Our Winter Grand Canyon Trek: Empowering Ascent

Here is the final post offering you a virtual Grand Canyon experience: Pre-Canyon Jitters, The Astonishing Descent, The Inner Gorge, and The Empowering Ascent.

We shared our final meal at Phantom Ranch with two entirely different traveling groups. I sat with a group of middle-aged lodge guests who were all sharing notes about the Ken Burns documentary on national parks. They gave me plenty of tips for the next hike and pumped me up for a lifetime of adventure travel. They were looking forward to hiking out, this time, without backpacks.

Joe, on the other hand, sat with the original Debbie Downer (SNL, anyone?). This was her second Canyon trip with her beau, in spite of their tough first experience. They were backpackers, like us., though they sported packs at least 10 pounds heavier than ours. They looked as though they had “trained” about as much as we had.

And they were preparing for a 12 hour hike out. Because that is what it took them last time. TWELVE HOURS! Until then, I had assumed 7 or 8 hours, including rests and lunch. Their pessimistic prediction, based on previous experience, had me reeling. Would we make it to the rim by dark.

Joe likes to think that smile is excitement, but it was pure and utter adrenaline. I was not going to hike up hill for 12 hours.

So, at 6:30 in the morning, shortly before sunrise, we were packed and on our way out via the Bright Angel Trail. And once again, I had a plan. For as long as we both felt good, we would resist the urge to stop and munch and hike and sit and fiddle and… generally putz the way we did coming down.

Fortunately we had much less gear to hike out, since we had spent the previous day eating all unnecessary food (that lost us 11 pounds!), applying every drop of lotion, using all the wet wipes (and letting them dry out before packing them in the trash)…. I even used all the toothpaste. I wasn’t carrying an extra half ounce if it wasn’t necessary!

With our burdens lightened, our will fortified, and our teeth squeaky clean, we finished the first 2.5 miles of this 9 mile hike in about an hour. Of course, the first two miles were relatively flat and sandy, as they mostly traveled the river.

We forged on with lightened spirits, now that some of the trail was behind us. We even took some time too look around and enjoy the less expansive but still beautiful views from the Bright Angel Trail.

In another hour, just after the Beer Mule passed us on his way to restock Phantom Ranch, we arrived at Indian Gardens. We had made it through half of the day’s mileage in 2.5 hours (including breaks). Though most of our incline still rose above us, I was no longer afraid of reaching the top.

We still had plenty of energy and vigor to forge ahead without lingering. This was a good thing, since the psychotic squirrels at Indian Gardens literally engaged us in battle over our trail mix.

The Three-Mile Rest House was our planned lunch stop. Though the trail steepened after Indian Gardens, we reached the rest house so quickly that it surprised us. Suddenly we were at the foot of this cool building.

While we lunched, we marveled at the scenery and at our own progress. Just three and a half hours into the day, we only had three miles left to hike.

But the cliffs above us, when they occasionally peaked out from behind the clouds, assured us that these three miles would not be easy.

Soon after lunch, we had to put the glorified snow tires back on our boots. Instead of slogging through thick mud, we found ourselves sliding on increasingly thick ice.

The last three miles climb 1,000 feet each mile. It was difficult hiking, to say the least. But still, we were getting so close to a rim side lodge with a fireplace and a shower, we couldn’t help but hold on to our enthusiasm.

The 1.5 Mile Rest House was really a turning point for both of us. With so little distance left, we started celebrating a victory we had not yet earned.

The last stretch was ridiculously steep. The mules had packed down several feet of snow over whatever steps might have been there to help with leverage. Our tired muscles were now oxygen deprived as well.

As a result, we would slide our feet along the ice all the way up one switch back, maybe a hundred feet, and then one or the other of us would stop and beg for mercy. Or a drink. Whatever.

A few gulps of air later, our resolve was reinstated and the rim seemed that much closer. Until the next hundred feet of shuffling incline. And the next deep breath.

We ran into several day hikers who were clearly surprised by the difficulty of their return from the rest house. We were passed by one ambitious hiker from the campgrounds below, and she, like us, would stop every few steps to take extra breaths. The thinning air has a very real impact.

We lost all perspective of how far we had come or how much trail was ahead.

All day, my mantra had been, “I’m only looking at the next ten feet.” Obviously, looking way, way up to the snow capped cliffs at the rim made the entire 9 mile event seem impossible. I didn’t want to psych myself out.

Here, nearing the end when the top didn’t seem so far off, I was finally putting that mantra to real use. By staring entirely at the next snippet of snow-covered trail, it didn’t look so very steep anymore. It was just a bit of snow. Whenever I occasionally looked up ahead, the distance made me queasy.

The next ten feet. Just the next ten feet. Big breath. Ten more feet. That is how the last mile went.

Understandably, it was a fantastic surprise when Joe’s voice, just feet ahead of me, said, “We made it! Here’s the sign!”

And there it was. I really don’t cry easily, but that moment got me. After all of the nervousness before the trip, we made it! After hours of focusing on the next ten feet rather than the big cliffs above, we made it!

And we made it in only 6.5 hours!

Now, curled up at home with the Oscars on in the background and a belly full of an indulgent dinner out, it seems obvious. Of course we made it. This wasn’t Everest. This wasn’t war.

Still, I’ll revel in the small glories that are mine, and mine to share with Joe. For the moment, this tops the list!

I proved to myself, once again, that anything is possible when I head toward my destination with eyes focused on the immediate task. The “next ten feet” brought me all 9 miles out of the canyon!

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