A blind man’s experience hiking across the Grand Canyon and back

Sensei, Greg and Cat hikingI participated in another amazing hike on October 9th and 10th of 2010. This time it was a Rim to Rim to Rim hike across the Grand Canyon. This hike-a-thon was to benefit the Foundation for Blind Children. This forty-eight mile trek was a truly incredible experience, challenging my mind, body and will to succeed.

After our Kilimanjaro climb in 2009 everyone was asking, “What’s next?” There were several ideas suggested like; swimming to Alcatraz, climbing another of the seven summits, hiking the Arizona Trail, climbing Mount Whitney and several of us mentioned the Grand Canyon. After much deliberation it was decided that the next FBC hike-a-thon would be a rim to rim trek from the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This made the most sense because we have one of the world’s seven natural wonders right here in our home state. The date was set for 10/10/10.

Now are you wondering about that extra rim to rim I mentioned earlier? Well my team is in training for an eight hundred mile hike in April of 2011. The hike will run from the Mexico border to the Utah border on The Arizona Trail.  We felt that hiking that extra twenty-four miles would give us a good idea of what to expect from our upcoming forty day trek across Arizona. We were not disappointed.

Ben Cane, Greg DePinto and I headed up on the afternoon of the 8th. After spending the night in Flagstaff at my in laws (Chris and Dave), we awoke at 2:45am to set out for the South Rim of the canyon. Our plan was to meet up with a friend of mine (Cat Isfan) at the Bright Angel trail head at 5am. We assumed that two hours would be more than enough time to drive seventy-eight miles. The elk crossing the road every few minutes put a bit of a glitch in that plan. At 5:40am we finally arrived. It was a bit later than we wanted, but we thought we would still be able to meet up with the rest of the group on the North Rim by 5pm. This was the deadline for us to make the group picture.

As we started down the South Rim at 5:47am my thoughts were focused on making darn sure of where my guides were. I knew that if I slipped and fell off the side there would be no helping me. With a drop of a thousand feet or more I would be dead. Ben and Greg were very aware of this as well.

When I hike I follow the sound of bear bells while using a set of trekking poles to feel out the terrain. Greg was in the lead with several bells attached to his pack. Ben gave verbal clues and even put himself on my ledge side to make sure that I did not fall off.

The guys had to wear head lamps for the first hour or so of the morning. The temperature was pretty chilly at about forty degrees. Even though I am totally blind I could feel the immensity of the Canyon.

As we worked our way down the switch backs we went through two caves and avoided several huge puddles of mule piss.

As the sun came up the temperature began to rise and we stripped down to t-shirts and shorts. I could hear the awe in the guy’s voices as the sun came over the horizon. They tried to describe to me how amazing the views truly were. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day for a hike.

Our first break was at Indian Gardens. This is a common destination for people who wish to camp in the Canyon. I have been told that one must reserve a camp site as early as a year in advanced to be assured a permit. It is approximately four and a half miles from the trail head and is equipped with rest rooms and water. After a quick snack and water refill, we were back on the trail.

This is where the trail becomes rockier. It also is a bit more congested. We had to pull over for a couple of mule trains. We also passed some small streams and even a couple of water falls. Gradually the trail dropped down into a sandy/rocky terrain similar to a beach or river bottom. A few miles of this lead us to the Colorado River.

The sound of the river was awesome. The guy’s were surprised at how muddy it was, but they were stunned by the beauty and majesty surrounding us. After letting another mule train pass us we stepped up to the bridge. It was made up of steal grating for the floor with thick wire fencing sloping away from us as it arose to about eight feet. The floor was about two feet wide and I could feel it move under my feet as we walked. The sound of the river running below us helped me appreciate how high above it we were and the fact that it took us at least three minutes to cross illustrated how wide the river was. As we walked across we talked about how they probably used rope bridges at first. We could only imagine how intense that would have made the crossing.

