Into the Red Abyss

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Judging by the light outside, it was around five in the morning with a steady breeze flowing softly over our tent. It felt pleasant. The sun was not quite over the surrounding mountains. Once conscious and fully awake, we made something to eat over a fire still slightly smoldering from last night. My mother and I were getting prepared both physically and mentally for our challenge. We got into the car and begun to drive. My uncle dropped us off at a parking lot without much of a view but the surrounding tree line. We were at the peak of the South Kaibab Trail head that lunged into the great depth of the Grand Canyon.

It showed a few minutes after seven on my watch. After a second or two, we walked off the parking lot and closer to the trail. At top of the trail, you couldn’t even see the river yet. What was visible was the vast swirling trail that zigzagged like a snake getting smaller and smaller as in slithered lower and lower. It was an overwhelming sight. I thought it never ended. After glancing for a few moments of our journey, we headed off. We started along a ridge that was still in the shade from the sun. It stayed that way for a while until we started to hit the switchbacks on the other face of the face of slope. When we hit that first switchback, we saw probably one of the most breathtaking sights in my life. The sun had just gotten over the eastern peaks of the canyon and just barely started to hit the floor of the river valley. There was a fog at the bottom. When the sun hit it, it looked as if it glowed from beneath. To not waste time, we continued. Occasionally we passed some rangers and workers keeping the trail solid. The sun was getting warmer. I kept saying to myself and my mom that at least there was no humidity like back home. Once the trail straightened out, we hit the first small plateau. It was made up of a few trees, a few bushes, a fallen dried up tree trunk and, these things that were called bathrooms but sure didn’t look like them. We were crossing into the next layer of the canyon. Now, more of the red rock was fading from beneath the yellow dirt crumbling from the sand stone. We refilled our water bottles and got moving. The path started straight with a slight downward slope going along the ridge with wide slopes on either side, eventually turning into sheer cliffs at the end. We had gotten to a part of the trail called Skeleton Point. Why it was called that, I never new. We spent some time there to get prepared for the next big leap. After this point, we would not see the top rim of the canyon for another 36 hours.

This hike was the focus of my whole road trip of summer 2009. It was part of a long stretch of stops including in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. I was fifteen years old and greatly excited for this. The planning for this trip lasted a few months. Changing plans every few weeks. It was only last minute that only my mom and I were going down, instead of my uncle joining us. An unusual turnout mainly that we have never done this hike, while my uncle has done it over 10 times. Without him as a guide due to his fractured leg, we still decided to do it and not give up on what we planned so long for. I remember thinking that it won’t be easy, but if my uncle did it so many times, it can’t possibly be that hard.

I had brought with me a walkie-talkie so my mom and I could get in contact with my uncle who was on top. Without success, we did not reach him. We knew that we would not talk to him until we got out, and at this point, it still felt like we would get out in the same day. We got moving and said fare well to the surface. The trail started to wind again along another slope. Each turn giving way to straight that felt steeper and steeper each time. With neither the top nor the river in sight, we were getting closer to the middle. At least we thought it was... At this point there were no trees around us. Just dirt, sand, rock, and the occasional bush. All of a sudden, we got a small glimpse of the winding blue snake of a river at the bottom. Our morale boosted. Our hopes boosted. Our continuous trek slowly lead us forward. Switchback after switchback, we descended, but the temperature sure didn't. It felt hotter and hotter as our altitude got lower. The elusive Colorado River kept on jumping from our view with each turn. At this point, our pace slowed down a bit, not from lack of motivation but of exhaustion. My mom and I could not wait to get down the cold flowing river beneath our feet. This zigzag between river and emptiness continued for another while without any great events besides the constant breathtaking view that was always there. Every direction you looked, there was another sight worthy of a painting, or a photograph to be framed and remembered. I couldn't get enough of it. If it wasn't for the weight, I would have taken my camera, but I guess it was worth leaving it in the grand scheme of things. We hit the next plateau. It almost looked like a desert. The only thing put by man here were the ties for the mules, bathrooms, and a emergency phone. The last contact to the top from here. Once past this part, the steepest part began with its powerful red color and cliffs that lead to the bottom which was hard to even comprehend at once. We were on our last leg down. The final descent.

