Standing like Neanderthal men, hunched over from the weight of our backpacks, the four of us huddled on the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail.
It was our first attempt at backpacking, and we were not used to the cumbersome equipment. After traversing a quarter of a mile of steep, icy switchbacks, we stopped to formulate a strategy.
Somewhere between frosted buttes on the canyon floor was our destination--Phantom Ranch, appropriately named, we thought, since it was invisible between dark crevices and distant chasms. At that point, however, it was better to watch our footing than the scenery.
The idea for the trip started innocently enough when I suggested a winter weekend hike down the Grand Canyon. My friends agreed to give it a try. Although novice backpackers, we are reasonably athletic and believed the well-marked trails would present no difficulty.
We rented backpacks and a small, one-burner camp stove from a local sporting goods store--the cost for five days was $50. Since an ice chest was impossible to carry on such a trip, we opted for food that didn't spoil--salami, pasta, tuna and bread.
While we were standing in the National Park's Backcountry Office waiting for our permit to be processed, a park ranger said we had chosen the best time to hike.
About 1,500 feet below the rim, the sun's rays warmed the air and thawed our spirits. Although only patches of snow remained, the ground was frozen. Boot prints were reminders of previous hikers.
Generally, it's at least 20 degrees warmer at the ranch than at South Rim. And if it's snowing up top, it might be raining on the Colorado River. It was best to be prepared with layers of warm clothes, plenty of socks and rain ponchos.
At Cedar Ridge, a plateau suspended over the inner gorge, 1 1/2 miles down Kaibab, we saw the first unobstructed 180-degree vista of the canyon. Colorful, snow-dusted bluffs surrounded us.
A young backpacker, dressed in army fatigues, trudged toward us. He was the first hiker we encountered. His pace was sluggish, his boots barely leaving the trail. Looking up, he warned: "Don't take this way out; it's murder. Take the other route."
We knew he was right. Although South Kaibab is the shortest (seven miles from rim to ranch) and more picturesque way, following ridge lines, it is steep, even treacherous in some parts, and offers little shade and no water.
Bright Angel Trail, the only alternative to reach the Colorado, is three miles longer but has an easier grade.
By afternoon, the sun sank behind the western buttes, casting dramatic shadows on the barren floor below. My body finally relaxed, and I no longer thought about the weight on my back. Rather, I studied the landscape, puzzled at how one river could have carved through a mile of rock to create the canyon.
Mired in Muck
The cold and ice were no longer a problem--instead, it was the mud. Melted snow from high peaks trickled down the stone walls, flooding the narrow pathway. With each plodding step, my new boots sank into six inches of muck.
Environmental conditions continued to change: first snow, then slush, finally desert. Before reaching the ranch, we descended through 10 layers of sedimentary rock, each representing its own 10-million-year history.
Almost 3,000 feet below the rim, on the cactus-studded sand of Tonto Platform, summertime temperatures can reach 100 degrees. But this day it was a balmy 60. Stubby green sagebrush dotted the mesa. A woodpecker tapped the base of a strange-looking, 10-foot quill pen growing out of parched ground.
The feathery agave tree offered dinner to the bird, coexisting with hundreds of desert plants and animals. Warm winds sent dust clouds whirling. Kaleidoscopic, flattened ridges leaped at us from all sides.
It was hot when we reached Black Bridge, 440 feet of steel, spanning across the murky Colorado. We had descended 5,000 feet--nearly a mile--in four hours. Tired, I didn't think I could make it over.
Then I remembered the story about the men who built this bridge in 1922. Workers had to carry eight cables, each 50 feet long, down the trail on their backs.
At the Bright Angel Campground on Bright Angel Creek, a small Colorado tributary, mule deer browsed on graded banks.
Only half-occupied, the 30 campsites were partitioned perfectly by cottonwood and aspen trees. We later learned that nature doesn't outline that well; it was the Civilian Conservation Corps that planted the trees in 1932.
At 5 p.m., the chow-hall dinner bell rang. We crossed a footbridge leading to other ranch buildings that fringed the compound. Tiny stone cabins, of uncut river boulders and dark-paneled eaves, blended among fruit trees, tall weeds and towering canyon walls.
Designed by Mary Jane Colter, these primitive palaces housed politicians, artists and businessmen during the ranch's early years.
In the center of the courtyard were a makeshift amphitheater and a horseshoe pitching pit, but no campfire area--campfires are not allowed in the canyon.
