It's 12:00 AM, November 1, 2008. The FAX line is dialing and getting a busy signal. Redial ... buzzzz ... buzzzz hangup, redial. redial. Finally at about 12:50, the FAX goes through and my fax goes. Whew, now I can go to bed. Booking this canyon trip is harder than I thought.
(Click on any of the pictures. There full-size pictures and there are more photos in the album.)
Xanterra, the concessionaire to the Grand Canyon National Park has very stringent terms for booking accommodations at Phantom Ranch (well, all its resorts, but I'm only interested in Phantom Ranch ... today). Phantom Ranch only has one group cabin that can be booked for hiking parties. It accommodates 10 people.
I wanted to try and rebook the trip we'd had in 1985, but had been disappointing of a tragic mountaineering accident that took the life of my dear friend, Tom Apel. He'd been killed a week before our family and the Tom's family were all going to hike to the bottom of the Canyon and have a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at Phantom Ranch -- then hike out the next day. Because of the tragedy, the Apel's couldn't come, but as we'd been planning this trip for nearly a year, his parents insisted that we go instead. So, instead of a party of ten, we went as a party of five (Me, my brother and sister, David & Renata), my mom, and my brother-in-law, Lee. Honestly, I don't remember too much about that trip. I don't remember the hike being particularly difficult either down or back up the next day. I do remember having a fantastic dinner and, how we'd started off in the early morning darkness the next day for the rim and having dinner on the rim in the Arizona Room coffee-shop.
Back to the present.... After my grandmother passed away, I bought her house in Sedona Az. because Larrain and I enjoyed visiting her, hiking in the red rocks, and hanging out with our dear friends Joella Mahoney and her partner Larry Green (No relationship to the car dealer in Cottonwood!). We'd been to the canyon a few times. One trip by way of the Painted Desert and a couple of trips just up to the rim lodges. Each time, Larrain had been progressively more adventurous about hiking the trails. About three years ago, we'd walked down the South Kaibab trail, to Ooh-Ah Point and, I think that did it for her -- she was going to the bottom. So, it took us two years to actually get to this point -- making the reservations ...
I wake the next morning ... look at the e-mail ... nothing ... nothing. Ok need to work on Plan-B. I start calling at 7 AM (they open at 8 AM MT), but again, busy signals -- for over an hour, redial ... redial ... redial ... redial. FINALLY, I get through and book the backup reservation -- party of 8, 4 males, 4 females, in the bunkhouses with meals. Any availability for Wed / Thurs night? No. How about Tues/Wed? Yes! Ok, not exactly what I wanted, but pretty good anyway -- First night on the Rim at Bright Angel Lodge, one night on the rim, Thanksgiving night at El Tovar to celebrate our achievement.
We'll be going down with our friends Joella and Larry -- who are well into their 70's, Renata & Lee, and our family. A party of 8.
Finally, on Nov. 3, I get the dreaded e-mail: The group cabin is not available. I exchange a couple of e-mails with staff at Xanterra -- they don't keep a waiting list and, they don't call you. If someone cancels, the next person to call and book, gets the spot. The group cabin is sold out for the month of Nov. Xantera doesn't make getting the reservation easy, but they don't charge any fee if you cancel. In fact, you can cancel up to three or four days prior and receive a full refund. Still, pretty much impossible, unless you just keep posting your request -- on the off chance that a cancellation comes up.
I e-mail everyone and tell them the news. We're all ecstatic about the trip.
Fast forward -- In October 2009, Joella let us know that she and Larry can't make the trip. So, we start asking our friends if anyone is interested. Lots of interest, but no one we ask is actually prepared to go, or not otherwise booked. One night we're talking with friends I've known since ... well, they new my parents in college at UCLA in the early 50's -- we ask then -- and what do you know, YES, they'd like to go. We're really sorry that Joella and Larry won't make the trip, but we've filled all the "beds" we booked. Hurray! We're very sorry that we won't be hiking with our favorite artists.
