Thirst and fear on Nankoweap Trail
The balmy air at the North Rim was speaking to me. I should have been listening. Late September in these rarefied parts is normally brisk, often cold. On the day we arrived it was almost hot. If it were warm here, the inner furnace of the canyon would be blazing. But the Nankoweap Trail was already playing with my head. I'd heard and read so much about its steepness, ruggedness, and dizzying heights I thought nothing of its exposure to heat and sun. But in the end, it's the heat that always matters most in Grand Canyon. Always.
Sunset at North Rim is better than most anywhere else I've been. The relatively small crowd (the isolated North Rim gets a fraction of South Rim's visitors) gathers at the lodge to photograph the changing canyon hues and shafts of golden light. You can hear most any language but the Germans seem to love the canyon more than anyone. You can hear them marvel at sinking sun as it finds its way to the rim. I never tire of photographing the rim at sunset though I prefer to capture instead the images of the guests reacting to it. After many canyon sunsets, it's the people's response to it that’s most interesting to me.
On this clement night it was hard to enjoy the intense lavender, violet, and rose hues before me. In the morning, the sun would rise again and by then we'd be on a gravel road that would lead us to the trail head of Nankoweap. I'd done my homework and what I'd discovered was weighing heavily upon me.
The Nankoweap Trail was developed by John Wesley Powell in the 1880s. He sent a geologist and trail crew to improve an old Native American route to the Colorado River. Eventually the trail would become the northern terminus of the "Horse Thief" route.
Between my good friend, Karl, and me, we'd hiked the canyon some 18 times—he more than I. We planned the trip with obsessive detail. We rehearsed each day and carefully calculated our water requirements. I bought a new pack, new shoes, new compass, and a slew of new maps. But, it's hard to sleep the night before one is to encounter, “…a very narrow tread with considerable exposure along the edge of plunging cliffs." I tossed all night in our North Rim cabin. In past years we'd turned on the heat to keep our cabin warm. On this night, I felt claustrophobic. The air was warm, stale, and stuffy.
While I had visions of the plunging cliffs I paid little attention to the nighttime temperature. But, it was an omen. It would turn out that the heights would be a trap, a distraction. The canyon would play its tricks with me as it always does. Purple sunsets and dizzying heights were a ruse. It's always about the heat. And this year would be a scorcher.
There are two ways to find your way to Nankoweap. Both require a long hike into Saddle Mountain Wilderness of Kaibab National Forest. You can get to Nankoweap from the north or from the west. We came in from the west, a choice that has its advantages at the start of the long hike but extracts a pound or two of flesh at the end. At the start of this crisp morning, we didn't realize how annoying that end would be. Saddle Mountain just seemed in the way. I barely noticed any of it.
I'd discovered a YouTube video of the Nankoweap Trail right before leaving for Arizona. Called, Nankoweap's Scary Spot, it showed a hiker traversing a very narrow section of the trail. The trail was on the edge of the abyss. The video made me nauseous. My reaction was visceral.
The Scary Spot. It was all I could think about for a week. The Nankoweap Trail is legendary for its traverse along the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. Hikers have been known to turn back at the Scary Spot—the area where the trail is at its worst—not wanting anything more to do with Nankoweap. I never did like heights. The first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock's, Vertigo, I couldn't sleep for two days. The Scary Spot. The entire hike we just took, leading to the Nankoweap trailhead, was a hazy blur. I didn’t remember any of it until we got to the bulletin board.
- About 14.5 miles from 610 road trailhead and 14 miles from 8910 road trailhead to Colorado River
- Washouts, rock falls, and long areas of slanty, crumbly, exposed trail
- Narrow section on edge of 1000 foot cliff
- Faces south, extremely hot, not recommended in summer
The Nankoweap trailhead bulletin board's message was terse. And it confirmed my fears. This trail was going to be nuts. I just stared at it, feeling the same gut-spinning sensation that I got when I first viewed the video of the Scary Spot. This spot at the trailhead sign seemed scary enough. Maybe there was time to turn back. Knowing myself too well, I recognized that I was too stubborn to ever do that.
