Here’s a photo narration of my trip last week to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back with my father Joel, who is 91 years old (!). Click on any photo to enbiggen.
The short version: We made it down to Phantom Ranch and back; not without some drama, but we made it!
The long version
My college friend Kasandra won the Phantom Ranch lottery for a 10-person cabin for two nights (T/W April 4/5). Our group was me and my father, Kasandra, Heidi, Nic, Sebastian, Ruth, Jemila, Katherine, and Maggie.
Shortly before the hike we learned that another fellow had qualified for the Guinness Book of World Records by backpacking rim-to-rim at the age of 91. (He started at the north rim and ended at the south rim, and it looks like he carried his own pack! On the other hand, it took him five days, and it also looks like he did it when he was a bit younger than my father, who will be 92 in July. But who’s counting?)
We were fortunate to have Kasandra recommend traction devices because it was icy near the top (and freezing cold: 30 degrees F or so, about 30 degrees below normal for early April). Here’s Dad at the start of our descent, wearing Nanospikes over his shoes:
I provided him with gloves and earmuffs, which he greatly appreciated, but otherwise he was his usual minimalist self, with an unorthodox hiking style involving an off-the-should nylon backpack and very short hiking poles, which he would drag behind him when not needed:
It warmed up as we went into the canyon but was still snowing at times:
I tried to stay within arm’s reach in case he lost his balance, which was a special concern for me because of his tendency to rest on the down-canyon side of the trail (!):
We took the Bright Angel trail down to Phantom Ranch, and he easily made it down the 9.5 mile trail, with 4300 feet of elevation change, in about 6 hours; we left at 12:30pm and arrived just after the start of dinner at 6:30pm. During the entire hike he consumed a single date and a 1/4 cup of water, which is normal for him. (But… foreshadowing alert!)
Wednesday he stayed in camp and rested, with Sebastian keeping him company, and the rest of us did the 12-mile round-trip (mostly flat) to Ribbon Falls, sharing sandals to ford the creek:
Phantom Ranch itself was lovely, with hot showers and dorm beds, but my father didn’t like the food.
Thursday morning at 6:30am we started back up the trail to the South Rim (in the distance in the photo above). My father was powered almost entirely by dates and a bottle of Ginger Ale that he had brought along:
At about 2:30pm, after 8 hours of hiking and with about 3 tough miles to go, he was still smiling! (You can see the white line of the trail snaking across the plateau in the center of this photo.)
From the 3-mile mark it was another 2 hours of hiking and 1,000 vertical feel to the rest stop that’s 1.5 miles—and another 1,100 vertical feet—from the top. We made it there at about 4:30pm.
And at this point, after 10 hours of hiking that covered 8 miles and went up 3,200 vertical feet, he ran out of energy. I should have anticipated that this was coming, in part because despite my encouragement he hadn’t had much to eat or drink all day, and in part because he had started telling people we met a new story, namely that with this hike “my son has taken on a big responsibility”!
Fortunately we met some very helpful fellow hikers, Eric and Ann, who had some wilderness first-aid training and were able to connect with park service rangers on their cell phone (there was also an emergency phone nearby) and collectively they talked my father into resting for 30 minutes, drinking some Gatorade, and eating some corn chips. (The park service gave us access to a lockbox nearby that had a sleeping bag and pad for warmth, plus the corn chips; I had brought along an extra layer of clothing for him; and fellow hikers provided the Gatorade and lots of other offerings and words of encouragement.) Here’s a picture of Eric and Ann with my father:
Together we managed to convince him that he could make the last bit of the climb—that he didn’t need a helicopter rescue, that there was no hot soup available on the trail but there would be some at the top, that he just needed to drink a bit more and eat a few more corn chips—and so we put the park-service sleeping bag back in the lockbox, put on our Nanospikes to get through the mud, snow, and ice… and he did an amazing job of powering through the rest of the hike! Near the top I called Katherine and Maggie, who were at the rim, and they were kind enough to get a cup of hot coffee with cream and lots of sugar and hand it off to Ann, who was kind enough to go ahead of us to get it and then bring it back down the trail:
And then here’s a photo Katherine took at about 7:15pm of me and my father (Ann is behind us, I’m holding on to my father because it was very icy), only a few steps from the rim after nearly 13 hours!
Bottom line: The Grand Canyon has been around for a long time and is really tough and not to be messed with… and so is my father.
PS. That’s especially true with soup in the offing! Here’s a final photo from Katherine:
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