Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Hiking to Ribbon Falls on the North Kaibab Trail

My first hike in the Grand Canyon was without a doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Some may scoff at the idea, but at the time I was weak in body and mind. The hike pushed me to my physical limit and all along I had to live with the humiliation of my German friend walking along without even a change of breath. I had run-ins with lizards, mice, and almost stepped on a rattlesnake. I was pushed to the edge of exhaustion. Yet despite all of that, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Just before the hike, I was volunteering with a conservation group in Arizona. For 8 days we worked a long project maintaining one of the Grand Canyon’s main trails: the South Kaibab. We’d wake at the crack of dawn, hike down the canyon for a mile or so, then we’d set to work building steps, digging holes then filling them in with gravel. It was hard, sweaty work and the middle of summer. The heat often hit 43C (110F) in the afternoon and our pace would get slower as our brows got sweatier.

Towards the end of the project, I decided that I may not ever find myself back at the Grand Canyon. If I wanted to go on a hike it was now or never. I mentioned to a few of the other volunteers that I may be going for a hike and I got that uncomfortable feeling that I should see if anybody wanted to join me. Secretly I wanted to go alone to enjoy some peace and hoped nobody would want to come with me.

I made my invitation while I sat in the bus with the other volunteers. “Soooo, I’m probably going to go on a hike after the project is done if anybody wants to join me.” I tried my hardest to make it sound as unappealing as possible.

Thankfully, I was met by silence as the other volunteers uncomfortably looked around. I knew what was probably going through their heads. “Oh god, this English guy with the unusual accent wants us to go on a hike with him?! Hell no!” But that was fine, that’s what I wanted. I almost felt like I’d gotten away with it when a stark German accent popped up from the back of the bus, “I vill go!”

I peered back to see who had spoken and Mirko, a tough German volunteer smiled back at me.

Now for the purposes of reality, I’m going to have to admit that Mirko – although German – had impeccable English. He’d spent time in high school living in Texas as an exchange student. He was more clearly understood by the volunteers than I was. He didn’t sound like a stereotypical German, in fact he didn’t even say, “I vill go!” he said, “I will go!” Pronouncing each syllable perfectly.

Every German I have ever met has been nigh on perfect in every way, maybe I’ve just got a low opinion of myself (and my fellow Englanders) or maybe I’ve just managed to meet the best Germans in the world. But whenever I’ve met a German I’ve immediately realised what an inferior little man I am.

Beside Mirko, I looked like a starved orphan. I’ve always been puny, but next to him I looked insignificant. He was taller than I was, had wider shoulders, and even had defined pecks! The only pecks I’d ever known were the ones on my cheek from aunts.

I looked over at him in the van, “Are you sure you want to go on a hike?” “Yar.” “Really? Because you know, it’ll be really hot and there might be snakes and-” “Yar, I would love to hike.” I collapsed into my seat, defeated.

That’s how I found myself trailing behind a strong German guy in the Grand Canyon a few days later. Our plan was simple. We’d hike down to the bottom of the canyon in an afternoon and spend a night at the bottom. We’d then split the hike back up over two days, giving us plenty of time and energy to enjoy ourselves.

In terms of mileage the hike would be easy. The maximum we’d hike was 7 miles and that would be down. The other days would consist of under 5 miles upwards on a low gradient trail.

Planned Itinerary
Day 1: Hike 7 miles down the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch. Camp for the night.

Day 2: Hike 5 miles up the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens Campground. Camp for the night.

Day 3: Hike another 4.8 miles up the Bright Angel Trail to end our hike at the rim of the canyon.

Still, heading down to the bottom was no easy feat. It was so hot outside that you could cook an egg on the rocks. To make matters worse I had all the wrong kit for hiking. My bag weighed a ton and barely had anything in it. I sweated my way down on the heels of Mirko. Since we decided to take the shortest route, this also meant we were taking the steepest. Soon enough my knees started to hurt from constantly going down steps.

After a few hours we made it to the campground, heading over the Colorado River. The river moves so quickly that it would mean certain death to fall in. I’ve been told that the best place to go to the bathroom in the Grand Canyon is the river. It moves so quickly that your pee can’t really do any environmental damage and after a few days it’d be dispersed into the sea. Still, fearing that I’d fall in, I opted to use the toilets instead.

We sat ourselves down in a creek to cool off before eating a tin of chili for dinner. To entertain ourselves we talked about our countries and homes. Mirko told me what it was like to grow up in Germany and I quickly learnt that he had a great, dry sense of humour.

