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Grand Canyon October 2022 – Hibernation

Summer to Winter in a Flash
Our 5-day break from the Grand Canyon in nearby Flagstaff was to abide by the 2-week limit inside the Park at Trailer Village, but the weather essentially flipped from summer to winter by the end of that short week.

We cringed every time we looked at the 15-day forecast for our 14 days in the Park. Gone would be employing our tactics for surviving hiking in the direct sun in the 90°+ (32°C +) heat inside the canyon for 4-6 hours to remembering how to keep our trailer plumbing from freezing when the overnight temperatures dropped into the teens (-8° C). There would be no more watching tourists on the S Rim in their short shorts while we munched our lunch; lunches would be inside our trailer after taking brief walks timed to dodge the peak of the upcoming 50-60 mph (80-96 km/h) wind gusts. Instead of choosing between sandals or trail runners for the day’s walk, it would be selecting the best pair of micro-crampons for the possible ice on the asphalt trails.

My stack of freshly washed, long-sleeved, silky, high UPF shirts would move to the back of the shelf so my infrequently used inventory of various weights of long johns would be in the ready. The daily decisions would move from which is the cleanest pair of sun gloves to which combination of heavy gloves to take with me. I recoiled every time I visualized life at 7,000’ (2100 m) in the persistent remnants of the approaching Arctic storm.
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Bundled-up for a windy, 20-mile walk along the S Rim, starting in below-freezing temperatures.

The forecast morphed several times a day, making it hard to plan being outside and on which days to do our big walks, if any. Slowly, I remembered my long standing rule in such situations, “If we can get 1 good day of outdoor exercise a week, we’ll manage.” And, part of the advantage of being in the SW is that the heavy weather doesn’t linger for long—usually.

I gradually identified the best day for each of the 2 weeks for our 20-mile (32 km) hikes and pairings of a 20-miler on the Rim followed by a 10-miler (16 km) the next day and the next week, and a 20-miler down to Phantom Ranch, followed by a flat 5’er (8 km) the next day. We would begin rebuilding our capacity to do back-to-back 20-milers, like would be needed for doing R-2-R-2-R in a year. The forecast gradually began to stabilize and actually improve, and my tentative plans were assigned specific dates.

While the cold days ticked by, my vision of our 2 weeks migrated from surviving by hunkering down to thriving by enjoying a partial hibernation. The long canyon-side lunches outdoors would be replaced by forced working lunches indoors, which would create welcome opportunities to dig-out from difficult desk work projects while gazing out our big window. We set new goals for the webpage and languishing digital photo albums: we would emerge from this hibernation having met our fitness goals and with satisfying products to show for the time. It would be a recovery interlude, with more time spent supporting our body’s recoveries from the hard workouts and chipping away at our icky To-Do lists than time on the trails. I slowly changed my image of the time from an interval of coping to being an interval of contentment.

The withdrawal of rain and snow from our first full day forecast once back in the Park, made it easier to be successful. We studied the changes in the forecast cloud over, temperatures, and wind speeds and picked the sweet spot for our brisk 3-mile (5 km) walk in what we hoped would be a wind-sheltered bike path through the Ponderosa pines. It was indeed a windy day, but we effortlessly walked upright the entire time under the last prolonged, full-sun interval for several days. Back in the trailer, we sat at the big window in our popped-out dinette alcove that caught the afternoon sun and marveled at the roiling clouds and gyrated tree tops. We were cozy and the threatening weather made it easy to be content with our desk work.

In the afternoon, I took my study break by doing a 10-minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) video workout in the available slot in our trailer and did a 30-minute self-treatment routine for my chronic pelvic alignment issue. It was a nurturing mix for me to have done a brisk walk outdoors, to have added a second session to my daily body care routine, and to chip-away at my To-Do list. We’d gotten the first day of hibernation just right. (Actually, our rhythm is probably better described as brumation, the partial hibernation that snakes do rather than hibernation, but how many people have a clue or care about that distinction?)
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The daily train from nearby Williams that gives visitors about 4 hours in the Park.

