September 9, 2010

into the abyss

wake up. take down tent. rush to find parking at Bright Angel Trailhead. no parking. find parking at Backcountry Office. meet other hikers who think this setup is a cluster. get shuttle to South Kaibab trailhead. i don't even stop to adjust my boots i just start right down the trail. it's 6:30AM. the sun is just hitting the canyon and it is beautiful. the trail is very steep and so each minute takes you farther and farther.

 i stop for photos along the way but i know that i am not going to be able to capture the feeling of being surrounded by these magnificent walls. walking down through the layers, picking up the rocks and feeling the texture and weight is both a history and science lesson. when the full brunt of the heat kicks in around 10AM i take short breaks in the shade and chat with other hikers. because of the altitude change [3-5 degrees per 1000 feet] it is twenty degrees hotter at the bottom of the canyon. 120 degrees. this trail is quite spectacular but it is very steep 4800 Feet over 6.5 miles and for the last two hours i feel like one of my knees is being ripped out of socket and the heat is punishing.

the bottom is marked by a short tunnel that leads you onto a suspension bridge 70 feet over the river.  i get in at 11:30AM and immediately join all the other hikers who are sitting fully clothed in the Bright Angel Creek. in this heat it takes about 15 minutes for your clothes to fully dry so there is no need to change clothes [even if i had brought extra].

the water pipe has been repaired so there is water for everyone and even showers. the main building of Phantom Ranch serves as an office/gift shop/bar/snack shop/restaurant and so most everyone hangs out there for an hour or so because it's air cooled. plus they have beer.

all the meals are preordered when you book reservations and there's a couple of choices and given mules haul this stuff to the bottom, kinda pricey. it's standard Xanterra fare so nothing to rave about. i'm feeling lucky to have gotten a bunk at Phantom Ranch because they open reservations 13 months out and typically sell out in just a few hours. so there is a mix of people who booked space a year in advance and others who booked less than a week out like me. here's the thing... there are two ways of getting down to and up from Phantom Ranch. the first is free and uses your feet. the second is a cost of $400 per person and you ride a mule. since Xanterra is in the business of making money they hold a certain number of spaces for possible future bookings of mule riders. when those spots don't get booked they open them for hikers. this leads to a whole slew of challenges for hikers that is really unnecessary. for example, i met a lovely German family with three boys who had only secured space at the ranch at the last minute so they had been hauling camping gear around the US in the event that they had to use the campground. which requires a backcountry permit which you CAN NOT obtain online or by phone. you must write to them via the postal service or fax. i am not making this up. i heard this from multiple hikers. so when i say i am lucky to have called in and gotten a spot i mean REALLY lucky. this just sucks for visitors who miss out on the experience because they don't have the kind of flexibility i do.

so if you are visiting and can not get into Phantom Ranch the other alternative is the Bright Angel Campground which is also beautiful and this time of year tents aren't needed but you still need to haul down [and up] a sleeping bag. unless you use the duffel service offered by Xanterra via the mule train. it's a $70 charge for a bag not exceeding 30 pounds.

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