No sleep, no food, little water, trying to make it out of the Grand Canyon before sunset when temperatures were expected to drop to freezing. It sounds like a story of survival, but actually, it was just a Friday off from work.
My brother, Justin, and I made the 7 hour drive from California to the Grand Canyon right after work on Thursday night. The plan was that while one drove the first half of the way the other would sleep, and then we’d switch. That was the plan, but neither of us could sleep except for when it was our turn to drive, in which case we’d be sleepy and want to switch with the other. There was no sleeping on the drive over, just a series of short naps.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon just in time to see the sunrise.
We parked at the visitor center and were looking for the skywalk but couldn’t find it. Instead, we went to the rim and started taking pictures with all the other tourists who were there….and it was cold! Our hands were turning numb and were even shaking as we were taking pictures.
We were trying to find good spots to take pictures but there were already a lot of people there and they were all trying to stand in the same spots. I told my brother, “don’t worry, once we hit the trails, we won’t see anybody.” This turned out to be mostly true. We only saw a handful of people at a time.
We took our pictures, jogged back to the car to warm up, got into our hiking clothes, then drove over to parking lot D which is where they recommend hikers park, especially if they’re going to be gone all day.
We made our way to the trail. Having almost frozen our fingers off at the visitor’s center, we bundled up and put on gloves. We walked over to the trailhead and then started jogging down. About five minutes into our jog it got warm enough that we were able to take off the gloves and remove some of the layers. It stayed at around 50 all day so the weather was very nice and comfortable. There were signs posted around saying that it is not recommended that hikers make the trip to the river and back due to the danger of exhaustion. Of course, it was our plan to make exactly that trip. I believe that the nice weather definitely played a part in our success. Had it been a hot summer day, we wouldn’t have taken the risk.
From the top of the trailhead to the base, Indian gardens, is about 4.5 miles. We jogged it pretty much the entire way down. Once you get to the base, the trail flattens out for awhile and follows along the stream. It was pretty nice. We were surrounded by trees, cactii, and of course, rock walls.
We followed the trail along the creek for a while and then it turned right and we were looking down at another canyon with a zig-zag trail. We took that trail down and it finally brought us to this beach on the Colorado river. Earlier some hiker had told us that it would look like an oasis. He was right. The place was beautiful.
There are signs posted everywhere saying not to swim due to the strong current and the icy cold temperature of the water, but you can’t make the trip all the way to the river without, at the very least, getting your hair wet. So we stood on the shore and dunked our hands in the water (it WAS cold) and washed our faces and wet our hair. It felt pretty nice.
Now, at this point, we were about 3.5 hours into our trip. We hadn’t eaten anything. All we brought with us was some peanuts, jerky, and a tangerine that my wife had given me. I ate the tangerine and it was good. I didn’t really have an appetite for anything else, which I know is bad. You’re supposed to eat and hydrate constantly because by the time your body needs it you’ll be at the point where you can’t eat. We continued on the trail and as we went along I just kept popping peanuts. I couldn’t eat the jerky because it started to make me feel sick.
The trail continues along the Colorado River and then comes to a suspension bridge that crosses the river and leads to Phantom Ranch, a place that serves food, drinks, and snacks. We got there but they told us they only serve food if you have reserved it in advance. So we had two glasses of ice cold lemonade, then began the trip back.
My legs were already hurting on the path to the ranch and they were still hurting when we left. My brother said, “ok, let’s jog it.” I said, “jog it? I’m ready to walk.” But then I thought the same thing he was thinking, if we walk the entire way, we’ll never make it out of here by sundown. I started jogging.
Then we reached all the climbs. I was tired making the climbs from the ranch past the river and up to the creek. There were a few times when I had to sit on a rock somewhere to try and recharge. Once we hit the creek, it was flat all the way to the Indian gardens. Even though, I felt like I was moving slower than the way down, we actually covered ground pretty fast and I was surprised how fast we got to the Indian Gardens. There was a sign there that says 4.5 miles to the rim. This actually made me feel pretty good because that’s around the same distance of the trail loops that I normally run. I knew that this would be different because once I reached “the wall” it was going to be nothing but climbing, but the switchbacks were mostly short and the trail wasn’t as steep as the trails I normally hit, and it definitely wasn’t as steep as the trails I was climbing just one week before at Tough Mudder.
