Backpacking the Grand Canyon (day 1)

14 Oct
Backpacking the Grand Canyon (day 1)

19 January 2011




Day 1 (Interim day 17)

After getting up at 6:00 am, cleaning rooms, and loading the van, we were fed our last meal in the front country, savory bacon with scrambled eggs. With much excitement, our group piled into the van and departed Flagstaff, AZ, headed to the Grand Canyon (or as Native Americans called it, “Mountain Lying Down”).

My first view of the Canyon was magnificent. Since it was January, the outer rim was covered with snow and ice, but from where we stood we could see the warm base of the canyon below. All were stunned by the magnitude of the canyon, but none could fully appreciate its enormity until that night, after trekking 7.5 mile to the base of the canyon 4,000 feet down. From the top, the canyon seems gigantic, but what many don’t realize is that the “cracks” that seem so small from the top actually extend down the canyon twice as deep as can be seen from the top. This is where we spent much of the following week, winding through this lowest level where the life-giving water flows.

One miss-step could land you down sever rows of switchbacks. Good thing it wasn't too icy

Our hike began on the South Kaibab trail, which has more switchbacks than I would want to count. My knees, both of which I had broken a couple years prior, screamed at me for putting them through the descent but I remained quiet, complaining does nobody any good and I wanted to see what my body was still capable of.

We often paused during our descent for brief lessons from the geology major on our trip. He would get so excited over the smallest differences in rock grains and shapes and would pour out his knowledge to the group. Many of us would stop and listen as we were very intrigued (and it was just fun to see someone get so excited over things the rest of us would breeze past without paying much, if any, attention too). This turned our to be a highlight for many of us on the trip, turning into a week-long history lesson of how the different layers of the canyon formed over time and how it will continue to change in the future. Walking through the canyon while learning about it in such detail was amazing; textbooks could never compete with this academic experience.

The trail led us further and further into the depths of the canyon. It seemed as if it would never end, until finally we caught a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. It was still an hours’ hike away, but it put a little extra pep into our steps. When we finally reached the Colorado our feet were hot (the temperature at the bottom of the canyon was around 70° even though the top rim had snow), but the trail took us to a foot bridge rather than the river bank. No rest yet.

The bridge’s construction materials (which included eight 2” diameter steel cables that span the rivers breadth) could not be transported by mules and consequently had to be carried down by men. I could not imagine re-doing that hike carrying giant steel cables – my backpack with a week’s food plus water and clothes was more than enough for me.

Enjoying the view about 500 feet down into the canyon during our first short break

Finally we reached our campsite. There was a permanent overhang-shelter and the weather was nice so we did not set up our tents. Following dinner, we, the men, broke out pipes and enjoyed a relaxing smoke after the days effort.

This event was one of my favorite memories of my life thus far. There was a quiet ambiance from a stream trickling in the background. I took slow, careful draws on my pipe – enjoying the full flavor of my ‘crops circle’ blend of tobacco. All were quiet, simply absorbing the night. Then, suddenly, a bright bauble began to appear in the sky. It grew and grew in size until finally a full moon had risen from the darkness over the wall of the Grand Canyon. We all witnessed one of the free shows God brings about on a nightly basis, but rarely does anyone give it mind and even more rarely do people have such wonderful seats for the show! The full moon brought with it a second daylight so powerful our still bodies cast shadows on the canyon floor.

In this new light I went for a walk and came across a group of deer who were very friendly. I stood, surrounded by the deer, and took pictures of them. They didn’t appreciate my flash, however, and soon walked away. I went back to camp and prepared my sleeping mat and bag. The whole group slept on the dirt with the stars as our ceiling. I was too excited to sleep and instead watched the moon cross the entire night-sky and set over the far rim. Never before had I stayed up to watch such a majestic happening. Quietly I contemplated what living in such an advanced society was making me miss.

The moon set over the far rim of the canyon and I fell asleep for a couple hours before the early morning wake-up call. What an amazing first day in the Grand Canyon! I could not have asked for a better start to our adventure in the canyon.

Full moon on the rise


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