A Grand Challenge


It was 107 degrees. The sun was grilling us into the dry earth like cheese on toast in a broiler. Blisters throbbed on our feet, thirst threatened our sanity, the heat-forged cliffs on either side were closing in on us like some sort of macabre medieval torture chamber. And it was heaven.

Ever since we first laid eyes on the Grand Canyon eight years ago, my older two sons, Nicholas, now 20, and Chris, 18, and I had dreamed of hiking into it.

That bizarre landscape of red, beige, mauve and gray rock dropping away from the rim in a tumble of cliffs and terraces, and the thread of a path winding down, beckoned.

We'd all read Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and this looked like the real thing. Indeed, the 14-mile hike from the North Rim to the Colorado River, a vertical drop of one mile, goes through a geologic timeline of rock -- from the "new" 200-million-year-old Kaibab limestone at the top to the almost 2-billion-year-old Vishnu schists in the bottom that are half as old as our planet.

That was almost as amazing as the three of us being together in one place. My sons were well entrenched in their own lives -- college, friends, summer jobs -- but we had been hiking together since they were young and were committed to this dream.

The practical planning had begun almost two years ago when I reserved rooms not only at the Grand Canyon Lodge at the top of the canyon but also at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, the only non-camping-type accommodation below the rim.

Even then, we didn't get the exact dates we wanted. Some 50,000 people a year hike into the canyon. Phantom Ranch can only accommodate 92 a night and nearby Bright Angel Campground 90, so planning is essential, though you can't book any earlier than two years in advance.

The most popular hike into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim. It is eight miles long, and some people go down and back in a day. It is also the only trail that allows mule-riders access to the bottom of the canyon, although, because of repair work on the trail, mule rides have been suspended until at least March 22.

Another popular hike -- and the way I'd do it next time -- is the 21-mile trek from rim to rim. Though only 10 miles from each other as the crow -- actually, the raven -- flies, the north and south rims are 250 miles apart by road. A shuttle bus runs between the two.

My sons and I had chosen the toughest route -- the North Kaibab Trail, a 28-mile round trip with an elevation change of 10,000 feet -- so we could be alone to commune with the twisted trees, sculpted by the extreme environment into works of ancient art; to marvel at a delicate orange columbine blooming from an otherwise featureless rock face; to study the blue, orange and yellow lichen; to see the cliffs rise over us higher and higher as we got lower and lower.

We hit the trail, two miles from the lodge, at 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half later than we'd been advised to start. In the early morning chill of the North Rim, it was impossible to imagine the heat that awaited us almost 6,000 feet and 14 miles down in the Inner Gorge.

The steep, dusty trail followed an old mule-deer path, the first to cut a path into this alien land. We were in high spirits, laughing, joking, stopping every 50 yards or so to gape at yet another heart-stopping view of cliff or canyon, amazed that we were actually here.

We were in good shape, my sons by fact of age and gender, me from a couple of months of regular jogging. Still, I wondered if I, two and a half times their age, was going to be the weak link in our chain.

By the time we'd descended to Roaring Springs, a thunderous outpouring of water that supplies both rims of the canyon, we were almost five miles into our hike. The sun was high, and the more forested environment above had given way to a scrubbier desert climate. And it was getting hot. Probably 100 degrees with little shade.

The trail turned rocky and at one point resembled the trail of my imaginings -- a three-foot wide ledge slicing across a cliff face that dropped precipitously away on the other side. But it was a short section and the only part that gave me pause.

It is advised not to hike between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the hottest part of the day, but we were feeling fine despite the heat and kept going. We had plenty of food and water.

Entering the 'Box'

Roaring Springs was the second water source of the trip so far. However adequate the water is along the trail, rangers still treat some 20 people a day in the summer season for heat exhaustion and several for heat stroke, not to mention the 400 or so search and rescue operations for people who have simply overestimated their physical ability.

This is not a climate to toy with. It is extreme and in its extremity it can kill. Each person should carry at least half a gallon of water and have a water-purifying system -- tablets or filter -- in case the official water stops aren't operating and water from the creek must be used.

After Roaring Springs, the path closely followed the energetic Bright Angel Creek. At noon we ate lunch -- cashews, beef jerky, dried fruit -- on a sandy beach by a waterfall. We took off our jogging shoes and soaked our feet in the stream that was as cold as the air was hot.

Above us, the cliffs rose like the walls of a great cathedral, and the light was hazy like the light through clerestory windows. Ravens swept past and hawks screamed their chilling aria. The water churned and crashed in constant chorus. Cicadas buzzed like amplified mosquitoes.