Finally, it's Thanksgiving week, 2009. We set off from home on Sunday, early so that we can do some shopping for Margaret at the Barstow outlets. We meet up with Lee and Renata there and have dinner. Make plans for the rendezvous with Lincoln and Rusty the next day. Lee and Renata are going to leave early so that they can pick up Lincoln and Rusty in Flagstaff, then drive through the Painted Desert and, go into the national Park from the eastern entrance and stop at Desert View. On the way, they take in the sights at the Little Colorado as it descends down from the plateau to meet the Colorado River nearly 4,000 feet below the rim at that point.
With a little coordination by spotty cell coverage, it turns out we'll both be arriving at Bright Angel lodge nearly simultaneously. That works out great. We meet the four of them in the lobby, find our rooms and turn around for a quick dinner at the Arizona Room coffee shop. It's cold outside!
About 10:30 or so, we are finally back in the room -- getting our things all set for the hike down. Lincoln and Rusty will catch the first "express" shuttle bus out at 7 AM. They're afraid they'll need all the day to get to the bottom. I was pretty certain we wouldn't see them until we all got to the ranch, but we each have to attend to our own schedule. We'll be more leisurely and catch the 9 AM bus because "we're not worried" how long it will take to get to the bottom. We get going pretty quickly. None of us can sleep all that well, we're all so full of excitement! But, the breakfast takes awhile. Fortunately, we're able to cram the food down, pay, and be out of the rooms in time to get all our stuff safely stowed and be at the bus-stop in time to make our 9 AM "express." (The penalty for missing this bus wouldn't have been all that severe. There are shuttles all day. But this one is the last "express" that goes directly from the village, to the south Kaibab trial.)
At about 10 AM we're finally at the trail-head. Elev. 7200 ft.. This is the same trail we'd walked down three years before. But this time -- "We're going all the way, baby!"
It's cold and windy. The temperature is probably in the 40's but that wind is quite brisk. Earlier, I'd decided that I didn't need my wind-breaker. I think I regret not bringing it. It was cold and, as it turns out, there really aren't any good shelter spots along the way down.
As we start off, we're making good time. Pretty quickly, we're at Ooh-Ah point. We regroup there, and agree to meet up again at Cedar Ridge (elev. 6060 ft.), which is 1.5 miles down -- just about a third the way to the ranch. We regroup, and it's still windy. Strangely, there are no Cedar trees here. All the pines in this neck of the woods are Pinyon pines. We have a quick snack and head out. From here, the trail levels out just a bit as you head past O'Neill Butte. Next we arrive at Skeleton Point (elev. 5280 ft.). I couldn't figure out what this was named for -- it's a narrow, steep gully with lots of switch-backs heading down (well ... okay, the whole trail is down!)
It is here that we discover our first mistake -- Gerrit gets "The Bonk!" He doesn't know it, but he just can't go any further. So, at one of the switch-back ends, we pull ourselves off to the side of the trail and have crackers, cheese, candy, water, salami. After about 20 minutes, he's feeling better, but still not very strong. So, most of the party continue down, but Gerrit and I are a bit poky at this point. As we head down, we start to get into the shadows. It's probably about 2 PM or so (though I don' t know for certain). Gerrit needs to stop every few minutes to "catch his breath." So, we leisurely amble down the trail. It is at this point that we pass the one Mule train that we saw that day. I don't think the Wrangler ever even saw us. He had his head down low -- presumably to keep his hat from blowing away -- We weren't sure if he was sleeping or not.
After another mile or so, Gerrit has a fit -- stops and says he can't go any further because his foot hurts. We talk a little and I tell him to pull off his boots to see if there's anything really going on with his feet. Sure enough, he's got a nasty blister, on the inside of his foot, just in front of his heal. I put on some Moleskin, but I can't really make it work right. Note to self: "Don't buy that pre-cut moleskin again. Just get the plain sheets and .. don't forget, have a sharp pair of scissors to cut it with (we started with this mini-pair from a hotel-supplied sewing kit, but I couldn't get my fat fingers in the holes and I couldn't get it to cut through the foam. Luckily, we had another kit with a Swiss-Army pair of scissors -- those were both sharp and, I could easily use them!) So, he's patched up but still hurting so, we walk ... even more slowly.
