by Hank Leukart
January 22, 2010
How I came to believe in Santa Claus
Brothers face the hardest single trekking day of their lives, snowshoeing up the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Brian looks up at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim on New Year’s Day, 2010.
This is the final essay in a series about Santa Claus's Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim winter hike. Start with the first essay to read the whole story.G
RAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona — Brian and I start to doubt the magic of our Santa suit as frozen rain and snow pelts us relentlessly on the way to Cottonwood Camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. In the morning, we passed the location of the burst water pipe the Park Ranger had warned us about — which turned out to have caused little more than a deep puddle on the trail. But in the afternoon, as unforgiving winter weather worsened, we were forced to pack away the sopping wet, frozen Santa costume to avoid getting hypothermia. Now, in the shadow of the 8,060-foot high North Rim, we know that the easy part of our trek is over.
After a sub-freezing night at Cottonwood, we wake early in the morning to find the zippers on our tent frozen shut and our rain fly covered in ice. After packing up our gear, we start hiking through snow on the North Kaibab Trail. At first, it’s not deep enough to require our snowshoes. We make our way up the snowy, narrow path, teetering precariously on the edge of Canyon ridges, looking down on swaths of blood-red boulders covered in blinding white snow and desert cacti. We’re thankful for a clear, sapphire sky and warm sunlight, a notable contrast from the sleet and snow of the previous day.
As we hike under a seemingly never ending lattice of oversized icicles, the snow on the trail gradually deepens, starting from two feet and eventually reaching five. We put on our snowshoes. Hiking to the top of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim with a heavy backpack is a draining feat in ideal conditions, but with huge snowdrifts, we discover that it’s a nearly impossible physical challenge. The embarrassing truth is that we’ve had fantasies of our snowshoes enabling us to glide effortlessly on the tops of the snow drifts, but they aren’t coming true — at all. The trail has been deserted for a month, and we find ourselves trailblazing through unpacked, very deep snow. In fact, our snowshoes seem useless — that is, until, we try taking them off and find ourselves immobilized, waist-deep in white powder. We put the snowshoes back on, preventing our feet from sinking more than a couple feet. Of course, the foot-sinking turns out to be only half the battle — immediately after each step, we must then pull our foot and snowshoe out of the sink hole — over, and over, and over, for miles, and miles, and miles.
We come to another revelation: snowshoeing on an unused trail would be great fun with a group of eight people, but with only two, it’s a nightmare. The person in front doing the trailblazing, packing down the deep snow drifts, ends up working much, much harder than the person following in his footsteps. When I’m the trailblazer, I endure about twenty steps. Then, utterly exhausted, I turn around and announce that there is no chance we’ll ever make it to the top and insist that our mission is doomed to failure. Brian, following behind, insists, “No, we can definitely make it to the top! We just need to keep moving!” Then, he takes over as trailblazer. Twenty steps later, he announces that we’ll never make it to the top and begs me to give up the mission. We repeat this process, dozens of times, for three miles.
When we reach the rock hole called Supai Tunnel, I am encouraged, because I remember from a previous North Kaibab Trail hike in autumn that even sixty-year-old grandmothers, in ideal conditions, were able to hike from Supai Tunnel to the top. As we pass through the Tunnel, I’m sure that Brian and I can be as strong as grandmothers. But on the other side of the Tunnel, we encounter ten-foot snowdrifts for the first time. Mule-typing posts, used most of the year as a resting area for tourist-carrying mules, barely peek out from the top of the snow drifts. The sun is setting. The temperature is plummeting. We’re clawing our way up the trail through the snow at less than half a mile per hour, on New Year’s Eve, 2009. We don’t see any grandmothers around. Father Christmas is nowhere to be found.
We both feel like we’d rather jump to our death from one of the Canyon’s ridges than do any more trailblazing. I, behind Brian, decide that our struggle is purely psychological, and I try to take over trailblazing. But, immediately, I feel like I don’t have enough energy to take one additional step in the deep snow, let alone the thousands more we need to take to get to the top. A beautiful purple and orange sunset, seen over the snow-covered walls of the Canyon’s rugged crags, soon gives way to almost total darkness. The temperature reaches zero degrees Fahrenheit. I feel something foreign stuck in my hiking boots, and then I realize that it’s simply my toes, which feel like they’re no longer part of my body, because they’ve gone completely numb. I turn around and look into Brian’s eyes in what feels like the least manly moment of our lives.
“We can’t make it,” Brian says. “It’s too dark. It’s too cold. We need to stop.”
I know he’s right, but we’re only a mile and a half below the rim, and the idea of giving up is so dispiriting I can’t bring myself to say anything. In almost total silence, we pack down an area of snow with our snowshoes and erect our tent only feet from the edge of a 2,000-foot drop into the Canyon’s abyss.
In our tent, we put on every piece of clothing that we have, stuff chemical heat packs into our socks, and zip ourselves, like mummies, into our sleeping bags. We’re almost out of water, so we boil pots of snow to make dinner and rehydrate ourselves. Without discussing our plan much, I set my alarm to wake us up an hour before sunrise the next morning.
