails – South Kaibab (SK) for my hike-in and Bright Angel (BA) for my hike-out.
The ranger handed me a slip for the number two slot in tomorrow’s queue for wilderness camping at Crystal Creek, just in case I don’t get in at Phantom Ranch (PR).
The ranch, which offers the only lodging at the bottom of the canyon, cannot be booked online and is often full two years in advance. Even the meals are reserved a couple of years ahead by muleteers. The place can just be accessed by foot, mule or raft via the Colorado River.
I was shocked. This was off-season but the two campgrounds closest to the corridor trails – Bright Angel and Indian Gardens – overflowed with people. If nobody cancels a PR booking, I have to lug a full backpack down and up 30 kilometers of very steep, unfamiliar trails and camp at-large near Crystal Creek, with no drinking water source, in freezing weather.
But I got lucky. Next morning, I booked PR’s $43.09 dormitory bunk, $42.20 steak dinner, $21.13 breakfast and $12.39 sack lunch for hike-out. Now, I can move faster, with just a day pack and trekking pole.
Ravens famous for unzipping backpacks with their beaks cawed at me from the ponderosa pines as I started my 7,000 foot down-climb. It was 9 AM but the sun was cold on my skin and the beginnings of vertigo hit me as soon as I took my first steps.
SK, the 10.3 kilometer trail from the rim to the bottom of the gorge, offers the most unhampered vista of the canyon though it’s dry, without shade, very steep and narrow – only two feet wide or less in places. Definitely, it’s not for people scared of heights. Trekkers die here of broken bones from falls and hyponatremia – when the body shuts down because it can no longer keep itself warm due to exhaustion plus exposure to cold, wet, windy weather.
Even the BA, the less steep but longer trail I’m taking on my return to the rim, claimed two lives two weeks after my trip. The unfortunate trekkers fell from the ravine.
I made out distant shapes sprouting from the forest of stair-stepped, color-banded rock as I hiked. Each band marks ten million years or more. The youngest of the rock layers, the topmost creamy Kaibab limestone, is 250 million years old while the gun-metal gray Vishnu schist at the bottom dates back 2 billion years.
Add to that, GC has a dizzying assortment of 150 odd-named temples, spires, towers, castles, crests and buttes plus half a hundred unnamed ones.
Mules are the only way of transport here and I met at least five mule trains on my descent – one carrying tourists; the rest, ferrying supplies. But I’ll never go by mule though they can negotiate SK in three hours. Not after I saw one slip and almost topple over the edge.
Going on foot was slow. One hour of trekking took me only 2.5 kilometers to Cedar Ridge, the first stop. But it was a long journey through 40 million years of prehistoric time. In fact, the rock layers of the canyon formed over one third of the life of planet earth.
The formations grew older as I plunged deeper, from Kaibab limestone to 260 million year Toroweap, from 270 million year Coconico sandstone to 280 million year red Hermit Shale at the ridge.
The next stop, 7.1 kilometers to the Tonto Trail Junction, took me through 70 million more odd years. The path angled off through 300 million year old deep red shale and buff sandstones of the Supai Formation, then corkscrewed on the 330 million year old façade of the Red Wall.
Below the Tipoff, a majestic overlook perched precariously over the Inner Gorge, I caught my breath in the shade of 370 million year old Tapeats Sandstone before negotiating the slopes of red shale which ended at the Black Bridge across the mighty Colorado.
Two hours from the ridge, I had my first glimpse of the Colorado River, an emerald green ribbon boiling white into 150 fierce rapids as it snaked along its 225 mile course, still cutting and sculpting the canyon. Odd that this chasm continues to deepen a few inches every thousand years.
Close to the waterline, the barren red and brown landscape changed to verdant green. Cottonwoods, junipers and pines found rootholds among crumbled salmon, violet, orange, pink boulders.
In all, it took me four and a half hours to descend the SK – the average for trekkers in top physical condition. I reached Phantom Ranch at 1:00 PM without the infamous “Kaibab shuffle”. The trail devastates the knees and wrecks the ankles. Usually, backpackers emerge limping from sore muscles and tendons, hence the awkward “dancing” gait.
I just wolfed down a sandwich before hitting the North Kaibab (NK) Trail, the 22.8 kilometer path that goes to the opposite end, all the way to GC’s North Rim. I knew that starting this late, I can’t do a rim-to-rim trek. Hikers in their top form have done it in a single day though reckless ones have died attempting to. I just wanted to see what I can before darkness devours the canyon.
NK is refreshingly lush, with greens everywhere. It runs alongside the crystal-clear but ice-cold Bright Angel Creek into Roaring Springs, all the way to Ribbon Falls after a three hour walk. Soon, the setting sun made the rock walls glow like live embers. As I turned around, I caught a movement down the creek. Mule deer! A doe lifted her head to gaze at me serenely before she returned to her browsing.
Back at the ranch ten minutes before the dinner bell, I sat down before a long wooden table with two huge plates piled high with thick, juicy steaks, baked potato, corn, mixed vegetables, garden salad, cornbread and cake.
After eating my fill, I lumbered outside into a pitch black night, sat in the cold silence of the empty, unlit amphitheatre at the bottom of the world and gazed at the stars.
All the constellations I’ve read about shimmered overhead – from queen Cassiopeia who boasted that her daughter, Andromeda was prettier than the daughters of Poseidon, the sea god, to Andromeda herself, from Perseus, the hero who killed the gorgon Medusa and saved Andromeda, to Pegasus, the winged horse who sprang from Medusa’s blood.
Arizona wasn’t called stargazers’ paradise for nothing. And the heavens regaled me with a rarer display – three falling stars, one after the other.
Later, I trudged to bed reluctantly and woke up to a fog-swaddled cabin. The breakfast table was laden with scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon and fruits. As I trooped out the door, the ranch staff handed me my brown bag of packed lunch – bagel with cream cheese, jelly, farm sausage, an apple, packets of peanuts, raisins, pretzels, cookies and Gookinaid – an electrolyte replacement powder popular in the GC trail.
My ascent back to the South Rim took seven hours via the 15-kilometer Bright Angel Trail. The average runs from 8 to 12 hours.
The route went up and down, round and round the flanks of mountains, zigzagging crazily across red boulders and pockets of desert. I crossed at least 3 creeks that transform into raging rivers during flash floods. Overhead, the ever present ravens followed my progress.
Towards noon, I came to the Indian Garden, an oasis 7.4 kilometers from the ranch, but it was close to sundown when I sighted the trailhead. Icicles adorned the overhanging ledges and the wind was freezing. Ravens and a mule deer escorted me right to the end.