Sunday, June 7, 2009

Grand Canyon From The Inside

In a previous blog entry I mentioned how difficult it was for the casual traveler to fully experience the Grand Canyon, given the enormous size and lack of an easy way into the interior of the gorge. Most folks content themselves with viewing the wondrous spectacle from the established viewpoints, and an intrepid few actually descend some short way in, although only a very small percentage actually make the grueling trek to the bottom.

To fully appreciate the size and grandeur of this awesome natural wonder, you need to get inside. There are basically two ways to do this: Backpacking, which requires a fairly high degree of fitness, and river running, which is easier on the body but takes a big bite out of your wallet. River trips are probably simpler from a logistical standpoint, but are typically booked a year or more in advance, and you'll need to provide personal gear and clothing suitable for what is essentially a car camping trip on the water. Hiking the Canyon entails a bigger commitment, such as being in reasonably good shape and having the gear necessary to tackle the backcountry. Let's explore the backpacking option for now - I'll post later about the river trip experience.

Backpacking Grand Canyon

From the NPS Backcountry Planning website:

First time Grand Canyon hikers tend to react to the experience in one of two ways: either they can't wait to get back, or they swear they'll never do it again.

I was fortunate enough to live on the South Rim for two winters, and I made the most of that experience by hiking and exploring the many trails which traverse the interior of the Canyon. Once I relocated to Flagstaff I continued to take advantage of being close to the Park and made extended trips most every spring and fall, generally choosing new routes for each trip. As of this writing I've hiked nearly every named trail and route within Grand Canyon, some several times. While I am by no means the expert on the Inner Canyon, I've accumulated a wealth of information and experience that I'd like to share.

First and foremost, I'll tell you this: Hiking Grand Canyon is hard. There are no easy trails - Even though the Park Service recommends that novice hikers stick to the "Corridor" trails of Bright Angel and South Kaibab, it's not because they are easier than any other trail. The main reason is these trails are heavily trafficked, and if you do get in trouble, someone will be along to notice and summon help. But all trails that go down must eventually come back up, and all share the same characteristics - they're steep with lots of exposure.

The Canyon can be a deadly place for the ignorant or unprepared. And sometimes you can be doing everything right, and still wind up a victim. Backcountry Rangers respond to over 400 calls for help every year, most involving hikers in way over their head. These knowledgeable professionals spend a lot of time on the main trails, looking for hikers who appear ill-prepared to take on what is one of the toughest challenges around, and from their experience there is a large body of information available to the public to assist in planning a visit. Check this link to read more. If you are like me and have a morbid curiousity about the various and many ways to lose your life in Grand Canyon, I highly recommend reading Over the Edge: Death In Grand Canyon.

Planning a trip - Permits

So you've decided to take the plunge, and go backpacking in the Canyon. There are several things you need to know. First, all overnight trips into the Grand Canyon backcountry require a permit, which costs $10.00 plus a $5.00 per person/per night fee. The only exception is for those staying at Phantom Ranch, where rustic accomodations are available for hikers who choose to go light. Phantom Ranch can be a good introduction to overnight hiking in the Canyon, but be aware that getting reservations into this remote and popular lodge can be extremely difficult.

Permits for Corridor campgrounds can also be difficult to obtain in peak season, so choose several alternative dates when submitting your requests to maximize the likelihood of getting one. If your itinerary is very flexible during your visit, you can try to get a last minute permit from the Backcountry Reservations Office (BRO) when they open in the morning as they hold a few for walk-ups and typically have some last minute cancellations. For hikers staying at one of the established campgrounds or at large, permits are available from the BRO.

Planning a trip - When?

When you go is almost more important than where you go. Ironically, the busiest hiking season at Grand Canyon also occurs when conditions are the least hospitable - summer. Even though temperatures on the Rim are generally in the 70-80 degree range, the trails descending below the rim quickly enter a desert climate where daytime highs can be well in excess of 100 degrees. If you have the luxury of time off outside the traditional summer vacation period, spring and fall generally offer the most favorable weather and fewer people - except for Spring Break, when college students converge on the Canyon in large numbers.

My personal preference has always been to hike in springtime for two reasons. First, if Northern Arizona has had a relatively wet winter, you stand a better chance of finding running water in side canyons (very important if hiking outside Corridor trails), and second the desert landscape will come alive with verdant green shrubs and grasses, and cactus and other flowering plants provide a colorful visual treat to the otherwise austere surroundings.

Fall can be beautiful as well with clear cool days and crisp nights, although ephemeral water sources may be dried up. Winter is when you'll find the fewest hikers in the backcountry, but two factors make for a more challenging experience. Despite being a desert, the Inner Canyon gets quite cold when the sun retreats to the south. The upper sections of north facing trails will be slick with packed snow and ice, which is always fun to negotiate when carrying a large heavy pack on steep exposed trails. In addition, nearly all the individual side canyons which make up the larger Canyon are oriented north-south, so winter sunlight is limited to just a few hours a day or in some cases may not reach the canyon bottom at all.

