“The big day,” John said.
“Yup,” I replied, rubbing my eyes.
It was three in the morning. We were standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon aiming the beams of our headlamps down the South Kaibab Trail—a mule-stomped trough of glistening ice running between snowbanks. The trailhead sign read ICY TRAIL: CRAMPONS RECOMMENDED.
In the previous few days, with spring a week away, the South Rim had received a half-foot of snow; over on the North Rim, a foot had fallen. Crampons would have just slowed us down. We had light metal instep cleats strapped to our hiking boots, and trekking poles.
The trail descended into blackness. We looked out across the vast reservoir of cold night air toward the distant North Rim, distinguishable only as a horizontal line above which the stars were scattered. We searched the inky chasm for Zoroaster Temple, the formation we’d come to climb.
“Can you make it out?” I asked.
“Nope,” said John.
Zoroaster Temple is a Grand Canyon landmark, an immense mountain rising inside the colossal rift. It’s shaped like a pyramid and topped with a 700-foot, custard-colored sandstone tower that was first climbed by Dave Ganci and Rick Tidrick, in 1958; before that, no technical rock climbing had been attempted in the Grand Canyon. After a pilgrimage to Yosemite had expanded the pair’s conception of what was possible on big rock, Ganci and Tidrick, both in their early twenties, traded their clothesline for a nylon rope, and loaded their packs with World War II army angles and giant pitons forged by a Scottsdale blacksmith. Their epic ascent took seven days.
Geographically part of the North Rim, Zoroaster is more easily accessed from the South Rim. Although there are only six pitches of technical climbing, a round-trip climb of Zoroaster requires almost 30 miles of hiking and 20,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss—more than the trip up the south face of Everest and back from Camp II.
Just to reach the base of Zoroaster’s final tower, Ganci and Tidrick had had to scout out the tricky passageways up through the shelflike layers of shale, sandstone, and limestone. Once the route had been reconnoitered, subsequent ascents cut the rim-to-rim time in half. It’s still considered the grand prize of climbing in the Grand Canyon. According to John Annerino’s 1996 guidebook Adventuring in Arizona, 7,123-foot Zoroaster is “a remote, backcountry peak that requires at least three days.”
We were going to attempt it in one.
There was half a moon, but its silver light was less useful than we had expected. Our headlamps illuminated the trail itself and nothing more, as if we were tromping down a mine shaft. On one side there were boulders; on the other, a black abyss. We didn’t talk. We hiked, single file, John in front.
Right here, before we go any further, I must say that you don’t march off on a mad caper with just anyone. Not if you want to succeed, or sometimes simply come home. It has to be someone whose bravery outstrips his banter. Someone whose strength and stamina are indubitable. Someone who has gotten himself into a hundred fixes and each time figured a way out. My 45-year-old partner, John Harlin—writer, editor, extreme skier, mountaineer, and all-around miscreant—is such a fellow. We had climbed on other continents together and knew each other well. More salient, we were matched in skill, temperament, and speed.
A two-man team leaves little room for error. On the other hand, if you’re a seasoned pair, there’s no weak link. Add another person—or, God forbid, a few—and fast, clean, continuous movement becomes impossible. Somebody always has to stop to take a leak, tie a shoe, tighten a buckle—minor delays that burn precious moonlight. If you’re in sync, two is the perfect-size team.
Before John and I walked into the Grand Canyon, we spent three days climbing in the Arizona desert together, working out the kinks, getting dialed. The night we dropped off the rim we felt ready. The temperature was 25 degrees, perfect for hiking. We sank into the cold, dark air as if it were a liquid. The season and the time of day were part of the plan.
In the desert, the two things most likely to kill you are heat and dehydration. Hiking at night, especially in March, neutralizes both factors. You don’t overheat, so you don’t get overly thirsty. Why do so few people hike at night? Perhaps it’s a reluctance rooted deep in our psyches, a genetically imprinted trait that can be traced back for millennia to a time when humans were predators by day but prey at night. Today the saber-toothed tiger is gone, replaced by its shrunken descendant the mountain lion, which is generally not up for taking on full-grown humans.
Nevertheless, “people have strange phobias about darkness,” says Ken Walters, who teaches outdoor skills for the South Rim–based Grand Canyon Field Institute. “I tell them it’s just deep shade. Hiking in the desert, you’re always looking for shade—trying to get some chunk of rock between you and the sun. When you hike at night, you’re putting a very big chunk of rock, the Earth, between you and the sun. It’s always a huge breakthrough when people stop being hung up on daylight.”
Thus our dark descent along the South Kaibab Trail. After we dropped 500 feet, the ice turned to mud and we removed our cleats. It was our only stop. Like two stones pushed off the rim, John and I rolled down to the river without effort. We crossed the suspension bridge over the quiet Colorado at 5:30 a.m. and followed the smell of bacon up to the Phantom Ranch mess hall. It was packed with people, light and noise streaming through the windows. We didn’t go in. We stripped off our gaiters, changed socks, ate a bagel, checked the map, and chugged some Gatorade. As we were refilling our bottles from an outdoor faucet, two cowboys stepped from the lodge into the darkness, their coffee cups steaming.
