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GRAND CANYON #2: November 2019


In late June, at the base of favorite Italian Dolomite peaks, we chatted with a weary-looking German family midway through their multi-night, hut-to-hut trek. Each was carrying a huge backpack. When we parted, I privately lamented how overloaded they were, particularly for sleeping indoors and eating in the huts. Since talking with ultra-light backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) a couple of years ago in the US desert SW, I was a self-appointed critic of other people’s heavy packs, an instant expert.

Since I couldn’t carry a 40- or 50-pound pack myself, then no one else should, I reasoned. And since all of this cool, light-weight gear was available that we hadn’t know about, why was anyone risking injury with the extra weight? I especially bristled when seeing small women and teenage girls crumpling under the compressive forces of huge, ill-fitting packs with excessive weight when better options were available.
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We were sitting on a lower scree slope that was about at the center of this photo (taken after a hailstorm) while discussing backpacking.

Once we’d nestled our foam sit mats into a scree slope to eat lunch, I started online searching for home vacuum sealers, with unexpected reception. Talking with the German family had me lamenting that now that I needed to avoid dairy in addition to carbs, I couldn’t ever eat a meal in a hut. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I could vacuum seal freeze-dried meats at home to eat in huts should we want to do overnighters in the Dolomites.

My oral drama that swiftly transitioned from self-pity and despair through to resolution sparked a different stream of thoughts in Bill’s mind: he blurted out that he wanted to backpack in the US. “Really? OK,” I said. A week or 2 later, he started researching and ordering a tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and a ground cloth as they went on sale for his first-ever backpack trip. My main contribution was to select our new backpacks that never went on sale; the ULA pack preferred by through-hikers like those on the PCT.

Outfitting for Ultra-Light Backpacking
Our goal was that of this elite, ultra-light crowd: to have a 12-pound base weight of gear with food and water topping out our loads at no more than 20 pounds. Our selections were slightly less spartan than recommended online by the pros, opting for a 2-layer rather than 1-layer tent to reduce condensation; thicker sleeping pads to be warmer and more comfortable; and warmer sleeping bags than the purists. But unlike many in the younger crowed, we could afford to buy-up when needed to hit a better trade-off between comfort and weight.

I had previously read that it cost about $1000 per person to purchase all ultra-light gear to make the 12-pound base weight target. We were extremely pleased to come in under $700 per person and to have more comfortable gear than specified. Bill’s careful research and good luck with the sales trimmed the cost. We knew that with our vulnerable backs and knees, that we could only backpack if we kept it light.
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Our feather-weight Big Agnes tent at Hermit Creek Campground.

The camping essentials consumed just over half of our targeted 12 pound base weight, leaving us enough to spare for better headlamps and more rain gear than is the standard. Deciding not to cook gave us a little extra margin because we eliminated the stove, fuel, and pan.

I weighed-in at 14 pounds for my camping gear, personal items, and an extra quarter pound penalty for buying the women’s version of the sleeping bag. After adding water for the entire day and food for a day and a half, I made the 20-pound target. That included treating ourselves to ‘wet’ food--regular food--for our lunch and dinner on the first day. We could have shaved another 2 pounds by substituting dried food for those meals, which we would have done for a 2-night event. We were so pleased with our weight that we recklessly tossed in a few luxury items, like an avocado for breakfast, which brought us up to 22 pounds each.

Backpacking Base Weight Gear List per Person:
Tent Footprint
1 lb 2 oz
3 oz
2 lb 6 oz
11 oz
2 lb 2 oz
Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 Platinum
Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 Platinum
Nemo Equipment Mummy, Azura, Regular, Womens
Nemo Switchback, short, closed cell foam
ULA Ohm 2.0
Total: 6 lb 8 oz (2.95 kg) $668

Hermit Creek Campground
Spending a night or 2 at the Hermit Creek Campground is definitely a “B” list destination in the Grand Canyon. For us and the others we spoke with there, it’s where you go when you’ve done the primer events in the inner canyon, which are staying at Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel campground at the Colorado River and hiking some variant of going between the rims.

