After striking camp I changed my shirt and socks and we headed to the cafeteria in Market Square for breakfast. I had a big bowl of oatmeal, coffee, and a big sugary cinnamon roll. After we finished we headed to the main visitor's center to figure out which trail to take for our hike. We decided on the South Kaibob Trail as we figured that we could plan on hiking to Skeleton Point and maybe even further to the river at the bottom if we felt up to it. We went back to the car and loaded up our day packs. I filled my pack's 2 liter bladder and added a couple bottles of Gatorade along with a couple apples, a Zone bar, and a Power bar for high energy snacks. Additionally, I had a small first aid kit in the pack and my pocket knife. Because a huge cold front had moved across the country, the weather was overcast, still amazingly windy, and unusually cold. In fact, I wore a t-shirt, a zip up sweater, and my wind breaker just to keep warm. I also wore my new hat as it was sunny, at least for now. I had to tighten the chin strap to ensure that it wouldn't blow off.
Our preparations finished, we went and waited for the green shuttle bus that would take us to the trail head. The ride was short. On the way we talked with a couple of other passengers and S. joked with Charlie the bus driver.
We arrived, disembarked, and put on our packs. Walking up to the trail, I looked down into the canyon. "Wow", I thought, "we're really high up." After looking over just for a second or two, with no formality we simply started down the first of the switchbacks.
The grade was steep but the trail cut into the canyon was well made. We descended at a good clip, pausing only briefly now and again to admire the view and snap a picture or two. Often, I would look back and marvel at how far we had dropped. The first 10 or so minutes hiking were in the shade but after the trail reached a ridge we moved further in to the canyon and into sunlight. I took off my windbreaker shell at the end of the ridge where the trail returned to the increasingly familiar switchbacks.
The sky was full of clouds and the strong cold wind seemed to be bringing more clouds rather than dispersing the ones already present. From the look of things, the forecast of only a 20% chance of rain seemed overly optimistic.
As we descended, Scott's knees started to bother him. I could tell from his occasional comments that he was debating with himself as to whether or not he could hike all the way to the river and out; and that he certainly wanted to try. I myself wondered how well I would perform after only 3 hours of sleep and 6 or 7 miles of night hiking. I resolved to keep this concern to myself since the whole reason we were here was to hike the canyon.
We continued our brisk descent slowing briefly to gingerly work our way around a ranger led tour group that kept stopping for lectures.
Besides the tour group, there were quite a few people on the trail already, even though it wasn't yet 8am. I don't recall seeing more than 2 or 3 solo hikers. There were a good number of couples hiking and then there were also a few groups - often of teenagers chaperoned by adults.
We reached the first scenic area listed on the trail map as a destination for a shorter hike in record time. I was glad to see they had toilets as I needed to use the facilities. The area was on top of a wide peninsula that jutted out into the canyon. This peninsula was bare exposed rock and it ended in what appeared to be a cliff. I headed out to the overlook to see the view and snap a couple photos but stopped about 3/4 out because of the ferocious wind. While the wind was fairly concerning while hiking, out on this exposed finger of rock it had become quite alarming. As I stood there and debated whether I wanted to continue, S. caught up with me and kept walking. I followed after. The view was extraordinary. We had descended far enough that we could now make out more detail of the canyon floor - which is to say that we could now distinguish trees from grass from rocks. The constant driving wind actually made talking rather difficult. I didn't feel safe as I figured if the wind gusted stronger it could really cause a problem. As we headed back off the finger I felt it necessary to hold onto the top of my hat as I thought that even with the chin strap it could be ripped off. Just as we were nearly off the peninsula we spotted a big ranger led tour group and so rushed to get on the trail ahead of them.
We continued our descent. There is a lot of variety to the trail, actually. In some places it is just dirt sloping downward - these sections are too short and far between. Much of the trail is steps of one kind or another. Some steps are formed from chiseled rock - there is a lot of difference in these as the rock is often irregular and difficult to walk on or over. A lot of stairs are formed from a log set crosswise across the trail and then backfilled with dirt and rocks - a lot of these were fine to walk down, but often we did so knowing that they'd be hard to walk up as the rise was so great.
