Southern Utah News Articles
Grand Canyon North Rim, wandering through many wonders
Editor’s note- This will be a three part series on the wonders of hiking the Grand Canyon.
Day 1, 4:45 a.m.
The alarm sounds, and I make my way to the shower where I wait for the warm water to ease the weight holding my eyelids shut. If we get a quick jump on the drive, we’ll have enough time to eat a good breakfast at the Kaibab Lodge, which lies five miles north of the north rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.
We load the truck with our packs, tents, group food, and camping gear we’ll need for this week’s trip and leave Kanab for the hour and fifteen minute drive. The time change works in our favor. We leave Kanab at 7:00, and arrive at the lodge at 7:15, with enough time to finish breakfast and organize in the parking lot to meet this week’s group.
For six weeks each fall, this routine repeats itself every Thursday. My partner Tom and I have the lucky responsibility of guiding backpacking trips each spring and fall in the Grand Canyon. Until we meet our clients, we know little about them: name, age, male or female, weight, height, food requirements, and important medical information. We’ve learned that only draws a faint outline of people we’ll come to know over the next four days.
After a brief orientation – during which we mostly tell everyone what they won’t need and should leave in the car – we distribute tents and each person’s portion of group gear and food they must carry, in addition to their personal food and equipment.
With four liters of water (at two pounds per liter), we weigh their packs and ask them to re-think what they’re bringing if their packs weigh over 35 pounds. We promise them they’ll thank us on the hike out.
People new to the Grand Canyon tend to want to gear up excessively as a psychological strategy to prepare for what will likely be the most physically challenging backpacking trip they’ve completed.
The best preparation is a light pack atop legs made strong through adequate training. Desert hiking is different from alpine, in that a person doesn’t have to worry about moisture, bugs or staying warm. The desert takes care of that!
Occasionally modifications are needed. On our last trip, which started on October 6, there had been an early season snowstorm. For that trip, we allowed hats, gloves and even down jackets.
With everyone’s packs whittled down, we load up again and begin the second drive of the morning to Monument Point along forestry roads through the Kaibab National Forest.
Prior to meeting us, our clients have had to communicate in-depth about their level of preparedness. Beginning with an application in which they must list their hiking experience and fitness level. Each person must follow up with a signed waiver and a doctor’s release indicating they are fit enough for our trip.
Our trips are rated level 5 on a difficult scale of zero to five, the most difficult rating, which is described as “strenuous, designed for very fit travelers.” If we have a group of experienced, well-prepared hikers, our trips are fun, while still being very challenging. People often describe their experience as a trip of a lifetime.
Still, we sometimes have people who don’t listen to the warnings, exaggerate their experience level, and frankly, lie about what they’ve done to train physically.
On our first trip this year, we had two brothers who finally admitted they were in over their head two days into the trip. One had begun throwing up and the other wasn’t in much better shape. Being near the river, we intercepted a rafting party who allowed us the use of their satellite phone to call the Park Service for a helicopter.
On the first day of hiking, I had tried to talk to them in the first hours of the day when I noticed they were having trouble. We’re fine, they insisted. We can do this. It’s just nerves. Two days later, at the bottom of the canyon, they no longer were trying to cover up their distress and happily boarded a helicopter to be transported to the south rim’s medical center. One brother was in the early stages of kidney failure. Some people don’t seem to understand how a backpacking trip can be life threatening. The Grand Canyon is a good teacher on this account.
We pause on the rim to show everyone a few shell fossils we’ve collected and stashed near the trail. I point out the incredible fact that we’re looking at sea shells at 7,200 feet above sea level. The first expressions of wonder appear in a few eyes. I know that over the next few days, those looks of wonder will spread throughout the group. It is impossible to hike the Grand Canyon and leave unaffected, especially if you take the time to learn what you’re seeing, touching, hiking over, and descending into. Of course, there’s also the climb out that will imprint itself permanently in your record of life experiences.
When I point in the direction of the trail, there are a few laughs because where I’m pointing looks like a drop off. When everyone sees me walk in that direction, the laughter stops, and I hear people comment, “He was serious,” and fall into step behind me. Other than the well-worn corridor trails near the south and north rim visitor centers, the remainder of the canyon’s trails are described as “unmaintained.” In Grand Canyon terms, that means steep, rocky and exposed, with brief periods of scrambling down ledges and boulder hopping.
The trail is covered with rocks of an endless assortment of sizes and shapes. This requires that you always look down and choose each step. This is one aspect of our trip many people don’t expect, and it requires much more mental attention than the kind of hiking most people know. We remind everyone that if they want to look across the sweeping expanse of the canyon, or snap a picture in this most photogenic of wildernesses, they should stop hiking first.
By now, the million questions have begun. What layer of rock is this? How old is it? Do you guide all year round? Where are the water sources? When is lunch? What’s the name of that plant? How far have we hiked? How far is left to hike? Are there bears here? Are there snakes? Are there scorpions? Are there tarantulas?
As a former fifth grade teacher, I’m well accustomed to being asked questions. After three years of leading trips in the canyon, I’m happy that I can answer some of them. We descend through the Kaibab limestone, the Toroweap formation, and arrive at a break in the Coconino sandstone that begins a section called the “fifty switchbacks,” a swift descent to the bright red of the Hermit Shale and the Esplanade Sandstone. The Esplanade is a broad, mostly level expanse of weathered sandstone which varies in color from orange to pink. We hike through this Martian landscape past towering hoodoos and sections of rock that resemble the folds of gathered fabric.
On a tip from Canyon Bob, a guiding friend of ours from Flagstaff, we make a stop to hike away from the main trail, up a small drainage, to an eroded indention in the sandstone that holds a hot tub’s worth of reliable water.
Stocked with tadpoles, silt, mosquito larvae, and the occasional California King snake, we treat the water, refill, and make our way to a spectacular campsite on the edge of the Esplanade overlooking Surprise Valley and the inner canyon.
To the east, the afternoon’s fading light illuminates a shining piece of the Colorado River, providing a glimpse of the next expanse we must cross tomorrow. For now, though, we marvel at the shifting colors of the cliff faces which slowly become silhouettes against a sunset sky of mingled pink, orange, green, blue and purple.
Dinner is cooking by now – cous cous and chicken. We boil some water for evening tea, while pointing out the constellation, Scorpio, spread above the cliffs opposite from our high perch. Yes, follow the arc of the handle of the big dipper to find Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes, and one of the most beautiful stars in the early summer sky, twinkling with an intensity and a kaleidoscope of color. We enjoy the stars and the silence before saying goodnight and heading to our tents.