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Pain on a Grand Scale

First things first, the Grand Canyon is immense. It’s almost unfathomably big. Ten miles, as the crow flies, separate the north rim (which is mostly closed up this time of year) from the south rim. The Canyon is also deep: the south rim elevation is between 7000 feet and 8000 feet (cold at the top; my thermometer showed a little under 20 degrees F our first morning on the rim), and down on the shores of the Colorado the elevation is about 2000 feet. Hikers on their way to the bottom not only trudge down 5000 feet of elevation, they pass through twelve distinct geological zones on the steep, steep trails.

Those steep trails are a do-it-yourself pain kit. Vary your pain by alternating your level of physical fitness, your pace, and the weight of the unnecessary gear you’re carrying on your back. I went with low on item one and high on items two and three.

By the time I reached the bottom, my legs were wrecked. Arriving at the shores of the muddy Colorado sure feels like an achievement. Hikers on the Kaibab trail cross a huge black bridge, the fat, 480-foot cables of which were too large for mule trains; the cables were carried down the trail on the shoulders of teams of workers. We camped at Bright Angel campground, which, like all camping in the canyon, requires a backcountry permit (in the high season, sign up for permits four months early; in mid-December, you can get a permit the day before your hike). Bright Angel sits on a beautiful creek, lined with cottonwoods and populated by rainbow and brown trout. Cam, my fitter-than I hiking companion, had plenty of energy for fly fishing. After ninety minutes of trying every fly in his arsenal, he finally got the fish he was looking for, a large rainbow trout hiding in a nice pool (catch and release, of course). Cam is also a fine fishing guide for a novice like me. We fished up and down the river for a good part of the day.

After our allotted two nights at the campground, we left early in the morning, and crossed the Colorado while it was still dark. Our path out of the canyon was the Bright Angel trail, which is longer (ten miles) but less steep than the Kaibab. The trail winds along the river for a while, then turns toward the rim in a series of long, steep switchbacks. As we climb, the weather gets colder—a function both of altitude and an incoming storm front that blows a sharp wind into our chests. This is a long hike out, made harder by tourists skipping down the top two miles with their camcorders and Adidas. Don’t they see me working here?! The limping, the salt under my eyes, the steely look of determination?

At the top, we bundle back up, take a quick look back at the canyon, shoot a few photos, and hop on the heated shuttle bus that will take us back to our car at the Kaibab trailhead.

Back home in Tucson, my legs are pretty beat up: Quads get worn out going down, and calves get sore going up. Still, it feels pretty good. The Grand Canyon is a beautiful place—and in the off-season, it’s quiet and peaceful.

Posted below are a bunch of additional photos.

Cold in the morning on the south rim.

Making breakfast

Gearing up

View from the top

Steep

Resting, not yet in pain

Hanging on the steep

Cam descending

Cam’s getting farther ahead.

Much farther

Another rest spot

Hale and hearty!

The bridge at the bottom

Muddy river

The smart ones arrive here by boat

Casting on bright angel

My guide on the river

On the way up, still early in the morning

Natural amphitheater on the bright angel trail

We’ve come a long way up.

GQ model

Cold at the top, again

View from the top of bright angel trail