The door to the dining room opened, and we were among a handful of hungry hikers and sore-bottomed mule-train riders who staggered in for grub.
Elbowing up to three long tables and rawhide chairs, we were ready for a family-style meal.
The night's menu, like every other night, was either beef stew or steak and potatoes, accompanied by homemade cornbread, fresh vegetables and salad. For dessert, there was gooey chocolate cake.
By 9 p.m., we were cocooned in down bags, safe within our tents on the dark, moonless night. The gentle hum from Bright Angel Creek was the only sound as we drifted off to sleep.
There's not much to do once you're on the canyon floor except enjoy the solitude and catch an occasional rainbow trout. We chose another hike. The North Kaibab Trail runs parallel to Bright Angel Creek.
Searching for a View
You can reach Ribbon Falls after six miles, but we barely covered three before breaking for lunch. Alone, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and scaling the ridges for a better view of the canyon.
Since the pace would be slower, and we wanted to reach the South Rim before sunset at 4:30 p.m., we started out of the canyon the next morning at dawn.
The first five miles along Bright Angel Trail were relatively easy and level, cutting directly into the canyon and over Garden and Pipe creeks.
The trail was rich in folklore. Since water was easily accessible from springs at Indian Gardens (4.6 miles from the rim), Bright Angel has been well-traveled for more than 100 years.
Indians left their marks in pictographs--still seen in the Tapeats Narrows. Miners in the 1860s extracted mineral deposits from the area and, in 1903, Ralph Cameron widened the trail and charged $1 to every tourist wishing to enter the canyon.
It was eventually turned over to the National Park Service in 1928, after changing hands a number of times.
We were halfway to the rim by 1 p.m. when the air turned brisk. Gone was the hot, dry, inner-canyon weather. Once again, snow-laden trees covered the hillsides. The final four-mile climb wound through shaded switchbacks.
Such conditions are tolerable at the start of a hike when energy is high, but at the end of an uphill, 10-mile stint, it was no picnic. Fatigue set in.
The last 1 1/2 miles of the trail brought curious, camera-clad tourists and excited children, skidding on the ice toward us. A sign read: "Mule rescues are expensive!"
The snow continued to drift past; my nose and fingertips were numb, and the cold air burned my throat and lungs. I stopped every 10 feet to judge how much farther we had to go, and to catch a last glimpse of the canyon.
When I reached the top, only a tourist, an elderly woman, was there. She looked at the huge load I was carrying and saw how small I was. "Did you hike from the bottom?" she asked. I collapsed on a bench. "Yes."
"Would you do it again?" she asked.
"I won't do it tomorrow, or next week, not even next month," I replied.
"But I'll be back next winter."
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To approach the Grand Canyon's South Rim by car, take Interstate 40, via U.S. 180, from Flagstaff, Ariz. Commuter airlines fly daily to Grand Canyon Airport, with connections through Phoenix and Las Vegas. The airport is 10 miles south of Grand Canyon Village.
At Grand Canyon Village, lodging ranges from the simple Maswik Lodge ($60 double occupancy) to the elegant El Tovar Hotel ($95 double to $250 for suites).
Phantom Ranch offers cabins with a bathroom, sink, sheets, pillows and bunk beds ($52 double), or dormitories--10 bunk beds with the same equipment as cabins ($19 per person).
The Bright Angel Lodge offers a variety of sleeping arrangements, from a standard room with bath ($40 double) to a cabin with a queen-size bed ($51 double). There are a limited number of cabins with fireplaces and canyon view ($87 double).
A limited number of dinners and breakfasts are served in Phantom Ranch's dining room, and reservations should be made in advance. A beef stew dinner (including tax and tip) is $14 and a 12-ounce steak dinner is $23.50. A sack lunch goes for $6.50, and breakfast is $8.50.
Guided groups leave daily from Grand Canyon Village for Phantom Ranch. Overnight trips are $206 and include meals and lodging at the ranch. From Dec. 1 through Feb. 29, a three-day, two-night trip is offered. The cost is $267 and includes food and lodging at the ranch. Riders must weigh less than 200 pounds and be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall.
A camping permit (maximum of three nights) or hiking permit must be made, prior to your trip, through the National Park Service Backcountry Office. There is no fee. A fishing license for Bright Angel Creek is $9.50.
For more information and reservations, contact Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, P.O. Box 600, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023, (602) 638-2631 or (602) 631-2401.