Into the canyon: Fear and heat on foot

  • Hiker

    Jeff Widen

On the southeast rim of the Grand Canyon, at the South Kaibab trailhead, wind blows hard and cool at 4:20 a.m., even in July. I walk past the yellow sign with the fretting boy sitting on a rock under the sun. The sign reads, "Heat Kills!" A bus left five of us here moments ago, including a young Israeli man who says he's traveling the country in a $500 station wagon and has dreamed of seeing the Grand Canyon since he was a boy. He pauses and offers a non sequitur: "I'll just stay with you."

He's tall and thin, long hair, in jeans, T-shirt and boots, and he carries a day pack with a wide sleeping bag rolled under the top flap. Later, 200 yards down the trail, with the wind picking up as if to push us back and the canyon walls rising higher around us, he says he has to stop a moment and will catch up. I never see him again. The other hikers have gone on.

On dusty switchbacks, I stick to the inside, my right shoulder brushing sandstone walls opposite a drop-off whose depths I cannot see. Even at this hour, without moon or sun, the world is pasty gray, making a flashlight unnecessary. I glance, now and then, over the edge.

I'm concerned about how things will go this Friday at the start of a 17-mile hike I started planning after arriving in Grand Canyon National Park five days ago. It's seven miles from the rim to Phantom Ranch lodge, and 10 miles back by the Bright Angel Trail. Below the rim, away from people and development, the canyon's capacity for violence strikes acutely. It's in the sand that scrapes my face. The deeper a hiker walks, the less he can afford to err. This is the important reality of the canyon one can't understand on the rim, which, for me, is a fine reason to get off the rim and do this hike.

This park survives 5 million visitors a year, most of whom crowd the South Rim. They see the place by car, bus and helicopter. A fifth of them experience the canyon by mule or on foot, and thousands more by river raft. The National Park Service believes visitation may hit 6.8 million in 13 years - it has nearly tripled since the early 1970s - a detail that throws the definition of a national park into a new, very urban orbit.

But I don't want to think of millions more people wandering 1.2 million acres of stunning geology. To make the Grand Canyon fit my own vision, I'm hiking alone.

The hike started in a bar. Let me explain. My first night in the park, I got my reserved spot in Mather campground on the South Rim - the park's most visited area. Thinking it would be handy, I took with me a topographical map for a walk on the paved rim trail around 7 p.m. The idea was to see the sunset, study the canyon. What I found was a strip mall.

The trail winds a half mile through pine and juniper along cliffs, emerging at Verkamps Curios, a convenience store that boasts a "famous painting." Inside, a canyon panorama hangs on a wall facing greeting cards, film, T-shirts. This startled me, map in hand, water bottle in my pack. I went out the door to the rim.

Leaning against a metal railing, I pulled a guidebook from my pack. But I became lost in notions of time, space, wind, water, perplexed by the disproportionate size of the canyon to the Colorado River's puny flow 5,000 feet below. Ultimately, the visitor must choose to confront the canyon's physical reality, or treat it as if it were a huge and unreal painting. The above-ground perspective you gain from the rim or, even better, from riding shotgun in one of those air-tour helicopters, is for most a good way to see a place so vast and complex. Yet most people simply flee: The average visitor stays less than 24 hours. Daily, 6,500 cars compete for 2,400 parking spaces. Hit-and-run tourism.

The rim trail that first evening was thick with people: Asians, Europeans, Africans (foreigners make up almost half the park's visitors); folks in wheelchairs, people with ice cream, hotdogs, cell phones. A man played flute for money. Grand Canyon as Coney Island. Minutes later, I walked into the lounge at Bright Angel Lodge, which, 15 yards from the rim, felt like a neighborhood sports bar.

A blond man set a shopping bag on the bar, took a seat beside me, and started talking. "I gotta have a beer," he said. "My wife's been hauling me around all day." He gave me a hand. "I'm Mark." He told me he was from Mississippi. "We floated the (Colorado) river near Lake Powell this morning. Me, my wife, little boy and girl. This afternoon, we did Bryce and Zion."

I liked Mark. He was respectful. "Oh, man, this place, all this rock and geology," he said. He shook his head and sipped his beer. Mark and his family had crossed the twisted sandstone oddity of the Colorado Plateau, only to arrive at the Grand Canyon.

"Tomorrow," Mark said, "we're going to Mesa Verde." I looked up. He filled me in on a journey begun days earlier. The family flew to Denver for a wedding, and decided to "see the West" in a rented car. They went to Las Vegas and lost $124 on roulette. Then they drove to Lake Powell and booked a raft trip.

