Discovering Strength at the Grand Canyon

Hiking rim to river at the Grand Canyon five months pregnant had its challenges and unforgettable gifts.

I dreamed of traction spikes crunching into ice and snow gracing the soaring geology of the Grand Canyon in winter. It was a dream we rush into reality as my pregnancy moves along into the fifth month. The frigid air nips at our unacclimated faces on the porch of the Yavapai Lodge as we disembark to the South Kaibab trail. Herds of elk meander along the rim while condors freewheel overhead, striking the clear blue sky through with their imposing black wingspan. There is no snow despite the cold. The brutal series of switchbacks decending into the canyon peals away layer after layer of breathtaking scenery of the Grand Canyon’s interior.

I hike carefully, hyper-aware of the weight of my belly and the little one growing inside. Each step down, down into the canyon strains my lower back and settles into my hips uncomfortably. Conventional wisdom encourages pregnant people to pursue the same activity as before pregnancy, within reason. Not quite my case. I learn soon after that pregnancy hormones were practically disassembling the ligaments and joints that held my pelvic region together in a way beyond normal pregnancy adaptations.

My body mercifully holds itself together as we descend, the Colorado river morphing from a small, distant ribbon to a rushing, frothing beast. Our boots collect red dirt as we marvel at the formations and the time-laiden layers of geologic strata each quietly speaking of their own era. The drastic change of climate between the rim and the bottom means a verdant covering of multitudes of moss and delicate little flowers in nooks and crannies along the warming rock. I ignore them in favor of an ancient, weathered-looking tree as we stop for a break at Cedar Ridge and I take out my painting kit. I feel my son settle as I sit on the ground and ruminate the scenery in paint and brush.

It’s getting dark by the time we reach Tipoff Point, mere miles away from Bright Angel Campground where we were to camp for the night. The pain in my back and hips sets in. I worry about hiking in the dark, mis-placing a step and hurting my little one with an unexpected fall. We decide to camp where we can instead of pushing on in the dark. It’s a good thing I’ve always insisted on bringing extra water down into the canyon, and even better that a gentleman working on the restrooms gave us even more for the luxury of a warm meal. We pitch camp on that exposed plateu with a panoramic view of the canyon’s interior darkening under the setting sun. It’s beautiful in its unexpected, less-than-ideal setting. We carefully select a site that shows signs of significant wear already, off-trail enough to be unobtrusive but still adhere to Leave No Trace principles. We have the canyon entirely to ourselves in that little, unexpected camp as night falls.

The next morning we join the overnighters and early hikers back on the trail, making quick time of the last set of switchbacks. Rest on the hard ground has done my back and hips good, but we take it slow and cautious nonetheless. I stand on the brink of a switchback overlooking the rushing Colorado and feel my son turn, as if he senses something magnificent just outside of his little world.

We cross the impressive engineering of the suspension bridge and arrive at Phantom Ranch like a contemporary iteration of the birth of Jesus, if Mary had trekking poles. An iconic Grand Canyon mule may have been appropriate. Is there room at the inn? Yes, a whole cabin, held by the staff for borderline emergency situations such as ours.

I would have been happy with a shared campsite, but the luxury of the cabin with soft beds that are easier to climb out of is deeply appreciated. My mom passes out in her bunk. My husband enjoys a Phantom Ranch beer while we sit on the bench outside as twilight takes us into night.

The next morning we pick up extra food at Phantom Ranch to supplement our emergency stash before hitting the trail. A heavy mist begins to unfurl as we arrive at the beachside rest house at the junction of the River Trail and the climb out via Bright Angel. My body feels lighter without the weight of my pack but my abdomen still heavy and weighing on my back and hips. My husband explores the shores of the Colorado while my mom and I rest and dream of the day my son will rest on these very benches after the very same hike with us.

There are numerous small stream crossings and plenty of greenery between breathtaking views as we take the slow climb toward the Indian Gardens campground. The extra food was a welcome luxury when the pregnancy hunger grasps at me on a set of switchbacks and I’m close to cannibalizing my party. Rain arrives during our lunch to refresh our hike. I’m cautious and slow on the trail, my breath coming with more difficulty than I remember. The slow and steady gait of my hike lulls my son to sleep, and I follow soon after when we arrive at Indian Gardens just as twilight begins to fill the sky.

Our final morning in the canyon starts with a view of the canyon covered in the glistening white snowfall from the previous night. I do a quick painting of the snowy climb we have to tackle for the day, and it hails on us as we climb out of Indian Gardens. I struggle with this climb. At the three mile resthouse a tenacious stellar’s jay brightens my mood. Refreshed, we continue to the mile and a half resthouse where we affix our traction spikes to our boots and double-check our trekking poles as the trail becomes slick with ice and white with fresh snow.

The climb is starting to get to me. I feel the joints in my hips wobble and click with every step, and a searing pain in my lower back. My pace slows dramatically as twilight begins to take hold of the sky overhead. The temperatures drop to the teens with an unknown windchill factor. We are right in the middle between trailhead and the previous rest house with nowhere to pitch camp for the night. So we don our headlamps and layers. My husband takes my pack – it does little good to quicken my pace, but the gesture was a kind one.

I’ve been on this trail many times for backpacking trips and dayhikes, I know we aren’t far from the rim. Patience and stubborn endurance is all that is needed, and careful steps on icey ground. The dark makes the hike seem longer than it really is, but the light from the South Rim’s gallery gives me an idea of our location relative to the trailhead. It won’t be long before we pass beneath the stone arch and up the gently graded path onto the south rim.

My son sleeps peacefully to the steady, careful sway of my steps. I don’t know it, but in the weeks and months to follow I will remember this moment while on crutches, when stuck on the bed unable to move, during crushing pain when my back and hips misalign themselves and emergency ER visits and in the throes of labor and during the mind-numbing recovery process while my abdomen knits itself back together in a way entirely unfamiliar to me. I’ll remember this moment as the moment I endured challenge and pain and found beauty in it. I’ll remember climbing through, thriving and conquering my own nerves in the changing landscape of the Grand Canyon as the greatest change of my life arrives with my newborn son and my new identity as a mother. I’ll remember this place with fondness and hopes of returning with my son.

I keep climbing.

Published: January 22, 2018

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Sam T.G.

Covina

adventure artist - painter and explorer of wild trails and backcountry camps.