I find myself standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon at 7:30 AM, sunrise casting unbelievably stunning colors along its surface. I feel like I’ve already accomplished my goal of hiking the Canyon. Well, everything except the hiking part.
My brother Scott, our friend Rob and I drove into Grand Canyon National Park last night under cover of darkness, and I can now see that the road meanders directly along the ledge of the Canyon. Thankfully we made it to our South Rim lodge without realizing we were only two meters away from certain catastrophe.
Staying at one of the Canyon’s lodges allows you this early morning light show. We’ve all just rolled out of bed and come to the edge to gaze into the abyss; this sure beats a cup of coffee for getting the heart pounding.
Rob spent some years working for the National Park Service, and lived at the bottom of the Canyon doing scientific research. He knows the trails well and his continual sense of wonder is contagious. He tells a great story about getting swept up in the Colorado River during a seasonal monsoon and making a daring escape that involved throwing ropes across the rushing water. This is the kind of guy you want by your side as you first step onto the Bright Angel Trail and stare straight down into the 2 km (6,860 ft) expanse. Too be fair, that’s at its deepest point. We’re only about 1.5 km here; I could survive that fall, right?
My sense of adventure quickly turns into stomach-churning panic at the realization that there are no safety barriers of any kind protecting hikers from plunging straight down into the gorge. Granted the path is fairly wide and feels safe enough, other than when tourist-toting mules pass by, at which point hikers are expected to plaster themselves flat against the Canyon wall.
Perhaps climbing Mount Everest is easier; at least you don’t have to spend half your time avoiding the mules’ calling cards. I’m still feeling a little shaky when I notice a group of schoolchildren cheerfully hike right past us, so my trepidation seems a little misplaced. Now I just have to deal with my shame at being shown up by kids.
Hiking here is down to a fine science; posters everywhere advise how many liters of water and what amount of food to carry. Other posters tell the horrible story of hikers who ignored this advice and never made it out alive, including one woman who’d run the Boston Marathon. As I am no marathon runner, we take the advice and carry enough supplies that we probably won’t need to be Air Evac’d out.
We’re here in cooler weather; spring and autumn are wonderful times to visit the Canyon. The average temperature is far lower than during the summer when it can reach 40°C (104°F), therefore hiking is more endurable.
Some of the path is exposed to direct sunlight, and that can become debilitating during the hotter months. However at this time of year there is the double danger of icy patches, plus a sun that sets in what seems like 60 seconds flat.
We’re hiking in fleece sweaters and leather jackets; it’s so cool here than one park employee informs us, “You boys don’t know how to dress for the cold.” We proudly reply that we’re Canadian – this is July weather to us. I consider asking if they have an outdoor pool.
The blazing colors of the Canyon constantly change as the sun passes overhead. I’ve never seen such breathtaking scenery anywhere. We stop every few minutes to take photos and videos, and as we hike deeper my fear subsides...a little. We begin staging funny shots; laughter in the face of imminent peril. Plus we begin to write insulting little songs about the “Mule People.”
Rob is an excellent guide, pointing out various rock formations and buttes along the way. He tells us surreal stories about living in the Canyon and battling scorpions that got into his boots. Whenever I begin to feel tired, I see the schoolchildren in the distance and they inspire me. I realize it’s not a competition…but I’ll be darned if I’m turning back before them.
We have decided to do a day hike of about 30 km (18.5 miles), which allows us to return to our lodge by sundown. As the sun sinks in the sky the temperature plummets, it’s easy to understand why so many hikers get in trouble here. You can experience heat-induced dehydration and hypothermia, all within one day.
The evening is spent exchanging stories with other hikers and a park employee. It’s amazing how quickly every conversation returns to the tale of yet another hiker who had to be rescued. Not surprising, as over 250 people have to be pulled out of the Canyon each year. Since the 1870s there have been over 600 deaths at the Canyon; accidents, suicides, even an airplane collision in 1956.
Then the employee tells us the most fascinating tidbit yet. He claims that during the last Bush administration, park employees were advised not to discuss the age of the Canyon with tourists; suggesting it was any older than 5,000 years was not allowed, so they discouraged any discussion at all. This seems to fly in the face of the accepted 5-6 million year estimate, or the 2008 study that suggested 17 million years.
We turn in early as we have another hike planned for tomorrow. As I lie there in the total darkness and dead quiet, I contemplate this information. I suppose in the long run the Grand Canyon’s true age isn’t really important. It’s still our elder and it’s wise to show it respect. Plus I make a mental note to shake the scorpions out of my boots in the morning.