Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reflections on the Journey – Take Two

I finally have some time to write more about our trip and specifically our journey into the Grand Canyon. If I were being honest with myself I would not have time to do this as I am sitting here scared crapless of all the things that face me with work tomorrow. But at this point I just don’t want to face up to it. The coming week is going to be hellish! On top of just catching up with all that I have going on from my week of vacation; I have to make a trip to the East Coast at the end of the week. The sad thing is I spent a considerable amount of time working while I was gone, yet I am still far behind. It is the general state of things in the working world today. With all the layoffs and job cuts you just have to work harder and harder to just maintain. Enough of that stuff – I don’t want to write about work – I want to write about our hiking trip into the Grand Canyon! We awoke early on Wednesday, April 1 to make our hike into the Grand Canyon. The day had dawned very clear, crisp and cool and windy. We followed our normal routine by me doing an early conference call from the hotel room and then going down stairs to get a continental breakfast at the hotel. At 9:00AM I had our backpack with our gear and supplies packed and ready to go. A quick stop at one of the few stores in Tusayan was needed to pick up some extra food and snacks. After that we were off and on our way into the park. For our trip into the Canyon I had decided that we would take a trail called South Kaibab trail. This trail begins near the Yaki point over look and plunges down 6.5 miles to the Colorado River. It is a less traveled trail than the more popular Bright Angel trail, but from what I read, I thought it would offer us more dramatic scenery and a more serene experience. To reach the trail head for the South Kaibab trail, you must park your car near the main Information Center at Mather Point and then take a shuttle bus to the trail head. The reason for the shuttle bus is to cut down on traffic in some parts of the park. We parked our car and made the short walk to the shuttle bus stop. We waited for about 5 minutes before our bus came. There were a number of people waiting for the bus, including a group of teenagers/students who were heading off onto a hike to the very bottom of the Canyon and a rest stop called Phantom Ranch. The ride on the shuttle bus for the South Kaibab trailhead is only about 5 minutes. You are dropped off in a small little parking lot that is lined with trees. To the eastern side of the parking lot there are several corrals in which a number of mules are held. The trail starts a little ways up a short rise past the corrals. At the start of the trail there are numerous signs warning of all the dangers of hiking into the Canyon. The best sign is one that says “What goes down must come up”. I think many people probably start down the trail and find the going easy and don’t realize how hard the hike back up will be. At the start of the trail Zack and I read all the signs and double checked all of our gear. As soon as you start walking on the trail it immediately becomes apparent how hard of a hike out it will be. For the first ¾ of mile the trail is carved right into the side of the cliffs that make up the canyon rim. It descends downward sharply through a series of switchbacks. Each switchback is only 50 – 100 yards long before you do a 180 degree turn back on yourself – accept this time you are much lower than the previous switchback. The trail in most places is relatively narrow – only 4 – 5 feet across. So it can be a little scary as you go around some of the switchbacks and you realize there is nothing between you and a fall of several hundred feet. (Zack narrating about our hike into the canyon.) As we descended through this first area of switchbacks we were assaulted by very strong gusts of wind. Though we thought it was bad as we descended we had no idea what we were in for as we came back up. After a while the switchbacks stop and the trail winds around another side of the canyon wall. For this part of the trail, the descent is a little more gradual and you do not feel that you are going to fall off the face of the earth if you take a wrong step. As we descended further and further into the canyon we came across a crew from the Forest Service doing maintenance on the trail. It was amazing to see how they were re-building the trail in places. Their work would have made the Roman legionaries proud! Each section of the trail that they were working upon first had all the soil and rocks removed to a depth of 2 feet or more. Once this was done, a layer of heavy flagstones were inserted into the open space to build a strong base. These rocks were set in place so that there was not room for any of them to slip or move. After this base layer another layer of gravel was placed on top. The gravel layer in most cases was at least 6 – 8 inches in depth. This layer of gravel was then either covered with another layer of flag stones or dirt. The flagstones were used in areas that were expected to be exposed to erosion from rainwater. The work that these crews do for very little pay is back breaking and hard. Without it however, these heavily traveled trails would fall into disrepair within a matter of years. As we descended further we moved away from rock walls on one side or the other of us and descended down the backbone of a shear ridge. As we hit a point on the ridge called Oh-La-La point, we were