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We looked through the trees at the gorge with the half-frantic eyes of people staggering with packs now made heavier with jutting skis and poles. The trail was none too wide and covered with four or five feet of snow.
We progressed by jamming our booted, gaitered feet into each other's footsteps. These holes were deep, but solid at the bottom. If you didn't hit them, and sometimes even if you did, you'd "post-hole," sinking waist-deep in heavy, infuriatingly passive snow. This lasted for more than 1,000 vertical feet, almost three trail-miles of energy-sucking struggle.
Yet on the snow before us lay an improbable thing. Ski tracks. Perhaps a week earlier, when this snow was new, someone very capable had waxed his skis with sticky klister and carefully skied down these switchbacks. Now the snow was dense and treacherous, and Babbitt was agitated. "I was put out at the sight of those tracks. I mean, where is it writ that I was forbidden what someone else had done?"
Nowhere. He shook his skis off his pack, stepped onto them and tried it himself. He didn't get as far as our inspiring predecessor, but he scared the hell out of the rest of us. "It's curious how these things go," he said later. "Once there was only hiking here. Then in the '60s there was a starburst of river running. Then it was rock climbing. Now it's crazed skiing on the North Rim...."
By the time we reached a trail made of real earth, I was shot. But we had three or four more miles of descent to our appointed rest at Roaring Springs. That hike, stamping downhill, with occasional awkward clambers over ice formations that had built up where water fell from overhangs, tired me more than any skiing. I wasn't simply shuffling the weight of the pack over level snow now; I was absorbing a foot of its fall with every step. All the wonderful geology around me quickly evaporated.
The vegetation changed, from pine to juniper to mesquite to prickly pear. I didn't notice. I kept getting the ski tips caught in whatever horrid plants overhung this horrid trail. I had the ski poles in hand the whole way, to brace and catch myself. I hadn't seriously fallen, but my shoulders and arms ached so much I had no peace. I went slower and slower, gasping more and more, despite dropping into thicker air.
It probably was beautiful. In Grand Canyon, an Anthology, Babbitt's compilation of Canyon writings (from which have been lifted all the literary, scientific and historical quotations which lend this article its strata of scholarship), he had noted that the "concept of landscape as something to be admired for its own sake did not even develop until the nineteenth century." Before then, did everyone have to strain as we were doing now?
Night came. A few hundred yards from where Roaring Springs Canyon met Bright Angel Canyon, Babbitt showed all the signs of tertiary exhaustion I did, and rested against the cliff. "So near," he said, "but so necessary."
I was chilled at the end, and riven with ache, and bloody again in my boots. I got on a thick down coat and sat on the porch of the ranger's cottage we had come to and just sort of stared into the darkness, because this seemed the hardest thing I'd ever done, harder than the Olympic marathons or the 312-mile Great Hawaiian Footraces, because it was fresh and it wasn't over yet. Tomorrow we had to go still farther down, and then lift these packs all the way out, a 4,800-foot climb.
I braced myself up from the porch and trudged with tiny, comically stiff steps inside, to find Quiroz on the phone getting Kluetmeier a porter for the next day.