I crossed over the mighty Colorado around 6, the lowest canyon walls now popping in the morning light. The trail meandered by the river a while before turning south, uphill.
The climb was mild at first, but intensified as you climbed higher. I was feeling good, though, really good, and I began passing people on the trail by the dozens; surpassing one and glancing up at the next, crushing trail determined to outhike them too. Several people commented on my pace – “Lets coast in his draft!”. I had eaten a probar and downed a 5 hour energy at the river and this was the first climb of the day, so I was feeling pretty solid. I was hiking shirtless, trading a light burn for breezy relief; I had yet to learn the secret of hiking in this weather.
The heat started to kick up around 9, evoking worries of the day ahead ahead, with a projected high of 108° at the Canyon floor.
I arrived at the South Rim, roughly 25 miles deep, around 10:30. I say roughly because I have no idea how far I had actually gone. I had a GPS with me, but I think it’s service was thrown off inside the Canyon – it consistently read longer than the signage and maps. Also, the signage, maps, and guidebooks didn’t match. Signage says the distance is 46.8 miles roundtrip. A guide I found on SummitPost.com said the distance was 47.6 miles roundtrip. National Geographic’s map says the distance is 44.2 miles, a gross underestimate. Below is a chart comparing the varying distances, with 1.5 miles added for my morning detour and .4 added at the South Rim at lunch. So, with detour, I estimate I had gone about 25 miles.
I knew I needed salt and water. I had been daydreaming of a soft pretzel and was so delighted when I found them at a concession stand that I bought two, throwing one in my pack and immediately housing the other, laying shirtless and soaked in sweat in the middle of the plaza, a mildly ridiculous scene which garnered questionable looks from the hundreds of Asians who, all of a sudden were materializing at an exponential rate.
I thought I was tripping, and I resolved to drink more water inside.
I walked into a restaurant, finding it hard to get service, likely because I looked like a transient and smelled like balls, but I eventually got an order in. Coffee was a revelation and the food was a godsend. I destroyed a fruit sampler of cantaloupe, honeydew, and pineapple and also got an order of cold granola with bananas. It was a huge meal, but great fuel; necessary fuel. I had to get ready for the rest of the day. It was about to get a lot harder. And a lot hotter.
I hit the Bright Angel Trailhead around 11:50. I was feeling pretty good again, a little heavy from the breakfast and refilled water, but those were weights to fuel me. It was already hotter than Africa and it was only going to get worse as the afternoon heat kicked up and I descended 4000’.
I needed to protect myself from exposure, my arms already taking on a faint red glow. I stopped at a water fountain, dunking my head, fully saturating my salt-crusted hair, then completely soaked my shirt, bandanna, and sun hat. Wooooooweeeeee. Holy shit sweet relief.
For the first time in hours I was mildly chilly again; a feeling which would only last a second or two, though the damp clothing would continue to soothe me for miles, going from dripping to damp to nearly dry, at which point I would always serendipitously come across some stream or water source to resoak my body and garments. I had found the secret to hiking in this weather.
By midafternoon I was stopping to resoak my shirt at every measly spit, even if I had just soaked only a few minutes prior. It was necessary. The heat was stifling, powerful, vicious, relentless.
But I had a solid rhythm down, ridiculous as I may have looked: Glasses, shirt, hat off; Fountain on; hair soak ahhhh shit yes; shirt soak, shirt on, ooooh yeah baby; hat soak, another head soak, hat on; glasses on, bandanna soak, bandanna on. Onwards.
There are signs warning people against trying to hike to the river and back in a day, stating that people die every year from exhaustion and exposure. And here I was, attempting that traverse twice in a day, in the midst of a heat storm. But I was still feeling good, taking breaks to sit in the shade at good intervals, had a steady flow of water, electrolytes, and food into me. I knew that the hardest section, the final 7 miles, would be done during twilight, allowing a respite from the heat. I just had to keep on chopping.
I stopped seeing many people on the trail past 2 or so, everyone else smart enough to be out of the sun at this hellish hour. When I would pass people they’d mutter words of encouragement, that I only had a short while further, assuming I was stopping at Phantom Ranch near the river, not hiking another 15 miles past it.
At one point I passed a kid, maybe 14, with his family. “How’s it going dude”, I asked. “Tired”, he replied. “You and me both”, I replied, realizing at that moment just how tired I was. I broke into a grin - this kid exhausted after 3 miles, me now 30ish deep with another 20 to go, sleepless for over 30 hours. What the fuck am I doing with my life?
The grin evolved into a chuckle, one which I couldn’t hold back, a deep belly laugh at the absurdity of the day. Was I losing my mind? Was it already lost before this trip?
By 3:30, the hottest part of the day, I was back on the Canyon floor. Right before crossing the Colorado, I was certain I saw a mirage - a group of bikini-clad Argentinians posting up in the sun.
Girl: Where are you going, Ranch?
Me: Nope, heading up to the North Rim
Girl: WHAT! Where did you start from?
Me: North Rim this morning, I’m doing Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
Girl: WHAT! [She explains this in Spanish to her friends, all of them absolute firebombs. God damn do I love their accent]
Me: Yeah it’s been wild, It’ll end up being…
Girl: That’s like 50 miles! [More Spanish to her friends]. You are crazy.
We talked for a few more minutes, quite a nice interaction, one which definitely perked me up. I hiked on, musing about how she apologized for her accent. No need to apologize, babygirl. Your accent just reawakened my weary body.