Soon it was time for sleep. We had no tent or sleeping bags, we didn’t want to carry the weight and it was far too hot for either of them. Apparently it’s so hot at the bottom of the canyon that rain drops can’t make it to the bottom, they simply evaporate in the heat before they get that far. We opted to just sleep on the ground on our mats.

After a few minutes in the dark we started to hear the sound of tiny feet shuffling through the dirt. Flicking on our lamps we saw a bunch of tiny mice suddenly sprinting into the bushes. They were congregating around a metal box where we’d secured our food, trying to scratch their way inside.

Neither of us particularly liked the idea of mice running over us, so we decided to sleep on the picnic table. Unfortunately only one of us could fit on it, so we made an agreement that Mirko would sleep on the table for the first night and I would get the pleasure of a hard table on the second.

Soon enough Mirko was snoring away as I lay wide awake, staring up at the sky. The sky turned from purple to a dark black, every piece of sunlight seeping away. I would close my eyes and every time I would reopen them a hundred more stars would have appeared above me.

I was awed by the sky. Without any light pollution it looked like a black blanket above me sprinkled with sand. When living at home I could barely see any stars due to the city lights. It wasn’t until that moment that I truly understood how large the universe is. There were so many stars above that it would be impossible for me to count them. A faint light cloud streaked across the sky and I slowly fell asleep staring at the Milky Way.

We awoke naturally with the first light of the day and ate a breakfast of trail bars and jerky. With the whole day ahead of us it seemed like we had almost too much time to do our hike, so we looked at our map to see what else was possible.

On the map we noticed a waterfall – named Ribbon Falls – 5.5 miles away. Eleven miles there and back. It seemed like it was much too far to me. The 7 mile hike the day before had been the longest of my life, and I wasn’t sure I could handle 11 miles to the waterfall and back, then another 6 miles or so to the next campground. I should have listened to the doubt in my mind, but it was drowned out by a louder voice: pride.

Mirko was fitter than me in every way and I didn’t know if I could continue to live with being the weak English man, so I convinced myself that I could do it easily. The hike to the waterfall was all along level ground, so it wouldn’t be that hard! Plus we had plenty of time to go there and back!

Actual Itinerary
Day 1: Hike 7 miles down the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch. Camp for the night.

Day 2: Hike 5.5 miles to Ribbon Falls and 5.5 miles back. Then hike 5 miles up Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens Campground. Camp for the night.

Day 3: Hike another 4.8 miles up the Bright Angel Trail to end our hike at the rim of the canyon.

We set off from our campground with a brisk pace and started to make great time. Carrying only the essentials with us, a small bottle of water and some snacks made it so easy in comparison to the day before. As the sun got higher in the sky we would use the stream running beside the trail to wet our hair and keep ourselves cool.

Quicker than expected we made our way to the waterfall, which took on a peculiar appearance. Water fell from a crack in the cliff above, falling into a large pool a the top of a giant circular rock. The rock was covered in moss and at the bottom was a small cave that you could crawl into.

We climbed to the top of the rock and stood underneath the waterfall as the water cascaded down on us, the most refreshing feeling, as the droplets hit my head massaging it. We relaxed in the sun for a time until we realised we should probably leave.

Going back was harder. After napping a little I was sleepy and my legs were starting to tire. Even though the trail was flat it felt as though we were going uphill. My large leather work boots seemed to be getting heavier and the brisk pace we originally set was now replaced with a slow meander.

Once we were back to our campsite, the sun had started to get low in the sky. The bottom of the canyon was completely shrouded in shadow, the temperature cool. My legs were aching and my energy low, but after 16 miles we were only just getting started. We still need to hike up the canyon for 4 and a half miles to the next campground. I dreaded the task and we sat down, eating a snack to regain some strength.

If it wasn’t for Mirko, I would have sat there for the rest of the day. Almost immediately though he was on his feet, having munched down an energy bar in three bites. “Let’s go,” he ordered. I groaned, slowly rising. By the time I had gained my balance Mirko’s pack was on, and he was stomping quickly from the campsite. I hurried to put my own pack on and followed him.

He walked at the same speed I usually jogged and I found myself skipping forward from time to time to keep up with him. It was fine for twenty minutes or so, then the trail started to climb. My pace slowed until I was almost walking backwards. I would take two steps and stop for a breather.

