When poking around looking for descriptions of Bright Angel Trail, I noticed that no one really got into the details I find interesting. Namely: how much can we push it without risking our lives? So here they are, for those that want them.
Spoiler alert: if you like figuring stuff out for yourself, you'd best stop reading now.The Stage
Let me set the stage. Susan and I knew Bright Angel Trail was about 8 to 9 miles of distance and 4500 feet of vertical in each direction. On flat land, that's a three hour walk. But 4500 feet is maybe 400 stories. And one of the directions has to be up. We knew that the National Park Service specifically advised against attempting the return trip in one day. We are also known to be stubborn and competitive when it comes to hikes. Checking against the web at large, it seemed as though the biggest issue was heat and that hiking in winter was supposed to be enjoyable. In winter, temperatures are freezing at the rim and more moderate at the river.
On our part, Susan and I are in great shape. We both get about 10 hours of exercise a week. We'd hiked Half Dome before (which is similar in terms of distance and vertical). It seemed like a one day return was possible.
Weather forecasts a week or two before were showing highs around 40F at the rim, and 60F at the river. Temperatures would drop to 20F over night. Cold, but not that bad. Or so we thought.The Plan
We extrapolated from Half Dome, and conjectured a 9 hour round trip. With some buffer for chilling out, we were figuring that we should set out an hour before sunrise and get back (in the absolute worst case) at sunset. About 12 hours. With no plan to stay in the canyon, we would pack warm gear and emergency blankets, but neither tents nor sleeping bags.
You can get rough estimates on calories from some web sites. We were packing enough calories. I brought energy bars. Susan brought peanut butter cookies. We figured that -- with refilling available at Indian Garden -- five litres of water would be enough between the two of us. We packed CamelBaks.
Warnings from the National Park Service said the top mile or two were covered in ice and snow, so we packed YakTrax over-shoe traction devices.
We were planning to stay at El Tovar Hotel the night before and the night after. It's pretty deluxe for where it is, and we figured on appreciating a hot bath after the hike. This hotel is pretty kicking; I recommend it.Last Minute Change of Plans
Shortly before the trip, the weather forecast started showing snow advisories for Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas. Some estimates were predicting as much as 12 inches of snow in 24 hours -- right in the middle of our hike! I was worried.
We knew this wasn't going to be snow at the river, so we had to prepare for both rain and snow. We did the best with the gear we had. I brought a ski jacket and light snowboarding pants. Both are water resistant, and the pants are useful for trail blazing in snow. Susan brought a water proof jacket. I sprayed a fresh coat of water repellent on my boots.How It Played Out
We left right around sunrise: 07:00. A little later than expected, but snow made the last bit of the drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon entertaining. An extra hour of sleep seemed prudent.
It was drizzling on and off during the descent. Nothing too bad. At first, I thought we were in for a dreary day but nothing close to the foot of snow forecast. Boy, was I wrong.
The top of the trail was snow and ice. The YakTrax worked beautifully, but one band broke on Susan's shortly after starting. Irritating, buy still usable. I'd still recommend them; Susan was less impressed. At least on the terrain we were on, it allowed me to treat ice like normal rocky terrain without affecting my gait.
After snow it turned to mud. Slippery, red, get-all-over-everything mud. My boots and bag are still stained red in places. The rain kept coming on and off, but our gear was holding up well.
We reached the river at about 10:00. We felt close for a while, but the winding canyon walls make the actual river a surprise. Unexpected and big. The weather wasn't wonderful. So, after a few minutes of playing around near the river (and the obligatory photo), we turned back to start the ascent back to the rim. What do they say? It's the journey, not the destination.
About an hour back toward Indian Garden, it started to rain. Not "this is refreshing" on and off drizzle. This was rain that was meant to soak the trail and everyone on it. This rain made me question my love for Susan and her desire to hike this trail. But as the signs on the trail continually point out: "Down is Optional. Up is Not."
At about this point, we ran into a ranger. He asked us some pointed questions, and eyed us up and down with a concerned eye:
"Are you heading to the rim today?"
"The wind has really started to pick up near the rim."
"Do you have crampons?"
The end result was that we were both feeling a little more apprehensive with our plan. We started to really move. It was about this time that I also grew sick of eating my energy bars. Susan had snagged a burrito from Taco Bell the night before, and whipped it out for a quick lunch. I felt jealous. Next time I'm packing sandwiches.
Within half an hour, my jacket and pants had let water in. Before we reached snow it had soaked through. Both of us were soaked from the waist down. Then snow. My energy started dropping rapidly, to the point where I was shuffling along the last mile of the trail. We couldn't stop, 'cause the temperature had dropped too far.
This was the moment we shoot for. One of us has to doubt our ability to make it. It was my turn on this hike. Going up was a struggle. Hungry. Cold. I thought we were going to have to reverse back down to Indian Garden and wait out the rain and snow. It seemed to take forever to cover the last mile up to the top.
We reached the trailhead slightly before 14:00. (Yes. Three hours down and only four hours up.) When we got back to the hotel it took me about half an hour to feel warm again. The snow continued into the evening.What Went Right
What Went Wrong
- We correctly judged our fitness level. In fact, we outperformed, which allowed us to get back during the warmest hours of the day.
- We had enough water with us.
- My gear was not waterproof, and under the steady rain eventually gave out. Staying warm in wet gear is not easy.
- Our back up gear got wet. While we didn't actually use it, we would have been better to have stowed it in plastic bags.
- Monotonous food. I only had one type of food. This meant toward the end, I wasn't eating enough and allowed my energy level to drop.
- This was our first time using CamelBaks, and we overestimated how much water we were drinking. I only drank one litre, and Susan drank even less.