AZT Day 9: Descending

Today’s miles: 15.1

Total miles: 98.2

Toby and I wake up before dawn, buzzing with anticipation about our hike. We have spent two days looking down into the canyon and saying “We’re going to hike through that?!” Now it’s time. Still we lie in our quilts until 6 a.m. and then try to pack up quietly since everyone around us is still asleep. But packing up a tent quietly is nearly impossible so I’m sure we’ve woken them up. By 7 we are making our way to North Kaibab trailhead and by 7:20 we are on the trail into the canyon. [I am absolutely giddy with excitement about the next two days. –Toby]

Starting off on a cool morning and easy trail (for now).

The trail is well graded for a while and the only real challenge is navigating our way around all of the mule shit. [Omg, so much mule poop. So much. –Toby] We leapfrog with a family for a while. At Coconino Overlook, some of them are turning back so they ask us to take pictures before they separate, and they take some pictures for us as well.

Coconino Overlook, with the passage through the canyon in the background.

In a little less than a mile we pause at Supai Tunnel for water and a bathroom break. It takes me forever to find the entrance to the pit toilet but eventually I do and I marvel at the engineering it took to build this trail and its infrastructure. We cross paths with a big group of young adults who seem to be on a day hike and are focused on “crushing the workout.” After this we continually pass people coming up the trail without packs and guess that they must have gotten up super early to hike down and back. But we learn that sometimes these are trail runners who had started at the South Rim in the very early hours of the morning. This still blows my mind. [Whereas I think to myself, “I bet I could do that. Maybe I want to do that in a few days?” –Toby]

I love how you can see little glimpses of the trail winding through the canyon in this one.
Toby is stoked to go through the tunnel.

We cannot stop gasping at the beauty and enormity of the landscape as we climb down. But crank also starts to set in after another few miles. I’m struggling with ankle pain — descending is just as grueling as climbing, if for different reasons — and have to be careful where I’m stepping. It slows us down and Toby becomes stressed about time since we’ve only done 4 miles from the top and we still have 10 to go that day. We have to hike without talking to each other for a while. [Sorry! I can confirm, though, that this section is very challenging with lots of tall steps down, over and over again. –Toby] I want to enjoy this possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience but all my joints are yelling at me. So I hike in a pain cave while occasionally trying to take in the view and list things I’m grateful for. It helps a little and I silently thank my therapist for his gentle persistence about the benefits of a gratitude practice even though it sometimes makes me roll my eyes.

Toby hiking ahead on this stunning red trail.

Finally (FINALLY) we arrive at the Pump House, which marks the end of the steepest part of the descent and provides space for a sit-down break. There are other hikers here and someone points out a rattlesnake just chilling on the far side of a barrier against a tree. Toby gets a picture and I realize it’s the only rattlesnake I’ve seen on this trip.

So unimpressed by all the tourists hanging over the fence snapping pictures.

From here we are off again and the trail is delightfully flattish — descending a little but not enough to bother my knees and ankles. [Also, at the Pump House, we cross Manzanita Creek and follow its beautiful rushing water for several miles, which also increases this section’s enjoyability factor. –Toby] We stroll along for a mile and a half and stop for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, 7ish miles from the North Rim. I had hoped to camp here if we could have scored two nights but it was not to be.

Manzanita Creek flowing near the Pump House.

We have 7 more miles to make before we get to Bright Angel campground; it is getting hot and the trail is exposed. The heat is hard to tolerate but the crank had mostly subsided regardless. We are hiking along the bottom of the Grand Canyon! It’s enormous! From the bottom of the canyon, everything around us looks like mountains and Toby exclaims how weird it was to know that we were down in the earth rather than being at ground level and looking up.

In the height of the heat, Toby tries to find Ribbon Falls via a side trail, which we have heard is spectacular. I know I don’t have extra hiking in me and I’m glad I stayed put when Toby returns saying he was unable to find the route and doesn’t want to spend any more time looking. [Note to future hikers: the bridge on the north side, which once could have taken you more directly to Ribbon Falls, is washed out, maybe forever. I gave up on the route-finding that’s required here, but further south I spied a flatter and seemingly more straightforward path to the falls. I was feeling too much of a time crunch to take it, though. –Toby] We shoulder our packs again and tackle our one climb of the day, which honestly feels like a relief to my body. Then finally we are hiking along a river with steep canyon walls on either side, which provide some cool and shade.

Toby nestled into the canyon walls.
We are so tiny in this giant place.

During our mid afternoon snack break we realize two important facts. The cafe at Phantom Ranch, near Bright Angel campground, claims to have the best lemonade in the world and we only have 3 miles and a little over an hour until it closes. The thought of lemonade with actual ice cubes drives us forward. I find a whole new gear and am cruising, barely feeling the ground under my feet. Still, at half an hour until closing I worry that we won’t make it so I tell Toby to leave me behind as long he saves me a cup of lemonade. He pulls ahead of me like a rider in the Tour de France peels off the peloton to sprint for the finish. I keep hiking as fast as I can, too, and make it there at 10 minutes to closing, feeling very proud of myself.

Toby literally two seconds after leaving me behind. He rounded that bend and I didn’t see him again until Phantom Ranch.

Toby is at the window to get the lemonade and exclaims “oh they’re here!!” to the person working — he has been waiting until the last possible minute to actually purchase the lemonade so that it is as cold as it can be when I arrive. He buys our pricey lemonade and I think it’s probably just Country Time or some other powdered mix but I can honestly say it is the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted. [SAME. –Toby] I drink the whole thing and then fill the cup of ice with water at least three times and down that too. Toby chugs his and goes back for a second cup since refills are just $1.

Satiated, we try to find our way to the stock camp, which we were told was the only place with sites left. Ranger Cynthia had said “just follow the smell” when we asked how to find it but honestly everything smells like mules down here. So we stop a ranger who tells us that there are plenty of sites in the backpacker camp and we can take our pick. Score!

We pick a spot next to some older folks who we hope will be quiet neighbors and start scavenging for rocks. It is already very windy and Toby is worried about the tent staying up through the night. [The ground is so compacted that no tent stake can be driven in, and I am grateful for rocks. Also, we are surprised to find a fully functioning bathroom at the campground: running water and flush toilets at the bottom of the Grand Canyon! It’s kind of bizarre. I have a very alarming pee here that seems to suggest I am massively, dangerously dehydrated even though I drank water regularly and ate all my salty foods and stuff. When I report this to Cyn they insist I immediately drink several cups of electrolytes and water. After this all my bodily functions are perfectly normal, so who knows what happened… –Toby] Our neighbors are Grand Canyon veterans and have hiked down to Bright Angel and back from the South Rim nearly annually for several years. One of them tells us how unprepared they were the first time and that she had suffered heat exhaustion and vomited on that hike out of the canyon. This does nothing to calm my nerves about the climb, which have been gathering since we left the Utah border. But at this point I have no other choice but to climb my way back out of the massive hole in the earth.

We sleep better than expected given that it is too hot to get into our quilts and that the tent is being whipped around us by the wind. But Toby’s piles of rocks hold everything in place and we get at least some rest before our alarm goes off at 5 a.m.

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