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A day where life stretches and feels like more than one. Although this was all a single day, the events are stretched over three posts, easily three chapters of experiences somehow all placed in a single rise to set.
Part 1: Into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim
The night was fierce with thought. I struggled to find a place for my thoughts amidst the growing concern for how we were going to accomplish tomorrow. Night noises of campers and dogs spiked my blood pressure. I was aware of how little I was sleeping before the monstrous push to come. The storm curled up over the South Rim and pecked the shelter with rain that raced into sleet and hail. Thunder clapped overhead. Night became as restless as me. The temperature plummeted below freezing. At 2:30 am I stared up into the rustling shelter cloth. At 2:50 am I turned to my right. My open eyes met Janna’s own. “Let’s go,” was all I said. We both sat up.
Donning puffies as breath condensed into frost, we packed hurriedly and quietly in the belly of dark as commitment boiled in my heart. We exited the Triplex now thoroughly coated with ice and a film of wetness. I dismantled what I could and forced my numb fingers to push it into my pack. We pulled food out of the canister and ate not of hunger but of preparation for what we were going to ask of our bodies. Frosted mini-wheats and peanut butter. A handful of trail mix for taste diversity. Both standing in still air as a lull in the storm bore no precipitation. Shivering and avoiding shining light on the shelters of others wrapped in down waiting for a warm and dry dawn to camp below the rim. “Let’s go,” was all I said. And we soldiered into the night.
What little grace in the storm elapsed into a slow flurry of snow that evidenced the cold. We walked down the empty paved campground road that intersected with the bikeway, which we took north. The wind curdled ice against our cheeks as the snow picked up. The AZT veered off the paved bikeway onto a rocky jeep road I didn’t know existed in the park. We passed silently between shadows of junipers and pines. It just snowed.
A few miles later, the AZT crept out onto the South Rim path and we caught our first view of the deep dark behemoth of sleeping canyon below. Sulfur lights sucked color from adjacent parking lots and the depth of the North Rim was lost in the mixture of black and cloud. We walked until the illuminated “Kaibab Trail” appeared. I took one photo using the available light to capture the 3 am cold. Janna and I both used the restrooms one last time, deposited the few ounces of trash we didn’t want to add to our loads, and filled up 2 L of water. We replaced puffies with fleece as sweat was sure to come. At some point, a car quickly pulled up and dropped off a number of individuals equally gasping in the dark and preparing for what I imagined was a day as long as ours. They descended. I visit the Grand Canyon several times a year, a joy I don’t overlook by living in Arizona. This brought some relief and a sense that I had done this many times previous. But this was still unique. It was the AZT. Before I set foot in the Grand Canyon, I made mental goals of reaching the bottom in 2-2.5 hours. Invisible, arbitrary hourly goals were laced in my head for me to compete against to ensure we found ourselves again this evening to come safely in our tent.
And we slipped below the rim, descending in the full dark. The straight-edged cliff walls next to us bounced back our headlamp beams as the snow sputtered. We were hyper-aware of our footing. No need to twist an ankle in the dark or saunter with the wind off an edge. Back and forth, the constant pattern of switchbacks. It was INSANE how windy it was. Like the storm was rolling below and coming up from the Earth. Dawn swept gingerly into the color of the sky. An hour in and the fullness of the world around us was revealed as red rock and gray sky.
To be honest, it was spectacular.
I’ve seen the Grand Canyon many times in all the sun and blue skies and even storms from above. But from below with the earth shrouded in the cloth of mist while dawn pierced a hole? It made for memorable views of depth, color, hue, texture, and adrenaline. Turn a corner and be blasted by wind and rain. Turn another corner and be still with warm sun orange and rose in the fog. Low slung blankets sweeping the rim roof above. Vermilion rock cleaned by rain and stark to the shadows. Truly, truly incredible.
An hour in and we had made the first round of bathrooms, packed jackets away, and the rain had lessened as the climate of the inner canyon claimed its place. Greater warmth and a dryness denying the storms on alpine cliffs on the south. To the north though…another story. Our path lay in the path of a mighty snowy and rainy storm letting loose on the higher North Rim. Views continued to be epic. Rain falling below and ending just as dramatically. Every space held breath.
We caught up near the individuals who started the morning right before us. They were a group of ultrarunners doing a rim-to-rim-to-rim in a day. A surge of joy hit me to think we were keeping pace with them with full backpacking loads. Behind us, the daily train of mules and park rangers came up on us. We stepped to the side as the linked mules took priority and descended in front, carrying loads of supplies down to Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground in the heart of the Canyon. Nearing hour 2, we caught our first views of the absolutely legendary Colorado River below. Although not its natural silt brown, the vivid blue-green still brought a sense of reverence that always occurs when I approach the arterial vein of the Southwest.
Two and a half hours in found Janna and I passing through the tunnel where the South Kaibab Trail passes through the rock earth to exit at a suspension bridge providing one of the few crossings of the Colorado. The turquoise water ran powerful, swift, and beautiful below as we made bottom, passed by several ancient Native American structures, and wove our way to the Bright Angel Creek. Here, we made a sharp right, paralleling the creek lined with verdant green cottonwoods while Bright Angel raged with snowmelt below. In track with the times I had set, we entered the campground at 8:15 am. There was time for a 10 minute rest, a quick use of restrooms where sleepy campers were waking at the bottom while we were already 1/3 of the way through our day. We filled up with 1 L each of water. Although it had been cold on top, the canyon bottom was warm. The clouds were abating the heady heat for the moment and we took that climatic advantage to carry a little less water weight on our initial ascent. We stood in front of the Phantom Ranch cabins, and took a single picture of the South and North Kaibab Trail interaction before we faced north to begin our climb.
To be continued in Part 2…
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