I had a rough sleep, full of anticipation, so I was relieved to hear the alarm go off and get out of bed, despite the cold outside. I was a huge snotty mess but sorted most of that out in the bathroom. I was not going to be deterred out of doing this hike. I put on my already laid out clothes and opted for a quick cereal for breakfast instead of the planned oats. I just wanted to get going so I could kill my anxiety. About 5:15am, I said a silent goodbye to my friends still sound asleep in their tent and Arc, not knowing for sure when I’d see them again. The Astro wobbled its way a mile up the road to the North Kaibab trailhead parking area. My bag was already packed from the night before so there wasn’t much else to do but to get walking. I hit the stairs at the top of the trail at 5:30am, just after sunrise.
As I started my descent down the steepest part of the trail (the first 5 miles are the steepest), I could see the bright yellow glow from the sun peeking over the opposite rim. Though I couldn’t actually see the ball of light thanks to the canyon walls surrounding me, I was happy to be starting so early. I was alone on the trail and had a spring in my step, happy to be embarking on such a grand (no pun intended) adventure, especially doing it solo.
I spent the first part of the decline alone, but after a mile or so, I started hearing voices. They were coming from below me and when I couldn’t see anyone, I figured the canyon walls were probably very good reflectors of sound. At Supai Tunnel, the first water stop, I saw the people that belonged to the voices. They’d stopped for a short break and got going just as I got there. It was a group of four young guys, travelling fairly light. I was surprised to see them in only shorts and t-shirts, but only a half mile later, I felt the need to de-layer. I took my gloves off, packed away my downie and pulled my snow pants off to reveal my new hiking shorts I was wearing underneath. It was probably a little premature, but I soon warmed up, focussing on speed for my downhill travel. Knowing there was 13 hours of sunlight in the day, 14 if you include dusk after sunset, so I had allowed myself a 5 hour descent, leaving 9 hours to get back up. I was hoping all this was achievable and knew that now was my best chance to make good time while my body was fresh.
I eventually caught up to the boys when one of them was sitting down having a rest. Apparently he’d twisted his ankle, but I think it was an attention ploy. One of his mates was kind enough to be waiting with him, but the other two had moved on. When I saw the house below me along the trail, I’d have been surprised if I hadn’t read about it beforehand. While I didn’t quite get to it since it was on a side trail, it is known as the Pumphouse Residence where an artist and park employee Bruce Aiken lived and painted for years, raising children there as well! The house sat at the bottom of Roaring Springs, a magnificently tall waterfall that springs out of the side of the canyon wall. I could see a manmade structure at the mouth of the waterfall so assumed it is used for hydro-power or some sort of water supply.
At the fork for the side trail leading out to roaring springs, I caught up to the leader of the four boys. He didn’t have a map and so asked if we were still on the North Kaibab trail, and if I’d seen three other guys. I explained that yes he was still on the right track and that his friends weren’t far behind him. He told me they were hiking from rim to rim, planning to walk up the Bright Angel trail to get to the south rim. That’s a four hour shuttle drive between the two stops!
I stayed ahead of the boys for a while, having to choose my pee stops wisely so they wouldn’t catch my with my pants down. After the steep descent, the trail turned right out ofhte first valley into a canyon that followed Bright Angel creek. I would stay with this waterway until I hit the Colorado. I came across a few people every hour, some with heavy packs, some with light daypacks like mine. I even saw two guys carrying mountain bikes! They had some sort of backpack to hold them on to their shoulders, with the two wheels overlapping each other. It looked like they weren’t carrying much else! Whatever their trip, I’m sure it was epic.
Compared to the last time I’d hiked the Grand Canyon in the height of winter on the south rim, this place was full of life. The further down I went, not only did it get warmer, but the desert flowers became more numerous and the greenery thicker. I loved the tall cactus plants that were bright yellow and seemed to point the way for hikers like me. After the steep downhill, the walking through Bright Angel canyon was a breeze. The trail obviously still trended downwards, but it was smooth single track and I didn’t have to watch my feet so much. I’d come this far without so much as a trip and I hoped to keep it that way!
I passed the Cottonwood campground at mile 6.7, which was pretty much deserted since most of last night’s residents had already left and tonight’s campers hadn’t arrived yet. In every guidebook I read, the hike I was attempting was labelled as a 4-day walk, with hikers spending nights 1 and 3 at Cottonwood and the second down the bottom at the Colorado. This meant, I was a day in with only three to go! I didn’t stop since I still had plenty of water.
Another mile and a half down and I reached the turn off to Ribbon Falls. It was only a half mile off the main trail and I’d read that it was well worth the detour so I took it. Others had dropped their packs at the trailhead, but I carried mine a while before ditching it next to the trail. It was a nice change, I felt infinitely lighter! The trail was much less worn than the main drag which meant I was in the minority of people who took the time to look at something off the beaten track. Before I reached the turn off, I saw the four boys who had leapfrogged me when I stopped to tape up my toes. They had obviously contemplated doing it then decided against it, walking straight on. Oh, if they only knew what they’d missed!