“What’re you boys up to?” one of them asked.
“Hikin’,” John replied.
They sat down on some rocks and looked up through the trees at the dwindling stars. Likely as not they’d been awake as long as we had. Three hours earlier, driving past the trailhead on the rim, we’d met a cowboy already loading his pack animals.
We’d asked him if there was any place to park where we wouldn’t get a ticket. “Don’t s’pose there is,” he said. After a long silence, he told us, “You boys look all right to me. Guess you could park up there beside my cabin.”
Now these two cowboys watched us reload our packs and asked just enough questions to figure out what we were really up to.
“Sounds like some kinda endurance thang,” one of them remarked, tossing the coffee grounds from his cup.
“We’ll see,” John replied.
“I, myself,” the cowboy said slowly, “ain’t into self-abuse. But good luck to you anyhow.”
We tipped our baseball caps and galloped away.
A quarter-mile past Phantom Ranch we doglegged onto the Clear Creek Trail and began zigzagging up the north wall of the canyon. Light was pouring from the sky, washing out the night. The shapely buttes, scalloped slopes, and crenelated shelf lines of the South Rim glowed red as a Mexican dancer’s dress.
We arrived at Sumner Wash around 7:30 and stopped beside a tinaja, an ephemeral rainwater pool, to fill up our as-yet-unused two-quart water bags. We’d been forewarned to carry enough water for the entire climb from Phantom Ranch. But given the recent snow, we gambled on finding water in Sumner Wash, and did.
Lack of water is a hazard in the Grand Canyon.
“We do over 400 rescues a year,” Ken Phillips, search-and-rescue coordinator for Grand Canyon National Park, told me by phone. “Most occur in June, July, and August.” Around 12 people die every year in the park. “Half of these are preventable—people who die of dehydration, hyponatremia [critical loss of sodium], heat exhaustion, physical exhaustion, or some combination of the above.”
Ganci and Tidrick nearly learned a fatal lesson themselves when they knocked off Zoroaster back in late September of 1958.
“It was the first and only time I’ve ever experienced absolute thirst,” Tidrick, now 63, told me when I called him at his home in Colorado. “We had hundred-degree temperatures. I lost 15 pounds in six days.”
“Rain was predicted,” Ganci, 64, said on the phone from Prescott, Arizona. “So we carried this five-gallon metal jerry jeep can and a tarp for collecting the rainwater. We had 65-pound packs and looked like a couple of Sherpas.”
But the rain came four days late, after they had completed the climb and were on their way down.
“We were in the red zone, advanced stages of dehydration, tunnel vision and euphoria, stumbling, floating along,” Ganci recalled.
Impressed by their suffering, I’d started my own specialized training program: I quit drinking water. I’d go ice climbing or backcountry skiing for the whole day, without water. To compensate for the missing weight, I’d load my pack with useless climbing gear. Back at the house after a long, demolishingly parched day, I’d attempt to accurately mimic one of the mental side effects of dehydration (i.e. euphoria) by drinking only beer—a clinically tested diuretic. I found it to be one of the most enjoyable training programs I’ve ever attempted.
John and I filled our two-quart bags with green, insect-rich water and tossed in a few capfuls of iodine solution (later we would dump in a package of sweet-tasting electrolyte powder). We dried our socks in the sun, ate another bagel and surveyed the landscape. We were surrounded on three sides by a 500-foot limestone band of cliffs called the Redwall.
“Looks like there’s only one way through it,” said John.
He pointed to a dark slot halfway between the broad back of Sumner Butte and the squat, white steeple of Zoroaster. Our photocopy of the route description warned, “The climbing here is Class 4. Use a rope if you feel at all insecure with a heavy pack.”
A heavy pack. Make that the third thing that’ll kill you in the desert, or anywhere else. If there’s one good reason why doing something in one big day rather than in several small ones makes sense, it’s to avoid the utter misery of humping a heavy pack.
For some masochistic reason, John had been impressed by the huge loads that Ganci and Tidrick had carried, and his own training regimen reflected this. He lives on a farm in Oregon and is currently building a fireplace from river rocks. The river is 200 feet below and a half-mile away from his house. John took to loading a backpack with 120 pounds of rocks and hauling them up to his house. Your average washing machine weighs about 120 pounds. He’d make several trips.
For this climb, however, our packs were well under 20 pounds. We’d taken the lightest iteration of each piece of gear. Twin, 145-foot ultrathin climbing ropes, featherweight wire-gate carabiners, Spectra slings, a frighteningly small rack of protection. We had no camping or bivouac gear whatsoever. Bring it and you’ll use it—if only because the extra weight will slow you down so much that you’ll be forced to stop. The self-evident secret of going fast is to go light. To carry just enough. Too much and you fail, too little and you fail. Besides climbing gear, we brought insulated coats, fleece hats and mittens, sardines, bagels, M&Ms, water, ibuprofen, and a pocketknife for compound fractures or field appendectomies.