Finally about 3 PM, we get down to "The Tipoff" (Elev. 3870 ft). We arrive probably half an hour to maybe three-quarters an hour after the rest of our party got there. Of course, Gerrit wants to rest, but the rest of us want to head out. So, we have a short break with Gerrit. Then continue on.
From here, the trail gets very steep as it descends down to the South Kaibab Suspension bridge. The trail is very beautiful and there are some really pretty views. We're now regularly seeing glimpses of Phantom Ranch. In fact, you start to really notice that ... all those plateaus which, from the rim are at eye-level or below -- are now well above you. You're looking up at everything. We're well into the canyon here. The trail skirts, what seem like sheer cliffs straight down to the river. It wanders around a grand descent through some amazing red volcanic deposits -- then into the oldest rock of the canyon, the "Vishnu Schist" or Basement rock. This rock has a pink hue to it. It is somewhat glassy as it seems to have quartz infused with some type of red colored rock. I think it's something around 1.5 billion years old. We switch-back through this down to the suspension bridge (elev. 2400 ft.). This is the low point of the trip. From here, it's only a short distance to the ranch -- but we still can't go quickly, Gerrit's feet are quite sore. But, it's 4 PM and I know that we have to get moving. Finally, about 4:45, we are pulling our packs off in the bunkhouse at Phantom Ranch -- Elev. 2546. 7.2 miles from the trail-head, we have descended 4800 ft.
Lucky for us, we didn't arrive any later. Dinner was at 5 (and we didn't even know it!). We hastily washed up and got back to the dinner hall and had steak dinner. Gerrit ate ALL of his porterhouse stake. After dinner, we gathered ourselves up, took showers, then at 8, the dinner hall reopens as a cantina until 10. Gerrit and I can't make it past about 8:45 after a couple of rounds of chess, we retire for the evening. Oh ... Lincoln and Rusty had arrived at the ranch at about 1 PM. They were early enough to claim the primo bunks and, also to save bunks for us. They'd been resting and hanging out for the remainder of the day. Yeah, we didn't catch 'em. Not bad for a couple of nearly octogenarians. They certainly kicked our butts!
The bunkhouse is, pretty much as you'd imagine. There are 10 beds in 5 bunks. Gerrit is in the upper bunk above me. He and I had been bantering all the way down about who'd get the bottom bunk. When we arrived -- the guy in the bunk next to ours heard Gerrit say he was going to take the bottom bunk and blurts out, "Make the kid take the top. He's young enough to get up and down the ladder!" So, that's how it went! (In the end, I think Gerrit actually liked having the top bunk.)
The bunkhouse is heated, there's a sink, a flush toilet and shower that we all share. I remind Gerrit that, even though we don't need to be up until the second breakfast at 7, the first breakfast call is at 5 for the 5:30 breakfast, they'll knock on the door and wake us up. We' get to sleep in and eat at 7 and if we miss it, we'll go hungry. Needless to say -- that knock, along with the faceless voice: "Good Morning. It's 5 AM. First breakfast is in 30 minutes!" seems awfully early. But, sleep was fleeting and, I'm not a heavy sleeper anyway. I had ear-plugs to help me sleep. Funny thing happened in the middle of the night. For some reason, I'd pulled them out of my ears -- probably some sleep induced quirk. Anyway, I'd fallen back to sleep only to wake up with a real "start!" feeling like there were creepy-crawlies on both sides of my head. I'd madly brushed them both off my bed. Only to realize several minutes later what had happened and, "now I can't find my plugs!" Later in the night, I found one of them, but I didn't find the other until it was light the next day.
Meals at the ranch are family style -- tables seat 12 or 14. It's All you can eat. Since we were eight, we took over most of our table, each meal. Breakfast was pancakes, scrambled eggs, peaches, bacon, juice and coffee, milk. We all ate our fill, then spilled out to the grounds. We'd purchased the sack lunch both days. Gerrit, wanted to spend the entire day in his bed. The rest of us were feeling the effects of lactose buildup in our legs and, wanted to shake off the tightness with a leisurely walk. Around 11, we finally decided we'd do an easy walk up the North Kaibab trail. I'd looked at the map and read that there was a nice view of the Colorado River, from the north side, if you headed up the Clear Creek trail, about a mile and a half. I announced my plans to head off up there by myself to get some pictures of the river. When we arrived at the trail-fork, Gerrit had a change of heart and announced -- he'd come with me. After a bit of discussion about his aching feet, we decided to head up together.
