Twice descending in “Hell”
|Last year’s outing with my friend, eye doctor Ed Kondrot led us to the pinnacle of mainland America – Mt. Whitney. Having accomplished that feat, on the way down the slopes of that lofty peak, he suggested the next adventure based on our performance. My retort, “WHAT? AT THAT TIME OF YEAR? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?” I had done part of his suggestion before, but to tackle the whole thing at the height of the hot season seemed just plain loco.|
Ed suggested trekking the Grand Canyon, not just to the inner gorge and back (which I have done twice). He didn’t just want to go from rim to rim and have my wife pick us up on the other end. His “nutty” suggestion was to backpack rim to rim to rim over 5 days with fully loaded packs!
Now to describe this trip to you, let me give you some facts. The south rim rises 6800 feet above sea level. The river flows at 2400 feet. The north rim is much higher than the south at 8250 feet. Horizontal distance from rim to rim is 24 miles. So, with two rims to climb, Ed was suggesting a 48 mile trek with fully loaded packs, to include a total elevation gain of nearly 2 miles. But worse – in 120 degree heat in the inner gorge over July 4 week. As the months progressed, I analyzed what we did on the Mt. Whitney trip and realized that this trip might be doable, if we were in top shape. I love challenges, whether in medicine or using my body. I decided to go for it.
Clearly I had to get in shape. In addition to my weekly 8 mile hike with a 1000 foot vertical gain, I added vigorous preparation. The week before our trek, Terri and I went to Yosemite. My first day there I hiked 14 miles in high country. Three days later, I tackled the famous Half Dome for the first time. It’s an 8.5 mile (one way) hike up a granite peak rising 4800 feet above the valley floor (4000 feet elevation). The first 8.25 miles to the 9400 foot level were like a cake walk. It was the last 400 feet that offered the challenge: climbing up steel cables by hand at a 45 degree vertical rise. I made it to the top panting and almost clutching my chest. My heart rate was a stunning 190. I recovered quickly, called Ed from the top and told him about this feat of endurance and pronounced myself ready for our trek only 4 days away. And wow, did I ever need that climb to prepare myself for what laid ahead.
We started on the south rim at 7:00am. It was important to get to the campsite 8 miles away as early as possible. In the inner gorge, there would be no protection from the sun and heat for 2 miles.
We started down and moved rapidly. The views, panorama and enormity of the canyon can’t be described in words. You must see it. We passed many people struggling on their way back up to the rim, and mule trains loaded with riders passed us on the way down. Terri was on one of them.
Fortunately, the park service installed many watering stations along the main trail. This is what made an otherwise impossible trek quite doable. As we plunged into the searing heat, we doused ourselves and clothing with water which carried off excess body heat as it evaporated. But in the gorge, with hellish like temperatures of 120 in the sun and 110 in the shade, and a brisk breeze, our clothing was dry in literally minutes.
We made the 8 mile Bright Angel camp in about 6 hours. It was located on Bright Angel Creek right next to famous Phantom Ranch in the inner gorge. Most of the remaining part of the afternoon was spent cooling ourselves in the crystal clear water of the creek.
That evening brought a real treat. A lady park ranger came by to check our permits. Ed was lying in his exposed tent only in his skivvies suffering from the heat. I yelled, “Hey Ed! You got problems. The park ranger is here to cite you for indecent exposure.” They both laughed. But this was a very special park ranger. She inquired about us and was excited to find out that we were holistic physicians. Furthermore, Ed had recently started violin lessons and brought a lightweight electric violin. He serenaded the ranger with the song “Yesterday”. She exclaimed “This is a first in the Canyon – A backpacker serenading me in the inner gorge with a violin.” Thirty minutes later, she returned with a real treat – fresh cherries, frozen organic blueberries, and dried organic olives. We discovered the “angel” of Bright Angel trail. She offered us a fruit smoothie on our way out 4 days later if we passed by her cabin and she was not on duty. A fruit smoothie in the depths of the Canyon? We dreamed about it for the remainder of the trip.
The following morning, we departed at 5:15 am. I am not a morning person, but definitely was on this trip knowing the searing sun was our most formidable challenge. The next leg was 7 miles to a campground at about 3600 feet. A perfect place to let our leg muscles prepare for the worst the next day – climbing the north rim. Again we left at 5:15 am. With only breaks to water ourselves, we trekked up the endless switchbacks of the north rim, completing the 7 mile hike and 3600 foot rise arriving at about 3pm. We had accomplished the “worst” of the trip! We were treated with a “walk-in” campsite right on the rim itself. Again, I can’t find words to describe the grandeur. With the addition of thunder and lightning, spotty showers and rainbows, the spectacle is beyond words.
