There are superheroes in the world! Not the kind where you think that your mom or dad is your hero, or the fireman you read about that rescued a family from a burning building; but actual real superheroes with powers greater than most mortals. As it turns out, these super-beings aren’t on the front page of magazines and newspapers, nor do they grace the pages of comic books or are the subjects of summer blockbuster movies.
This revelation came to me a number of years ago as I was hiking up the Marangu Route on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We were supported by a team of porters who were regularly carrying loads of up to 50 or 60 pounds up and down the slopes of the 19,340 foot elevation of the mountain – and they were doing with the speed and agility of bus boys at a high end hotel chain. Though impressive, Kili is nowhere close to being in the upper echelon of mountain summits. The 8,000+ meter peaks of the Himalayas where the sherpas perform the same types of tasks as my porters in Tanzania did is truly a Herculean feat. In fact, the oxygen level is so low here that most people would pass out after a short walk on level surface without first spending days acclimatizing at lower elevations. At sea level, oxygen is about 20.9% of the air we breath. By the time we reach 7,000 feet, that level has reduced to 16%. At Kilimanjaro, I was trying to breath in air that only made up 10.1% of air, or less than half of the oxygen at sea level. By the time the Himalayan climbers get over the 8,000 meter (26,246 feet), that has dropped further to around 7.5%. Here is a handy chart to see the drop over elevation.
I was thinking about these porters and sherpas while climbing my own way out of the Grand Canyon along the Bright Angel trail with a 45 pound backpack strapped on. It wasn’t the climb that was particularly difficult, despite the steep grade and the relatively warm temperature of late May. Rather, it was the constant strain and repositioning of the loaded pack that drifted my thoughts to superheroes and the sherpas that substitute for them in our real world. It was a good distraction, in that it made me feel that I actually had it pretty easy in comparison and was only climbing to about 6800 feet above sea level.
So, what led me to all of this huffing and puffing to begin with? Let’s go back a little ways to the inception of this trip. Back in September of 2005, I went on a rafting trip down the eastern half of the Colorado River. Over the course of 6 days, our party rafted 90 miles from Lee’s Ferry to a mile past the Phantom Ranch lodge to a point called the River Resthouse. From here, we piled out of the rafts and hiked 8 miles up the Bright Angel trail to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to conclude our trip. The hike was a nice way to end the trip, and it wasn’t too bad of a climb out, especially since I was carrying maybe 7 pounds in my backpack and most of that was a diminishing supply of water and sandwiches. After reaching the top in just over 6 hours from the river, and feeling pretty good about myself, I figured that the next step would be to do the full monty and tackle the quintessential Rim-to-Rim hike.
Now, almost six years later, I found myself standing at the entrance to the North Kaibab Trail at an elevation of 8241 feet above sea level. The shuttle had just dropped us off after a five hour drive from the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. This was the last mode of transportation required to get us to the starting point of this trip. The journey actually started 12 hours earlier as I took an early morning flight out of San Jose, CA to Phoenix, Arizona. From there, an exceedingly long flight of 24 minutes on a puddle jumper took us up to Flagstaff. It was one of those few times in my life where the time spent taxiing on the runway was longer than the airplane ride itself. In any case, from Flagstaff, we rented a car and drove the 75 miles up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, stopping off along to way at a couple of places to find some fuel for my collapsible cooking stove. And finally, once at the South Rim, we had arranged for the Trans-Canyon Shuttle to make the 220 mile drive up to the North Rim. Needless to say, there is a lot of logistics involved in putting this together, which could be another reason why so few people actually do it.
It was now just a bit before 7 PM, the spring sun was starting to wane, and the first trail campground was 6.8 miles, 4161 vertical feet, and billions of years of geological time below us.
Despite a full convoy of about 50 travelers on the numerous shuttles, we were the only ones starting the journey tonight, which wasn’t a great omen. But throwing caution to the wind, as I usually like to do when death is on the line (just kidding), we started our decent down the steep switchbacks of the North Rim. We were making pretty good time, but the further we descended, the less light was penetrating into the canyon. Between the steepness of the grade, the diminishing light, and the heavy loads on our backs, we managed to make it down to the first rest stop by around 8:15 PM. There was water as well as a restroom here and was really the first area we came across that was wider than just the trail we were on. So, we made a decision to camp here for the night, even though it wasn’t a formal camping spot. We unloaded our bags, set up the tent, had an energy bar, and turned it for the night by 9 PM.
At this point, we were at an elevation of 6800 feet, and it’s amazing how quickly the temperature fell once darkness set in. A sleeping bag is essential at this altitude. The temperature dropped down to the mid 40’s in a couple of hours, but sleeping under the stars in such a remote area of the canyon was an excellent way to end this first day.