As we continued down we couldn't help but notice the black clouds piling up to the west and upwind of us. They were low and brooding and ominous. We were moving down the trail at a fast pace as we began to feel that the weather wouldn't hold indefinitely. I paused only long enough to shed another layer of clothing, down to my short sleeved sport shirt.
Winded from a prolonged stretch of fast paced hiking, we pulled off in a big open area next to the trail. IT was located about 1 or 2 hundred yards uphill of Skeleton Point and looked to be used for tying up mules. S. ate a Zone bar and I ate an apple while we discussed what to do. S. was even more worried about his knees as they were hurting pretty bad. My right knee had started to hurt as well, in the back. I hadn't had that problem in years. I was more concerned about the weather, however, as the sky looked like it was preparing to dump and I could feel the barometric pressure changing.
S. said he really wanted to hike all the way to the bottom but didn't think his knees would be able to do it. I could tell he was a little frustrated. I took a moment before I replied and then said that it sure looked like a big storm was coming and I that I'd hate to get caught out in it. I continued, saying that if it were just our knees I'd try for the canyon floor but that since the weather seemed to be against us I figured we should turn back. I think maybe he had hoped I would urge him onward but agreed that turning back was the prudent course of action. THat decided, we finished eating in silence.
Zipping our trash into our packs, we stood up and put them on and started our trek uphill back the way we came. After about 10 minutes, I asked S. about his knees nad he reported that they felt much better. I was glad to hear it as I'd forgotten his knees more going downhill than uphill. On the other hand, my right knee was starting to hurt sharply.
S. had set his runner's watch at the beginning of our hike and it had taken us 1 hour fifteen minutes to get down to Skeleton Point at which point he set the lap timer when we headed back up. He wanted to beat or equal our downhill time with our uphill time. I called him a "crazy runner person". However, we hiked at a fast pace, him because he wanted to beat his time, me because I wanted to beat the rain.
About 20 or 30 minutes into our upward hike I really started to struggle. I couldn't keep up with S.'s faster pace and the pain in my knee was quite bad. S. would stop and wait for me now and again and when I would catch up he would be rested and so would take off up the hill. For quite a while I attempted to forgo rest stops in an effort to try and keep up with him. Then for a while I got pretty annoyed, which while perhaps somewhat understandable wasn't really useful.
By the time we reached the big area with the bathroom facilities I was moving pretty slowly. S. went to use the facilities and I pulled a Gatorade out of my pack and chugged most of it. We started out again and I resolved to myself to hike faster. This lasted quite awhile but I still could not match S.'s pace. In the end, I realized that skipping rest stops wasn't practical. I also realized that if S. wanted to hike out together then he would have to slow his pace as it was impossible for me to increase mine without causing myself problems. I remembered my hiking from Boy Scouts and that it is the faster hiker's job to keep the group together. Rather than get mad for some silly reason, I decided that if S. wanted to hike out by himself more quickly, then I'd just let him. Instead of hurting myself by trying to keep up with him I resolved to hike at a more natural pace and take care of myself.
It was interesting to see that there were a lot of people on the trail still down into the canyon. It was still early, maybe 9:30 and so the people heading down trail were hikers who got a later start that we. The trail was actually starting to get crowded. S. and I were both surprised at how many people were hiking without any water, especially since all the rangers and information at the visitor's center specify anywhere from 1 to 3 liters of water (and snacks) per person depending on which trail point you hiked to.
