hikeThis edition of Self-Care Sunday focuses on physical wholeness. One of my favorite things to do is set a goal for an extreme event so that I have a reason to get up and exercise every morning. I’ll share what I’ve learned about extreme hiking.

Two Days After

As I crawled to the bathroom on Tuesday morning, my husband’s words mocked me, “Are you sure you aren’t having a mid-life crisis?” My ankles and calves hurt so much, that crawling seemed preferable to walking.

The night before, as I’d poked along on our regular walk, he had teased me about the whole maybe-it’s-a-mid-life-crisis thing. I pointed out that my mid-life crisis had already spanned more than a decade, because I started extreme hiking back in my forties.

The cause of my pain this week? The Grand Canyon. For the past four out of five years a colleague and I have led a group of students on an extreme hike from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, down Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, and back up again in one day. This year, he said, “Hey, we should go on a different route. It will only add about a mile.”

“Sure,” I said, “tell me about it.”

“We’ll start at the South Kaibab Trailhead and cross over the river to the Phantom Ranch area and then come up the regular route. My wife and I did it two weeks ago. It was beautiful.”

“Sounds great!” I enthused. For three years I’d wanted to see the Phantom Ranch area—especially the suspension bridge—but it added a mile and a half to our turn around point.

“My wife and I will cut across the Tonto Plateau and wait for you guys at Indian Garden,” he continued. “She’s afraid she’ll hold the group up like last time. You’ll like Phantom Ranch,” he assured me, “it’s really pretty.”

I readily agreed, glossing over in my head the part about it taking fewer miles to reach the river on the South Kaibab Trail. Later, I would regret my blithe attitude.

The Hike

If you think you're ready for an extreme hike, read this first! #extremehike #grandcanyonWe reached the trailhead by 7:20 in the morning (which involved waking up at 2:45, driving three hours, and taking a shuttle bus to the trailhead). I gave the kids the last-minute instructions and assured them that they didn’t have to go all the way to the river. If they wanted to take the short cut, they could—no one would judge them.

We did a quick equipment check—everyone had plenty of water (three liters), enough food to feed a small army, and sunblock on their exposed body parts. The older members of our party (myself included) had hiking poles.

Those hiking poles sure come in handy on the descent. They help cushion the jarring on one’s knees—don’t leave home without them. By the time we reached Skeleton Point, my math skills kicked in.
The South Kaibab Trail descends 5,100 feet over seven miles—2,340 feet in the first three miles and an additional 2,740 feet in the last four miles. Just numbers—until your calves start quivering like chattering teeth every time you stop to rest. The Bright Angel Trail, on the other hand, descends a mere 4380 feet over eight miles.

One of the slower members delayed our party over an hour, and I started to worry about the ascent in the heat of the day. Despite our preparedness, I didn’t relish heading up Devil’s Corkscrew when the bottom temperatures rose above 90˚. The narrow canyon that the trail follows acts as an oven, and breezes seldom reach the inner folds.

We spent an hour in the Bright Angel Campground area cooling our toes in the frigid Colorado, eating lunch, using flush toilets, and refilling our water packs. A cloud cover and stiff breeze allayed my fears about the heat.

The Ascent

We headed out before noon, and I congratulated myself on surviving the downhill. My calves relished some uphill. The mile and half between Bright Angel Campground and River’s Rest hugged the river—sometimes crossing stretches of fine sand. My calves didn’t appreciate the sand.

I stopped and snapped photos of beavertail cacti in bloom and enjoyed the relatively level 1.5-mile hike to River Resthouse (our usual turn around point). The breeze blew the cloud cover away. When I stepped off the trail to let a mule train pass, I could feel heat pulsing off the sheer cliffs.

The hot sun enhanced the pungent smell of fresh mule exhaust. Canyon wren calls echoed and reechoed. Garden Creek burbled and splashed over the hot rocks, and I stopped to snap more photos. By the time I reached the top of Devil’s Corkscrew, I had to force myself to drink water.

I yearned for something different—an icy decaf soy latte, for example. Or a chilly bottle of Gatorade. Food started to lose its appeal, too. Time to rest before bad things could happen.

I found a shady spot and rummaged through my day pack for something salty. I didn’t want to end up one of the Park Service’s statistics—after all, they give ample warnings to NOT do what we chose to do.

Giant cottonwoods planted back in the early 1900s stretch their arms over the trail along Garden Creek and provide an oasis of shade at Indian Garden. The trail gets steeper once you pass through the oasis. The final stretch requires grit and determination.

The Longest Mile

The mere 4.8 miles from the water source in Indian Garden to the Bright Angel Trailhead looks easy on paper. But the 3000-foot elevation gain doesn’t translate well to a trail map. Having hiked it before, I knew this. The spotted towhees seemed to taunt me with their raspy whine and the blue-grey gnatcatchers buzzed and scolded from the bushes.

Despite knowing I needed to keep drinking water, it seemed harder and harder to take a sip every few minutes. I rummaged in my pack and found an apple—its crunchy sweetest kept me going for another mile or two.

A graphic reminder from the National Parks Service about why you SHOULDN'T hike to the river and back in one day. #extremehiking #grandcanyonThe longest mile of the trail starts about 440 yards from the end. I saw a tourist standing next to a warning sign about 200 yards from the end of the trail and she asked me where I had come from. After I explained our route, she pointed to the sign, “Is this warning sign for real?” she asked with a foreign accent.

“Yes.” I nodded my head vigorously. “It’s a very difficult trail, and you have to be in really good shape to do it. People die if they aren’t prepared.”

She looked dubiously at her jeans and ballet flats. “How far do you think I go?”

“About as far as you are right now.” I told her. “It’s easy going down, but what goes down, must come up.”

She still didn’t look convinced. She turned to the sign again and sighed. “Maybe one day I go further.”

We said our goodbyes, and I made it to the top with only a few more conversations with strangers about the hike. Something about my haggard appearance and big grin must have invited conversation from those curious about trail.

I thought I’d share what I’ve learned with you, in case you might want to do an extreme hike one day.

Contemplating an extreme hike? Read these tips before you go. #extremehiking #grandcanyon Click To Tweet

Tips and Tricks for Extreme Hiking

1. Get in shape. Seriously. You should be able to run at least 5-6 miles without stopping before attempting an extreme hike. Training on stairs helps, too.

2. Know your limits. My colleague knew his limits—he turned off and didn’t hike to the bottom. I probably should have followed his example (but someone had to supervise the students). I knew I’d be in pain for the next couple of days, though.

3. Pack a lot of water. Starting at Bright Angel and hiking to South Kaibab would have been easier on my knees, but there are no sources of water from Bright Angel Campground to the top. The Park Service recommends taking along a filtering device in case the water systems are broken at the bottom.

4. Bring electrolyte pills, salt, or runner’s goo. Water alone won’t do the trick (especially if it’s hot). Pills and goo weigh less than sports drinks.

5. Freeze a bottle of Gatorade to carry in your pack. When you hit the Devil’s Corkscrew, you’ll appreciate having something cold to drink.

6. Break in your footwear. Whether you wear tennis shoes or hiking boots, make sure they are well-broken in before your start.

7. Change out your socks at the halfway point. Having dry feet will help prevent blisters.

8. Cut your toenails nice a short BEFORE the hike. Otherwise, you could end up losing a toenail or two.

9. Bring a great variety and quantity of food. I discovered this on one of my first extreme hikes. Your body gets quirky the longer you tax yourself. What tasted good at 8 a.m., will make you gag at 2 p.m.

10. Take time to enjoy the journey. Take a camera (just not heavy DSLR), and stop and smell the flowers along the way.

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