Friday, December 12, 2008

The Kaibab Trail

I am up before the sun this morning because, once again, I am foolishly chasing after the unattainable.

This story of foolhardy foolishness begins in two worlds: the first was 25 years and 50 lbs. ago, the second was last Saturday after George's "Night Sky Photography" presentation. That night he showed us a slide of a photo his wife took of the "Green Flash" - a fleeting and very momentary vision that can occur at sunrise or sunset. Being color-blind I wouldn't know if I saw it or not, but I could appreciate what he described and so I was determined to capture the sunrise edition of the elusive Green Flash.

The sunrise flash, when it occurs, happens just before the sun peeks over the horizon. The sunset version is a little easier (but still difficult) to capture because you can actually watch the sun disappear beyond the horizon. So here I am at sunrise, trying to photograph this phenomenal phenomenon, something that not only do I not even know when (or if) it will happen, but I couldn't even see it if it did!

I think there is a word for this ...

So I've been out before sunrise with my camera every morning since George's talk because it's both a good time to take scores of stunningly stunning sunrise photos and a good time for me to get in a short run. And we can still have a full day to poke around. Except for the Green Flash and trying to run at 8,200' elevation and then wanting to take a nap at 10am, it works out well.

Today was my third North Rim sunrise but I'm not going for a run this morning. Today we both got up early and I, being too stubborn to give up on the Green Flash, stubbornly decided to take a few hundred more pictures of the sunrise while I waited for Shawn to come out and join me. Today, we were going for a hike ...


About 25 years and 50 lbs ago, I worked as an adult fitness specialist with the YMCA in Glendale, California. Among other things, I got to recruit and train aerobics instructors, do fitness testing and lead aerobics classes. It was a pretty fun job and I was in pretty good shape. I also got to meet a lot of interesting people. Among the people in my aerobics classes were a magician and a guy who traveled the world working for Disney. Another was an actor in M*A*S*H and still another was a TV newscaster.

I also met the owner of a local bike shop. He and his wife (an oil company geologist) kept themselves in really good shape and they were regulars in my Friday evening aerobics class.

The night I met them, I think I’d just led a class set entirely to Beatles music and they came up afterward to either tell me how great it was, or that it just didn’t work for them. Whatever, that night led to many other conversations and even a few outings together. This was sometimes a challenge for us because our idea of a fun time was usually something like a movie, good Mexican food, or maybe a walk on the beach. For them, it was a weekend of camping on the Colorado and waterskiing, or backpacking and fishing in the Los Padres National Forest, or making love beneath the trees next to a mountain stream. When we got together we weren’t exactly the Odd Couples, but where exercising was part of my job (and sheer torture for Shawn), getting in shape allowed them to be weekend thrill-seekers. Among their thrills was a yearly tradition of hiking the Grand Canyon.

I think they invited us twice before we actually said “yes” and I’m pretty sure they were surprised. Not so much that it was us who said “yes,” but that anyone said “yes.” We were, in fact, the first to ever do the trip with them. So this would be a first for them.

It would also be a first for us. We’d been backpacking before but this journey would be extreme. In our non-thrill-seeker minds, going down with a couple of veterans who knew their way around would probably be the only way we’d ever even want to try something of that magnitude.

Since summers are brutal in the canyon with temperatures at the river frequently reaching three digit territory they always did the trip in January or February. Then, it is usually freezing cold on the rim but a comfortable 60-70 down at the river. The winter timing would also give us a few months to prepare ourselves and so we added some day hikes in our local mountains to our usual workouts at the Y. Eventually we built up our trail legs to the point that we were hiking up the face of 5,000’ Mount Wilson.

We were young and immortal back then and the three day trip seemed quite doable. The plan was to begin on the South Kaibab Trail and hike the seven miles to the Colorado River. There we’d cross the river and spend the night across the Bright Angel Creek from the Phantom Ranch. Then we’d take an “off day” at the river and finish up the following morning breaking camp and heading up the (easier) nine mile Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.

What we didn’t count on was the 13 mile “day hike” up the North Kaibab Trail along the Bright Angel Creek towards the North Rim to see a water fall on our layover day. So, heading up the trail back to the South Rim with wet shoes and torn feet it didn’t take too long before we no longer felt immortal. And after a few more miles and a couple hours of near freezing temperatures we didn't even feel young, either. We truly wondered how we were going to get to the rim...

The obvious remedy for us was to just curl up in the notch of one of those mile long switchbacks that traverse the Coconino sandstone and let hypothermia take us gently to our final destination. There, we’d be discovered in the spring thaw and our mortality would be immortalized on a trail marker. Perhaps some clever ranger at some time in the future might even come up with a presentation on “101Ways to Die in the Canyon” where we’d be a prominent footnote. Forever young…

Yes, we thought we were going to die ...

But it was worse...

We didn’t.

So we kept walking, inching our way toward the final switchbacks through the limestone.

Our progress, however, did not completely chase away the thoughts of an encounter with hypothermia and so it happened that during one of our moments of self-pity, while we entertained this (and other) entertaining means of reclaiming our immortality we spotted one of our companions about a half mile ahead of us. We hadn’t seen either of them since the halfway mark at Indian Gardens but this faint glimpse of a speck of life moving slowly up the trail heartened us just enough to renew our hope that we might actually make it back to the top. And although we did make it back to the top under our own power, we vowed never to try something so foolish ever again …

And so it was this morning, more than two decades later, we found ourselves just after sunrise at the head of the North Kaibab Trail staring silently into the early morning gloom. It was our fifth full day at the Rim and we'd driven just about everywhere we could drive and we'd hiked just about every rim trail in the Park. We’d even been outside the Park to view the canyon from the unusual vantage points of the rarely used Rainbow Rim Trail "maintained" (and I use the term "maintained" very loosely as you may someday read about in "In Paris I Saw Armpits") by the forest service.

It's not that we'd seen all there was to see. There was still plenty to do and see up here. But there was something else missing.

We hadn’t gone in.

Unlike those forest service trails accessed only after enduring hours of torturously tortuous washboard dirt roads, the head of the North Kaibab Trail is easy to get to. It is a little more than a mile hike from the lodge and not even two miles by car. There is plenty of parking and the mule rides begin there, too. Curious minds can read the multiple signs describing the sights and geological phenomenon along the trail.

So, they actually expect people to use this trail. It is the only trail in and it is a well traveled trail. We even heard about a man who, just yesterday, celebrated his 70th birthday by hiking 22 miles Rim to Rim.

But we can never forget how this canyon stole our youth and cheated us of our immortality so many years ago.

And yet the in, the trail, beckons us.

It does look smooth,


and straight,


and broad,

Foolish, Foolish!

and even welcoming …

Foolish! Foolish! Foolish!

... in an ominously ominous sort of way.