With Day #1 behind us, we were off to a satisfying start to our necessary adaptation to the sudden arrival of wintery weather at the Grand Canyon. We’d rather adapt to the new weather conditions than have been at home when the metro air quality was the worst in the world and when it was subsequently suddenly cleansed by an intense rain storm extinguishing the regional wildfires. Weather-wise, it is a tricky time of year anywhere and we are always happy to gamble on being at the Grand Canyon late in the season.

With the upcoming overnight lows forecast into the teens, we used our next 2 brisk, 3-mile walks to test our garment selection for setting out in freezing temperatures on our upcoming 20-miler on the S Rim. Every new challenge became a game, an opportunity for success and contentment.

Another Transformation
Just as unexpected as the sudden heavy weather, was discovering the most effective intervention for quieting my buttock and back pain that I had found in the last 3 years, which was using an SI belt. It’s a simple fabric cinch belt designed to be worn low on the hips, over the sacro-iliac (SI) joints at the back of the pelvis to keep the bones tightly aligned. I’d used one for months back in 2015-2016 as a part of my cure for SI joint pain on the other side of my pelvis.

None of the many practitioners from whom I’d sought treatment diagnosed me with a dysfunction SI joint, but I tumbled to the possibility one evening when I was again reading online for some new clues to solving my chronic, sometimes disabling, problem. I again looked at the anatomy on my 3-D app, thought about my pain sensation patterns, and decided it was worth trying the belt.

Bill and I had both used the belts years ago and he was readily able to snatch one of his 2 from his deep storage, saving me the hassles of attempting to order one for quick delivery in Flagstaff or checking at local pharmacies. My pain pattern was entirely different than in the past, but in a couple of days, I realized that difference reflected the different causes for the dysfunction.

Previously, the consensus was that the ligaments over my left SI joint were overstretched and they would require months or years of meticulous movement restriction to recover. My current right side pain was probably due to some tug-of-war between muscles that would likely resolve more quickly. The first step would be consistently using the belt to stop irritating the entire neighborhood of muscles and fascia and their domino-effect on each other from tiny, injurious movements of the pelvic bones.

Within moments of strapping the belt around my hips, I was 90% certain that the SI belt was going to be my ticket out of chronic pain. Relief from an SI belt, if you benefit from it, is instantaneous and yet is as subtle as the comfort from a heating pad. If you’ve been there before, you know that you know you are benefiting from it even though healing the injury can take years.
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The first snowfall of our 2nd visit to the Park this season as seen from our trailer.

My 3rd day of the SI belt use was a 20-miler day, and I completed the hike with absolutely no buttock pain. My low back muscles were on fire after a few miles, but they would be temporarily soothed by a 15-minute rest. I was confident that they were irritated by the unfamiliar, healthy pelvic alignment that redefined the duties of all the muscles after 3 years of chaos and that they could be dealt with.

On Days 6 and 7 of that first week, my walking speed on a 5, and then 3, mile course on asphalt shot up to over 3 mph (4.8 km), a typical speed for me several years ago. Amusingly, the soles of my feet and quads ached after those relatively minor efforts. I again assumed that the new, healthier alignment was unfamiliar to those muscles, and they were being forced to work in forgotten ways and that they would get over it.

It was a nice coincidence that we were being driven into a lower activity period by the weather while I had a reason to moderate my activity to support measurable healing. Just resting never improved the butt pain and now it was clear why: resting in a misaligned position doesn’t promote healing.

Yea-ha! Yippee! Hot damn! Yeah! Yes! In less than a week from combining the use of an SI belt with consciously triggering the contraction of my right glute muscles (buttocks) with essentially every step for hours on end, my years of buttock and back pain were melting away. I wasn’t completely pain-free, but enough so that 10 days into my self-treatment plan, I could do a 20-mile hike, and then walk 10 miles the next day, without limping or propping myself with hiking poles. I did need to honor my back’s request to rest at 10 miles, with laying flat for 5-10 minutes being most effective, but I quickly responded to the red flag warnings and was rewarded. My speed and power, as well as resiliency, were rapidly returning.

We’re not talking a 100% recovery, or being like nothing ever happened, but I was highly functional, was able to power up a steep trail for 45 minutes on Bill’s heels and see my walking speed again consistently being over 3 miles per hour. It was an amazing difference in a matter of days after years of distress!

