Conquering the Canyon

Hike for Discovery

May 13, 2006, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

May 27, 2006
In the spring of 2005 The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society started a new program called Hike for Discovery, which was modeled after their Team in Training Program. People would get sponsors and raise money for and awareness of the LLS by training for 14 weeks and then hiking in the Grand Canyon.
There is no official event to participate in – i.e., no race to complete – in the Canyon. It is just a one-day hike in and out on one of four different trails. The trail selected for each participant is based on teach person’s fitness level. Going all the way to the bottom of the Canyon would not be an option as that cannot be done safely in one day. The LLS had partnered with a company called The Walking Connection, who handled the logistics and provided the trail guides.
The first year’s program was very successful. Not having an official event meant that the national office of the LLS could be flexible in their scheduling. Instead of sending all of the participating chapters to the Canyon on the same weekend and overwhelming the facilities, they sent a few chapters out each week on different weekends in the late spring.
In early 2006 one of the Georgia LLS staff members asked me to be a mentor for their second Hike for Discovery, which was to take place on May 13. I had to give the idea some consideration before agreeing to do it.
On the one hand, I felt I had been getting into a rut and was ready for something new. Also, although I had flown over the Grand Canyon many times on flights to Vegas, I never had actually seen it at ground level.
On the other hand, I was planning to run a spring marathon, probably Deadwood, South Dakota or St. Louis. As an HFD mentor, I would be expected to attend the hike trainings on Saturday mornings, which meant that I would be unable to attend the long group runs for the marathon training.
I decided I could do both. I would train and mentor for the hike on Saturdays. Sunday mornings, I would do long training runs on my own to prepare for a spring marathon.
After I agreed to be a mentor, I remembered that the very first article my friend BJ Morris had written on her website was about her trip to the Grand Canyon. (Sorry, BJ – I meant to say “on her website which was featured on the front page of The New York Times, albeit below the fold”.) The title of the article was “Vacation in Hell”. I reread the story and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
We were told at our first training session that there were two items we absolutely had to have in order to be allowed on board the Walking Connection shuttle bus on hike day: boots that covered the ankle and 120 ounces of fluid. The ankle support was needed to help prevent injuries; the fluids were needed to prevent dehydration.
I already had some decent hiking boots, but I would have to buy a CamelBak hydration system - a backpack with a 100-ounce bladder. I found one at that was fairly cheap. In retrospect, I probably should have spent a few extra bucks and bought one that had more pockets and webbing to help keep all of my stuff better organized.
Convertible pants (long pants with zip-off legs that convert to shorts) were strongly recommended. We were told that the temperature could be in the 30s at the Canyon rim when we started our hike, and could heat up to the 90s in a matter of hours.
Last but not least was the issue of trekking poles. I never had understood their purpose. It seemed like all they did was announce to the world that you were not a walker, you were a hiker. And by extension, road signs with silhouettes of people carrying sticks indicated the presence of hikers in the area, while road signs with silhouettes of people without sticks indicated the presence of walkers. I couldn't see much difference between the two.
But after our first training hike up, down, and around Kennesaw Mountain, my knees were sore and my quads were screaming. It was then that I learned that trekking poles take some of the load off of the knees and distribute it to the arms and upper body. I decided to include a pair in my Sierra Trading Post order. The first time I used them, I was sold. They made a huge difference - less knee pain and a better overall workout. I am now a huge fan of trekking poles.
Our head coach was a lady named Sandy Geisel who had been a personal trainer before entering the world of real estate. Putting it mildly, Sandy is a bit of an overachiever. Some people run marathons; Sandy has run about 25 ultramarathons (an ultramarathon is any race longer than 26.2 miles), including one 100-miler. Some people participate in adventure races; Sandy has completed eco-challenges in places such as Borneo and Fiji. And she maintained the same high expectations for the team as she did for herself. It was no surprise, then, that the Georgia chapter was described as being the best trained group by Walking Connection staff members when we went to the Grand Canyon.
Most of our training sessions were held at Kennesaw Mountain. My previous experience there had been limited to once walking from the visitor center to the shuttle bus stop. I soon learned that there was much more of Kennesaw to hike besides that one mile stretch, and that hiking could be quite a workout.
We also did a couple of hikes at Stone Mountain. One of those hikes consisted of making three 2.6-mile round trips from the west parking lot to the top of the mountain.
It wasn't long before I gave up any idea of running a spring marathon. Instead of going on long runs on Sunday mornings, I nursed soreness in muscles that hadn’t been worked in years.
About halfway through our training season, we hiked in Amicalola Falls State Park, going from the falls overlook to the Hike Inn, and then taking a different trail back – a nice 10-mile loop. I had never been to the north Georgia mountains before, so this hike was a good example of HFD expanding my horizons.
