In 2016, our descent to the Colorado River occurred before a snowstorm and subsequent cold front. We had no difficulty descending the South Kaibab Trail, its first mile covered by a few inches of hard pack snow and ice. The same went for ascending the Bright Angel Trail a few days later, its last mile covered by less than a foot of fresh powder. Mule service to and from Phantom Ranch was never interrupted.
This year was drastically different. Our descent was scheduled after three heavy snowstorms. Several feet of snow blanketed the first three miles from the rim. Park Service closed the South Kaibab Trail and suspended mule service. Idle mule drivers and wranglers weren’t making money, so they helped the cause by shoveling out “The Chimney,” the first half-mile and steepest section of the South Kaibab Trail.
A day before our descent,one of our guides checked conditions of The Chimney and a mile further to Cedar Ridge. She rated both sections passable. The weather forecast called for sunny weather, so we got the green light for our Friday morning descent.
At first light, we started our descent, equipped with poles, crampons and boot gators. Though dug out, the trail was still covered with hard pack and ice.We took twice as long as last year, fighting the chunky unstable conditions.
The descent got even tougher below Cedar Ridge (barely two miles down),which hadn’t been shoveled at all. Only a narrow strip of surface was packed (probably by a few day hikers and our tour guide). Deviating from this strip meant a sudden dropping to two to three feet of snow—very unnerving! It felt like walking on dinosaur eggs!
The area between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point was most treacherous. Our lead guide, a thirty-year veteran of this trail slowed our pace because she couldn’t see the trail’s edge. One wrong step and we could have plunged through the snowdrift and down a few thousand feet! I wondered why we weren’t fastened to safety lines. It didn’t help when an ascending group of hikers approached us. We had to lean against the cliff wall to let them pass.
Somehow we survived the trek to Skeleton Point, where the snow ended and only a few ice patches remained. We kept our crampons on until reaching “The Tip Off,” approximately five miles down.My stress level decreased, but muscle burn had already set in. We made more stops to rehydrate and snack than we did last year—odd for a descent. I ran out of gas the last mile and trudged the flat river trail to Phantom Ranch. The descent took seven hours.Upon arriving at our cabin,I stretched for an hour, napped for another and lingered in a warm shower until dinner.
Phantom Ranch was in dire straits because of suspended mule service. We watched helicopters with fixed lines haul away a week’s worth of trash (two trips) as well as drop down food and beverage for Phantom Ranch guests.
Our hike was supposed to be mule-assisted, so my pack weighed a few extra pounds despite eliminating batteries, rain gear, and extra change of clothes. I was determined, however, to haul down my first novel, “The Azurite Encounter,” depositing it on the cantina’s bookshelf. It weighed less than a pound and was worth leaving behind most of my toiletries in the car.
I have mixed feelings about this year’s trip to Phantom Ranch. Yes, the canyon views were breathtaking. Yes, I enjoyed meeting other hikers at the Phantom Ranch. But I didn’t enjoy the mental and physical stress of the descent. The only saving grace was my group.They kept a positive attitude the entire time, which helped me. We spent much of our “recupe” playing the card game, “Uno.” I mentioned to my group how the characters in my novel also passed the time playing Uno on their Grand Canyon trip. My group requested I do a reading over dinner. How flattering!Other dinner attendees heard my reading, and after dinner, one hiker took my book off the shelf to read!
Our ascent to the rim did not seem as grueling. My spirits were lifted by the humor of my lady compadres. Like young spring deer they passed me, yelling something about rainbow colored Skittles. I was at least a half hour behind them but could still hear their encouraging words bellowing down to me.
Don’t think I’ll ever do a winter hike to Phantom Ranch again, but I have enough memories and photos to enjoy and share. My advice to anyone considering this trip: Know your limits, check the weather, and make sure the tour has a refundable cancellation policy. There’s no shame in “chickening out” in the name of safety. It’s less stressful to postpone your trip than trying to “tough it out” and risk sudden death.
Jane Frances Ruby
The Azurite Encounter