Our Winter Grand Canyon Trek: The Astonishing Descent

This post offers you a virtual Grand Canyon experience: Pre-Canyon Jitters, The Astonishing Descent, The Inner Gorge, and The Empowering Ascent.

Selecting the Grand Canyon as the site for your first hiking trek is a remarkable act of faith. Or foolishness…. but since it worked out, I’m going with faith.

Prior to this trip, I have traveled the Boundary Waters a number of time, interspersing bits of hiking with long stints of paddling. Never have I worn a pack for more than an hour.

Here we were, tackling the canyon for our first hike. We were armed with all of the information I could glean from the fabulous Hit the Trail site; a refined packing list; and a very hopeful brand of faith in our muscular and cardiovascular ability to drag ourselves out again.

I lingered at the trailhead, while Joe was eager to get started. Pictures… a potty break… adjust pack straps… more pictures… okay, time to get going.
GULP! I couldn’t decide if the frequently placed emergency phones near the top of the trail were reassuring or terrifying.

We began the hike layered in water wicking gear and fleece, prepared for winter weather. But we were not prepared for the knee deep snow covering the trails. South Kaibab is not as well traveled as Bright Angel, and the top several switch backs found us sinking in the tracks of previous hikers. It was a distinctly tippy feeling.

Did I mention the trails were steep?

Soon the deep snow gave way to ice, making my yak traks and Joe’s crampons essential. The hiking poles gave us additional stability, and before long I forgot about the steep, treacherous ground and gave the Canyon vistas their due attention.

The longer we hiked, the warmer the weather. Soon our outer layers were unnecessary, and for us Minnesotans, the 50 degree weather felt balmy.

We took our time, pausing to admire and write and sigh into the depths.

The camaraderie of this trip really stood out.

We met several groups on their way up, all of whom paused to let us know when the mud would end or where the best day hikes within the gorge were. Of course the friendliest couple were from Shoreview, MN, just a few miles from our own home.

We also leap fogged over several interesting groups heading down. One couple were helping their parents (in their mid-sixties maybe) make the hike. At one point the daughter seemed to have enough, as she literally ran down the switch backs to set up camp instead of continuing the plod along with her folks.

Rest house at the Tipping Point, just before entering the Inner Gorge.

Another trio of men, two brothers and one’s son, were surprised by how difficult the hike was. In spite of their discomfort (including severely bruised toes caused by the steep hike in bad boots), they were a jovial group that couldn’t pass by without a comment or joke.

Many times around camp, both groups worried about the ascent. And both groups were taking the easier way out: they would be climbing half way, staying at the Indian Gardens Campground, and then climbing the rest. Many of our fellow campers reacted with surprise and not even a trace of envy when they discovered we planned to hike out in a day.

The Tipping Point felt like a triumph. We had been hiking for five hours. Our map suggested the hike should take four!

Clearly we were close… So we stopped for a long lunch at an overlook of the Colorado. That is how we approached the whole day. Hike a bit, snack a bit, hike a bit, sit a bit. It was very leisurely. Especially as Joe’s knee began to bother him.

Though we felt so close, it took another hour to descend the final 1,000 feet to the bottom.

We made it!

Crossing the Colorado on the Kaibab Trail’s Black Bridge.

Bright Angel Camp Ground – 31 sites tucked close together along the Bright Angel Creek. The rush of the water made the setting feel more private than it was.

In spite of fatigue, and incredibly sore calf muscles, we set up camp quickly and wandered around the river trails. Luxury of luxuries, we ate a warm meal at the Phantom Ranch that evening. We dined on hikers stew, corn bread, a fresh salad, and chocolate cake, all accompanied by the eclectic conversation of fellow Canyon enthusiasts. The evening had a real summer camp feel.

Several of our companions make the trip annually with a boisterous group of family and friends. Two of our new friends were 17-year-old girls, students at the small school in Grand Canyon Village. The had made the trek in honor of one girl’s 17th birthday, sporting wild printed skirts with their long johns and smart wool socks.

These people were all an inspiration. After some good conversation and a fantastic dinner, we slept the deep and peaceful sleep of true adventurers (thanks for the phrase, Kate Dicamillo).

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