A band of brothers discovers the obvious — that hiking down is the easy part.
I'm sorry, but there’s no way a river did that,” huffs a voice among this evening’s mesmerized herd of South Rim-at-sunset gawkers.
The voice belongs to my buddy Mark Segal, 40, a food-service account manager from Long Beach, California. Or maybe it’s my other friend Vic Leyson, 34, a business manager from Studio City, California. Or maybe it’s me — or anyone else in this silhouetted Grand Canyon Village crowd staring dumbly into a glowing pink-orange megascape through iPhone screens because how else are you supposed to deal with such a hole?
The next comment, though, is unmistakably Mark’s.
“So that’s what we’re walking to the bottom of tomorrow morning,” he says blankly. He turns away. He’s seen enough. “All right, where’s the bar around here?”
A few years ago, Mark, Vic, and I tested our aging knees, our semi-firm resolve, and our rock-solid-ish friendship by hiking to the top of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas together and vowing never to do something like that again.
Then the inevitable happened. Amnesia and that restless, middle-aged itch to tear ourselves from our families for 72 hours and log another long-weekend bucket-lister with the guys led us to talk about our next big, cheap, doable conquest within two gas tanks of Los Angeles. Where should we plant our flag this time? The discussion lasted about four seconds.
What about the Grand Canyon?
It was unanimous and obvious enough. After all, it’s the Grand Canyon. A 277-mile-long, mile-deep gap in the earth carved by the Colorado River more than 6 million years ago that’s discernible from outer space. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, attracting close to 5 million annual visitors to its namesake national park — most of whom come just to gape for awhile and maybe take a few flirtatious steps into the thing before retreating back to the Bright Angel Lodge for a smoked buffalo bratwurst or Packer’s Stew in a sourdough bowl.
The Grand Canyon. Probably you’ve heard of the place.
And perhaps, like us, you might just be drawn by some inexplicable higher calling here. Or lowercalling, entering the planet’s most famous cleft and hoofing 7 to 10 miles along vertiginous trails to its riverine basement. And (important) walking all the way back up again. Don’t forget that second part.
Only a very select group of people have actually made this remarkable journey (hundreds of thousands, of all ages, from everywhere) and in myriad different ways. On mules with Phantom Ranch reservations. In football jerseys with day packs. In spandex with heart-rate monitors. In crampons and occasionally, we’ll soon discover, in tutus and kilts.
Some embark from the canyon’s remote, higher North Rim. Others go rim-to-rim, walking the canyon’s entire width. A few crazies go rim-to-rim-to-rim — hiking down one side, up the other, back down again and out the original side.
Our plan this brisk weekend in mid-October (brisk at the top, it’ll be pushing 100 degrees at midday down below) is to backpack the classic South Rim “loop.” Down the steeper, and more exposed, 7-mile South Kaibab Trail to the bottom, camping for a night by the river at Bright Angel Campground, and then back up via the canyon’s main corridor, the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail. Backcountry permits get snatched up months in advance for expeditions like this, especially during the Grand Canyon’s more temperate fall and spring shoulder seasons. Winters get icy, rainy, and frigid. Summers, the most popular time to visit the rim, swelter in the lethal triple-digits down in the inner gorge during what the park calls its “danger months.”
Our plan isn’t exactly an original one, but it’s ambitious enough. Probably, like Mount Whitney, we don’t exactly know what we’re about to put ourselves through.
“A lot of people don’t totally know what they’re getting themselves into in the Grand Canyon, even if they think they do,” says Mark Wunner, the park’s backcountry information center supervisor, who likens its signature rim-to-river hike to an upside-down mountain climb governed by conditions just as extreme, only different. “The fact that those conditions aren’t as immediately obvious as on a snowy summit can make them even more treacherous,” he says. “And, don’t forget, the toughest leg of the journey happens to be on the way back. Not that walking down is easy,” he adds. “It’s not.”
As a general rule, says Wunner, any route you take into the Grand Canyon is more demanding and magnificent than you could ever imagine. And every year, people run into serious trouble or worse on all of them. The sun, the wind. The heat, the cold. The wet, the dry. The knee-wobbling exposure. The hubris. They exact their toll on regular folks and marathoners alike. More than 250 people are rescued each year from the depths of this tourist Mecca whose popularity is dwarfed only by the setting’s staggering immensity.
“How are you guys feeling?” Mark asks us from a stool at the historic El Tovar Lounge, the night before our departure. “Excited? Nervous?”
“We did Whitney. It’ll be a walk in the park,” says Vic, a fitness buff who runs marathons but admits he had to take a step back this evening when he stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time.
Outside the lounge, a book titled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon — compiling more than 500 grisly incidents dating from the canyon’s earliest 19th-century river expeditions to its most recent rash of fatal mishaps — winks from a gift shop window. But let’s not go there.
