After graduating from U.S. Army ranger school in October 1968, I swore off camping.
On November 6, 2011, I went on a five-day backpacking hike into and out of the Grand Canyon with my brother. I am now back into the no-camping mode, other than in an RV. But it was an interesting and instructive adventure.
Also, I have linked my military web pages to this because the contrast between the “five-day patrol” we went on in 2011 and the five-day patrols we went on in 1968 in ranger school makes an interesting comment on the military.
When I do my author work in my home office, I often put the TV on as sort of background audio. One day, the Travel Channel was on. It turned out to be a series of three “top-ten countdown to the best” programs. I do not remember the specific titles of the three shows but it was very close to the following:
• Best U.S. National Park
• Best natural wonders in the world
• Best things to see before you die
In each case, the number one place was the Grand Canyon.
I had never been there. When you’re young, you figure “I want to do that someday.” But I was 64 when I saw those Travel shows. At age 64, the thought is more, “I’d better do that before I no longer can.”
When I looked into it, all the guidebooks said you cannot just go to the rim and peer down into it. You have to go to the bottom.
How do you do that? You have three choices:
• backpack hike (backpack means sleep in a tent—which you have to carry along with food, sleeping bag, etc.)
• mule ride (about $1,000 I heard and no backpack because you stay and eat in the Phantom Ranch hotel)
• row boat ride (I did not investigate this much but it sounds expensive and time consuming. It is white water rides with soaking wet, cold passengers and capsized boats common combined with tent camping each night. I do not know how they get out of the canyon at the end of the boat ride. I’m guessing helicopter.)
I rejected mules on the grounds that it is strenuous, somewhat unpleasant, and disconcerting (teetering on cliff edges on narrow trails). I later learned that my brother-in-law rode the mules down to the Phantom Ranch several years ago. He did not care for the downhill ride. I saw the mules during my time in the canyon. I am glad I did not ride them.
So I was essentially left with no choice but backpacking.
I was concerned that I might be physically incapable of doing that. I injured my back weight lifting around 1982. For decades, I had regular episodes of my back throwing me into bed for a few days.
Combining that back with a backpack and walking ten miles down into a canyon then ten miles back up and sleeping on the ground for four nights sounded like a good way to throw my back out and need a $3,000 helicopter rescue.
However, for a number of years, I had not had a back attack. I attribute that to back exercises at the health club, a Sleep Number bed, and a Perfect Chair. And I figured that I would test my back by hiking on flat ground with an empty pack and gradually add more weight until I was carrying the exact pack I would carry in the Canyon. I did that over a four-month period and never had a problem.
I also discussed the hike with my doctor and he said, without hesitation, “Go for it,” or words to that effect.
The Grand Canyon has an extreme climate at certain times of the year and certain locations. In the summer, the bottom of the Canyon is hotter than blazes—like an average high of 108º F in July. And the South Rim—the main tourist area—has an average low of 18º F in January.
I had experience with hot climate dangers in two-a-day football practices in South Jersey when I was in high school, extreme exertion during summer training at West Point when I was cadet there, Army ranger school in Georgia and Florida In August, September, and October, and in Vietnam. The general public does not realize it, but soldiers and football coaches are appropriately quite afraid of heat-exertion injuries. So there was not a snowball’s chance in La Jolla of my going to the Grand Canyon during May to September. Indeed, I have no idea why the bottom of the Canyon is open to backpackers and day hikers (carry water but not tent/sleeping bag/food) in the summer.
The probability of heat-exertion injuries, including fatal and permanent brain damage ones is very high. If you combine the recommended water consumption with the distances between water and the exertion required to go 20 miles round trip from the rim to the bottom and back —including a 4,300 foot change in elevation—means backpackers have to carry a lot of water at two pounds per quart. There comes a point where the amount of water you need to carry is so heavy that the incremental exertion approaches a death spiral.
