Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grand awakening

Trekking to the canyon's bottom and back up a photographer's dream

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Ruth Bonneville

Kaibab trail

It was 5 a.m. when I awoke in my quaint dorm room at the Bright Angel Lodge. My lodging was small and dated, with a bathroom the size of a closet and a shared shower down the hall.

But anything would seem small compared to what was outside the door -- the Grand Canyon, one of the deepest and most majestic canyons in the world.

It was pitch black when I arrived the night before. The mountain air was moist, cool and thin -- nothing like the dry, cold prairie winter I had left.

Walking alongside a shallow stone fence next to the canyon's edge, I could sense the vastness. It felt like a black hole sucking me in. I overheard a tourist behind me say, "There's a whole lotta nothingness out there," but I knew there was more.

When I heard you could explore the canyon's depths through a series of switchbacks, I was in.

But hiking to the bottom -- a vertical drop of 1,525 metres -- and climbing back up the following day wasn't something to be taken lightly -- as I was about to find out.

The South Kaibab trail is rocky, worn and rugged. I immediately encountered snow, ice and cliffs and slowed my pace. The 12-kilometre path was wide enough to feel safe, but not to be stupid.

Like a work of art, the intensity and beauty grew with each passing layer.

Six hours after leaving the rim, I arrived at the bottom. I paused at the edge of the Colorado River, which, from about one-third of the way up, glistened like a green serpent snaking its way through walls of rock; a pulsing vein carrying life to the canyon. I inhaled a sense of accomplishment and let out a sigh of relief.

The century-old Phantom Ranch, the only lodging at the canyon's bottom, looked like it was airlifted from a Hollywood film set. Rustic cabins, a rippling stream and wranglers resting their mules from the day's journey. A peaceful pink hue hung on cottonwood tree branches. I've never experienced the euphoria of climbing a mountain, but it felt like there was sacred wisdom and a guiding spirit at the bottom of a canyon.

The next morning, the kitchen staff had prepared a hearty breakfast. The chatter around the table reflected our apprehension. "What if we can't make it?" But it was too late to turn back now -- there was no way out but to climb.

I made my way over the Colorado River and up the Bright Angel trail toward the rim, a 20-kilometre hike that meanders through the breathtaking Bright Angel gorge next to waterfalls, multi-layered rock formations and Indian Gardens, a lush treed area with fresh drinking water and gorgeous picturesque views. This was a photographer's dream -- breathtaking vistas in spectacular light.

Even though this was a solo journey, there were always others on my trail. But somewhere halfway up the canyon, I found myself alone and became gripped with fear. My beating heart was all I could hear -- I felt like a speck of dust in the gorge. There was only one thing to do: Keep moving forward.

The higher I climbed, the more the temperature dropped, and the spitting rain turned to snow. Looking up at where I was headed was overwhelming. "How the hell am I going to climb that?"

I remembered something one of the locals told me before I left the rim:

"Don't look up at how high you still have to climb; look back and see how far you have come," he said. "When you see what you have already accomplished, it will give you the strength and courage to keep going."

He was right. I no longer felt alone. That same sacred spirit I felt at the base was in the face of the rocks and now was guiding me out of the depths to the rim.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 D17

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