You can feel it in the air the day before. There's a undercurrent of apprehension. No one will admit to it, everyone seems a little too cheerful. But, little things give it away.
We start packing and unpacking and packing again, as if reviewing everything one more time will lighten the load on the way up. Endless chatter commences about the difficulty or ease of the climb. One minute we figure it will be easy, the next we're not so sure. We agree on a time to leave, then agree again. And then once more.
The descent into the canyon requires an intensity of concentration. It's a constant break against gravity along with a skeletal pounding that can shake out the most secure of dental fillings. The abyss reminds us to slow it down and watch out for loose pebbles. The knees take the brunt of the beating. Mentally, it's more work going down than up.
Going up is a matter of brutal survival. It's the ultimate bottom line. If you don't make it up you are food for the vultures. The buzzards soar overhead in a kind of hopeful ballet and as an ominous reminder of the task at hand. What goes down must come up. The canyon is no place for long-term habitation. Even on the way down we know that the every step must be repeated uphill, long after our legs have been pounded and then pounded again.
The first steps are the worst. I grumble to myself and anyone unfortunate enough to be near me. Leaving before 6:00 AM makes it worse. Not a morning person, my legs feel like lead as we climb up to the black bridge that spans the Colorado River. The steps up to the bridge deck seem high. Worse, I know that at the end of the deck the party ends. It's pretty much straight up 5000 feet to the top along a seven-mile trail.
This is the first time we tackle the South Kaibab Trail on the way up. We hear it's more efficient, faster, steeper, more dramatic than Bright Angel Trail. All the park employees go up this way so we figure they know best. There's no water on the trail so we decided the night before—as part of our forever rumination—on carrying five liters to be safe. It's early and cool. We should make it up before noon with water to spare. Or, so goes the theory.
Five years of this have taught me to go at a steady pace and to keep going. That's the way the mules do it and this climb is pretty much their life. I figure they should know. After a half hour my legs warm up and I start to have fun in a quasi-masochistic way. I complain but not very seriously. The sunrise is achingly spectacular and I find myself on a cliff of paradise. Pretty soon I give up grumbling all together and start humming Roy Orbison songs. I realize that the climb gets easier every year—even as I get older. This is satisfying beyond words.
The air gets thinner and brisker as we climb. Suddenly I realize that we are in the high desert again. I catch a wisp of juniper. The rocks change rapidly. Redwall Limestone…Hermit Shale…Coconino Sandstone. We climb through hundreds of millions of years frozen in stone.
Kaibab Limestone! I've learned to know Kaibab Limestone as a dear old friend. It is the final layer in this enormous confection. Actually, it's the frosting...the top...the rim...the final climb. We find miraculous energy as we see smiling faces looking down at us. The last few steps are among the sweetest in life. We are there.
On the final segment we notice concerned looks. "Are you guys okay?" we hear more than once. Better than okay, we feel like crusty old survivors. Sweaty, grimy, disheveled and unshaven, we expect no awards for style upon our arrival at the trailhead kiosk. Simple high fives will do. As gnarly as we look, the damn buzzards will have to wait one more year.