There’s a strange magic to thru-hiking that doesn’t exist for other activities. You wake up, hike at least a marathon’s worth of miles daily, and somehow fall completely in love with trail life. From breathtaking landscapes to extremely heavy packs, the long trails create communities of hikers that work together to cultivate shared experience. The community is also what makes long trails relatively straightforward. You turn calories into miles, and follow established paths to well-defined milestones (20%, 40%, 90%) while sharing comments about trail conditions for what’s to come.
A typical thru-hike of the Arizona Trail takes you down and across the well-graded trails of the Grand Canyon. Trails that required an absurd amount of human imagination to dream up and bring into existence. The dedication that goes into maintaining the trails of the canyon is an immense task at a scale that is very-near impossible to imagine, yet is rivaled by the complexity and impossibility of the Grand Canyon itself.
The closure of the main trail through the Grand Canyon broke the community of the Arizona Trail this year. Without the well-graded trails being available to thru-hikers, there is no “long-trail simplicity.” Instead, you are left with only the possibility for raw adventure. I formed a little community with three other hikers who joined me in the Grand Canyon. We are very likely to be the only hikers with a continuous, north-bound footpath of the Arizona Trail for this year.
A short, semi-technical route through the Canyon looks relatively straightforward on paper, yet paper and reality can sometimes differ. Traversing 15 miles through the Canyon took three days of mental and physical strain. We traded the well-graded trails of the AZT for hours of route finding. Yucca became a little too cuddly with our legs, leaving long rivulets of blood for our socks to quickly absorb.
Unlike the slabs of granite that are predictable in the Sierra, the water-carved Canyon is a desert of seemingly impossible scale. From beneath the rim, moving anywhere in the Canyon requires immense effort — contouring around cliff formations that spontaneously end in 800-foot drops. You can eventually work your way from one geologic layer to the next, walking up drainages full of cacti rather than water, or scrambling up sandstone or occasionally less hazardous rock. The water has created towering 6000 foot peaks. There is no sense in calling it a “canyon,” once below the rim. It is something entirely “other.”
For all the water that was responsible for shaping the Canyon, there really is not enough water to actually make it through the Canyon on foot. Given the Canyon’s complexity, we needed 8 liters of water each to go 15 miles, but we had only packed out 3 liters. Our water supply dwindled as we failed to find a passable route up to Shiva Saddle after a half-day of looking. We contacted search and rescue to discuss our options for water. As the jovial park ranger discussed seasonal flow with us, that had all turned out to be dry, we decided that half a liter of water and half a liter of urine between the four of us was just enough to night hike 6 hours back to some real water that was flowing at Phantom Creek.
Ready for the harrowing walk ahead of us, we contoured into a dried-up slot canyon and our headlamps reflected some muddy footprints. Ecstatic at the realization that there were footprints in mud, we frantically dug and created a 1-foot hole in the ground that miraculousy began to fill with water. Over the next 5 hours we filtered 20+ liters of red mud from the hole — enough to rehydrate. Enough to begin route finding in the morning. “Strong work! Outstanding!!!” the chipper search and rescue team informed us.
Several hours of route finding later, we found a path to Shiva Saddle, and eventually a ridge that allowed us to access the North Rim. Within 5 miles, we needed snowshoes. Soon we were back on the always reliable AZT.
Dear Arizona Trail, you have been spectacular. While you are gentle and magical, your Grand Canyon is absurd.
And so with excitement I can say: Utah, against all odds, we’ve made it!
With love and adventure,