If your options for time off limit you to visiting in the summer, be prepared for crowds and excessive heat. While hiking the Canyon during the hottest months of the year can be very challenging, following some very simple and sensible guidelines will ensure that you survive the experience.

Be Cool

First, be sure to have plenty of water. I know it sounds simple, but lack of water is what gets more people into trouble than any other cause. And don't just carry it - drink it. There are several notable cases of hikers either perishing or coming uncomfortably close to death because they failed to consume the water they had with them. Water conservation as a way of life is a good thing for the planet, but not for your body when you're hiking in a hot dry climate.

Water alone will not keep you out of trouble - you need to consume food and snacks that supply vital nutrients and salts so your tissues can use the water. Hyponatremia is a medical condition that occurs when you drink lots of water without also replacing the lost potassium, sodium and other salts you lose when perspiring heavily. If the body cannot utilize the excess water, the result is cerebral edema (brain swelling) with a corresponding loss of consciousness and eventually death. You can use electrolyte replacement drinks such as Gatorade, but salty snacks work as well.

Hike during the coolest part of the day. Usually this means getting up before the crack of dawn, hitting the trail until 10 a.m. or so, and then seeking whatever shade may be available. Resume your journey late in the afternoon, say around 4:00 p.m. or so, and hike until you've reached your destination. Too many hikers succumb to heat exhaustion or worse, heat stroke trying to tackle searingly hot and shadeless trails when Inner Canyon temperatures can soar to 110 degrees or more. Remember - you're here to have fun, not endure a death march.

Staying cool in the summer heat can be a challenge in the backcountry. But if you are fortunate enough to be hiking or camping near the River or along one of the perennial streams found in the Canyon, you can stay wet and beat the worst of it. BUT - Do not attempt to swim in the Colorado River! This spring three young men tragically lost their lives doing just that, not realizing that the water is a bone chilling 58 degrees, and that extremely strong currents that may not be visible on the surface exist in the river.

Planning a trip - Where to go?

I agree with the Park Service that first timers should stick to the main trails. Not only are they well established routes with a high likelihood of human encounter, they offer more developed campsites with amenities like water and restrooms. Trails outside the Corridor are more likely to offer solitude but are generally harder to follow, have less reliable water sources, and camping is primitive in nature.

Hiking the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails are a good introduction to the Inner Canyon. Both trails reach the same destination - Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch along the Colorado River. At 7 miles the South Kaibab is shorter, somewhat steeper, and has little or no shade, while the Bright Angel gets there in 9.5 miles. On Bright Angel there are two resthouses at 1.5 and 3 miles below the rim, where water is available
seasonally. Both trails cross the Colorado River on one of two suspension bridges, one of which has decking and the other is made of metal mesh. The one with decking is for the mules, as they won't cross a bridge they can see through.

The conventional wisdom recommends that hikers take South Kaibab down and Bright Angel up, but it's really a matter of personal preference. If you want to break the hike out into two days instead of one, Indian Gardens Campground on Bright Angel trail is 4.5 miles below the rim, and makes a convenient destination on the way up. Alternatively Indian Gardens works for a quick in-and-out overnight trip, but you won't get to the bottom of the Canyon if that is your goal.

I'll write in future blogs about other, more remote trails you can take after getting some entry level experience on these Corridor trails.

Planning a trip - What to take

Encyclopedias have been written about what should be in your pack while traveling the backcountry, but it boils down to a very simple formula. Only take what you need or reasonably expect to use. To some degree weather will influence your choices, but carrying a parka in case of heavy snow is a waste of time. There are times of the year when a warmer sleeping bag is a good thing, but July in the Canyon is not one of them. Some people will want a tent, although most of the year the Inner Canyon receives very little rainfall, so if you're not too concerned about critters or privacy consider a ground sheet or just the tent fly.

The heaviest item in your pack should be water. Traveling the Corridor trails makes this somewhat less of a concern, as water is usually available at Bright Angel and Indian Gardens campgrounds. Even so, don't count on these sources as pipeline breaks and other unforeseen issues can occur without warning, leaving the unprepared hiker without resupply options. A gallon per person per day is the absolute minimum for a body at rest, more when you are exerting yourself.

A backpacking stove for heating meals is convenient if that is part of your menu plans, although some hikers opt to forego hot food in the summer months, thus eliminating the weight and hassles of cooking meals. On the subject of food, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to carefully plan what you will eat during your hike. Remember, what you bring is what you'll eat, even if you decide when you get there it's not what you wanted. Domino's will not deliver to the bottom of Grand Canyon, so choose wisely.

A flashlight and extra batteries are useful for obvious reasons, although a headlamp can be a better choice if you end up hiking before dawn and after sunset in the summer months. A water filter is not necessary on the Corridor trails, but is essential outside this area. A good quality sleeping pad, preferably the self inflating kind will make it easier to sleep on the unforgiving ground, and I use one that converts to a chair for lounging around camp.