If you are on the Bright Angel Trail, there is a stream or river along the trail below the three-mile rest house to the Colorado River. You need to filter or boil or medicate the water before you drink it. You can get pure water from a faucet every 1.5 miles from the rim to Indian Gardens campground—which is about half way to the bottom. There is also a River rest house where the Bright Angel Trail meets the Colorado River and it has a pure water faucet. (The water is turned off in colder months at the 1.5 and 3 mile rest houses which it was when I was there in November.)
There are consensus guidelines on how to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related injuries and how to treat them once they occur. Here is a link to one brief prevention article regarding football. I prefer the longer American Football Coaches Association AFCA guidelines. They are published each year, along with a report on the football injuries including heat-related injuries, in the proceedings of the annual AFCA convention in January. The National Athletic Trainers Association prevention guidelines can be seen at http://www.nata.org/health-issues/heat-acclimatization and also in my book Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football book.
Those are heat injury prevention guidelines. Here is an example of heat stroke treatment guidelines: http://firstaid.webmd.com/heat-exhaustion-and-heat-stroke-treatment.
If you compare the Grand Canyon conditions in the summer, required exertion to backpack the trails, recommended water consumption, availability of water and emergency phones on the one hand and the consensus heat injury prevention and treatment guidelines on the other, I believe you will find that your ability to prevent heat stroke when backpacking the Grand canyon in summer is borderline and your ability to treat it there is unacceptable.
One unique thing about the way the U.S. National Park Service operates in the Grand Canyon really pissed me off and should be stopped immediately. When you win the lottery for a camping permit, or apply in a month when everyone wins, they send you a free video for backpackers with your confirmation and permit. It said something I have never before heard from a government agency or other resort operator.
If you get hurt or injured and call for help, there is no law that says we have to help you at all.
They also say things like it’s okay to call us if you have an emergency, but fatigue is not an emergency! I believe there was another situation where they indicated they would be pissed if you called them for it. Their criteria was something like don’t call us unless you are possibly dying or you have a lower body joint injury that would get worse if you tried to keep walking and you are not already where you need to be for the next eight hours or so.
There is some discussion in the backpacking and Grand Canyon literature that, in the case of most people who get in trouble backpacking in rough terrain, it’s their own fault for trying to go too far in one day or not carrying enough water, etc. Why should the taxpayers have to pay to rescue them, especially where the local rescue guys are some small town with a limited budget? Yadda yadda.
On the other hand, the U.S. Coast Guard is primarily a rescue operation. And truth to tell, most of the people they rescue are probably in trouble because they are drunk. But they have a rule along the lines of
We don’t care HOW you got in trouble, only that you are.
Regular ambulance services could also get uppity about having to rescue people in urban and suburban areas who are in trouble because of their own stupidity. I heard an emergency room doctor respond to a question about job security once. He said,
As long as they keep making cars and alcohol and selling them to the same people, I will have a job.
But the Coast Guard and ambulance guys never evidence that sort of attitude. Indeed, I have never seen the people in charge of rescue talk like the Grand Canyon people in my life. It violates the extremely important principle of medicine that laymen should not ever self-diagnose and self-treat possibly serious illnesses or injuries. Laymen are always encouraged to call for medical advice or help if there is any doubt as to whether the injury or illness is serious enough to threaten a life are could, if not treated, lead to permanent disability or a more serious medical condition.
But the Grand Canyon Park Service approach literally encourages laymen to self-diagnose, self-medicate, and bend over backward to avoid angering the grouchy Park Service rescue people or risk incurring a multi-thousand dollar rescue fee. The Grand Canyon National Park Service literature and video discourage backpackers and day hikers from seeking medical advice or help when they think maybe they need it.