Knowing how much to bring comes from knowing yourself. How far above your protection you can climb before you freak. How cold you tend to get. How much food and water you need to keep going. The answers are individual and only acquired through experience.
We dodged our way through agave and cacti, climbed the chimney sans ropes, and began moving up a ridge of sandstone shelves. Unlike Ganci and Tidrick, all we had to do was follow the route description and stride along in the sunshine with one eye out for the next cairn. At 10:30 a.m. we contoured around to the shadowed north face of Zoroaster Temple.
“Back into winter,” I whined.
“Ya sissy!” bellowed John.
There was a foot of snow on the north side of the tower, and the cairns were buried. We picked our way along, clambering up breaches in the bands of ice-cloaked sandstone, until we could post-hole diagonally to the base of the northeast arête. It was below freezing. We pulled on caps and gloves, burrowed into our coats, and studied the route.
“Looks like some of the cracks have ice in ’em,” exclaimed John, obviously thrilled.
We weren’t sure of the route. A slab of rock had fallen out and changed the start. No matter. At noon sharp, John stripped off his gloves and coat and attacked the first frigid pitch. He climbed up to an overhanging 5.8-ish finger crack; clawed out the ice and snow, breaking off chunks of rotten rock; pulled over; scampered to a tree; and belayed me up. Then I led a wide, generously verglassed 5.7 crack. John got off-route during the next pitch and we ended up pumping through a drippy, peeling-off-in-our-hands 5.9 overhang and hauling into a two-foot snowdrift on top. The next two pitches were 5.8 stemmy chimney/hand cracks which could have been beautiful desert climbing had there not been ice or snow every place you needed to put your hands and feet.
Pitch five was supposed to be an airy 30-foot traverse protected by two bolts. John got out his monocular and searched the wall.
“Damn. Where are they?”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
On any climb worth a story, it is axiomatic that there will come a point when the protagonists are confronted with something they really don’t want to do. This, of course, is God giving you a chance to back off. You will lose face, but you’ll save your ass. Wounded pride or peril, your choice. The mythic dilemma.
Infelicitously, it was my lead. I admit my pride is more sensitive than my flesh. I plugged in a little piece of dubious protection and moved out on a band of blank rock above the snow. The sandstone was wet, but the knobs were solid. I skittered sideways like a crab, only to discover that the last five feet of the traverse, invisible from the belay, were glazed with ice.
It was the predictable point of no return, the place where the fear of going backward outweighs the fear of going forward. A few easy moves (hindsight bravado) and I was through.
The final pitch was described as a “strenuous off-width, 5.9R.” (“R” stands for runout, which means you can take a long fall if you slip.) It was John’s lead. Even half-filled with snow it turned out to be not strenuous, not off-width, not 5.9, and thankfully not a runout.
Above the crack we plunged through two feet of snow, cut over to the summit block, scrambled up a chimney, and popped out into the sun atop Zoroaster.
“Four o’clock,” said John, checking his watch, “Not bad.”
We shook hands like men are supposed to do on summits, snapped photos, sat down and ate the last of our bagels and sardines while soaking up the sun and the phantasmagorical view of the Grand Canyon.
“You know who Zoroaster was?” I asked John.
“Zorro’s father?” John quipped.
Like Brahma, Buddha, and other divinely christened formations within the Canyon, Zoroaster was named after a sacred figure, in this case the Persian prophet who lived in the sixth century b.c.
“Otherwise known as Zarathustra,” I added. “Remember your Nietzsche? The Übermensch?”
“I remember Zorro the Gay Blade,” wisecracked John.
“‘Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss.’ Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
Much is made of summiting, but the fact is you’re only halfway home. We started rappelling at 4:30 p.m., reached the base of the Temple at 5:30, hustled back across the snowy north face, trotted along the descending ridge to the Redwall gully, and were off the final raps by nightfall.
Hiking steadily, dreaming of cheeseburgers, we were back at Phantom Ranch by 8:30. The kitchen was already closed. As a consolation prize, the cashier offered us free Oreos and hot chocolate.
We recrossed the suspension bridge at 9:30 and methodically ground out the 5,000-foot ascent, reaching our car on the South Rim at one in the morning, 22 hours after we’d left it. We weren’t sore, blistered, or exhausted, merely bushed. There had been no real drama. Drama happens when things go wrong. Drama happens when people make mistakes, when reach exceeds grasp. Ours was an epic non-epic.
On the way out, near the top, we noticed a large trail sign we had somehow cruised right by on our way down:
WARNING: DANGER! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE FROM THE CANYON RIM TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY. EACH YEAR HIKERS SUFFER SERIOUS ILLNESS OR DEATH FROM EXHAUSTION.