He was a trooper. We arrived a short-while later at a rock "bench" that was constructed by the CCC in the thirties and hasn't required any maintenance since it was built. Sure enough, there was a nice view here, but, it wasn't the view we'd come to see. So, much to Gerrit's distress, we hiked further until we got to the view of the river, to the east. Once again, we'd mis-judged the food situation and I only had a small bit of crackers. A family who was having lunch here offered us their bag's of chips and, Gerrit cheerfully accepted them. They got us back to the ranch.
The rest of our party took a nice hike up along the North Kaibab trail along Bright Angel Creek. This trail gently heads up Bright Angel canyon ultimately ending up at the North Rim lodge. Along the trail are beautiful cottonwood trees. There are several bridges which cross the creek. After crossing a few, they head back and arrive back at the ranch for lunch, around 12:30.
When we got back, we found our own lunches, which we'd left in the bunkhouse. Took them over to the food-hall/Cantina and ate. It was about 1:30 or 2 PM at this point. The hike was successful. We all felt better having flushed the toxins from our muscles by this point. (I think an enterprising, fit person could make a good living offering massages to weary hikers at the bottom of "the ditch.") Meanwhile, we'd found these booklets that promised kids a "Junior Ranger" badge if they were filled out and given to the ranger. We knew that the ranger gave talks at 4 and 7:30 so we started through the questions. Most were pretty easy, but some were rather hard. For example there was a crossword with a four letter word, the name of one of the surviving fish in the Colorado -- None of us could remember and we hadn't read the signs at the bottom well enough. The Chub, of course. The other was the name of the infamous rattle-snake that only lives at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Why it's the Phantom Rattler, of course. It's claim to fame is that it's got pink coloring. Presumably to blend in with the Vishnu Schist. This night, we had the Hikers Stew dinner -- served a bit later, at 6:30PM. After dinner, we head over to the "campfire" circle (well, they don't allow fires below the rim, to keep the air quality up so, it's just a ring of benches). After she'd given this nice talk about the Kolb brothers (and how they'd found a human skeleton in the last surviving brothers' garage .... creepy!), we showed her the booklet. She was very nice and told us about the bits we got wrong or didn't know and congratulated Gerrit on getting nearly all of it correct. Then she got a badge and a patch which she handed to Gerrit and, administered the oath of the Junior Ranger -- he pledged his commitment to further study and care of the wild-life and plant-life in all National Parks. And he's got a nifty patch that you can only get from the Ranger at Phantom Ranch. It's embroidered with an image of the Phantom Rattler -- in pink, of course!
This night, we go to bed knowing that we'll be taking that 5 AM wake-up call; dressing, then eating while it's still dark outside. Sure enough, that pleasant and polite wakeup call came all too early. And, this time, we had to get ourselves going. I was up quickly. Gerrit, not so rapidly. By 5:25, I'd cajoled him down from his top bunk he was dressing and we were nearly ready to roll to the dining hall. We got to the door before they'd opened it up, but only just before. We eat -- same menu as the day before. Then, we get our things all together and leave for the rim. It's about 6:30 when we're walking down the trail back to the Colorado river.
This day's hike starts off with a gentle walk along Bright Angel Creek. Across the Colorado foot-bridge "The Silver Bridge." This bridge is see-through and you can get a little disoriented crossing the swirling water, the aluminum bridge deck rattling and the bridge swaying back and forth from the other hikers also crossing. From there the trail parallels along down the Colorado for, maybe three quarters of a mile, or so to River Resthouse. This must be the true low-point, but the trail guide says 2400 ft. Elev. It must be lower than the Kaibab bride, but I guess not significantly so. We've hiked 1.9 miles at this point, 7.7 to go. Elevation at the top is 6860 ft.