We’d stayed at Phantom Ranch and hiked from there on 3 occasions, for 2, 3, and 4-night stays. And we had done five Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim events, one Rim-2-Rim, and we hike to Phantom Ranch for a cup of bad coffee for Bill and back as a day trip several times each year. “Well-worn paths” for us, like for the others overnighting at Hermit Campground.
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Thermal gills to regulate temperature on Barb’s mummy bag.

We were feeling like old hands with the Grand Canyon’s mesmerizing endurance events that were within reach for us in this lifetime, so Bill’s quest had been for a new spin. Hermit Trail could be done as a day hike, being only 16.5 miles round trip with 4300‘ gain on the ascent and 1000’ of gain on the descent. But with pit toilets and a year-round creek for water, it is a unique camping destination in the inner canyon that is off the high-volume corridor through Phantom Ranch.

We’d hoped to do 2 test trips of shorter distances in less, all-or-nothing settings before the Hermit hike, but we canceled both outings because of Bill’s ongoing back muscle spasms. Even though Hermit Creek is a primitive site, it required reservations and Bill took what he could get given we were months late in making a request for the highly sought-after spots.

What heading to Hermit delivered that we didn’t expect was that it was an exceptionally beautiful hike. To quote a favorite author, Emily Nagoski, about human beings “we are all made of the same parts, organized in different ways;” the Grand Canyon South Rim trails to the river cut through all of the same numerous and fantastic geologic layers, but the trails all look different. Unlike the others, the Hermit Trail does long traverses through single geologic layers, creating a magical experience and triggering images of earlier peoples whose routes we were sometimes on. We’d do it again in a flash for the scenery alone.

We had a very successful 1st backpack trip to Hermit Creek Campground in the Grand Canyon on a Sunday and Monday (after the weekend rush). We loved all of our new ultra-light gear.
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Very Grand Canyon-esque: hanging our packs & food to defeat the very aggressive rodents.

The tent was a snap to set-up after only 1 trial run in our living room and it held-up well in the strong wind and brief showers. The pads kept us warm and completely shielded us from the lumps and bumps on the ground, which wasn’t the case with either the foam or inflatable pads we used for cyclotour camping almost 20 years ago. The mummy bags rated for 20 degrees F were tight-fitting and sufficiently warm. And the ULA backpacks, the only items we’d tested on the trail in advance, were comfortable and a delight to use.

Our pace was predictably slow on the steep, rough, trail but we felt confident and secure. Bill’s new cervical collar gave him 2 pain-free days of hiking despite his incompletely resolved back muscle spasms. The collar was a clever trick: it almost corrected his head-forward position, which shifted the job of supporting his head to his underused upper back muscles, and spared his irritated low back muscles.

We were also extremely pleased with our capacity to carry our loads on the trail in good form. We’d succeeded in making the 20-pound cut-off with our pack weight AND we’d conditioned our bodies just enough for the demands of the additional weight. The 4 months of training with increasing our pack weights from our usual 12 pounds to 20 pounds to beef-up our core strength was sufficient.

We were so smitten by the all-body strength training achieved with heavy packs that we intended to continue doing so weekly for several months. Clearly, it was superior to any resistance training routine we could have done because it stressed our bodies for hours, not minutes. Lifting weights for the recommended 20 minutes, 3 times a week doesn’t come close to having the same effect on the deep muscles that one gets from carrying a heavy pack.
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Barb loaded up & ready to go.

I’ll be interested to see if the conventional wisdom of 6 months to condition soft tissues for a new sport is the needed number of months required here too to be really sturdy. I felt a noticeable difference in my ability to accommodate the pack weight from the beginning of October until the end, even though I only carried 18 lbs most days. I can believe I’ll feel even more solid at the end of November, after Month 5.

This discovery of a seemingly superior way to fend-off age-related muscle wasting (sarcopenia) and core weakness made the investment of time and money in our backpacking event worthwhile, even if we don’t do another one. It was an epiphany. It went a long way in explaining why many hikers fade away around age 75 and likely had given us a way to chart a different course for ourselves.