A short hike later and we made it to Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is a mixture of camping sites, cabins, a hotel and a small general store. It was now noon and we were less than half way. Here is where we had our lunch and a well needed break. We spent about twenty minutes eating our sandwiches and drinking a couple glasses of their home made lemonade. The trail was much smoother at this point so we decided that we could make the next six miles to the Cottonwood Campsite before filling up our water. This decision we later came to regret.

From this point on it would be about 99% up hill. We had thirteen and a half miles to go and only four and a half hours to make it. Regardless, we were in great spirits and the trail was easy (at first). Over six thousand vertical feet is nothing to take too lightly.

The following six miles had some of the most beautiful scenery of the canyon. After leaving Phantom Ranch the trail ran next to a river through a box canyon. As we started to ascend the foliage became almost tropical. There were several bridges and the sound of water was always with us. The smells and feel of this section were intoxicating. I loved the feel of pushing passed reeds and foliage on the trail. A great majority of this portion of the trail was quite smooth. We did hit a few rocky and tight spots here and there, but nothing too challenging. Ben said it would be a great place for a ninja ambush.

After traveling for two and a half hours I ran out of water in my hydration system and started in on my water bottle. I usually have an average hiking speed of two and a half to three miles an hour, so we figured that we would have no problem making the Cottonwood Campsite before getting low on water. We were wrong. The last mile was a bit tough without water, but we made it.

The Cottonwood Site was a relief. You can hear the waterfall in the distance. This is also were we start getting into the trees. We were all starting to feel the hike, but were still strong. While we sat on the picnic benches we fueled up with bars and trail mix, filled up our water and only lost about ten minutes.

The time was 3:20pm and we had eight miles to go. I was not too optimistic about making our five o’clock meeting. This is when Cat turns to me and says,” From this point on it will get harder”. The trail became and remained pretty steep and rocky the rest of the way up. As we hiked through the trees and over bridges, along rock ridges and moved along death drops we kept our spirits up. Around six we came upon a woman coming down and asked her how much farther to the top. She looked at us and said, “You are at least three hours from the top.” Cat and Ben had both previously hiked from north to south and they said that there was no way we were still that far out. An hour and a half later we ran across another hiker coming down and he said “At your present rate you should make the rim in another two hours and twenty minutes or so”. He then added “I hate, yet love this canyon, but this is the last time I am hiking this thing.”

We could not believe we had another two and a half hours left. It was already seven, my legs were cramping up and all of us were getting tired. This is when I almost made a fatal mistake. While hiking along a ridge Greg made a left turn around a rock wall. The bells were a bit hard to hear and I was not as alert as I should have been. As I am moving forward, Ben says, “Left Sensei”. I heard him but apparently did not adjust my angle quite fast enough. Then Ben yells “LEFT, NO LEFT, SENSEI!”. He then grabs my pack and pulls me hard to the left. He then informed me that if I would have made one more step I might have dropped a thousand feet. That woke me up and got my adrenalin kicking.

Greg said “Let’s play a game to help pass the time,” “I know, let’s each name a sport, but it must make money.” So we spent the next hour thinking of and chiming off different professional sports. This helped until we eventually ran out of ideas. The last thirty minutes were grueling, but we made it out at 8:20pm with sore feet and legs.

Now we needed to find our group and get prepared to do it all over again the next day. As we stood at the top of the north rim we were wondering where our ride to camp was. Our cell phones did not work and the van was not there. We asked a lady in a car if she had seen a van with some people looking for a blind hiking group. She said “Yes I did, but they left about ten minutes ago”. She then added that she wished she could take us to the camp, but she was waiting for her family to come out. So we started walking down the road toward camp. Ten minutes later Cat had cell signal and called Marc to come pick us up.

Upon entering the van we were greeted by Marc, Max, and Yancey. Then Marc asked me “How long did it take you”. “Fourteen and a half hours” I answered. Marc Ashton’s reply was “We’re ******”.

