The only way out was up, and long before we reached the Grand Canyon we were receiving warning emails.
“You will be hiking Bright Angel Trail from the river to South Rim, a distance of about 8 miles with a 1340m gain in elevation … typically takes a prepared hiker 6-8 hours (or more). Pack light. Do practice hikes. This is a long hike and ALL UPHILL. Don’t forget, Arizona is a desert and the temperatures can be extremely hot.”
Another email told us we should be doing 50 squats and 50 lunges nonstop daily in the lead up.
We do dummy practice hikes fully loaded with a week’s worth of canyon gear. We hike in boots, on a stairmaster when the land is flat, through hilly suburbs when there is no trail (or even footpath). We hike in hot weather. We do 50-lunge-and-50-squat routines in tiny AirBnBs. We do them again the next day. And the next. For weeks. We are prepared. Congratulate self on glutes of steel.
I forgot to do practice hike with: clothes half-wet from rapids, dirty from a week’s camping, suspected broken toe after overenthusiastic jump off boat, and with giant rash covering face from week of washing with sandy river icewater. Doesnmatter! Glutes of steel! (Pic by fellow hiker Pat Fielding)
Pride vanishes within two miles. I gasp and struggle as Stu leaps up trail like mountain goat. As I force legs forward I feel him tug on my pack. “What the fuck are you doing,” I turn and snarl like an alley cat. He has broken my rhythm, the only thing between me and madness. He holds up the camera, apologetically. I nod. I am broken. Stu is photographer now. Look for hikers circled!
Guides Erica, Chelsea and J-Mo are also hiking up halfway to meet our replacement tourists descending to join lower half tour. Unlike us, clad in Heavy Packs, Serious Boots, Long Sleeves, Sunscreen and Fear, clutching 2L water each, they are all in their flip-flops. The women vanish up the trail and reappear, coming down, what feels like instantly. I tell myself they didn’t really go up half way; impossibly fast even for these gazelles. We farewell with hugs and promises to return.
Stu’s view of the switchbacks we are negotiating. J-Mo the guide now accompanies us. He stays a tactful distance behind me. Then he hands us over to our new guide, Mike, who is curled cosily in a shady hollow in the rock. We hug J-Mo goodbye, feeling a little separation anxiety.
Same switchbacks, from further up. Mike provides welcome distraction with stories of his job as trail guide. Mike is nine feet tall. Possibly slight exaggeration. He lopes up the track with easy grace, fast. Way faster than I would be going given the choice. He says he does this trail several times a week! Every step is torture. Mike is forcing me faster than I want to go. Begin to hate Mike.
Mike tells us to make sure we speak up if we need to stop or slow down. Obviously I am too proud.
Same switchbacks from even further up. Irrational hatred of Mike spreads to include myself. Thought you were fit? You should have tried harder! Forced Stu into even more practice hikes. Gone on your own, if he didn’t need them. You should have been born with a different body shape. Glutes of steel? HA! GLUTES OF MUSH! You are good for nothing! This trail will never end! YOU’LL DIE DOWN HERE, FATTY!
Mike chills at second rest stop. Don’t be deceived by my smile. I have just been fed a candy bar.
Hundreds of people every year attempt the hike unprepared and must be rescued by rangers. One such rescue is in progress as we reach the second rest house.
I plod sadly behind Mike, watching his feather. It’s so people don’t lose him on the trail. Rather wished he would lose me. But I am grudgingly realising he isn’t setting this pace just because he is evil; left to myself I’d be going so slowly we’d probably have to sleep here.
The second rest house has become too far away to see with the naked eye, but a zoom in on paint just reveals it (circled).
You get the idea. It’s a long way since the resthouse.
The sweat is also covering my face, making my rashy face sting painfully. Hooray for hiking!
That red circle shows you more people insane enough to do this trail.
Dizzying new perspective on layers of rock we’ve observed so minutely over the past week.
Change mind about Mike. Mike is only thing getting me up hill. Love Mike. Stockholm syndrome?
A nice moment: my first sighting of a juniper tree in the USA, special to me since reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It’s also a sign that the vegetation profile’s changing with the elevation.
Another sign of changing elevation: dirt changes colour from pink to white!
Back to suffering. Me resting with fellow hikers Rich and Chuck. I think Chuck and I are about equal on the pain scale, despite Chuck being 73. I console (further humiliate?) self with fact that Chuck is also marathon runner. We can’t all be marathon runners, I repeat silently, like mantra.
Stu: “Hey Emma, let me take a photo of you in this nice doorway thingo!”
Em: “I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
We are just about there. We have taken 6.5 hours; gloriously average. Nearing trailhead, Mike (new best friend, understands me better than anyone else, love Mike) stops at my request to make sure I can understand exactly where in this vista we came from. Answer: very far away, Frodo.
Oh God. Oh God, we are on the rim. We have done it. We stagger to a halt for Mike to record the moment. We gaze, wild-eyed and disheveled, at the hundreds of tourists who came only to snap a photo from the rim. My self-esteem, destroyed utterly just hours ago, returns in glad, smug rush. Mike gently points us in direction of the bar and melts away.
But first one more photo: it’s rubbish, because we had to fight tourists to get to the edge to take it and we lacked the energy after a week of seeing no-one. I include it because of the sweetness of the moment it represents: a moment I stood on the rim and permitted myself a few solitary tears; tears of pride that I got up there without chucking a (public) wobbly, or collapsing. But also tears of humble gratitude that I got to experience, so intimately, one of the most beautiful and special places on Earth. And I got to experience it with Stu.