This was going to be hard, that much was a given. Just how hard I could not understand. How could I? I have done some brutal hikes and climbs in my life, the Grand Teton, a 19-hour climb on Mt. Shuksan, and an 18 mile day in Winter on snowshoes in the Sisters Wilderness. None of them came close to what I experienced in the Grand Canyon on June 18th. Either that, or else my memory, out of necessity, wipes the memory of extreme suffering from my head after the fact. Maybe that is why I keep doing these crazy adventures.
We had found a wonderful, private campsite outside the park off a forest road, and woke up at 3 a.m. in order to arrive at the trailhead by 4. We had to beat the heat as much as possible. Soon we were hiking down the dusty, forested path, stopping after about fifteen minutes to shed some layers. The views were stunning.
The first seven miles went by quickly and easily, but then, it was all downhill at that point. That is why so many out-of-shape tourists get into trouble here – going downhill is a piece of cake, but returning…It took us less than three hours to arrive at Cottonwood Camp, where we had reservations for one night. We dropped off our heavier camping gear, refilled our water bottles and headed out again. We still had another seven miles to go to get to the Colorado River, and by that time the temperature was already in the high eighties.
From this point on, the trail was nearly flat, instead of losing over 4000 feet from the rim to camp (in 7 miles), we would lose about 1600 feet in the same distance. Also, it would be hot (did I mention that it gets hot in the canyon?) We hustled along the trail, passing occasional, suffering hikers. Soon the walls of the canyon drew closer, and we were able to traverse much of the remaining miles in a fair amount of shade. I drank as much water as I was able, using a 3-liter water bladder that really ended up being a Godsend. I consumed close to a gallon of water that day.
We arrived at Phantom Ranch, the quasi-resort complex that awaits weary travelers at the bottom of the North Rim trail. Charles went inside and I joined him for a moment, but the sounds of people playing board games and being social was not what I wanted to hear, so I stepped back outside. When Charles was ready to go again, we hiked the final 3/4 of a mile to the Colorado River.
By this point the temperature was well over one hundred degrees, and we decided to hunker down and rest and avoid hiking the final seven miles during the worst part of the day. I soaked my blistered feet in the brutally cold river, then found a shady spot to get out of the relentless sun. Guided river groups came and went, along with a few mule trains crossing the bridge. After four hours of surreal heat, we decided to start heading back.
The last seven miles return to Cottonwood Camp was the single hardest thing I have ever done. I couldn’t go more than a half-mile without having to stop and rest. My heart was pounding, my head ached and I felt faintly nauseous. I told Charles to keep a close eye on me, and I was seriously concerned that I was on the verge of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I started praying to Brook, to our kids, to everyone who cared about me, asking for strength to carry on. It must have worked, because after a time, I did begin to feel better, my pace increased and I managed to stagger back to camp. We arrived at 8 p.m.