Last Saturday, my husband, Hammad, and I went hiking deep in the Grand Canyon. There was an excessive heat warning in effect. We were cautioned that the body cannot cool itself or replenish its water or salt in those conditions, which can exacerbate the chances of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Compounding these concerns was news about an experienced hiker who had just died on the same trail a few days before.
We started down the Bright Angel trail, elevation 6800 feet, promptly at 5:15am, eager but prepared. We each carried water, electrolytes, food, and essentials. The early morning breeze made for a pleasant hike so we didn’t realize how quickly we descended 3000 feet. We admired the limestone, sandstone, and shale rock formations and noted the changes in vegetation and temperature. The sun, rising on the horizon, was painting the distant buttes warm shades of orange and red.
We reached our destination, Plateau Point, elevation 3700 feet, at 8:30am. It’s not the very bottom of the canyon, but it’s as far as experts recommend on a one-day hike. The very bottom is another 1500 feet and about 10 degrees warmer. On that day, it registered 115 degrees.
There is no shade for about the last mile to Plateau Point, and it was already above 100 degrees when we arrived. But the prizes–views of the Colorado roaring below, the ancient granite and limestone bedrock, and the deepest parts of the inner canyon all around us–were worth every bit of pain and sweat to get there and back. It was just the two of us and a few California Condors circling gracefully overhead. The only sound was the mighty river as it roared westward. Somewhere, about a mile above us, were hundreds of people, standing at the North Rim and the South Rim, admiring the Grand Canyon from what I used to think of as a close-up view. But we were completely oblivious to them and they to us.
We couldn’t stay long because climbing between 10:00am and 4:00pm was discouraged due to the heat. We snacked on fruit in the only shade available—underneath a small rocky overhang, close to a steep drop off.
“Down is optional, up is mandatory,” the National Park Service warns hikers at every stop. We began our 6.2 mile return at 8:50am. At the 4.5 mile rest stop, a ranger was encouraging people to take a dip in the creek before heading further up. She said it’s important to get your clothes fully drenched so they keep you cool as you hike to the next rest stop. We heeded her advice and made sure we were fully drenched before heading up, including our hiking shoes. Yet our clothes dried within minutes and we had to keep pouring water over them to avoid overheating as we walked. And yes, I mean pouring. Not spraying, not misting, but pouring. The heat was unrelenting. It felt as though every switchback only led to an even steeper switchback rather than the shaded rest point I began to yearn for.
During each one of my four pregnancies, I was taught breathing exercises. I never felt the need back then but, on this hike, I finally appreciated the lessons. We were beginning to get coated in sand and dry desert dirt, even swallowing it unintentionally. Climbing out of the Grand Canyon in that intense, scorching desert heat meant every breath had to count–my ability to continue hiking was tied to correct breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I practiced it over and over as I pondered how people live in deserts.
I reached a point where I no longer trusted myself to think clearly. “One step at a time,” a hiker from New Zealand encouraged all hikers at the 3.0 Mile rest stop. “Don’t stop taking steps because that’s the only way out of here,“ he said. My weary brain comprehended that, and my body did its best to follow suit. My sole focus in life became breathing, climbing, and managing heat exhaustion. Our goal wasn’t the rim, that was simply too far. The only way to avoid feeling overwhelmed was to set the next rest stop as the goal. The rest stops are about 1.5 miles and 1000 feet elevation apart.
I’m usually not afraid of heights, but at some point between the 3.0 and 1.5 Mile rest stops, I could no longer look down for fear of becoming dizzy and stumbling. And I could not look up, because that was a reminder of all that we still had to climb. I looked only to the ground before me.
Hammad would have completed the hike a little faster if it wasn’t for me. Because of my fear of another meniscus tear in my knee, I am now extra cautious on any hike. Hammad set our pace but waited patiently for me to catch up every so often.
We reached the South Rim at exactly 4:00pm, 10 hours and 45 minutes after we started. It was an accomplishment but at that point I was too numb to feel any excitement. My feet were bruised, my body was worn and burning from the unrelenting heat, my knee brace left burn marks from the heat, and I was too exhausted to think beyond my immediate needs—food and sleep.
Endurance means different things for different people, at different stages of life. Merriam-Webster says, “[t]he meaning of endurance is the ability to withstand hardship or adversity; especially: the ability to sustain prolonged stressful effort or activity.” After this experience, I now believe physical endurance teaches gratitude, discipline, humility, and other forms of mental development. At least that’s what the experience taught me.
Another lesson is the importance of doing something beyond my comfort zone. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon many times before. Each time, that first sight, that first glance, without fail, takes my breath away. Its majesty inspires and humbles me in the same moment. On this trip, I ventured deep into the canyon to see for myself what is impossible to see from the rim. According to resources on the Web, of the millions of annual visitors to the Grand Canyon, only 1% make it down to the very bottom. Based on that, I guestimate that about 2% make it down as far as we did. I didn’t know what I was missing until I discovered it. Pushing myself led to this feeling of awe and accomplishment, similar to waterfall rapelling last summer. And now I yearn for more. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” I look forward to the next opportunity where I can go beyond my comfort zone and reward myself with more discoveries, God willing.