Clothing should be lightweight and light colored to shield you from sun. A big floppy hat and bandanna are also great items to help keep you cooler on the trail. Lightweight sneakers or sandals are a treat to have when you reach camp, as your hiking boots will probably have burst into flame at the end of the trail. Good quality hiking socks are essential, as well as a blister repair kit like Spenco's Second Skin or moleskin. A well supplied and lightweight first aid kit is a must, and a walking stick can help with those awkward descents while wearing the pack.

At the end of every trip, I go through my pack. If I took something I might've thought I wanted and it never saw the light of day, I left it out for the next hike. Over the years I have successively whittled down the inventory until it consists of the minimum amount of gear to survive and enjoy the backcountry. Don't get me wrong - you can take it all if you want it. Just remember - you have to carry it out at the end.

Here's a little story I like to tell about having everything you need on the trail:

Several years ago I was on a 9 day trip in the Canyon. On day 5 I was passing through the area of Bright Angel Campground enroute to a destination on the north side of the canyon. I had underestimated the amount of stove fuel I would use on the trip and was running a bit low, so I thought I'd stop in at the Ranger residence and ask if there was any white gas to spare. I knocked on the door, and when the Ranger answered I told him my story. He immediately smiled, and with twinkle in his eye stepped outside and asked me to follow him out back. He led me to a large padlocked shed, opened the door and gestured inside. As I entered it took a second for my eyes to adjust, and as they did I was astonished to see every kind of camping gear imaginable piled onto shelves and hung from the ceiling. It took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing, and finally managed to ask, "Where............ did all this come from?" He continued to smile as he told me that every tent, sleeping bag, backpack, and all the other gear had been abandoned over the last year by hikers unwilling or unable to to pack it back out after reaching the bottom. He walked over to the shelf, took down a gallon can of Coleman white gas, and refilled my fuel bottle. I thanked him, and went on my way marveling at the ironies of life.

What To Expect

The Grand Canyon environment is like no where else in terms of geography and hiking. Experienced hikers from other parts of the country or world need to consider this. Most people's hiking experience is along slightly elevated, rolling terrain, or perhaps the occasional steep mountain slope. At Grand Canyon everything is in reverse. You begin the hike going downhill with a heavily laden pack, using muscles that are unaccustomed to keeping the body from going into freefall. Every step down accelerates gravity, and extra effort must be expended on trails where loose and gravelly soils conspire to pitch you over the edge and into the abyss.

Another factor is climate. The trailhead on the rim is generally mild and pleasant, with cool air and low humidity. As you descend the air temperature rises until you eventually reach the bottom where daytime highs in the summer exceed 100 degrees, shade is limited, and rock walls surround and reflect heat back at you. If you are fortunate, the river or a creek awaits you at the campsite, and frequently cottonwood trees and other riparian vegetation offer some shady relief from the glaring sun. Once the day wanes and the sun retreats into the west, low humidity will allow the air to cool rapidly, and night can be pleasant to downright chilly in the wee hours of morning.

The morning after the hike in is fun to watch as hikers shuffle around in crablike fashion at camp. The quadriceps and gluteus muscles of all but the most fit hikers will be unbelievably sore and tight. and it will take most of the morning to work them into a usable state. The good news is that once you've reached the bottom, up is the only place left to go. If you are spending two days or more in the Canyon, you'll have a bit of time to recover. Unfortunately if all you can spare is one night, you've got a challenge ahead as you contemplate the climb out.

Having said that, hiking out of Grand Canyon is not as hard as you might think. Basically all you have to do is put one foot in front of another, and keep doing that until you're out. I know it sounds easier than it is, but in my years of hiking I have seen old folks, grossly overweight people, little kids, and you name it all conquering the Grand Canyon. It may not be easy, it may not be fun, but it is doable. Would it help if I told you there are people who run the Grand Canyon for fun, or that there are long distance marathoners who run from rim-to-rim-to-rim - a distance of 42 miles with an elevation change of 16,000 feet?

Why Do It?

What you'll get from tackling the backcountry is a personal experience unlike anything you've done before. You'll be able to look up at canyon walls that tower over you in all directions, and know in those moments that the Inner Canyon is a world apart, where cell phones, internet access, and the cares of your everyday life don't exist. You'll listen as a tiny stream of life-giving water chuckles through the canyon bottom, or you'll hear soft breezes rustle thousands of cottonwood leaves in a gentle murmur. You'll gaze up past red rock walls that stretch for impossible distances to skies that are unbelievably blue. The call of a Canyon Wren, the howl of a coyote, the croak of a frog in a tiny pool, the sound of your own heart beating in your ears - these are the rewards of a journey deep into the heart of Grand Canyon. And when it's over, you'll stand on the rim looking down into an incredibly rugged and beautiful place that will always be a mystery to the majority of visitors. That's all I need.

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