From here, we head up along Pipe Creek. A couple of creek crossings and we hed up into Devils Corkscrew. From here, we traverse across the last of the Vishnu Schist and then join up with Garden Creek. The first Mule-train with people passes us, on the way up to the rim. This creek follows a small gorge which has lush greenery. It has non-native Cottonwood trees which were planted in the 1930s when the trail was built up by the CCC. This creek runs year round. We pass through Tapeats Narrows and the trail offers glimpses of the rim which still seems to be towering over us.
This day, we're better about continuing to get food and water into Gerrit. He's slow, but does much better today. He still wants to stop every 10 minutes but he continues on throughout the day. About 10:30 or so, we reach Indian Gardens. Elev. 3760 ft. We sit on a bench, in front of a water fountain and eat our lunch. Here we meet a ranger who asks us all, what we're thankful for -- it is Thanksgiving day, after all. We tell him that we're all thankful that we're out here with our family and able to enjoy this beautiful trip together. We finally get a bit of direct sun and it's nice and warm.
From here, the trail runs a bit and we see the final climb, out ahead of us. We hit the switch-backs and climb through what is probably the steepest part of the hike. After many stops, we finally get to Three Mile rest-house. Elev. 4920. I've been hiking with Margaret because she seemed to want to move out. Gerrit's been walking with Larrain. As we arrive, we see Lincoln and Rusty again. They are waiting up in the CCC rest-house. Margaret and I, while tired, trundle up the steps to the house. Only to find, there's no place to sit and, it's even colder here in the hut, than out on the trail. After probably 15 or 20 minutes, Larrain, Gerrit, Lee and Renata all reach this point. Just before here, I notice that I'm really burning lots of energy -- while it's cold, I'm noticing that I'm sweating quite profusely. Not very good considering that I have two cotton layers under my Poly fleece. After every-one's rested again, we head out. But the sad thing is, "Three Mile" means it's three miles to go.
On we hike through the rock formations. It seems to take forever to get to the next stop -- the mile and a half rest stop. Along the way, we pass a spring that's frozen over and all ice. We reach the stop. The elevation is 5720. It's about 3:30 in the afternoon. At this point, we are nearly certain we won't be hiking in the tark Sunset is at 5:15. We hike on and catch our first closer in view of the Kolb Studio. Having been there, we know our journey is nearing its end. At last, we pass through the two short tunnels and we see the windows of the Kolb Studio where they'd take pictures of Mule-train riders and sell them (I have a picture of my grandpa Mac. taken in the early 60's, I think). We take a snap of the four of us at the trail-head, then head for the El Tovar hotel. We're at the rim, Elev. 6860 ft. It's about 4:30. 10 hours to hike 9.6 miles and climb the requisite 4460 ft.
Along the way to the hotel, we got a bit separated. I end up claiming our two heavy bags from the bellman's locker at Bright Angel Lodge and carrying them over to El Tovar. That seemed to be a very difficult portage for me. I guess I was tired. Feeling like the elevation is starting to give me a headache, I grabbed a cup of coffee and flopped onto our soft queen-sized bed. Lincoln and Rusty had, again Kicked our butts and were first to the hotel. We're previously arranged for them to be able to check us in. Our rooms were just off the main lobby area -- for us, that night, this was fabulous. While in the shower, I notice that my finger-nails have dark spots in them. I guess I was really cold. Next time, no cotton next to my skin! After a couple hour wait, they call us and tell us our table is ready for the Thanksgiving Dinner. We walk over and enjoy a very tasty turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
Afterward, Margaret said that the best thing about the hike was getting to the hotel on Thanksgiving. She'd been a staunch hiker the whole trip. Never really having any trouble with her feet and not complaining ... except that she kept having to wait for the rest of us. If we'd let her loose, she'd probably have been the first of all of us, out of the canyon. Gerrit's blister didn't bother him at all on the way out. Between the up-hill walking and the mole-skin, we managed to keep this malady at bay. Other than needing to rest often, he was a trooper.
After a sound nights sleep (for me anyway), we packed our things onto the car and headed back to home here in the bay area.
After a couple of days, Larrain starts talking about doing the Rim-to-Rim hike. Wow, I'm impressed. I'd have thought she'd have her fill, but I guess not. I think we'll be back to the ranch sometime soon!