once again hit by some severe wind. It was no fun being on this exposed ridge with 50 – 70 mph winds tossing you about. After the ridge we were once again with a canyon/ridge wall on our one side. After about another ¼ of this we finally reached Cedar Ridge – the destination of our hike. Cedar Ridge is a small rest stop on the way to the Canyon floor. It consists of nothing other than 2 composting latrines and several tie up spots for the mules that traverse the canyon trails. It is a popular spot for day-hikes into the Canyon as it offers stunning views but is easy enough to reach without having to absolutely kill yourself. The wind was still blowing pretty heavily on us so we sought shelter in the midst of a stand of cedars for which the rest stop is named. We managed to get comfortable and avoid most of the wind long enough for us to have a snack. (When Zack and I are hiking I ALWAYS carry a substantial amount of food with me. That boy is as hungry as a varmint at times!) We spent about 40 minutes at Cedar Ridge just enjoying and loving the view. It was great! We could have done without the wind but we survived it. As we began our hike out we were quickly overtaken by a mule train bringing backpacks and refuse out of the canyon. It was really neat to step to the side of the trail and watch these marvelous animals pass us by. They can work so hard and complain so little. Besides making sure they have food and water, there is little maintenance that needs to be done to them. I really am amazed by the capacity of these magnificent animals to work so hard. I know most people won’t consider mules to be magnificent animals, but when you look at how strong they are and how hard they work; I personally think they are magnificent. But then again, I pretty much love any kind of animal! As we hiked upward the wind began to pick up on us again. As we neared Oh-La-La Point, a strong gust of wind grabbed my baseball cap from my head and tossed it over the side into the abyss. I was not happy! I had been working very hard to keep the hat on my head but with a gust that strong I just couldn’t prevent it from going. What made it even worse was the fact that this was my very favorite of all my baseball caps. It was from San Francisco and had the Chinese words for San Francisco on the front. Oh well – these things do happen. The wind continued to increase as we climbed further and further up the canyon wall. As we reach the point of the switchback not too far from the rim, we were assaulted by some of the strongest wind gusts I have ever experienced. In my hiking, camping and climbing in Colorado, I have experience a lot of severe wind and weather, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced before! Zack and I did the only thing we could which was to get as low to the ground as possible and shield our heads and faces from the wind and flying dirt, pebbles and other debris. We were both hit numerous times by pebbles flying through the air like projectiles. It was insane! It got so bad that began to crawl on our hands and knees to try and get away from this horrible situation. Finally after about 5 minutes we were in a position by which we could get up and walk again. Needless to say it was a scary place to be for a while. I was really proud of Zack in the fact that he listened to me and he didn’t panic. He stuck it out and did a great job being calm and cool. (Just a side note, Zack was by far the youngest person I saw hiking on this trail. He really impressed me with his strength and stamina! If he put his mind to it I am sure he could become a great mountaineer.) (Zack and I in the windstorm!) After the windstorm we were just glad to reach the top of the rim again. It felt so good to be out of the severe wind and on land that didn’t immediately fall away into nothing. We took some more pictures at the top of the trail and then we spent a bunch of time at the corrals petting and talking to the mules. They were great! They responded to us and came up to the side of the corral so that we could pet them and scratch behind their ears. Both Zack and I had a lot of fun with the mules! We caught the shuttle bus back to the main information center and headed to the car to eat another snack before we journeyed onward. As we sat and ate we talked about what we had seen and experienced. We both felt so much richer for the beauty of nature that we had experienced on this hike. It was marvelous all that we saw and experienced. I have even told Zack that when he is a little older (15 or 16) we are coming back and doing a hike from the South Rim to the North Rim. From several of my Sierra Club hiking companions I have heard that this is the ultimate hike in North America to make. I really think it would be a wonderful experience for us. My words can’t really convey the wonderful experience that we had. In my life I have hiked thousands of miles in many beautiful wilderness areas and seen many wonderful things. This hike definitely ranks highly as one of the more amazing I have taken. As for our doings of the day… We spent a good amount of the day doing things here at home but we did get out for a while and go bowling. I rolled a 172 in our first game – which included a turkey (three back to back strikes). I felt pretty good about my bowling ability today! After that we got some dinner and we are now here just winding down for the evening. I am sure tomorrow will be a challenging day. We hope everyone had a great weekend. Thanks and peace to all!

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