Midnight repost: Doing the Grand Canyon right


Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

My Behind the Black tenth anniversary retrospective continues: Tonight’s repost is an essay I wrote on July 15, 2013 shortly after one of Diane and I’s annual hiking trips to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

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Doing the Grand Canyon right

The Tonto Plateau

The one thing about the Grand Canyon that attracts hikers is its intimidating nature. People feel challenged by its large size and depth, and want to prove to themselves that they can do it.

The irony of this to me is that it is that intimidating nature that generally causes most people the most problems. People worry about the climb out. They worry about the heat. They worry about the lack of water. And they worry about vastness around them.

All of these things — the climb, the heat, the lack of water, and the vastness — must be dealt with. Each has caused the death of many visitors. Each could kill you if you are not prepared. In fact, one or all of these factors are probably the primary causes behind all of the approximately 300 rescues that occur each year at the Grand Canyon.

Yet, none of these factors is actually the biggest obstacle for most people trying to climb in and out of the Canyon. Instead, it is the worry about these things that causes people the most difficulties.

Consider the heat. Whenever the temperature rises above 100 degrees people start to talk about it like it is some deadly thing that they can’t tolerate and must avoid. They worry about it so much that it begins to affect them physically. They feel it. They dwell on it continuously. And it ends up sapping them of energy and endurance.

Yet, Diane and I have been hiking in 100+ degree circumstances for years. We agree that it is not for everyone. But what we have found is that if the temperature goes up, all you have to do is drink more water, go a bit slower, and rest in the shade whenever possible. If you do these things, the heat doesn’t really matter. It won’t stop you. As a result, we don’t think about it too much. We don’t let it intimidate us.

The same applies to the climb out of the Canyon. From Bright Angel campground (at 2480 feet) the climb up on the Bright Angel trail to the south rim (at 6860 feet) is approximately 4420 feet. That’s climbing up about 84% of a mile, spread over a distance of 9.5 miles. Most people look at these numbers and worry so much about them that they become intimidated by them, to the point that many decide never to even try the hike. Of those who do, many can’t get these facts out of their mind every step up the trail. I know, because I felt that way the first few times I hiked out of the canyon. I kept thinking, “We’ve been hiking for an hour and we’ve only gained about 500 feet. This is never going to end!”

The result of these worries is that people begin to hurry their hike. They want to get to the rim and get it over with as fast as possible. They walk faster than they should. They stop to rest less than they should. And those who don’t carry hydration bladders and have to stop and remove their packs to get at their water drink less in order to waste less time.

All wrong!

The key to enjoying the Grand Canyon (as well as most hiking) is to take your time. You should never rush. In fact, one of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten was from a ranger at Phantom Ranch. She explained that it is very easy to climb out of the Canyon. All you do is never walk so fast that you can’t hold a conversation. If you start to breath too heavily and can’t talk, you simply slow down, take smaller steps, and regain your breath. You don’t stop, however. You simply take it slower.

For example, I hike very slowly up hill. If I go too fast my heart begins to pound and I can’t get my breath and will quickly have to stop. However, if I walk steadily but very slowly I never have to stop, and can keep going for as long as I want.

It is therefore not unusual for me to be passed repeatedly by others. They zip past me but soon have to stop to rest. I meanwhile just keep on slogging away at a slow but steady pace. Soon I catch up and pass them. They get up and zip past me again, but this time don’t quite get as far ahead before they have to stop to rest. After awhile I slog past again. Up they go, zipping by, but now passing me by even less distance before stopping to rest. This repeats several times, until eventually, they can’t even catch up to me when they need to rest.

When climbing out of the canyon last week this happened again and again. I’d sooner or later suggest as I walked by that if they’d slow down they’d make better time, but almost never would anyone take this advice. In the end, they would all get left in the dust.

This rule applies just as much to issues of water and rest. It is very important to rest periodically, loosening or even removing the boots and raising the feet so that they can cool down. A five to ten minute rest like this every two hours will allow you to hike farther and faster with less exhaustion.

In other words, you will actually make better time by simply slowing down. And you will have more time to enjoy the view!

The desire to hurry I think is also why most people don’t spend any extra time at the bottom of the canyon. They get there, but are worried about the hike out. Thus, most people arrive one day and leave the next.

Diane and I however don’t want to simply leave. It takes a lot of effort to get into the Grand Canyon. We want to see some of it while we are there. In fact, I have now been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon five times. Of these the best trips were the ones in which I spent some time in the canyon, doing day hikes to some of the more remote places within the canyon.

