|Obligatory rim photo. It seems that the Canyon must be in a drought. There wasn't much snow on the rim at all.|
A chilly wind bit at my heels as I dropped lower in elevation. This was my gift to myself, a six day backpacking trip below the rim and up to the north rim and back, in the company of ten other like-minded individuals. It's often hard for me to find others who share my enthusiasm and I had hit a backpacking jackpot with this diverse group.
The South Kaibab is seven miles of switchbacks, interrupted by the long, sweeping expanse of the Tonto Plateau. It was there we lost the limited crowds and were left mostly to ourselves, in the deep, deep silence of a canyon winter.
I've been to the canyon in spring, when everyone goes. I've been to the canyon in summer, when it sizzles with heat. I've never been in winter. Down at Phantom Ranch it was still fall, the cottonwoods a glorious shade of yellow. As soon as the sun set in the Bright Angel campground, the temperatures plummeted to the mid-twenties, the stars brightly enormous in an unspoiled sky. I eyed Ashley's down booties with envy and regretted the ultralight decision to go light on layers. At night I shivered in my zero bag, wearing all the layers I had brought. My feet were blocks of ice. It seems like the older I get the less tolerant to cold I am.
|The mule trains go all winter. The mules have special spikes put on their shoes for the ice.|
But the canyon is beautiful in cold weather, the sun not reaching the walls of the inner gorge as we hiked up towards Cottonwood Campground, seven miles to the north. In a dry wash we turned our faces like flowers to the sun, almost warm enough to get down to the last layer. Only a handful of people passed us. It was as deserted as the canyon can get.
|There's the Colorado River!|
We reached Cottonwood in late afternoon. In the distance the North Rim loomed. We were going to go for it the following day, without knowing how deep the snow would be. There were rumors of a washout further up the trail. It would be fourteen miles of hiking through a strangely quiet place. It's true that people run through the rim to rim to rim in less than a day. We were taking six. I needed that long for the canyon to work its magic.
My Kindle quit working and I begged a book from Murali. The nights were fourteen hours long and brutally cold. I curled my body around a hot water bottle. Our little lights shone from our tents. There was something special about the canyon in winter that made me feel heroic.
The next day we would get up well before dawn to make our ascent. Would we make it? Would we be stopped by deep snow and ice? Much remained to be seen.
|Ribbon Falls, off the North Kaibab Trail|