675 miles hiked
The temperature drops and a storm breaks open in the night and we wake to snow, dusting the campground and our tent. How to get up in this? We stay in our sleeping bags, warm and dry, until 8, and by the time we step off the shuttle into the cold rain at the Bright Angel trailhead it’s 9 a.m. Time to hike!
With each switchback down the 6,000 feet to the Colorado river, the rain warms a little more, until we’re pulling off our layers. Near Indian Garden campground we meet a young ranger named Matt, who kindly asks us for our permit. He has an HMG pack and is carrying a silver trekking umbrella for the rain. He’s obviously into long-distance hiking, and I ask him if his job allows him to get away on long trips much. Turns out that just last winter he and another ranger, a woman, traversed the north side of the Grand Canyon, below the rim, covering 700 miles in 37 days, without coming up once. In winter. They spent months gathering beta, and placed caches in advance with a packraft. There aren’t really trails along the north side of the canyon, so they basically boulder-hoped, scrambled, canyoneered, and bushwhacked 700 miles along the space between the river and the rim, somehow averaging 20 miles per day. With ice and snow. My mind is officially blown.
“I’m a climber,” says Matt, when I ask him what he looks for in adventures. “And I’m always looking for the most remote places, where nobody goes. Grand Canyon is one of the only places like that left in the lower 48.”
We hustle down the trail after talking to Ranger Matt. While it’s no wintertime Grand Canyon traverse, we’ve got our own personal challenge today- make it down this nice corridor trail to the Colorado river, across the bridge, and then climb 6,000 feet on another nice corridor trail (the North Kaibab trail) back up to the North Rim. 24 miles, and we didn’t start hiking until 9 a.m. Our permit doesn’t allow us to camp in between, so we’ve got to get to the other rim before dark. Time to move!
Except midday we have to stop at Phantom Ranch, a cluster of cabins alongside Bright Angel Creek in the bottom of the canyon, and dry our wet tent and sleeping bags in the sun and heat, which have just appeared. You see, it’s 70 degrees at phantom ranch, which makes it an excellent lunch spot. There are fat mangy squirrels and mule poop and day hikers everywhere. A chalkboard in the cafe reveals the forecasted high for where we’re headed, back up to the North Rim from which we seemingly only just escaped: 34 degrees. And snowing? Probably.
After Phantom Ranch the trail follows Bright Angel creek for a very long time upstream, through pleasing groves of cottonwoods beneath high rock walls. A sign tells us that Bright Angel creek was named by the same person who named the Dirty Devil river, a mormon dude who liked to explore and name shit. We are passed by at least thirty rim-to-rim-to-rim runners in the afternoon. They’re headed back to the South Rim on the return leg of their 40+ mile trek. The runners wear scraps of neon clothing and carry hydration packs. About a third of the runners seem extremely happy. The rest seem very upset. We start to call them “rimmers”, and we cheer them on as they pass. The happy ones like this. The upset ones do not.
The sky darkens and rain starts to fall as we reach the switchbacks that will take us straight the fuck up, back to the North Rim. We’re higher now, and this rain is really cold. I’m wearing just my synthetic t-shirt and rain jacket, which doesn’t work too well and feels clammy and wet on the inside, but the trail is steep enough that as long as I do not stop hiking I won’t get hypothermia. It’s evening now and the rimmers are gone and there’s no-one out here but us, and presently it starts to snow, so I blast Taylor Swift from my phone in defiance. The snow is cold and the wind is cold and the trail is steep but we don’t stop hiking, and soon we’re looking down at all the switchbacks below us and the North Rim with its crown of ponderosas wreathed in fog is hovering just above, so close. We know from the maps that there’s a privy at the trailhead up top, and we talk about this privy as though it’s the most luxurious hotel. We just have to make it to the privy!
The privy is one of the more disgusting one’s I’ve seen. It looks as though people have been using it all winter, and it hasn’t really been cleaned. We opt for our tent instead, and stay inside the privy just long enough to change into dry layers, because we are soaked and no longer climbing and so are suddenly very very cold. Then we stumble through the snowy forest, numb and sort of stiff, until we find a spot flat enough for our tent, fight with the rocky ground for our stakes, climb inside our sleeping bags, and wait for our hands to thaw enough to cook dinner. It’s twenty-something degrees. We both manage to tip over (then salvage) our dinners while they’re cooking but it is warmer in our tent and our bags are dry and fluffy and soon we’re fed and warm and the snow falls softly on our tent and moments after that we’re asleep.
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