Space, solitude and silence in the Grand Canyon

My breathing is panicked & shallow, it’s pitch dark and I feel trapped.  I’m fumbling about near my head in the dark to switch on my head torch so I can see where the zip is to free me from the bivvy that feels like its suffocating me.  Found it! Light, zip, night sky and cold air.  Phew I’m released!  I’ve never slept in a bivvy, actually my camping experience is limited to multi day race camps, and it’s taking me a bit to get used to.  With the zip fully done up I’m totally sealed in and cutting the oxygen and I think I’m just breathing carbon dioxide but if I only zip up the mesh part to allow the freezing air in I am privy to the gorgeous night sky filled with stars and I can breathe but I can see what’s coming for me in the wilderness!  My imagination is in overdrive; would a mountain lion just wander up to my bivvy to eat me, or would a rattlesnake come out in the cold night to pay me a visit?  I channel my thoughts back to more positive ones of the day that brought me here, my first ever trek into the Grand Canyon.

Starlit sky

Fear:Less – My word for 2021 was put into action very early on in the year when my friends Filip & Laurie from Flagstaff invited me to join them on an overnight trek and camp into the Grand Canyon.  Obviously the Grand Canyon was high on my list to visit BUT it was winter and the weather forecast was to be -10C at night and I’d have to camp!  It was a resounding yes, the opportunity to head into the Canyon out of season where we would most likely have the trails all to ourselves was too good to pass up.

Filip, Laurie, me & Meg ready to head into the Grand Canyon

I’d imagined the drive from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon would be filled with stunning views, but of course it’s a canyon so you don’t see any sign of the majestic beauty up ahead.  As we entered the Grand Canyon circular tourist road on the South Rim my eyes are drawn to the massive expanse of the canyon alongside the road.  Even though I had driven through here once before there is a magic to the Canyon with its inexpressible grandeur.  There’d be time for photos later though!

The vastness of the canyon is indescribable

The Hermit Trail is a steep descent into a dramatic side canyon which takes you down to the Colorado River with dizzying drop-offs and awe inspiring views.  Snow patches were dotted along the top couple of hundred feet of the canyon which stood out starkly against the rich red rock.  The first 2.5 miles of the trail drops 2,000 feet with some cobblestone pathways create by hand-placed smooth rocks which had a thin layer of ice so I was grateful for my trekking poles.  At 2 miles we reach the Santa Maria Springs & Rest House built in 1913 which provides spring water and a shelter for some shade.

Laurie chilling out at Santa Maria Springs

The entire 8 mile descent to Hermit Creek drops quickly through a series of switch backs and ridge lines through Kaibab Limestone and the Toroweap Formation and on to the Coconino Sandstone. In the Coconino there are about 1,000 feet of switchbacks known as “the white zig-zags.  After the spring the trail heads north with stunning views deep into the canyon.   The silence roars and engulfs me like it was a blanket wrapping around me.  Space, solitude and silence; a shocking, awe-inspiring, wonderful lesson which highlighted our insignificance as humans as multiple layers of red, orange, ochre, white, yellow, and pink sedimentary rock, remnants of millions of years of earth history, stretch to the distant horizons.  The trail disappears and appears again as we make our way, taking our time to get down, stopping to take hundreds of photos and at points just stand in awe and listen. 

Layer after layer of multi colored rock

A deserted campsite awaited us down the bottom so we were spoilt for choice and picked a nice sheltered spot under a rocky overhang with a nice flat spot with enough room for all 4 of us.  It doesn’t take long to set up camp and with time to spare we are keen to find the Colorado river which is reportedly a mile from camp, 2.4 miles later after numerous creek crossings and a bit of bushwhacking we make hear the roar of the rapids of the Colorado river and we make it there just in time for sunset.  Fortunately we had all brought our head torches with us so the trip back was made following the beams of our lights.  Before we ascended the final bank of Hermit creek back to camp we fill our water bottles from the stream.  My heart skipped and my stomach dropped as I turned to make my way back up the bank and my light caught 2 eyes looking back at me from the bushes, at first I thought it must be something at the camp site, some reflective strip on a bag or something but somehow I could feel it was something else.  I couldn’t tear my gaze away as the creature rose and I realized it was a huge elk with massive antlers.  It was a surreal moment as he just snorted lightly and turned and walked away.  I had to laugh to myself as of course my mind had immediately jumped to the thought it was a mountain lion!

Colorado River at sunset

With campfires not permitted the jet boils were put into action to bring our dehydrated meals back to life whilst we enjoyed a cheeky red wine in our camp mugs.  As we sat and chatted the temperature started to drop and soon all my layers we on and it was time to get cosy and stay warm in my little bivvy.  Meg, the 4th person in the group, was in a small 2 person tent and she had already offered if I got too cold or scared I could jump in the tent with her but for some reason I saw it as my own little challenge to make it through the night in the bivvy, even though I was a little skeptical that I might not make it through the night.  Images of wild animals hovering above my bivvy filled my mind as I tried to switch off and go to sleep.  Once I’d worked out my oxygen issue I think I did actually get some sleep and enjoyed waking up at points to gaze up at the black night sky filled with diamonds.  With no light pollution the true night sky is uncovered, filled with thousands of visible stars and again I’m reminded of how small & insignificant we are as humans, there’s no way to grasp the size of what you see.

It felt like magic as the morning light broke over the top of the canyon rim I squeezed myself back out of the bivvy, looking forward to a camp drip coffee to kickstart the day.  I had made it through the night and no one was more surprised than me.  Empowered and energized, Meg & I tackled the 4,200 foot hike back out of the canyon with gusto, leaving Filip & Laurie to explore 2 more nights in the Canyon.  It’s a tough and unrelenting hike back out but once over the top, the fatigue disappears and is replaced by sheer joy.  I had done it, I’d not only descended and ascended the Grand Canyon but had spent the night surrounded by those spectacular canyon walls.  When was the last time you did something fearless?

Getting to the bottom ‘optional’. Getting to the top ‘mandatory’.

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