Part 2: Up the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon can be a place of extremes. Cold and pine on the rims transition to hot desert within. After standing in front of the north/south rim junction sign at Phantom Ranch, we marched our way north on the skinny singletrack parallel to Bright Angel Creek. For all of our adventuring in the canyon, both below and above, we had never actually hiked the North Kaibab Trail. Thus, I was excited. Proud to hit our time interval, but nervous and excited.
The trail immediately was boxed up by narrow canyon walls while turbid Bright Angel Creek raged next to us, fed by tributaries gushing from springs in canyon cracks fed by a deliciously solid snowpack on high. The cloud cover which brought rain and cold was finally beginning to dissipate to our south. Ceiling cracks of blue sky fed a rising temperature down below. It was then I realized how grateful I was for cloud cover while traversing the canyon on the cusp of May and foresummer.
As we hiked, that old biological urge hit: pooping. In all my anxiousness in the 24 hours prior, I had not found myself relaxed enough to do a proper bowel movement. Now, miles into a long day and exercise coupling the massive meals I had consumed pushed my internal maintenance to scream STOP. But I couldn’t. You simply don’t poop in the heavily traveled corridor of the North and South Kaibab Trails. I held onto the urge like a boiling fire inside me, urging myself to get to Cottonwood Campground where privies could be found. But first, I had to hike 8 miles uphill while desperately needing to defecate. I consider this the second worst time I have ever had to poop in my entire life. I was in a full sweat between the heat and my needs. My eyes kept registering the shear beauty of the trail and blooming plant life around me. And then my need grew so bad I began to dry heave. But like a boss, I still did not go. Somehow, over 8 miles, I made it to Cottonwood Camp at 11:15 am. Whereby I flung open a bathroom stall and destroyed it. There is nothing more to say than backpacking allows such things to be spoken of.
We took a 15 min. break at Cottonwood Campground which was entirely deserted save for us. We had seen nearly no one on the South Rim descent, a gift for early task. Now, no one was on the north side either probably due to the fact that the North Rim proper wasn’t yet open for the season and stood gated and chained on top. Any hikers heading this way were merely on day trips save for AZTers. Pushing on, then trail skirted cacti, amazing geological mounds, buttes, and house-sized boulders. We crossed several small bridges as the trail laced back and forth over Bring Angel Creek. It was extraordinarily beautiful. Another hour or so later found us at the Pumphouse - the last easy water before the push to the top. Feeling strong, awake, and good in temperature, we took a slightly longer break before filling 3 L each and eating some chocolate. We plunged on northward.
The clouds continued to dissolve in the south so that the full desert Sun was on us. Ominously, the cloud cover stayed hushed and full on the North Rim, belying the conditions in wait. As the trail moved up the canyon, it began to ascend up switchbacks before making a sudden and defining left and moving up a massive butte. To our rights, a large butte across the way stood with a green tropical mass of plants on its flanks. From high up, a gnash in the solid rock gushed out Roaring Springs. I had no idea what Roaring Springs would look like and it was stunning. I felt like I was in South America as the spring water fell in multiple waterfall rivulets vertically down the face of the butte, threading through and feeding the lush vegetation below. Simply incredible. We stood to admire the scene. The power of this single spring fed not only Bright Angel Creek below but also the entire infrastructure of the South Rim as a water pipeline carried all that water across the Colorado and up from river to the park buildings above. The Grand Canyon always amazes me.
We now picked up the pace, trying to get to the top by 3 pm. We sweated hard with the soaring sun, but it felt good to be warm and dry after so many days and nights of damp cold. The sweat began to drip off me and I rolled up sleeves and unbuttoned my shirt to encourage evaporative cooling. By 2 pm we had run into two small groups, both of which were out for day hikes having camped at Cottonwood Campground the night before. We also ran into Ohm Boy, one of the hikers we had spent a dinner and night with at East Cedar Tank back out of Babbitt Ranch a few days prior. He had already gone up to the top, was heading back across to meet a friend, and then would turn around to head all the way back across with them. Truly a badass. Lone stands of pine began to grow trailside as we neared the top. The air became a little chilled as we were approaching the cloud cover brooding on top.
I could hear someone hiking ahead of us with great exertion. Rounding a corner Janna and I ran into an AZT 750 bikepacking racer. Definitely near the back of the racers, he was dedicated and finishing his competition. One of the challenging aspects of bikepacking the AZT is that Grand Canyon National Park does not allow any bikes on the trails. Therefore, all bikepackers have to dismantle their bikes, strap them to their bikes, hike down and across the Grand Canyon, reassemble the bike on the other side, and then ride to the finish. This dude was hurting pretty bad as the hike and weight of the mountain bike (plus gear!) on his back had stressed his knee. We gave him big credit and passed him as he slowly and methodically made his way towards the top.
Nearing the top, our speed built as it was pass 3 pm and moving on. We were anxious to see if the faucet on the North Rim was turned on for easy water, If not, we were going to have to hike into the park to an old cabin that had a pump out back - these additional miles were NOT appealing to me at the moment. At 3:30 pm on the dot, we summited the Grand Canyon and looked back across the way, realizing we had covered those 26 some miles in nearly 12 hours with around 7,000 feet of gain since this morning. As our luck, a Park Service employee who had just arrived on the North Rim was literally turning on the faucet for the season. We were the first hikers to catch a drink from it for 2019, so we absolutely made sure to purify it from the winter sit. The ultrarunners we had chased down the Canyon this morning were sitting nearby and they congratulated on us for our speed as we had summited only shortly after they had and they were running with tiny packs. We all sat and drank loads of water while consuming tons of calories. They left shortly before we did as they didn’t planned to be finished into nearly midnight tonight.
The cloud cover overhead, that brooding parent, began to settle down closer to the tree tops. The climate here at 8000 feet, nearly 1000 feet above the South Rim elevation, had maintained a storm status that had vacated the South Rim. Now, 3:45 pm, we had allowed ourselves a 15 min break. We had taken 4 breaks, totaling 10-15 min. each in sum today. We were tired but still needed to hike the 10 additional miles to get to the park boundary where we could legally disperse camp. As the North Rim had not yet officially been unlocked for the season, we were told we could not camp in the campground. Now, the last push to the end.
To be continued in Part 3…