The training season was capped by a 12.6 mile hike on the Coosa Backcountry Trail in Vogel State Park. The total elevation changes were over a mile up and the same distance down. Most guidebooks say that this trail is so strenuous that it should be hiked over a two-day period. The authors of these guidebooks obviously had never met Sandy. Not only did we do it in one day, but everyone in our group finished in a mere 6 to 7 hours.
Trail Selections
In mid-March, we were given a self-evaluation questionnaire and instructions on how to perform a “step test” that was to be used to evaluate our fitness level. The results of this test were supposed to help us decide which trail we should request. We could choose from four different categories:
• Category One – Full day of hiking along a paved Grand Canyon rim trail (The Greenway Trail)
• Category Two – Full day of hiking along a rugged Grand Canyon rim trail (The Hermit Trail)
• Category Three - Strenuous, rugged hiking with steep inclines in the Canyon (The South Kaibab Trail)
• Category Four – Very steep and very difficult trails in the Grand Canyon, for hikers experienced in extreme conditions. All hikers must be pre-approved for this category. (The Grandview Trail)
The description of the Category Four group made it sound like it would be made up of hard-core hikers who wouldn’t take time to stop and smell the roses (or whatever), so I requested Category Three. Sandy had the final say in the trail assignments, however, and she thought differently. When the assignments came out, I learned that I would be in the first group going down the Grandview Trail.
There would be three groups going down Grandview. Each group had about 12 hikers, plus a trail guide and a trail sweep. The first group, which was made up of people from the Georgia and San Francisco chapters, was scheduled to leave the hotel at 4:15 am. The second group, which consisted entirely of people from the San Francisco chapter, would leave at 4:45. The last group was all Georgia chapter and would leave at 5:15.
The Grandview Trail is a 3.2 mile unmaintained trail going 2600 feet into the Canyon to Horseshoe Mesa. It originally was built in 1892 to reach the Last Chance Copper Mine, and mules had used this trail to carry copper ore up to the Canyon rim. The upper sections of the trail are still held together by logs and steel rods dating back to the mining days.
Getting There
Our travel itinerary consisted of a flight to Phoenix and an overnight stay in Scottsdale on Thursday. The next morning we took a chartered bus to the Canyon, with a stop for lunch and shopping in Sedona.
From Sedona we drove non-stop to the visitor center in Grand Canyon National Park for our first look at the Canyon. It had been suggested that we try to think of a single word to describe our initial impression of the Canyon. For me the word was “power”. It may sound odd at first to think of a giant hole in the ground as being powerful, but not quite so odd if you think of the power required to create it.
After about an hour at the Canyon rim, we got back on the bus and doubled back to the Grand Hotel, where we had the fastest and smoothest group check-in I have ever experienced. Kudos to the Grand Hotel and Hike for Discovery!
Early Morning
The 3 a.m. wake-up call came way too soon. I double-checked my backpack before heading downstairs for breakfast. It contained a 100-ounce bladder filled with ice water, two half-gallon bottles of Gatorade, various energy and protein bars, trail mix, and a few emergency items. It also had a trowel, toilet paper and baggies which I fortunately did not have to use. Hiking protocol says that if Nature calls on the trail, you use a trowel to bury the evidence. You don’t bury your used toilet paper, though. You bag it and carry it until you can dispose of it properly. Fortunately this would not be an issue for me that day.
I had a big breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and then picked up a sack lunch provided by the Walking Connection. Putting the lunch to my pack meant there was no room for my Tevas. I knew I would need them after the hike, so I gave them to Katie, our staffer who would be keeping tabs on the entire Georgia chapter from her post in the Bright Angel Lodge by the Canyon rim.
Our trail guide, Bryan Bates, introduced himself to our group in the hotel lobby. He rattled off some impressive credentials about his hiking experience and first aid training and certifications. Then, as promised months ago at our first training hike, he made sure everyone had proper hiking boots and plenty of fluids before letting us on the bus.
Bryan is practical man - while many of us had bought expensive trekking poles from Sierra Trading Post or REI, he had bought a $10 rake handle at Home Depot to use as his pole.
Our bus left the hotel at 4:15 am. The bus driver dropped the other groups off at the trailheads for the Greenway, Hermit, and South Kaibab trails. Then he decided to take the scenic route to our trailhead. This seemed a little odd, since it was still dark and we couldn’t see any scenery.
Into the Canyon
The sun had started to rise by the time we all had finished taking group photos and using the port-a-potty at the Grandview trailhead. At about 5:45 am, we started our descent into the Canyon.
The first third of the trail was very steep, with lots of switchbacks. It was made up of large cobbles and small rocks. Lacking the mountain goat gene that most of the rest of the group seemed to have, I soon found myself in the back of the pack. I was setting my poles carefully and making sure my footing was secure, which meant I was not moving as quickly as the others. My slow pace was vindicated when I returned to Atlanta and learned that a friend of mine had broken both of his wrists while hiking in Alabama (not with Hike for Discovery). He had fallen behind his comrades and was hurrying downhill trying to catch up when he fell and landed wrong.

