My first hike was a nine-mile jaunt to Indian Gardens Sunday night/Monday morning. I got off work around 11:45 p.m. Sunday night, went to my cabin and changed and immediately set out down the Bright Angel Trail. I made really good time getting down there as I didn't stop to rest once other than to retie my shoes at the Three-Mile Rest House. I had sort of planned on continuing out to Plateau Point for the sunrise, but when I checked the sunrise time on the notice board they have set up down there, my obvious mistake was brought to my attention: sunrise was about 5:15, and it wasn't even 2 a.m
. yet. I didn't want to head straight back right then, though, and I was feeling tired after having been on my feet for six hours straight and then hiking for almost two, so I lay down on one of the benches and took a two-hour power nap. Once I woke up I started heading back up, getting to see the dawn from part way up the cliff rather than at Plateau Point. The hike was uneventful, except for all of the wildlife. I saw almost every type of creature you can think of in the canyon: mule deer and mice on my way down, then squirrels and birds and more mule deer and a snake (stretched across the path, but sadly not a rattler; it was different shades of green rather than pink and moved before I could snap a photo) and the mule train heading down and, best of all, several big horn sheep grazing on the slopes. It was my first time seeing the big horn sheep, something I had wanted to see before I left here. Also, at one point a mule deer followed me up the trail a while. I would turn to look at it and it would stop and stare at me quizzically, then when I started walking again it would walk behind me on the trail too. I made it to the top a little after 7 a.m., which was pretty good time -- about five hours, if you don't count my nap, for nine miles, half of those going up the canyon.
Monday evening I went by the rec center for an ice cream float social. It was nice sitting outside eating floats with a bunch of people (about 75 people showed up) and talking to everyone, people I knew and strangers
. There were a ton of elk roaming around nearby -- at least 10, maybe more, ranging from babies to the fully grown adults -- and the sunset was amazing, with brilliant purple and orange hues lighting up the clouds. All in all, a very nice, relaxing evening.
Tuesday afternoon I took the shuttle down to Hermit's Rest to check out the Hermit Trail, something I have been interested in getting onto and exploring for a couple weeks. The trail is unmaintained, so it's more rugged than the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails. I actually didn't go very far down the actual Hermit Trail: it splits off after about a mile and a half and one trail continues down to the river and the other becomes Dripping Springs Trail and leads to, what else, Dripping Springs, which was where I was headed. This hike was an experience, one of superlatives, the best and worst of things, including literally almost dying, but the first part was fairly uneventful, although nice. The trail drops pretty quickly, descending about 1,500 feet in about a mile and a half. As I said, it's pretty rugged and uneven, with plenty of rocks and odd slopes. It's also a bit different from descending into the main canyon: Hermit Trail leads into a side canyon, and that canyon's floor is around 5,000 feet, 2,000 feet above the Tonto Platform, which is the large plateau in the middle of the main canyon. So once I reached the bottom of the trail and was walking on semi-level ground, it was in a different environment than when walking on the bottom of the canyon
. There were a lot of trees, pine and juniper, and plenty of undergrowth as well. The trail traversed a ridge that went around a couple of other side canyons, half way up the side of the canyon. It offered some good views into the main area of the canyon. Finally, the trail turned and went up the bottom of a final side canyon, and it felt like just walking through a valley. The trail followed a dry stream bed until finally reaching Dripping Springs. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was pretty much exactly what you would imagine from the name: some water dripping from the ceiling of this little half-cave into a small pool. I thought it was sort of neat seeing all the vegetation that had sprung up around it, but it was fairly unimpressive and the amount of bugs that were there swiftly offset any good feelings I had about it.
This is where the fun began. I had recently purchased a big, nice fold-out map of the canyon and surrounding areas that showed pretty much all the trails, and it showed one leading out the other side of Dripping Springs, basically continuing the original trail, but it wasn't an official trail. In fact, I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "trail": it was more just this narrow part of the ground that had slightly fewer rocks and where cacti didn't actually grow on
, just next to and over. A lot of the time it seemed more like it was just pointing the general direction and saying, "figure out how to get over there yourself," since it was often easier to go on a different area than the actual path
. But I digress. The path led out of the canyon and to some trails that went through the woods on the rim, so my plan was to take that and then loop around back to the village. As I walked on the path, heading up and across the ridge, I saw on my map that it made a loop and ended up on the cliffs above Dripping Springs, after going through several switchbacks. I figured I could just save myself time and distance and skip the loop by just heading straight up the side of the ridge. It was a decently steep slope, but nothing too tough and nothing worse than stuff I had scrambled over before. All that went fine, and it would have continued to be fine, except when I reached the cliffs at the top of the slope, I decided they looked climbable, enough so that I could just skip the trail entirely and go straight up the cliffs and out of the canyon. And before that seems more stupid than it actually was (and it was plenty stupid), it's not like they were these sheer vertical cliff faces. It was more a series of ledges, and most of the time I was not even going to have to literally climb, more just scramble up really steep slopes. So I started up.