I thought, the Park Service should hear this. Then I realized, it already has. They know what stresses people, what's in their wallets, what cars they drive. They allowed cafeterias, a gourmet restaurant, three hotels, book and grocery stores, art galleries, an ice-cream parlor, a Western Union and bars in a strip mall along the rim. They understood that after looking over the rim and shopping at the mall, the last place we should go is into the hot, dangerous canyon. They understood that, instead, we'd need a drink.

But the rim and its familiar commercial culture frustrated me, and boarding a helicopter to see the canyon through plexiglass had as much relevance as a movie. I had just six days to explore the park, and studying the canyon from a distance, without getting down into it, seemed ludicrous. A gross display of disrespect.

At 6 a.m., on a slope between knots of switchbacks, I shed my windbreaker. It's already hot. Rangers did some 200 heat-related rescues last year, mostly on the Bright Angel Trail, which has three water stations. Now, the sun seeps over the horizon, a bright wedge beneath a line of cloud that hangs like a window shade. The air is clear, the heat strong. Sweat evaporates instantly.

I recall the story of 10-year-old Phillip Grim, who had died at the bottom of this trail the year before. Coming from the rim, he had every reason to be naive. If things got bad, help would come. But on July 23, around 3 p.m., when the temperature hit 116 degrees at the canyon bottom, hikers found Phillip face down on the trail. He lay a few steps from the river, 5,000 feet and nine miles from the rim, and a mile from Phantom Ranch.

Phillip had begun the hike at 8:45 a.m., with eight people, friends and family. The South Kaibab Trail into the canyon is a three-hour walk for a good hiker. The group's stronger members struggled in vain to keep everyone together. The Park Service incident report says Phillip complained of the heat; someone relieved him of his pack. He hiked ahead. On the trail, near the river, another group of hikers saw him sitting on a rock, looking tired.

The incident report says one of the hikers who later found Phillip on the ground was a doctor who tried to cool his body and revive him with water. Someone got the ranger at Phantom Ranch, who applied intravenous rehydration solution until a helicopter arrived. Phillip twitched, he mumbled, and vomited. At some point, members of his group arrived. The helicopter came. At the South Rim medical center, at 4:29 p.m., doctors pronounced him dead.

Days earlier, I had seen a woman going down the Bright Angel Trail in the afternoon wearing a small backpack, and high heels. On the canyon rim, the summer temperature is a breezy 90 degrees at noon. Not far below the thermometer shoots up several degrees and routinely hits 120 at bottom.

Somehow, heat-related deaths in the canyon are few: 10 in 20 years. Some 20 people die a year here, but they fall off cliffs (some jump), they have heart attacks, they crash in planes, they choke on food, they die of old age. The fact is, few visitors venture deeply into the canyon.

Still, last year, four people died of heat exposure on canyon trails. And the hundreds rescued every year strain resources. "People come to the canyon and die," says search and rescue ranger Andrea Lankford, "We clean up the mess."

Every other mile on the South Kaibab Trail signs broadcast hiker safety. "STOP NOW! It will take twice as long to hike out." And, "Do not hike out during the day ..." Four rangers patrol 30 miles of the park's maintained trails. I didn't meet one during my hike.

Days earlier, I'd asked a ranger about hiking the canyon in a day. She blinked. "We don't recommend that," she said. "You should plan carefully." On short walks, I tried to get a feel for the heat. Once, while I talked to a ranger with my map out, she grabbed it and, with a pen, scrawled "PLENTY OF WATER" in the margin. For this hike, I packed five liters and salami, cheese, Power Bars, crackers, peanuts, Fig Newtons.

After my descent, a pleasant three and a half hours, I spend a day along the river. At 4 p.m., it's still over 100 degrees. I begin hiking out, nagged by a sense of disproportion. My struggle in the canyon is very different from the urban lifestyle on the rim, where the Grand Canyon Railway (with wild West gunfight) goes to Williams, Ariz., 60 miles south, and where tour buses run on the quarter hour. The Park Service has a good, if unintended scheme here, the notion that distractions allow people less time to enter the canyon, and die. Bait and switch.

But there's a false security, a feeling that asks, What's bad about the desert? and switchbacks that float gently back and forth down canyon walls. On the ascent, I drink every 30 minutes until the first water station halfway.

Being alone here reinforces the Grand Canyon as a national park anomaly, a place of hidden risk. The back country begins a step over the rim. There's no buffer as in the mountains, where high terrain forces you to pause and think. Here, from the rim, there's only down. You step off the edge into Hell, and, true to Hell's reputation, you won't realize you're there until too late.

At 9 p.m., I reach the rim with plenty of water still in my pack. It is not yet dark; people are milling about. A man in khaki shorts and loafers asks if I've seen mountain lions. On a bench, a girl and her brother lick ice cream and stare at me. The girl whispers, "He looks exhausted."

Peter Chilson is HCN associate editor.

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