Suddenly the alpine meadows of Saddle Mountain seemed tame and inviting. I could just sit here and admire the view from the canyon rim for a couple of days. Then I might go on to Sedona where a nice, comfy resort was waiting for me the following week. It was cool and shady here at the trailhead and I had plenty of food and water. But, I could never let down my buddy—or myself. I secretly cursed my stubbornness and loyalty and took the first step down. The trail was very steep and rocky. I could already feel myself getting sucked down into the abyss. Then came that feeling in my stomach once again.
It didn’t take long before Nankoweap played its tricks. The genuine Nankoweap, the real deal, started when we saw the sign welcoming us to Grand Canyon National Park. That took awhile to reach. Before that the path was a national forest trail, officially called Saddle Mountain Trail 57. This preliminary trail was a rigorous romp in an alpine forest studded with aspen. It offered a compelling vista of much of Northern Arizona from an elevation of over 8000 feet. Saddle Mountain Trail 57 was lovely and dramatic—but everything before Nankoweap was foreplay.
We were already on Nankoweap when we reached the trailhead bulletin board. But the bulletin board was a last-chance warning. After that we headed right over the rim. Things then got interesting. It was steep and rocky, more a controlled slide than a hike. As we skidded down I heard myself ask aloud, "How the hell am I going to get back up this thing?" Soon we slid down to a gray log that has been laid into the outside edge of the trail. To our wonder, it was propping it up and holding back loose rock. This dead, old tree was the only thing keeping the rocks, the trail—and everyone on it—from tumbling down off the edge. That edge went over and down about 1000 feet. I learned, at that moment, to look straight ahead at the meager trail for most of the hike. Looking over the edge was not an option.
The steep and craggy descent soon settled onto a great ledge of red rock called the Supai Group. This formation has eroded unevenly and is advantageous for trailblazing because of its many shelves and ledges. You can hike along the Supai Group on many trails in the canyon—but nothing quite like this. The trail in front of me was red gravel that was loose and crumbly. It was about a foot wide, slanting downward towards the edge. It was so faint that I could only see it for about a hundred feet. Then it blended into the drama of the cliff. The only way to hike was to put one careful foot in front of the other. Focus was now equaled survival.
Test and step. Test and step. I gained a tentative confidence as we wound our way along the traverse. The trail was beyond anything I'd ever seen. But I knew it was going to get worse. We hadn't gotten to the Scary Spot yet. I realized from the YouTube video that this famous spot of Nankoweap was right here in the Supai Group. As we inched our way past every blind corner I figured it will be right there. Thus far we didn't see it and that made me nervous.
The ranger at the North Rim station told us the day before that they'd made the Scary Spot less scary. A crew had gone up and leveled things out. What he didn't tell us is that we’d be scared the whole way. But, each step seemed manageable, as long as I didn't think too far ahead—as long as I didn't think about the Scary Spot.
The red-rock traverse went on and on for many miles. The trail faced south and there was no shade, except for a gnarly, old pinyon tree every half mile. As morning blazed into afternoon the temperature soared past 100 degrees. The dark rocks absorbed the heat and then radiated it back out like an oven. I was paying so much attention to the edge that I ignored my water supply. I kept cool by drinking more water.
Then there it was ahead, like an mirage in the shimmering heat. The Scary Spot. I took a slurp from my Camelbak reservoir—and gulped.
There I stood, face-to-face with the Scary Spot. I rehearsed this moment in my mind for weeks. Would I turn around and go home? Would I crawl across it? Or, would I sit down on my ass and slide past it? Surprising myself, I just walked across it. My heart pounded, my legs shook. I dug in my hiking poles. I did not look over the edge. All in all, the Scary Spot wasn't all that scary. By then, my brain was numb to fright.
I looked back to Karl, and photographed him as he came across it. This was a moment worth preserving. Click. Was I really on that spot myself a few minutes ago? My hands were shaking. The only problem with crossing these places on the way down is knowing that they'll be there, patiently waiting for you, on the way back up. It was hard to be exultant. Yet, I was relieved.
