Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Grand Canyon "Rim To Rim" Part 2 (Getting There)

We wake up early as the sun rises over the Nevada Desert...earlier than I prefer!  I probably got about 4 hours of sleep, but I figure I can sleep a bit in the car as we drive to the Grand Canyon's South Rim.  Pat grabs some coffee, and we throw our gear into the Toyota Camry rental car and head out.
We will be stopping briefly at the Hoover Dam, prior to making the 4+ hour drive to the Canyon.   It is way too early for me to eat anything so I gulp down some water and it isn't long before we are driving into the Hoover Dam complex.  It is about 6 am at this point and we are the only car/people I see!  We park and take a walk to the Dam, where we look down at the enormous mass of concrete from above....the same look millions of others have and will we stand next to the warnings painted on the cement next to us.

We spend about a half an hour, walking the roadway along the Dam and taking in the bridge that had just begun to be built during my last visit! (2010?)  As the sun crests the distant hills, we feel the obvious heat of the sun and we make our way back to the shelter of our air conditioned car!

 We hit the road, settling in for a long and relatively boring (geographically speaking) drive.  Dennis is driving so Pat and I are free to sleep, but we end up talking about family stuff...inquiries about things one of us may know about, family legends...and general catching up as it has been some time since we were together.
We do the typical fuel stops and grab travel food....Doritos, water, Granola Bars, Oreo Cookies...the usual. It isn't long before we close in on the Grand Canyon.  It is a bit strange because when you get near the entrance of the Grand Canyon, you don't see it.   It is not like a large body of water that you catch a glimpse of as you approach, or a mountain range that rises above ground level...easily seen in the distance.  It shouldn't be surprising since it is a "Canyon", ie...below ground level, but it is interesting in that you just expect to see something!

We wait in line for a bit, pay our fees and find the South Rim Visitors Center and Lodge. We check-in for our Shuttle that will take us to the North Rim and allow us to leave the Rental Car, so we can complete the hike North to South and start back to Vegas.
I walk out to the wall, where again, millions of visitors before me have stood in awe of the Grand view before them.  It is the first look at what we will be traversing and the scale of the hike now becomes more "real".  I hold up my cell phone and take a couple snapshots, hoping to capture some sense of the size/scale of the Grand Canyon.   It is so cliche' and so "beneath me" to photograph such a spectacular view with a mere cell phone camera!   OK, I am of the masses...I have joined the flock of sheeple!
First look at the Grand Canyon from the South Rim (Cell Cam Pic)
I figure that we will be back at the South Rim and I will have ample opportunity to capture some images using the DSLR I brought along for the hike both during the hike, as well as after the hike when we are back at the South Rim, hopefully enjoying a good dinner!
We grab a quick dogs and the like and we are soon boarding our air conditioned, 11 person van/shuttle.  We will be the only passengers, so plenty of room!  I figured I might be able to relax and get some sleep to make up for the general lack of sleep we have all experienced...I figured wrong.
It seems our driver, nice as he was, had aspirations of racing in the Indy 500!  He drove the large and rather cumbersome white van like it was a modern sports car!  Dennis looked back over his shoulder at me more than a couple times as we hurtled uncomfortably close to the edge of the winding asphalt , sometimes just inches from some 100-300 ft drop offs!  It was all I could do to resist the urge to say, "um...we are not in a hurry"!
We drove thru the Navajo lands that border the Grand Canyon and we passed homes and shops along the way.  I think about how sturdy and determined the Navajo people are to thrive in such a rugged and harsh environment.
4 hours later (30 minutes ahead of schedule) we arrive at the North Rim Village.  We thanked our driver (more for not killing us, than getting us there ahead of schedule!) and arranged for him to pick us up at 3:30 am the next morning, to drive us to the trail head some mile or so down the road.
We checked in/got the keys to our cabin for the night, claimed our respective bunks and then went to the nearby snack shop and grabbed some sandwiches for dinner.  

 We found a table on the patio overlooking the North Rim and settled in for a simple dinner as we enjoyed the view!

We were once again looking out over the expansive Canyon, but this time looking across and toward the South Rim, where we had had lunch just 4 hours earlier!  The sun was getting lower in the sky and we watched as the shadows in the Canyon steadily climbed upwards along the tall towering mesas.
It wasn't long before darkness fell and we retired to our cabin for the night. We we had decided to begin our hike at 3:30 am, to get some miles in before the Canyon heated up with the Arizona sunrise. 