The only crisis on our first backpacking trip was that in the morning after our first night in our new tent, our Steri-Pen for purifying water failed. We’d used it the night before, and it worked fine. Bill connected it to both of our battery chargers, which didn’t help. Fortunately, always fearful of an untimely failure of such a critical item, I’d loaded us up with purifying tablets. They required 4 hours to kill Crypto (a nasty intestinal parasite), so we went without any water until noon on our hike out. Sub-optimal, but tolerable. Of course, we couldn’t hydrate our freeze-dried breakfast that we had vacuum sealed, so eating also had to wait.

I’d had a nasty cold for 2 weeks and did one pair of R2R2Rs ‘under the influence’ of it. Then on our hike-out day, Monday, about when I felt like the worst of the cold was behind me, I had yet another wrinkle in my respiratory challenges. My nose and 1 eye started gushing while we hiked out. It seemed like it was an allergic response on top of my lingering cold symptoms, rather than a worsening of my cold, but it was hard to know for sure.

Suddenly, the piles of chunky, bloody mucus I’d been snorting out for 2 weeks went almost clear, but the faucet wouldn’t shut-off, it was almost non-stop. I’d have to pause before doing tricky spots on the trail to wait for a slow-down in the pooling from my left eye so I could see clearly and to mop up my nose. I was miserable. It probably cost us an extra hour for the many extra stops I had to make. And of course, that much congestion also compromises one’s breathing.
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Bill’s sleep mat on top of his pack caught too much wind.

When we got back to our trailer, I used a generic Flonase nasal spray product, which I’d only used once before, in case it was an allergic response. I was lying in bed wondering how I’d sleep without drowning and the flood suddenly stopped. It was about 2 hours after using the drug and I had an exceptionally good night’s sleep.

I was much better the next day and then at dinner time, the nasal dripping and eye tearing got rolling again. This time, drug knocked it out in about 20 minutes, which made the diagnosis. Sometimes in medicine, the definitive diagnosis is made by observing to which treatment the condition responds. We were both put at ease to finally understand that I really was having an unusual presentation of an ordinary allergy and not some other more obscure health issue. Like the cold however, this bout with allergies would not be short-lived.

These 2 glitches, with our water purifier and my sudden, severe, onset of hay fever, underscored the difficulty in deciding, as travelers, how much ‘insurance’ to carry; the cost-benefit ratio of additional items. We can’t carry everything we might possibility need with us all of the time.

The weight and space restrictions of being cyclotourists, then hikers, and now occasionally minimalist backpackers, keeps the question of where to draw the line on what we carry with us front and center. Even being in somewhat remote places in a trailer compels us to cover ourselves for the unexpected, which is why I had ready access to the Flonase. The test question when traveling on bikes in the Alps is always: “What if we suddenly have ___ problem on a Saturday night, how many hours or days will we have to go without the needed remedy?”

The Flonase generic is an item we carry when abroad, and in the trailer, but not on the trails. That’s a decision I may change; it may become a standard part of my trail emergency kit even though I use it about once every 10 years. Our water purifying capacity has always been a no-brainer for me: if you really need it, you need 2 systems. We had 2 systems, but the glitch compelled us to immediately replace the Steri-Pen with something even more reliable for next time.
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Santa Maria Springs was the only rest house on the trail.

Trade-offs; deciding what to carry is all about trade-offs; about risk assessment. The decisions made won’t ever be perfect. Everyone draws the lines in different places and hopes for the best.

Subsequent to our backpack event, we spoke with PCT hikers on the trail that had gotten their base weights down to about 6 pounds, half of the gold standard. They were using home-made quilts instead of sleeping bags and had ditched their 2-layer tents for single layer ones.

Others at the Grand Canyon are always a fun part of our experience and the Hermit Creek Trail was no exception. One of 6 trails on the South Rim to the Colorado River, it is probably #3 for traffic, but definitely a distant third.