I sighed deeply. We'd cached a heavy load of water back at Marion Point for the trip back up. My pack was now ten pounds lighter. My mind was lighter, too. The Scary Spot was behind us. Soon we'd be free of this long traverse across the red-rock ledge and be on our way downward. I lifted my reservoir's hose to take a deep drink of water. All I got was air. My reservoir was empty.
To this point we'd planned on getting to Tilted Mesa on the first day. A 6.8-mile trek on the toughest trail in Grand Canyon figured to be enough for one day. Unfortunately, there was no water at Tilted Mesa. There’d be no water until Nankoweap Creek and that was almost four miles further from Tilted Mesa. By now the temperature was 105 degrees. I still had two liters of water in reserve but they’d go quickly. Our plans now changed. We were going all the way to Nankoweap Creek on this first, long day. There were no longer any other options.
I looked up at the blasted sun. Then I looked forward again at the trail. The red-rock traverse still went onward. The heat coming off the rocks was as hot as that from the sun. I was baking. I took a swig from one of my reserve bottles. It was as hot as bath water. My legs felt heavy. There was no shade anywhere. There would be no shade anywhere until the creek.
I spent a month worrying about the Scary Spot and now I was running low on water. I'd fretted over the wrong thing. Everyone said that Nankoweap was hot. It confirmed that on the bulletin board. But, all I really paid attention to was the edge and its 1000-foot drop. Canyon heat will get to you far more often than will the dizzying heights. After six trips up-and-down Grand Canyon I should know that.
No matter. If all went well we'd be at the creek by sunset. If things went right, I’d have enough water. But, all didn't go well. We would soon discover how tricky and deceptive this great canyon can be.
Things get very basic when dehydration sets in. The higher aspirations of life evaporate into wisps of nothingness. When dehydration grips you there is nothing left but the desire for water and shade. It's a curious thing about water—it's so very ordinary until you really need it. Then it’s everything.
After we passed Tilted Mesa we finally began our descent into the deep, hot basin of Nankoweap Creek. The first act of that descent was a squeeze into a well-defined, geometrical slot in the rocks. A drop of a dozen feet on the other side of the slot was mitigated by a dead and twisted tree. The tree, uncannily placed by nature, was an absurd kind of ladder that both aided you and threatened to snag your pack and knock you off balance.
We lowered ourselves down and thus began our torturous descent. The deeper you go into the canyon, the more oppressive is the heat. The sun, by now, had lowered itself to an angle that taunted us with shooting rays. I’d now finished my first reserve bottle of water and was drinking the last one far too quickly. I couldn't help it. My thirst was relentless.
We could now see the outline of the creek. It was still far, far below us. I knew there’d be water down there, or at least hoped there was. The ranger assured us that the creek was perennial but at this point my optimism for just about everything was waning. I was fading at an alarming rate. The angle of descent steepened to the point where I simply wanted to sit down and slide myself all the way to the creek. But a slide like that would be uncontrollable and deadly. The trail was actually getting worse since we left the red-rock traverse. The drop was just as bad and now we were sliding down a trail that seemed to be covered in an endless supply of greased ball bearings.
The trail then turned into a kind of roller coaster of ups and downs, intersected and punctuated by large washes and slides. Each time we got to a wash, the trail would disappear. Every time a cairn on the other side signaled the continuation of the trail. Up and down we went, still working our way generally downward through a massive debris field. Exhausted and hot we came to a vast and precarious wash where a slide had taken out the trail. This time the cairns led us downward, right into the wash. Down we went and then we went down even further. Something had to be wrong. We skidded to a stop. The only place to go, at this point, was over the edge. There were no cairns, no trail, no nothing. It was a dead end.
As I stopped I could hear the meager sloshing of the remainder of my water. I had a sip or two left. The sun was low in the sky and we were perched in the slot of a hell hole. Rocks and shale surrounded us but no trail of any kind could be found. We looked at each other, having really nothing much to say. Our facial expressions said it all.