On the trail


I completed this stretch of the trail with our unofficial group photographer, Sanjay Gupta (no, not the guy on CNN – the other Sanjay Gupta) and our trail sweep, David Bluestein. Sanjay had taken pictures during most of our training hikes, and was having a great time photographing the sights in the Grand Canyon.
David is a bit of a 21st century Renaissance man. In addition to hiking, he has run 19 marathons (including Boston three times) and devotes a lot of his spare time to wildlife preservation. For the past two years, he has combined  his passions for running and wildlife by staging the “Run for the Cheetah”, a 5K race around Phoenix’s Papago Park. And while Michelangelo had the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, David has his handy Etch-a-Sketch.

The temperature soon got very warm, and we stopped to remove our pant legs and our outer layers of clothing. We all drank frequently from our CamelBaks. Bryan wanted us to pee often to make sure that the heat hadn’t caused anyone’s internal plumbing to shut down. His concern was valid, but I suspected I would not be able to oblige him. Given my propensity for perspiring, anything I drank would be coming out of my pores long before it had a chance to reach my kidneys. Bryan also wanted us to snack frequently, as we would need a lot of calories to replace those we were burning.

My fears about the group being too hard-core to appreciate our surroundings turned out to be unfounded. Bryan made frequent stops to point out various sights, and also to give brief geology lessons about the formations around us.
The second Grandview group – the San Francisco group which had left the hotel at 4:45 - did turn out to be a hard-core group. They went flying past us when we were about halfway to Horseshoe Mesa., and were soon out of sight.
Horseshoe Mesa
The plan was to stop for lunch by the stone cabin at Horseshoe Mesa and then spend about an hour or so exploring the mesa. We heard someone calling us from above while we were posing for pictures by the stone cabin that had once been a miners’ cookhouse. Looking up we watched as the third group – all from Georgia – lined up on the trail, dropped trou, and mooned us. One member of our group who shall remain nameless (Jerry) felt compelled to return the favor, slapping his cheeks in a frenzy that would have made the Scotsmen in Braveheart proud.
We waited for the other group to join us, and then we all went to the edge of the mesa to take pictures, eat our lunches, and rest while Bryan told us more about the geology of the Canyon. I finished my first half-gallon bottle of GatorAde and started on my second one.
Out of the Canyon
It may sound strange, but going uphill was much easier than going down. Partly that was due to my backpack being lighter. It was also easier mentally. I had felt that if I slipped while going downhill, my momentum would cause me to keep sliding until I fell off the edge of a cliff. But if I slipped while going uphill, I thought I probably only would slide a few feet before stopping.
Also, when you drive through the mountains, you often use your brakes while going downhill, but very rarely do you use them while going uphill. The same principle applies to hiking, with your quads functioning as your body’s brakes. Going uphill allowed my quads to relax and function as they were meant to.
But having an easier time going uphill did not necessarily mean that it was any quicker. On the trek back it occurred to me that if I had spent the morning running a marathon - even my slowest marathon ever - I would have been enjoying a barley pop at that moment instead of looking at another hour or hour and a half of uphill hiking.
I stepped out of the Canyon about 8 hours after first setting foot in it. My CamelBak ran dry as I walked through the parking lot. I had consumed 100 ounces of water and about the same amount of Gatorade, and had maybe peed enough to fill a specimen cup. While my kidneys hadn’t gotten much of a workout, my pores certainly had. I was completely soaked in sweat.
I was so happy to see the shuttle bus that I gave it a big, sloppy kiss. The shuttle took us to the Bright Angel Lodge, where I checked in with Katie and retrieved my slippers. My dawgs were barking pretty loud, so I changed into my Tevas before I went to meet the others at the bar in the El Tovar Hotel.
While walking to the El Tovar, I received my only injury of the entire 15-week program. Something in the grass stung me on the toe. I should have kept my hiking boots on! I don’t what it was, although it is kind of glamorous to say it could have been a scorpion. And it might very well have been, since it caused my toe to swell up to twice its normal size and turn an interesting shade of purple. The critters that have stung me in the past - bees, wasps, fire ants, etc. - don't cause that sort of reaction, so it must have been something else. And what else is left beside scorpions?.
Final Thoughts
To the El Tovar Hotel, I have two words – plastic cups! Keep a few sleeves of 16 and 20 ouncers on hand for when you get slammed. That way I won’t have to wait 20 minutes after I order a beer to actually be served because you ran out of glasses.
To anyone thinking about signing up for this program – do it! Having a choice of four different trails means there is an opportunity for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. It is an experience you will never forget.
To anyone who has been asked to donate to this program – write a big check! I went into this program thinking it literally would be a walk in the park. But in some ways it was tougher than running a marathon.
And to everyone who was in the 4:15 Grandview group – you guys were great. Thank you!
Click here for Hike for Discovery photos.