On our trip last week, for example, we finally did a day hike I have been wanting to do for more than twenty years. From Phantom Ranch we hiked up the South Kaibab trail out of the 1,000 foot deep Inner Gorge, where flows the Colorado River, to the Tonto Plateau, which is that large flat area on each side of the Inner Gorge. From here we took the Tonto trail across the Tonto Plateau, heading west to the Bright Angel trail and the Indian Gardens campground. From there we went back down into the Inner Gorge on the Bright Angel trail. Overall, the hike was about 13 miles, with about a 1000 feet of elevation gain. The picture below looks down at this area of the Tonto Plateau, with the Tonto trail indicated by the thin yellow line.

Tonto Trail from the South Rim

This is not actually a very difficult hike. Back east it is not unusual for hikes to be a dozen miles long with that much or more elevation change. And in the west, most hikes usually have at least that much elevation gain, if not two to three times more.

Yet, despite the hundreds of hikers who arrive at the Colorado River each day during the busy season, almost no one ever does this. They are intimidated. Nor do National Park Service rangers help much. I once asked a ranger for some details about hiking on the Tonto trail, and her answer was a blunt, “Don’t do that. You will risk death if you hike on the Tonto.”

What a shame. The picture at the top of this story is of Diane standing on the Tonto Plateau during this hike. From this trail we got a real feeling of the size and majesty of the Grand Canyon. From this trail we were in the canyon, not above it looking down or in the Inner Gorge at the Colorado River, where you can’t see very much around you. Here, we could see everything, and it told us how big and grand the Grand Canyon truly is.

The bottom line for everything I have been saying is that you should go out and do these things. Don’t take no for an answer. Find out what you need to know, do it wisely, but do it. The reward will be immeasurable.

Readers!
 

My July fund-raiser for Behind the Black is now over. The support from my readers was unprecedented, making this July campaign the best ever, twice over. What a marvelous way to celebrate the website's tenth anniversary!
 

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5 comments

  • Art Cambigue

    Your advice about taking the hike easy and slow is probably good advice for life also. Looking back over my life I would venture to say I should have paused a few times and enjoyed the view.

    BTW – Your web site is almost the only one I can trust to present a view of the current news in a fair and balanced way. Keep up the good, honest way of reporting news.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I must echo the sentiments of the first commenter! Your site is climbing in my daily visit order just the way you hike – slowly but surely. Love the emphasis on space, especially how you don’t just have the same news as everyone else, but a unique interpretation.

  • Ray Van Dune: Thank you and Art Cambigue for your kind words. All I do is write about what interests me, or what I think is important, something that too many editors over my life have denied me the right to do. And so I do BtB in response.

  • Aaron R

    I remember when I did just the opposite. Hurry, hurry, hurry! I was a Marine in flight training in 2002 and I was scheduled to do a cross country flight to practice navigating the airways and conduct instrument approaches. Many students opted to go to big cities and hit the clubs. I found an instructor who wanted to fly to the Grand Canyon. We ended up with two airplanes going, so there were two instructors and two students. We flew in on Friday and my instructor had me take off the “hood” and get my head out of the instrument panel to see the canyon as we got close. We flew in from the east so I saw a small ditch grow and grow as we flew west. We had to depart on Sunday, so we only had one day to see the sights and all wanted to do some hiking, but I wanted to go to the bottom. I shared a hotel room with the other student, a Navy ensign but former enlisted Marine. We got up early and I called the instructors. They had been out late and said they would “catch up”. We got a ride to the top of the Bright Angel trail. I had packed my good hiking boots and some MREs and plenty of water. My fellow flight student was not as enthused as I was. I said we would go until it got hot, then I set out for the Phantom Ranch. I had recently finished a three year assignment as an infantry officer in 29 Palms and had lots of experience hiking in the heat. When I saw all the signs warning about hiking down and up in a day I was sure they didn’t apply to me. We got to the bottom and had lunch at the Phantom Ranch. I felt good but my companion was tired and took a 1 hour nap. Now it was time to go in that heat. We loaded up on water and off we went. It was a mental challenge. I kept setting small goals. Let’s go that shady spot over there. Let’s get around the corner and then rest. We kept moving, eating, and drinking. As it got later and cooled off he started doing much better. We got to the top in the dark and had the best tasting burgers ever. He cursed me out all the way up but admitted he was glad we did it. Have I learned my lesson about getting luring folks into tough hikes? Last week I took my 4 girls (5, 6, 8, 11) up to the top of 1st/2nd Flatiron in Boulder. This time I bribed them with the promise of a root beer float. We made it up and down and enjoyed the treat. Some day I’ll take my time like you Mr. Z.

  • John

    My first time to the canyon I read all the warnings and got spooked. So I hired a guide to take me overnight. The company couldn’t get bright angel permits on such short notice, so I did the hermit trail. I remember it not being much money, and I wouldn’t trade the night by the river for a day hike, but I could have hiked it in a day. I knew the distance, I knew the elevation change, and I knew I could do it, but I chickened out from the signs warning me of certain death. Live and learn. I’m much more skeptical towards all things now.

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