A few months before I was to be married my mom and I went on a road trip through Arizona. Filled with laughter and female bonding, my mom and I scratched an item off of the old bucket list–we went backpacking in the Grand Canyon.
The key to backpacking in the Grand Canyon is preparation. So, twelve months before, I researched the possible trails we would hike. We had decided on the traditional Bright Angel Trail that descends to the canyon floor and rewards the steep descent with views of the Colorado River. Nine months before, I secured our backpacking permit, and about six months before, I began training for the steep hike. Everything was planned out, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Fast forward six months to the morning of my flight. I was to catch a plane at 8 AM and meet my mom around noon in Phoenix–she was flying in from Chicago. I arrived at the airport, and upon check in was told that I would not be able to check my luggage since I was leaving in less than 30 minutes. What! Apparently my flight had been moved an hour earlier, and I was never informed. I should have realized then that this was a clear sign that all my planning wasn’t going to work out the way I intended.
10 hours behind schedule, I finally found my mom. We rented an SUV and were on the road to the Grand Canyon. Driving north, we were noticing the higher the elevation the more precipitation we were encountering. Isn’t Arizona supposed to be really dry? When we neared Sedona, the road was covered with snow and ice forcing us to stop and find a motel to stay in for the night.
The news that evening delivered the biggest blow to the meticulous planning I had done. The Grand Canyon was closed due to snow and was unlikely to open for at least two days. After some discussion, we decided to do our road trip backwards and hope for the weather to improve before we would continue on to the Grand Canyon. We knew that we would forfeit our backpacking permit but decided to take our chances with the permits they distribute daily.
So one week after our planned arrival, we rolled into the campground to make camp for the evening. It was twenty degrees. The cold ground penetrated every layer we donned and kept us from getting a good night’s sleep.
At 5 AM we couldn’t take the chill anymore and moved to the SUV turning the heat on full blast and subsequently ruining the peaceful quiet of the campground with the roar of the engine. By 6 we were defrosted and enroute to the Ranger Station to plead for a backcountry permit to hike the Bright Angel Trail.
We were first in line and the ranger informed us that the only permit available was for the Grandview Trail, a steep three mile descent into the canyon ending at a campground near Horseshoe Mesa. The ranger warned us that the switchbacks would be covered with snow for the first two thirds of the trail, and we shouldn’t proceed without crampons. Before I could even suggest that we take a minute to discuss our decision, my mom blurted out, “We’ll take it! I’m almost 50 and I will never be able to do this again.”
Speechless, we signed our forms and returned to the car to drive to trailhead. Upon arrival, I was under the impression that a three mile hike would be no big deal even if it was steep and covered with snow. What’s three miles? I can do that in like 40 minutes max.
Our breath froze in white clouds as we hoisted our packs and picked up our poles. Just as we were shutting the hatch, we saw two girls returning to their car with backpacks. I asked them if they had just returned from the trail. They had. Looking at our hiking poles, they said that we wouldn’t need those, just crampons. Mom and I looked at each other then tossed the poles back into the SUV.
Adjusting the straps on my pack, I stepped onto the trail. Snow crunched under my boots as we descended the first switchback, a stone like staircase, and I was filled with excitement to be doing something so adventurous.
By switchback three that adventurous feeling switched to nervousness as my feet continually slipped and slid down the trail. Every step had to be carefully cemented into place before the next step could occur.
By switchback ten I was wishing for those hiking poles and continually reevaluating my mental sanity as to why I was doing this stupid hike. My shoulders ached, my back was drenched, and my toes were continuously slammed into the front of my boots. So much for all the training I had done.
At this point, I looked back to my mom who was smiling and seemed to have no sense of doubt, no crisis of conscience as to whether or not she had made a poor choice. So, drawing from her courage, I continued the painfully slow process of descending the canyon. This worked for awhile until I felt my feet give way from under me and found myself sledding down the trail on my rear end, coming to stop only at the end of the switchback. Heart racing and the fear of death fading, I found myself thinking that the slide was actually quite exhilarating, and it allowed me to make very good time down the trail.
