First-time hikers tackle Grand Canyon trek and live to tell the tale

"You're crazy."

"You're going to die."

These were just a few of the kind words of wisdom I received from friends and co-workers who learned my brother Alan and I were hiking Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

In July.

We skydived out of a plane last year together, so this was obviously the next adventure, right?

And what did they know? Neither of us had ever actually hiked anywhere other than to the fridge for a cold beverage, but we were determined to make it, even during the hottest month of the summer.

PG map: Grand Canyon
(Click image for larger version)

We chose to hike down from the South Rim on Bright Angel Trail -- described in a Google search as one of "America's most dangerous hikes." It follows nearly 91/2 miles of switchbacks that winds slowly down to the bottom of the canyon. We planned to stay at Bright Angel Campground near the Colorado River for two nights and then head back up.

The National Park Service tempers the trail's description a bit. Bright Angel is "without question the safest trail in Grand Canyon National Park" because it's well-maintained, has regular drinking water, covered rest houses and a ranger station at the trail's halfway point, according to its website.

Still the park service labels it as "steep" and cautions it can be tricky because it is shared by mules and hikers alike. Because the trail is so well-maintained, it can look deceivingly easy and often captures the fancy of spur-of-the moment but unprepared hikers. Even young children may be seen hiking on the first half mile of the trail. Initially, it's easy to climb down; climbing back up is much harder. Late last month, a 72-year-old man collapsed and died on the trail, 21/2 miles below the rim.

Hiking down

We began our journey at 8 a.m. July 30 with plenty of water and 35-pound backpacks that carried tents, sleeping bags, other supplies and some tasty (really) freeze-dried food. We had "trained" by walking around North Park about 10 times, but that didn't have the steep inclines of the canyons. We also both put on our REI packs for the second time ever when we started out. The first was when we tried them on in the store.

We lucked out, however, with unseasonably cool, 72-degree weather, which normally varies from around 90 degrees at the top of the canyon to 120 degrees at the bottom. A seasoned hiker would travel during early spring or fall for a guarantee of nice temperatures. In our wisdom (or lack of), we chose midsummer.

According to the National Park Service, hikers can sweat one-half to 1 quart of fluid for every hour they walk in the heat. Sun temperatures are 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than posted shade temperatures. And, rangers warn, the farther into the canyon you go the hotter it gets.

Yet as you traverse the rough, rocky terrain, wildlife is abundant along the trail. There were deer, lizards and squirrels, many quite tame to hikers (don't tell my boss I nearly lost my iPhone while attempting to photograph a squirrel). The view was breathtaking at every turn, but we only saw it in glimpses so we could focus strictly on every step. I'm really not scared of heights, but I found myself hugging the canyon wall several times when the trail narrowed to only a few feet.

During the first hour, our thoughts weren't far from the first stop. It's only a mile and half down, but promised drinking water and a much-needed breather. The trail offers three rest stops, with the second coming at 3 miles and the third at the 5-mile marker known as Indian Gardens.

Indian Gardens offers camping facilities, a picnic area and water. In addition, as a side trip, you can venture out to Plateau Point, a 3-mile round trip that is well worth the extra leg work. We were able to stow our backpacks at the rest area and make the side trip in just about an hour to see what I believed were the best views of the Grand Canyon, overlooking the Colorado River.

We met many prepared and lots of not-so-prepared hikers on our journey. We were warned -- and warned! -- not to hike or try to hike the trail from top to bottom and back in one day, but we saw several people do it. We met three guys from Austria who decided at the last minute to take the hike -- with a $30 Kmart tent and not much more than Budweiser and vodka as supplies. But they survived.

It took us nearly six hours to reach the bottom of the canyon, and we felt surprisingly good. We had completed the first part of our journey but still wondered what it would be like to climb back up.

We enjoyed Bright Angel Campground, located next to Phantom Ranch, which offers cabins for rent that must be reserved well in advance.

Phantom Ranch also offers amazing meals (in advance, we ordered a steak dinner for $40) and beer at the Cantina. Yes, cold, wonderful beer, for $5.25. Almost all items offered are delivered by mule. On our free day at the campground, we cooled off in the Bright Angel Creek and passed time just like the days of old, let's say 1990. In other words, no cell phone service once we passed Plateau Point, nearly a 4-mile walk above us. What did people do before Words With Friends?

Each night I was haunted by dreams of losing my footing on the bright orange rocks and plunging back to the bottom of the canyon. Fortunately, I woke up each time before I landed.

The return

We awoke at 5 a.m. to pack, realizing that "monsoon season," which begins in the canyon in late July, means, well, it rains a lot. While the rain cooled us off and made for nice sleeping weather, we had to pack up our gear wet, knowing that we were adding even more weight to lug back up the canyon.

The hike up is grueling, taking its toll at each switchback. It was our calves that hurt the worst, burning during the steepest inclines. To add to the challenge, we heard a water line had burst -- a common occurrence in the canyon -- and not to expect water at our first rest area. We lucked out, however, to find the park service had made the repairs by the time we reached it. We were impressed with the rangers who encouraged us at every turn.

After passing the 5-mile marker at Indian Gardens, word again came down that the trail may be closed for at least an hour. A spooked mule went off the trail and might have to be euthanized. As we neared 11/2 miles from the canyon's rim, we came upon around 30 hikers stopped for the wayward mule. As sad as it was, it made for a nice excuse to pull off our packs and relax.

After we were allowed to pass, a gunshot echoed throughout the canyon.

The last stretch was brutal with the afternoon sun beating down on us. Our backpacks seemed heavier than ever. We soon made friends with each large gray boulder that looked like a good leaning place at nearly every switchback.

As we approached the top, a day-hiker on his way down looked at me -- obviously seeing the look of severe exhaustion on my face. "Well, you can mark this one off the bucket list."


It took us 10 grueling hours to climb back up.

Now, how hard is it to climb Mount Everest?


Matt Freed is a Post-Gazette photographer ( First Published October 21, 2012 4:00 AM

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