Just before we were about to turn the lights out, Dennis is startled by a tiny, fast moving creature darting past him!  We figured it might have been a mouse...but soon discover it is a Chipmunk, likely looking for some free trail-mix or something!  It is amusing, but at the same time, none of us want to be awakened by a critter crawling over us in the middle of the night!
 We decided to secure our packs in the bathroom, as it was without holes in the floor and the door shut tight, unlike the cabin room we were sleeping in.  I also secured my hiking shoes in the bathroom, remembering a few times where a scorpion, spider, or snake had surprised me on some dark mornings in the distant past! (Think Army days)
We all agreed our little friend was welcome and we settled into what were verrrry comfortable and welcome bunks!
I had been dutifully taking ibuprofen for several days and as I dumped several pills into my hand, I dropped a couple on the floor.   I was careful to recover the dropped pills, as I observed our little friend lying comfortably on the couch across from my bunk.  I downed my "too many" pills and stuck my earplugs in to avoid the snoring of my brothers, who had already fallen asleep/begun snoring!
As I lay there thinking, like I always do, (I should be sleeping...ugh!) I couldn't  help but think that 24 hours prior, I had been in Tacoma!  Now here I am, 4 hours from starting the hike into/across, the Grand Canyon. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Grand Canyon "Rim To Rim" Part 1 (From Dream to Reality)

About a year ago, I received a phone call from my youngest brother, Dennis.  Since he lives back home in Michigan and doesn't often call, I never quite know what to expect when it comes to the subject/purpose of the call.

After some "how are things?" chit chat, he asks if i would be interested in hiking the Grand Canyon.  Specifically, a 25 mile hike from one rim of the Canyon, down to the floor of the Canyon, across and back up the other rim...appropriately called, the "Rim To Rim".

I would learn that he has imagined completing this hike for years and had decided to quit thinking about it and simply do it this year.  His plan was to get a reservation at the "Phantom Ranch", that serves as a midway point and an overnight rest stop for the hike, allowing us to use a bunk house so we wouldn't have to hike in any tents or camping gear.  The problem with this, is that it is a VERY exclusive place given its remote location and the limited space it offers to hikers.

The Phantom Ranch is unique enough to require its own Blog post, but I will briefly touch on it.  It is a small group of buildings, set up near the Colorado River and the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  It is completely supplied by mule/ that again...because if it is man made and its there, (or needs to go out) it is accomplished by mule or horses.  The compound has a couple of "male and female only" bunk houses...approximately 20 bunks total,  (10 per bunk house) and a small Canteen which serves as general store, meeting place and dining room.  There are also several cabins within the compound that can be reserved as well.  The bunk houses have running water, a shower, a bathroom and are air conditioned.  There just aren't many bunks to be had, thus...the exclusivity!

I digress...

Dennis tells me that he called in, every day, for God knows how many weeks/months, hoping to simply get a cancellation at the Phantom Ranch because when they come open for reservations at the beginning of the year, they are usually sold out for the hiking season...within a few hours!  Long story short, he said that the last time he called in, he was told that there was a cancellation that had just posted.  He said, "I will take it!" not even initially inquiring as to when it was.

He said that a group had apparently cancelled and he reserved three bunks and three "steak dinners" at the Phantom Ranch, for one night, in late July.  He said he thought it would be a great trip and thought it would be even better if all three of the brothers (myself, Dennis and Pat) could do it together.

The trip would require 4-5 days, as we would fly into Vegas, then drive to the Grand Canyon to do the hike, followed by a return trip to Vegas to fly back home.  We talked for a bit, and I could tell the trip/hike was important to him.  I told him I would give it serious consideration, see about time off and the like, and get back to him in a few days.  In the meantime, he was going to ask Patrick about it.

Now, I have done some hiking, backpacking and road marching in days gone by...some of which were quite difficult/challenging.  Most of the difficult stuff was when I was in my 20's and 30's, and long before my Right knee needed to be replaced!

I had spoken to Dennis' wife about this hike and she confirmed that this was something that Dennis REALLY wanted to do.  She said that he was going to go, whether it was alone or with Patrick and myself!
I talked it over with my wife and a couple days later, I told Dennis I was "in solid".  Not long after, I made the round trip plane reservations that would set my commitment in stone. I didn't have to do much else, as Dennis had made the Hotel reservations in Vegas, the Shuttle reservation at the Grand Canyon and the Car Rental to get us there.  It was just a matter of splitting up costs.

After committing to the trip, I realized that the hike would present a few unique challenges that would combine to make the hike more difficult than the distance alone might suggest.

First, the reservation at the Phantom Ranch was for the 22nd of July.  In Arizona, July is well....HOT!  Not normal hot, Arizona desert 100-110 degrees hot!

Second, elevation.  Our hike would start at the North Rim which is above 8,000 ft, take us down 5,000+ ft and then back up almost another 5,000 ft.  It would present a challenge for us "sea level" dwellers for sure. 

Lastly, at least for me, was the poor condition of my R knee.  I know, I know, everyone has a "bad knee".  I hear it all the time too.  My situation is this:  In 1978...yeah I am old...I suffered a football injury that resulted in a knee surgery that removed all of the cartilage on the inside (medial) half of my right knee.  This is not to be confused with modern, arthroscopic surgery that removes a tiny portion, or trims a small piece of cartilage off and leaves you walking out of the Doctors Office a couple of hours later.  (Had that done last year to my L biggie)

I have had no cartilage between the bony surfaces on the inside half of my knee for almost 40 years.  Short story made shorter, I beat it up pretty bad in the Army with all the running, marching, jumping out of planes and the like and it endured a lot of abuse.  It was always just a matter of time before it would need to be completely replaced.  My Orthopedic Surgeon said it needed to be replaced about 10 years ago.  (then said I was too young and would have to wait?!)