With renewed confidence that I’d be able to perform, I began putting weekly, arduous hikes on our November calendar for our time in the Southern California mountains. Snow would of course be the “decider,” but at least I could anticipate having the capacity to summit 2 or 3 peaks. It was delightful to envision myself on those trails soon and Bill topped-off the affirming images by applying for a backpacking trip camping permit for the Grand Canyon in March. And I finally felt sturdy enough to add some simple weightlifting routines to my rest days with less fear of further destabilizing my structure.
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Tossing a football on the descent to the Colorado River on Bright Angel Trail was a first.

Aside from feeling like I was getting my life back and enjoying improved cognitive function because of less pain, the physical improvement added an hour or 2 of precious time to each day—time that I usually spent face down on the floor undoing knots in my muscles and fascia. A painful technic called “myofascial release” or MFR, had been my best elixir for years. I would apply almost my full body weight on a 5” massage ball to unravel knots or ‘densities’ in my muscles and fascia that were constantly reforming from the unbalanced tugs on the tissues. Suddenly, with my body in the long-sought better alignment, everything worked better during exertion, and it accumulated less micro-traumatic each day.

Social Connection
We never have the intense social connections during our post-R-2-R-2-R stay in the Park like we have in the first half of October. There are fewer people in the Park, though the RV park is always full, and we spend less time outdoors. I cultivated a relationship with the RV park clerk, who was endlessly cheery and happy to chat. When I dropped by the post office to collect our forwarded election ballots, the clerk shared her knowledge about the worker’s culture in the Park with me and the customers before me, which was fun, but the small-talk was much smaller and less frequent than 2 weeks prior.

It was slightly spooky on Halloween morning to descend the S Kaibab Trail in pitch dark with no one, absolutely no one, else on the trail for hours. We quickly left the 4 nervous backpackers that had been on our bus to the trailhead after giving them hurried instructions for totally changing their use of trekking poles on the wickedly steep descent to spare their knees and knew that we’d never see them again. Bill usually speeds ahead of me down this trail, anticipating be able to connect by walkie-talkies a couple of times in the next 4 hours, but he thought better of it since we were totally alone on the trail. In addition to it feeling like an abandoned trail, we’d be walking by headlamp for significantly longer because of being nearer to Winter Solstice than our previous hike on the same trail with the same starting time.

The absence of people on the route was notable all day. Even at Phantom Ranch, near the Colorado River, one of the big convergence zones in the Inner Canyon, we only saw a handful of people. We’d been on these trails in other years after the October 15th closure of the N Rim and it had never been so deserted. It was peculiar to have usually festive trails be so devoid of human energy, but we added it to the list of hibernation experiences.

Exiting Hibernation
Quite abruptly, late in the afternoon on the 11th day of our Grand Canyon hibernation, at Mile 15 of 18 (24 of 29 km) on the trail, Jane jerked us out of our meditative state with her stream of questions. A pair of young backpackers who had been chatting about biplanes, had fallen in behind us about 3 miles below the S Rim on Bright Angel Trail, and then I heard Jane say to them: “Excuse me, I want to pass you, I need to hear their stories.” I don’t recall what she would have overheard us saying to intrigue her so, but she was on a mission, and we were in her sights.

A minute later, with Jane on our heels, she was asking how old we were. Being more than 10 years older than her estimate and 20 years older than her, we all had to stop so she could take our photo. In between the age-related chit-chat, she was sending our images to her hiking buddies in Georgia to show-off her trophy finds. The backpackers, blocked by Jane, stopped, and blurted out: “I want to be like you when I am your age!” Jane didn’t leave conversational space to acknowledge his kind comment, but we appreciated the sentiment.
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Unlike the football, the Big Horn Sheep were a more usual sighting on the trail.

Jane was a firecracker: she was a fast, capable hiker who was full of questions. Late in the conversation, she shouted “What about your knees? With all those miles, don’t you have knee problems?” I was on a mission to reach the S Rim in 12 hours from our start time, by 5:10 pm, and didn’t have the capacity to stop and satisfy all her photo requests and information needs. If I could reply without stopping, I did so, otherwise I asked Bill to take-over for me so I could continue my trudge to the top.