This is outrageous and irresponsible, and, in my experience, unique. I have never heard of any responsible persons or organizations talking to potential sick or injured people in this manner. I played tackle football until I was 25. I coached it for 15 seasons. I wrote close to 20 books about coaching football. 40 or more years ago, you had some ignorant, old-school coaches who refused to let players drink enough water and told them to “walk it off” no matter the injury. It appears that legendary coach Vince Lombardi may have died prematurely because, after a lifetime of telling players to be tough and walk it off, he failed to get prompt medical help when he had symptoms of colon cancer and he died of it as a result.
But I never heard an organization whose name began with the words “United States” discourage sick or injured people from seeking professional medical advice or help. This is apparently a consequence of letting the extreme environmentalists have too much influence. They really don’t want anyone hiking in the Canyon other than card-carrying, third-degree vegan, sugar-is-poison extremists. “There is no law that says we have to rescue you” and all that are efforts to discourage politically incorrect citizens from availing themselves of the Grand Canyon National Park that they pay for.
For example, one important treatment step is to immediately call 911. How do you do that in the Grand Canyon? Cell phones don’t work there. My brother had a STOP satellite message sender. It would only work from some locations and not most of the time. I was a communications officer in the Army including my Vietnam tour. I am not expert and technology has moved on since I got out of the Army 39 years ago. (Although, I actually was a member of the first class to graduate from Army Satellite Communications School in 1969.) But most of our tactical radios were FM. FM is line of sight meaning the transmitter antenna has to “see” the receiving antenna. In other words, there must be no blockage of the signal between the two radios. Since the Grand Canyon is a canyon with rock walls, I expect FM would rarely work.
In the III Corps area of South Vietnam, we had a relay station on top of Nui Ba Dinh Mountain, a volcanic cone on the otherwise flat terrain, so we could communicate with Fire Base Wade which was 60 miles away over the horizon from our base in Phu Loi. Seems to me that the National Park Service could put FM antennae on the rim at multiple locations to try to give hikers line-of-sight FM commo opportunities from many of the Canyon’s nooks and crannies.
Alternatively, they could install cell phone antennae strategically for near universal coverage in the Canyon, which would be best because most people now have cell phones. That would probably literally save lives and prevent the brain damage that occurs in heat stroke if adequate medical care is delayed. One expert told me that would be expensive. Fine. Install whatever is most cost-effective but stop letting continue a situation where heat injury prompt treatment guidelines cannot be complied with.
Why are there no cell towers and not likely to be any? I am guessing because the tree huggers would raise hell about the towers marring the pristine scenery. Dead hikers, on the other hand, are either removed fairly promptly by condors, vultures, or helicopters that were too late to save the life. During the Vietnam war, protesters used to chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?” One could ask a similar question of the Sierra Club about dead hikers if they are preventing cell towers from being installed in the Grand Canyon. Let the taxpayers pay to install the needed antennae and the tree huggers pay the extra money needed to camouflage them from view.
Defenders of the current situation would likely say you can call for help from the various emergency “land line” phones on the Bright Angel Trail. Zat so? Let’s think it through. The biggest stretch between emergency phones on Bright Angel is between Indian Garden and the River Rest House. That distance is 3.1 miles. The worst spot to go down with heat stroke would probably be in the Devil’s Corkscrew. If the person who runs to the emergency phone goes uphill to Indian Garden, it will take them about 1.5 hours to get to the phone, maybe a bit less if they go downhill to River Rest House. Then the chopper and EMTs have to come from wherever they come from. I surmise they land at Indian Garden or The River Rest House beach and the EMTs have to go on foot to the victim, another 1.5 hours or so. That means the heat stroke victim will go for about 3 hours without medical treatment and when they get it I am not sure how much the EMTs can do on site. They may have to haul the victim back to the chopper, another 1.5 hours, plus the ride to the nearest place where they can cool the victim down with water immersion. If the creek along Bright Angel Trail is running in summer, the best treatment is probably to immerse the victim in the Creek first. But when I say the creek is alongside the trail I mean only some of the time. In the Devil’s Corkscrew, for example, there is no Creek. It is above and below the Corkscrew.