I shortened my stride to alleviate the pressure on the back of my knee and it helped. I concentrated on walking more softly. That worked for awhile until, well, I was pretty tired and wasn't concentrating very well. Many of the stairs were rough or had a large rise and were hard on the legs. After a few minutes of struggling with trying to walk gently on the uneven terrain and slowing my pace way down I got frustrated with my progress and just started pumping my arms and hauling ass. I decided to just ignore the pain. I still couldn't catch S. but I didn't really care if I did. At that point I just wanted to finish. I figured it wouldn't have been so difficult a hike for me if I'd had a good night of sleep and at least hadn't hiked all night. "Regardless of the cause of the situation", I thought to myself, "let's just push through and resolve it."
I still had to stop occasionally to catch my breath, but I didn't stay stopped for long. Sometimes I'd snap a picture of the dark clouds rolling in. I was amazed people were still descending and started to wonder if they knew more about the weather than I did. Sometimes I found myself clenching my fists and would have to consciously release them.
At one point I saw a ranger up ahead who was talking to all the hikers coming down the trail. When I finally caught up with him it turned out that he was telling people that there was actually a 20% chance of snow! Amazing.
At another point the trail up rounded a point and the wind which had been blowing us safely towards the cliff face now was at our backs. I spread my arms wide and let it mostly push me up that section. It felt refreshing and exhilarating. A couple of turns later and we were hiking into a headwind.
The last 15 minutes or so of hiking out were the hardest due to my left leg cramping up. By that time, however, I didn't really care as I knew I was nearly done. I just kept slogging through until I reached the top just a couple minutes behind S. It turns out that we hiked out in 1 hour flat which makes our round trip to Skeleton Point 2 1/4 hours. The visitor's center estimates the average time for that 6 mile round trip to be 4-6 hours. When S. found that tidbit out he seemed to feel pretty proud. I guess I did too, though it took me about 10 or 15 minutes before I caught my breath and started to feel better.
S. was eating an apple when the shuttle bus pulled up. The door opened and it was the same driver, Charlie, that S. had joked with on the way over. Charlie told S. he couldn't eat food on the bus but that he could hold the half eaten apple in his hand. S. tried to finish the apple before the bus was ready to go but couldn't. Charlie started to give S. a countdown from 10 which caused S. to quit eating and hop aboard, laughing all the way to his seat.
After I had sat on the bus a few minutes my legs felt much better - so did my feet. My knee was stiff and a little sore but not like when I was climbing stairs. Maybe the lesson is that immediate pain isn't as important as we think it is. Or maybe I need to reflect on my ready willingness to push myself to pain and bodily harm in an effort to accomplish something quickly that could better be done more quietly and in its own time. Perhaps there is something to both those thoughts.
Back at the car, we tucked our packs in the trunk and headed for the showers. When we got there, the change clerk was absent and several people said they had been waiting for 15 or more minutes. We were anxious to get clean since we hadn't showered since yesterday - before we hiked twice in Sedona. We hopped back in the car and went down the road 2 minutes to the bank and got a couple rolls of quarters.
Once back, the showers were uneventful yet luxuriously hot. It really is a delight how much a hot shower and a shave can lighten one's mood.
That done, we took a minute to repack and reorganize the car and we were off - way back south to highway 40 West to Kingman where we turned North to see Hoover Dam. It was a beautiful sunny drive and we had a lot of fun talking and joking and looking at stuff out the window as we sped through the desert. Our spirits were high after the big hike.
Hoover Dam is magnificent. Normally, S. and I would go through the museum and watch the film when we go to an attraction, but we just didn't feel like it this time. Instead, we just walked out over and across the dam and I took a few pictures and S. told me what he remembered from when he took the tour a few years ago.
Afterwards, we drove on. S. asked if I wanted to go into Las Vegas and I said no. Instead, I replied, that I'd prefer to make more time driving towards California. That seemed reasonable so we went South on highway 15 all the way to Barstow, CA which is pretty much in the center of Southern California. We didn't really intend to go that far but since we didn't think it through that's the way it worked out. We checked in an inexpensive motel around 8:30 and then went down the road a couple blocks for dinner. We were really tired and ended up snipping at each other a little just out of shear exhaustion. Back at the motel we hauled our duffels into the room and just watched t.v. for a few minutes before going to sleep.