Bill already had scripted a short story about my 35-year journey to cracking the code on my knee problems and he took-over to answer her question and, when it was necessary, to stop with Jane to spell words for her Google searches, like “myofascial release.” He also did so later when giving her our website info after she decided that since we had done Rim-2-Rim 15 times, that she needed to do it as well. Our website is loaded with information useful to first timers. Our tag-team was a good fit for the situation because I could keep at it with my tortoise, no-stops approach, and neither Bill nor Jane had any difficult catching me again.

Soon, Jane was pressing us to borrow a power pack to recharge her dead phone. Taking photos and doing online searches when she could, were important parts of her journey, but it was also time to text her adult daughter and husband, whom she had ditched. She had a long red charging cable, but no charger.

Jane and her husband had invited their 25-year-old daughter to join them on their road trip of the SW and, feeling a need for her post-grad daughter to get more exercise, they had brought her on this 18-mile hike that they had done 5 years earlier with the younger daughter. The day had not gone well.

We had taken the 5 am hiker bus to the S Kaibab Trailhead, they had tried for the 6 am and missed, and were on the 7 am bus, so they started their long day behind schedule. Their out-of-shape daughter was failing on the very tough but gorgeous S Kaibab Trail descent to the Colorado River that we had done, so they took the one shortcut possible, the Tonto Trail, which shaved some miles. Jane recalled seeing us at Indian Garden, 5 miles up from the river, where the Tonto intersects the Bright Angel. We eventually concluded that that was where Jane ditched her family to hike her own event.

Whenever we inquired about her family, Jane was unconcerned. Her husband would be fine because they hiked the Georgia segments of the Appalachian Trail together, but he wouldn’t leave the daughter alone. Jane was clearly delighted to jack-rabbit off without them, with the only downside being that she had no precious power bank. Curiously, she had her long red cable in the ready with which to charge and was delighted to feed her phone from Bill’s source. (On these long day hikes, we both charge our Apple watches and phones during our 2 long breaks.)

The news was good when Jane both had enough charge and a connection: the rest of the family was fine though she hadn’t bothered to ask where on the trail they were.
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At the top of the Bright Angel Trail: Bill, Jane, & a Halloween merry maker.

When we reached the Rim, Bill commented upon how much the many conversations with Jane had made the time go quickly. In the past, when I was strong on these hard trails, I’d initiate conversations with lagging hikers to give them the benefit of the distraction from their miseries. Here, the tables were turned, and Jane put the energy into the exchanges, giving us a welcome boost with her surplus drive.

Even though I’d had to socially defer to Bill, I made it to the Rim with about 15 minutes to spare, which was a thrill. We took another round of photos with and for Jane, though some of her requests had to be met by others on the asphalt Rim trail. I had things to do, like donning my fleece top and jacket, and drinking more water.

The next morning, the physical side of our hibernation ended, not just the social side, when I checked the weather forecast at 4 am. I steeled myself to propose what I didn’t want to hear: “The forecast has changed, I propose that we leave the Grand Canyon tomorrow morning, 2 days early.”

Suddenly, we felt cheated out of our last 2 days of hibernation. Our projects weren’t completed but we knew we needed to exit the area quickly before the more severe phase of the extended Arctic storm coated the regional roads with ice. We both vividly remembered being told years ago by the Flagstaff RV park staff “Everything is fine, come on through” only to discover the open freeway was lined with jackknifed semi-trucks lying on their sides, many of them totaled. We promised ourselves never to let our sense of invincibility or the optimism of others lull us into such foolishness, especially when pulling a trailer. Our policy since then was to leave early, not to wait-and-see.

It was a scramble to redo our itinerary for 4 days after having it be in place for 9 months. It took an amazing amount of time to check weather forecasts, driving times, and RV site availability, some of which was completed once on the road. Our hiking buddy, Margaret, with whom we planned to hike in less than a week, discovered a glitch in her schedule and ultimately, we ended up implementing Hiking Together Option #3 without her.

Another pressure was that, after this storm that could trap us in the Grand Canyon beyond our required departure date, there would be a second storm system that could ruin our annually planned November peak bagging, which required another layer of preliminary contingency planning. None of these issues were close to being crises, but it was a lot of uproar for this time of year that is usually simple because of the location and pre-planning.