Then there is heart attack. I have no experience with that but I had to take first aid and CPR repeatedly because I was a football coach for 15 seasons. Heart attacks, among male backpackers going uphill, are fairly common causes of death in the Grand Canyon. Here is a Mayo Clinic blurb on heart attack first aid.
So in the middle of the Devil’s Corkscrew, you need two helpers: One to go to a phone and call for help and the other to give you CPR if your heart stops.
The first point above says not to delay calling 911 more than five minutes. As I said above about heat stroke, worst case, it will take your companion or a Good Samaritan stranger about 1.5 hours to get to the emergency phone.
Hopefully, you have aspirin. I took some to the Canyon and always carry one with me. I have never had a heart attack.
So, again, there are not enough ways or places to call for help in the Grand Canyon. With heat-exertion injuries and heart attacks and perhaps other problems, prompt treatment is crucial and the lack of it may be fatal. Yet it appears in this scenario, it might take hours to get you help if all goes well. Heat-exertion injuries and heart attacks are common in the Canyon. I do not understand how the Park Service can know that, warn about it in its literature, and only have four emergency phones on the whole Bright Angel Trail, fewer on other trails.
This is not a matter of expert opinion. It is simple arithmetic. There are consensus guidelines on how fast you need treatment and there are maps showing where the phones are and the Park Service knows how long it takes to get to those phones from various places on the trails. The guidelines and phone spacing do not permit hikers to comply with treatment guidelines. The likely result is unnecessary deaths or exacerbated injuries. I would be amazed if they have not already occurred.
I noticed the park rangers had small walkie talkie type radios. I am not sure the type, but if they work in the Canyon, all the hikers need them or there needs to be more public emergency phones. If the Grand Canyon were privately owned, these safety precautions would be taken because the company would get sued out of existence if they were not. But you cannot sue the National Park Service so they can, with impunity, do a half-ass job of putting warnings and widely separated emergency phones and when you or a loved one dies or is seriously injured from a predictable or even much warned about danger, you can get your TS card punched and nothing else!
I expect there are multiple solutions that could fix the inability to get help quickly problem. Another might be high frequency radios, more commonly called ham or shortwave radios. They can broadcast around the world because the signal bounces from the ionosphere to the ground and back again. The bad news is the first guy who hears your call for help might be in Bulgaria.
Bottom line, if you hike in the Grand Canyon, I think you need a way to call for help immediately. If you go there, ask around about how to do that and check continuously as you move in the Canyon where the hot spots are that will get an immediate answer. I saw nothing about how to do this in any of the books or Park info I read about the Canyon.
A reader who knows commo sent this:
Communications in the Canyon:
I work in aircraft technologies, mostly in satellite communications, mostly for helicopters. Many of the tour, ranger, and air-medical helicopters you see at the Grand Canyon have a satcom device from me. There are two primary types of satcom: GEO and LEO.
GEO is Geosynchronous (or, Geostationary). This single satellite orbits at about 22,300 miles directly over the Equator with an orbital speed that matches the rotation of the Earth so as to APPEAR to be standing still. Satellite TV is over a GEO satellite.
LEO is Low Earth Orbiting and requires a constellation of (usually) several dozen satellites, such as the GPS satellites that enable our Garmins. Usually, the brand of LEO used is Iridium.
It is unlikely that a GEO satcom device would work well at the bottom of the Grand Canyon where the Bright Angel Campground is. A LEO satcom device such as an Iridium phone would work fine most of the time.
I don't think it would make economic sense to install cell towers in the Grand Canyon. Just rent an Iridium sat-phone for the time you are in the canyon. Alternatively, you could carry an aircraft-frequency portable radio (transceiver). You could communicate with a line-of-sight aircraft and have them relay your situation to the Rangers. Hopefully you would also have a GPS so you knew where you actually were.
