The Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch (December 2015) UncertaintiesJust Getting There
We did it! We succeeded in making our 3rd visit to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River despite the challenges of our new truck’s delayed delivery, 2 snow storms, and the threatened government shut-down of federal properties.
The Ranch’s golden cottonwoods can be spotted when standing far above on the South Rim.
Getting reservations for indoor sleeping at Phantom Ranch is, in itself, a huge challenge, one that requires many hours spent on “Hold” and being told dozens of times “There is nothing available.” I keep at it until I get something and one call last March bagged an exceptional 3 nights in a cabin. It was for 2 pairs of bunk beds crammed in a small room designed for a queen bed, but any private cabin is a trophy compared to a bed in the slightly more available 10-person dorm rooms.
The uncertainty about the weather was the next challenge since our reservations were made 9 months in advance for a rather poor gamble on December conditions. I accepted the dates, knowing that one’s odds of going at all are vastly improved if you take what you can get. We knew at the outset that going to Phantom Ranch would be a huge “maybe” until the 10 day forecast for at least the first night was available. We also knew that unlike many places, there was essentially zero probability of shifting the reservations by a few days or few weeks because of the weather or other issues, like those that emerged with our truck delivery.
As it was, the weather was just good enough. It was actually miserably cold but the even more important weather element—the snow—was favorable for driving. The first snow storm would hit the day after we arrived, which was good enough, and there was no storm on the horizon that would impede our departure 8 days later on the 7,000’ elevation roads while pulling a trailer. (Subsequent to our stay, the access road into the Grand Canyon was closed to all traffic because of snow.) The bad news was that inches of accumulated snow were forecast for the day of our 10 mile hike down to the Ranch.
The difficulty of procuring reservations and the total uncertainty about the weather were the known obstacles but only 2 of many that would arise. The matter of picking up our special order truck that was delivered late nearly scuttled the Phantom Ranch trip. And then there was the threatened government shut-down which was scheduled to occur after we tucked our trailer into the RV park but before we hiked down to the Ranch. Like with the weather, we had to pick a day to decide “Go” or “Don’t go” in the face of the uncertainty.
We hoped for the best for our new trailer’s plumbing in the near-zero or sub-zero degree weather.
Devoting nearly 2 weeks of driving to pick-up our new truck meant that instead of arriving at the Grand Canyon in top form and perhaps with some altitude acclimation, we showed up at our lowest fitness level in over a year. We hoped that our consistent conditioning over the preceding 10 months would protect us from injuries even though we’d be less robust.Last Minute Challenges
The forecast lows for the nights when we’d leave our new trailer unattended dropped from the teens to the single digits the day before we departed for the Ranch, which sent us scrambling. Being a “4 Seasons” design meant it should tolerate the cold snap just fine but it’s one thing to be in it and monitoring everything during its first severe freeze but another matter for the trailer to be unattended for days.
We drove to the nearby town and paid scalper’s rates to top-off our propane tanks and then moved the trailer into a full-sun site to maximize its solar warming during the days. We did everything we could to ensure that the furnace kept functioning, which was the key to preventing the plumbing freezing. Once down at Phantom Ranch, we learned that the overnight temperatures had plunged even lower than forecast, to -11 degrees around the Bright Angel Lodge, though in hindsight we think the temperatures at our campground may have only dropped to +5 degrees.
Bill spent much of the long night before our hike to Phantom Ranch fretting about a tooth ache and I woke up in the morning with a full-blown, severe cold. We both decided to press-on. Bill’s tooth ache waxed and waned, suggesting it was tissue in the tooth socket responding to a mild version of my viral infection and perhaps barometric pressure changes. My cold exploded into one with gut-wrenching, though infrequent, coughs and a sore throat that made me flinch every time I swallowed for 4 days.
Snow & More Snow
The lower Resthouse on Bright Angel Trail on better day.
We thought about the people we'd spoken with who longed to be at the Grand Canyon in the snow as we awoke to a blanketed campground the morning of our descent to Phantom Ranch. Yes, snow is always pretty but you can’t admire the scenery when it’s blowing sideways and of course, everything is harder to do when it’s coming down hard.
Even though we’d secured the exterior of the trailer the night before, before the snow hit, we were still hours late in leaving for Phantom Ranch. Neither of us felt great and the inches of snow on the ground and strong wind required last minute changes in what we wore and what we carried. By the time we walked and bussed to the trailhead at Bright Angel Lodge, there was about 6” of snow on the trail and the winds made it impossible to take photos.