Entering the camp that night was awesome. Yancey had set up Greg’s tent and put all of our supplies inside. I also had Yancey pick up some beer for us on his way up. For the next two hours we ate, drank, showered and celebrated our accomplishment as well as Greg’s forty-third birthday.

Day Two

We started our second day at 4:20am. After tearing down and packing up our campsite, we had a breakfast of muffins, bagels and coffee. I followed this up with vitamin I (Ibuprofen). We were running a bit slower than the rest of the group, so we were in the last van out and arrived at the trail head at 5:45am.

It was a bit chilly and we were all road weary from the previous day. My first five minutes were rough, but as my body warmed up my muscles felt pretty good. This was a very pleasant surprise and we started to move. The up hill challenge of the night before turned into a rather fast and fun hike that morning. We also had the added encouragement of all our other team mates.

We made it to the Cottonwood Campsite at 9am and took a ten minute break. We made sure to refill our water and set off.

The different teams were spread out all along the trail. There were forty-three of us in all and as we met each other we encouraged and motivated our fellow hikers.

There was a photographer for the Arizona Republic named Mike taking pictures as he hiked with us. The Republic also sent Dennis to write up a story on our adventure. They floated from team to team and were really nice guys.

We reached Phantom Ranch at 12:30pm in need of lunch and a break. I was starting to feel the thirty-nine miles of hiking over the last two days. After eating and sucking down some more lemonade, I sat down outside to retie my boots. While sitting there Dennis approached and asked me if I would mind giving him an interview. So I told him about my blindness and why I do these hikes. I explained to him about how we are going to hike the Arizona Trail in April of 2011. I think that he thought I was a bit crazy and maybe he was right. The guys and I were ready so we threw our packs on and set off.

Crossing the bridge over the Colorado River was just as amazing the second time. It was cool to hear the other blind hikers experiencing the same things I had the day before. Right after the bridge the guys started razzing me about the interview. Saying things like the great Mike Armstrong, the awesome Mike Armstrong and such. Then Cat asked, ”How come every time you want to do something amazing, the rest of us have to suffer?” We all laughed and then Cat offered to start an Amazing Ben website if Ben would only carry our packs up the South Rim. This type of joking kept us amused all the way to Indian Gardens.

At Indian Gardens we refilled our water and took a five minute break. There was a television station interviewing some of the other hikers and Tanner was getting interviewed by the ASU paper. Just as we were starting up the last four and a half mile leg of the hike Dennis caught up with us. He became an unofficial fifth member of our team.

The last three hours were brutal. At times I thought that my legs were done, but they didn’t fail. All of us kept climbing, cracking up the whole way. After what seemed like forever and a day we made it to the top of the South Rim at 7:00pm with a final time of thirteen hours and fifteen minutes. This beat our south to north time by an hour and fifteen minutes.

We immediately went to the lodge and relaxed over a few beers and some food.

Shortly after Greg and Cat left, Ben and I headed over to the trail head to wait for Yancey and to see how everyone else was doing. It must have been pretty comical to see Ben and me trudging along.

The Grand Canyon is truly a natural wonder. The views I heard about were awe inspiring. One does not need to see this treasure to appreciate or experience it.

During The hike Dennis asked me, “Why do you do this, I mean you can’t see the view?” “Is it for the bragging rights or something else?” I proceeded to tell him that it was a mix of reasons. I want to help inspire people to do more with their lives regardless or in spite of any hang ups or handicaps they may have. Also our entire group helped raise funds for the blind of all ages, but especially for the children. And the Foundation for Blind Children is a true asset for the blind and their families alike. Bragging rights are fine, though what it is really about for me is finding a challenge and then meeting it. These kinds of adventures help me understand about what living a truly full life is. I am just so happy that I have been blessed with a family and friends that help support me in these endeavors. Without their support I would not be able to participate in these adventures.

God Bless,

Mike Armstrong/Sensei

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