- Mike Sullivan
Natick, MA (by the way, he says he had fun in the Canyon)
Sullivan says to have a GPS so you know where you are when you call for help, but that takes us back to the GPS device being able to “see” the satellites it needs to “see” to calculate the location. In order to call for help and get it, you have to know where you are.
There is a pay phone, as opposed to an emergency phone, at Phantom Ranch. I have not used a pay phone in years but I used that one. Back in the day, my family and I had to learn how to avoid being ripped off by pay phones. And we did. But I had forgotten how you do that. Maybe you no longer can. Anyway, the Grand Canyon pay phone ripped me off. The call to my wife in California lasted 7:42 and was around 2 PM and cost $25. I’m guessing the National Park Service would say they do not operate the phone. Maybe so, but they decide who does. If they would simply install a cell tower, that would take care of it. I think we can all guess who opposes that.
Also, I was just talking only about Bright Angel Trail. That is the safest one with the most pure and stream water, emergency phones, and shade. With the other trails, you get almost no water, shade, or emergency phones anywhere.
Of course, as I said, I would never hike in the Canyon in the summer and my brother and I did not. We tried to go in October but did not win in the campsite lottery. We tried again for the second week of November and “won.” Although when we were in the Canyon at our camp sites, we saw that many were empty all night. So apparently everyone who applied for a campsite in the second week of November got one. Why? It’s cold at Indian Garden and higher then.
Our itinerary was to spend 11/6/11 Sunday night at Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim, which we did. Nice people at Xanterra, the company that runs the hotels, but I think Xanterra is Hopi Indian for “out of order.” My shower ran out of hot water after about two minutes. I never use a hair dryer, but it seemed like it might warm me up when I was drying off my tepid not hot shower. The hair dryer did not work. Nor did some of the lamps in the room. The walls and floors were ice cold indicating no insulation. Now there’s a shovel-ready green project for Obama. I don’t know who pays the heat there, but if it’s taxpayers, you need insulation.
It snowed two to four inches of wet snow that night. Here is a photo of it falling and the Bright Angel Lodge lobby Sunday night.
And it kept falling until we started our descent into the Canyon on Monday. We waited until 10:30 AM hoping it would stop and melt. It did not. We finally said to heck with it and began our five days in the Canyon.
This is me at the very start of Bright Angel Trail on Monday 11/7/11. The snow is still falling but it is harder to see. You can see the Bright Angel trail behind me immediately and far across the canyon are some people and switchbacks of the trail.
This is a risk-management teaching moment. When I was preparing for the hike, I asked experts at stores and so on do I need this, do I need that. Often, they said, “Don’t buy that because you probably won’t need it.” Case in point, in this photo you can see my Marmot rain jacket and rain paints. When you backpack, buying the lightest version of everything is big. That jacket weighs 6 ounces; the pants, 4.
Why would I probably not need the pants? Because the average precipitation for the whole month of November in the Canyon is .94 inches. I was only going to be there for five days or 1/6 of the month so my predicted precipitation would be just .94 ÷ 6 = .16 inches.
But then you know a person can drown in a pond with an average depth of two inches. The problem with this attempt at risk management is it makes a classic mistake of not understanding the principle:
Low probability is not a risk-management technique.
Could it rain more than .16 inches when I was in the Canyon? Yes. If it does, would I need rain pants? Yes.
Why would I need rain pants? Why not just tough it out? We didn’t have no stinking rain pants when I was in ranger school—nor any tent, sleeping bag, poncho, or rain coat. And it rained all day when we were out on some patrols. To a great extent, the morons who run ranger school try to make ranger students as miserable as possible, including getting them wet and cold. The ranger school morons were not in charge of my Canyon hike. Unlike ranger school, it was not supposed to be an adventure in masochism.
But the practical problem is although there is little danger of heat stroke in the Canyon in November, there is a danger of hypothermia—your body temperature dropping below 95º. That can kill you. A number of ranger students have died from hypothermia. The most likely way I would have died of hypothermia in November would have been to get wet—like from rain, wet snow, or tripping and falling into one of the streams we crossed repeatedly.