After walking the trail and clambering over a few boulders that were polished in places from the people before me, I got my first look at the falls. They came from on high, spilling over a small cavity in the red rock. When I got closer, I found out what made the falls so special. The water spilling over the top hit a huge boulder that stood at least three stories tall. Because of the constant treatement from the water, the whole thing was covered in bright green moss and the water fell in white ribbons through the greenery. It was absolutely stunning. There were others there enjoying the same view and they followed me up the trail that lead behind the falls. I could feel the mist on my face as I climbed, feeling lucky that I could admire something like this from up close. I carried on around the back of the falls following another trail that lead to a sign on the other side. There were a couple of sketchy sections where I’d have been on for a fall had my feet not remained where I put the, and I found out why when I reached the sign. It said “Dangerous, Go No Farther”. Whoops. The two guys that had followed me to the back of the falls were looking to me for a suggestion abut the trail I’d just taken. I gave them a big thumbs down and indicated they should take the easier route the way they’d climbed up, they heeded my advice.
I picked up my pack on the way back to the trail and back on the main stretch, had my first sit down. I’d already eaten one of my muesli bars on the run, but now just past two hours in, I needed a little more sustenance. I chatted with two guys who were waiting for their friends as I ate another muesli bar and a banana. They were a very cheery bunch, obviously very happy to be embarking on their hike. The Dad of the group declined to go to the Ribbon Falls despite his son’s suggestion since he wanted to get down to the Colorado in time to do some fishing. They made off before me, wishing me a happy trip, but I caught up with them before long. There was an out-of-character uphill section before the normal downhill trend continued. I suspected that group would have a very long walk up because they were all panting and needing a sit-down rest after only a few dozen meters of slight incline. Still, it didn’t wipe the smile off their faces.
I remained in happy spirits the rest of the way down to the Colorado, not at all feeling the need to listen to music or engage in some other distraction. I was simply enjoying the sound of the creek that followed the trail, at some points turning into a raging river. At least I knew I would never be short of water, especially when the trail of agua next to me was crystal clear.
The wide valley turned into a narrower canyon with just enough room for the trail and the creek between the high walls. I went a whole hour without seeing anyone since I was getting nearer to the bottom camp where most people would have already left and made their way past me. My legs were starting to feel achy, especially near my hips and so, at every corner, I peered around, hoping to see the canyon open up and lead to the Colorado. It wasn’t to be. I walked at least another hour until I started seeing signs that meant civilisation was ahead.
I knew there was a lodge at the bottom, in addition to the Bright Angel campground, but I had no idea how comprehensive the accommodation was. There were a number of small huts and a canteen and common area. I think the lodge is for the people that come down on mules. When I saw a very overweight couple trundling along the trail near the bottom, my first thought was “How did you get here?” then figured they must have come down on mules and had a day to stay at the lodge.
I rushed through the lodge since I was busting for a poo, so I head straight to the campground toilets. I had enough time to notice the thermometer mounted on the welcome sign that read 27*C. So much for 5*C difference top to bottom, it was bloody hot down here! The campground was pretty quiet too, in between guests. At the toilets, I was surprised to find they were bloody white porcelain flushable loos! We were at the bottom of a huge canyon and they had luxury!
Having relieved myself, I filled up with some water at the side of the toilet block and carried on down to the Colorado, the river I’d come so far to sit by. I reached it and I was immediately in awe. The river and its banks were so full of life compared to the winter and it seemed to be flowing heavier. I took a seat on some rocks just by the Bright Angel trail bridge that extends over the river. Just as I sat and eased my naked feet into the water, I heard a shout and looked up to see a blue hat floating down to the river from a lady’s head on the bridge. That’s the last she’ll ever see of that. The mighty Colorado current carried it away in moments.
I sat with my feet in the cold water for at least half an hour, having a decent lunch of a wrap and some biscuits and hydrating with an energy drink. While I sat, I watched the hundreds of birds in the sky, all flying close to the Colorado with some impressive manouevers. I’d never seen anything like it. They were small black and white birds and weren’t hunting for anything, they just seemed to be flying for the fun of it, missing each other by inches and staying just above the waves of the river. Beautiful. I’m so glad I made it here.
It had taken me 4.5 hours to get to the bottom so a half hour break was perfect and when I stood I was happy to find that my feet and legs felt refreshed after my sit down. I walked out onto the bridge for a choice view of the Colorado before heading back the way I’d come. I met a deer at the start of the trail who showed me the way. Maybe a good sign?
