In the 1960’s there was a very popular, insipid situation comedy that enjoyed gret success, “Gilligan’s Island.” In it seven people set off from Hawaii in a charter boat, the S.S. Minnow. (The Minnow was named after the FCC commissioner who had bemoaned the state of US television in 1961.) The two-man crew and five passengers set off to enjoy what they thought would be a three-hour tour. When the weather started getting rough and the tiny ship gets tossed the best the fearless crew can do is beach the ruined Minnow on a tiny desert island.
I was thinking about the Minnow, Gilligan, the Skipper and both Mary Anne and Ginger the other day. I was thinking about them because my tiny ship got tossed while visiting the Grand Canyon and I found myself with my wife and my 12-year-old nephew Mark up a creek without a paddle.
Along with three others, Patricia, Mark and I have been touring the western parts of the middle of the USA for the last ten days or so. Prior to traveling to Arizona’s Grand Canyon we had spent three days in (mostly) Wyoming’s Yellow Stone National Park. While in Yellowstone my wife and I discovered that Mark was willing to rise with the sun and go on extended wilderness hikes with us. We established a routine of Mark getting up around six in the morning and the three of us heading out for strenuous two-hour hikes around Yellowstone while his grandmother, twin sister and younger brother slept until a “reasonable hour.” We had fun our way and they enjoyed the park their’s.
This worked well in Yellowstone because we were staying in the park. When we imported this template to The Grand Canyon we ran into a bit of a snag. When that snag started to unravel we discovered just how immense the GC really is and just how quickly one can get in pretty serious trouble.
For ten dollars my sister-in-law Lenore purchased the incredibly amazing National Parks Pass for seniors that allows her and up to three adults to enter the parks for life. (Children under 16 are not included in the count so the six of us paid ten dollars and can enter any US Park without additional cost.) In Yellowstone Lenore, Nina and Owen snoozed while Pat, Mark and I cruised but because our over night accommodations at GC were outside the park we could not be up with the sun and on our way in the cool of the morning. The only inexpensive way into the park was for Lenore to flash her National Parks pass and driver’s license otherwise we could spend a lot of money for three additional one day passes. We opted to wait for Lenore and the other two children to arise at their genteel hour which meant we didn’t start hiking until nearly ten a.m. as opposed to first light. This was our first bad decision and things cascaded downward from there.
Around seven in the morning my wife and I strolled from our hotel room at the Red Feather Lodge over to the Arizona office of tourism which is located just down the street. The gal there explained a hiking route we could take to the canyon’s base and detailed another trail out. We didn’t listen very carefully which was our next big mistake. We heard her say that there are water stops along the route and that the South Kaibab trail was steep and the Bright Angel was far less strenuous. What she really said was don’t even try to hike down one and up the other in one day. It is hard and for most people life threatening. “LIFE THREATENING.”
The record for running the course that we hiked is under three hours. I have a rule that works pretty well for me- show me a running record and double it and I’m probably pretty good to go. If a world record’ marathon pace is two hours give me four and I can finish in that amount of time. We figured around six hours to hike 18 miles. Pat and I have gone wilderness backpacking and know how to move. We brought water, food, a cell-phone because it doubled as a camera and nothing else. Pat, Michael and I are trained athletes. Pat and I are also idiots.
So we six boarded the shuttle from Tusayan to the Grand Canyon and then we three intrepid morons took the next bus to the eastern edge of the canyon and discovered the beauty of the GC up close. We started our descent along the South Kaibab in high spirits. The scenery was incredible, my two companions were snapping pictures left and right and we were having a high time as we descended.
About a mile into the hike Pat’s right boot sole started to delaminate from her boot.
Being reasonable people we immediately turned around and headed back up the trail. We continued downward. By the first rest stop/latrine/horse resting area we figured we should refill our water bottles. The rest stop was dry. All the rest stops along the South Kaibab are dry. The tourism gal mentioned water and we heard what we wanted to hear. We marched on with the soul of Pat’s boot in her back pocket- we may be idiots but we know what “Leave no trace” means.
