I havent taken a vacation in years when all of a sudden I decided that I needed a vacation. Flying to a city like New York, being alone, didnt appeal to me. I wanted to do something that a single person would actually do, normally.
I decided to go to the Grand Canyon and hike, ill prepared as I was. The plan was to spend two days there, hike down the South Kaibob trail up to half way down, use the Tonto trail to connect and go up the Bright Angel trail. I dont remember what was the plan for the second day ..... that second hike would not take place :O
I wore very heavy hiking boot, at the last minute I took a single hiking stick, a heavy backpack, and ................ I didn't cut any of my toenails, which were very long.
All was perfect, I took the first hikers bus to the South Kaibob trailhead; going down canyon was great and fast and I was in close proximity to other people that I assumed would do the same route as me ...... why ? because ALL I READ WAS NEVER HIKE DOWN TO THE RIVER AND BACK, YOU WILL DIE !!!
I arrived at the Tonto trail intersection and I left people pass me to make sure the correct turn was being taken; everyone took the same path, including an old lady with a heavily bandaged knee (no way she was going down to the river). At this point, you know where this story is going.
At one point, a caravan of donkeys was coming up. At least I knew which side to stay on (never corner the animals by taking the outside). After the donkeys, I turned a corner and .................. i saw the fucking Colorado River and then the bridge to the campground. I had hiked down to the fucking river. I was not tired (ha ha ha ha, I managed to over exercise my knees going so fast without realizing it).
I spent 30 minutes resting and decided to leave before everyone else, hoping that they would eventually pass me, except that old lady with the heavily bandaged knee (spoiler: HA HA HA HA).
No map and no GPS, I had no clue how many miles I had to go to the Indian Gardens rest area, so I could count miles and pace myself.
People started passing me and when I got to the Indian Gardens rest area, I was totally spent. At least, I could replenish my water. I stayed there one hour and everyone passed me, except you-know-who (WOO HOO).
The moment I left Indian Gardens, I was a dead duck. I managed to constantly and painfully bump my long toenails against the hard front of my boots, I was getting blisters on the hand that used the hiking pole and I just had no energy left. Looking at the top of the canyon, I started to think "this is not going to happen".
The last 3 miles became a death march and ....................... you, you guessed it, the old lady with the heavily bandaged knee went past me (that woman deserves a medal). I would walk 5 minutes, FIVE MINUTES, and I would have to stop 5 minutes to catch my breath.
I then learned a lesson, walk like an old dude. Literally, take a small step instead of long steps. I think we have stronger and more used muscles when we walk in short steps (like in real life). A hike that started at 7:30am was ending around 6pm, with the sun starting to come down. Yes, it was getting dark and getting cold and I was already thinking that I would have to spend the night on the trail (that is how incredibly tired I was).
Well, I survived, went to the hotel and the next day I could not bend my legs at all (I just went to the Grand Canyon and took the tourist bus to go to all the stops), there was not going to be a second day of hiking.
Remember my toenails ? All black, with blisters all over the place. It took me days to recover my legs and not walk like a stiff. When you ask yourself, have you ever reached your physical limit ? Yes, I have.
So, this was such a HORRIBLE experience that I decided that hiking was going to be my passion from then on ............. sorry, I decline to see a psychiatrist to explain this behavior. I love the mental challenge (yes, I was physically tired, but mentally destroyed at that hike, but that is all I had left .... my mental energy to get out of the canyon ..... where people have died doing the stupid hike I did). I love the views. I love walking into nice people (a lot nicer that regular people) that will help and share stories.
A couple of years later I returned and on one hike I gave away my hiking poles to a little girl that was absolutely exhausted at the Bright Angel trail. Top ten proud moment for me.
This is a hike that will always remember for good and bad reasons. I will discuss mostly the bad reasons: I thought I was going to die.
