A tortuous paradise…..

by aryan on June 9, 2011

I’ve had so many calls, e-mails and texts in the last few days asking about my experience of hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon, I thought I’d write a few words (okay, maybe more than a few) on what the last week has meant to me.  It really would be impossible to put into words all the emotions I experienced over the course of 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday, but I’ll give it my best shot.

I left KCI last Thursday morning headed to Phoenix to hike the Grand Canyon Saturday with a group of people, most of which I didn’t know very well, some of which I’d never even met before.  Not only was I a little nervous about the hike itself, I didn’t know what it would be like spending five days with people I barely knew.  I knew right away this was an awesome group of people.  I hadn’t printed my boarding pass until I arrived at the airport that morning, so not surprisingly I was nearly the last person to board the plane.  The group had saved me a seat so we were all able to sit together and talk.  Thanks to Sal and his numerous Southwest drink vouchers he was willing to share, let’s just say the flight went by quickly.  One guy on the plane told us after landing he figured we were teachers who were ready to party after getting rid of their students for the summer. 

We spent Thursday in Phoenix at Tapatio Cliffs (awesome hotel, by the way) where we lounged by the pool with a few cocktails and enjoyed a game of water volleyball.  We had an amazing dinner (sorry about your steak, JP) at sunset overlooking Phoenix.

Friday morning we got up and headed for Sedona for lunch creekside.  I’d never been to Sedona before.  It was gorgeous.  Our next stop was a quick one in Flagstaff for hiking food at a local grocery store.  Next stop:  South Rim of the Grand Canyon!  We arrived at the South Rim Friday afternoon.  I walked to the South Rim, looked down, and could barely see the tiny trail that I was going to be on the next day.  It really began to set in that I was going to be at the bottom of the Canyon tomorrow looking up at this very spot.  Yowzas!  We had a little time before dinner, so I perused the gift shop at the El Tovar Lodge.  I quickly spotted a book I wanted to buy called “Death in the Grand Canyon” about the 500 plus people who have lost their lives in the Canyon.  I read a couple pages and decided it would probably be a wise decision to buy it after I made it to the other side.  :)  Dinner at the El Tovar was awesome — our table decided since we would be burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 calories the next day, we would split some peanut butter cheesecake and apple pie.  I told you these were awesome people!

I’d be lying if I said I got any sleep on Friday night.  We had to meet in the lobby Saturday morning at 2:15 a.m. with an AIS time of 2:30.  (AIS = Ass in Seat.  Jean doesn’t play around.)  I laid all my hiking stuff out, filled my CamelBak and literally just had to put it all on in the morning and get my suitcase to the trailer, but I still couldn’t sleep.  We were a very punctual group, and next thing you know we’re headed to the trailhead to begin our adventure.  It wasn’t nearly as cold as I thought it would be in the morning.  It was pretty mild — I was able to just have my Under Armour hoodie and stocking hat, which I actually took off at our first stop.  Our first two hours of hiking were in the dark with our headlamps on.  For me, this was probably a good thing.  (More on that in a minute.)  I had trained a lot for the hike, but turns out it’s almost impossible to train for the rigorous descent — by our first stop, my legs were shaking so bad that  the minute I tried to stop, I had a hard time standing up straight. 

There is just no way to describe the sunrise in the Canyon when you’re in it.  It’s one thing to wake up and sit on the rim with a coffee and watch it, but to actually be in the Canyon and see the light of day starting to appear — there’s just no words.  And little did I know there would be a sunrise proposal on the trail.  (Congrats, Pat and Jean!)  With the light of day came the realization for me that I was hiking on a two-foot wide trail with nothing beside it but a drop off of hundreds of feet.  I didn’t think the height would bother me — I’ve never considered myself scared of heights — but at times it REALLY freaked me out.  I tried to just focus on my feet and put one foot in front of the other. 

We eventually arrived at the bottom of the Canyon and the Colorado River, and I could have set up camp and stayed there overnight.  The sights and sounds of the river winding through the Canyon are just gorgeous.  A good number of people who die in the Grand Canyon die from drowning when they try and “cool off” in the Colorado River.  While it is a gorgeous deep green color and definitely “refreshing,” the flow is unbelievably fast and the current extremely dangerous.  I stopped to take a couple pictures.  I took a small rock out of my CamelBak and tucked it nicely along the shoreline of the river.  The rock said “Peace, Love, Happiness” with the letters “TMM” in memory of Tad Melichar, my inspiration for signing on for this hike in the first place.  (And Tad would probably be the first one to insist that you leave the Canyon the way you found it, but I brought the rock from home, it was tiny, and I just thought it was the right thing to do.)   We all met up at Phantom Ranch around 7:15 a.m. where we informed that due to a burst pipe in the Canyon, this might be our last stop to get drinking water.  Everyone loaded up with extra water that we put in water bottles that had been put in the recyle bin at Phantom.  It was the safe and proper decision to make, but this extra water was quite heavy and really added to all of our loads.

