When someone tells me I can’t do something, the first thing I look for is a valid reason, and if there isn’t one, I usually try to do it (like most kids – ha ha). You may call me stubborn or just plain stupid, but I call it a challenge. And this is probably why I’ve broken lots of bones in my time, and is certainly not a philosophy I would recommend anybody following. So, when I was told I couldn’t hike from the Grand Canyon South Rim to the Colorado River (at the bottom) and back in one day by the friendly neighbourhood Park Rangers, I decided to investigate why.
The hike is around 10 miles each way, and every year dozens of people have to be rescued from the Canyon suffering from dehydration, exhaustion, heat stroke and hypothermia, and a couple usually die. Others are caught in hazards such as flash flooding, loose trails, slippery ice, rock-falls and encounters with dangerous wildlife, which is also why they recommend not hiking alone. Instead, they recommend being sensible and hiking half the trail in one day with a partner and the correct equipment.
However, after a bit of research, I read that it was possible to hike it in one day, in the right conditions, and being the middle of winter I thought at least the chances of getting heat stroke were minimalised (although not hypothermia at night). So, at 06:30 I turfed myself out of bed, had a good breakfast, and set off at 08:00 with my spiritual hiking partner and professional hiking attire (jeans and trainers) and a hipflask. What else could I need?
I must say I expected the first half (the down bit) to be easy. However, one disadvantage of hiking down in the middle of winter is extensive ICE. The trail (Bright Angel Trail) starts at 6,860 feet, which is pretty cold in the winter, and all the shaded North facing slopes of the Grand Canyon are covered in snow and ice, and sometimes even the South facing slopes too.
Now unfortunately my state of the art Merrell trainers have less grip than a pair of ice skates, and would be great for ice skating but not for climbing down icy trails with sheer 1,000 foot drops inches away. Given my relationship with cliffs and falling off them, there were several heart-stopping moments when I thought I might have been wrong to attempt such a feat in February. This feeling was supported by the only other 2 people I saw on the trail climbing back up. “I’m coming back another day with crampons” the bloke said, as his girlfriend almost did the splits like Bambi on ice.
Maybe he was sensible, or maybe he just wasn’t an ex-British Mine Clearance Diver (ha ha!). After all, if you always wait until everything is perfect, you will never do anything.
Even my limited knowledge of the weather told me ice melts when it gets warmer, and so I decided to venture down a little further (in slippery pigeon steps) in the hope the ice soon melted with the lower altitude and rising sun. Luckily, a few hundred feet further down the ice was gone, and I shifted into 4th gear for the first time.
There are many beautiful hikes I have done, but I cannot think of any better one than this. The Bright Angel Trail drops from 6,860 feet down almost one mile from the trail head to the Colorado River at the bottom, through at least 12 layers of rock dating back 2 billion years old. These rock layers underwent several tectonic movements over time (particularly when the North American plate collided with the Pacific plate to create the Rocky Mountains about 70 million years ago) which forced the Grand Canyon area up thousands of feet. Then, relatively recently in Geological time, 6 million years ago the Colorado River and its tributaries set to work carving this incredible canyon out of the tectonically weakened rock layers and soft sediments. The result is today a magnificent canyon 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide and one mile deep.
The hike down was beautiful, but not too difficult ranging from mud (once the snow & ice had melted), sand and rock through Alpine to desert. There are several rest stops along the way with free water fountains to replenish your supply, meaning you don’t have to carry vast amounts of water.
Three hours later I had covered 9.5 miles and reached the Colorado River – Yippee! Although the view from the bottom was not as spectacular as I had imagined, it was still nice, as was bathing my steaming feet in the very cold Colorado River.
After an hour’s lunch-break, where I ate my bacon & egg sannie from breakfast, it was time to set off on the hike back up to the rim. I must admit I was feeling good and set myself a target of another 3 hours. However, this really was ambitious as it’s obviously much harder going 9.5 miles uphill than down. Nonetheless, I pressed on in 4th gear.
By now the afternoon sun was pretty hot, and I had built up a good sweat; I began to understand why doing this in the middle of summer when temperatures can reach 110 degrees F (44 degrees C) really would be very foolish. I imagine it must be pretty frustrating for the Park Rangers feeding people IVs as they collapse.
I eventually made the top in 3.5 hrs, slowed down somewhat by the ice at the top again, and the steep gradients. Because I’d wondered around a bit at the bottom, my GPS said 20 miles in 6.5 hours – not bad. I must admit, it was pretty tiring, owing to the fact that I collapsed on my bed for a ‘siesta’ as soon as I arrived back at my cabin. I had also developed several blisters courtesy of my stand-in professional hiking boots, which was to be expected.
To cover my back (especially in the USA), don’t do this unless you have done the correct planning, and you have the correct hiking equipment, and a partner, and it is the right time of year! However, it is pretty awesome!