Our Grand Canyon Field Institute hike started out very pleasantly, if not a bit warm. Heading down the South Kaibab Trail on March 29th, the sun shone brightly and the air was calm. Temperatures got into the eighties, but starting out early we were able to avoid most of the heat. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case with some other groups as they trailed into Bright Angel Campground exhausted and dehydrated.
Because of the heat, we all decided to get an even earlier start to make the long trek across the exposed Clear Creek Trail. We made use of every shady spot we found on the way. You could tell they were popular spots from the way the ravens descended upon our arrival looking for handouts!
By the time we got to the Clear Creek campsite, we were fighting some pretty strong winds. The weather was changing. Little did we know how much it would change within just a couple of days. It took some maneuvering to set our tents up in the strong gusts. The wind continued into the evening and forced everyone to get in their sand-filled tents just to keep from being sandblasted.
The next morning brought much cooler temperatures and even more wind. The temperatures had dropped dramatically in less than 24 hours. We were wearing all of our warm clothing over bodies that had been covered with sunscreen the day before.
Since Cheyava Falls was dry, we decided to visit the Indian ruins up-canyon instead of taking the hike to the falls. The cold wind finally forced us to find shelter in one of those wonderful overhangs that the Tapeats Sandstone offers. Having dealt with trying to cook at the windy campsite the day before, we had brought our stoves and food and made our meals in relative comfort. It was such a pleasure to be out of the wind!
We got back to the campsite and found many of the tents blown down, even with staking to plenty of huge rocks. The wind had even blown some rather large rocks onto my tent and put a couple of holes into the tent body. It was pretty irritating to find after being so careful.
Again that night, we all headed to our tents early to get out of the wind and try to warm up. Shortly after getting inside, the rain started. And it was definitely a cold rain. The group was feeling the strain and moods were not at their best. I heard more than a few comments along the line, “I’m never hiking in the Canyon again.” It was pretty discouraging, especially since everybody had hiked with me before on other GCFI trips. These were friends, and they were NOT having a good time!
We awoke early the next morning to snow falling at our inner canyon campsite! Tents were soggy and so were we. It was dark and cold, but everybody got up and packed up and prepared to leave. They were anxious to get to Phantom Ranch to see if there were any dorm or cabin cancellations. I knew that if everybody could just get to Phantom Ranch as soon as possible, they would feel better. We would finally be able to get warm and dry off; so off we went!
The walk along the Tonto Platform surprisingly turned out to be the nicest day of our trip. The beauty of the canyon was breathtaking. Snow covered the prickly pear and agave and dusted the mesas and buttes surrounding us. Every detail of the canyon was emphasized by a blanket of white. For the first time on our trip, the air was calm and the temperature was perfect for hiking.
When we got to Phantom Ranch, there turned out to be plenty of openings in the dorms because of the bad weather. Several of the group even split the use of a cabin. With hot showers and hot chocolate, moods soared and things no longer seemed so terrible.
Only a few of us stayed in the campground, but it turned out to be a pleasant night. However, the weather was not due to warm up soon. After discussing the expected temperature for Indian Garden the next night (19°F), we all chose to hike out instead of staying there for the last night.
We hiked out on the Bright Angel Trail the next day, and the views were incredible all the way up. The hike out was very pleasant with some sunshine peeking through the low clouds. It was good to hit the rim without running into any more bad weather.
The trip made me even more adamant about always being prepared for the worst. I cannot imagine how we would have done had we not had shelter. I also always insist we have rain gear and was very happy that we did. So even though we didn’t have the best time, at least we were relatively comfortable under the circumstances. And best of all, we didn’t have to worry about hypothermia, because we had the appropriate gear. Experience and preparation paid off.
My best moment came not long ago when one of the participants wrote me saying that she was ready to come back again. Already! The tough times mellow in our mind, but the memory of the experience lasts a lifetime. Just think, you could just sit in a rocking chair and only read about it!!!