I believe that there are three stops along the South Kaibab and after the second and roughly two hours of near constant descent I was feeling a bit fatigued and my quads were complaining. The sole of Pat’s left boot also de-laminated and we dutifully picked it up and hiked along. Down we continued and at about hour three Pat asked me, “Do you have any water for Mark?”
“Uh, sure,” I responded giving him a long draw on my Camelbak. We could see the Colorado River but we still had a long way to go. The first three hours we had stayed together pretty well. My old man knees and quads were no longer having it and Mark and Pat got further in front of me than is prudent. I soldiered on, sipping my water and eating my trail mix all alone save for the squirrels that I saw and what ever wildlife watched me that I did not see.
At four hours, legs burning and fatigue setting in we had traveled seven downhill miles. Our spirits and energy reserves were lower than the canyon floor and we were in trouble. Our temporary salvation was a water stop. Water is the elixir of life and while I till had 12 ounces or so left Mark and Pat had been hiking in front of me parched and worried. While we were filling our reservoirs a happy, smiling couple came bounding down the trail The gal looked at us and knew we were in trouble.
“So, where’d you guys come from?” she asked.
“The South Kaibab,” my wife answered.
“Oh. That’s steep. Where are you camping?”
“We’re not. We’re hiking out.”
“Oh. I see. Uhm, you know Phantom Ranch is less than a mile from here, right? Maybe you could take a mule up or get on one of the river rafts?”
“No,” interjected I, “I think we can hike out.”
“I really don’t think that’s safe,” our little pink hot pants wearing angel replied. “You should go talk to a ranger.”
Defeated, deflated but responding to the “S” word we agreed to go to the Phantom Ranch and see what alternatives we could find that could get us back to Tusayan and our hotel. With water in our tanks we hiked across a suspension bridge that separates the north part of the canyon with the south and hiked another ten minutes to the Ranger’s office. Zachery Wolfe greeted us, sized us up and tried to problem solve. His name tag clearly said “Volunteer” not Ranger and he excused himself to go consult with a ranger.
He came back a few minutes later repeating that we should stay in the camp, that they could loan us camping gear for the night and that we could buy food at the cantina. He also looked at Mark and said, “You should go soak in the river. You are obviously heat stressed.”
We thanked him, Pat went to the Phantom Ranch office to see about food and sleeping while Mark and I crawled into the clear, cool creek that feeds the raging, muddy Colorado. A gal was luxuriating in the stream and she chatted with us as well. Her dismay with us for getting ourselves in the mess we were in was obvious but she was polite about it. She mentioned that there was a 4:00 o’clock “Safe Hiking” lecture that we should consider attending. We later learned that she was the ranger and Zach had never spoken with her because he couldn’t find her.
Pat came back from the Phantom Ranch office with a big smile. We had a cabin. The cabins usually sell out a year in advance but we lucked into one. The cabin had air conditioning. And running water. And a water closet. (Showers were available nearby.) She had also purchased three dinner slots, three breakfast slots and two sack lunches to carry along the next day. Our immediate worries were over save one. We had Mark and his grandmother was going to be worried sick if we didn’t contact her.
We were told that if we walked another mile and took a steep trail up a ridge we could probably get enough of a cell-phone signal to send a text. Mark, Pat and I hiked but my lovely wife had had enough. She waited for us at the base of the rise and Mark and I continued onward. Huffing, puffing, tired and hungry we finally ascended to a spot where we could send a text telling Lenore of our plight. The trip down the hill seared my aching quads but I felt great relief. We had shelter, food and a plan. All we had to do was eat, rest and climb out the next morning.
We had one more obstacle beside the actual climb. The earliest breakfast that was still available wasn’t until 6:30 and we hoped to be three miles into our ten-mile hike by then. We headed down to the dinning area at five and hoped for a no-show. Our hopes were answered and we ate an early breakfast and got an early start. We climbed up the far less steep ten mile climb from Phantom Ranch up the Bright Angel trail.
The Bright Angel is replete with water stops and temperatures remained constant as we climbed along mostly in shade. It took us five hours to hike the ten miles, or a total of 14 plus for our “six-hour hike.” We got lucky. Every screw up we made we were given a solution to the problems we made for ourselves. What could have been a disaster turned into a grand adventure. I even think Mark will go hiking with us again soon. Maybe.