The alarm went off at 3:30 am on October 10, 2022. And so began the most physically-challenging day of my life.
I first learned about the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim Hike about a year ago when some friends were discussing getting together to undertake this amazing adventure. I had never seen the Grand Canyon in person, but it had been on my bucket list to visit.
Since I have completed numerous physical activities in the past, I considered myself to be a fit and active individual. I’ve completed several bike trips on the Great Allegheny Passage, one of which involved three days of pedaling. I’ve hiked the John Muir Trail up to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and several trails in Sequoia National Park. I’ve whitewater rafted numerous times. I run on a treadmill six days a week and lift weights regularly. Despite my thinking I was prepared, I joined others to begin training since we knew the hike would be very challenging and require a minimum of 12 hours to finish.
One of the things we did to prepare was to hike the Stanford House Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park from Peninsula to Brandywine Falls, carrying 30-pound backpacks to simulate our Grand Canyon backpacks. I thought I was ready.
I did research about first aid and food for the trip based on recommendations from seasoned adventurers who were part of our hiking group. They also helped create a checklist of important items to have in your backpack, such as salt tablets, liquid IV for electrolytes, and GU, an energy substance popular with long-distance runners.
There are also numerous hiking and survival checklist guides available on the internet. Two of my favorites are hikinguy.com and travelawaits.com, both of which contain numerous suggestions for such an adventure.
Compass Ohio partner Second Sole assisted me with finding a pair of appropriate On long-distance hiking shoes suitable for the terrain that were comfortable and waterproof, as well as some moisture-wicking socks.
The night before the hike we all reviewed the contents of our backpacks. Some of us added peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, raisins, almonds, and assorted energy bars. We also added some bottled water, knowing that we could refill at water stations along the 23-mile trail. Our Camel Bags were equipped with “bladders” which hold up to 3 liters of water accessed through a drinking tube connected to the bag.
Anxious to begin, our group consisted of Christopher Eagon, Janet Eagon, Knute Hankins, Jerry Haynam, Dale Bonebrake and me. We dressed in layers at 5 am, as the temperature was 32 degrees, knowing we would likely shed some layers when the temperature at the bottom of the canyon reached the 90s.
In the parking lot of the South Rim two non-hikers in our group provided us transportation to the trail, confirming they would meet us on the North Rim in about 15 hours. Starting with a prayer, knowing that numerous people have encountered severe difficulties and medical emergencies on this trip, we gathered our gear and started out.
Along with other hikers, we began with a 1-mile hike to the South Rim Trailhead which was the beginning of our journey. We saw a sign advising hikers that if they need to be rescued, they would be responsible for the cost of the emergency service.
It’s 5:45 am and pitch-black; the only light is coming from the full moon and our headlamps. The sun is starting to rise. I can barely describe the beauty of what I saw in words. It was breathtaking. It reminded me how truly minute we are on this planet and what an enormous challenge this hike would be. Every photo we took was better and more stunning then the last.
We came upon another sign telling us to heed the instructions of the mule guides. Mules? Within 10 minutes, a caravan of sure-footed mules arrived carrying supplies to campers at the bottom of the trail.
Our first break of the morning took place at Ooh Ahh Point. It was perfectly named, given the view, which was spectacular. The sun didn’t so much rise as ignite, which bathed the canyon in orange light. The sun glistened off the rocks creating what seemed to be a fire storm. The temperature started to rise – quickly.
At this point, I recognized exactly how treacherous the trail is. You have to pay attention. One misstep, and you’re gone. The trail is man-made of steps carved right out of the mountain.
Below us, the Colorado River snaked through the canyon. From our vantage point, it seemed so small, the muddy water like a chocolate river.
As the temperature continued to rise and we trekked deeper into the canyon, we peeled off layers keeping our hats on to shield us from the sun. An hour before, we were bundled up like Eskimos. Now we were in T-shirts and slathering on sunscreen to protect us from the sun’s rays.
We looked ahead and saw that the mules that had passed us an hour earlier were already making their way back up the trail. “Lucky mules,” Bonebrake said, to laughter.
By noon, we made it to the bottom of the canyon. We knew we were close to our break location and lunch stop, a camping area called Phantom Ranch, located at the 7.5-mile mark of the 22-mile journey.
Located on the north side of the Colorado River, the Phantom Ranch is the only lodging below the Grand Canyon rim, and can only be reached by mule, foot, or raft. Campfires are not permitted in the area and guests must make reservations for a campsite in advance.
Phantom Ranch is famous for its lemonade. Part of the trail tradition is to purchase one from the canteen on site. We ate, sat on rocks and stumps, and exchanged stories with fellow hikers, then got back on the trail.
The most enjoyable segment of the hike came shortly after Phantom Ranch. The terrain was flatter and the breeze cascading through the canyon gave me an overwhelming sense of nature. Both offered some shade and protection from the 95-degree heat. We stopped and put our feet in the refreshing water and, of course, took more photos.
This part of the trail also offered relief from the stress of trying to keep yourself from tumbling forward while hiking downhill. One nice and unexpected surprise was a number of small waterfalls that dotted the bottom of the trail, along with patches of small cactus plants.
Moving on, about an hour later, I started feeling nauseous. I thought I had done everything right. I ate properly, I was hydrated and I took salt tablets, but I was overheated and had to stop to rest. My hiking partners sprang to my aid. They doused me with water, gave me a liquid IV, and I began eating GU every 15 minutes. After a while, I felt better and was ready to continue.
Two hours later, we came to Bright Angel Creek, a spot where hikers are known to fill their caps with water and put them on their heads to keep cool. Again, nauseous and overheated, I dunked myself in the water to cool off. Others in the group did the same.
With everyone cooled off and refreshed, we started hiking again beginning the ascent to the north side, which is a much steeper incline than the south side. By this time the sun was starting to set. We estimated 3 to 4 more hours of hiking to reach the top, although I thought that was a high estimate.
It’s 7:00 pm now and we’ve been hiking for 13 hours. At this point, we have traveled about 16 miles and I believe we must surely be close to the end of the trail. I was about to understand the reason for the high estimate of time to finish.
The sun disappeared and it was dark again. We turned our headlamps on and began adding back the layers we had shed that morning to keep warm. The wind was blowing so hard, it cut through our clothes. The temperature plunged back down into the 30s as we endlessly walked along switchbacks in the dark. The only thing we saw was the headlamps of the hikers ahead and above us; tiny lights, periodically sparkling and blinking in the moonlight on this mountain we’re trying to climb.
Climbing up the north rim was the hardest thing I have ever endured in my life. I resorted to using Tiger Balm Red Extra Strength to relieve the intense back spasms and lower back pain that took my breath away. In addition to physical pain, some of us had problems with the altitude and were gasping for air. We’d hike two minutes and rest two minutes. Then hike two minutes and rest two minutes again.
Pushing on and on, someone finally announced we were within a half mile of the finish. The wind was so strong and so cold. I checked the time and it was 9:45 pm.
As we crossed the finish line, some of us in tears, we all hugged and quickly took a group photo. We made it to the top! We conquered the canyon. And we couldn’t wait to get into those heated vehicles waiting for us.
As to whether I would do it again, I believe the safest and most comfortable way to complete this trip is to make it a 2-day adventure by hiking to the bottom of the canyon the first day, camping for the night, and continuing on to climb up the other side on the second day.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what other physical training I would have done to prepare for this. The Grand Canyon tested my physical strength, as well as my mental strength. It gave me all I could handle. But in sixteen hours, we did it.