There are a few things that I would like to update you on. Yesterday when we arrived at Phantom Ranch we found out that there was a cabin available. Let me tell you, this is very uncommon, as the cabins and bunkhouses at Phantom generally fill up two years ahead of time. So given the chance to actually sleep in a real bed for two nights… well, we took it.
Since we still had a permit for a campsite as well, the option was still open for any of us to sleep in a tent. It was not going to be me though. I have slept in a tent/sleeping bag so many times that it wasn’t the type of thing that I thought I needed more experience or that I wanted to “rough it.” And remember, my sleeping pad was leaking air so given the choice I took the top bunk of two bunk beds. Yoko took the bottom bunk under me and Lew took the bottom bunk next to us. Landi opted to sleep under the stars in her tent.
There is kind of a funny aside to this story though. When darkness set upon us, Landi took the pillow as well as the warm comforter from the bed, which would have been hers, and smuggled it out to her tent, which was a good ten minute walk from our cabin. OK, I admit, I helped her do it! Please don’t tell. I guarantee Landi had the most comfortable set up in the entire Bright Angel campground!
The cabin was quite comfortable. It had air conditioning, a sink, and a toilet. Along with the cabin came a key to a bathhouse across the way that had real comfortable showers and toilets. We actually thought we were in heaven.
Our plan today was to start off by getting breakfast in the dining hall. They have two breakfast seatings every day – a 5AM and a 6:30AM. Today we had the 6:30AM, which was fine since we were staying in the area. The 5AM seating is a MUST if you are going to be hiking out to the south rim, as it is a long, difficult, and hot hike. An early start is crucial.
Breakfast at Phantom Ranch is delicious. It generally consists of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and cling peaches all served family style. Plus there is juice, coffee, and a nice assortment of hot teas. You sit at a table with other people. There are 4 or 5 long tables that seat about 12 people each. There is plenty of food on each table so that we can have pretty much all we want to eat. It’s always cool to hear other people’s hiking stories during the meals. Phantom is always one of my favorite parts of a backpacking trip. It’s a cool way to spend the last couple of days before taking that long hike out to the rim.
So our fun plan for today was to do a day hike up to a place called Utah Flats. Utah Flats is not supposed to be easy. It is a “route” as opposed to a trail. A trail is generally at least fairly well defined by either a worn path or cairns (a pile of rocks) marking the proper direction. A route is not defined – it takes some navigation skill and is oftentimes very difficult. No one that works at Phantom Ranch really talks about the hike to Utah Flats. Maybe because it is ill-defined, super steep, rocky, loose stone and oh yeah… a 2000 foot vertical elevation rise in about a mile and a half. Unless you really know where to start this hike, you’ll never find it. We knew that the beginning of the route is just above campsite number 1 at Bright Angel campground. Whenever we passed the area, I would always look up and try to figure out where the route took you. But it was impossible to visualize, at least for me.
We have known about the hike to Utah Flats for several years now. We’ve always talked about it. We frequently asked others about it, but very few people had any idea what it was all about. Supposedly when you get to the top, it is very beautiful and remote. Utah Flats has always intrigued us and we finally had a good layover day with time to attempt it.
So after breakfast, we each packed enough food and headed over to the area of campsite number 1. I looked up with a little bit of trepidation. Remember, there was no good way to tell where the actual route was. It just looked steep as hell. I knew I was with a good team, but I had no idea what we’d be in for.
Just before we started up, Lew conducted a really great morning affirmation and visualization. He reinforced how fortunate we are to be in such a beautiful place. And he reminded us that we are all very strong and experienced hikers.
We started walking. Lew took the lead, followed by Yoko, then Landi and me. Right away it was very steep and rocky. It’s not as though this route started off tame and then got worse. It was bad right away! I had to watch every single step to avoid a fall.
We gained elevation very quickly. I made the mistake of looking back and holy moly, we were already way above Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel campground. So I decided to simply keep looking in front of me and take one step at a time. Much of the trail was very loose granular stone and I’m telling you, a slip would be very easy and dangerous.
We weren’t talking a lot during this hike. Concentration was the key. We stayed fairly close to each other. We were a team. People on a team support each other.
After about 45 minutes of difficult hiking over steep uphill and rocks, I kind of had enough. There was a point where I simply felt the height was not agreeing with me. I told the group that I was stopping. The first words out of Lew’s mouth were ”Dave, I’ll go down with you.”
Now the last thing I wanted to do was no mess up everyone else’s hike. So I told Lew, Landi and Yoko that I would relax and wait right here while you all finished the hike. Then we could all hike down together at the end. And to be honest, I would definitely not have felt comfortable hiking down by myself!
Now let me explain… the place that I was going to wait was no plush oasis! It was a very small flat piece of rough land. Luckily there was a large rock that I could lean against for comfort and maybe it would even help shield me from the sun a bit.
So I said good-bye to everyone, wished them luck and then proceeded to put down my pack and tried to get a little comfortable for the hour or so they’d be gone.
For a while, I just sat there and tried to relax. But after forty minutes or so, I started getting restless, so I got up and walked around a bit. Now just to let you know how much space I had to wander, let’s say it was about the size of a small bedroom. A pretty damn small bedroom.
