Archive for September, 2009

Down ‘n’ Up the ‘Grand Canyon’ …

Posted on September 10, 2009. Filed under: Personal Stuff |

We first glimpsed the Grand Canyon on Thanks Giving Day, way back in ’97. Then around Christmas in ’05, we paid our respects in chilly winter while on our way back from Wyat Earp’s Tombstone and the barren, rocky  Cochise County – the perfect terrain for the wily Cochise, who equals Geronimo in fame and prowess.

No words can quite describe the phenomenon of the gigantic marvel. Dear Bubble had urged,  on the initial  glimpse itself, that we should make a trip down and wet our feet in the Colorado River. There had been no responce from anyone and I had just smiled. 

Bubble put his idea on the back burner as he dearly wanted to take the handsome Rommel, his long haired German Shep, along but K-Nines are not allowed to go down. So, one way or another the years rolled by.

Well, this year it was Jul and hot –  putting  it mildly. The hottest day of  ’08 had been Jul 8 and we were going down a year later  on Jul 13. They do not recommend hiking at this time of the year but there was a cancellation at the Phantom Ranch, which has a year’s waiting list, and Bubble had jumped to squirm and adjust into this window. Couple trips up Mission and a walk up Mount Diablo was all the conditioning I had but I was ready –  or so I  thought!  I  had not, in my wildest dreams, imagined how hot, sultry and steamy it could get, down amidst those massive,  solid rock walls.

We spent a comfortable night in ‘Vegas  before reaching the Rim on Sunday, where the day temperatures were just below 105 degrees F; and the bottom  is at least 20 degrees warmer!  We had the option to go down the popular,  partially wooded and having some streams,  Bright Angel Trail. Brazenly we opted for the South Kabab, which is without any water or shade  and is much far more rugged. The plus was that it is much more scenic and shorter by some three miles.

There were very few people going down the South Kabab that day. There was a superbly fit physician with his young daughter, who had just graduated and this was the fathers gift. Bit of the supercilious variety, he sized me up as a visitor and first time novice and went on to say that he had read a book which gave statistics on deaths and its causes in the Canyon. When Bubble asked, “So, which is the No 1 killer?”, the guy was left open mouthed.

The guy had earlier done the North Rim to the South Rim in a day – around 24 miles with descent and ascent each of some 5000 ft. And he had planned on doing the return trip next day but as someone from the group fell sick, the plan had to be abandoned. Neither of these two were carrying any thing bar a water bottle and once they reached the trail head, they just  raced down. There were some others but they also had their ideas right and wasted little time,  concentrating on speed to go down as fast as they could – before the midday heat  could get to them. 

I was not really prepared – mentally or physically.  Fortunately Bubble at least had the foresight to ensure that  each of us carried 6 litres of water and liquids – all of which we finished by days end. I had been brought up on stuff like water discipline and it was he who insisted that I always drank up. But we were sorely defecient in the right foodstuff, probably because we had not grasped the heat issue.

On hindsight, I seemed to have had a lackadaisical  approach. Ionly remembered what a tough guy I had been in my twenties when I had led the commando’s to great success. I forgot that I was now in my 70’s, grossly overweight, with vision hassles and stiff joints, not to mention mind games!   Worse I had fasted the day prior and had not even been having the usual supplements.  And to top it all, Bubble, who was in control, treated me, with kid gloves and utmost deference – wholly unwarranted in a goal central venture.

The bus dropped us at the Start of the Trail around half Six that Monday and we wasted valuable time just loitering around. At last, I gingerly took the first step down. I thanked God that Bubble had equipped me with excellent hiking shoes and two climbing sticks, much to my initial chagrin. He also ensured that I carried a very very light pack while he himself carried some 50 pounds, unfortunately of food stuff  not chosen very wisely. 

The Sun had not crested so there was shade till  Cedar Point,  which is rather scenic and well spread out.  Indeed quite a few people hike down, enjoy themselves and climb back. It is a mile and a half  and some thousand feet below the Rim. 

