Hiking Havasupai – My Successful Return to Hiking

Havasupai Falls Hike Arziona

Forgetting the ibuprofen was a bad idea.  It was a rookie mistake and I was paying the price for it.  I sat down heavily on a concrete and rock wall next to several other sweaty, dust covered hikers taking advantage of one of the last shady spots left in the rocky canyon.  I pulled the hat from my throbbing head and wiped the sweat from my brow, eyeing a line of horses kicking up dust on their way up the steep switchbacks toward us.  I wanted to stay ahead of the horse pack but I was loosing steam.  As I caught my breath and waited for the aching in my knees to subside I made idle chit-chat with the guy next to me.  There was probably less than a half a mile left, but it was the hard half mile…and my body was constantly reminding me that I was neither young nor in shape anymore.

The guy beside my made some comment, by this point I was barely listening, and I looked up to see the horses were right on top of us and moving fast around the bend in the switchbacks.  As the huge animals jockeyed for position they took up the entire trail squeezing out our lazy spot in the shade.  One horse cut the outside route with a gallop right toward me and I shot up and spun myself toward him and to the outside edge of the trail, just narrowly missing being trampled by the beast.

“Ha ha!  I thought you were tired!”, one of the other resting hikers was amused by my sudden agility.

It’s amazing what a little adrenaline can do for you.

Most anyone who reads here knows I’ve been struggling with injuries for the better part of a year.  Even though last year was one of the most amazing travel years I’ve ever had, the whole thing was a huge, painful struggle.  Last May I found out I had a double stress fracture in my right foot that sidelined me for the better part of 3 months.  As soon I recovered somewhat from that, I injured my left knee.  When I rushed to get back to training after the knee felt better I quickly re-injured my knee even worse and had to resign myself to doctor’s visits and physical therapy.  I had worked hard over the last several years to get into shape and be able to do the kinds of adventures and travel that I enjoy and this year of pain and frustration was a major setback.

Coming back from this many injuries back to back has been a frustratingly slow process.  I’ve had to accept a lot of limitations and come to terms with losing the fitness level I had earned.  It felt like I had thrown away years worth of work and effort.  But taking it slow was going to be necessary if I was ever going to get back anywhere near where I was.

Mooney Falls Havasupai Hike

 

 

Hanging out at Havasupai Falls

I think it was October or November when we decided we were going to hike Havasupai.  My wife and I have been talking about going for years.  I have hiked into Havasupai several times since moving to Arizona but she had never been and has been asking to go nearly as long as I’ve known her.  When her sister offered to let their oldest come out to visit us, my wife thought it would be a great opportunity to show off our state by taking him into Havasupai and showing him an amazing time.  Jason is 14, athletic and is active in the Boy Scouts so taking him on a sweet multi-day backpacking trip to one of the most beautiful places in the country was a great plan.  For Christmas we sent him an old National Geographic magazine with an article about Havasupai, writing in the magazine “April 2014, prepare yourself!”.

As April drew closer, I didn’t seem to be any closer to healed and certainly not healed enough to train for the hike.  If I was going to be able to go at all it was going to be right on the heels of finishing rehab, with no prep.  Goody for me.

Beaver Falls Havasupai Hike

Hiking Havasupai is an interesting experience.  I’ve done it several times and even though it’s close to 12 miles to the campground it’s mostly downhill on the way in.  The switchbacks are the first thing and they’re over quickly (and your’re going down so it’s not as bad).  Then it’s just a long canyon hike down a dry creek bed for the most part.  The hike out is something else entirely and first timers are often taken by surprise at how challenging it can be.  That long slow, easy downhill all the way in turns into an imperceptible uphill grind that saps your energy and then dumps you at the foot of a mile or so of switchbacks fully exposed to the desert sun.  It’s usually not something you do on a whim with no training or a good base fitness level.  I had neither.

Jason did great and his boundless 14 year old energy had him running circles around us for the most part.  I hope we were able to give him an experience he’ll never forget.  I felt like we could have done better had I been more physically prepared for the hike, but all in all we did well.  We put in over 30 miles of hiking that weekend, explored and swam around countless waterfalls, he slept in a hammock for the first time and got to see at least part of the Grand Canyon.  For me, I got to revisit one of my favorite places on the planet and show it off to my wife.  But more than that, I proved to myself that I have recovered from my injuries and can get serious about getting back to the kind of shape that will allow me to keep up with the serious hikers.

I was pretty beat up most of the time we were in the canyon, walking around sore and in pain.  But it was the soreness of muscles worked past their limits, feet sore and bruised from over-activity, NOT the pain of injury.  My knees held up well despite my lack of preparation and meager fitness.  Despite the soreness we pushed through to go see more stuff, jump off waterfalls and swim in the shallow pools.  I may have spent an hour with ice on both knees after hiking out of the canyon but I could still walk, I wasn’t crippled and that, for me, was a success.