Bright Angel Trail is by far the most popular route, likely in part because its trailhead is at a transportation hub for tour buses, shuttle buses, and parking lots. Our favorite, the S Kaibab Trail at the east end of the visitation area, receives swarms of visitors too, but being less convenient and only accessed by foot or shuttle bus, it’s not as busy. But even in the off season when we visit the park, on either trail we’ll likely see hundreds of day hikers or casual visitors; dozens of backpackers; and perhaps less than a dozen trail runners.

The mix on the Hermit Creek Trail was startlingly different than what we’d come to expect: it was almost exclusively backpackers and they only numbered in the dozens. There were 2 - 4 day visitors on the trail and zero trail runners. Also missing on Hermit were the mule trains hauling guests and supplies to Phantom Ranch and trail maintenance materials, which are a daily sight on the top 2 trails.

An unwelcome presence unique to Hermit Trail was the endless whir of helicopters. Being at the far west end of the park, our trail was near the flight path for sightseeing helicopters. Barely a second passed during their operating hours that we didn’t hear 1, 2, or 3 at a time. Just when you thought you could enjoy the quiet sounds of nature among the dwarfing rock formations, it would be gone, interrupted by the rumble of a chopper, usually followed by another. The number of helicopters we saw and heard in a day far exceeded the number of people we saw on the trail. I don’t go to the outdoors to get away from it all, to be alone, but I do look forward to escaping the non-stop hum of transportation.
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The iconic cottonwoods shading the benches at Indian Garden were gone.

When hiking in the Italian Dolomites during the summers, we eagerly watch for new features, like kids on an Easter egg hunt. The ski villages aggressively install new things to keep the excitement level high for both their winter and summer guests. It seems like in the last few years, there is always a new biking event of some kind, whether it be for mountain or e-bikes. There are new cultural events on the calendar and new public art in the village squares and on the close-in walking trails. They are constantly sprucing, upgrading, and adding features to make it feel like the happening place it is.

In contrast, things in the Grand Canyon change at a pace more in keeping with geologic time. Endless budget cuts and growing visitation rates leaves little cash to spare for novelties. Being primed to watch for the smallest new detail in the Dolomites, our brains are still in ‘search’ mode when we arrive at the national park in the fall. A sign added or removed will be noted by us, and likewise their new Hike Smart campaign on bulletin boards caught our attention. Being in micro-mode for noticing change meant that the 2 new structural changes we spotted on the trails this year were positively jaw-dropping.

The first shock was seeing that some of the big, shady cottonwoods had been cut down at Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail. This was a horrifying change at the most popular hiker rest stop in the Canyon. With the shade went the ambiance. I never heard what the cause was for their removal but the 2 canvas ramadas were poor substitutes for the trees because they didn’t quite shade the always-popular benches.

Equally shocking was seeing a structure being assembled at Tip-Off, part way down the S Kaibab Trail. It had appeared during the week we were away at Flagstaff. Bill learned that it actually had been brought in by helicopter the day before from the S Rim. It was a steel shade hut donated by the parents of an experienced, adult backpacker who died of dehydration in the canyon several years ago. It had giant roof gutters that directed the rare rain into cisterns that were intended to provide cooling water, not drinking water. Of course, if you were dying of dehydration, you’d be a fool not to drink that water even if you didn’t purify it.
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Finishing the memorial hut at Tip-Off on the S Kaibab Trail.

We spotted a very plump coyote nonchalantly trotting on the asphalt road’s shoulder while we biked back from Hermit’s Rest at the west end of the Park. He, like us, was clearly enjoying sharing the closed road with only a few cyclists and the shuttle buses. Oncoming, he surely knew we were there, but he totally ignored us. When he got to the right spot, without missing a beat, he turned into the juniper and scrub forest and instantly became invisible.

This was the first coyote we’d ever seen during our many visits to the Grand Canyon, though we occasionally saw coyote scat (poo) on the trails. Most remarkable however, was how plump he was; all of the coyotes we’d seen over the years in other places were extremely lean.

Not being quick enough to snap a photo of this coyote reminded me of the times we had winced when fellow travelers with monster-sized camera lenses said that they were going to take photos of wildlife. “Really? Wildlife?” we’d say to ourselves. All of the places we go in the US and in Europe are all but devoid of visible wildlife. Of non-herd animals, we’d seen 1 bobcat, 1 weasel, 1 red fox, 1 bear, and several coyotes over almost 20 years.