On the north rim, we had a crucial decision to make. Our permit called for us to return the next day to the 7 mile camp. But we felt in incredible shape and wanted to go the full 14 miles back to Bright Angel camp on the river. The park service frowned on trekking longer than 8 miles in one day and grilled Ed on our ability when he went to change the permits which would save us one day. With permits changed, we started out on the long return again at 5:15 on day 4. We took a side trip to a waterfall, Ribbon Falls. Imagine the temperature of 110 degrees. You come to a waterfall dropping about 125 feet. You can climb up a trail behind the waterfall to 1/3 of its total height and stand under the water. Or better, sit under it on a soft carpet of lush green moss at least 2 inches thick that blankets the pillar that makes up the lower 1/3 of the falls. This was truly heavenly.
After cooling down in the falls, we made the next 6 miles to Bright Angel camp in great time. We stopped only to douse our body and clothes with water regularly along the creek as we descended back into the hellish 120 degree heat. We arrived in camp about 3:30pm. Ed treated himself to a stew at the Phantom Ranch lodge for dinner. Even though they offered a vegetarian chili, I decided to remain true to my organic raw food trip plan and missed the group meal.
At the dinner, Ed met a 14 year old girl who twisted her ankle and was limping. She faced a daunting challenge to make it out of the canyon the next day. Ed had brought a hand held Russian made medical device called a Biomodulator. It was designed for the space station as a complete medical treating system. In 4 minutes she was out of pain and walking normally. The next day I watched her trek out of the canyon with no pain! Ed had previously treated a young girl’s knee on the first day. She too became pain free in just moments.
The morning of the fifth day saw us arise at 3am. The Milky Way lit up the moonless sky. We departed camp at 4:15am with headlamps. We were desperate to beat the sun on the fully exposed 8 mile climb up the south rim. With water stations to cool us every 1 1/2 miles, it was much easier than I had expected. I didn’t even break into a sweat. We stopped frequently to chat with the many people on the trail. It was loaded with more foreigners, especially Germans, than Americans. They were shocked when I greeted them in their native language. Both Ed and I speak some German though we lost our fluency. The friendly foreigners were even more shocked to learn that we trekked as far as they could see (to the north rim and back). Some wanted to feel the weight of our packs (about 45 pounds) and take pictures with us.
We made it back up the south rim in only 7.5 hours. Even with the temperature of 95 degrees on the rim, and the 4400 foot climb, I never broke a sweat thanks to the water stations for cooling. I promptly called my wife who was staying in beautiful Sedona. She was proud of our feat and happy that we made it back safely. Of course Ed called my mom to “ask” for Terri’s mobile phone number. It was on the pretext that I was airlifted out of the canyon and he needed to urgently contact her. My mom knew his ruse. He pulls it on her each year. She laughed, and demanded that he turn over the phone to me.
However, we came to learn that only the week before, the Park Service did, in fact, airlift 15 people out of the park, most far younger than us. In fact, the service had a placard at the trailhead warning hikers that they needed to rescue 250 people out of the canyon last year. They pictured a typical rescuee – male, handsome and fit looking, about age 25. At 58 years each, we were a bit too old to need rescuing, or we were wise enough to know our limits.
We missed out on the smoothie. We passed Ranger Angel on the trail. She was assisting a 17 year old boy with nothing more that a day pack who was simply too exhausted to make much headway out the canyon. We could only feel grateful that that person was not one of us.
Ed and I rewarded ourselves with a T shirt and patches advertising “rim to rim”. Unfortunately the park store did not have one proclaiming “rim to rim to rim”. They admitted that they have had a few, but not a lot of requests for the same.
We are already planning next summer’s outing. It will be a departure from the last 4 year’s challenges. I know that you will love it as well as the others!
Again, my mission in sharing our adventures with you is to encourage you to work your body to its limit without exceeding that limit. It will keep you youthful far beyond the average American. Please don’t run to the Grand Canyon trails, but do visit this spectacle of nature if only to witness it.
Simply do what your body is capable of, even if only walking around the block. On this trip, my capability was the endurance to keep a sustained heart rate of over 120 for many hours without breaking a sweat. (I did have external cooling as mentioned). With a healthy lifestyle, you don’t have to fear heart disease, the nation’s number one killer. Heart disease is not natural if you live naturally, as nature in tended! I want to be able to continue wondrous adventures like this into my 80’s or longer if I am still on this earth. For me, it’s what makes life explode with beauty, and why it’s easy for me to maintain the diet and lifestyle I preach to you.