Mooney Falls Hike ladder chain

I’ve left this year’s travel calendar almost blank, not knowing what I would be physically able to do.  But now I want to fill in the time with some of the adventures I’ve missed out on.  I had to pass up so many great invitations last year and take it easy on other trips where I wanted to do so much more.  This year will be about saying yes and pushing myself.  It’s time to start looking at all those summits, canyons, rivers and creeks I longed for all year.  Time to pull out the maps and start planning.  I think I hear Utah calling my name…

Photograph of the Week: Sunset in Grand Canyon…

I know, I know…I haven’t done a Photograph of the Week in a long time.  Everything blog-related was pretty much put on hold while I was recovering from my busted foot.  Now that I can get around a little bit I feel more motivated to post AND I actually have a few things to post about.  So, to kick things off again I wanted to post a collection of pictures from my recent trip to Grand Canyon National Park showing four consecutive days of Sunset in Grand Canyon.

First Sunset: Bedrock City, Arizona…

Somehow, there’s always a lot to do the day of a trip.  Without fail, it seems like I’m overwhelmed with last minute random chores to get done when we are trying to get out of town.  Another reason why flexibility is the overriding theme to all my travel plans.  We didn’t make it all the way to the Grand Canyon on the first day and decided to stop for the night in Bedrock City just outside of Williams.  This was a fun, spontaneous decision that felt much more adventurous than the local KOA.  That first night we set up the teardrop, busted out the camp stove and made dinner as the sun was bearing down on the horizon.  While dinner was cooking, I grabbed the camera and snapped off a few shots of the sunset.

first night sunset- Sunset in Grand Canyon

Nikon D300 w/ 24-105 Lens – f6.3 – 1/160sec – ISO 200 – 35mm

 

Second Sunset: The Watchtower…

We camped at Desert View Campground, about 28 miles east of the main entrance to the park and Grand Canyon Village.  After driving through the main section and seeing what kind of circus Mather Campground is I was really happy we had made the decision to check out Desert View.  It’s a first-come-first-served campground so timing is key if you’re going to find a spot.  We got lucky and managed to grab what I believe was the best spot in the campground.  That first night in Grand Canyon we decided to check out the sunset view from The Watchtower, which is only a quarter mile or so from camp.  We hiked along the rim a ways to stake out a spot away from the crowds.  As sunset approached we still had a sporadic groups of tourists jockeying for a spot along the rim to snap shots of the sunset with their cell phones.

I set up on a promontory that got me out enough to be able to shoot the sunset without the tourists in the frame (I know, I keep saying “tourist” like I wasn’t one…hehe).  We waited…and waited…I was looking for a nice show.  There were nice clouds in the sky, the canyon was clear, visibility was great…we just needed the light to break through.  It never really happened.  That first night was a bust and the sunset fizzled out like a match that burned itself out.  The images for that night were more moody, with subtle light in the clouds and a misty stacked silhouette of purple canyon walls.

Watch Tower Sunset Day 1- Sunset in Grand Canyon

Nikon D300 w/ 10-24 Lens – f29 – 1.3sec – ISO 320 – 22mm

 

Third Sunset: Return to The Watchtower…

We tried to take it easy for the second day in the canyon, I didn’t want to overwork my busted foot since I was just getting used to walking again.  We got up early that day and got to shoot the sunrise at from the cliffs at Desert View just a short walk from camp.  That night I wanted to get back to The Watchtower for sunset, I felt robbed the night before.  It is a great vantage point and the canyon view from there made for great photos but the show the night before was weak.  I wanted another shot at it and the sky was shaping up to have a lot of potential.

We came out a little later than the night before, it had been cold and windy the first night and we waited for a long time with nothing much to show for it.  Arriving later meant I lost my spot though, as it had been taken over by a large group of Asian tourists.  We hiked further down the trail looking for a quiet spot to set up and found a great little overlook.  That night the sun cooperated and gave us a little more of the display I was looking for.  My expectations were high, so even with a “nice” sunset I felt like the canyon was holding back.  We would have one more shot after this, but I was still happy with at least a couple of the sunset images we got that night.  My wife was shooting the D70s with the 24-105 lens and had much better luck since she could get in tighter on the scene we had that night.