 Looking at the knee from behind

So, I went to my Orthopedic Surgeon and told him what I had planned for July.  He laughed and said, "the good news is, you cant possibly make it worse"!  He recommended I get some Ibuprofen into my system before/during the hike, gave me a Cortisone Injection and said, "Enjoy the hike"!  Thanks Doc.

Sometime later, I learn that my brother Patrick, after some time, has committed to the trip.  In his case, there was concern about his being able to get the time off from his job.  There was also the peer pressure of knowing his "oldest" brother had committed to making the trip!  He almost HAD to go!  On a side note, his L knee is at least as bad as my R knee, but... he is equally stubborn, so Rim To Rim it is!

Ultimately, I think the idea of taking this on as three brothers encouraged each of us to really make an effort to make it work.  It would be the first thing we would undertake together as brothers, since I took them to get fast food while on leave from the Army back in the 80's!

Once committed, I began to consider how best to prepare.  Equipment-wise, I had what I needed...a Geigerrig 700 hydration pack that would also contain spare clothes, a flexible tripod and DSLR, and some "Lara Bars".

Physically?  Well, I knew we would be descending from the North Rim and ascending the South Rim.  This meant a steep downhill for at least 4-5 miles of the first days hike of 14 miles.  What this meant for me was: 
1.  Take a BUNCH of Ibuprofen prior to/during the hike.  (Sorry liver and kidneys..its just a few    days!)
2.  Strengthen my legs, specifically my quads and the structure supporting my knee.
3.  It's gonna hurt.  Steep downhills are hard on knees, healthy or not.

I began a regimen of cycling (stationary/recumbent) on a daily basis.  Not an easy, or pleasant 20 min ride daily...rather a serious, focused program to build muscle/strengthen my legs.  While I was at it, I added a Total Gym workout and stuck with the program for 6 months.  My "hill profiles" got steeper and I got stronger.

I chose cycling as it is the best "bang for the buck", given walking and/or running would tear up my knee.  I chose not to do some hard day hikes at altitude in the Cascade Mountains, just prior to the trip, as I did not want to injure or screw something up and not make the trip.  Laziness played a part too!  The workout regimen worked well.  I improved my strength, put some muscle on my legs and my cardio improved dramatically.

I knew there would be no "training" for/acclimating to, the expected 100-115 degree temperatures.  Just have to "suck it up".  I also figured the loss in elevation might be a blessing on day 1, and a curse on day 2.  Which reminds me...we had to do this hike in 2 days vs the preferred 3 days, because we were only able to get a bunk for one night at the Phantom Ranch.  Many hikers take a "rest day" at the Ranch, prior to heading up the South Rim.

The day board a plane and head to Vegas.  My brother Dennis had booked a show, "Love",  (Think Cirque Show set to Beatles music) for 7:30 that evening.  I would be arriving about noon or so.  Driving to the airport, I get a text from Alaska Airlines.  My flight had been cancelled and I was put on a flight for 9:35 that would get me into Vegas at midnight!  Ridiculous.

Long story short, we drive home and after an angry Sandi calls Alaska Airlines a couple times, I am able to rush to the airport and catch a 5:20 flight, (with about 40 minutes notice) getting me into Vegas just about 7:30.  Dennis is able to swap tickets for a 9:30 show and avoid completely screwing the night up.  My plane takes off from Seattle and it's not long before I look out the window and take the obligatory Mt Rainier photo, from above it's towering summit.

Mt Rainier

The plane ride is uneventful and the landing unusually smooth for Las Vegas!?  I disembark and walk past the slot machines that clutter the Airport, making my way to the cab stand. 

 A short cab ride later and i am at the Mirage and meeting my brothers.  It is a typically stoic reunion, as no one in my family gets excited when it comes to seeing each other...even if it were after 25 years and surviving an Earthquake and the Plague.  God forbid anyone show emotion...That's just us.

We sit down to dinner at a Brazilian Steak House and catch up while enjoying some amazing food!  We decide to get an early start in the morning, so we can run by the Hoover Dam, as Pat has never seen it.  Then it is just a matter of the long drive to the Grand Canyon, so we can make our shuttle check-in before 1:00.  We finish dinner and head to the show.  


 We enjoy a pretty impressive Cirque style show, and are taken back in time as the show chronicles the Beatles and the worlds events, as they move forward from WW2.  Particularly good from my perspective, is the sound system and music...loud, but crystal clear and with perfect mid-range that really highlights the vocals!  It's like John, Paul, George and Ringo are right there singing into a mic! 

"Pre Show" as there are no cams allowed once the show begins

Its about midnight when we make a short drive from the Mirage to the Excalibur Hotel, where we will stay the night.  (We will come back and stay at the Mirage once we complete the hike)  We take in  some of the Vegas Strip along the way!

 I call dibs on the bed that is right next to the A/C, as I like the cold air literally blowing on me as I sleep!  A bit of small talk and its lights out.

Tomorrow will prove to be a long day.