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/horses...read 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!
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 knee...no 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 comes...to 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.
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.