It was around noon when we hit the bottom of the canyon. There was a tunnel that connected the dry land with the black iron bridge witch spanned beyond the width of the river. Once up close the river seem enormous in comparison to what it first looked like. There were rapids. Fast and white water cutting and thrusting its way along the bottom. Along the rvier there were trees and other plants. Flourishing in the middle of a dry immense canyon. It was good to see a color that wasn't red or yellow. Once across, we moved along the river for a while. The trail was now partly like a beach. The loose sand weighing you down as you try to walk. This trail led us to a branch coming of the river. We knew that at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was a place called Phantom Ranch. The one place here were there are people. By the time we reached the settlement, we were exhausted. It almost felt like finding a spring with palms in the middle of an open desert. Inside the main building, we took our shoes off and drank a cup of lemonade. That was probably the best tasting drink I had ever had. Today I can still remember the taste of that lemonade. The only thing in my mind then was that I am drinking something that is not water. That was the only thing that mattered. After enjoying the little time we had spent at the ranch, we got on our way. Starting back, but now changing trails from the South Kaibab to the Bright Angel trail. Again we were moving along the Colorado River. I noticed the next bridge that was to take us across to the south side of the canyon. It was a newer bridge from the last one we were on. Made of steel with a silver glisten to it as the white tips of the waves below it reflected through the grate that was the floor. We got to the other side. The next part seemed like it took a lifetime. It also will stay with me for my lifetime.

It felt like treading water. The deep sand on the trail greatly slowed our progress down. After half an hour, we had to stop. We had apples with us, so that offered a moment of taste. I thought besides the heat, it really couldn't get much worse than this. I regretted that statement. Later on my stomachache really started to act up. It came and gone. I thought it would never end, but the sand finally subsided. We hit higher ground the ground was hard again. Before moving on, we stopped for a final cool-off, in the river. There was a small stream that was coming off the river that had not much of a current so we decided to get our feet wet. While standing there we saw rafters pass us every few minutes. Just flowing down the river, not knowing how hot our how much effort we put it just to get there while those people just flew on by. Once I got over my hate for those on their rafts, we continued. The next step now was to start up. The Bright Angel Trail moved along the Bright Angel River. From now, we never left the sight of green vegetation. Cool water was always close. The next part I am not so fond of. About 100 feet into our assent, I nearly collapsed. A few seconds, I vomited. I was suffering the symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion. At this point I honestly didn't know if I was going to make it out of there any time soon. It took a lot of encouragement on my moms side to get me going again, but I did. It was the determination of being strong and having the mindset to finish what we came here to do. We started again. The sun was visibly setting now. I tried to get in contact with my uncle, with no luck. About the third time I tried with my radio, I actually got a response. I was talking with my uncle again. He told us to press on. To try to get out the same day. With that boost of moral, we kept going. When the sun was not directly visible anymore, we arrived at a place called the Indian Gardens. It is the half way point in the Bright Angel Trail. There were some spots for tents and a ranger station. The moment we got there I think I just fell on the ground and couldn't walk another step. Lucky for us, the ranger that was at that post let us stay at the grounds for the night with some left behind sleeping bags, instant food, gatorade packets, and a gas stove. It was eight o'clock. We slept on a pick nick table. Under the beautiful night sky of Northern Arizona filled with stars that have never crossed my sight before. The moon was like nighttime sun. There are no words that I know of that can describe the night, but I knew that in the morning awaited the last and final part of this trek through the sea of red.

My mom and I woke up at five. It was still dark. Everyone else that was there also got out and up from their tents and headed up. The wall of cliffs on three sides of us that lead up the the top was towering over the camp sight like a sky scraper in a city if not taller. Almost each layer of rock was visible. Changing colors every couple hundred feet. The hike up consisted almost entirely of switchbacks. Going back and forth from each side sweeping the width of the narrowing that lead up. As time went by, the sun got up. It got warmer as each time we got higher, we were in the sun. Besides water, we now had water with gatorade mix, witch made the water that I have been drinking for the past 24 hours a bit more tolerable. Around eight o'clock, we got past out of the narrow area of the indian gardens and into the more higher, wall gripping part of the trail. The path now was narrow and one side was a wall and on the other, a sheer drop to the bottom. I even carried my water bottle in the hand opposite to the cliff to keep me balanced closer the the safe and firm wall. It was like this almost all the way to the top. It was now eleven. I turned my radio on to see if my uncle was on as well. For a while, no answer. After ten minutes though, I finally got a voice on. My uncle was saying he could see us! See us! I couldn't believe what he was saying. I glanced up and just small specs over the rim of the canyon was my uncle and cousin waving to us. I knew we didn't have much left. For the next hour we gave it all we had to reach the top. The last final steps out from the deep felt like hours were passing. When facing my family at the top, my mom and I looked at each other and in our minds, we said to each other, we finally made it. With time, we found out that the day we went down there was 130 degree heat index at the bottom of the canyon. It was one of the worst days to do what we did. It would have been impossible to conquer the red hole. As many times as I will repeat the hike, these 36 hours will always stay with me and remind me of what I did right and wrong. What happened the first time. The first time I journeyed into the red abyss.





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