You’re probably familiar with the old adage: ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’. I don’t always agree, but in this case it was certainly true. This whole trip had been about the crossing of the Grand Canyon, but, far from being just a methodical build-up, the week in Arizona and Utah before the main trek began was fantastic in its own right, full of beauty and grandeur, variety and surprises. The saying is also true for the main trek, because although the accomplishment of reaching the far side was wonderful, it was just the crowning glory on an amazing journey of discovery.
There’s far too much to tell in a blog, so, in a bid to keep you reading to the end, I’ve condensed the story to its best bits and broken it down into three parts. Each part represents one of the three days, with the first covering the descent into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim; the second about our exploration of the inner canyon; and the third finishing the tale with an account of our climb up to the South Rim. I hope you enjoy it, and if you want to hear more, just leave a comment below.
After our final training exploits in Zion National Park, we spent a very wet day driving down to the North Rim, ready for the off. The weather stopped us from seeing much at the North Rim’s spectacular viewpoints, meaning we arrived at the Grand Canyon Lodge for dinner in a very disconsolate mood. Here was a fabulous old building perched on the rim (how long before it disappears into the abyss?), whose lounge commands stunning views of Bright Angel Canyon, and what could we see? Nothing but white. Yet, in a happy stroke of timing, just before dinner, a miracle happened. The clouds parted and a vision of splendour suddenly appeared, dream-like and eerily beautiful. Wind-driven clouds shredded across the wide sky and the last light of day burned a sumptuous palette of colours on the layered buttresses of the rim. It was that much more precious for being fleeting, that much more special for making up for a day of damp and gloom.
We also benefitted from another stroke of providence, inasmuch as we were able at the last minute to exchange our soggy campsite for one of the Lodge’s rim-side cabins. Thus we spent a cosy night in the dry on proper mattresses, and were much better prepared for the early start. When I say early, I mean early. Before dawn. Bags packed the night before, Chris and me left our parents in the cabin in the pitch black and met our shuttle outside the Lodge’s main entrance. Dawn was no more than a suggestion in the sky by the time we reached the North Kaibab trailhead.
It was a daunting place, that cold dark trailhead. Today would be longer than any single day in the Himalaya, and involve more elevation change too. True it was only 1 of 5 days straight walking instead of the 10 to/from Everest Base-Camp; but we were on our own: no guide, no porter, no tea-houses, no anything but what we had on our backs: tent, sleeping bags, roll-mats, stove, food and water. What we had ahead of us was 14.7 miles of stern downhill to the river, and we began in the cold pre-dawn air. The path was steep and knotted with tree-roots, and we soon became glad that the downpour had happened yesterday, and not today – this route would have been treacherous and miserable in heavy rain. We were descending into Roaring Springs Canyon, a side-canyon of a side-canyon. The glorious view we should have had from Coconino Overlook was shrouded in darkness; the canyon beneath was still asleep. As we worked our way down the pale Kaibab limestone, I was conscious that every foot of descent took us back another few hundred thousand years into Earth’s history. As well as the geologic changes, the vegetation changed too, with the Douglas firs and Pinyon pines of the rim giving way to Gambel oaks and Quaking aspens. They were gorgeously dressed in autumn hues of plum, rhubarb-red and pale gold, and gave the twilight descent a somewhat fairytale quality.
Were it not for the scouring of water and faulting in the rock, there would simply have been no practicable way down the hard-packed reddish sandstone layers, but even so, the Civil Conservation Corps had to give nature a hand in the 1930s. We passed through one example of their handiwork at the Supai Tunnel, which was also the site of a toilet and seasonal water, where we refreshed ourselves. Still in the cool shade, we tramped on down, winding endlessly back and forth until we came down to the Redwall Bridge, spanning a rift in the canyon. We had already descended over 2,000 feet, but were only just getting started.
The sun didn’t catch us up until we were nearly at the junction of the Roaring Springs and Bright Angel Canyons. Up until then it had been blushing the rim above us in lovely colours, but only now did it spread over us in a warm wash. The mercury suddenly rose, and it felt like we were in the desert again. No more Alaska-like rim conditions; what we had before us was more akin to Mexico. That the Grand Canyon can encompass everything in-between in just a few short miles is one of its most astounding features.
