So here it is. A couple weeks after the trip. I'm not quite sure why it has taken so long for me to write about our adventure, but I think it has something to do with wrapping my mind around what was accomplished. Were we the first to attempt this? No. The fastest? Doesn't seem like it. It proved to be and amazingly intense experience nonetheless.
April 8, 2009:
We arrived at the Grand Canyon and shortly debated whether or not we should take a peak at the journey lying before us. We decided it would be a good idea to see the canyon during the day time and grab some pictures.
This was my first experience overall with the Grand Canyon, and I think everyone should make a trip out to view it. You owe it to yourself. It was awe inspiring. A significantly grander canyon than I even imagined. We snapped some shots and ate a fine pre-hike meal... packer's stew. Highly recommended South Rim cuisine.
After the meal, we headed back to the hotel and packed up and took a nap. Around 9:30 it was go time. We ate our last real meal and packed into the car and drove to the Bright Angel trail head. As we pulled into the parking lot, nerves started to simmer in each of our bellies as we truly did not know what to expect. The time neared 12am as we crept through the shadows of the campgrounds to the trail head. Some last minute group photos were taken, and boy did we look tough. Yet to be humbled by what the canyon had to offer, we were biting at the bit to get this adventure started.
April 9, 2009:
We took a few steps on to the trail so that we would be out of sight and waited in the 27 degree air until it was exactly 12am on Thuy's watch. As soon as she gave us the word, we took off through the gusty night. The four of us, bundled up, cruised down the switchbacks of the South Rim as we had to hold ourselves back as the nerves turned to adrenaline infusing our systems with energy and bravado needed to compensate for the overwhelming feeling we were being consumed by the sheer cliffs and precipices rising around us in our descent.
We motored down the trail when the footing and visibility was appropriate. Time gained now could prove to be valuable on the way back. Our fearless leader, Bill Cunningham, took a strong pace down to Indian Gardens putting us right on schedule.
Once at Indian Gardens, we stopped, ate a little, and focused on the 43.5 miles ahead of us. I did not dare to look back at the drop we made knowing that whatever the distance was, it would be staring me down on our return. Bill rallied the troops and we were off again. Next stop, Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River.
We sped out of Indian Gardens warming up as we covered ground. The devils corkscrew wound us down to the river bed where we got the first sight of the river. The moon was out in full and headlamps weren't needed as long as we were free of the shadows of the cliffs. The strength and energy of the Colorado could be felt as we moved along its bank for the next 2 miles. A crossing of the suspension bridge and we were in to P.R. A break was taken here, 10 miles in and 38 to get out, in order to force some food and hydrate. Still feeling upbeat about our situation, we mused and chatted for a bit until Bill rallied the troops once again for one last refill for the next 10 miles or so.
I am not sure if I chose to lead the next part of our journey or if it just happened that way, but I took off. I was in a zone. It was still dark. The moon was still providing as much light as we had seen on the hike so far. The sound of the water flowing through one of the Colorado's tributaries aided the zen-like state at which I pushed forward. The pace was quick, but I wanted to try to put as much distance in as possible while the weather was cool and the incline was mild. I slowed a few times to take it all in and allow for the others to close the distance. The last thing I wanted to do was make the others think I was trying to hike faster than them. I was simply in a zone. As day began to break, the sun illuminated the highest peaks in the canyon which truly made for some of the most beautiful sights. With only a couple of miles til the next camp, we sat and enjoyed the fruits the quick pace afforded us.
A couple more miles and we were in to Cottonwood Campground. Not much here, but we sat at a picnic table and downed some food. It was then off to Roaring Springs. I was still able to cruise through this section. Each spot we stopped I checked my blood sugar and ate. Each time I tested my sugars they were at optimal levels. Because my muscles were using the sugar at such a rate, I was hesitant to use insulin for fear of going low. This would prove to be the most costly mistake of the hike.
We hit Roaring Springs right on time and filled up the water for this would be the last we had til the return. We still had about 5 miles to go to the North Rim where I could sing a little Bon Jovi to celebrate being "half way there..." and these would prove to be the hardest miles yet.
We cruised up and out of Roaring Springs and into the seemingly endless switchbacks winding the way to the rim. The trail was never very wide, but some spots proved to be slightly hairy with only room for you feet and 500+ ft drops to your left or right. The temperature increased as we climbed higher and higher. We stopped again to eat and met a man who was out for a fairly long hike himself. I knew he was hardcore when he didn't even blink an eye when we told him what we were doing. He had done it before, friends. Later in the hike his positive and engaging attitude would become extremely annoying to me.
As we continued on our way, we crossed a bridge that we actually had to descend to get to in order to continue climbing to the North Rim. Seriously? What a mind f*ck. I tried to push the pace on the way up until something started happening. My muscles weren't firing properly. My head was pounding. I was feeling sick. I began to fight more than the trail and it's incline. I was fighting my own body. Thuy and I were ahead of Bill and Mary, so I decided to take a break. I quickly began to feel worse. What was happening? It seemed as though I could not stay hydrated. I kept drinking and drinking, but to no avail. We had about a mile to go. The hardest mile for me across the entire 48. Before we continued on, we decided to stash our packs on the trail for the return trip.
At this point I barely felt like I could carry my own weight. My body was fatiguing like I have never felt before, even shutting down on me. It took every ounce of concentration for me push on. Left foot. Right foot. Staggering up through the wooded section. Mounds of snow yet to melt covered parts of the trail. My balance was deteriorating on the dirt path and even worse on the snow. The others pushed onward as I desperately attempted to maintain their pace. Mary was behind me. Little did I know that this was more due to the fact that the others were worried over my visibly worsening condition.