One of the first signs of advanced dehydration is confusion. Another is hallucination. I was both confused and hallucinating. I thought I saw cairns. Then I thought I saw footsteps. Then I thought I saw the trail. Then it all vaporized along with my hopes. I figured, at this point, I'd just whither away, dissolve into a babbling idiot and then fade off into unconsciousness. I'd read about this kind of death in Grand Canyon. It's not a pretty way to go.
I was so thirsty, thirstier than I'd ever been in my life. As badly as I wanted to figure out how to find the trail I simply couldn't think straight. I just stood at lowest point of the wash and at a very low point in life. I looked up at where we lost the trail. I was probably a hundred, vertical feet down from that spot, looking up at lost hope. I drank my last, tiny swig of water.
Karl decided to go back to the previous cairn of the trail and see if he might find something. Nothing. A few more long minutes passed. The sun was getting even lower, almost below the canyon rim. This was not a trail that could be hiked by headlamp. Soon, the only option would be to sleep on the rocks—a long night with none of my water. Karl had a liter left for the two of us. A liter for a long night and then a long, two-mile walk in the morning—if we ever found the trail again.
Karl decided then to go back yet one more cairn. He was even higher up the wash now. He looked straight ahead. He paused. "Wait a minute," he said. I watched him walk across the wash and look out. "Here it is!" he said. It turned out that some hikers had placed several cairns in illogical places, maybe to mark spots where water had been cached. Those errant cairns had led us astray. No matter. At that moment I realized that all was well, very well. An invigorating shot of adrenaline boosted me straight up the rocks like a bottle rocket, my arms doing all the work as my legs dangled into free space. "I'm getting the goddamn hell out of here," I said to myself, the rocks, and the entire canyon.
Our stalemate with the canyon lasted for one and a half hours. It seemed longer. Now, within minutes of finding the trail we were back on it and bounding our way downward. Karl gave me half of his remaining water, just enough to keep me going. We worked our way into a plateau filled with cactus. I weaved and bobbed and staggered like a drunk, missing most of the cactus (yet another symptom of dehydration is loss of coordination). I struggled unsuccessfully to keep up. And then Karl suddenly stopped.
"Listen!" he said. A grin came to his face, a grin I've seen a thousand times in the almost fifty years I've known him. Saved only for special occasions, that particular grin always means joyous news. "The creek! It's the sound of the creek!"
The last half mile was a riot of cactus, rocks, gravel, and emotion. I felt like a punch-drunk fighter in the fifteenth round of his last bout. I nearly rolled down the last descent. I actually fell into the creek itself as I tried to stop myself. The water was sweet and cold and plentiful. Karl had already filtered two liters of water for me. He said nothing as he handed them to me. I drank them both within several minutes. Water! As my body temperature cooled, I began to shiver.
"Is it cold down here?" I asked. My senses were still raw. I was still seeing things.
"No, no it's not," Karl laughed. "It's still hot."
By now the sun had set and things really did begin to cool down. We were safe and with an endless supply of fresh, blessed water. I never wanted to leave this creek. I was afraid to leave it. It had saved my life and I was getting attached to it. The next day this very stream would lead us to one of the most dramatic days of my life—the second such day in a row.
As I sunk into my air mattress in our two-man tent I groaned. My entire body ached, particularly the two enormous blisters on my feet. The drama of the day was racing through my exhausted mind. Nankoweap was certainly living up to its promises—and warnings.
"Where's the river?"
It was my first ever question when I saw Grand Canyon for the first time. I was fourteen. I strained my neck to pan the expansive vista but the river wasn't there. The waterway was a mystery, a deep and invisible sorcerer. It had done its job of carving the canyon so well that it had worked its way down to the center of the earth—or so it seemed. This added to its mystique.
We took a plane ride on that trip and the pilot dipped the wing so that we could really see the Colorado River. It was dramatic and frightening but seeing the canyon from a plane is nothing like going down into it. Viewing the Colorado from the air can't come close to touching it and putting your feet into it. The canyon's secrets lie within it, not above it. It would take me another thirty four years to touch the river but, in all that time, it was never very far from my mind.