6:31 a.m. The morning’s first load of Hikers’ Express shuttle riders disembarks at the South Kaibab trailhead (7,260 feet), atop an incomprehensible panorama of pastels and monstrous receding shadows. A dawn moon hangs in the west, ending its shift. The sun’s first reflected rays blast the tip of the canyon’s North Rim, 10 miles of empty sky away.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” says Vic, setting up a wide-angle-lens-defying shot of the three of us before we head down into the canyon’s gaping jaws.
It’s true. From up here, your eyes can’t help but refab the Grand Canyon into a magnificently fake 1950s Hollywood backdrop. It’s two-dimensional. Not real at all.
“It’ll seem real pretty soon,” mutters Mark, tightening a strap and blowing into his hands. It’s still in the low 40s. We can see our breath. Last night was barely above freezing. Thank God for air mattresses and warm socks.
7:08 a.m. Get these socks off of me. The sun still hasn’t shown its face above the cliffs (suddenly towering behind us), but after our first set of initiation switchbacks, my mouth is like sandpaper and it’s already time to strip off layers and swig more water.
“It looks like a still life down there, but things can change super quick in the gorge,” Wunner had told me. True enough already.
7:22 a.m. At a dizzying overlook called Ooh-Aah Point, we stare into the gorgeous void, grinning stupidly. If you’re not experiencing ineffable joy at Ooh-Aah Point, please consult your doctor.
“I’m really happy we’re doing this,” says Mark, succumbing. Vic and I nod. Enough said. We continue heading down. Down. Down.
8:35 a.m. Several plunging switchbacks and some broad, sun-drenched traverses later, we hit Skeleton Point (5,220 feet), the trail’s approximate midway mark and a suggested turnaround spot for day hikers — who appear to show no interest in turning around in spite of posted park warnings, in four languages, that each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion by pushing themselves all the way down to the river and back in a single day.
“If Oprah can do it, so can we,” says Gladys, a middle-aged day-tripper draped in Green Bay Packers garb. She has been planning this one-day Grand Canyon blitz for three years with her sisters, Shirley and Sharon. The Wisconsin women push on.
“We’ll be fine,” says Shirley, sharing her yogurt pretzels. “We’ll just take it slow.”
9:12 a.m. Hiding below Skeleton Point is the descent’s greatest acrophobia test, a narrow, blasted-out ledge that isn’t an ideal place for two-way traffic — but here come the morning’s first heat of pink-faced, sweat-soaked climbers hauling themselves out of the canyon, edging past us with distorted faces that don’t look nearly as joyful as they may have on the way down.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be hell,” says Mark as we crawl onward, shrinking with every step through eons of limestone and granite, sandstone and dolomite, 2 billion-year-old metamorphic schist. Once upon a time, this whole place was underwater. No point trying to get your head around that either.
9:30 a.m. It’s getting hot. Every few hundred feet lower, every few minutes closer to the midday high is a twist on the canyon’s thermostat. The temperature swing today between the rim and the inner gorge will push 60 degrees.
10:19 a.m. First we hear it. Then we see it. The Colorado River, swooshing doggedly across the canyon floor like an ageless, cocoa-colored Willy Wonka prop. What a bang-up job it’s done, carving mile-deep canyons and quenching the thirst of seven states. We should stop for a moment and pay our respects. Instead, we numbly plod on, across a black suspension bridge, past some 900-year-old Anasazi ruins and a fleet of bobbing blue-and-yellow rafts to a row of campsites lined along a burbling stream. Bright Angel Campground (2,480 feet).
“That wasn’t too bad,” Vic says, leaning his pack against a picnic table and sipping some electrolytes.
“What time is it?” grimaces Mark, rubbing his foot. “Like 4?”
11:11 a.m. “So this is what heaven looks like,” sighs Mark, basking in Bright Angel Creek, a picturesque, spring-fed brook framed by cottonwood trees, towering red cliffs, rays of hot, desert sun, and a huge, imaginary Payoff sign. “Lie down, right on your stomach,” he tells me, as I wade into the cold, shallow water. “Trust me.”
I lie face down on a bed of river stones. An intoxicating sheet of icy water rolls over my heels and calves and spine. This would be a perfect moment to grow gills. We sit in the creek for a long time, like kids who’ve forgotten their sunscreen and their cable bills so many miles and vertical feet away. If there’s one reason to hoof all the way down into the Grand Canyon, this must be it.
1 – 4 p.m. Or this — an icy glass of lemonade at Phantom Ranch, the canyon’s legendary rustic retreat situated a short walk along a cactus-lined trail from the campground. Guests can (and should) reserve cabins, dorm bunks, and steak dinners more than a year in advance at this 92-year-old, air-conditioned mirage. The rest of us can stumble into the lodge’s Canteen to hide from the afternoon heat, guzzle lemonade, build empty Tecate beer can towers, and read through a box of 30-year-old Trivial Pursuit cards to see who’s the smartest guy at the bottom of the Grand Canyon today.