Previously we’d walked down to the Ranch on the more scenic Kaibab Trail and made the return on the more sheltered Bright Angel Trail. The total lack of any shelter on Kaibab made it a loser on this day when compared with Bright Angel and its 4, open-air stone Resthouses. Usually we blow-by the Resthouses but they would provide welcome shelter from the snow, then rain, for lunch and wardrobe adjustments as the weather changed at the lower elevations.
Happily, we found a couple sheltering under a small tunnel on the upper trail who documented our day with a photo. And indeed, we stopped at each of the upper 3 stone Resthouses for welcome breaks. By the time we reached the approximate mid-point of our hike at Indian Gardens, the precipitation had stopped, sparing us the rain except for the last 10 minutes of our 6 hour outing.
Usually it’s T-shirt weather on Bright Angel Trail in the winter.
We started late and finished at sunset in drizzle, but at least we were there. The fresh snow without preceding rain had meant that the trail hadn’t been the least bit icy. I had expected to slide on ice and stumble frequently on the snow-camouflaged rocky trail but we actually walked more easily than when the trail was bare. Our trekking poles did encourage us step more boldly into the potentially hazardous irregularities than we would have otherwise. The few muddy areas were a bit tricky, but overall we hiked with greater ease than anticipated and were pleased with how we’d fared on the difficult day.“Phantom Ranch—Is It Nice?”
While pausing at the Bright Angel Trail “3 Mile Resthouse” a few days before our snowy hike, a woman asked me “Phantom Ranch—is it nice?” Her husband changed the direction of the conversation before I could respond but crafting a response became a source of entertainment for me while I hiked that alone day.
Given that my first impression of the couple was that high-end resorts were likely their frame of reference, I would had to have said “No, it’s not nice". The interiors of the 1922 cabins look like painted out-buildings. The original windows and door are ill-fitting and drafty and the sink in the room is only plumbed for cold water. There is a fine layer of grit on the once-red, cold concrete floor and the grit is piled high in the corners. Two light bulbs barely illuminate the room and the continuously running heater didn’t invite removing our jackets and hats quickly, if at all. An old military ammo box with original stenciled instructions is provided for food storage and if it is insufficient to control the rodents, you may borrow a mouse trap from the canteen. There are no hangers, shelves, or drawers for your gear, only 2-3 small wall hooks. However, the once-white towels in the ice-cold bathhouse are thick and the water is hot.
The only crash of the day was a soft landing.
The flip side of the story is that people like me spend hours of their lives on “Hold,” desperate to make a reservation for almost any night at Phantom Ranch for $140 (in advance) for 2 people. “Nice” it isn’t, but Phantom Ranch is cherished, sought-after, and always fully-booked, even in the recent snow storm that slowed our 10 mile hike to it.
The only way people arrive at Phantom Ranch is by raft, on a mule, or by foot. Many backpackers stay in a primitive campground while about 100 people per night sleep indoors in a cabin or dorm. Fixed menu meals can be reserved and paid for in advance for well over $100/day for 2. But the beauty of it as a hiking destination is that you can show up with little more than your toothbrush and have a bed with linens, a hot shower, 2 hot meals, and a box lunch. The opportunity for a backpacker’s basecamp type of hiking experience without carrying the weight is like the via ferratas we do in the Alps: we have some of the experiences of mountaineers without needing their expertise. The groups of fit, late-middle-aged women at the Ranch speak to the unique opportunity it offers.
We love Phantom Ranch because, like this December trip, we can hike 50 miles in 5 days on 5 different trails in a unique setting. Our bodies aren’t durable enough to carry 30-50 lb packs but we can spend a day hiking into the Ranch, then hike from there on the following days. The expensive option of paying $70 to have a mule haul down 30 lbs of gear is great for us: “better them than us” is the way we look at it.
On our first trip to the Ranch, we managed to provision ourselves for a 2 night stay in that 30 lb allotment. Last year, we supported a 3 night stay in the 30 lb limit and this trip, we squeezed in enough food for all of our meals for a 4 night stay under the mark. There is no refrigeration and we do no cooking but purr with delight that we can stick to our ultra-low carb, ketogenic diet; sleep indoors; hike, hike, hike during the day; and have a hot shower every night. So, Phantom Ranch isn’t exactly nice, but it is divine.
Along with learning how to eat well with our own cold meals, we’ve also learned how to score an extra night at the Ranch. On each of our 3 annual trips to Phantom Ranch, we stayed 1 more night than we originally reserved. Guests already at the Ranch have priority over everyone else for extra beds IF you get in line at the kitchen window at 6:45 am. They always hold back a few beds for emergencies, either sick hikers or work crews called in for repairs. It’s nerve wracking because if you don’t get that extra night, you have to exit your room forty-five minutes later. It’s short notice to learn that you are hiking out that day if you don’t get a bed. But it's a good gamble and we always pack enough food for the additional 24 hours.