I knew someday I'd hike the canyon but never dreamed of trip like Nankoweap. Our first day of the Nankoweap Trail had exhausted me. I slept fitfully the first night, mostly dreaming of endless trails—step after step after step. I awoke less than refreshed. Yet, a hike to the Colorado River is always very special and I was excited to reunite with it. This time we'd be going to a secluded beach, far from the corridor trails, Phantom Ranch, and Bright Angel Campground. We'd have the entire river all to ourselves—or so we thought.
Unlike the trek downward to Nankoweap Creek, the hike to the river would be relatively straightforward.
It was straightforward if you didn’t mind boulder scrambling. Nankoweap Creek was more about rocks than water. The creek was robust, with little waterfalls and cascades. It was brisk and refreshing. But the path it had cut was rough and untidy. The boulders had to be reckoned with—an unpleasant sensation on blistered feet
The river was a magnet and this new day brought new optimism. It was already getting hot again and my internal thermostat seemed to be on the fritz. The day before had busted my ability to cope with any heat at all and I was feeling it on this last leg of Nankoweap. Relative to the day before, this jaunt to the river was pleasant and relatively short, under four miles. It was a mild descent, hardly noticeable. There were spots of shade and relief and the ever-present creek was a source of security. I knew we'd have water no matter what else might happen.
The heat, the constant crossing of the stream, and the endless supply of boulders held a certain kind of monotony. I could feel a sense of sleepiness, very odd considering the cardiovascular workout I was having. But, hiking can make you drowsy especially when you get into a rhythm. I felt a pleasant sense of being under a cloud of ether (endorphins from the day before?) when we suddenly turned a bend.
It was the mighty roar that aroused me. I could hear the river before I could see it. This was not the sound of a babbling creek, it had the assertiveness of a lion's thunder. I feel it under my feet and in the air. There was no mistaking it. We were in the presence of the Colorado River. This was the sound of true greatness.
Minutes later we could see it, at first just a shimmering sliver. Then it unfolded, as if the curtains of a great theatre were being drawn. We walked faster as the boulders gave way to sand and cactus. A clear path appeared, as if the river were drawing us right into it. There was no way to resist, no desire to resist. The sound peaked into a glorious crescendo. We were here. We had arrived.
Every journey into Grand Canyon has a transcendent moment. One stands and looks out and up and feels a connection with land and spirit that cannot be described with earthly words. Reaching the Colorado River on our second day of Nankoweap was such a moment. In an instant, the trials of the day before vaporized off into the late morning sun. I stood, transfixed by the sensory feast before me. “This is why I hike Grand Canyon!" I thought.
The vast river rolled right past us through Marble Canyon, cool and crisp and clear. It then made a left turn and swerved outward, on its way to the more familiar parts of the canyon. The view downstream was one of the most photographed in the canyon, a perspective better enjoyed higher up, near the ancient granaries of the Pueblo Indians. But, there would be no climbing now, the river up close is what I wanted. Still in a daze, I looked out to a wide, sandy beach where Karl was sitting, his tired feet already soaking in the water.
We had this entire world to ourselves, as if it were the last day on earth and we were the sole survivors. This spot of the canyon was empty and, save for the roar of the river, peacefully quiet. I wet my Buff in the water and put it on my head. It was already getting hot again and my body was having none of it. My internal thermostat was definitely broken from the day before, not responding well to any kind of heat at all. I decided that sitting at the river and keeping my head wet and cool was today's project.
It was the most glorious of days. There was nothing else to do but soak our feet, refill our water supply, and figure out where to pitch to the tent. The beach stretched on in both directions for miles. The camp selection would be difficult. Up a ways beyond the shore we found a sheltered spot, amongst some trees, that seemed perfect. As we threw down our heavy packs and began to set up camp we heard the foreign sound of a gasoline engine. We ran back to the beach. We had visitors.
