Grand Canyon Love Story chapter Thirty-five


Hiiking . the Inner Trails

“Despite the problems, despite the intimate hazards, and even though the demands on human energy are enormous, going by foot is still the best way to travel the trails of the Grand Canyon. You can go at your own pace, stop when you wish, linger at will, hurry or loaf, and be completely at ease .! 1

That is the assessment of ranger-naturalists Ann and Myron Sutton, in their excellent book, THE WILDERNESS WORLD OF THE GRAND CANYON.
But they also sprinkle the pages of their book with observations which serve as warnings.

“Park rangers can talk by the hour of rescue operations to bring out the dead and injured. “2

” . . . the major causes of human fatalities in the park are heart attacks — exertion at 7,000 feet can be dangerous to the unaware — and accidents resulting from reckless driving.”3

“The margin for error in this Canyon is not very wide,” the Suttons stress, and characterize it as having ” . . . some of the most severe hiking environments in North America.” 4 They go on:

“Inner-canyon trails have taken the lives of many hikers. If there was ever a place where men can test the limits of their endurance and self-reliance, it is within this Canyon. Heat, thirst, hunger, danger, isolation, and disaster become the unwanted partners of the unprepared. But they are also part of the adventure, and if properly prepared, hikers may enjoy some unparalleled experiences within this Canyon. “5

W. E. Garrett, Associate Editor of National Geographic Magazine, writing in the July, 1978 issue, says, ” . . . as many as 12 hikers a day with more enthusiasm than endurance and good sense collapse and have to be ‘dragged out’ of the canyon.:6

Then Garrett makes the amazing statement:

“Under summer sun the surface temperature may reach 200°F. “7

The Geographic is a highly regarded magazine. We have written and photographed for it, and respect it.

But we questioned that statement. In the Canyon’s depths it has sometimes seemed to us that the temperature was close to the 212°F boiling point, but we really didn’t think it actually ever reached 200°.

Back in California we queried the director-naturalist of the Living Desert Reserve, near Palm Springs, asking what a 120° thermometer reading in the shade (which we have observed in Grand Canyon) might be at surface level in the sun. Along came this reply, from Director-Naturalist Karen Sausman.

“In answer to your question, when the air temperature reaches 120° it is quite possible for the ground surface temperature in the sun to reach 180°. When we hear a weather report on the radio it gives the air temperature 5 feet above the ground in the shade. Obviously, when you are out on the desert hiking there is no simple way to levitate yourself 5 feet above the ground in a shady area!”

Her answer was based on open desert conditions. At the bottom of the rock-enclosed Canyon gorge, with surface rocks reflecting heat into one’s face like a mirror, perhaps 200° was a correct figure. No wonder we perspired!

And no wonder that, on hike after hike in Grand Canyon, we have had to render aid and assistance, and often share our water, food, and rain gear, with those who went ill-prepared or failed to shepherd their strength and their supplies. Most often, we found that those requiring aid were young men, who looked physically strong and sturdy.
One such young man, years ago, had a frightening experience which, had it ended tragically, would have changed world history. Twenty-nine year old John J. Pershing became lost in the Canyon, along with three of his friends. They nearly perished of thirst before being rescued by a Havasupai Indian. When Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, he is reported to have wished that the Grand Canyon could have been moved to Europe, to form a barrier between Germany and France.
A caution notice issued by Park Superintendent Merle Stitt, when he was serving at the park, contained a subtle hint that adequate precautions should be taken.


Besides heat, high altitude, and isolation, there is another enemy. The ranger-naturalists, the Suttons, say:

“We have also repeatedly seen people who dared not get within twenty feet of the rim, people petrified with an acrophobic fear that they might, uncontrollably, jump in. They actually feared the Canyon, as if it stirred in them some wholly inhuman dementia. “8

For those who penetrate below the Rim, mule riders exhibit more fear than do hikers. Several times we have encountered riders who tell us they have kept their eyes closed almost the entire way down, too fearful to look at the abysses below. Why they assay the trip at all, we cannot understand.

Irvin Cobb describes the first moments of the Canyon mule-ride in his droll fashion:

“The thought comes to you that, after all, it is a very bright and beautiful world you are leaving behind. You turn your head to give it a long, lingering farewell, and try to put your mind on something cheerful — such as your life insurance.”9

Cobb’s description of Bright Angel Trail is excellent:

“Imagine a trail that winds like a snake and climbs like a goat and soars like a bird, and finally bores like a worm and is gone . . .”io

Two choice spots on the South Rim afford superb views of portions of the trail. Perhaps those planning for the first time to hike down Bright Angel, or later to come back up, should not seek out these particular Rim views until their inner Canyon experience is over. What one sees is almost too revealing — too discouraging.

One of these view spots is at Grandeur Point, on the short Rim trail, north of the visitor center, and west of Yavapai Museum. The most severe switchbacks are not visible —concealed by great shoulders of rock — but enough of the snakelike serpentine trail does show — all in one instantaneous vertical view — to quicken one’s heart beat just standing there, looking.

The other prime viewpoint is from Trail View I, on West Rim Drive, about half a mile from Bright Angel Lodge. Several times we have taken our 42 power telescope to that point, set it up on a tripod, and spent an afternoon studying the hikers as they climbed the last three miles out to South Rim. This telescope is powerful enough to bring out the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter. Focused on the struggling — and often staggering —hikers, it reveals nearly every aspect of their agonies as they inch upward toward the top. No wonder, when hiking up ourselves, we have had to offer aid in so many instances. People go down Grand Canyon who have no conception of the difficulties required to climb back out!