On and on we went, down and down. Chris grew more than a little impatient at my frequent photo stops, and in order to preserve the good-spirited camaraderie of the trail we had to compromise between my desire to savour every moment and aspect and his keenness to crack on to the finish line. We passed the beautiful waterfall of Roaring Springs, whose ability to provide the entire National Park with all its water is both a good and a bad thing: on the positive side it ensures no water need be brought in from outside at great cost; on the negative side it means that pipes and even power-cables have to garland the canyon walls, subtly but inescapably marring the illusion of complete wilderness and isolation.
Once in the Bright Angel Canyon itself, a great gash running the entire width of the Grand Canyon like a sword-wound, we noticed the gradient start to slacken off. We were now in ancient shale formations, whose proneness to erosion prevents it from maintaining the sheer gradients of the harder overlying rocks. Trees here were Cottonwoods and fewer and further between, and desert plants like Yucca and Prickly Pear Cactus were now much in evidence. Behind us the trailhead was now tucked away, whilst ahead of us for the first time we could see the distant heights of the South Rim, our eventual destination.
We paused again for food and a breather at Cottonwood Campground, which at about 7 miles is more or less half-way to the river. It was good to get the rucksack off my back and give my aching shoulders some relief. It might be less steep here, but the weight was growing, and with it the discomfort. Most hikers adhere to park ranger recommendations and overnight at Cottonwood, but we pressed on. We knew that made for a super-long hike, but if we’d stopped we would have been idle from 10am onwards, which seemed like such a waste.
Marching now due south, we were approaching the Grand Canyon’s most secretive and least-visited parts. As we went, butte after butte marched past on either side of us like world-weary sentinels marking where the North Rim used to be, standing in grand isolation from the present rim. Their myriad colours and shapes were a delight to the eyes and mind, but we soon gave up any hope of identifying them from the map. Down here you lose the sense of scale and perspective you’d had on the rim. Up there you’re remote; down here you’re swallowed up. In both places you’re insignificant, dwarfed by the planet’s prodigious age and slowly-eroded splendour.
It’s also hard to measure the distance, as landmarks are few and far between. I was excited at first when we entered The Box, but gradually I realised how long this last section is, flat but wearisomely unending. Here we’d penetrated down past the sedimentary rocks and into the metamorphic Vishnu schist, a black and mind-bogglingly old rock slashed here and there with intrusions of pink Zoroaster granite. The Box is a deep narrow gorge where the Bright Angel Creek is enclosed within high walls. Our path, hacked out of the ancient rock, followed the course of the stream, clinging to the canyon-side and winding round spur after spur. It was an eerie place, like the World Time Forgot. Were it not for the other hikers you passed from time to time, you might have thought you had strayed into an alien planet, or some long-forgotten chapter of Earth’s infancy.
Eventually, after many footsore miles, The Box finally released us and we came into a slightly wider part of the gorge where the flat canyon floor is filled with verdant life. Coming into the Cottonwood groves and tall grasses of Phantom Ranch I felt like a prisoner who has escaped prison. Stumbling with weariness, we trudged past the unobtrusive green and brown cabins where we’d failed to secure a berth and on to the Bright Angel Campground beyond. The tree-clad campground can be tantalisingly glimpsed from the rim as a smudge of green peeking out of the barren gorge. Now here we were: arrived at the very heart of the canyon. We found a site and dropped our bags with glee. We’d been walking more or less non-stop for about 8 hours, but it was only 2 o clock in the afternoon.
I took off my boots and tended to my complaining feet, and tried to massage some life back into my shoulder muscles. We locked our food away in old ammunition tins to keep it safe from thieving animals, and hung our bags on a pole. I spent the rest of the day as prone and motionless as possible, watching the westering sun paint patterns of light and shadow on the canyon walls. I roused myself briefly to hobble down and scout out the Colorado River and the bridges across it, but that was all I could manage. Dinner was beef stew boiled on the stove, and I took on as much sustenance as I could without encroaching on tomorrow’s rations. I kept my eyes open long enough to write a letter to Lucy and make a mental note to check for scorpions before putting my boots back on tomorrow morning, and then collapsed into blissful sleep.