Grand Canyon is rightly named. The beauty of this place cannot be fully described in words. It is one of the deepest gorges on Earth with an average depth of one mile (1.6 km) and an average width of ten miles (16 km). Because of the tremendous natural beauty that surrounds the place, hiking the Canyon rim to rim is considered fulfilling the “bucket list” for many seasoned hikers around the world. As we found out, it does require a good chunk of mental fortitude along with physical endurance. Our plan was to hike from the North to the South Rim with an overnight stay in the valley in between at Phantom Lodge.
Day One: Euphoria and the Surrealistic Landscape
Beginning at the trailhead called North Kaibab, we began the 14 mile hike. Truly, the challenge of hiking this trail was like none other. The distance in miles was not the challenge: the intensity level required given the difficulty of the trail was the real challenge. Although the trail is well maintained by the National Park Service, much of the trail was heavily covered with rocks and stones and was used by mules or horses as well. Most of the trail was filled with slopes that lunged upward and downward, architected as steps with wooden blocks separating each. Hikers have to manage these hindrances with attention and care, which meant a good amount of slowing down of speed in order to avoid any mishap. The price can be sometimes deadly. Though not heavily advertised, it is a fact that many lives are lost in the Grand Canyon on these trails, due to accidents either self-made or due to factors surrounding the environment (heat, cold etc.,) that were not properly taken into account.
Anticipating these odds, we had done our homework for this for over a year, preparing mostly by running and hiking local trails in and around Maryland. This did help us a lot to get in good physical shape, but the mental challenges were something we were unprepared for, as we would rudely find out during the hike. From all the materials I had read up on this, I clearly knew it would be different in many ways such as weather, especially heat but I was definitely not ready for the dramatic “theater” experience the canyon hike provided—that hit us right from the time we started hiking.
The moment we started hiking, the visual magic of the surroundings absorbed my senses. The landscape was uniquely indescribable and much of it remains in my mind as jaw-droppingly awesome. The exquisitely carved rocks that underwent environmental ravages dating back to 25,000 million years, stared at you from all sides throughout the hike. Desert lizards, squirrels and the ever permanent scorching sun kept you company, while the heat and thirst constantly tested the limits of our physical and mental will. The day we hiked all the way to Phantom Lodge, it was a steaming high of 95 degrees, typical for any other day in July. The radiating volcanic rocks and the “box” like geological formation of the canyon at the place around where the desolate lodge was situated kept the heat up by another few notches or more, on that day, to 106 degrees. As we slowly meandered through the trail with my GoPro on my head, some of the excitement and euphoria that we had in the beginning of the hike seemed to vanish in front of the stubbornly overpowering elements. The overbearing need to remain mentally focused to steer clear of the not-so hidden dangers of the trail, while handling the influence of weakness and pain in my heat exhausted body was something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. Tired and exhausted, we kept wondering why the lodge was so far away even when our GPS map showed that it was 5 miles away. By then, it was quite evident that our speed was only averaging an hour a mile. We had crossed over 10 miles in 5-6 hours through a downward spiral starting at 12,000 feet at the top of the trail quickly falling to somewhere in the 2000-3000 feet above sea level. Finally, when we reached Phantom Lodge, all we wanted was a cold shower and some good food. We slept exhausted and spent.
Day Two: On the Road Again
From the Phantom Lodge, our final leg was to hike 10 miles to the top of the South Rim using the Bright Angels Trail. We got up around 3 a.m. and began the hike to face another day when hot weather had been predicted. The climb led us in a zigzag fashion by the side of the mighty Colorado river but it was no less challenging in terms of difficulty. Five hours went by, and the sun was beating down on us. The electrolytes and water mix in the back pack was being refilled at the water stops along the way, and yet, heavy heat and signs of heat exhaustion was evident in many ways in my body. The mind has a strange way of testing your will. All of a sudden, some strange questions began forming in my mind. What did I get myself into?
Will I fall down somewhere and will that be the end? Can I ever make it out of here? Where is the end? How many more steps to go? These thoughts swirled in my head as I put one foot in front of the other. My eyes were straining to look for any dangers down below, with each step that I took.
To keep my apprehensions from completely taking over my mind, I trained my mind to focus on the panoramic beauty of the Canyon. I wanted to complete the hike. I wanted to feel the joy of completing this test of endurance. The trick did pay off—my defeatist attitude morphed into one of determination. Finally, by 1 p.m. we reached the top, to a well-deserved high five between us. Through all the sweat, tears, excitement and endurance, we had successfully completed the rim to rim hike!
What To Do Differently:
Given another opportunity, I might have attempted the hike in a month other than July when the temperatures were soaring! We chose that time of year based on available reservations at Phantom Lodge. Believe it or not, these reservations are booked a year in advance. I took the available date and planned my trip around it. To take weather conditions into account, check weather patterns on their website and figure out the best time of year to visit given individual preferences and tolerance for hot and cold weather.
Where to stay:
Phantom Ranch situated within the Grand Canyon. Or, you can choose to camp in designated campgrounds along the way.
When to visit:
Check weather conditions and choose a time that works with your individual tolerance. Be aware that there are unusual weather patterns including rock slides that can affect your hiking plans.
What to Carry:
Hiking gear, sticks, flashlights, salty snacks to prevent dehydration and plenty of water.
Mike Manoj lives in Maryland. He works as a cyber security consultant for federal agencies. In addition to hiking, Mike enjoys singing and playing drums.
This article was first published in October 2016.