As I said it is a beautiful spot but we spent far too much time  glorying in the scenic splendor – little realizing what lay ahead. However the aggressive squirels thorougly spoilt by people, who wilfully feed them,  gave us little respite. Reluctantly we wrenched ourselves from this spot and returned to the descent, but now under a blazing  Sun.

It forthwith became dull,  dreary, desolate;l and we  plodded  down, down  and down. The views were fabulous. And if there is one place worthy of that famed  “Monarch of all I survey” line, surely this is one such. 

South Kaibob trail going down to Phantom Ranch

South Kaibob trail going down to Phantom Ranch

As I looked at the bleak, awesome suroundings, I felt as if we were going down a gargantuan dungeon, carved out by nature itself, with walls of massive layers of different hued solid rock. A lot of my friends have crossed the Great Divide. I wondered if this was to be my place and time.  I shuddered for Bubble in those circumstances as what could he or anyone do  in this barren vastness where there was no communication as cell phones do not work. I became  doubly cautious as I trudged downward albeit more cautiously. 

We came across a middle aged French couple resting under a scraggy bush. They too seemed to have been cornered by the heat. Incidentally most people we met during our three days in the Canyon, were Europeans from both Eastern and Western Europe. Of  course there were a lot of Americans but strangely we hardly came across any Orientals.

By half eleven, the heat began to get to me real hard.  So after a while,  I remonstrated that we had been advised a number of things among which was the important point that we must not hike between 10 and 4 pm. Now it was half past 11,  and we must find some spot to escape the High Noon. Luckily Bubble agreed and asking me to stand near a scraggy bush, he went ahead to ssee if he could find some shade. 

He was back shortly and we moved to the spot he had seen. It was slightly above the track –  a small ledge with loose shail,  a couple of feet above which hung a huge slab of solid rock. The niche was couple feet high, couple feet deep and about 12 feet or more horizontal. Having made sure it was free of any unfriendly creatures resting in the shade, Bubble helped me onto the ledge and I crawled into the slit. He followed but said he felt claustrophobic and could not sleep. However when I awoke, he too was snoring. We rested  for near two hours after which we pulled ourselves back onto the track – and found the going much tougher as it was more hot; likely due to the reflected heat from the walls of the rocky cavern into which we were descending.

We were having a swig of water when a climber coming up, stopped by and  I offered him a drink. Very reluctantly he accepted. We talked some and he mentioned he was low on water. Bubble forthwith and very strongly insisted that he take the whole bottle as he would need it. Awkwardly he accepted. Truly, what goes around comes around as we could never have imagined the kindness and material help we would receive from a Family at Phantom Ranch that evening and from a Ranger at Indian Garden next day.

Soon there after we came across one American whom we began to call the ‘ Canyon Man’. He was a cheery, oldish chap, maybe a bit weird but very much at home in the Canyon. He was in loose shorts and in that heat was bare headed showing his baldness. He had nothing on above his shorts. And he carried only  a  small pack around his waist.  Standing on the edge above a sheer drop, he was waving his arms cheerfully at a butterfly as if he were conducting an orchestra – and the butterfly seemed to be enjoying itself too.  

I chatted but Bubble forever cautious thought the guy might be a nut. The guy said he was going to cut across the Canyon from Tonto Trail Junction to Indian Garden, on an unmarked trail and enjoy watching the tiny fish in some trickle of a stream. Indeed, a bit of a true weirdo. But a large hearted one as he showed the next day by a small gesture.

The main issue was that the more we descended, the more hot it became.  Hence we were well nigh drained and were suffering from  heat exhaustion. It seemed to be a nevere ending trudge to Tonto Trail Junction.

Canyon Man

Canyon Man with Butterfly

We bade him farewell and resumed our journey. After what seemed endless plodding,  well nigh totally exhaused in that claustrophobic colloseum, we reached what is charitably called the Tonto Trail Jn. We had been so looking  forward to reaching this imagined hamlet but it was a total come down. It can compete in any competiton of  ‘desolate dreariness’ – at least in Summer.