Is that a big deal for a big tough Army ranger? It is a big deal for any human if you have no way to dry out your clothes and/or sleeping bag and have no dry clothes to change into. In November in the Canyon, living in a tent, there was no way that I know of to dry your clothes or sleeping bag. Fires are not allowed there. Probably a park ranger could help you and you would not die, but it would be a serious problem and might foul up the whole trip.
In the event, I bought the rain pants against advice. They were somewhat expensive, but they only added about 4 ounces. Most important, when I walked through the wet snow for hours on Monday, they kept my only pair of hiking pants dry.
You do not buy fire insurance on your house because your house will probably burn down. Probably, it will NOT burn down. You buy fire insurance because your house might burn down. Low probability is not a risk-management technique. Fire insurance IS a risk-management technique. Probability is the province of the actuary—the mathematician who sets the premium or cost of the fire insurance. Probability IS an actuarial technique.
In the context of the hike, rain pants ARE a risk-management technique. Their cost and weight is the “premium. I concluded they were worth it. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them. Turned out, I did need them after all. I also used them for warmth.
Two other things about the photo of me. My Tilley hat brim is turned up and I am wearing a Vietnam-era Army pack on my front.
Don’t turn your hat brim up like that. I did not mean to and did not know I had until I saw the photo a week later. Had it been raining, the upturned brim would have dumped a bunch of water down my back inside the rain hood. Turn it down so it runs off where it hits. A baseball cap would be better in rain but my hat was for rain and sun because I did not know in advance which we would have.
I got the notion that I would like to distribute my pack weight more evenly front to back. Also, a front pack is good for stuff you need frequently like water, snacks, camera, maps. When I researched front packs, they all had straps that went over your shoulders. I already had such straps on my backpack and wanted not to carry any more unnecessary weight like duplicate shoulder straps. I found the Army pack at a gun show. $5 or $10. It worked quite nicely with the help of some aluminum carabiners (the red and blue metal rings). Speaking of Vietnam, the Marmot rain jacket was made in Vietnam.
Below is another photo of the trail. My brother stopped and looked back at where we had come from to take this one. It is about ten minutes after we started. On the left, you can see a brown house with white trim. That is Kolb Studio, now a book store and art gallery. Originally, it was the home of a Grand Canyon photographer. When the above photo of me starting the hike was taken, I was spitting distance from the Studio building which is right at the beginning of the Bright Angel Trail. This picture shows well all the snow and slush underfoot (on the right side of the photo) when we started the five-day hike. Right in the middle of the photo is a square tunnel cut through the cliff. On the way back up five days later, this scene had not changed but it had a whole different meaning: “all (huff) most (puff) done (huff).” This is 6,800 feet altitude. Hard to get enough oxygen if you are exerting yourself. We did not notice the oxygen level on the way down, but I had trouble going more than about 30 steps on the way up at this elevation.
Generally, when you go down the Bright Angel Trail, and many other trails in the Canyon, on one side of you is a cliff going up and on the other is a cliff going down. Sometimes it is not a sheer cliff, but a steep slope perhaps with trees and bushes you could grab if you fall.
Does anyone fall? Yes. Why? They are trying to take a photo and looking through the sight when they are moving or they are horsing around or they try to walk and look at the scenery at the same time. One would think they might also slip because of ice snow or mud. We had all three of those. I did not slip. Nor did my brother, but I did see an old park ranger woman coming down the Trail around the 1.5 mile Rest House on Friday when I was climbing out. Both of her feet went out from under her. Fortunately for her, she fell straight backwards on the trail, not sideways toward the downhill side.
