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Grand Canyon, view from rim
14th May 2008 - 17th May 2008
Grand Canyon, top to bottom to top: the hike of a lifetime

On Wednesday I applied for a permit to hike down and camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  I was offered the hard route, a three-day hike without taps and without rangers, but declined in favour of waiting for a slot for the easier and more famous Bright Angel trail.  Unfortunately I might not have got the permit until Saturday.  Luckily, however, Liz and Matt, the brother and sister I had met the previous night, added me to their permit.... for the difficult hike. 

After a day's basic sight-seeing at the rim, and an evening cooking on an open fire in the freezing campsite, it was time to descend.  Our first stop was at the Horseshoe Mesa campsite, just a few miles down.  This put us about halfway down, and had our permit not mandated that we must spent the night there, I'm sure we could have pushed on the additional 10 miles to the river.  The afternoon was spent hanging out at the campsite, playing cards and sunbathing.  I wished I had brought a book. 

The second day's hike was long, but largely level:  the last 2000 feet (600m) in vertical descent was spread out over 10 miles.   Nevertheless it was a hot day, and the nearer the valley bottom, the hotter the air.   Sometimes I felt out of my league with the walking, as Matt is a Park Ranger in NZ and Liz is a marathon runner, whereas my lifestyle has been what the medical professionals call "largely sedantry". 

Our water was running low, and as we passed a creek we bathed and filled the water bottles.  It was like drinking a bandage, since the taste of iodine was so strong.  We had to choose our creek carefully, as one was full of arsenic.

We arrived after 6 hours of hiking, pitched tent on the beach, and snoozed in the sun.  As we messed around, with my arse being whipped repeatedly at cards, several rafting outfitters passed us.  One set were for the pussies, with enormous motorized boats, and the other were for the hardcore, simply two-man rowing dinghies. I splashed around in the Colorado river, which was freezing cold, too cold to bathe for anything more than a few seconds.  As the moon rose we played more cards by moonlight, before retiring quite early in preparation for the daunting task ahead.

Our ascent was easy at first, following a dry riverbed for several miles, before starting the upward climb.  By this point I had walked 17 miles, and was already exhausted, but the route gave no quarter and nor did the air:  with each step, the sun got hotter and the air got thinner, giving us 30% less oxygen then we needed as we approached 7000 feet.  My muscles ached, my pack felt so heavy, each step was a huge effort, with every one of which the pain increased.   The track was very difficult by this point, involing scrambling over 6' boulders, climbing 45-degree slopes that were covered in scree, and repeatedly losing the trail because it was so faintly marked.

None of this was helped by the fact that my trail shoes, fit at the start of my travels, had now worn out.  It was not until I was at the bottom of the canyon that I looked at their soles are saw three holes had been worn in them.  This in turn was compounded by my walking barefoot on the beach and slicing my foot in two places on driftwood, including one on the very sole of my foot.  This made every footfall feel like a stone was in my sock.

After nearly 6 miles today (19 in total), and 4500 feet (nearly a mile) vertical gain, we reached the rim.   A huge sense of relief and acheivement came over me as I stepped into the car.

We were all incredibly - dangerously - dehydrated.  I, who has a bladder the size of a peanut, went to the toilet just once all day long.  Liz and I emptied our water bottles during the hike up, and the last hour was done dry.  Matt raced ahead to collect my car from the car park, drove it to the trailhead, and then almost ran back down the trail with waterbottles for his sister, who by this point was lagging severely.  Warm three-day-old tap water never tasted so good.


We all headed back to the camping area for a very welcome hot shower.  Despite having splashed in creeks and rivers, three days of sweat, grime and sand covered my body; there was so much sweat that it had formed large salt crystals on my cheeks.
The shower felt wonderful.

Liz and Matt showed me wonderful generousity, sharing their hot food and camping accessories with me for 4 nights.  I had underestimated my appetite and taken only  bagels for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the three days. After freshening-up we went for a steak, and Liz, the only employed person, very kindly bought my and Matt's too.   God bless Americans.


As I write I am in a neat little hostel in Flagstaff, AZ, on Route 66.  It's been done-out in 50s and 60s decor, and even had a jukebox.  It's the cleanest I have ever seeen:  furnished with purpose-bought items, not just tatty old crap.  Each dorm has ensuite bathrooms, and there is free breakfast too.  Seems too good to be true for the price, but then I realised the catch.  Twice an hour, all night, a huge freight train rattles by, just 50 yards from my head, blasting its "hey we're too cheap to build a bridge so get the hell off the level crossing, I'm approaching!" horn.

Today I will go to Winslow, maybe the meteor crator, and to Phoenix.

Next: Arizona: Standin' on a corner; Meteor Crater
Previous: Monument Valley

Diary Photos

Grand Canyon, view from rim

Grand Canyon, view from rim

Tourists, Grand Canyon

Elk, Grand Canyon

Californian Condor, Grand Canyon

Californian Condor, Grand Canyon

Open fire cooking, Grand Canyon

Before the descent, Grand Canyon

View from Horseshoe Mesa, Grand Canyon

Horseshoe Mesa and tent, from above, Grand Canyon

My water supply, Grand Canyon

My bath and drinking hole, Grand Canyon

Enroute to the bottom, Grand Canyon

The colorado river, Grand Canyon

Worn-out shoes, Grand Canyon

Moonrise, bottom of the Grand Canyon

Sunrise, bottom of the Grand Canyon

The rim from the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Scrambling over a rockslide, Grand Canyon

The `trail`, 45 degree slope upward, Grand Canyon

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