Cottonwood Camp marked the halfway point in the trail. And here we made our big mistake -- not topping up our water supply. It's the last guaranteed pure water before the final seven-mile stretch to Phantom Ranch. With the trail flattening out, and our lunch kicking in, we figured we were home free.

But we had yet to reach "the Box."

Cottonwood Camp, a series of attractive campsites beneath the cottonwood trees within rock-tossing distance of Bright Angel Creek, was built around 1920 as a destination for mule tours down from the North Rim. It now has composting toilets (choose an upwind campsite), a water spigot and a ranger station.

Here in the dry, scrubby heart of the canyon would be a magical place to camp, but I didn't envy the few people we passed with their large backpacks -- simply too hot and steep for me to contemplate. It's also very difficult to get a backcountry permit, required for any camping below the rim. Some 30,000 permits are sought each year, and only 13,000 are granted.

Just past Cottonwood Camp is a spur trail to Ribbon Falls that is not to be missed. From a high, smooth concavity spills a long, delicate waterfall that crashes onto a 20-foot high, moss-covered rock that was formed when calcium carbonate, picked up by the water flowing through the limestone above, reformed into rock below. We showered in the cold spray. It would be our last moment of relief from the heat until we got to Phantom Ranch three hours later.

We reconnected with the main trail feeling cool and cocky. We were on the home stretch now. Only seven miles left. This had been a piece of cake, not the hell some people had described to us.

Then we hit the Box -- the Inner Gorge -- a narrow canyon whose sheer walls radiated a withering heat.

There was no shade, no relief from the grilling sun. Our water bottles were soon emptied. No more talking and certainly no joking. It wasn't funny. It was grueling, though beautiful, and the path wound on and on, around one rock wall after another.

Just when we'd decided to risk drinking from the creek, we rounded a curve and caught site of the South Rim through a notch in the canyon walls, glowing rust-red in the descending sun. Several more curves and we walked into the shaded 14-acre compound of Phantom Ranch, one vertical mile below the rim, its low stone and wood buildings blending easily with the willow, cottonwood and tamarisk trees beside the creek.

Heading for the river

At the main lodge, where we checked in, there was a water cooler, and never has water tasted so good. Who needs vintage champagnes and aged wines when one can have water from the cooler at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for free? But then, who wants to hike 14 miles in blistering heat to get it?

The cruelest cut of all, though, was the sign indicating that the Colorado River was another three-quarters of a mile farther along the trail.

I'd imagined the ranch spread along the river, not inland, but inland it was. My sons immediately headed for the river. I headed for the air-conditioned women's dorm, dropped my pack to the floor, fell on the bottom bunk (each of the four dormitories, built in 1981, has five bunk beds and a bathroom) and reveled in being horizontal, motionless and, finally, cool.

The first accommodations on this site, a tent camp catering to tourists, was established in 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there during a hunting trip a few years later. Then, in the 1920s, the popularity of the canyon exploded. Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter, an architect for the Santa Fe Railroad, designed the bungalow-style cabins and main lodge, still in use today.

Phantom Ranch, named for a creek a mile north, was opened in 1922, immediately became a hot spot for socialites and celebrities, and has remained a popular tourist spot ever since.

Everything, including the people and the food that they must eat, comes in by hoof or foot (2 1/2 tons of food are brought in each week by mule), which creates a strong sense of camaraderie among the assembled. Because everyone is tired, a peaceful atmosphere pervades the camp, not unlike what one might expect at a spiritual retreat.

I finally roused myself and walked -- slowly -- to the river and onto the footbridge that leads to the South Rim trail. The sun was going down, turning the western reach of the river silver. Upstream, the cliff tops looked like burnished copper, and the sky was deep blue. Except for the dark rush of water beneath the bridge, it was silent, and I watched the diminishing sun pull the blanket of night slowly up the cliffs as if tucking them into bed. Then I headed back to the main lodge for supper.

The lodge had four long, wooden tables, each bearing a huge vat of beef stew, gargantuan baskets of corn bread and bowls of salad; it looked like the spread at a large family reunion. I couldn't imagine that the 14 people at my table would get through our portion, but we did, and in short order, too. Chris had five helpings of stew.

After supper, in the twilight, I sat with my sons on a bench beside the creek and watched the cliffs turn cold, gray and still. A chill sharpened the air. The creek, soon invisible in the darkness, sang louder. My sons on either side of me were silhouettes, but of such familiar shape and form -- I knew every scar, every feature, could see, even in the darkness, the babies they had once been and the men they had become.

We were halfway through our great adventure. Who knew what the morning would bring? But it didn't matter. We were united in a common goal. We were making a dream come true.

