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Heavenly descent

Sun., Dec. 12, 2004

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. – Three miles and halfway into our hike, we stopped for lunch and watched as the winter wind drove cloud shadows across the far walls of the Grand Canyon – an interplay of light and texture that lingered with us even on the grueling return trip back up the trail.

Just 20 minutes later, my boyfriend and I were cursing those same clouds as they dumped hard, kernelly snow on us for a few brief, yet miserable, uphill minutes.

But the clouds blew away as quickly as they blew in, and as one hiker we encountered put it, the “gods of up” returned and stayed with us.

The snow was the only low point on a magical six-mile winter hike into the canyon, a five-hour trek that left our calves sore for days, but also left us with a powerful – and more lasting – feeling of accomplishment.

A winter hike into the Grand Canyon, without the summer crowds and the searing desert heat, became our favorite part of a 10-day trip that took us from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Ariz., and the otherworldly desert of Southern California.

We started in Las Vegas in our rental SUV and made our way over the Hoover Dam east into Arizona. We spent part of the day driving on historic remnants of Route 66, then rolled into Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim just after sunset and checked into the historic El Tovar Hotel.

Scenic as it is, the drive through Arizona’s high desert does nothing to prepare you for your first view of the pink and ocher-washed vistas. Nothing – not the best landscape photography or an IMAX film – can match the physical punch of your first multidimensional view of the Grand Canyon.

But it’s only when you descend into the canyon that you truly experience its mystery and become a participant in its timelessness, not just an observer.

Our hike began with a stop at the visitor center to check weather conditions and to find out which trail would be best for a day hike. The rangers suggested the South Kaibab Trail, one of the steepest trails, partly because it follows an exposed ridge, not the canyon walls.

Although the below-freezing night temperatures made the top of the trail icy, the ranger assured us we wouldn’t need crampons (sharp attachable cleats that grip the ice).

We stopped at the General Store for water bottles, sandwiches and a few sweets. The Park Service’s own guide for winter hiking carried an admonition we took seriously as we stuffed our backpacks: “This is not a time to diet.”

We weren’t fully prepared for the chilly temperatures, which never got above 47 degrees during our hike. We purchased gloves and a hat at the store in the El Tovar, plus some hiking socks. We dressed in layers of long underwear and sweats, topped off with T-shirts, sweat shirts and fleece pullovers.

Although it was only 10:30 a.m., we encountered people on their return trips, many in just T-shirts. We thought it was odd, considering how cold we were, but four hours later when we were gasping for breath on the final leg of our trip, we were also stripped to our T-shirts.

The first few hundred feet of the trail we concentrated on our footing as we gingerly stepped over snow and ice. It wasn’t until we were down the first few switchbacks that we were comfortable enough on our feet to appreciate what we were seeing.

That’s when we reached Ooh-Aah point, where the trail opens to a wide view of the canyon’s interior undulations, down to the river and then back up to the North Rim.

Despite the vastness of the view, I was most startled by how tactile the canyon is. From above, it’s mostly color, shadow and shape. But inside, you see geologic strata. You walk over crushed rocks and crumbled boulders broken down by eons of erosion. You see up close the scrubby desert juniper and pines, struggling to survive in the hostile environment.

The top of the canyon was sprinkled with snow, which disappeared as we entered the lower, warmer regions. Nearly every step in the trail offered a new vista of ancient inner canyons and mesas. Every breath was a deep lung full of cold, invigorating winter air.

Ravens, the most visible and show-offy residents of the canyon, played in the updrafts, circling in the wind currents above us.

Halfway down, a mechanical buzzing sound cut through the quiet of the trail. The noise was so out of context that we couldn’t place it until we saw its source: a chain saw and a jackhammer. Crews were maintaining the trail by cutting up logs for steps and breaking rocks for the path.

Although the trail maintenance meant we had to pick our way through boulders, it also meant the paths were closed to tourists’ mule trains. Mule trains were still trekking up and down loaded with supplies for Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, but they didn’t include any tourists. We saw only one supply mule train during the trip and encountered only about a dozen groups of other hikers.

Summer visitors have a much different experience. During a summer hike, hikers and mules crowd the trail, leaving steaming dung piles and rank urine puddles.

Some 651,141 visitors crowded into the park in July 2003; most arrive at the South Rim of the park, which is more accessible to major roads. That number dropped to 202,068 visitors last December, when winter weather closes the North Rim off to visitors.

It took us about two hours to arrive at our destination, Skeleton Point – the point of no return for day hikers. Only a small sign marks the point, which is the first view of the Colorado River from the South Kaibab trail.

We were surprised at just how close we were to the river, how wide it seemed and how close the North Rim seemed. But what struck us the most were the shadows from the clouds – white, fluffy snow clouds seemingly within our reach. As they moved swiftly across the sky, their shadows deepened the rusty reds and salmon pinks of the rock formations, creating an inspiring light show we could have watched for hours.

We could also see the rooftops of Phantom Ranch, the overnight guest ranch on the canyon floor. We learned there was a special Christmas Day dinner for overnight guests. At that point, we regretted that we had to leave the next day instead of spending the night in the canyon.

The rangers warn you that for every hour you hike down, it takes two to come back. We spent a quiet half-hour eating lunch at Skeleton Point, the return trip pressing on us. But we relaxed as much as we could, propped up against rocks, watching the clouds and the ravens and enjoying some rest before our 2,040-foot climb back up the canyon.

Although the return hike was a grueling, breathless slog uphill, we kept up a good pace and made it back in less than three hours.

Our only regret was that we didn’t hike the trail all the way to the river and back. Rangers recommend against doing it in one day. And we didn’t have time to hike down, spend the night in Phantom Ranch and then return the next day.

Still, we thought about doing the full hike in one day – especially after a silver-haired hiker we met on her way up told us she did it routinely. Unlike us, though, she wore sturdy hiking boots, grasped sophisticated walking sticks in her hands and carried a Camelback water system on her back.

“People think it’s Disneyland,” she told us. “It’s not. It’s wilderness.”

For sporadic adventurers like us, it was tempting to tackle the full hike – if only for bragging rights. But by the time we reached the top, we were feeling the full impact of the half hike. The trip down, quietly and without announcement, works your calves and your knees; the ascent tests your quads and your endurance.

Content with our accomplishment, we celebrated with a few Fat Tire beers in front of the roaring fireplace in the El Tovar lobby. (The Colorado microbrew is so beloved in my family that it was served at my cousin’s wedding in Montana two years ago.)

After a good night’s sleep, I rose early, in time to watch the sun rise over the canyon just outside the front door of El Tovar and the opportunity to capture more photos.

Then, I joined my boyfriend for breakfast in the El Tovar dining room, where we lucked out on a table with a view of the canyon. Coming in from the cold air, I was ready for a big breakfast and some hot chocolate.

Our waiter brought cups with whipped cream, sprinkled with chocolate chips. Then he poured the steaming cocoa over the top. The whipped-cream poof popped to the top; the chips stayed at the bottom in a warm, gooey chocolate treat. It was a perfect ending to our visit.


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