I became aware of Buckskin Gulch while googling for challenging day hikes. I came upon an article in the Backpacker website listing Buckskin Gulch as the longest slot canyon in America and the “most dangerous hike in America”. To someone like me, that perked my eyes (remind me to blog about my first and almost last hike of my life). The Backpacker article mentioned that although no one has ever died in there, if you got caught in a rushing waters situation, you will die. You have seen plenty of news of horrible deaths in slot canyons in Utah when the waters rush after a thunderstorm. That is why you should NEVER hike a slot canyon if there is a REMOTE chance of rain. Well, Buckskin Gulch is unique in the sense that the canyon walls are high, sometimes 200 feet high, its long and there is only one area where you can escape the slot canyon ….. the canyon is about 20 miles long. If you are not close to the escape area and the waters rise, you are dead. Check out some of the pictures on my website and notice how high the logs get stuck in the canyon walls. The canyon is narrow in many places.
Ok, back to my story. I wasn’t going to hike the whole thing (you need a shuttle to take you from one trailhead to the other), so my plan was to enter at the Wirepass trail, and get all the way to the Middle trail (the escape area) and turn back. On the way to the Middle Trail is the Cespool, a low elevation area that gets flooded all the time. I didn’t not look forward to that, but ‘luck’ had it that during my visit there was a gigantic heat wave in the West that elevated temperatures to 120 degree Fahrenheit (uh oh).
Please let me deviate from my story of potential woe and tell a story of actual woe. The trailhead for Buckskin Gulch is shared with the trail to the famous Wave. That hike is via permit and even though is a short hike, people has gotten lost and died of heat exhaustion. On the day of my hike (120 degrees) I ran into an old couple at the trailhead parking lot; they were not going to the canyon, they were hiking to the Wave …………… the next day at the airport I read the news of an old couple that got lost on the Wave hike and both died of heat exhaustion. I believe it was the couple I saw.
Ok, Buckskin Gulch is all I wanted, you start at the wirepass canyon, which intercepts Buckskin Gulch after a couple of miles (that way you save 5 miles for the boring actual start of the Buckskin Gulch canyon official entrance). You take a right at the Buckskin intersection and there you go (clue ……. this is an important fact of the story). The colors don’t match colors of other slot canyons, but the fact that you can touch both walls with your hands and see 100 yards up the walls makes you so happy. On top of that, the cesspool was totally dry (120 degrees) and I made it easily getting to the Middle Trail, where I stopped and ate lunch.
The only thing that tired me was the sand, it was like walking on desert sand. The rushing waters after a flood keeps bringing sand and rocks to the bottom of the canyon, so it is not a proper trail that you walk firm on, the sand tires you.
Remember the fact that you enter Buckskin Gulch via wirepass ? Well, after 6 hours of hiking I forgot that essential fact and I passed the intersection on my way back. Without a GPS (this would be the last hike I ever did without a GPS ………. because I get easily distracted), I started to realize that I should have hit the intersection already, but the canyon looked familiar. Sure, miles and miles of canyon tends to look familiar after hours of hiking it. I kept hiking and getting tired (120 degrees) until I saw an area similar to the intersection (after I passed it one mile ago and decided that I missed it) ……………. There was a large mound of sand that I scaled (even though I didn’t remember doing that on the way in), ran into a dead end and had to scale back (120 degrees …. getting tired and stupider). I decided to keep backtracking until ………………. I finally found the intersection, after shooting past it by 3 miles (yes, I added 6 miles to an already long hike in 120 degree weather). The canyon walls at this point are not protecting me from the heat, just the sun, and the sand is adding insult to injury.
I was dead tired when I got to the intersection (I ran into a mom and her daughter exploring the area at that point). I had decided for this hike to add Gatorade to my water. When Gatorade gets warm ……….. it takes horrible, so I refused to keep drinking it. In Wirepass the sand was deep and each step was a mess. And that is when it hit me ………. I started getting a tingling sensation on the tips of the fingers of BOTH of my hands, a ‘sure’ sign of a heart attack in my already tired and stupid brain. It would last one minute, go away and then come back (so that would freak the shit out of me). I was really afraid that I was going to get a heart attack and die. Wirepass’ last mile is on a wash, no canyon and full 120 degree sun. That was the longest mile of my life; stopping to rest at whatever shade I could find and then slog on that heavy sand.
