Thursday, December 13, 2012

Our Not-So-Grand venture into the Grand Canyon

So, I was cruising about, reading folks' blogs, when I came upon a wonderful tale of adventure.  It inspired me to head back here and write about an adventure of my own.

About a thousand years ago (or maybe it was closer to 18 years ago), then-boyfriend/now-hubby and I decided to hike the Grand Canyon.  Being youngish (in our twenties), well-hiked (we were given to two or three hikes a week, with really wowser excursions on the weekends), and adventurous, we headed for the North Rim on a whim--no reservations, almost no money, and no real plan.

Exactly the way you SHOULDN'T go to the Grand Canyon.

When we asked about overnight back-country passes on that FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND, we were told that those are all claimed months in advance.  When we asked if it was possible to hike in and back out in one day, the ranger blinked and said, "Possible?  Sure, it's possible, but I wouldn't recommend trying."

Which, of course, inspired us to do exactly that.  I have no defense.  We were stupid.

To our credit, we did bring enough water, which is the most common mistake hikers make in that area--they don't bring enough water and wind up dangerously dehydrated.  We did bring sunscreen and hats, which left us unburned after the hellish 13 hours we spent in that hateful chasm.  We brought enough food, which is good, and we even brought a well-stocked first aid kit, which proved handy.

Necessary, even.

To our not-so-credit (is that even a phrase?)?  I had a tragic creek-rock-hopping incident the night before, soaking my good hiking boots.  So, instead of wearing my fancy explorer footwear, I wore my Cons.  You know, my high-top Chuck Taylors.  Great for slick rock, not so good for steep, sandy, gravel-y trails.  And yeah, I knew that, but I'd hiked in them before, and, other than a little bit of tightening up in the calves, they'd been just fine.


The first thing I noticed when we hit the trail at a little before eight in the morning?  That my feet slid just a tiny bit forward in the shoes with each step.  It's a very, very steep trail, North Kaibab, and each step finds you sliding in the fine, powdery sand and gravel, so you step, then slide slightly, then step, then slide.  All the while, my feet shifting ever so slightly within the shoes.

At about an hour-and-a-half in, my ankle went over.  Hard.  I was backing off the trail to make way for the first mule train coming down and came down wrong on a loose rock.  Landed hard on my backside when the ankle gave.  I explored, tested, twisted it, and decided it was sound enough.  I took a couple Ibuprofen and off we went.

By the time we reached the Redwall Bridge (not too far beyond the Supai Tunnel), I was feeling about done.  Not done like done in for the day, but I felt I had enough left in me to hike back out comfortably.  My feet were starting to hurt, my ankle was not solid, and my back was starting to twinge (a car accident 8 months earlier had wreaked havoc on my lumbar region).  I kept looking up at those canyon walls and thinking, be careful--you're going to have to hike back OUT of here.  I said to hubby, "So, how 'bouts we finish up lunch, have a smoke (yes, we smoked, yes we ALWAYS hauled our butts out with us!), and call it a day?"  He looked over at me and said, maybe a little disdainfully, "Well, if you don't think you can make it."

Seeing as I have as much testosterone as the next girl, I, of course, responded with, "Oh, I can MAKE it, don't worry about ME." 

Again, I plead youth and stupidity.

So we finished our lunch, made friends with Winky, the one-eyed squirrel, and then hit the trail. 

Winky and his pal.  The squirrels all seemed to be worshipping the sun.

Let me tell you something about the Grand Canyon.  It is populated by sadistic Mile Shouters.  What's a Mile Shouter?  It's someone who, no matter how far it REALLY is to your destination, smiles blithely, waves a careless hand, and shouts, "Roaring Springs?  Oh, it's about a mile!"  We came across a half dozen of these beasts, most of them power-walking.  In the Grand Canyon.  That, in itself, should have served as warning.

So, how far is it really from Supai Tunnel to Roaring Springs?   About three times as far as those awful creatures claimed, and it's a tough, tough few miles.  It's HOT, and it's jarring, and it's slow going, which makes it seem a whole lot farther than just three miles. 

Once we got to Roaring Springs, with its CHAINED-SHUT BATHROOMS (thanks, folks), I knew I was pretty well done in.  My feet were burning, aching, and stinging, and my lower back had begun to really give me grief.  I soaked my still-shod feet in the ice-cold pool, then sprawled out on the huge (limestone?) slab next to the water.  By now, it was nearly 1 pm.  Since the park literature warns to allow twice as long to hike back OUT as it takes to get IN, I knew it was seriously time to go.  Hubby, however, just wanted to go a little farther,  to Cottonwood Camp.  That's an extra 2.2 miles.  Understand, on other trails, 2.2 miles seemed like nothing, it was chump change, a breeze.  But on the North Kaibab Trail?

Not even.

Spotted this guy (some sort of Collared Lizard) right before we hit the end of our trail.

We'd made it another--oh, maybe half-mile when I finally sat down and said, "I'm done.  I am done."  Hubby turned around, about to say something bracing or inspirational, when he looked down at my feet.  My strangely rust-foaming feet.  See, the water from the pool and the BLOOD from my feet had mixed with the dust from the trail to create a strange, foamy substance bubbling from the little holes in the sides of my fancy Chuck Taylors. 

Nothing matches the expression of a guy who realizes he's just, quite literally, walked the feet off his girlfriend.