It went well, for a while. As I said, most of the time I didn't have to climb, and the few actually vertical ascents I made were easy and fun, with plenty of handholds and cracks in the rock, or two rock faces coming together in a corner and letting me get some leverage and so forth
. I was feeling good about my chances, and I was getting to a point where I could see the top of the canyon, just a couple more ledges above me. That's when I got to a tricky area. There was a wide ledge I could stand or sit on and rest and be comfortable, and then at maybe chest level there was another thin ledge that I could stand on, but I would have to be holding on and couldn't just relax. Then, finally, there was another maybe ten foot climb: as I stood on the tiny ledge, the next wide area was still a few feet above my outstretched arms. It looked do-able, with a crack where a section of the rock pushed out further than the rest, and a very rough face with what seemed like plenty of footholds. But as I started climbing, the footholds were not as substantial as they had appeared, and with me being in hiking boots, my feet kept slowly sliding off. I was still OK since I had decent grips and almost always had at least one foot somewhere pretty solid, but it was tiring me out having to work harder to keep going. Eventually, though, my head poked up over the top of the ledge, and I thought I had made it. All that remained was to find a decent grip on top and leverage myself over the edge. The only problem was, there was no grip on top. Not a one. I can normally find a tiny crack to cram a finger into or even just a little rise that will let me put pressure down to hold myself up, but there was nothing. It was almost completely flat and just covered with loose rocks that I obviously couldn't grab. I was holding myself up with only the weight of my arms pressing down on the flat surface, and I could feel my strength waning and my feet slowly sliding
. I made one last effort to grab something, anything, gasped "No ...", and fell. In that instant, I knew that was it, I was dead. I was going to fall the 15 feet or so (less distance from the bottom of my feet, only 10 feet or so), which would be fine and wouldn't even hurt me, except I knew I would hit that wider ledge and just keep going with my momentum over the much higher cliff, and that would be it.
Obviously, since I'm posting this, I didn't die. I hit that tiny ledge and managed to grab the crack that ran up the cliff face, and I just held on and caught my breath, feeling all that adrenalin coursing through my body. It was such a crazy feeling, with my body still going full throttle and my mind full of relief, knowing I was basically safe. That was the first time I have ever seriously thought I was going to die, and while at the time it wasn't much fun, looking back on it it's a huge thrill. That was when I realized I actually am an adrenalin junky, not just a guy who likes climbing stuff and jumping off stuff and other adventurous things. But don't worry, I don't plan on intentionally putting my life at risk just for the adrenalin rush or anything. Anyway, after that, my nerve was pretty understandably shot when it came to climbing, so I decided to head back down the cliffs and follow my original plan of heading south and west to the gap in the cliffs and the path that led out of the canyon
. There was an additional problem, though: all the climbing was thirsty work and I had been drinking a lot, so I ran out of water. That was not good, especially as I was still in the canyon, but there wasn't anything to do about it, so I kept going. As I worked my way down the cliffs, it was easier than coming up, since I could just climb down part of the way and then jump the last several feet, or even just dangle off a ledge and drop instead of having to actually climb. But I came to one spot where I thought I was stuck. It was too high to actually jump or drop off of, but I couldn't figure out how to climb down either. I had originally climbed up using a crack where two rock faces met, but I couldn't figure out how to use it to climb down. This part was perhaps even worse for me than actually falling off the cliff, because I thought I was stuck. I couldn't go up, couldn't go down, didn't have a cell signal, nothing. I thought I would have to just risk it and go for it, trying to hold onto the crack and get as far down as I could before I fell, or ... something. I didn't really know what I was going to do. But as I sat there thinking, I saw a dead tree lying off down the ledge a ways. It was thin and seemed fragile, but I thought it might support me, and it was pretty long, so I decided to move it over to the corner I had come up and drop it off, hoping it wouldn't keep falling and would rest there so I could use it as a ladder. Surprisingly, it worked absolutely perfectly. I managed to manhandle it with a bit of difficulty to a good spot and push it over, and it stopped in a spot so good I couldn't have planned it if I tried
. I shimmied down the trunk, silently blessing all the video games I've played in which I've had to do something similar for giving me the idea.