My mom on the other hand seemed pale when she caught up with me. The thing to know about my glissade down the trail was that there was no buffer on my left side. One wrong twist and I would have slid right off the trail into the rocky abyss below making for at the very least many broken bones and a helicopter rescue, and at the worst, death.
The further we descended, the harder that trail seemed to get, and we were headed down! What did the the upward climb hold in store for us the next day? Coming to that realization was when the panic attacked. I stopped, sat on a nice boulder, and had a break down. I was frozen both physically and mentally. I didn’t want to go down, and I didn’t want to go up.
Looking to my mom for support, she curtly said, “Make a decision. If we are turning around, let’s do it now. Otherwise we are going to the end.” I clearly was not going to find any sympathy here. It was up to me. Did I want to accomplish this goal, or did I want to quit?
I took a full ten minutes to eat a granola bar and debate the benefits of continuing versus quitting. I decided to heft forty pounds on my back and take the next steps forwards. And so we continued for another three hours picking our way down the canyon.
After what seemed like eternity, the snow gradually became less until it was just dusty rocks covering the trail. While this made it easier to walk, every muscle in my body screamed to drop that extra weight. My pack continuously slammed into my back while my toes slammed into my boots. My knees throbbed with every step, and I kept telling myself we had to be close.
After ten forevers, we found our camp. And a few other campers as well. Mom and I made quick work of setting up camp. We downed some protein bars, finished off our water, shared some hot chocolate with our neighbors, and turned in for the evening at 7 PM. Hiking downhill through snow is exhausting!
Before dawn we broke camp. We were getting ready to take off when our new friends commented on the fact that we had no water. Mom and I had brought about a half gallon each thinking we would be able to refill at the campground. Since this was not the trail we were going to hike, we didn’t realize that the water source was another few miles down a side trail. We were going to take our chances making it back to the car for water. We anticipated our hike taking about four hours.
Thank goodness our new friends found us to be insane and gave us one of their liters of water to take with us. So with water hooked on our packs, we began the strenuous trek back up the canyon.
Completely unexpected, I found the upward hike to be infinitely easier than the downward. My toes weren’t being smashed, and I wasn’t constantly fighting against gravity. They only issue was that I was finding it hard to catch my breath. So I greatly slowed our ascent with my frequent rest stops. We moved so slowly our friends from the campground, who left two hours after us, passed us. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the men had seriously injured his leg two days before.
As these men passed us, my mom caught my eye and gave me a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me face. I could easily see that she was frustrated with my slowness as her competitive side flashed itself. For all of five minutes we tried to keep pace with the two men, but I couldn’t keep up, and my mom was forced to concede defeat–a fact she still hasn’t let me live down to this day. From time to time the phrase ,”an old injured guy passed us,” will work its way into conversation followed by an eye roll from me and a laugh from both of us.
Thanks to those two men we stayed hydrated and slowly gained elevation. The temperature which had risen to 75 at the bottom of the canyon slowly dropped back into the thirties. Yet as I gained elevation, I continuously shed layers of clothing until I was in a tee shirt and yoga pants.
The subtle signs that we were close to the top began to show themselves. We were having to step to the side for downward travelers where we had been virtually alone for several hours. Those evil switchbacks reappeared to torment us for the last push up the trail. Finally, we arose over the precipice of the trail to see the camera-snapping tourists that dared only venture a few feet from their car. Exhausted smiles spread across our tired face as we stumbled to the SUV.
I’m so glad that in my weak moment I chose to continue on. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been rewarded with the copper-colored sky I witnessed. I wouldn’t have been able to hear the flap of a crow’s wing in the complete and utter silence. I wouldn’t have been able to say I finished something that I started. I wouldn’t have been able to share that moment with my mom. We had conquered the Grandview Trail, and despite the fact that it took us six hours to hike three miles, I was proud of our backpacking debacle.