“Something Has Changed”A New Awareness
A view from Clear Creek Trail on the north side of the Inner Canyon.
“Something has changed” was as far as we could go with our analysis of our abrupt and dramatic performance/recovery improvement while at Phantom Ranch. Each day we both noticed that we were doing unexpectedly well during and after our hikes (despite my raging cold), so we kept doing more. We hiked 50 miles in 5 days with a respectable 10,600’ of total elevation gain and felt fine even though our conditioning had waned in the previous weeks and months.
Our usual post-big-hike weariness was minimal and my typical stiffness and achiness for days following hard exertion, especially downhill, was all but non-existent. After 5 vigorous days, we were confident that we could keep cranking out more long hikes but it was time to drive. We were delighted and stunned and yet were equally clueless to know why--to know what had changed.
Doing so well was all the more mystifying because our fitness level had fizzled over the fall. Prior to beginning our road trip on October 1, we’d managed to average a 4,300’ gain hike once a week for almost a year, which was a huge bump-up in performance for us. Our bodies thrived under the regime. But the driving time required to do the 1,500 miles to visit Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota severely cut into our hiking time. And though those destinations were 5,000’ or more above sea level, the big elevation gain hikes at most of the destinations just weren’t there. Hungry to slow the loss of our performance edge, at Zion National Park we resorted to doing 1 steep trail twice in a day to get the gain. Matters were only made worse by having almost 2 weeks of driving days to fetch our new truck and then dash to the Grand Canyon.
We hoped for the best when we arrived at the Grand Canyon, the site of our anticipated big event to and around Phantom Ranch at our lowest fitness level for the year. Having stumbled upon just the right amount of rest time didn’t seem a likely explanation because we’d had long inactive spells in the past without this benefit.
We listed all of the even slightly plausible explanations, but none were compelling. Wearing calf compression sleeves on big hikes this fall had definitely improved the post-hike comfort of my legs, but seemed unlikely to have made such a big global change. Perhaps the vitamin B3 we began taking in May for skin cancer prevention was helping, but we couldn’t imagine a mechanism. We’d also started using several very effective tissue-care exercises from my new book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” a few days before, but it seemed too little too recently to explain the shift. For the first time in 3 years, both of my knees were functioning exceptional well at the same time but that didn't explain what we were both experiencing. Perhaps we were the beneficiaries of some late-stage, deep healing after 18 months on our ketogenic diet. The diet change was the most promising theory, but it wasn’t convincing, though as the weeks passed, the diet remained the only plausible explanation.
A New Opportunity
We’ll hike along this segment of the Colorado River in March.
Perplexed but delighted with our new resilience, we immediately hit upon a new event to capitalize on it. In the spring (weather permitting), we’d do the approximately 16 mile, 4500’ gain hike from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River on the very steep Kaibab Trail, traverse a bit of the river to the Bright Angel trailhead, then hike to the top of the South Rim, all in one day.
Warning signs posted on both trails tell of the annual deaths of people doing this very hike, though those hikers are typically wildly unprepared and attempt it in the considerable summer heat. We thought March might provide the sweet spot in the weather: T-shirt temperatures at the river with freezing nights on the Rim.
Interestingly, it was the heavy snow fall on our descent day that triggered the new training goal. We had reversed our loop in deference to the snow. Instead of descending on Kaibab, we ascended it on our last day. Unexpectedly, we were going ‘upstream’ against the half-dozen 2’s and 3’s that were doing the forbidden big loop. They’d clearly all taken the 7 am Hiker’s Express bus to the Kaibab trailhead and were pushing their pace when we encountered them at about the half way point on Kaibab. “If they can do it, we can do it” was our conclusion after listening to their stories. It will be a very long day, but the demands are within our range. Palm Springs, CA
Accepting the mid-December Phantom Ranch reservation dates had cut-in to our planned 2 month stay in Palm Springs, so we high-tailed it towards the low desert the day after we hiked from the Ranch to the Rim. Excited about our new March training goal of walking from the Rim to the river and back, we knew the steep trails at Palm Springs would serve us well. That spurred Bill to suggest two 8,300’ gain hikes to the upper Tram station at Palm Springs instead of our usual one. But like at the Grand Canyon, the presence of snow would be the critical criteria for “Go/No go” in hiking to the Tram.