'A piece of cake'

Breakfast was at 5 a.m. Pancakes, thick, salty bacon, scrambled eggs, canned peaches, orange juice, coffee and tea. All you could eat. And we did.

When we shouldered our packs half an hour later, the new day was soft and pale. There was no hint of sunlight yet in the upper reaches, and we set off at a brisk pace, hoping to outwalk the sun as far as possible.

My muscles, cold and lifeless, didn't take eagerly to the trail. For a moment, I worried if I'd make it out of the canyon. But, after a mile or so, my muscles warmed with the day, and we marched smartly along in silence, all of us thinking of the challenge ahead: If going down had been tough, what would the trip back up be like?

And then the first rays of the sun pierced our monochromatic world. Our hearts sank, and we quickened our pace. We made the seven miles to Cottonwood Camp in 2 1/2 hours, which restored our spirits. We were halfway home and it was only 8 a.m.

"This is going to be a piece of cake, Mother," Nicholas said, as we rested on one of the picnic tables there. We all nodded con-fidently.

And it was a piece of cake, until we started up from Roaring Springs. Then it felt as if the life force had been drained out of me. My 15-pound pack felt like a ton, my feet like concrete blocks. Each footfall was agony, demanding more of muscles that had nothing left to give.

Again, we'd ignored the advice to stay put for the hottest part of the day. At 1 p.m., we still had the three steepest miles to go. On we went. And on burned the sun.

"Piece of cake, Ma," Nicholas reminded me sometime later, but I didn't have the strength to toss him over the cliff.

Two miles from the top, just when I was beginning to think childbirth was a piece of cake compared with this, my sons took my pack and camera. I made some feeble, unconvincing snivels about pulling my own weight, but thankfully they ignored me.

On we trudged, stopping whenever we found a spot of shade, however small.

"Cake," Nicholas intoned solemnly one mile from the top. I managed a tooth-gritted smile.

Finally the top, and for a moment we stood quietly, breathing deeply, silently rejoicing in the lack of movement, in the knowledge that we didn't have to put one foot in front of the other and haul ourselves uphill any more.

In the shimmering heat of the parking lot, in the stillness of our tired bodies, the canyon was already slipping away from us, like a dream.

In this same silence -- half exhaustion, half reverential from our journey -- we drove back to the lodge. When we flopped down on our beds, we didn't move or talk for three hours. But we were as connected as if we were holding hands and praying aloud.

When you go

Getting there: From the south (the most direct route), fly into Las Vegas, then drive north on I-15 to St. George, Utah, east on Route 9 to Route 59 toward Fredonia, Ariz., to alternate Route 89 to Jacob Lake. Then take Route 67 south to the North Rim and the Grand Canyon Lodge.

* From the northeast, fly into Denver and take I-70 west into Utah to Route 191 south to Route 163 to Kayenta, Ariz. From there, take Route 160 west to Route 98 west to Route 89 south to alternate Route 89 to Jacob Lake, and then follow the directions above.


Grand Canyon Lodge, Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim, AZ 86052



* Choose from a motel room for $96.93 per night to a Western Cabin for $112.91 per night (double occupancy). Accommodations can be reserved up to two years in advance. Rim cabin numbers 301, 305, 306, and 309 have the best views and book quickest.

Phantom Ranch, on the canyon floor



* Separate 10-person dormitories for men and women are $29.05 per person per night. Hiker cabins with bunk beds for up to 4 people are $79.61 for two people and $11.83 for each extra person per night. Accommodations can be reserved up to two years in advance.

What to see:

* Ribbon Falls: A quarter-mile side trail just past Cottonwood Camp off the North Kaibab Trail.

* Roaring Springs: A huge spring gushing from the side of the canyon almost four miles down the North Kaibab Trail. A shady, cool place to wait out the heat of the day and a good day's hike from the North Rim.

* Colorado River: Be sure to walk the extra three-quarters of a mile south of Phantom Ranch to see the river. For the best view of sunset, go out on the Silver Bridge that crosses the river and gives access to the trails to the South Rim.


* www.grand.canyon. national-park.com: This independent Web site for the Grand Canyon National Park provides information on all aspects of travel, lodging, dining, history, geology, hiking trails, camping, biking, river trips and shuttle service.

* nps.gov / grca: Site for the National Park Service within the canyon; or call 928-638-7888.

* The Back Country Trip Planner is a free park service publication that has all the information one needs to plan a hike into the canyon. Call 928-638-7888.

* The Official Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon is an excellent source for detailed information on all the hiking trails in the park. It can be ordered online from www.grandcanyon.org.

-- Sarah Clayton

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