Nearing the end of a three-month Vermont hiatus, Susan & I drive from southern California to Tucson in early February, then watch as a mammoth cold front blows through, dumping a quarter-inch of wet snow onto the desert scrub. After overstaying our welcome with some friends, one of whom gives me a severe case of sinusitis, we drive north to Flagstaff. Into Winter. Eighteen inches of snow falls overnight, limiting the usefulness of our Bermuda shorts. (Keep in mind that we'd been out of the Northeast for a while and were pretty much used to dirt-not-snow on the ground.) Still, we decide that, at a break in the weather--i.e., when the sun comes out--we'll head for Grand Canyon.
What a relief, the South Rim only received 17 inches of snow. I'd forgotten a few minor hiking accoutrements--a backpack, hiking boots--and have to borrow them from our gracious-and-not-yet-sick-of-us Flagstaffian hosts. The boots are a size too large so I wear a third pair of socks. We also purchase a pair of crampons, cute little spikes which attach to boot soles to prevent slipping everywhichway on ice and snow. Of which there is plenty. We score a two-night permit for Bright Angel campground at the Backcountry Office, buy a couple of tuna salad sandwiches for the road, and head down the Bright Angel Trail. We are by no means the first to venture this way since the snowfall, and in many places the trail is packed hard. Which makes it especially slippery. Other stretches are equally slick, this due to the mules having bouts of diarrhea. And boy does that ever clear out my sinuses. The slippery trail makes for slow going, but also cuts way down on traffic. We pass only a dozen or so hikers. The deeper we descend, the higher the temperature, the less snow there is to contend with. By the time we reach the two-mile sign, we've peeled off our winter coats. Down down the corkscrew, off with the polyprop tops, the snow turns to mud, then to dust for the final descent to Indian Gardens. Stopping frequently now to inspect the landscape--something I've heretofore neglected, thinking my more important goal was to get to Point B with all due speed--I find myself thoroughly enjoying this normally overcrowded route. It's 60° when we get our first froth of river, Pipe Beach. We follow the river trail along the inner gorge, slog through the sand, cross the silver suspension bridge, enter the campground, and leave Winter far behind. Our campsite abuts Bright Angel Creek, where hungry trout leap out of the water, eager to keep anybody with a fishing license company. Well we don't have one, so instead we mosey over to the nearby Phantom Ranch canteen, suck down hot java, and chew the Crisco with the hired help. They're die-hard Canyon aficionados, who work here the better to gain quick access to the backcountry. We return to our site, find that some scurvy vermin or tourist has clambered into the unguarded backpack and snacked on the tuna salad sandwiches. Unfortunate, but at least our real food treasures--a Tastycake lemon pie from Philadelphia and two pumpernickel-raisin bagels from the Katella Deli in Los Alamitos--remain safe. Night falls, bats flit about, attempting to keep the insect population in check, we sleep peacefully by the burbling stream.
Morning, cold again, we linger in our sleeping bags till the sun warms the neighborhood, then head for a cup o' Phantom Canteen jo. Later, we hit the road northward for a leisurely hike. We wander up Clear Creek Trail to a couple of precipitous river overlooks, stroll back, nice & easy in the warm sun. So pleasant here, but the abundant snow on the rim is evidence of what we have to climb back into tomorrow.
Morning, cold again, we linger in our sleeping bags till ... um, till we pack up and leave. Out of camp, through the still underbooked campground, down to the river and over the bridge, back along the river to Pipe Creek, and up. My sinusitis does not go easy on me, and we make frequent stops for vista gazing and wheezing. The phrase "sweating bullets" comes to mind as I declare this the hardest uphill ever. Takes 7½ hours, the last two in failing light and scented quagmire, made all the more unreasonable by my lingering sniffles and the fact that I forego the crampons. Hence, traction is increasingly problematic. But in the end--i.e. days later, after we've had a chance to forget the awfulest moments--we decide it was worth the effort, marveling in the winter grandeur of the Canyon.
Canyon hiking in February. We recommend it.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.