20th April 2016
1°C and the cool air chilled our fingers, even with gloves on, as we lit the stove for a warming cup of tea. It was 4:30am and we were at Mather campground packing our gear away for the track ahead. It had been a cool night with only our summer sleeping bags. We just kept warm with thermals, thermal pile trousers, merinos and a puffer jacket, but we had been told it would be a little warmer at the bottom. We were walking from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up the Bright Angel trail over a leisurely three days. We caught the 6am shuttle to the Kaibab trailhead. It was 6:45am as we set off; the sun had already been up nearly an hour as we steeply descended over the rim admiring the red vista that makes up the Grand Canyon. As we descended, different red rock forms came into view. After an hour we reached Cedar Ridge and a loo stop. While in the loo, squirrels were checking out my pack. According to the park ranger, squirrels and ravens were the worst pests in the park. The squirrels don’t know the difference between the museli bar you are eating and your fingers and their bites are painful, plus they carry fleas (plague) and rabies. Ravens love plastic bags whether they contain food or cameras and the warning posters of their effect on an unattended campsite are an excellent deterrent.
It was 9am and the sun was beating down. The trip down the Kaibab Track offers spectacular views but no shade and the sun was getting hot and relentless. Past Skeleton Point and 9:30am, time for lunch in the shade. It had been a long time since breakfast. We arrived at Tip Off at 10:10am and crossed Black Bridge across the Colorado River at 11:45am. It had taken us 5hrs for the 11.5km, 1457m drop from the South Rim to the Colorado River, well within the 4 – 6hr recommended time. We hadn’t done an overnight trip with a tent for some time, and never while carrying the recommended three litres of water, although we had drunk only a fraction of that amount. Climbing up out might be a different story! We had been told by the Park Ranger that the seasonal water would not be available because there was still a fear of frosts that would freeze the pipes. We found the campsite that afforded the most shade from the beating sun; it was over 30°C in the shade. We packed all our food in the metal storage boxes to protect it from squirrels and ravens and lay down exhausted. Talking to locals, they say it takes two weeks to get accustomed to the heat and we had left NZ less than a week earlier. After a while we walked to Phantom Range for a cup of iced cold water; one can stay here in a dormitory for US$50, plus a steak meal for a little more. We chatted to a young American couple from Colorado who had travelled in NZ; they thought Kiwis were joking when they said you could drink from mountain streams. The golden rule in the US is purify all your water. It was time to cook our dinner. The park warden came around to check our back country passes and talked about the native fish in the river. Then at 7:30pm we collapsed into our pits – it had been an exhausting day. We had met a runner the previous day who had gone from the South Kaibab trailhead to the Bright Angel campsite up to the North Rim back down to the campsite and up the Bright Angel track back to the South Rim - 3200m of ascents and 3100m of descents – 76km in 13hrs - and we were exhausted!
Next morning we awoke at 4:30am and were away by 5:45am. The air was still and cool as we crossed the Colorado River and walked downstream along the true left for 40 minutes. The trail then started climbing up Pipe Creek. The area was sprinkled with towering sentry agave, a choice meal for many of the introduced moose in the park, but the plants only flower after 15 to 25 years and then die. The walk up was only 400m, and being in a gorge in shade at this time of day, it was an easy walk to Indian Gardens where we arrived just before 9am. Along the way mule deer were browsing. We were feeling good as we set up our tent with plenty of choice, being the first to arrive. The day was still young so we walked out to Plateau Point, a 5km round trip with an assortment of prickly pear cacti in flower in a variety of colours - red, purples and yellows - and lizards darting across the sand. Plateau Point gives spectacular views overlooking the Colorado River. So back to camp by 11:30am and some lunch and R&R. Each individual campsite had its own shaded roof over a BBQ table. That night the wardens and campers had a group discussion on endangered species and what it meant, so a bit of NZ biodiversity came into the discussion.
It was another 4:30am rising and away by 5:30am. The sun had just got up and again the air was cool and very pleasant at this time for tramping. It was just a 933m ascent today. We stopped at the 3mile resthouse for a bite to eat and admire the view. There are notices along the way warning walkers of the perils of heat exhaustion – there is a Search & Rescue callout every three days, mainly for heat exhaustion, although one is still ongoing for a missing girl. Now we had a bit of a climb through the red rock face and up Jacob’s Ladder and the Devil’s Corkscrew. The sun was beating on the track now but we were making good time as we climbed through different strata of rock and into the ponderosa pine level before reaching the South Rim by 9am. So now it was time for a shower and to reflect on a very pleasant trip to the valley floor and back, even if the first day’s heat was a bit of a shock to the system.
- Party members
- Peter (scribe) Smith & Trish Gardiner-Smith