I was in the canyon for another hour to an hour and a half. I found and lost the trail a couple more times, but the trail was sort of secondary since I knew which direction to go and that it followed a stream bed (dry, of course, as if mocking me) up the side canyon to the rim. After struggling through the woods (two different types, in fact -- the pine and juniper woods and the kind with actual leafs and what seemed like oaks and the like, though I wasn't paying much attention to the types of trees) and getting my arms and legs (I was in shorts) completely torn up by first cacti and other spiky plants and then thorns in the other type of woods, I made it to the top just in time to see a beautiful sunset. I couldn't drink a sunset, though, so I snapped a quick photo and kept moving.
I felt better now that I was out of the canyon and on level ground again. I can go virtually indefinitely without resting on flat ground, and that's pretty much what I did. I walked eight and a half miles without stopping and with no water. I knew that if I stopped to rest it might make my tired legs feel a little better, but it wouldn't help me get to water and that was my largest concern
. At one point I went more than a mile out of my way to where a trail left the national park, hoping there might be a little hut or some kind of way station or check point that just might have some water, but it was just a gate in a fence. I did walk through it, though, so I could say I left the park. At one point I lost the path, since it was very faint, and had to wander through the woods in the dark (I did have a flashlight) just heading north, because I knew I would eventually run into this old road since it ran straight east and west across the area, so I wasn't really lost, but wandering tired and thirsty through the woods at night isn't fun, even if you know in general where you're going. The entire walk was sort of torturous: I was tired, but I knew resting was pointless, since I was so much more thirsty than tired. So I just kept walking. My map showed the distances between points where trails met or other significant features, so I would get to one and then say, "OK, just .6 more miles," or "Only 1.4 more miles until you get to the next point," even though the next point was just where another trail ran into mine and I would keep going straight. I was also checking my cell phone regularly, hoping for a bar. Finally, I saw one and just sat down heavily on the side of the trail and started dialing. I tried a few people and couldn't reach them due to the signal going in and out, but finally, I managed to reach Lyndsi. I knew her roommate, Helen, had a car since we rode in it to the South Kaibab trail head
. She was with Helen, and they were willing to come get me (by this point I was fairly near a road cars could access) ... but Helen's car was still at the trail head where she left it. Lyndsi said she'd call some other people with cars and call me back, so we hung up and I kept walking, a bit more hopeful.
A few minutes later Lyndsi called me back and said one of her friends with a car could come pick me up and she'd call me back when they had met up. I was happy and, even though I was still a half-mile from the road, felt less tired knowing that a half-mile was pretty much all I had left to walk. I got to the road and reconnected with Lyndsi and gave them directions to where I was. Eventually, I saw some headlights in the distance. My ride! But even more than a ride, it meant water. When the car pulled up and I opened the door, I was surprised to see it was full. Along with Lyndsi and Eric, whose car it was, Helen and a girl I hadn't met named Kristen had come along too. They were all concerned about me, and while I really was touched, more important than their concern for me right then was their water. I got in, they handed me a bottle, and I downed it almost without stopping to breath. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. After the first bottle they had a second, and I worked on that one too as we headed back to the village. They obviously had question, and I answered some of them, but I was much more concerned with drinking than talking. As we got back to the village, they stopped by a lodge to see if the pizza pub was still open so I could grab some food, it being a couple of minutes before 11 p.m., but it was closed. I wasn't too upset, since I wasn't really hungry at the time. I thanked the group and headed to my cabin. When I got there, I told my roommates a bit about what happened and downed a Gatorade for good measure before taking a much needed shower
. That water was amazing. Afterward, I took tweezers to my legs to pull out all the spikes and thorns sticking out of them, then passed out for some, sweet, sweet sleep.
So yeah, I was pretty much the poster child for all the dumb things you're not supposed to do in the canyon: I didn't take enough water (well, I think I would have had enough if not for the climbing); I went alone without telling people exactly where I was going and my itenerary; I went off the path in an area I didn't really know; I climbed cliffs without any gear; I didn't exactly misread my map, but I didn't think about exactly how far it was once I got out of the canyon back to the village. Don't do those things. I wasn't very smart on that hike, and it wasn't pleasant while it was happening, but now that I'm a couple of days away from it and have rested (and had plenty of fluids) since, I'm almost glad it happened. It showed me I can go through something tough on my own without losing my head or panicking or giving up, and it showed me what precautions to take or preparations to make so that something like that doesn't happen to me again, potentially in an even more dangerous situation. Plus, now I have a canyon story to tell beyond the basic, "I went on this awesome hike one day ..." If I went back in time would I do it the same? Probably not. But would I change it now? Nope.
During my most recent weekend, I did some more hiking, but this time I went by myself. I really like hiking with friends and people I've just met, with groups both large and small, but it was really nice to get out by myself and be able to go at my own pace, rest or not rest as I chose and be able to experience the canyon in my own way. At least, it was on my first hike. My second was a bit more ... interesting. But that happened later.