So, I made it to the car and didn’t die, but I learned lots of lessons (that I had to re-learn on a another horrible June hike few miles down the road in South Coyote buttes 3 years later):
i was of the first people at Logan Pass, I always want to start my hikes early. On this hike, I was afraid to be so early and have the odds to run into a bear increase, so once I was ready to start hiking I stayed in my car and waited for groups of people to go in front of me. Two groups fit the profile, a couple and another group of three guys. Once I left the car, the group of three stopped just before the start of the trail and I had no choice but to pass them. It was now me behind the couple. Within half a mile, even with some effort to slow down, I passed them. Now I was in front (later in the day I would run into the real first group on the trail, about 4 miles ahead at this point). I have decided to clip my bear spray onto my backpack with one of those faux climbing gear clips. I would have to reach back or, the intended idea, drop the backpack and unclip the canister ….. thinking that I would have plenty of time if I ran into a bear, which in my mind would be seeing a bear at a distance. Well ……………….
About 2 miles into the trail, maybe less, I was approaching a corner and at this point I was relying on the noise that the couple behind me was making. They were like 50 yards behind me at this point. I can’t definitely say who saw the bear first, because to this day I think I heard the couple behind me yell “bear” before I saw the bear. What I did see was a bear (who the earlier group told me was a grizzly) walking towards me, using the trail. I saw a light colored region of hair on his chest on the shape of a V, like a V neck sweater. I immediately reached for unclip the bear spray canister and ……………. I couldn’t unclip it. The bear was coming towards me at a brisk pace, not menacing at all, and I didn’t want to take my eyes off him, so I didn’t have time to drop the backpack and attempt to unclip the canister. Mind you, all of this took in total of 10-20 seconds, which went in slow motion, giving me the time to think in slow motion too.
At this point the group of three was reaching the couple, which were still yelling “bear”, which I never did. At this point, the bear insisting that it had the right of way on the trail, I gave up on reaching for the bear canister and started to say “hey! Hey!” to the bear, to no effect. At a distance of 20 yards (that is how close it got), I raised my hands all the way up and made myself big, you would think I was Gandalf stopping that demon at the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie. I think I may have taken a step forward and yelled “stop” at him. I can’t be sure, the adrenaline was fully flowing at this point. The bear NEVER stopped his pace moving forward, so what gave ? Well, at 15 yards with me raising my arms and standing my ground, the bear moved to the high ground off the trail. At this point, it would be important to explain that part of the trail is carved on the slope of the mountain and I would say that it is like a 30 degree incline ………… therefore I could not leave the trail or give the bear right of way. Enough of an incline that if you walked off the trail you would definitely would start rolling and eventually break your leg against a tree on the down slope. Back to business, the bear walked up the trail, like 20 feet from me. At this point I turned to the couple and told them that the bear left the trail and pointed to them where he was. Well, once the obstacle (me) was bypassed, the bear came back to the trail and the adventure started for the couple and the three guys. I heard “bear hey hey bear” and I started back on the trail to see what happened.
Well, the bear saw that many people and left the trail for good.
Remember the first people that I mentioned were on the trail for a couple of miles ahead of me ? I reached them eventually and they asked if I saw the grizzly eating berries (that is how I know it was definitely a grizzly). This bear was using the trail for at least 2 miles. Past the encounter I saw his footprints all over the trail, but never occurred to me to take pictures.
Now, for the perspective of the group behind me. At one point, when the trail slips to Granite Park Chalet and up the Grinnel Glacier Viewpoint, I was resting before going up the trail to the viewpoint. The group of three guys reached me and the first thing that one of them told me is to ask me if I was ok. It didn’t dawn on me why they would ask, but then I did the math …………. The bear was about 15-20 yards from me at the closest point before he left the trail, but the trailing group was like 50 yards away from me. From their perspective, those 15-20 yards were something like 5 yards. I would assume at one point they would have thought that the bear was literally on top of me (which in my mind he was) and would look very scary from their point of view.
Yes, now I have my bear canister clipped to the side of my pants. I don’t need to unclip it to actually deploy it. And I hike more confident that I will not act in a panic when I see a bear. It’s all in well when you plan what you will do and how you will not panic and not run, but when the actual event takes place, will you ? Well, I did, I was calm (at some point annoyed that the bear was not leaving the trail) and did what I think was the proper thing to do, stand my ground in an area where I definitely had NO other way to leave the trail. Ok, except my stupid effort that failed to unclip the bear spray. I wonder if I unclipped it in time, would I have used it ? Well, the peaceful way that the bear and me parted company, I was happy I didn’t have to.