An Epic Solo Hike into the Depths of the Grand Canyon

An Epic Solo Hike into the Depths of the Grand Canyon

                                                              By  Sally Anne Howard

The sun was beaming down on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, though it looked as though it could be the height of summer, the fall season had begun to get into full swing and the fact that I was over 8,000 feet above sea level meant there was a pretty crisp chill in the air.

This was my third visit to the Grand Canyon but my first time checking out the north side and the first time going it alone. I’ve had a lot of backcountry experience over the last few years but the last 18 months I’ve learnt to be completely self sufficient and at times have ventured of into the wild completely alone. It’s exciting, exhilarating and slightly petrifying all at the same time… but I wouldn’t change it for the world. That rush of endorphins that come flooding in when you’re stood at the top of some of the highest peaks (or deepest canyons in this case) makes every ounce of fear completely worth it!

My 70l Osprey Xena was full to the brim with gear which was absolutely no different to any other trip I have done. I am a bit of a hobbyist when it comes to photography and videography and insist on carting far too much camera gear with me no matter where I go, even if it is a 6000ft, 14 mile drop into the Grand Canyon.

With all my gear in my pack with the exception of my 2-person tent from Luxe Tempo, which I had clipped to the outside, I began the long and gruelling descent into the abyss.

I say gruelling but with every step I was more and more blown away by everything that surrounded me. I had seen the south rim in great detail but the north, this was just next level. Towering pillars of sandstone and limestone surrounded me. Drops that would give even the most fearless of people a touch of vertigo, I felt so small and so humbled to be where I was.

The first 6 miles to Cottonwood Campground are where you shave off most of the elevation, 4200 ft to be precise. I was expecting my knees to take a beating but it was my poor toes that took the brunt of my 20kg backpack. Nevertheless, I accepted that my stubbornness to not part with any of my camera gear ,but to leave my 2 person tent behind ,was all part of the adventure and continued to plod along at my slow and steady snail pace.

There is a cool stop-off about a mile after Cottonwood called Ribbon Falls and I had to go check it out. I ditched the big pack and set off with just my tripod and camera along the short 0.3-mile trip to the falls. It was hidden in a small alcove and required a bit of minor scrambling and a scurry across a small stream to get to there, but it was completely worth it. I then realized where the name came from, it was quite literally a thin white ribbon dancing gracefully in the wind against the rocky red backdrop of the sandstone.

I quickly realized that the sun had dropped, in what seemed like no time at all, the sky was starting to dance with hazy pinks and purples and I knew I wouldn’t be at the Colorado River in time for dark. Getting a little flustered I decided to whip my headlamp out and storm ahead as quickly as I could to minimize the dark hiking hours. I was pretty afraid once the security of the day had finally faded into the night. I was left surrounded by dark pillars with the occasional light of the moon bouncing off the Bright Angel Creek that ran beside me.

Every time I started to get a little irrational; you know, that the shadows were going to get me and the extremely rare mountain lions were going to eat me, I would look up to the stars to gain a sense of calm. The night sky has always had that effect on me, and as it got darker and darker the ever more apparent lights of the milky way above me gave me comfort in a time of need.

When I finally crossed the fourth and final bridge of the journey, I knew I was on the home stretch, less than a mile from camp! My energy levels spiked just enough to get me to the finish line. When I finally arrived at camp I grabbed a seat at the canteen of the ranch and had a celebratory beer and chatted with the locals. It’s amazing the kind of people you meet in the backcountry, all with amazing stories to tell.

I finished up my beer, wrote a postcard home and with what little reserves of energy I had left, I cooked up one of my backpacker meals, chicken risotto – very flavoursome, but far too runny. While the meal was standing, I seized the opportunity to quickly assemble my 2-person tent (I like to have the space) and set up my camera to see if I could grab a snap of the milky way. I gazed in awe as the longer I looked more dots of distant light appeared before my eyes, I saw a huge shooting star, the kind where you can see the tail burn away into the atmosphere. At that point I knew I was right where I needed to be.

As I dosed off to sleep after the longest day I’ve had in a while, I couldn’t quite help but appreciate how the simplest of things in life can make you feel so complete; nature, fresh air and the sound of the Colorado River gushing past my tent.

I was proud of my courage, ambition and determination to get down there. Now all I had to do was climb back out…

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