A Grand Challenge

Would a family's hike to the floor of the Grand Canyon fulfill a dream or turn into a sweltering nightmare?

Arizona

Cover Story

February 01, 2004|By SARAH CLAYTON | SARAH CLAYTON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was 107 degrees. The sun was grilling us into the dry earth like cheese on toast in a broiler. Blisters throbbed on our feet, thirst threatened our sanity, the heat-forged cliffs on either side were closing in on us like some sort of macabre medieval torture chamber. And it was heaven.

Ever since we first laid eyes on the Grand Canyon eight years ago, my older two sons, Nicholas, now 20, and Chris, 18, and I had dreamed of hiking into it.

That bizarre landscape of red, beige, mauve and gray rock dropping away from the rim in a tumble of cliffs and terraces, and the thread of a path winding down, beckoned.

We'd all read Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and this looked like the real thing. Indeed, the 14-mile hike from the North Rim to the Colorado River, a vertical drop of one mile, goes through a geologic timeline of rock -- from the "new" 200-million-year-old Kaibab limestone at the top to the almost 2-billion-year-old Vishnu schists in the bottom that are half as old as our planet.

That was almost as amazing as the three of us being together in one place. My sons were well entrenched in their own lives -- college, friends, summer jobs -- but we had been hiking together since they were young and were committed to this dream.

The practical planning had begun almost two years ago when I reserved rooms not only at the Grand Canyon Lodge at the top of the canyon but also at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, the only non-camping-type accommodation below the rim.

Even then, we didn't get the exact dates we wanted. Some 50,000 people a year hike into the canyon. Phantom Ranch can only accommodate 92 a night and nearby Bright Angel Campground 90, so planning is essential, though you can't book any earlier than two years in advance.

The most popular hike into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim. It is eight miles long, and some people go down and back in a day. It is also the only trail that allows mule-riders access to the bottom of the canyon, although, because of repair work on the trail, mule rides have been suspended until at least March 22.

Another popular hike -- and the way I'd do it next time -- is the 21-mile trek from rim to rim. Though only 10 miles from each other as the crow -- actually, the raven -- flies, the north and south rims are 250 miles apart by road. A shuttle bus runs between the two.

My sons and I had chosen the toughest route -- the North Kaibab Trail, a 28-mile round trip with an elevation change of 10,000 feet -- so we could be alone to commune with the twisted trees, sculpted by the extreme environment into works of ancient art; to marvel at a delicate orange columbine blooming from an otherwise featureless rock face; to study the blue, orange and yellow lichen; to see the cliffs rise over us higher and higher as we got lower and lower.

We hit the trail, two miles from the lodge, at 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half later than we'd been advised to start. In the early morning chill of the North Rim, it was impossible to imagine the heat that awaited us almost 6,000 feet and 14 miles down in the Inner Gorge.

The steep, dusty trail followed an old mule-deer path, the first to cut a path into this alien land. We were in high spirits, laughing, joking, stopping every 50 yards or so to gape at yet another heart-stopping view of cliff or canyon, amazed that we were actually here.

We were in good shape, my sons by fact of age and gender, me from a couple of months of regular jogging. Still, I wondered if I, two and a half times their age, was going to be the weak link in our chain.

By the time we'd descended to Roaring Springs, a thunderous outpouring of water that supplies both rims of the canyon, we were almost five miles into our hike. The sun was high, and the more forested environment above had given way to a scrubbier desert climate. And it was getting hot. Probably 100 degrees with little shade.

The trail turned rocky and at one point resembled the trail of my imaginings -- a three-foot wide ledge slicing across a cliff face that dropped precipitously away on the other side. But it was a short section and the only part that gave me pause.

It is advised not to hike between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the hottest part of the day, but we were feeling fine despite the heat and kept going. We had plenty of food and water.

Entering the 'Box'

Roaring Springs was the second water source of the trip so far. However adequate the water is along the trail, rangers still treat some 20 people a day in the summer season for heat exhaustion and several for heat stroke, not to mention the 400 or so search and rescue operations for people who have simply overestimated their physical ability.

This is not a climate to toy with. It is extreme and in its extremity it can kill. Each person should carry at least half a gallon of water and have a water-purifying system -- tablets or filter -- in case the official water stops aren't operating and water from the creek must be used.

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