When we left Indian gardens and we looked up, we realized how high we would have to climb to get out of here. I was tired. I didn’t want to look at how far I still had to go because I didn’t want it to psych me out. I looked forward and just kept walking knowing that I would cover ground pretty fast. We’d make a few strong pushes, rounding a few corners, and then we’d stop to take a quick 5 minute break. That’s the longest we allowed ourselves to take. My brother was pretty much waiting on me because it seemed like he could’ve kept pushing nonstop if he wanted to. I could’ve stayed at any rock and fallen asleep but we kept it at five. At one resting place, I went over by just 1 minute and I felt the sweat start to evaporate from my arms and my muscles started to get cold so that’s when I knew I had to get up and start moving again.
I began pushing forward again. I liked that the trail consisted of mostly short switchbacks because I knew that every time I rounded the corner, I was that much closer to the top. I kept with my strategy of looking forward instead of up. That was a good strategy until I rounded another corner and instead of seeing a short set of switchbacks, I saw a very long climb in one direction, followed by another one on top, and another on top of that one. It looked like a Donkey Kong level.
Then I made the mistake of looking up and I realized that I still had a long way to go. I felt my energy start to leave me. I told my brother I had to sit down and reset my mind. I told him that I had messed up by looking up. I took a minute to put myself back together, then, instead of looking up, I looked down. I looked at all the land that I had covered that day. I said to myself, “You covered all of that and you can’t make this little climb up? What’s wrong with you, man? Get up and walk!” So I did. We had 3 miles left to go.
Up until this point, I had been a pretty happy camper. Now I was pissed. Now I just wanted to finish. Everything was hurting. Justin told me to take smaller steps because it would feel easier and conserve energy. Maybe it did, but it also made it feel like it took forever to cover any distance. I took the smaller steps. I’d climb, and rest, climb, and rest. Eventually, as we were walking we heard a police siren. I didn’t really pay it any mind because I was still mad and focused on taking one small step after another.
Then my brother started celebrating and said,
“That means we’re close.”
“Oh yeah….OH YEAH!!!!!”
At that moment, a switch went off in my head. Screw these small steps, I’m taking huge steps. I was moving fast now. At some parts I felt like I was running again. I was exhausted too, though, because I’d be moving, then I’d lean up against a wall for a second, then I’d push off and keep moving and moving until finally, 9 hours after we started, I emerged from the pit and popped out on a family sitting on ledge enjoying the sunset.
The dad started laughing about my “running sucks” shirt and was like, “Awesome shirt! Honey, look at his shirt, it’s funny.” I smiled, said “thanks,” like I had to pretty much every other hiker I encountered on the trail (it was a very popular shirt on the trail), and said “which way do I go to get to the street? Your way or this way?” He’s said, “that way. You look tired. How far did you go?” I told him “20 miles. All the way past the river and back.”
I kept walking and as I rounded a corner, this old man looked at me and asked “how far did you say?” I told him and he said, “that’s crazy!” I agreed.
I wasn’t tired anymore once I reached the top. I was excited. We had just accomplished something pretty awesome. By far, it was one of the most difficult things that I have ever attempted so far.
My brother and I celebrated a bit, refilled up on water, then made the long walk back to the car. Now everything started hurting again.
We got back to the car, drove 3 hours to Laughlin that night (even though we were super sleepy), had some iced cold beers, margaritas, and a ton of greasy junk food. We fell asleep immediately once we got to the room. The next morning, we had breakfast buffet, then made the drive home. What other people make a weekend or week out of (we encountered hikers doing 40 miles in 4 days), we made a day of.
We’re not only disgruntled, we’re crazy.
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