Grand Canyon: optimism, knees and fatherhood

In November of 2020, my son and I set out on a cross-country adventure to check on my parents in Los Angeles. Here are some life lessons (for me).

The CANYON

In November of 2020, my son and I set out on a cross-country adventure. We stopped and hiked the Grand Canyon, on our 2000-mile round trip.

The Buick

By Arthur Hu (Wiarthurhu at en.wikipedia) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kobac using CommonsHelper on Labs., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18438206

About 30 years ago, my parents drove me out in our Buick Station Wagon with faux wood paneling to attend medical school in California. On the way, we stopped by the Grand Canyon, goggled at the enormity of seeing a canyon 17 miles wide. On that day, with the smog, the North Rim looked more like a dingy painting rather than an impressive canyon. We read about adventurous souls who would hike down into the canyon either by mule or on foot, but it would never be us.

I have always dreamed about coming back and doing that hike, down to the river, and back. 

The Road Trip

Fast forward to 2020. My 18-year old son agrees on a 2-week road trip with Dad during his pandemic-infested gap year, so off we go. Finding my parents healthy, we spent a few days together in Los Angeles, and then headed back homeward.

On our return leg, we stay at the Grand Canyon Lodge. We take out our maps of trails to plan the next day. I reveal to him my long-forgotten, yet deep-seated hope of the massive Rim to River to Rim hike in one day. “Hey, it’ll be fun! What an adventure!”

The Lecture

To my amazement, my son starts lecturing me about knowing my limits.

Son: “Dad, you know this is 10,000 feet of elevation and 17 miles IN ONE DAY.”

Dad: “Yeah, I know. I can do it.”

“No, Dad, you haven’t trained for this. This is like climbing a 14-er. Remember how hard that was for you? Also like the ski-up to the 10th Mountain Hut trip. Remember how you said you would NEVER do that again? This is like that.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Wow, I sound a lot like Mom.”

“Yup, your mom always says that Dad has too much unwarranted optimism for his own good.”

“Um-hmm.”

“Well, it has been a dream of mine to hike down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Canyon someday, and I think tomorrow is my chance to do it.”

“Sigh. Ok, sounds like your heart is set on it. We will have to make sure we give ourselves enough time. The ascent will be the hardest. Lets see…”

And so, my son the planner, set it all up. 

The Plan

  1. We get up at 4 am
  2. We arrive at the shuttle bus stop by 5 am (first bus), since no one is permitted to park AT the South Kaibab trailhead.
  3. We set off with flashlights on the trail at 5:15am. We allocate 4 hours for the descent, 7.7 miles, 5000 feet from 7500 to 2500. 
  4. We plan on 30 minutes for a meal at the river
  5. And then upwards, estimating 1 mile per hour for old Dad. Nearly 8 miles, nearly 8 hours. 
  6. We hope to reach the Rim again before dusk at 5pm. 

Whoa

Our first surprise: switchbacks. My son is in the lead, and he suddenly shouts “WHOA.”

Turns out our flashlights only see about 6 feet in front, and the switchback came up quickly, and his next step would have been…(shines flashlight), into the abyss. On our return trip, we look down, about 300 feet to the first rock outcroppings.

Whew.

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A bit chagrined, we continue. About 20 minutes later, we pause. Look up at the stars. The Milky Way about as bright as we’ve ever seen it. No sound. No birds. No wind. No hum. When it is THAT quiet, your ears sometimes make up a faint ringing just to fill the silence…

A minute later another traveler, jogging along. 

Son: “Hi there! How far you going?”

Traveler: “Rim to Rim to Rim. Have a good one!”

Wow. There is always someone crazier. 

The Glow

About an hour later, an orange glow on the horizon. Second hour, the crests of the North Rim start to glow bright orange. 

We take a water break, a potty break, small snack, then back on the trail. Fortunately, very cool still, 50 degrees, no wind, sunrise is spectacular in phases. I forgot my hiking poles! D’oh! but my knees were still doing remarkably well. 

The Mule Train

Third hour, sun is definitely up, and we get passed by the mule train.