When my wife visited the rim with our two younger sons, the youngest, who I guess was about two or three at the time, kept climbing up on the little stone walls along the edge. My wife was scared to death several times that he was going to fall off the cliff. On the way out Friday, I saw an Australian couple with four-year-old twins going down hill. I thought that was reckless. The kids were running around, in the slush and mud, but I saw them climb out so no harm done.
Here are two color photos of the stone wall my son climbed up on scaring my wife.
As you can see, they are from the same spot on the South Rim. The one on the right was taken Monday, the morning we began our descent. The one of the left was taken Saturday, 11/12/1, the day we awoke in our hotel room, had breakfast at the El Tovar Lodge then headed for the airport to come home.
People rave about how beautiful the Canyon is with all the colors and all that. As the photo on the right shows, there are days and there are days in the Canyon. Sometimes the view is nonexistent. Other times it is near colorless. Depends on the weather.
We really have no good photo showing the Bright Angel Trail. The best angle would probably be an aerial photo from a chopper north of Phantom Ranch. But here is the best photo my brother took of part of Bright Angel Trail:
This is taken from the South Rim Grand Canyon Village area where the hotels are. You can see the Bright Angel Trail winding up the middle of the photo. The area along the trail with the greenery in the middle of the photo is Indian Garden, the campground half way to the bottom of the Canyon. The Trail in the foreground is the part between Indian Gardens and the 3-Mile Rest House, a relatively tame section. North of Indian Gardens, you can see a trail on a flat area. That is the Plateau Point Trail. We intended to do it as a side trip with no pack. It is about 1.5 miles one-way from Indian Gardens. In the event, it was cold and we were not in the mood for three miles of extra unnecessary walking. My brother overheard some people returning from their side trip to Plateau Point. They were complaining about wind and vowed against any more unnecessary walking.
Just beyond and below Plateau Point is the Colorado River. The sunlit area beyond Plateau Point in the photo is the north side of the Colorado River. The part of the Trail that was covered in snow with all the switch backs is to the left of the photo and hard to get a good angle to photograph because it is more or less plunging down the steep cliffs.
So if that trail is not Bright Angel, where is Bright Angel in the picture? Plateau Point Trail comes out of Indian Gardens a bit to the left of the trees. A little to the right is a gash or mini canyon. That was apparently cut by the creek that makes Indian Gardens green. The Bright Angel Trail north of Indian Gardens goes down into that mini canyon. And so did we. It bends way to the right where the infamous Devil’s Corkscrew is.
When you are at the South Rim looking down or Phantom Ranch looking up, the very idea of going from here to there seems preposterous, suicidal, vertical! On Sunday night 11/6/11 when we first arrived at the South Rim the night before we began the hike, we went out to look into the Canyon before it got dark. My comment was,
Holy Shit! We’re going there!? It doesn’t even look possible. Where the hell is the path!
My brother, who had gone down there 40 years ago, pointed to the left, the rather steep wall visible in the photo of me at the start of of the hike.
That’s a cliff! Where are you supposed to walk?
See that thin diagonal line?
That’s part of a switch back.
It looks like a sheer cliff!
You can get a pretty good idea of how impossible it looks by Googling Bright Angel Trail in Google Maps then putting your cursor on satellite in the upper right corner of the screen. A box labeled Earth will appear next to the satellite box. Click on Earth. It’s a pretty good, take-your-breath-away sort of chopper ride into the Canyon. Here, I just did it for you. That took you to Google Map. You still need to put the cursor on the satellite square then click on Earth when it appears next to the satellite box. You can then move through what you see with your arrow cursor as if you were flying above it. There is a faint line in Google Earth to mark Bright Angel Trail. The Trail starts near the intersection of Rowe Well Road and Village Loop Drive in the Earth aerial view. Those street names appear at a particular zoom-in point.
Note that the Colorado River is green in the Google Earth depiction. It was also green when we arrived it at on Tuesday 11/8/11. Here is a photo my brother took on that day.
