Four local residents embarked on an unforgettable trek to hike the Grand Canyon on Sept. 13. Although the following days would prove to be challenging, the quartet say the experience was worth every ache and pain.
"Everyone has their reasons for hiking distances," said Debi Schulgen, of Bear Valley Springs. "For some, it is a bucket list; for others, a spiritual journey; for some, just because they were asked to join. But, in the end, the mutual respect and the shared laughter proved to be priceless."
The day their journey began, Schulgen set out for Knab, Utah, along with her brother, David Schulgen, owner of Airstreams Renewables Inc., Charles Horcher, a semi-retired chemical engineer, and Patrick Kaiser, an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran. The four hikers were accompanied by an FBI agent and friend named Dave.
This was not the first Grand Canyon hike for David Schulgen and Charles Horcher. In June 2015, the pair, along with their sons, George Horcher and Josh Schulgen, in addition to Josh's wife, Sarah, hiked down the south Kaibab Trail eight miles with no shade in 100-plus degree temperatures, to the Phantom Ranch in one day. The following day, they hiked 10 miles straight up to the Bright Angel trail.
"It was extremely hot, and a very long, difficult hike with only a few hours of sleep to recoup at the bottom," said David Schulgen. "It was one of those trips where the anticipation, preparation and memory were way better than the actual hike, but being with family made it worthwhile. As we drove home from that first trip, extremely sore and exhausted, Charles said he was going to put in for the rim to rim hike in 2016, and we laughed and thought he was kidding in our tired stupor."
However, Horcher was not kidding, and in January, he announced to the second group of hikers that he put in a permit to hike the Grand Canyon again this year, only rim to rim. The day the hikers started their journey, several of them were coming down with colds. They were each required to carry a sleeping bag, food, water and a tent, as well as other necessary supplies.
Said Debi, "Some of us looked more like tourists then backpackers. I had my camera around my neck, a water bottle on my belt and 30-pound pack on my back. What was I thinking?"
By the time the hikers reached the beginning of their hike at the north rim at 5 a.m., it was a balmy 22 degrees. They were greeted by friends Mike and Rick Messier, who were to drive their truck to the south rim where the hikers planned to meet them at the end of their journey three days later.
Said Debi, "I think we took turns getting out and then back in the truck hoping it would warm up! Deciding it was not going to warm up anytime soon, our journey began."
The first 7.5 miles of the hike was downhill with a decent of 4,000 feet.
"It was rocky, steep and breathtakingly beautiful," said Debi. "Words cannot describe, and pictures do not do it justice."
Patrick Kaiser said it was his first time to hike the Grand Canyon; in fact, it was a last-minute decision to tag along.
"I think breathtaking is the only word to describe what I felt when I was standing on the north rim and looking over at the south rim," said Kaiser. "I have an extensive background in hiking, but I have never seen anything like this ... the beauty of it."
When they reached their first stop, at Cottonwood, they claimed a campsite with as much shade as possible as temperatures soared to the high 80s. The hikers spent the rest of the day meeting and talking with other hikers, which they said proved to be a fun and interesting experience. Once the group was together again, they shared their stories from the day and life in general, which brought more fun and laughter.
Said Debi, "Two of us were feeling pretty sick by then, and wondered what the next day held. I downed an Alka-Seltzer cold tablet and was in my tent and asleep before 6 p.m. I didn't even hear a man enter our camp disoriented from his hike at 7 p.m."
Debi said she would later learn that the gentleman had planned to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim in one day, but had not realized what a difficult task he was undertaking.
"My brother offered food and a spot in between our tents for him to sleep," said Debi. After resting, the man explained to the group of hikers that his wife had died two years, seven months prior, and to keep his sanity, he chose to hike.
"All our journeys are different, yet how important it is to journey together," said Debi.
At 3 the next morning, Debi said, she awoke to her brother's stirring, but dreaded getting up so early.
"Achy from the cold, and the hard ground, I knew we needed to get an early start," she said.
The second leg of the hike would be another 7.5 miles through a slot canyon, which is called the "Box." Inside the Box, the rock walls retain the heat of the afternoon sun and warm it like an oven. Therefore, the hikers needed to cross this terrain during the morning hours. Wearing head lamps, they broke camp and started out at 4 a.m.
The hikers arrived at their next destination, Phantom Ranch, by 9:30 a.m., and grabbed a campsite with cottonwoods next to the large stream feeding into the Colorado River.
"By now, we all were complaining of blisters and sore feet, back, calves, shoulders, etc.," said Debi. "Personally, my shoulders paid the price."
After deciding which gourmet freeze-dried meal they would eat that night, they set out for a nearby river to watch the arrival of rafters. Debi said she spent the rest of the day laying in the ice cold water as she let the current wash over her.
Said Debi, "Mostly, I just enjoyed the time alone surrounded by years of (rock) layers carved out to perfection, dotted with cottonwoods."
The following morning at 4, the hikers set out for the Bright Angel Trail, which would require they traverse a suspended bridge over the Colorado River.
Said Debi, "As I started across, I noticed the sound of the rushing water below as it reflected the light of the full harvest moon. At that moment, I looked up, and the peaks were illuminated majestically in front of us, and my eyes welled with tears. I did not want to leave this place; there was peace, there was beauty, all indescribable, all surreal, spiritual. As we continued on, there were moments that are only captured in your mind and heart."
The last 10 miles of the hike were uphill, which the hikers found punishingly slow, hot and grueling.
"But it makes you feel alive," said Debi. "My brother led the way, and talked about the hot dogs that would be for sale at the top, which made us laugh most of the way."
'Good bonding experience'
Each year, more than five million people visit the south rim of the Grand Canyon; however, less than 1 percent will visit the inner canyon.
"It was a good bonding experience between everyone that went," Kaiser said. "Just looking at this massive land formation that was created tens of thousands of years ago and walking through it was a surreal feeling."
Debi said that with each step she took on the hike, she learned something from each of her fellow hikers.
Said Debi, "From Charles, I learned tenacity and the strength to keep going. From FBI Dave, I learned patience. From my brother David, kindness and the joy of laughter; from Mike and Rick, family matters. And from Patrick, I learned more than he will ever know."
Said David, "Backpacking the Grand Canyon at any age is not an easy hike, and Charles has now done it twice and was the inspiration for both of the trips. We are extremely grateful to him for including us."
The hikers rejoiced in their accomplishment by celebrating Mike's 50th birthday that night at a Mexican restaurant.
Said Kaiser, "I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be a part of that; it's definitely not for the weak backed or light footed."
"We returned to this beautiful town knowing there is as much beauty here as anywhere," said Debi, adding, "although … John Muir anyone?"