We peeled my shoes and socks off, and holy cow.  What wasn't blistered was just plain gone--raw meat.  Not just toes and heels, but pads and even the sides.  Toes raw tops and bottoms.  It was a gorefest of epic proportions.  Luckily, we were well-prepared, first aid-wise.  We used distilled water and hydrogen peroxide to rinse my feet, then slathered them in Bacitracin and wrapped them thoroughly with gauze and tape.  And then?  Clean, dry socks.  Two pairs, because there was no way those Cons were going back on--my feet had begun to swell the moment those shoes came off.  Then I ate two more Ibuprofen and off we . . . hobbled.

And oh, it was bad.  It was awful.  It wasn't hiking, it was shambling.  I chanted marching tunes and old ROTC calls.   I stopped every ten-fifteen steps to stretch out my back, a bit horrified by the crispy cellophane sounds coming from my spine.

Remember how steep it was hiking in?  Guess what?  It's at least twice that steep coming back out.  I can't begin to adequately describe just how hard this was.  I found myself favoring first one foot, then the other, which strained my back viciously.  As the sciatica got increasingly bad, the pain began extending across the hip and down through my right leg.  Eventually, I was more throwing the leg forward than really walking. 

Thank goodness we brought almost enough smokes. 

Almost enough?  Yes.  See, if we'd brought more than enough, I might have been tempted to sleep by the side of the trail.  But instead, we brought just enough to inspire us to get out.  No, I'm not happy I smoked, but my addiction did prod me to keep trying. 

As did the bats.

At around 8:00 pm, the bats started coming out.  In droves.  We were almost out of smokes, still didn't feel we were any closer to that rim (it's an optical illusion, the rim appears to be rising to match your progress), and I was teetering.  Seriously faltering.  While sitting on the side of the trail, smoking my last, I spied a largish rock next to hubby.  I said, "You should drop that bastard on my ankle, make the rangers come get us."  He said, "Are you serious?"  I said, "I don't know--grab the rock and let's find out."

I have to stress that this was the most absolutely, hopelessly miserable and tortured I had ever been.  Even now, knowing what I know, I say this:  I would rather go through two days of unmedicated labor than suffer that hike again.

No kidding.

It was almost nine when we finally reached the trailhead.  Carved into the back of the sign? 

****OH, GOD, DON'T DO IT!!!****

Thanks for the warning, folks.  Might try carving that into the FRONT of the sign, huh? 

We got to the car, hubby dug a pack of smokes out of the glove box, and I sprawled across the hood.  That first drag?  What can I tell you--if every smoke was like that one drag, I'd never have been able to quit.  Thankfully, NO other drag was every like that, and most of them just sucked. 

We headed to the campground showers--no, we weren't camping there, we were out in the National Forest just outside the park, camping for free.  But we were looking to drop our VERY last (no kidding) few quarters into the showers and wash the day's agony off.  The water ran pink with the color of the trail dust.  Sadly, hubby doesn't shower very quickly, and wound up running out of water well before he'd gotten the soap and shampoo rinsed off.  He wound up having to use the sink.  Made him wildly popular with the folks with small children, I'm sure. 

That night, we crashed without eating.  First time in YEARS, I slept for a full nine hours.  Woke up with a bladder so full I thought I might burst.  But I felt GOOD!  I felt ALIVE and ENERGETIC and AMAZING! 

And then I tried to sit up.  And couldn't.

No kidding, I was stuck--any attempt to sit up was met with stiffness and pain that was overwhelming.  I started to laugh.  Uproariously.  Then I woke hubby.  Told him I couldn't get up.  He laughed at me.  Laughed and laughed.  And then he tried to sit up.  And couldn't.  We lay there, laughing, as the sun hit the tent and the temperature began to rise rapidly.  I half-joked that, if we didn't get out soon, we'd boil to death in our own urine.  I finally managed to haul myself onto my side and do the pregnant-lady push with the arms until I was upright. 

I hurt for days.  My feet were un-shoe-able for well over a week.  I hobbled about, bare foot (or sock-footed) like a stiff, sad, broken creature.  We still had a fabulous remainder to our road trip, but it was a slower remainder.  A more Ibuprofen-fueled remainder.  A lot less hiking, a lot more rock-hounding involving sifting rather than sledge swinging. 

We never went back.  At first, that was willful--we swore we would never, ever hike Grand Canyon again.  Later, we started to think maybe we'd like to do it again, but this time with back country permits, the right shoes, and, obviously, no smoking.  But it never happened, and, as I push fifty, I realize it probably never will.  And you know what?

That's okay, too.  Maybe I'll hire a mule instead. 

Oh, and the final math?  We hiked about 10.5 miles.  We'd hiked more than that in a day before, but not like this.  North Kaibab isn't like other trails.  It's maybe more like hell.


  1. When we are young we often don't listen to our own self. I found myself skiing down many very hard runs because Craig said I could do it!

  2. Great story! I too, used Chucks as hiking boots many times. I know what you mean about how they are good on slickrock but not sandy soil. The sliding raises blisters, I haven't quite managed to completely debride my feet though, ouch! I also tend to end up hiking twice as far as I meant to because I just want to go a little further, especially if I'm in a place that I know I won't come back to for a long time. I haven't hiked the Grand Canyon, because my ex never wanted to go very far. When I did drag him somewhere he always wanted to turn back before I did, which probably saved me a lot of pain. He was good at rubbing my hips back into commission when I overdid it to the point of not being able to stand up. You were brave that day, thanks for sharing this cautionary tale.