“What Texas surgeon performed the first heart transplant?” Vic asks me.
“C’mon, who doesn’t know that? How about something challenging?”
’Round Midnight? It must be at least that late. I check my watch. 8:06 p.m. Lying wide-eyed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in an open tent in the pitch-dark, under a full deck of constellations, beside a burbling creek, folded in mile-deep cliffs and lightly swirling breezes, one’s whole grasp of time soon becomes as trivial as any other human pursuit.
It’s the greatest sleepless night of my life, tempered by one little preoccupation. Tomorrow we have to walk out.
6:28 a.m. At sunrise, the canyon reappears in silky, pink light that you can almost touch. Ten feet away, a deer stands in the creek having a drink. Hulking above us, the canyon is stunningly, quietly real — nothing two-dimensional about it. You’re really in it down here. That’s the greatest payoff of all.
“This is not going to be fun,” Mark groans, waking up with a hiker’s worst hangover — a pulled foot muscle at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “You guys go on ahead,” he says, staring up at the mountainous cliffs. “I’m going to be taking a very, very long time.”
No. We’re sticking together. We’re either walking out of this thing as a band of brothers, or we’re settling down here and opening a new lodge with cheaper lemonade. Three Guys. All for one, and one for all.
7:42 a.m. The safest route back up to the South Rim is via the Bright Angel Trail, which follows a massive fault break with shade, ranger stations, emergency phones, water fill-up stops, petroglyph sites, and four segments of 1,000-plus-foot climbs that look much friendlier on the map.
The first major hurdle is an interminable set of switchbacks through a massive, craggy bowl — aptly named the Devil’s Corkscrew. Here, a giggly group of young women jog (yes, jog) past us, down the Devil’s Corkscrew, in bright tutus — one of them with a tiara on her head. A minute later a middle-aged woman (a bachelorette party chaperone perhaps?) trots by in a kilt trying to catch up with them. Are we hallucinating already?
9:25 a.m. By the time we haul ourselves up to Indian Garden (3,800 feet), a riparian oasis covered in cottonwoods and wildflowers at the trail’s halfway point, the Bright Angel’s morning pageantry of super-fit trailblazers has revealed a serious gender imbalance. About 90 percent women.
What does that say about men? Can we not discuss this right now? We have enough on our plate.
The three of us sit for a while under a canopy of yellowing cottonwoods, resting our shoulders and thighs beside an old corral and a sign warning us not to feed the squirrels. The temperature hangs in the mid-70s. Not a cloud in the sky. It’s a superbly pleasant spot that makes you temporarily forget where you are.
“How did we land up in Griffith Park?” Mark asks, petting a mule and popping another ibuprofen.
9:42 a.m. And just like that, we’re back in the Grand Canyon again. The midway mark may be behind us, but the bulk of the climb is dead ahead. The last 4 miles of high desert trail feature endless switchbacks on a massive series of steep, sunbaked cliffs furnished with a couple of little rest houses named, deceptively enough, “Three-Mile” and “Mile-and-a-Half” — which are actually 1,000 miles apart.
“How long to the top from here, would you say?” Mark asks a perky, young park guide, striding up into the cliffs with a small group of clients.
“It really varies,” counsels the guide. “But it’s not how fast you get up — it’s that you do it with a smile.”
Hmm. Not helpful.
10:11 a.m. Up we go. Back and forth. Back and forth. Until now, the trip has been grueling at times but mainly just spectacular. Here, a weariness sets in, like we’ve entered a long, costly toll road full of gorgeous views that have grown kind of familiar and increasing crowds who stare at us and our heavy packs like we’re nuts.
“Something’s not right,” gasps Mark, craning his neck and peering up at the South Rim. “Is it just me, or does the top keep getting farther and farther away?”
10:42 a.m. Upon reaching Three-Mile Resthouse (4,748 feet), Vic pulls ahead and high-tails it to the top alone. What about today’s band-of-brothers pact? Or was that even today? No, that was ages ago.
12:26 p.m. Then it’s Mark’s turn to move on ahead. “How long are you planning on sitting here?” he asks me at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse (5,729 feet).
Perched on a rocky ledge, staring down at the abyss, listening to my pulse, letting a faint altitude headache subside, I notice the Grand Canyon receding back into two dimensions.
How in the world did we walk all the way down into that? And all the way back again — minus one-and-a-half ceaseless miles?
Mark hobbles on. He’ll see me at the top.
Some unspecified time later: I must be getting close. Folks are now strolling down the Bright Angel Trail in loafers and chatting about dinner reservations. Some of them are holding hands.
“You come from the bottom?” a guy in cotton slacks asks me. “How long did it take you?”
I glance at my watch. I’m not sure. Two billion years, give or take? Anyway, it’s not how fast you go, right? It’s whether you go with a smile.
I stop. Throw off my pack again. Lean against the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon.
What a place to work on that lesson.
Photography by Adam Schallau
From the July 2015 issue.