It would have been good to have a buddy with me at this stage, I felt very apprehensive starting back, having a strong urge to call my mother just to talk to her. I think I knew I was facing something hard and was hopeful beyond hope that all would go well. To stop my brain going in circles, I got my iPod out and put some tunes on. I felt immediate relief and got myself into a rhythm. I put my head down and tried to do a quick pace since I knew the first half would be the easiest uphill of the backwards trek. It was supposed to rain about now and the clouds were gathering over the north rim, but the weather was still perfect.
I had to remember to keep looking up at the view since I hadn’t seen what was behind me on my way down. It was just as stunning as the walk down, but way more intimidating because I could see how far up I had to climb.
Just after the two hour mark, I’d made it back to Ribbon Falls. I was super happy with my pace and glad that I’d seen the falls on the way down since I had no interest in stopping now. When I made it to Cottonwood campground, I had been going for 2 hours and 45 minutes and needed a rest. My legs were hurting properly now and my feet were also joining the party. I sat on a bench with my legs crossed and got a muesli bar and apple into me. Having made so much progress up until this point, every extra step made me feel better about reaching the top again.
At the Manzanita rest area, I chatted with a guy heading down, used the bathroom and made myself another energy drink. It would be the last water stop before the north rim so I also topped up my Camelbak. I stayed here a while but didn’t sit down, now hearing my Uncle Doug’s voice in my head telling me not to stop for fear I wouldn’t get going again. And so, I started the steepest part of the hike. My music was imperative to my success, a good song would get me singing and walking along to the beat.
I managed to keep a reasonable pace until the last couple of miles where I slowed the hell down. It started to rain a few miles out from the top, so I stopped to don my rain jacket. I was lucky, it didn’t ever really properly rain, just a few showers. After deciding I would carry on right to the end without stopping, I needed a sit down. I promised myself that the next time I found shelter, I would have one last rest. I came upon a switchback with overhanging rock ahead and a nice sitting place moments later so I took the opportunity. I ate my last wrap and two cookies to give me one last burst. I sat for a while, enjoying the view of the place I’d just come from.
I definitely had most of the trail to myself on the way back up since it was getting too late in the day for people to start walking and I enjoyed it. The few people I did come across were cheery and encouraging to me going the hard way. I liked seeing the runners again that I’d seen on my way down. They were obviously doing the rim-to-rim-to-rim epic and I awed at them for having so much stamina and travelling so light. In most cases, they looked just as they had when I first saw them and keeping the same pace. On the contrary, I’m sure I looked like a wrecked mess compared to when they’d seen me.
The last mile or so was a slow trudge. The steps were steep and the ground a little muddy from the rain. My legs were still with me but they were screaming in pain. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and getting to the white shale level of the canyon, the white layer of rock that sits at the top. When I came level with it, my spirits lifted and I picked up the pace a bit. It was short lived and I soon settled back into my slow rhythm. I knew the last switchback when I saw it and soon enough, I turned the corner and saw the trailhead above me. Wholly. Shit. I’d done it, I reached the end!
I completely ignored the people mingling at the top, not even giving them so much as a smile. I had eyes only for my van and they were seeking it out. When I saw it, I bounded up the last few steps and ran across the carpark until me and Astro were together again. I gave her a kiss and a hug, collapsing against her, just under twelve hours after I’d seen her last.
Hiking the North Kaibab out and back is the hardest hike I’ve ever done and also the prettiest. It is experiences like this that make me so happy I made the decision to leave the real world behind and go adventuring full time. It is a great privelege to be able to thoroughly experience America’s greatest wonders and I will never forget that.
I got straight into the car and drove back to camp. I parked right outside the shower building, armed myself with six quarters and walked in. I felt great relief when the steam of other people’s showers hit me. The place was basically a steam room. Each of the three showers were occupied so I took a seat against the wall and took my shoes off. When one shower freed up, I let another lady go in front of me since I’d seen her husband waiting outside. I waited patiently for one of the teenage girls to finish then it was my turn. Needless to say, the six minutes of hot water rushing over me was bliss. I was so proud of my body to have carried me through the Grand Canyon, it felt good to reward it.
Dressed in my warm clothes, I walked out the door, just as it started to snow. And not magical light fluffy snowflakes either, it was more like hail. I got straight in the car and drove through camp to park in Pete’s campsite. He wasn’t there, probably still at the lodge escaping the weather, so I was able to park up and get my car level. I stayed in the driver’s seat a while, just watching the white stones fall from the sky and cover the campground in white. From there, I managed to crawl into the back and get into bed where I watched some TV while my tummy settled before dinner.
When Pete returned, I was surprised to see him get a fire going, so after a quick trip to the bathroom, I stood out with him in the lightly falling snow around the fire chatting about our day’s experiences. I didn’t stay out in the cold long, retreating back into the van for the night where it was warm and cozy. I made myself a quick dinner in the living room and watched a little more TV before conking out around 9pm. What a day.