Our friend, "You are a minute away, friends!" Our buddy was bouncing along the trail with a very merry attitude. I hated him at this moment. Dragging my body to the sign at the North Rim I collapsed in a pile on a stone wall. The others took pictures as I searched for an answer to my debilitating issues. Of course! So stupid! My blood sugars were always level because I checked them after miles of hiking. In actuality, I was continuing to peak my sugars as my muscles slowly brought the levels down. My body was reacting to the virtual small poisoning sessions to which I was submitting it. I needed to get back to my pack and check my sugars. I needed to be much more aware of my sugar levels for here on out, and I needed to use my insulin more effectively. With high sugars, the very least that was happening to me was that I was enabling an extremely high rate of dehydration. There would be no impromptu singing of Bon Jovi. Hell, I was not even in good enough shape to hum it.
As we made the decision to head back to the packs, I heard it for the first time. "Andy, if we need to pack it in and get you out of here, that is our first priority." Or something like that. What? Me hold you back? Though I felt like throwing in the towel and giving up, I would never let myself. If that had happened...well I just do not want to think about it.
I summoned every last ounce of energy for the walk back to our packs. It was after 11am. Less than 13 hours to go 24 miles. This was the first time I had to come to grips with it. Maybe diabetics do have their limits. Had I found something that I would not be able to do because I am a diabetic. This thought began to grow heavier and heavier on me. The each step I struggled with taking made me feel a little more defeated. No longer can I make the claim that diabetes will never keep me from accomplishing my goals. Ever since being diagnosed I have always lived my life in such a way. I did not want diabetes to define me; to determine what I can and cannot achieve.
All of a sudden, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, pieces of my identity started to shift, mutate and crumble. Maybe it was the dehydration, but I literally felt I had to remove myself from the surrounding debris and begin to pick the pieces up. Collecting what I knew about myself, the disease, my blood sugar patterns, and the 24 miles of trail in front of me I silently found the determination and will to drag myself to the packs.
The packs were further away than any of us remember stashing them. Each switchback we made we expected to find our stuff. When we finally made it, I immediately drank and hydrated. I checked my blood sugar and despite all the hiking since I last checked it was high. I ate a rice cake or two and shot up some insulin in order to balance my blood sugar levels. We gathered our things and I led us down the rim.
Once my sugars were regulated, I was able to hold fluid and stay hydrated much more easily. Energy began to flow through my body. Doubts began to slip away as each step took me closer to the South Rim and our goal of sub 24 hours. We had gravity on our side now, and since I effectively wasted some valuable time recovering, we needed to push the pace. Down through the canyon we sped. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins because I knew my body would be able to handle this endeavor, and I knew I would not let diabetes beat me.
We cruised into Roaring Springs and grabbed some rest (some more than others), refilled the water, and forced some food down. The weather was beautiful and we needed to hustle back to Cottonwood campgrounds.
Before we made it to the campground something caught my eye. It was light brown and sitting on top of a big rock along the trail. I took another look in time to see a graceful dismount in which a mountain lion easily cleared the trail and bounded into the thick vegetation. It was a beautiful sight. We had be moving fairly quietly, but once the large cat caught wind enough he or she took off. I never had an encounter like that in the wild. What a beautiful creature... and we were lucky as most visitors and hikers never see the native cats.
We stopped shortly after at Cottonwood to eat a bit, and this time I was sure to use enough insulin. For the sake of time we pushed off with only a short rest. We still had some downhill to P.R. but it was 7 miles. We made the decision to make the even straight without a stop. We crushed the pace back down to PR, but with less than a mile to go my sugars crashed. I was sweating profusely, my legs were weak, and was definitely feeling out of sorts. I quickly stopped and downed some apricots. The sugar in the dried fruit prove to be a perfect solution, and in a few minutes I was back on my feet and cruising into PR. Thuy had beat us all there, but she had some extra motivation...
It was about 4pm when we got into PR, so we fueled up again and filled our reservoirs. We had only 10 more miles to go and we had 7 hours in which to do it. Across the Colorado we went at a comfortable pace. We knew we had time, so we slowed our pace to ensure we would not burn out before the the Bright Angel Trail head.
We made it 2 miles in less than an hour. 8 miles in 6 hours. No problem. At the base of the Devil's Corkscrew we decided to go 15 minutes on and 5 off in order to save our legs on the steeper inclines. The plan worked perfectly. We made it without putting too much unneeded stress on our tiring legs. From there the terrain eased as we cruised into Indian Gardens, our last checkpoint.
It was dark, somewhere around 8pm, and we had 4.5 miles left. We were exhausted, and pains and blisters were emerging everywhere. Last minute fuel and water. The plan from here was to average 1.5 mph from here out. Sounds simple, but we need it. We did about 30 min on and 5-10 off. We followed each other closely. Staring at the heels of the person directly in front, and praising each leg as it successfully completed a step we crawled up steep switchbacks.
The False Portal, a tunnel resembling one closer to the finish, crushed me. We still had miles to go. Once we passed through the final tunnel, spirits began to lift. We were going to make it. Communication actually resumed in our group as we made our final turn to the top of the South Rim. Arm-in-arm we squeezed onto the final few steps of the Bright Angel trail.
Reaching the "end" never felt so good. Marathoning experiences quickly paled in comparison. I let out a victory yell. We shared a few hugs and many smiles, took a couple pictures, and hobbled to the car. We had earned tonight's sleep.
As we drove off, a smile broke over my face which was immediately followed by a rush of emotion. Andy 3-Diabetes 0.