GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - So what did a determined group of high school students look forward to during a recent three-day weekend? How about getting up at 4 a.m., driving to the Grand Canyon, slinging on a backpack with everything needed to survive for three days, and hiking 27 miles - only parts of which have identified trails.
That was the reality for six intrepid members of the Holbrook High School Running Club on Martin Luther King weekend this year. This trip was the January outing for the Running Club, which meets twice a week after school, with monthly weekend expeditions as an added incentive to participate and stay in shape.
Because of the rigors of this hike, members had to demonstrate the ability to run five miles non-stop to be eligible. They were also limited by the number of backcountry permits allowed in the Canyon. Including chaperones, the permit only allowed for eight hikers.
Backpacks were readied the previous Friday evening - sleeping bags, tents, food, backpacking stove and fuel, water, clothes suitable for temperatures ranging from 10 degrees to 60 degrees. The backpacks also included a first aid kit, water filter, emergency beacon, maps and GPS locator. After a brief sleep, everyone was up at 4 a.m. for breakfast and loaded into a school suburban along with their gear for the drive to the head of the New Hance Trail in the Grand Canyon National Park.
Packs were donned and after a quarter mile walk through a flat ponderosa pine forest, the runners reached the edge of the Canyon and plunged through the crunchy snow before reaching dry ground and better going part way down the Supai. As generally happens, the speedsters grouped together to take the lead, waiting periodically for the more cautious hikers to bring up the rear. When the floor of Red Canyon was reached, there was a lunch break before following the drainage down to the Colorado River. Although it was January, the students couldn't resist the slack water protected from the main current of the Colorado by a string of boulders, and jumped in for a quick swim.
Some river rafters - bundled in layers of polar fleece and dry suits - watched in amazement as the guys dipped into the frigid water.
There was still more distance to make on the first day. Following a rest period, the group hoisted their packs and started upriver along the Escalante Route. The route is marked by occasional cairns (stacked rocks left by other hikers and perhaps some Park Service Wilderness Guards). After a short while, the route ascended over a steep boulder slope to a saddle and then back down to river level through a series of ledges. Packs were handed down to make the climbing safer. Another mile and the campsite on the river was reached. Water was filtered, dinners were cooked and tents were pitched. As the nearly full moon edged above the rim of the Canyon, chaperones slept while runners played hide and seek in the moonlight before turning in for the night.
Sunday took the group along the Escalante Route through some spectacular narrows, climbing up 1,000 feet to the Tonto Plateau, making huge arcs to cross heads of side canyons, before descending again to the Colorado upriver from Unkar Rapids. It was late afternoon before the last regrouping of the day, and the decision was made to take advantage of the moonlight, hike part way out the Tanner Trail and camp on a small flat, so the hike could be shortened on Monday.
The trip out the Tanner was scenic, although snow covered the upper reaches. The group met a few other hikers on their way down, which was the only contact with other humans in three days. Everyone picked their own pace, the trail was well defined, and the speedsters got to cool their heels on top and entertain tourists while they waited for the last hikers to finish.
The Holbrook High School Running Club was formed five years ago by current sponsor, Mr. John Wehrman who is a math teacher. The group was formed from the initiative of several cross country runners who wanted to maintain the camaraderie and fitness they had gained during the cross country season. It has since expanded to include anyone interested in running for fitness and enjoyment, and members include casual runners as well as athletes participating in organized sports. The club pays for use of school vehicles, as well as all costs associated with outings, which are financed by fundraisers and tax credit donations.