Two river rafts were approaching. Maybe it was not the last day of earth after all. I was actually happy to see other people. The desolation of the Nankoweap Trail had gotten into my head. Yesterday's notion that I might become a skeleton in that wash made civilization seem desirable. The river in desolation was sublime. But it was time to wash our faces in the water and brush our teeth. Company was coming.
"How'd you guys get here?" the first person who landed on the beach asked us.
We puffed out our chests like Mummers from Philly. "Came down Nankoweap," we said. We were beginning to realize that Nankoweap would become a badge of honor for us, an accomplishment that we'd forever remember. The other boat passengers were coming ashore, all eager to know how two hikers got to this remote location of the canyon. We told our story again and again.
We learned that the entourage was a geology tour, led by respected expert in canyon geology.
"Would you like a beer?" the famous geologist asked us. I thought I was still hearing things, but blinked and nodded with enthusiasm. Soon, beer in hand, I found Karl amongst the trees, grinning and eating a sandwich and washing it down with a can of cold soda. The crew had already set up a buffet table with cold cuts and bread.
"Mark, have a sandwich!" Karl said with grin. He pulled me aside. "Look! I have this entire package of ham that they gave to me. And a half a loaf of bread. We're having ham sandwiches for dinner tonight, pal!"
Soon the boat was gone but another came in a few minutes later. More beer. This river life was getting to be pretty good. By now we figured we could live down here for then next five years, guiding boats in and out of our newly found home. The day before I thought I was going to die of thirst. Today I was catching a buzz.
After the euphoria died off and our visitors were gone, Karl decided to cool off our remaining beer, soda, and package of ham. "Ham!" I said to myself as he sealed up the cache of goodies in several plastic bags and gently lowered it into the river.
"It'll be nice and cold by the time we eat it," he said, proud of his ingenuity.
We went back to the camp and set things up the way we like it—packs over there, tent over here, food hung in mesh sacks from the tree. A warm breeze wafted past me. The day was hot and lazy, something that Huck Finn might have enjoyed. I sat on a rock as Karl walked off, back down to the river.
"Hey! Hey! Goddamn it, HEY!"
The sudden commotion startled me out of my Tom Sawyer moment. I ran down to the river where Karl was screaming and waving his arms. Camera in hand, I photographed the last of them as they flew off with tidbits in beak. A gang of ravens had struck. Karl lifted up the sad, empty plastic bag. Our ham had been stolen, ever last bit of it. We were no longer having ham for dinner. Evidently, the ravens were.
Not long before the raven caper more boats had landed on the beaches around us. A large group of photographers and their crew were setting up camp for the night about a hundred yards downstream. Life on a river boat was certainly different than that of the hiker. Cots, tables, lamps, and stoves were set up by the crew. A flirtatious, young woman set up horseshoes for a group of fat men who were gathered around her. She threw the first shoe and the eager men let out a loud cheer of approval.
It was right after the fifth or sixth cheer that the ravens had made their move. The boaters heard Karl's lament as he swore at the last of the black-bird bandits. We started a conversation with our new neighbors, shouting at first as we walked towards their camp. We soon found the crew leader, a friendly young man.
"Those ravens live 40 years," he said. "Some of these very same birds were here before the boats started coming. They know all of us. They know our habits. They work as a team; some will distract you while others will make off with your food. We've seen them open zippers on backpacks. Gotta watch out for the ravens." He laughed.
"We were dreaming of thick, ham sandwiches for dinner," Karl said.
"Well, come on over at dinnertime. We have plenty of food. Lasagna tonight. And we have cold beer. We also have a ton of water. We'll be refilling at Phantom Ranch so take as much as you'd like." The young woman nodded and then returned to the horseshoe tournament with her clients.
We walked back to our own camp. "I really like these river people," I said to Karl. “Each one has offered to feed us, haul out our trash, give us something to drink." I thought, at that moment, that I'd like to take a river trip someday.
Soon, photographers with heavy, expensive gear were marching past us, working their way up to the ancient granaries. The granaries were far up the cliff, at least 500 feet in elevation from the river. While the trail was no Nankoweap, it was still rigorous and a bit perilous. Soon about forty people were perched at various posts along the way up. Some were up at the top, adjacent to the granaries. We decided to go up to take a look.