During the night, I wake to discover that the sleeping bag fabric on my skin is ice cold, and our water bottles are frozen solid. It’s the coldest night we have ever spent camping. I step outside the tent and find myself blinded by the intensely bright light of a full moon bouncing off the snow in the Canyon. I begin shivering immediately and uncontrollably. When I get back in the tent, Brian tells me he needs to go to the bathroom. I’m about to warn him about the conditions outside when he disappears. He’s gone for about sixty seconds and then stumbles back into the tent, shivering and looking he has just escaped a ten-day stint trapped in a meat freezer.
“DO. NOT. GO. OUT. THERE.” he says. “Seriously. I’m totally blind. I can’t feel my skin. Promise me that we will never, ever go snowshoeing again.”
“I know,” I say. “I know.”
I start drifting back to sleep. I’m halfway between being awake and unconsciousness when I think I see our red Santa Suit, crumpled in a ball in the tent’s vestibule, covered in frost and shimmering in the moonlight, doused in pink, prickly pear syrup. Visions of me and Brian, celebrating on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim on New Year’s Day morning wearing the Santa Suit, dance through my head.
I realize that, the next morning, our magical Santa suit will get us to the top.
When our wakeup alarm sounds, we reluctantly get out of our sleeping bags, only to discover that our previously wet hiking boots have become frozen blocks of ice. They are so frozen solid that we can’t even get our feet halfway into them. We fire up the stove, and I pour a pot of boiling water onto my boots. After they thaw a bit, I manage to shove my feet into them. Quickly, they refreeze, and my feet feel like they’re trapped in blocks of ice, locked in a freezer, inside a tub of ice cream, on the North Pole.
We forego breakfast, pack small daypacks, and decide that we’re going to take one last shot to get to the North Rim, this time without our 45-pound backpacks weighing us down. Seconds before we leave our camp, the Santa suit catches my eye, and I shove it into my daypack.
Though our final ascent to the North Rim feels even more arduous than the day before, I push forward, remembering my New Year’s Eve dreams. When we reach an area under a canopy over Engelmann Spruce trees, I tell Brian that the area seems familiar to me. Then we see it: the “Coconino Overlook” sign, almost completely buried in snow. It’s a sign that I have seen, on a previous hike in the Canyon without snow, and I know that we’re less than three-quarters of a mile from the top.
“We can make it now,” I announce, feeling barely sure.
Ignoring the pain in our legs, we continue toward the top, with 100-foot spruce trees towering over us and huge swaths of snow in every direction. I’m leading us up an incline, when I spot the North Kaibab Trailhead sign, 50 feet ahead of us. It looks about a quarter tall as the last time I saw it, because the snow is so deep.
“We made it! Happy New Year! We did it! Happy New Year!” we yell, over and over. We’re exhausted and relieved, giddy and ecstatic. We take turns putting on the Santa suit, posing for New Year’s Day photos on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Then, together, we take one last look at the gorgeous, snowy Canyon view before heading back down, toward the South Rim again.
“It’s just too Grand,” Brian says quietly.
“Too Grand,” I agree.
I don’t think I’m too old to say it. I believe in Santa Claus. WB
Brian reluctantly demonstrates the depth of the snow on the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail. Note that he is wearing snowshoes on both feet.
How to Hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
- Visit the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Permit information site to learn how to apply for a permit. You should FAX the Backcountry Permit Request Form four months in advance of your planned hiking dates to give you the highest chance of receiving a permit.
- The best months to hike the Grand Canyon are March through May and September through November, because temperatures on the Canyon floor can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer. Unfortunately, those months are also the most difficult months to obtain permits. All North Rim services are closed mid-October to mid-May, and hiking to the North Rim without snowshoes (and even with them) is extremely difficult during the winter months.
- You can also simply show up at the Backcountry Information Office to attempt to get a last-minute permit, but due to the waitlist process, it’s likely that you’ll have to wait at least two to three days before starting your hike during the typical Grand Canyon hiking season (March through November).
- The Grand Canyon South Rim, usually the starting point for rim to rim to rim hikes, is located in northern Arizona. It’s a two hour drive from Flagstaff, a four hour drive from Phoenix, and a six hour drive from Las Vegas.
- SIX-DAY ITINERARY: This itinerary lets you savor the Canyon and prevents you from having to complete more than one rim ascent or descent in a single day. Descending South Kaibab Trail makes more sense for most people because, as compared to Bright Angel Trail, it’s significantly steeper and its expansive views are more scenic. Then, hikers can return by way of the less grueling Bright Angel Trail.
- South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Camp
- Bright Angel Camp to Cottonwood Camp
- Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Campground
- The North Rim Campground to Cottonwood Camp
- Cottonwood Camp to Bright Angel Camp
- Bright Angel Camp to the Bright Angel Trailhead
- South Kaibab Trailhead to Cottonwood Camp
- Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Campground
- The North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Camp
- Bright Angel Camp to the Bright Angel Trailhead
- South Kaibab Trailhead to North Rim Campground
- North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Trailhead