Bubblej said it reminded him of the  ghost town  in  ‘Hombre’, which has Paul Newman in the lead. We spent a pretty horrid hour, first below and then in the Verandah of the stinking Rest Room. This solitary building sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of that vast  emptiness. The stench in the sultry heat was nauseating and prevented any worthwhile rest. And we barely managed to drink in the orange which Bubble had rumaged for in his pack.

This same place in winter, I now think, would be one great open rocky equavalent of a wondrous meadow land – where hikers would be spending many happy hours.

To return. For once we were glad to get back onto the track. From here on after some more drudgery we  were  very fortunate to find a refreshingly  shady and cool patch. It was again beneath an over hanging rock but  on the track itself. It was one of the most welcome spots ever.

To Bubble’s  amazementt, I scrambled down prone and was snoring in seconds as for once there were no squirrels. It was the deepest and most luxurious slumber I have ever had.  Much to my dismay, I seemed to hear, maybe from the other end of a Dark Hole, Bubble softly  urging that it was time we moved on. I debated whether I could spned the night there itseld but understood that it would not be fair to Bubble, who could hardly leave me there.  It was a test of will power just to decide to get up. The urge to stay put was over powering.  So, get up, I barely managed. 

As we resumed  our  downward plod, soon began what they call the ‘switches’ which really  is  ‘zigzagging’ . Before we reached the River, we had one more long halt but it was not so refreshing courtesy the aggressive squrrels.  I did not want to be bitten for fear of rabies. And then finally and at long last, we hit the Canyon bottom with the seemingly sluggish dull green Colorado River. Thankfully the bridge on the River did not  sway and was solid.

Immediately thereafter was a tunnel and I  did not even have the energy to even take a pic of Bubble entering it.  There was an unwelcomne though slight ascent and we seemed to once again to have to go on and on for what seemed a mile. After   much sluggish plodding,  came the Camp  Ground; then followed  the Ranger Station and then the  mule corrals. The  Phantom Ranch just did not seem to emerge. Finally it came as a abit of an anti climax and by which time I was thorougly beat.  I lay down on a bench while dear Bubble checked in. After a wash up, we trudged in for Dinner for which we were just in time – though I hardly had any appetite.

Then followed one of the Happier Experiences of a lifetime. We met some of the most wonderful folk one can imagine. This seemed to make all the exhaustion worth the while.

The Dining Hall was full as we were the last arrivals. There were only two empty seats on opposite sides of one table and we occupied them. Immediately, the chap on my left thrust two full plates of steak stew in front of us. When Bubble said we were vegetarians, they took them back and gave us the vegetable stew and salad. The food was wholesome but the company was way up  – kind, courteous and full of sympathy.

On Bubble’s right was Dave, who was a College  Football Coach and by his side and in front of me, was his very attractive,kind, solititious, \and charming wife who was a Physical Therapist. She seemed to be geniunely concerned at my condition. Then there was her brother, another Dave who was with Google. Opposite them were their parents. Bubble made polite conversation ala Football and Coaches, but they all were more interested in helping me recover and be fit for the next days hike.

They were truly a Great Family and most sympathetic. Dave, the coach,  immediately came out with some version of electrolytes which he said he gave his players when they felt down and out. He even went to his dorm to bring more of the stuff just to show us how well stocked he was so that we would not feel guilty for depriving him.

The geniune kindness and decency of these folks was seen to be believed. They showed how small and insignificant we all are and it was an experience just to associate with such great people. How I wish I had taken their address.

Bubble had mangaged to corner two bottom bunks and kept warning me  to watch my head but I kept banging it on the bunk above. The room was air cooled and exceptionally inviting and restful. The baths were equally clean and welcome. We or rather I was snoring by 8 pm. The ever alert and watchful “Bubble was awake at 1 am and asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom. He took out a pencil torch and  guided me up and down. At half Four, a chap came and announced that B’Fast was at 5am. We were up and ready but again we were the last into the Dining Room.