There wasn’t a hell of a lot to do. But there were some amazing views in all directions, so I tried to admire everything. Let’s see now, off to the south I could see the South Kaibab Trail over on the south rim. I think I could even make out the toilet at the tip-off. Down below, Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel campground looked tiny. To the west I could see the Colorado River. To the north I could see where my group hiked to, but they disappeared a long time ago! A little more southeast I could make out the beginning of the trail leading to Clear Creek. Beautiful photo-ops!
Yeah, I took a lot of pictures. But after a while I had run out of things to take pictures of. So I pointed the camera at myself and started shooting some self-portraits.
It was starting to get hot. Really hot. The sun was moving and my shade was no more. I pulled out some water and food and attempted to eat and drink the boredom and fright away. But it didn’t work. Time was ticking away and there was no sign of another human being anywhere.
Luck would have it that I brought my iPhone and a pair of earbuds. Of course there was no cell signal, but one thing I could definitely do was to listen to some music. I started iTunes, navigated to Thick as a Brick 2 by Ian Anderson and listened to the whole album. Still no sign of anyone.
At this point I was getting a little worried. What if one of them got hurt? How about if all of them fell over some cliff? If they got into any kind of trouble up there, there would be absolutely no way to communicate it back to me. I didn’t know what to do.
I started looking around for some possible routes down in case I had to do this on my own. It sounds crazy and I know this is hard to describe, but I could not see a good way down. I know what you are thinking… “Dave, just start walking in a downward direction and you will reach the bottom.” Well yes and no. You see, there were a lot of routes that would potentially lead me to dead-end cliffs with no way to proceed with no way to get back out to where I was.
I started yelling up to towards the top, “HEY!” “LEW.” “YOKO.” “LANDI.” “CAN YOU GUYS HEAR ME?”
I yelled a few more times. I had an emergency whistle, but I did not want to blow it as that would signal a true emergency. And I didn’t feel as though I was in that type of situation.
I made it a point to stay calm. I regrouped and tried to figure out what my best strategy would be. I basically had two choices. Keep waiting or attempt to go down. Quite honestly, I was getting tired of waiting. So I packed up my bag and decided to try to get down by myself.
One thing I did was to take the rope out of my pack and get it ready just in case I would need to lower my pack at some point. I started walking down a bit where I thought I could see the route. I came to a very steep but short bit of trail I needed to get down. I felt the risk of falling would be high and I didn’t want to chance an injury, so I got down on my butt and did what I called a “controlled slide” down the steep part. It worked ok except for the fact that I realized I had totally ripped my pants in the butt area.
But let me tell you, the ripped pants were now the least of my problem. I just slid myself down to a little platform that seemed to have no way out. That’s right, there was no where to go now unless I wanted to jump off of a cliff that appeared to be ten feet or so. I considered lowering my pack by rope and then jumping down, but I felt the risk of injury was just too great.
So here I was, stuck again. I contemplated using my whistle or as a last resort, deploying my PLB (personal locator beacon) but I did not feel as though my life was in imminent danger. There was still plenty of daylight left, so I did have some time.
So I just waited. And I waited more.
I yelled “YOKO!” “CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?
No answer. Absolute silence.
I was getting a little worried. I again considered somehow jumping off the cliff to get to an area that I could possibly hike from, but I didn’t want to take the chance. So I just stayed still.
Every few minutes or so I would give my very best and loudest yell, just in case my group was anywhere within earshot.
I kept this up.
And ultimately my efforts paid off.
I heard a very faint voice that sounded like Yoko’s. Couldn’t hear what she said, but I knew it was her.
In a short time I could actually make out voices from the group as they came into view. I am sure they were quite surprised that I was not in the spot that I was in when they left me.
To make a long story short, as Yoko approached, she was able to see exactly what I did wrong in my attempt to get down on my own. From her vantage point, she was able to locate a route that I actually needed to ascend first in order to get back to an area where we could meet up and start on our way down again together.
I put my pack back on and made my way up to Yoko. By this time, the rest of the group had arrived. They were all fine. They started to tell me about their hike. I was just so happy that they were all OK.
The four of us then started to make our way back down. They said the reason they had taken so long was that it took them about another hour after they left me to reach Utah Flats. Not easy at all – they had to do quite a bit of scrambling in order to get there. Yoko looked visibly tired. I could tell the heat was really getting to her.
We still had about a 45 minute descent ahead of us before we’d get to Phantom Ranch. The downhill was difficult. Lots of sliding down loose gravel. Very steep. I referred to it as “controlled sliding” – not very different from skiing down a steep mountain!
Yoko asked if she could go ahead of the group a bit because she needed to get out of the heat as soon as possible. I stuck with Landi and Lew and in a fairly short time I breathed a sigh of relief as we all made it down to the base without incident (except for my ripped pants!).
The rest of the afternoon was spent inside the Phantom Ranch canteen just drinking and kind of relaxing. I watched Landi sew up my pants with dental floss as I sipped my lemonade! Everything was going to be OK. Tomorrow would be our last day on the trail. The hike out on the Bright Angel Trail will be long and hot, but I have done that stretch a million times and I know exactly what to expect. After all, I am a strong and experienced hiker.
(Enjoy the pictures below. There is no way to adequately show you by photography how steep this damn thing was!)