It’s a strange thing to sleep at the bottom of Grand Canyon. Gravity seems more profound down there. The curious attraction that pulls you down into the canyon in the first place seems to have a grip on you and teases you with the notion that you just might never be allowed to emerge from the hot pit. For me, these feelings come out at night, like demons that have been locked in a closet all day.
Hiking out of Grand Canyon is always monumental and just a touch heroic. It is a struggle, first and foremost, against gravity. Yet, gravity is just the lead character in this perverse and complex drama. All of nature's elements are convincing in their supporting roles. If the trek up the canyon could be separated out as a singular and discreet event it would be difficult enough. But it always comes as the grand finale of the epic canyon adventure. And there, as they say, lies the rub.
A body is beaten and pounded on the way down into the canyon. It’s baked halfway to well-done. It’s blistered and sore and sapped by adrenaline. If a trip is planned well the body gets a rest, just long enough to become stiff and achy. This is the condition that greets you at the start of the climb to the rim.
Our hike back from the river to Nankoweap Creek was uneventful. We got an early start and reached camp before noon. We then had a long day to do nothing but think of the real hike upward which would begin at dawn on the following day.
I'd thought and fretted and worried about Nankoweap for a month. I had a few, restless nights wondering if I were able to make the climb out. It had been so steep and perilous on the way down. The only way out was the way we came in, unless a helicopter lifted me out. We'd be retracing each and every insane step, except now we'd be hiking against gravity instead of with it. I was sick of thinking about it. At this point, the dawn of our departure could not come too soon.
We set out alarms for 4:00 AM. We rehearsed our breakdown of camp and the ideal moment of departure. At 3:45 I was already awake.
"Okay, goddamn it, let's go! Goddamned Nankoweap, today you will meet your match!" I ranted as I rolled up my sleeping bag and stuffed it away. I gathered my stuff and was ready to leave the tent. It was still very dark. "Mark, we're a little early. It's still dark. We can't hike this trail with headlamps. You need to relax until we see dawn." Karl was right, I knew he was right. But, I was shaking with adrenaline. Lying back down and waiting for light seemed like pure torture. I pretended not to listen for a second but then groaned as I dropped my stuff and reclined on the air mattress.
We watched the predawn sky through the mesh of the tent. Shooting stars, always a good omen, streaked the star-crazed heavens. Then, a slow-moving spot of light went southward. "It's a satellite," Karl said. "Sometimes you can watch them down here." The satellite moved its way to the horizon and disappeared into the emerging dawn. I surrendered to the magnificence of the moment. With a sky full of miracles everything was going to be just fine.
We broke camp and climbed the first, small hill out of the river valley. The first steps are always tough. We hiked past the cactus field where I'd been loopy with dehydration. Then, as the sun rose over the canyon walls we started with our first serious climb. The good thing about very steep trails is that they are efficient. There is no lallygagging with Nankoweap. We rose upward in dramatic fashion.
It wasn't bad. It really wasn't. Going up Nankoweap is better than going down it. While very tough and very steep and very tricky, the upward slant of the trail allows you to focus on the task at hand. It's better to look upward at the side of a cliff than downward toward a thousand-foot drop. We made quick work of worst part of the incline. We passed the wash where we'd lost the trail, not ever sure of its exact location. By the time we got to the long, red-rock traverse I knew we were well on our way. Optimism fueled me with every step.
The traverse was just as tricky on the way out as it was on the way down. It was, however, much easier psychologically. Each deliberate step was one closer to being home. Each step became special, each step important. It had to be that way on the edge of the abyss. Little things mattered. I was forming a bond with Nankoweap. It was teaching me profound lessons and I was starting, finally, to listen.
We reached our water cache at Marion Point by noon. Karl was already there for about five minutes when I came around the bend to the familiar spot.
"No way! No way!" I said with glee. I figured we were home free. Why stop now? We might stay here the rest of the day and bake in the hot sun or we could hike all the way out and have a steak dinner at Grand Canyon Lodge. The choice seemed easy. We both felt strong, unexpectedly strong. The steak dinner won.
"The rest is a piece of cake, Karl!" I said.
"I don't know," he responded, looking at me with a sidewards glance. "I think this is going to be tougher than you might think. We still have a bear of hike ahead of us."
"Yeah, okay," I said, half listening. I could smell the finish line, I didn't care. Nankoweap had consumed me and I felt like I was about to raise my arms in victory. I figured that once we got off the edge of the red-rock cliff it was an easy jaunt to the truck. But, I was wrong. The meanest part of this hike was still yet to come.
To be continued…. Come back tomorrow for the final installment (Part 10) of On the Edge.