While we pedaled under the typically brilliant blue skies of the high desert, I reviewed the short list of wildlife that we’d seen in the Grand Canyon. There were the dozens of elk that made our RV park look like a petting zoo while they lapped up water from leaking water connections and laid down in the road to rest. There were the imposing black ravens that peacefully co-existed with the elk to drink water from the same sources and shred a garbage bag or sewer hose.
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Even in the sun, this rattlesnake was too cold to coil, hiss, or rattle a second time.

We had seen 2 rattlesnakes on the trails in the middle of nowhere this year but other snakes, like the elk and ravens, had adapted to camp life in the park. We were told several years ago that backpacker campgrounds are high risk areas for encountering rattlesnakes because the snakes eat mice and mice come out at night to clean-up after messy eaters in the campground, or to tear into bags and tents for kicks. Both the snakes and the rodents are much wilder than the elk and ravens and yet some of them, like the squirrels, had learned how to ‘work the crowds’ for regular meals.

It seemed that even our very well-fed coyote wasn’t really wild; I assumed his extra girth was courtesy of the baby elk that were a protected species in the park. Easy eating for a robust coyote, no doubt.

Pedaling slightly uphill at 7,000’ above sea level compelled me to continue seeking distractions from my body’s complaints about the effort and I pressed further to remember what we might encounter in the park that was truly wild. To my amusement, I settled on the water-borne parasites, Cryptosporidium and Giardia, as the only truly wild things in our sphere, though we couldn’t see them. Yup, the only really wild wildlife was microscopic, beyond the reach of telephoto lenses.
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The elk & ravens enjoying camp life together.

Such a busy social season for us! Early in October, my new pen pal, Leslie from Texas, dropped in with her husband Leon for visit while we were at the Grand Canyon and then in early November, we had dinner with other friends. By chance, Bill and Rosie, who split their time between Boulder, CO and France, had reservations for Phantom Ranch the night after we were leaving the Grand Canyon for the year. There was just enough overlap in our schedules to squeeze in an early dinner together the day they arrived in the park.

We’d met them in the summer of 2017 on a trail that is in the mountain cluster photo at the top of this file. We were of course wearing some unlikely looking, minimalist footwear and we were timing our ascent on a difficult trail. When Bill said he wanted to talk about the shoes, I replied “We’ll talk to you at the top,” which we did.

Bill and Rosie are very experienced mountaineers, hikers, and travelers and Bill had foot issues, so we had a lot to talk about then in person and since in emails. I’d shared our tips about the Grand Canyon and Phantom Ranch and they finally were able to get reservations this fall. It was fun to reconnect with them, particularly since we have traveled to many of the same places.

Life is easy for us in the Grand Canyon. There are inconveniences, like a 2-week limit in the RV park; no RV park showers; freezing nights that put our water line at risk of freezing; and having to put out and reel in our sewer line every day to avoid damage by the ravens. But of course, on the scale of life’s inconveniences, the needle doesn’t move off of the “Zero” mark. Quiet, peaceful, easy, grand—we love being there. We look forward to it every year and are already working on next year’s reservations to do it all again.

It’s a 2-day drive from the Grand Canyon to the Pine Cove, near Idyllwild, 6,000’ above Palm Springs but on the other side of the mountain. We would hike from the scruffy campground for 2 weeks, being joined by hiking club members escaping the desert heat some days. We would go from anonymous hiking in the Grand Canyon to being a bit in demand as trail mates, in part because we were well positioned for supporting area hikes requiring shuttling. The change in tempo occurred even before we arrived with the flurry of emails to set hiking dates.

By the time we’d hiked for about 3 weeks from Pine Cove and Banning lower down at San Gorgonio Pass, both on the periphery of the desert floor, we would have hiked with almost all of the early-arriving, top hikers in the club. Then, with our December 1 arrival in Palm Springs, we’d join up with the rest of the club’s hikers and begin leading hikes ourselves.