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The Journey

Grand Canyon Hiking in the Time of COVID

12.13.20
grand canyon hiking in the time of covid

A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door.

Confucius

prep

the preperation

Confucius, where were you when we were heading to the Grand Canyon?!?

Chad is the planner in the family. I’m more the figure-it-out-as-you-go type. If you look at the success each of us has had in our lifetime, you could probably make some strong assumptions about which method is best. He calls my method lazy, but that is only because it is.  But that’s another blog for another day. Chad was working on a lot of other things while we were in Sedona and Flagstaff, so I was tasked with planning our trip to the Grand Canyon.

Full disclosure, I did not do very much research about the Grand Canyon before we left. I mean, I tried…a little. I put in maybe 3-4 hours of research. The website was a little confusing so I tried calling the park to speak to a human. Turns out, that wasn’t much better. There were just 5-6 lines of listening to prerecorded messages, not a real-live human. Between the website and the pre-recorded messages (that were a week-off, by the way), I figured out which parts of the park were open and where we needed to go to get a backcountry permit…and that was it. So… we would just have to figure it out. No problem.

We headed to REI the night before to pick up a few things. I knew I needed a new camping backpack, but didn’t really want to invest in a new one for this one trip. They are so expensive! This decision would come back to bite me a little later… While shopping, I overheard a couple talking to an employee about hiking the Grand Canyon. I listened closely and then approached her after they were done to get the low down.

The prognosis did not sound good. She made it seem like it would be impossible to get a permit the same day and said many people wait days or weeks. Well…we would have one day of wiggle room. We just needed to get to the Canyon early the next morning and hope for the best. Chad and I both have a history of things just working out…so we had pretty high hopes.

arrival

upon arrival

We did not yet have our National Parks Pass, but I read that it was easier to just request those at the first park you visited. I was hoping this process didn’t take long, as we needed to head to the backcountry office and get our permit quickly if we were going to make it down the Canyon today.

Turns out, it is SUPER easy to get your parks pass. We drove up to the entrance, the guy said: Are you military? We said yes. He said, here’s your military parks pass. It gets you and every one in your car into any park for free. Yahtzee!

We headed straight to the backcountry office to get in line. Turns out, the system during the time of COVID is not quite the norm. Here are the steps that made this work:

  1.  Arrive at the backcountry office as close to opening (8 AM) as possible. This is located at 1 Backcountry Rd, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023. It is approximately 15 minutes from the park entrance.
  2.  The doors will be locked, but there are a set of instructions posted on the door. You send an e-mail to an address they give you listing your name, the trail you want to hike (we gave a first, second, and third choice to increase our chances), and when you wanted the pass.
  3. The guy manning the e-mail account that day will give you a call when he gets to your e-mail. On average, this should be by 11 AM, but the earlier you email, the better. He confirms the trail you want, if it’s available, and other details you made need to know.
  4. You pay for your permit over the phone.
  5. You go pick up your permit at the pre-agreed upon location, right outside the office
  6. You head to your trailhead

One of the routes we chose did have availability as it was one of the hardest in the park. Since it was so late in the day, he didn’t want to issue us a one day pass. Generally, they don’t like to give passes for the same day up and back, especially when it is later in the morning. They are very #safetyfirst. So, to make this guy feel better, we went ahead and paid for a two-day pass despite being fully determined to get down and back the next day. If we pushed harder, he probably would have given it, but just keep in mind that they don’t really like to do that.

It was good to finally talk to a human, because the guy on the phone told us about our route, handed us some trail pamphlets, and then spent a lot of time warning us about the rat problem. He made it sound like we were going to get eaten alive by 1,000 rats by the river. Turns out…not terribly far off the truth.

 

hike down

the race to beat sunset

We had selected Tanner Trail. It was about 8-9 miles to the bottom with about a 5,000 ft drop in elevation. It did not intersect with any other trails, and there was no water source until we reached the bottom.

By the time we drove out to the trailhead (about 45-minute drive carrying our tiny home), it was close to 12:30 PM. Sunset was about 5:30. We had 5 hours to hike down 9 miles and set up camp. No problem.

The first part of the trail is a steep 1.5 miles of switchbacks with a large drop in elevation that we affectionately named, The Switch Bitch. We were mentally preparing for her the whole hike back the next day.

[At this point, I am starting to feel the weight of my backpack. It was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill office backpack. No fancy features to help distribute the weight, and therefore I started feeling it directly on my shoulders. Luckily, I’m marrying an Engineer who spent about a half-mile staring at my back and trying to find a solution to my problem. Two bungees cords later, my backpack was rigged differently to lift the weight from the bottom and make the whole feel shift for the better.]

