To the Bottom and Back
July 16-20, 2001
“The river, the canyon, the desert world was always changing, from moment to moment, from miracle to miracle,within the firm reality of mother earth.” -Edward Abbey
Hiking into the Grand Canyon is a trip to be reckoned with at any time of year. The harsh extremes of weather and terrain are challenging and also part of the beauty of the place. In early spring and late fall you can go from 70 degrees at the bottom of the canyon to a blizzard at the top. In July the heat in the inner canyon is blistering–always above 100 in the afternoon, with a record high of 134. The hike is rugged, too, with an altitude change of 4,460 feet, nearly a vertical mile, to cover in the 9-mile walk from rim to bottom–or from bottom to rim.
Like all odysseys, mine began with a day of hard travel–an early morning flight to Las Vegas, landing amid the surreal carnival atmosphere of the casinos, a shuttle bus across town, and a midafternoon flight on a 27-passenger plane to Grand Canyon Airport on the South Rim. Scenic Airlines knew me and my tripmate by name before we even checked in, and the plane itself allowed for a friendly chat with the pilots through the open doorway if one was inclined to distract them from their job. None of us was; the afternoon heat surging up from the desert made for some wicked turbulence, the kind that feels like the plane is coming down out of the sky. Dramamine is recommended for those prone to motion sickeness; prayer beads would have sufficed for the rest of us.
The view was worth the bumps. Flying at only 2,500 feet, I could see and feel the desert’s hard power. Vegetation was sparse and scrubby, and faint two-track roads led to scattered round tanks for watering livestock. Numerous dry riverbeds mapped the contours of the land, like lines on the palm of a hand. Most of these eventually led to the Colorado River, which is stopped up by Hoover Dam just east of Vegas to form Lake Mead. The water here is so blue that it looks out of place, and perhaps it is–the dam was built when taming wild rivers was an undertaking beyond reproach, but the lake loses thousands of gallons of water a day into the desert air due to evaporation. The dam is a wondrous piece of architecture, however, with its twin towers and 5.5 million barrels of concrete set into the rock. Scattered boat wakes on Lake Mead look like jet contrails when viewed from the air.
An hour later we landed at the South Rim of the canyon, within the national park. The rim is blanketed in pine forest and the breezes here are always cool, even in the midday heat, due to the 7,000-foot elevation. The rim is actually a small town, with a store, a hospital, a movie theater, a school, and a residential district with housing for hundreds of park employees and their families. Many of these houses date back to the Depression era and were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Our hosts, a park ranger and his wife, keep a bird feeder (though even these are frowned on by park management, who discourage feeding wildlife), and I was delighted by the Western variations of familiar bird species. The chickadees look like ragamuffins, lacking the distinct markings of the eastern variety, and in addition to the familiar nuthatch, the canyon is home to a pygmy variety half the size of their cousins. Hummingbirds abound throughout the park, both on the rim and at the bottom.
It was time to see the big hole in the ground. A short walk in the gathering dusk and there we were, at sunset, looking down over the two-foot-high stone wall that winds along the rim, down into space–a lot of space. I’ve been told that nothing prepares you for your first look at the canyon, and it’s true. Photographs do justice to the wonderful shapes and colors of the rocks, but they flatten the space in between. It’s the emptiness of the canyon that gives it its grandeur, the grand emptiness and the capricious desert wind that comes up out of the gorge, sometimes in a surge and sometimes in a whisper, driven by the day’s heat lingering in the rock.
Standard procedure for avoiding this heat is to start hiking early and finsh late. The rangers actually recommend starting the trip in the dark with a flashlight. At 3:00 a.m. the next day we were picking our way down the South Kaibab Trail in the dark, with a crescent moon hanging low over the cliffs, its penumbra forming a perfect circle. Overhead the stars were so numerous that the sky seemed gray, not black. The Kaibab is on a plateau and has neither water nor shelter from the wind and sun. As we rounded each cliff, the warm wind smacked into us in the dark, then receded as the trail turned. By 4:30 we could see streaks of dawn; by 7:00 we could see the river and the day was already growing hot. The day’s first mule train, a supply team, passed us heading down. These surefooted animals do an amazing job of staying on the narrow trails; there are records of a few falls but according to “Over the Edge,” a new book about deaths in the Grand Canyon, no one has ever been killed because a mule lost his footing.