The view from the granaries was famous. "They're making a postage stamp of the view from up there," the crew leader had told us earlier. "There's a photographer from Arizona Highways with us who will be setting up a shot at sunset. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the canyon.” I made it about 3/4 of the way and, thinking of my imminent climb to the rim, lost my desire to go any further. I made a few images and went back down to camp.
Going back down I thought about the forty people all looking at the same scene and making the same images. It seemed silly. The scene was sublime, to be sure. But, how does one deal with the cliché shot, seen a million times? Sometimes a photographer just needs to get the shot so that he or she can move onward to more personal images. That’s what I did and ended up liking it. Sometimes a photo is just a photo.
Sunset and dinner came. The crew leader brought over some lasagna and bread for us. As we ate it in the dark, we could hear the young woman singing campfire songs (without a campfire) with her guitar in accompaniment. The same horseshoe men sat with her and listened. Applause followed each tune.
Soon, quiet returned to the river as the performance played itself out. Alone with my thoughts, I tried to sleep but it was hard dozing off at 8:00 PM. Instead I thought about the next day. I thought about the long hike that would begin in the morning. We'd head back to the creek to spend the next night there. Then we'd work our way back to the rim. We'd revisit the place where we’d lost trail. Then we'd have to renegotiate the long red-rock traverse. If it were still there, we'd find our cached water at Marion Point. And along the way we'd find our old friend, the Scary Spot.
Sleep didn't come for hours as I thought about the steepness of the climb. Nankoweap was the steepest trail I'd ever encountered. Sleep didn't come when visions of the thousand-foot drop flashed in my mind. Being in the bottom of the canyon is always like being in a remote, subterranean world—its beauty tempered by the sobering thought that you must, at some point, climb up and out of it. The rim equals survival. I thought about survival and I thought about the rim during that during our still, long night by the Colorado River. Sleep did not come as I thought about the devil, the devil named Nankoweap Trail.
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. I’ve never slept well down there.
Hiking out of Grand Canyon is always monumental, maybe even heroic. It’s a struggle against gravity. Yet, gravity is just the lead character in this perverse and complex drama. All of nature's elements are prominent 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 at the end of an exhausting journey—as the grand finale of the epic canyon adventure.
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, I just wanted dawn to come.
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 was pure torture. I pretended not to listen but then groaned as I dropped my stuff and reclined on the air mattress.
We watched the predawn sky through the tent’s mesh. Shooting stars, always a good omen, streaked the starry heavens. Then, a slow-moving spot of light went by. "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 were 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’re efficient. There’s no lallygagging with Nankoweap. We rose upward in dramatic fashion.
It wasn't bad. It really wasn't. Going up Nankoweap was better than going down it. While very tough and very steep and very tricky, the upward slant of the trail allowed us to focus on the task at hand. It was 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 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.
The edge of Nankoweap was coming to an end. We'd hiked along the red-rock traverse until there was no more of it. We were at the end of the side canyon. The only way to go was up a short distance and then out of the canyon. Nankoweap was tenacious and its last grip was filled with boulders and gravel and gnarly brush. But, a final surge out of the canyon is always aided with a healthy dose of adrenaline. Soon we were released from the canyon and its grip.
What was left was a cool, shady, alpine forest and a bump of an incline called Saddle Mountain. On the other side of the incline was Karl's white truck. And after that was a hot shower and a steak dinner at Grand Canyon Lodge. We had about three miles to go. "Baked potato, I thought to myself. I'm dying for a baked potato."
Coming down this trail four days previously was a blur. Everything before Nankoweap proper was a blur. This was now Saddle Mountain Trail 57 in Kaibab National Forest. Even though we'd hiked it going in, I didn't remember a bit of it. I particularly didn't remember the steepness of the inclines. Of course, four days ago we were hiking down it with fresh legs. Now we were going up after four days of Nankoweap.
