Hiking through an ‘alien’ world
"Hey, what's the most beautiful place you've ever been to?"
This frequently asked question always baffles me. From the emerald-green waters of Amiakhum-Velakhum in Bandarban or the frozen lakes of Kinnaur Himalayas to the barren deserts of Death Valley or the stunning mountain roads of Nevada, hundreds of pictures start to flood my mind. All these places have their own charm, essence, and beauty, making it very hard to compare and choose only one or two from them.
But if the question is 'What is the most spectacular place I have ever been to?' there can only be one answer to that – "The Grand Canyon" of Arizona!
Carved by the mighty Colorado River, the Grand Canyon came into existence millions of years ago. Stretching over 445 kilometers with a depth of 6,000 feet, it is one of the world's largest and probably the most famous canyons in the world. The distance between its two rims is around 68 kilometers, and there is a trail that goes through the mountains and deserts to connect these two rims.
Even before coming to live here in the United States, it was on my bucket list to backpack this landscape just across the heart of this grand, Grand Canyon!
Finally, last winter I got a chance to check this thing off the list. Though the trail conditions would be a lot harder to negotiate in the winter and the cold would be extreme, there were a couple of reasons behind this decision.
The first one – permit. It's very hard to get a backpacking permit in the Grand Canyon National Park, due to its enormous popularity. The permits are released six months in advance, and often those are grabbed within a few days. But as the park rangers shut down all the amenities during the harsh winter months and the drinking water sources are also frozen, they do not issue a permit in advance for December – February period. You need to meet the rangers personally and inform your whole plan including route planning, and alternative options in case your preferred itinerary doesn't work. You have to also inform them about your plan for rationing and water management, knowledge about the terrain, appropriate gear, and previous experiences in a written document. You will get the permit only if you can convince them first!
The second reason was the much-desired seclusion from the crowd during the peak season. Though it was supposed to be a solo trek, after a fair amount of drama my friend Sabbir joined me at the very last moment. We flew to the vibrant city of Las Vegas and made a five-hour drive from there to the Kaibab National Forest, at the boundary of the Grand Canyon.
It was already around midnight when we reached there. We just wanted to set up the camp as soon as possible and get a good sleep before the adventure. It was not an easy job in that dark, freezing and snow-covered forest when the temperature was around -13⁰C. However, after some challenging 20-30 minutes, we could finish setting up the tent and go to sleep.
The next day, the hardest task was to convince the park rangers to get that permit. We had a very narrow time window because of our short leave and other commitments. So, we had only three days for this 68 km trek, which we would be doing with around 17-18 kg load in our backpacks!
No wonder the rangers were not pleased with our plan. And we were adamant. They were constantly saying the same thing, "Look, whatever experiences on the mountains you have don't help here that much. It's a desert and you have never been to one! The dangers here are very different from the mountains. Let alone camping in the desert with no water source, you have to go 4,500 feet downhill at a stretch in this barren-sandy terrain and then you have to gain 5,500 feet more at a steep uphill stretch, that too in the knee-deep snow at the north rim! You cannot make this unless it's at least a 5-day itinerary."
They indeed had a very good point, but we did not have that much time. We were not going to go back from halfway, either. So, the argument went on for almost half an hour until the officials gave up and approved our itinerary. Big win, we thought; but we were yet to know what such a trek in the desert can really do to our knees!
We started our trek the next morning from the south rim. Sun was shining bright on the red, rocky mountain faces. Some patches of white snow on those red walls were making the moments more magical. We were enjoying the view, but at the same time, we had to be very cautious too as the hard layer of ice on it made it extremely slippery. The trail spiralled all over the mountain, looking like a big snake going down the canyon. Following that 'snake', finally we got a clear view of the Colorado river – the mighty stream of water that over millions of years carved this canyon. When we got to the river, we had a view of both the rims. The majestic canyon was a jaw-dropping beauty, its utter vastness was reminding us every moment how tiny, weak, and vulnerable we are to the great power and the magnificence of nature!
After crossing the river, the trail started to get sandier as we entered the desert. The sun was scorching at this point, some discrete vegetation of cactuses was the only sign of life on that dead land. Though we were carrying enough water till the next campsite and sipping it at regular intervals, the moment the uphill trail started we were feeling exhausted. It continued for the rest of the day.
Eventually, the sun dimmed, and a dark veil was enveloping the surrounding landscape. And, a day after continuous walking through trails and through the desert, we felt our knees. They were hurting badly.
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime of hiking through that desert, we reached Cottonwood, our campsite for that night. Millions of stars were shining like pearls in the dark sky. With that heavenly beauty, we forgot all our pain as well as the freezing cold outside. We sat outside the tent, shivering, but spellbound with the just-cooked hot soup in our hands.
The next day we woke up before sunrise and started to hike just after having a quick meal. It was supposed to be a long day, as we had to reach the north rim and come back to this same campsite again before sunset. We heard the infamous rattling noise of the rattlesnakes a few times last night and did not want to get bitten by one in the dark. The trail uphill was way steeper, but it was more beautiful too. Numerous lines on the rocks reminded us of the timeless work of the river. The clear blue sky in contrast with the sun-kissed red rocky mountains created a surreal environment.
After a couple of hours of hiking, as we were getting near the north rim, the found snow and ice on the trail. And as we progressed, the snow got deeper and deeper. After hustling through knee-deep snow we finally reached the north rim around midday.
The north rim was looking like a winter wonderland—completely covered in deep white snow. We rested there for some time, had our food, roamed around the rim a little, and started to trek down – onto the same route to the cottonwood, to that mighty river, and finally to the south rim.
The phrase "out of the world" probably suits best to describe this magnificent creation – as it is indeed not unlike anything from this world! The colours, the structures, the lines, and the patterns, everything seems so alien that at a point you start to think that it just doesn't belong here; someone must have just picked it from outer space and put it here, right in the middle of our planet! No words or pictures really can do justice to its grandness, you can comprehend it only if you are there!
We were in the Grand Canyon for five days including the 3-day trek. Every moment there, we were in utter awe of this great wonder. But now it feels like those five days were just not enough; I wish I could touch and feel all those lines and patterns on the rocks, could hear their stories – what they are trying to say for millions and millions of years!
But only one life is too short to do that, I guess!