We again met the Dave Family and they were again enquiring about me. I honestly assured them that their drink had done miracles and I had been ready and rearing on waking. Alas,  I dearly wanted to spend the day at the  Ranch to get my strength back but knew that the heat would not allow any worthwhile recuperation.

There were scrambled eggs and muffins for Breakfast and very welcome they were too. Bubble went to check if there was a cancellation so that we could spend the day at the Ranch. But they said they would know only by around 9am by which time we would have missed the cool early morning start. We decided to cover some distance and maybe try and spend the night at Indian Garden some 5 or 6 miles and 3000ft higher on the lush Bright Angel Trail. We spent sometime in making a call from the only telephone at the Ranch and left a message for the home folk saying we were fine and doing OK.

After some level walking and having crossed the River and the Camp Ground where we watered up, it was nice to be climbing after the previous day’s descending. It was an extremely nice, cool, refreshing, gradual hike till the first rest room. Thereafter it became dull and monotonous and seemed to be never ending. We trudged on and soon came across a long sandy patch which reminded me of the 10000ft high Lahaul and Spiti Valleys which are totally sandy.

As the sun went  higher, I began to feel the heat once again and it immediately became uphill literally and figuratively. I dont think I was  fully recovered from the previous day’s ordeal as I had not had my full rest which I badly needed for body and mind.  I persuaded Bubble that we should try and get a nights rest at Indian Garden before tackling the next 3000ft in 5 miles, which by itself would never have been a big deal.

The monotony added to the fatigue. Again there was little shade till Indian Camp, which we reached a little after mid day. We had covered some six miles and climbed some 2000ft. Here again we came across our ‘Canyon Man’. He saw Bubble and said, “I have seen you somewhere?” Bubble responded, “Butterfly”  and he remembered and was full of sympathy for me. He thrust forward  some salted stuff for me from his meager rations and advised us to avoid the ground nuts we were munching since they were fried. Nice, happy guy who gave and got a lot of joy from the Canyon.

As I said I had resolved to rest for the night here. but we had no sleeping bags or tent or for that matter any real food. So while I slept in the shade on a bench, Bubble went over to an emergency phone to contact a Ranger. He soon came back and said a Ranger was coming down from the Rim and would be with us shortly.

Betsy Arnou was an experienced Ranger and, more importantly,  a very warm individual.  An attractive woman in her 30s, I noted that she was covered head to foot to protect herself from heat as well as dust. She had even covered her face with a bandana and all we could glimpse was her forehead and eyes.

She first spent a while sizing me up ie whether I was a fraud or the geniune article. After first giving a scolding for hiking in such heat, she relented and allowed I was an OK guy. She diagnozed me up as suffering from heat exhaustion which needed rest and food. And she proved generous with both.

She arranged for us to rest in the makeshift first aid room of the Ranger Station. There was a bed with clean sheets for me and a cot for Bubble. Then she arranged some much needed food ie rice and vegetables. She was really overkind. I slept and rested comfortably while Bubble sat outside in the Veranda and was  philosophical. He looked at the Rim and thought that we really seemed t be in a ditch. That night we feasted on noodles and rice and they could compare with a Kings ransom.

Fully rested and nourished after a most comfortable 16 hrs, we were up by 4 and moving an hour later. Bit of a melodrama first as dear Bubble emptied my pack and put everythling in his and then tied my pack on top of his. I watched and just would not have it. I sat on the bed and just cracked. Here was the guy who had invariably carried some one else’s pack or rifle in addition to my own in all the Academy years.  And now my son was doing it for me.  I prayed to a Merciful Providence to save me from such a day and tears rolled down. Bubble relented and gave me back my pack but w/o anything in it, not even my water!!!

