It wasn't my idea. Paris was my idea.
But last November, I joined my husband and his buddies — five hoary photographers and a graphic designer, ranging in age from 49 all the way to 76 — in a challenge to hike the Grand Canyon, down to the bottom and back out again.
We called ourselves the Way Out West Gang. The sports and rehab injuries among us could keep chiropractors and orthopedists busy for a year. Whenever we're together, our dynamic includes chaos and close shaves and aching bones. Who wouldn't think that's fun?
Let's face it. With the possible exception of 49-year-old Melina Mara, the baby of the bunch who was recovering from hip surgery, we were basically a group of variously experienced East Coast city slickers, even though several of our number had previously hiked the Grand Canyon and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
We all tried to train for months on Virginia's Old Rag Mountain; or at Harper's Ferry, W.Va.; or in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. But our real warmup was crawling through some slot canyons in Utah. Where I came up with my list of Lyden's rules of hiking. Starting with Rule No. 1: Know where you're hiking.
On our first afternoon in Escalante, 20 bone-rattling miles off-road down a dirt track, our most exuberant hiker (Robert Reeder, recently recovered from heart surgery) led us along a hike he thought he recalled from six years earlier. He assured us that it was "a mostly horizontal trail," with no steep grades of any kind. In fact, there was almost instantly a sharp and confusing slip-slide into a hair-thin slot canyon.
Now, I've crawled through catacombs beneath Paris, and I can say that, especially for people of a certain size, a slot canyon is definitely one of those places where you have to inhale — deeply — to make it through the sandstone crevices. My husband, Washington Post photographer Bill O'Leary, thinking that he'd be hiking "horizontally," was carrying his backpack and his 10-pound Nikon 800-D. Bill is almost 6 feet tall and built like a footballer. He did get horizontal — slithering like a snake through this slot canyon, known as Spooky Gulch for the darkness and the panic-inducing narrow walls. At one point, the opening was narrower than his rib cage.
That afternoon we'd been joined, providentially, by a woman who didn't want to attempt Spooky alone. She turned out to be a West Yellowstone National Park firefighter with a few days off. Her name was Cindy Champion and, yes, she proved worthy of it.
The problem with Spooky wasn't just the compressed walls, but the surprise of giant "choke stones" that had tumbled down onto the exit passage. These choke stones, so called because they choke off an opening after a flash flood or a rock slide, were more than 6 feet high. The only way out was to climb over them, but we had no ropes. So we had to stand on one another's backs or get a leg up, which made it awfully difficult for the last person out. That was Dayna Smith, age 60-plus, who ran and jumped and pulled herself out in a mighty, unassisted pullup. I guess all those years of hoisting cameras around had paid off.
Into the canyon
We had a treat waiting for us at the Grand Canyon. Helen Ranney, development director for the Grand Canyon Association, gave us a private tour of the Kolb Studio. More than 100 years ago, the enterprising Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery, built a five-story home on the South Rim, at the head of Bright Angel Trail. It has 22 rooms, with heart-stopping views of the canyon from nearly every one.
From this precarious perch, starting in 1905, the Kolbs photographed mule trains and sold the pictures to tourists. In the early days, the brothers ran 3 miles down to Indian Gardens creek to develop their plates, and 3 miles back up to make their sales.
The actual hike down South Kaibab Trail was, of course, steep and grueling. It's 6.5 miles. But everyone made it, stopping to do yoga poses or other stretches and to swoon over the Grand Canyon's rock formations.
Robert Barkin (the 76-year-old) and a few of the others hiked Bright Angel Trail. It's the original old Indian trail and a longer way in and out, but the descent is thought to be less hard on the knees.
We all straggled into the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon by midafternoon. We grabbed beers and ice packs and clapped each other on the back or stuck aching feet into the rushing Colorado River. For a day and a half, the rustic Phantom Ranch, with its double bunks and double calories (steak or stew), would be our home. A park ranger gave wonderful talks on geology, the Civil War-era explorer John Wesley Powell and the reintroduction of the California condor. I hung on her every word.
When we left, hiking the nearly 10 miles up Bright Angel, Barkin was third to the finish line. Of course, he had taken off a half-hour earlier without telling anyone (well, maybe his wife) and hadn't stopped for lunch. But at least Bright Angel is well-marked, and we didn't worry. Too much. I was too busy just breathing, especially on the 1,000-feet-an-hour final ascent.
Still, except for wind-blasted cheeks, a sore hip and strange pain in my IT (that's iliotibial) band — hip-to-knee muscles I hadn't even known existed — I didn't suffer any damage. I'd do the whole thing again in a heartbeat.