The trail basically goes all the way down to a creek bed before ascending back up in elevation for a half-mile or so before the greatest 3-mile stretch of the hike we named “Gives-You-Life Ridgeline.” During this part, we are just cruising. We get a couple of jogs in to make up some time. It’s mostly flat for this stretch and we were stoked.

After the Gives-You-Life Ridgeline, you start some steep, rocky descents again. It’s not quite like Switch Bitch, but this ain’t your mothers mall walk. It’s steep with a little less switch back and more long descents. Real butt-burners. At this point, you can start to see the Colorado River and can maybe take some guesses at where the trail would run into it. Most likely, you will be wrong. You can’t ACTUALLY see where the trail meets the river from this point.

The last and final 1.5-2 mile descent is what we appropriately called The Thigh Crusher. The incline wasn’t hard or steep, it was just forever long. You start to feel it all in your hips and thighs. We found reprieve by jogging it out and letting gravity and light-footedness carry us down the hill with less effort. After running a good majority of the last mile, we made it to the bottom in about 4 hours. This meant we got a whole hour to set-up camp, wash in the river, and make dinner before worrying about the sun going down.

the mistake

the biggest mistake of our hike

We had a good ‘ol time at the bottom. There were only 5-6 other people in that camping area and between our distance from the group and the loud roar of the river rapids, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. After a freezing cold dip in the Colorado River, we started on dinner. We brought plenty of layers, but it didn’t actually get that cold at the bottom.

It was just before bed that we made, what was likely our greatest mistake of the whole trip. For some reason, we thought it would be a great idea to give each other deep-tissue massages. I mean, on the surface, it doesn’t sound too bad. And maybe it wouldn’t have been if we had executed it differently.

Because we were going to have to get up and hike all the way back, we didn’t want to be too sore. It made sense to try a massage. The problem is that instead of something light and casual, we really put in the work on each other. The bigger problem is that we did it right before bed. So instead of breaking up all that lactic acid, then say, going for a walk to move it around and drinking lots of water to help flush it out, we just rolled over and went to bed. And as we drifted off to sleep, all that lactic acid that we punched and pushed around started to solidify like a rock.

hike up

the slow, grueling journey up the canyon

We didn’t sleep super well. Turns out, rats were a problem. Thankfully, they did not eat through our faces or even our tent, but all 100 of them sure did like jumping on the tent all night. And since the sound of rats scurrying made us jump, we ended up having a less than restful night.

Having had such a wonderful hike down, we weren’t in any rush to get started on our way back out, so we very casually packed up, had a light breakfast (which should have been more calorie-dense), and got started around 10 am. Almost immediately, though, things started to look bad.

The first two miles, which we had raced down in 30 minutes, proved to be grueling and painful with our stagnant and sore muscles from the day before. Almost immediately I was trying to assess if I had the mental and physical fortitude to get out of this canyon today. Very quickly, it felt like the hardest physical exercise I had ever put myself through. Chad was doing much better than me, but still wasn’t having a walk in the park. He also noticed how much I was struggling so very soon and took my backpack to lighten my load. I still didn’t pick up my pace or increase my energy. Worry began to grow.

By the third mile, we had consumed half of our water and realized we did not pack sufficient food to make it through a second night in the Canyon. We were facing a very difficult decision: conserve our water and hope another night of rest would be enough recovery to quickly get to water in the morning, OR dig deep and commit to getting to the top right as our water ran out. There were about two treacherous hours of painfully slow hiking that went by where we were truly uncertain how close of an emergency this hike was going to turn into.

Our minds grappled restlessly in purgatory as we stayed calm and put on foot in front of the other. After five unrelenting miles, a much-needed lunch break had provided enough promising calories that our spirits began to re-inflate with hope. I took my backpack back, and both of us started to regain energy from the food and the break. We had also finally reached our beloved Give-You-Life Ridgeline. Here the trail began to steady out some and our confidence grew as every mile brought us closer to the end of our unexpectedly difficult return trip.

Exhausted, we finally arrived at our final two miles that were nearly 2,000 ft of vertical switchbacks we had been dreading all day. By this point, our bodies had adapted and our minds were prepared for the final test of fortitude. We made it out of the Canyon just as the sun was setting to conclude our return hike in 6.5 hrs and everything we had in the tank.

Chad shared that on the way down, how he would accidentally forget about the trail as he got lost in Nature’s beauty. On the way up he stared desperately at Nature’s beauty to forget how difficult the trail had become.

The first day was truly beautiful and the second day was dreadfully terrible. They were both days we will never forget.

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