"I figure we still have 1300 feet to climb up," Karl said after consulting his GPS unit. A 1300 foot climb would be a vigorous jaunt for a cool day back home (sea level) with fresh legs. A 1300 foot climb at high altitude after Nankoweap was just short of insanity. Perhaps I forgot this part of the hike out of self-preservation.
We went straight up. And then up some more. I groaned, panted, and swore at the trail. I swore at Karl's GPS unit for predicting this torture. I swore at my backpack that was now digging fiercely into my back and finding every bone along the way.
"Hey Karl, I don't remember this. Are we sure that we're going the right way?" Karl, a very strong hiker, was now way ahead of me. His distant figure was a taunt to my fragile state, reminding me that I had to eventually get way up to where he was. And when I would finally get to that spot he'd be even further, still going up and up. "Karl, are we going the RIGHT WAY?" I hate it when I whine.
Every so often he'd stand up there on some damned perch and wait for me. Gasping for air that wasn't there, I'd catch up. The air was getting thinner by the minute. "Are we...going...straight...up...this goddamn...#*!&$#@...mountain?" I asked him.
Karl was going faster than I was but he was in no better mood. "Yes," he said with a grunt. He allowed me to catch my breath and then proceeded to get way ahead of me again.
"I don't recognize any of this," I shouted up to him.
"Our footprints going the other way are right here,” he answered.
"They are not,” I said.
"They are too,” he responded.
I slammed my foot into the dust and compared it to one of the footprints going the other way. It wasn't a match.
"Damn it Karl, these are waffle soles coming down, they don't match our shoes," I said in a louder voice because he was getting further ahead of me.
Karl stopped and looked down at me. "Look, one of us had waffle soles. One of us had to have waffle soles. Maybe the waffles wore off of them."
"I assure you that I never had waffles and you never had waffles. Soles don't wear down that way. You don't have waffles one minute and not have waffles the next!"
"Bah!" he said.
It was good that we kept walking during the waffle argument because the sun was sinking fast. We got to the top of Saddle Mountain, fully expecting the truck to be waiting for us. It wasn't.
"This is wrong," I said. "I don't remember any of it."
"It's not wrong," he replied. "We're going to descend again another 500 feet and then go up that hill way over there."
"That's preposterous," I said. "Who designed this trail? I don't believe it."
"Well, do you want me to go all the way and then shout back to you that it's okay for you to come?"
Sarcasm. Just what I needed. "No," I said. The silly conversation had run its course. Either we were on the right trail or we weren't. Either the truck would be on the top of that next hill or it wouldn't. Either I'd get my steak and baked potato—or not. At this miserable point it was starting not to matter.
"Let's go," I said between my teeth, in a Clint Eastwood kind of way.
Down the hill and up the next hill we went. This was absurd. I was now groaning out loud. Since Karl was so far ahead of me it didn't matter. The last 500 feet took forever. Karl was now gone. I figured as long as he didn't come back down, cursing and screaming, it was a good sign. Then I heard a truck gate slam, the sound echoing around the mountain and canyon. Then I knew he was at the truck.
I squinted to see what was ahead. There he was, legs dangling from the truck gate. I”d reached the top of the hill and it was, indeed, the very same parking lot that we'd departed from four days earlier. The white truck shone in the waning light like a unicorn. Karl was sitting on the truck bed with a gigantic bag of potato chips in his hand. Crumbs were flying from his face as he savored the greasy treats.
"I forgot that I had these," he said between handfuls.
I said nothing as I sat on the bed. I grabbed some chips and a warm Coke. The combination tasted good, very good. I dangled my legs to restore them. I stretched my neck to revive it.
We, the conquerors of Nankoweap, just sat and contemplated our journey. We said little. There was really nothing to say at the end of Nankoweap. It took a long time for the experience to catch up to the part of the brain that makes up words. I wouldn't have much to say for quite awhile. But part of it could never be put down into words. Part of the mystery of Grand Canyon lives in the heart.
Words don't live there but Grand Canyon and its Nankoweap Trail do.