Watchtower Sunset Day 2- Sunset in Grand Canyon

Nikon D300 w/ 10-24 Lens – f4.2 – 1/40sec – ISO 320 – 19mm

 

Last Sunset: ShoShone Point…

We got the inside scoop about Shoshone Point from one of the Park Rangers working at The Watchtower.  He gave us clear directions and told us it was the perfect short, easy hike that I could do with my limited mobility and would give us a stellar view of The Canyon for sunset.  He added that Shoshone Point is one of his personal favorite vantage points on the South Rim and it is never crowded.  Sounded like the perfect spot!  What he didn’t tell us is that the location is available for events and we got there just as a full blown wedding was wrapping up.  The bridal party had taken over the point for wedding photos!

Luckily they wrapped up before sunset and everyone headed out leaving the point to Merelyn and I.  Shortly after that we were joined by an eccentric local photographer that seemed to be happy to have some folks to talk to.  We sat and waited.  Things were shaping up nicely but you never know, the clouds move one way or another and can blow the whole thing.  Then the show started and for the next 40 minutes or so I hopped and shuffled all over the point shooting the changes in The Canyon as the light moved.  The sun cast intense rays across The Canyon catching corners and edges and making for some dramatic shooting.  I shot with the wide-angle and my wife shot with the 24-105 and we both captured some great stuff.

Shoshone Point- Sunset in Grand Canyon

Nikon D300 w/ 10-24 Lens – f22 – 1/15sec – ISO 320 – 10mm

 

When the Sun finally did drop behind the cliff the color in the sky changed completely and I dropped the exposure a little.  I had promised Merelyn we wouldn’t stay too long so we wouldn’t be hiking back to the truck in the dark, but I couldn’t leave the sunset before it was done and it had more story to tell.  Our photographer friend was there to the bitter end shooting a time-lapse of the sunset, so as the last of the viable shots for me slipped away we said goodbye and headed back down the dark trail to the truck.  Luckily it wasn’t much of a hike back and we did just fine.

Shoshone Point- Sunset in the Canyon

Nikon D300 w/ 10-24 Lens – f/14 – 1/5sec – ISO 320 – 10mm

 

Prints of any of these shots and more from my Grand Canyon trip can be ordered from the Wilderness Dave Photography Gallery site.

The Hiker’s Hike…

Havasu Creek Canyon, Arizona circa April of 2000

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I might not be getting the best experience out of my hikes.  I think about how I used to hike and what made me excited about a particular trail and something has changed.  I feel like I’ve been doing so much fitness-oriented hiking lately that I can’t down-shift and enjoy a hike purely for the experience.  As I make the effort to change this, it made me start thinking about why I hike, what draws me to the trail and how what the trail has to offer changes my approach to the hiking experience.

Slot Canyon in Northern Arizona

What draws me to the trail these days is very much about goals.  I find myself choosing hikes based on bagging a new peak, beating a previous time or simply logging miles in to my fitness routine.  My choices are less about the experience and more about the route, the terrain and how fast I think I can complete it and get back home.  So much so that I don’t even carry a camera with me anymore.  There’s really nothing wrong with this, especially since I am in recovery from an injury and I am focused on training for a race.  Fitness goals are very important to me right now, but I do miss hiking purely for the joy of discovery.

Havasu Creek near confluence with Colorado River

When I first moved to Arizona and began hiking in the desert, every hike was about getting to see something new.  It was about the varied terrain, the exotic and esoteric plants, the fascinating little creatures that scurried about…it was about the journey.  The desert was a new place to me and I would find myself randomly picking hikes in far off places just to see what I could find.  I wanted to stand under a new waterfall, look from a new peak, see new trees and hear new birds.  I recall hikes where I would spend huge amounts of time just watching a rattle snake, or the spectacle of a tarantula migration or inspecting some old piece of mining equipment long since left behind.  Some of my best and most memorable hiking experiences were from this time in my life.  A time when every trip was a new adventure in every sense of the word.

Today I feel torn.  Part of me enjoys the convenience of a trail within a 10-minute drive of my house in the city that offers me 3, 5 or 7 mile options that I know I can complete in a set amount of time.  It’s definitely better, in my opinion, than asphalt.  But there’s another part of me that misses the exploration side of hiking, the adventure and the sense of discovery.  I feel like I should have more reverence for the trail, more respect and acknowledgement of the uniqueness that makes each trail special.  The problem I have is that many of these local trails just don’t feel special anymore.

I think it’s time to push out of my comfort zone.  It’s time to visit new places, take the road less traveled and reintroduce ADVENTURE to the outdoors again.  I know there are amazing places out there that I have yet to visit and I want to start making those destinations more of a priority.  We all hike for different reasons and there is no right or wrong, as long as you enjoy yourself and stay safe.  I can still run in town and climb local peaks to build cardio and endurance, but I really want to hike the kind of trails that used to fill me with a sense of wonder…a true Hiker’s Hike.

And who knows, maybe I’ll start carrying a camera again…

Grand Canyon, Arizona circa October, 2007