Remarkable how fast those guys go. Clip-clop, doesn’t seem fast, but they keep really constant speed over everything. They pack in water and supplies for Phantom Ranch, and pack trash back out. Very cool. We must stay there someday. 

The River

8:30 am: We see the bottom of the canyon! and arrive at the Colorado River, bright green. 

The 3 Layers

There have been three layers of canyon: the very big painterly one, the middle sub-canyon that appears 2 hours into the hike, and then the final mysterious crevasses where the actual river runs now. The way it unfolded was brilliant and super-cool. In other words, I have no adequate words for it. 

Arriving at 8:30 is heartening. We are ahead of schedule. I did scrape my knee after the second switchback up top, and turns out, I have 4 sizable gouges in my knee, but the adrenaline blocked all the pain. Some blood seeped through my thick pants. My red badge of courage. Lunch of 2 bagel sandwiches, water. I always soak my feet in rivers or oceans when available (habits of a Florida boy), so 5 minutes in 35 degree water is about all I can take, but wow it is awesome after 7.7 miles. Brush off the sand, socks, boots back on. We are back on the upward trail at 9 am. 

The Upward Path?

Son: “OK Dad, I’m expecting us to go 1 mile an hour including stops, so we should be up by 5 pm, just before sunset. Let’s get going.

Dad: “I can do it. I feel pretty good.”

“Yeah, but it’s UPHILL now.” 

A couple more mule trains pass us going up. Some horseback riders from Phantom Ranch. Not many people on the trail really. We were up before most, so we only see 3-4 hikers in the first 3 miles, then only 10 going the other way in the rest of the hike (Ranch lodgers or Angel campgrounders). We flip the masks on for every one who passes. The ascent is hard on the old knees, but manageable. We allocate 30-minute scheduled breaks for water and trail mix, seems like a good schedule. Met some mules: they have names! (Betsy, Parker, Ralph). 

Finally, the sun hits part of the South Rim trail (otherwise in shadow all this time). And from pretty-cool, it becomes BAKING HOT. How does that happen so fast? I’m suddenly grateful for November, and a non-busy trail. Now we are looking for shady spots to rest and hydrate.

The False Summit

It is amazing to emerge from lower canyon to mid, and mid to upper. The false-summit problem comes up repeatedly. The top looks so close! but SERIOUSLY? THIS is not the summit, and there is another couple thousand feet! Too bad I did not note the starting altitude on my watch. 😦

My son notices that my pace is flagging as we ascend, and asks me in the later miles: 

“Want to rest here?”

“No. If I stop, I will lie down and cry, and I won’t ever get up again.”

“Ok”

The Non-verbal communication

The last 2 miles, we see kids and families hiking tentatively down, we see the dropoffs and switchbacks we did not see before. We see the massive vistas that we did not see before. The son starts getting annoyed with Dad taking SOOOOOO MANY PHOTOS.

Reviewing photos, now we can see him being fed up. Funny I didn’t see it when taking his photo. So much for my ability to spot nonverbal communication (one of my supposed specialties). 

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We arrive at the top, giddy as schoolkids. Dad Survives. We shuttle back to the car. It is only 2:30 pm at the top. Take that, pessimistic son! 

Son: “Proud of you Dad. Good job. That was amazing. Whoo!”

Dad: “I need a BIG PIZZA and then shower and bed. These rubber legs are DONE.”

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CMIO’s take? Don’t forget the hiking poles. And, sometimes sons (and canyons) have hidden depths.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

One thought on “Grand Canyon: optimism, knees and fatherhood”

  1. CMIO’s Take? Not hiking poles.

    Joking aside, one of my favorite stories. So glad you wrote this down and recorded your side of the story. I think the son was pretty beat up as well too at the end of this, so let’s not think of him as Superman or anything. He likewise enjoyed the pizza at the end of the day, but most importantly, was grateful to have done this once-in-a-lifetime hike with his overconfident but ultimately capable dad.

    To be fair though—glad you picked up on Asian camera gene! The face does not lie!

    Like

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