Rejuvenated and carrying hardly any thing, I was happy to be climbing and began to get into my rythmic breathing and striding –  likened by Bubble to a diesel engine.  I was a  happy man and remembered the hikes of my early years.

Bubble did not seem to approve because he suddenly  says, “Whats the hurry?  Let us enjoy ourselves. We are not on punishment”. Recollecting the weight he was carrying, I quickly acquiecised. And we were one happy pair enjoying ourselves that early morning. As the sun came up, I qouted Omar Khayyam –  “Awake! for Morinng in the Bowl of Night has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight. And Lo the Hunter of the East has caught the Sultans turret in a Nooze of Light”.

While I was bemused in my thoughts, Bubble heard some one coming behind us. It was  Betsy. When she came up, she asked us as to why we had not waited for breakfast. Bubble said we had not wanted to disturb and impose anymore. She said she had brought some food and raisins. We were deeply beholden as the food, an emergency ration of rice and chicken came in most handy for lunch.

We were all the more touched by her gesture as her work demanded that she go in the opposite direction. So with our grateful thanks ringing in the air, she turned and went back. Truly a warm and generous person, the likes of which are far too few.

This hike was sure becoming extremely wonderful. Mostly due to the rest of course. There were nice streams and nice shade all along. Indeed there were lots of people too and we had to let several mule rides pass;  some going up and some going down. And some people just coming down to Indian Garden and returning to the Rim both on foot and mule. It was one Happy Festival like atmosphere – a far contrast from the day before!

We met one young European couple pretty much down and out with  exhaustion, specially the girl. We had plenty of stuff and Bubble was only too  happy to reduce his load. So he  gave them a large packet and as we watched them get some stuff into their systems,  a sea change came over the girls face. From total exhaustion,  she became rejuvenated and  animated. They thanked us though they had done us a favour. The girl could hardly speak any  English.

It sure seemed a good day for most everyone. Even the bathrooms at both the resting places were super clean. There was this guy, yelling to his friend that he could not use the bathroom and when the friend enquired, ” Why not?” The answer, “It is much too clean for you”!!!

But Bubble was ever watchful as he had learned a hard lesson with my cracking up and was taking no chances. So, whenever we came across water, he would make me take off my shirt and drench the same and without rinsing out the water, make me put it on again. This he did five or six times and it was like air conditioning. And when he noticed the good effects, he began to drench a towel, which he would put on my head to make me feel super cool. He sure was taking no chances.

Bright Angel Trail overlooking the Indian Garden

Bright Angel Trail overlooking the Indian Garden

All this plus the nourishment given us as lunch by Betsy, allowed us to make good time. There were, as stated earlier,  a lot of happy folk going up or down and all this made for a lot of good cheer – in sharp contrast to the mood the day before when we were going down the South Kabab trail.

Though we rested frequently and took it easy we were now acclimitized and in synch and we thus reached the Rim around 1pm. We were very glad to see our X5 beckonong us and happier to see that the ice we had stored in it had not melted in over the 60 hrs or so we had been away.

A bit of gift shopping, a shower and we were on our way back within couple hours. Bubble though wary over the speed daner, put the X5 through its paces and in a wee over eight hours we were able to cover the 800 miles.. Bubble had remainded awake some 24 hrs 4am to 4am;  he only had a half hour nap by the roadside a bit before we hit home.

Lest anyone doubt us over much, let me first say that Bubble had at age 5 yrs 5 months  covered 3 plus miles and climbed 5000 ft from  the Valley of Flowers at 10000ft to the Sikh shrine Hemkunt at 15210 ft in the Himalayas. Of course on the way back he had been carried fast asleep, piggy back in a wicker basket.

As for yours truly, let me just say I had been a Commando and usually spent my holidays in the mountains. In those days I wanted to climb what ever I saw but these days, I enjoy watching  the heights from below only. Let there be Peace. 

We intend, God Willing, doing the South Kabab again but either pre or post the summer months. We welcome you to do the same, It will be jolly good fun. Cheers to that!

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