The next couple hours were spent hiking along the “flat” part of the Canyon, which in reality, is not flat at all.  You’re constantly going up or down.  The scenery along this part of the hike was probably my favorite besides the Colorado River.  We tried to keep the pace up, as our next stop was set to be Cottonwood.  There was drinking water available here, but we were told it might be turned off at 11 a.m.  We were happy to find out that there was water on at Cottonwood.  I tried to eat lunch here, but found that the more I ate, the worse I felt.  I tried to just focus on drinking all my electrolytes and choking down some salty foods every once in a while.  Looking back, I didn’t eat nearly enough considering my calorie demand for the day and the heat, but I knew if I ate more, I was likely to lose my lunch anyway — sorry if that’s TMI — and throwing up is never a good thing when your main goal is to stay hydrated.  I just kept drinking and drinking and hoped that would be good enough to get me through. 

Leaving Cottonwood I knew the toughest part of the day was ahead of me, and I was really beginning to feel it.  I “hit my wall” about Mile 17 and was beginning to feel like I was never going to get out of the Canyon.  I just focused on trying to get to The Tunnel which would be the last resting spot before the final ascent.  There was one point where I was tired, hot and a little — okay, a lot – scared that I was going to fall off a cliff, and I felt tears start to well up in my eyes.  I’m not sure if it was the dehydration hallucinations or what kicking in, but I swear at that moment I heard my trainer Jamie’s voice mutter his famous phrase, “Would you like me to get you a tissue?”  I cursed at him under my breath as I have done numerous times over the last year, and kept on going.

I was elated to finally make it to the tunnel and find Ken there.  Ken and his wife, Keri, were rookies in our group as well.  Keri is a marathoner who was completely kicking the Canyon’s a$$ with AJ and Jocelyn, so she had gone ahead.  Mike and Katie Mac had also moved ahead in order to get in front of another group that was getting ready to leave.  Ken had agreed to wait for me.  I am so appreciative that he agreed to wait and hike out with me — I really think I might still be down there if it wasn’t for him.  We SLOWLY, (sorry Ken), made our way switchback after switchback.  We eventually met up with two people who weren’t from our group and didn’t know one another either.  One of the men obviously had no idea what he was getting into when he hiked down the North Kaibab trail.  He thought he could make it to the bridge, but realized soon that was probably out of the question and turned around.   His friend had moved ahead without him.  He was wearing a long-sleeved cotton shirt and jeans.  I only saw two bottles of water, which he insisted was enough.  I got a burst of energy when I saw how hard he was struggling.  He stayed with Ken and I the rest of the way for the most part.  We promised him some of the nice cold beer we knew our Rim Wranglers had waiting for us.  We’d take a couple switchbacks and repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat. 

We made it to this one plateau where a lady who looked like she was an avid hiker and knew exactly where she was assured us that we only had a half mile left.  I kept telling Ken, “A half a mile is two laps around the track.  We’ve totally got this.”   I swear to God that had to be longest half mile EVER.  Ken spots a couple who obviously weren’t hikers who had just meandered down the trail.  “There’s no way those people are walking that far down the trail, Abby.  We’ve got to be almost there.” 

We turned a corner and saw daylight.  Ken lets out a whoop to let them know we’re coming…..and there they are, hooting and hollering.  Our Rim Wranglers and the people of our group that had finished before us were cheering us on, and it was the greatest feeling in the world.  We sat down to some cold beverages, took off our shoes and socks, and waited to return the favor to the rest of our group as they finished. 

And that is the day I hiked Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon.  It was, without a doubt, the most physically and mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done.  (And no, childbirth doesn’t even compare to the Canyon.  No epidurals available in the Canyon.)  And after you’re done with the physically and mentally challenging part, you realize that A) you were pushed to your limits, B) though you were close to cracking, you didn’t,  C) YOU JUST FREAKING HIKED THE GRAND CANYON RIM TO RIM IN ONE DAY, and D) your life will never be the same.

A huge thanks and a piece of my heart to:

1)  Jean Seeber for being the most amazing travel coordinator, hiking advisor and Grand Canyon lover there will ever be.

2)  Ken Jackson for getting me through the last few miles when I thought there was no way I was going to make it out.

3) To Ken, Keri, Eric, Melinda, Larry, Kim, JP, Molly, Sal, and Pat — my fellow R2R rookies.  I may be a little biased, but I’m pretty sure we totally rocked it.

4) Mike and Katie Mac for taking me under their wing and showing me the R2R ropes.

5) To Monica, AJ, Jocelyn, Shelly and Chris — thanks for welcoming me to the R2R family with open arms 

6)Steve, Denise, Megan and Maddie for being the Canyon’s best Rim Wranglers

7)Jamie Plunkett, my trainer who helped me get ready for this journey.  As many times as I’ve called him every name in the book over the past year, he’s taken a ton of weight off me and given me a great deal of confidence in the process.  He’s made the Ryan home happier and healthier, and for that I say thanks.

8)A special thanks to Sean for organizing everything with the kids while I was gone, and for running the show for the last few months while I spent so much freaking time on that damn stairclimber.  I love you!

9)Tad Melichar for the inspiration. 

I’ll end with this.  As we were leaving the Visitor Center at the South Rim on Monday, we read the following enscription on the wall:  “After your first experience hiking in the Grand Canyon you will be left with one of two reactions; either you will never hike again in your entire life, or you will find that your life up to this moment has been meaningless, and you will be forever enslaved by the thoughts of returning to this tortuous paradise.”

And a tortuous paradise it is.  GC R2R 2011!

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