gear test

I generally consider myself to have been cursed with a birthday just days after Christmas, but in this case it meant I got to load up on new gear while I was prepping to apply for a JMT permit. Last week’s Grand Canyon trip provided a chance for me to finally test out my new loot.  I got to retire my synthetic sleeping bag of fifteen years and try out the North Face Blue Kazoo, a much warmer bag than I needed for this trip, but one that will be perfect for the Sierras. A grand success, my two nights in the Kazoo were indistinguishable from my nights in the hotel beds. It resembled sleeping inside what a child imagines a cloud is like.

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I also got to test out my Patagonia Nano Air jacket, which I scored in a glorious online sale. The award-winning design lives up to the hype. It’s so warm, you guys. And light, and comfortable to hike in, though I mostly used it around camp or at the windy rim. It’s also way cuter than I expected— fairly form-fitting and not at all constrictive in the shoulders (unlike reports about the redesigned Nano Puff). I didn’t notice the longish sleeves one bit and loved the pockets.I did find myself trying not to snag the delicate-seeming fabric on sticks and zippers, but I have a feeling it’s sturdier than it appears. It also makes a fabulous pillow—since, in the Kazoo, sleeping in a jacket was no longer necessary!

My gear replacement epiphany was sparked by nighttime chills on a short solo trek last September, in particular at Long Lake’s 10,760 feet. Staying warm wasn’t a huge issue on this trip, but I’ll have some cold nights on the Muir Trail without a doubt—especially since I’m starting from the Mono Pass trailhead at a higher elevation than the traditional route.

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a return to the trail

So much for keeping up with this blog. Life happens—and sometimes it’s so good you forget anout everything else—but that’s no excuse not to write. And it’s no excuse not to train either—so last week my father and I packed our bags for the Grand Canyon.

My Dad is a hardcore Canyon vet, and I’m also very experienced with the corridor trails, though less so with the “cool routes” he’s spent the last twelve or so years mastering. For this trip, our original plan entailed descending the Grandview Trail to Cottonwood Creek, followed by a second a night at Grapevine, a third night at Cremation, and a fourth night at Phantom Ranch before heading up the South Kaibab to the rim. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I’d been plagued by some troubling stomach issues, so we decided to play it a little safer. We ended up doing a one-nighter at Cottonwood and climbing back up Grandview, then taking a day to explore the rim, and ending with another one-nighter at Phantom via the Kaibab both ways. In all, we hiked about 35 miles, thanks to an 8-mile boost from our so-called “rest day.”

Arriving at the Canyon, we made it to the wind-blasted rim for sunset. Looking out at the sacred natural marvel before me, I felt a stronger spiritual contact with the Canyon than I’d felt last year. I prayed for patience, and I prayed for time.

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We hiked down the Grandview the next morning, which may be the steepest trail I’ve ever encountered. At least it was the most consistently steep over its mere 4.5 miles, many lined with brutal cobblestones. We didn’t capture the fierce grade in photos. I guess we were too busy suffering. Or maybe it was because we dropped our camera on one of our rest breaks and half of our photos suffered from the ensuing shutter problems the rest of the trip. Our climb back up for the lost camera added at least another mile to our day. Though Cottonwood Creek (not to be confused with the much more civilized Cottonwood Camp) is only at the level of the Tonto Plateau, getting there felt just as hard as hiking all the way to the bottom.

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The same could be said for getting back up. After watching bats reel in the cool gray dusk and sleeping under the stars to the tune of the creek frogs, we woke up with aching muscles and the daunting prospect of retreading our steps to the top. The relentlessly steep ascent was sweetened by the low swoop of a California Condor over our heads and a monstrous helping of mint chocolate chip ice cream at Bright Angel Lodge.

Tuesday was our recovery day. In the morning, we explored breakfast options in Tusayan now that the Best Western has started charging for their buffet. After a successful trip to R&E’s Stage Stop for bagel sandwiches, we drove out to the tower at Desert View, which I’d never seen in my six trips to the park.

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I was impressed by how open the canyon is from Desert View. Supposedly, this is the spot where Coronado’s men first set eyes on what would become a wonder of the world.

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After climbing up the tower with its faux petroglyphs and more amazing views, we took a quick detour to the new visitor center before catching the shuttle out to Hermit’s Rest, the western terminus of the Rim Trail. From there, we took our time hiking 7.8 miles back to Grand Canyon Village along the winding, intermittently paved route, snapping photos along the way. Our soreness from the Grandview trail began to dissipate.

 

 

 

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Wednesday morning, we made our second and final descent, this time taking the familiar South Kaibab down to the river and staying in the campground at Phantom Ranch. Compared to the Grandview, the South Kaibab felt easy, but by the junction with the River Trail near the last mile, we decided to change things up. The River Trail proved a lovely, shaded alternative to the hot Black Bridge crossing and traverse past the beaches.

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Arriving at the glistening Bright Angel Creek always feels like entering a fairyland. We got there crazy early, in time for lunch, lemonade from the canteen, and an extended beachside chat.

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The wind had picked up over the course of the afternoon and was wreaking its usual springtime havoc, so we pitched a tent this time. I was more than warm in my brand new North Face sleeping bag, which I’ll review in tomorrow’s post.

The final climb back to the rim the went smoothly, mostly under gloriously temperate skies. Some hikers coming downtrail complimented us on going up the Kaibab instead of Bright Angel, but it’s so much faster that its steepness is worth it for a veteran canyon hiker. In the last half hour of hiking, dark clouds took hold out of nowhere, and it grew so cold I was eager to trail my dad’s slower uphill steps rather than wait for him at the top in the wind. As soon as we got back to the car, a light snow began spattering the windshield. Talk about perfect timing.

As I reluctantly return to the “real” world (or leave it, depending on your point of view), I have a clearer sense of what I need to do to prepare for tackling the JMT this summer. The canyon trip was a good barometer for my hiking fitness, and its steep ups and downs make it particularly relevant for the Muir Trail ( though our packs were lighter than mine will be in July). I certainly don’t have the cardiopulmonary conditioning I should have at this point, but I can tell my knee exercises have been paying off: I didn’t feel any knee pain the entire trip! It was also an opportunity to consider my personal growth in the year since I last came to the park. My father agreed there’s been a tremendous difference.