Despite living in Phoenix since I was 12 years old, I have never hiked the Grand Canyon. Worse yet, I had only been there once, well, at least inside the park itself. I decided that it was time I finally follow my wife’s example and join her on a hike. Out of caution, we decided to do a “shorter” hike than she and her hiking buddies usually do. They are down for a once a year, Rim to Rim hike, which means they go from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim, and they do it in one day. This is 26 miles from start to finish. Yes, that is a marathon of a day hike, literally…
The hike I committed to was “only” 18 miles, and we went down the South Kaibab Trail, along the river, and then over to Indian Gardens. From here, we went up Bright Angel trail; and I mean up in the very truest sense of the word. It is four miles from Indian Gardens to the top; it is about 10% grade and a switchback climb of 5,000 vertical feet…
This is the equivalent of walking up the stairs inside the Empire State Building….four times!
The pre-cursor walk of 14 miles down South Kaibab and along the river is nine miles of downhill walking and the five miles of mostly flat walking along the river. This part I handled better than expected. In fact, I felt relatively good by the time we reached Indian Gardens, despite dealing with what’s known as Devil’s Corkscrew as part of that journey.
Despite being a very fit individual, I REALLY struggled with the four miles of uphill hiking required to get to the top. It was 95 degrees at 11:30AM when we reached Indian Gardens, and despite gaining altitude along the hike up Bright Angel trail, it never seemed to get any cooler until we were about 100 yards from the top. I was bonking in the very definition of the word. My legs were shaky and I was feeling nauseous. I was experiencing heat exhaustion and was clearly moving towards heat stroke setting in. I could not drink out of my Camelbak; I was breathing so hard that I could not drink a mouthful of water fast enough to not be gasping for breath as soon as I swallowed. I felt sick every time I did drink something, whether it was water or my electrolyte drink. I had an overwhelming desire to sit in the shade until I felt better…but that may have been more dangerous than continuing to push forward.
Even though she is a stronger hiker than I, my wife was by my side the whole time. She refused to leave me. And thank God for that, as she probably made this misadventure a lesser degree of dangerous than if I had been left to my own devices. She pushed me to keep going, to plod through the pain and illness. She only let me sit for a moment at a time, urging me to continue on, one step at a time. I never felt like laying down and dying, but I certainly was not in a good frame of mind. I wouldn’t say that I thought about quitting, about giving up. Things were not that dire; but I was on the brink of cramping and heat stroke, and if either of those had actually set it, I may have come to a different conclusion.
Obviously I made it to the top, as I am writing this blog about the experience instead of being buried trailside. I nearly threw up for those three hours, and even walking from the trail head to the car. That 100 yards to the car was rough, and I sat in the car and couldn’t move for about 30 minutes. Couldn’t drink much, definitely couldn’t eat anything at that point. Slowly I recovered, drinking more electrolytes and finally eating on the ride home. It was as bad as I have felt since this scenario.
So, looking back on this little adventure, what did I learn? Well, a few things come to mind right away:
I am still in good shape, and my training works across a bunch of activities.
The heat had more impact on me than the overall physical demand of the trail
Mental Toughness is a learned skill, and if you don’t flex that muscle once on a while, it will atrophy just like any other.
I do not think I will do this hike, or Rim to Rim any time soon. Despite being in good shape, and recovering quickly (back in the gym by Tuesday) I do not want to be that close to heat stroke ever again. That was dangerous, and despite my ego saying otherwise, my brain and my body know that this was close to being a major problem for me. I am old enough now to be smart enough to not do it again. It is not an admission of inability or anything like that, it is a wise decision to avoid a potentially deadly consequence. Some people can tolerate heat for long periods of time, some people can’t. I can grind my way through a lot of physical pain, but that doesn’t mean I SHOULD in every case. Sometimes you have to realize your own limitations and plan accordingly.
My suggested takeaway from this…be willing to push yourself to your limits once in a while. But be smart enough to not overdo it and compromise your health or safety.
As always, I wish you luck in your endeavors.