We reached the bottom at 8:30 a.m. and crossed one of the two suspension bridges that span the Colorado River. “Feel better right now,” proclaims a sign posted by the rangers next to Bright Angel Creek. “Get in the creek and get wet.” This is not frivolous advice–the rangers typically treat a dozen cases a day of heat illness in the summer, and soaking yourself down in the cold, clear waters of the creek can help you avoid a trip to the infirmary. The inner canyon traps a lot of heat, and shade is scarce except near water. Hiking uphill between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is discouraged, though many people do anyway. A few diehards actually hike down to the river and back in one day, carrying only a gallon of Gatorade–a workout more punishing than running a marathon in midsummer.
This area–Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch–is like a small, secret community, an oasis tucked away in a harsh place that takes some determination to get to. The rangers remarked that the atmosphere down here is much more laid-back than up on the rim. About 200 people a day move through the area, mostly on foot. Phantom Ranch is a collection of rustic cabins and bunkhouses that requires reservations a year in advance. The canteen serves meals (expensive due to the logistics of packing the stuff down), and beer and wine are available in the evening. Bar chat here is more interesting than most. The fig tree next to the bath house has ripe figs in July that are the most sublime fruit I have ever eaten anywhere.
The next morning we decided to brave the heat and hike up to Ribbon Falls, a 13-mile round trip in the direction of the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail, which parallels Bright Angel Creek. This was my first experience with full-on desert hiking, with the sun blasting away and no shade anywhere. Part of the wonder of the desert is that anything, plant or animal, can live out here, but the canyon is full of living things. In a world mostly vertical, mostly rock, and mostly dry, with the sun hammering down relentlessly all day, plants and animals still adapt and thrive. Any break from the dry, dusty, spiny, broiling landscape takes on the quality of a miracle.
One such miracle is Ribbon Falls. Tucked away in a side canyon, it provides deep shade throughout the day and is a wonderful place to rest and cool off. What the waterfall lacks in volume, it makes up for in delicacy–the water that hisses over the cliff onto a lush bed of moss is like a rare piece of sculpture. We followed standard procedure for all cold, clear water: go and stand under it. (Variation: take off your clothes and stand under it. Soak your clothes in the pool. Put them back on.) By now I was used to wearing wet cotton all day–an absolute no-no in the Midwest. The dry wind blowing on wet clothing magnifies the cooling effect of sweating and can make the heat of the day seem almost normal. By the time we got back to camp, I had drunk 2.5 liters of Gatorade and my legs were cramping seriously from the heat. Time to go sit in the creek and chill out.
The Inner Canyon rangers have seen just about everything. Next to heat exhaustion, the most common ailment is hyponatremia, or water intoxication. This occurs when a hiker keeps drinking water without replacing electrolytes. “Some of these people are drinking 12 quarts of water a day and not eating, and their kidneys give out,” one ranger told me. “We also treat psychological stress. You’d be surprised at how many people hike down to the bottom, are wasted by the time they get here, and freak out because they think they won’t be able to hike back out.” Helicopter rescues are common, at a cost of $3,300–to be borne by the passenger.
“Check this out,” another ranger said, coming up to us that evening with a glass jar. In it was a small scorpion that he said he found in his camping gear. “I fed it a fly, and the fly must have bitten someone earlier, so now this one has a taste for human blood.” He smiled. In the jar, the scorpion flexed its tail with the evil stinger.
“He likes them,” another ranger added. “I think he has names for them, like pets.”
I asked him if he had ever been stung and what it felt like. He said he had been stung nine times but in only four incidents–scorpions like to sting repeatedly. “It feels like a cigarette burn,” he said. “If you find one on you, you need to keep still. Flick it off with a piece of paper, not your finger.” After dark he took us a little way into the desert with a black light, which makes the scorpions glow. It was disturbing to see how many were out there. Shine a regular flashlight on them and they scurry away at amazing speed, like the carnivorous hunters that they are. According to “Over the Edge,” no adult has ever died of a scorpion sting in the canyon, but from then on I kept my pack zipped and shook out my bedding more often than necessary.
“Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” is a combination of “Into Thin Air” and the Darwin Awards. No urban legends here; the landscape is anything but urban, and the stories are all factual. So many people have died in the canyon over the years that you come away from the book convinced that this is a dangerous place–which it is. Several deaths could have been avoided with a minimum of common sense, however. A shocking number of people, more than 60, have died simply by falling off cliffs, taking a fatal step into the great beyond. Nearly as many have died because they walked into the canyon carrying no water. The Colorado River has taken its share of lives, and not just in its legendary rapids–swimming in water deeper than your knees is life-threatening because the water is so cold (50 degrees or less) and the current is incredibly strong. The book also examines rockfalls, suicides, and occasional humorous incidents. Once a rafting party pulled up on a beach and found a dead beaver. They buried it to get rid of the smell and with typical river guide humor, gave it a mock funeral complete with grave marker: “Here lies D. Beaver.” (The D stood for Dead.) Two weeks later another raft guide pulled up on the beach, found the grave, and went ballistic thinking the first guide had lost a passenger and didn’t report it to the authorities.
The strongest message in the book, however, is one common to all survival stories–often the difference between life and death is more luck than skill. While skill may keep you out of trouble, a split second twist of fate may determine whether you live or die once you’re already in trouble. Second-guessing and passing judgment pale next to the fact that experienced desert travelers have died here, yet city dwellers wearing the wrong kind of shoes have lived because they had a fifty-fifty chance of turning in the direction of water at a junction in the trail and made the right guess.
The next adventure was the hike out. We started at daybreak up the Bright Angel Trail, which has shade and three water stops along the way. Early in the day we came upon a rattlesnake on the trail, a Grand Canyon subspecies of the western diamondback. These snakes are shy in nature, fortunately–this one’s only objective when it saw us was to get away, not easy on a vertical rock face. It finally managed to slither onto a rock shelf at eye level, where it coiled and poised to strike at anyone who got too close. Our ranger friend borrowed one of my trekking poles and relocated it, writhing and striking, to a safer place for both itself and others.
The first stage of the climb is the Devil’s Corkscrew, a long series of switchbacks that takes you up to the intermediate plateau between the river and the rim. We made the climb easily while the day was still cool, and I was feeling pretty good until I checked the map and learned we had only ascended 1,400 feet, with 3,000 still to go. With the day’s heat building steadily, we stopped at Indian Garden Campground, the halfway point on the climb, soaked down our clothes yet again, and parked ourselves on picnic tables in a beautiful grove of trees to wait for late afternoon. A great blue heron landed nearby in Garden Creek and I pondered the miracle that a water bird could survive in this place.
My tripmate finished her book at 2:00 and got ready to hike out. Thunderheads were building up over the rim, and a ranger came by and told us it was raining to the south. With one eye on the clouds, I opted to wait an hour for shade and hike out solo, since the trail is heavily used. Shortly after I started up the trail, the sun disappeared and raindrops made dark spots in the powdery dust. I could see a curtain of rain coming down the canyon wall and advancing toward me. It made the temperature just right, and there I was, hiking alone in the Grand Canyon in a thunderstorm. (I would have been worried except that I had just read the previous night in “Over the Edge” that no one has ever been struck by lightning below the rim.)
It was spectacular, one of those rare experiences that come close to religious. Out over the canyon I could see shifting rays of light on the cliffs where the sun was still shining ten miles to the north. A rainbow appeared, then doubled. I climbed steadily in the cool air, switchback after switchback, stopping often to look out over the canyon in awe. There are points on the Bright Angel Trail where you think the trail can’t possibly go any higher, that human beings weren’t made to climb this high without falling, so you stop and look down at how far you’ve come. It’s a feeling of accomplishment to look at all those switchbacks and the great chasm of the inner canyon and think, “I climbed all this”–and still the trail goes up.
Near the top I passed some of the day hikers who walk a half mile or so down from the rim and go back up. Laurie came down to meet me and I showed her the rainbow, which was hidden at the top. The usual crowd had gathered at the rim to watch the sun set, and I heard murmuring in many different languages–Chinese, German, the inevitable Spanish, a little English. I felt like a foreign traveler myself. I had been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and had seen some of the most spectacular landscape on earth. Now I would return to my own country with my senses renewed.
Note: Phantom Ranch Page, Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff’s website, is the best resource for anyone who wants to make this trip. Her page includes links to the official sites for Phantom Ranch, the National Park Service, and more, and her advice for hiking, camping, and training for the trip is the most desert-wise I have seen anywhere.
Order a copy of “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” and support the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association–a nonprofit organization whose mission is to strike a fair balance between the number of commercial rafting permits and the number of permits allocated to private parties. Currently the ratio of commercial to private permits is 70 to 30, and the wait for private boater permits is 10 years.