The afternoon was turning into evening and we were still miles away from the camp. The more time that went on, the more of the canyon filled with shadow until the sun was completely gone only touching the tips of the rim miles above me. The sky was still a wonderful color of blue, but I barely even noticed it, all I could focus on was the exhaustion.

Two steps forward, stop. Two steps forward, stop.

I looked in front of me and I could see Mirko far in the distance, watching. Whenever I was about to catch up to him he would continue. I seemed to spend an eternity trying to catch him and never getting there. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and I collapsed on a rock to eat another trail bar.

Mirko came back to see me. “Almost there!” he said. I grimaced, “You’ve been saying that for two bloody hours.” I wanted to cry and give up, but to do so would mean death, or worse, humiliation.

Every part of my body seemed to hurt. My legs from the walking, my shoulders and back from the heavy pack. Worst was the complete feeling of fatigue, I felt like a balloon with a hole in it. I was completely deflated and with each step I took it was like I was dragging my body.

My steps turned into shuffles. I scraped along like a zombie trying to slowly catch the German in front of me. His fatigue never wavered, he stomped along without a care. At one point I caught him and with encouragement he spoke an oft-used hiking phrase to me, “Pain is only weakness exiting the body.”

I chewed those words over in my head as I stomped along. Was he trying to say I’m weak? I guess I am. Just a stupid puny weakling. Maybe I should quit? Just lie down and die here?

It wasn’t until later that I went back to the quote and realised the true meaning. Pain means you’re getting stronger. A few weeks later I did the same hike again and it was a breeze, this time I was the one waiting for another hiker who found it hard to handle.

At that time though, the quote just made me angry. Good! That anger kept me going. Finally, a life time later I saw a sign for the campground and knew we were almost there. It was almost dark, but we’d made it. I caught up to Mirko and we made our way into the site.

Suddenly, Mirko stopped in front of me and I barged right into him. “What are you doing?” I growled feeling grumpy. Mirko whispered one word, “Snake.”

Looking over his shoulder, only a few feet in front of us was a large rattle-snake curled up on the trail. We backed up slowly and watched as the snake slithered off into a bush. We continued on, only to find that we were at the campground. There was only one campsite left and it was beside that very bush. I was so exhausted that I didn’t care. I took out my mat and laid it on the picnic table, collapsing into a sleep.

The next morning when I woke, I still felt tired. Mirko looked exactly how I felt. When I asked him what was wrong he looked at me with a blank expression, “I barely slept. There were mice running all around me and I was scared the snake would come!”

We made our way out of the canyon. A constant climb from the campground. I found myself pausing for a rest every 10 minutes, the muscles in my legs seemed to have stopped working. Still, I shuffled on-wards as it was the only thing I could do. I kept telling myself that each step was taking me closer to the end and that it would all be over soon.

Hours later, I finished, my poor legs taking me up the final crest onto the rim. I found Mirko sitting on a bench looking out into the canyon. We sat beside each other for a moment in silence, staring at the view. It was the first time that I had really stopped to look.

Part of me felt relieved to have survived, but another part of me felt pride. I’d wanted to give in, but I hadn’t. I’d done it. I’d defeated the canyon. Looking down into it I realised it was more than a canyon now, it was an accomplishment. Maybe Mirko didn’t feel the same, for him it was probably just like any other day. I was elated though and I was glad Mirko was there. Without him and his support I would have quit. I wouldn’t have survived without him.

In the next few weeks, I worked with Mirko a lot on other projects and we became great friends. As tends to happen when traveling, we established a friendship quickly and got to know each other more than we would have known a friend back home.

Experiencing the world with other people and creating memories together is one of my favourite things about travel. Forging instant connections with others, having fun and overcoming challenges together.

As tends to happen, these friendships often peter out. You go home, lose touch. You promise them you’ll email and for a time you do, but slowly life takes over again. That’s how it was with Mirko. Soon he just became another name in my Facebook friends.

Years later, while I was living in Vancouver, I was taking a boat with Jamie after a hike. In one of those coincidences that seems a lot like fate, I looked across the room and there was Mirko, standing with some friends.

I watched him for a few moments, remembering that summer we had both spent in Arizona. I never went over to him, I never said hello.

I thought it would be strange after all that time, awkward. To have had such a strong bond and friendship with someone and to let it slip away. I didn’t want to spoil those perfect memories in my head. It was better with nothing said.

What’s your most memorable hike and where did it happen?

Leave a Reply