But on Wednesday, 11/9/11, my brother hiked by himself on the Clear Creek trail to a point where he could look down on the river northeast of Phantom Ranch. When he got back, he said it had turned brown. And indeed, the following day, Thursday 11/1011, when we began our climb back up to Indian Gardens, it was brown. Here is a photo my brother took when we first stepped onto the silver bridge. This is facing south looking at the River Trail which takes you to the right to where the Bright Angel Trail hits the River. Green river on Tuesday (above); brown on Wednesday and this photo on Thursday. Why? Don’t know. Probably some action taken by the people who run the Glen Canyon Dam upriver from the Grand Canyon. Interesting though. That is a raging, 100-yard wide river. How much dye would you have to throw in such a river to change its color overnight?
The near impossible appearance of the descent and climb from the rim and Phantom Ranch is an optical illusion. When you are on the switchbacks, they seem far more reasonable than they look from afar—either from the top or from the bottom. There is a picture of a switchback between the South Rim and the 1.5-Mile Rest House below. It’s no picnic and a bit scary itself, but it no longer looks impossible.
My brother told me I might want to consider buying Yak Trax. They are rubber and steel spring things that fit over the bottom of your boots to keep you from slipping on snow, ice, or mud. I was told I probably would not need them in November in the Canyon. But realizing that low probability is not a risk-management technique, I bought them. BOY, am I glad I did that!
Truth to tell, they also sell them at the rim and and another brand version down in the bottom of the Canyon at Phantom Ranch. Standing there in the snow on Sunday and Monday, I would have wised up had I not brought them from California. My brother also brought his from Fort Collins, CO. Although he is a long-time, avid backpacker who lives at 5,000 feet altitude year round, and he suggested I get them, he had never used them until the Canyon. We needed them both on Monday when we headed down into the Canyon, as you can see in the photos above, and on Friday after we passed the 1.5 Mile Rest House (about 5,000 feet elevation) on the way up and out. I saw no ice per se on Monday but I did see some on Friday.
The genius park ranger whose feet went out from under her on Friday was not wearing any Yak Trax or similar non-slip footwear.
My Yak Trax got damaged on the first day when they got caught on a mushroom-shaped bolt head on one of the logs. A rubber part got ripped apart so the shoes no longer had the double X pattern on the bottom The Indian Garden ranger fixed them with pliers twisting one of the springs around another thereby restoring the pattern. I don’t always wear Yak Trax, but when I do, I prefer dos equis.
So how cold was it supposed to be in the Canyon in the second week of November. I projected the low at Indian Garden would be probably be about 40º the two nights we stayed there. It was colder on the rim, but we stayed in hotel rooms there at night and only experience rim cold while hiking. Cold is not much of a problem when you are hiking with a 25-pound pack. It is when you stop and sleep that it can be a problem.
Initially, I bought a Marmot sleeping bag that was very light and good to 15º. But when I tried to sleep in it in my back yard, it was too hot. Since it was probably going to be 40º, I traded it in for a 30º sleeping bag that was also very light weight (Lafuma Warm ’n Light 800; 1lb 13oz).
So it probably would be 40º, but probability is not a risk-management technique. Uh, exactly how cold could it get at Indian Garden? In other words, what was the record cold there in November? Would you believe minus 6º at the rim. Interpolating that to Indian Garden, half way down to the bottom of the Canyon, I would guess the record low there was about 0º.
We also slept two nights in tents at the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon next to the Phantom Ranch cabins. Temperatures there were not much of a problem in November. The average high there is 70º and the average low, 50º. Roughly speaking, during our five days in the Canyon, all the temperatures at all elevations turned out to be about 10º colder than normal.
So I bought a space blanket and a sleeping bag liner. I had a tiny space blanket in ranger school—thank GOD! A West Point class of ’66 guy had gone to ranger school when we were still cadets and wrote us a lessons learned letter. Among other things, it said to make sure you had a space blanket. I did. Fantastic little invention. It is sort of a thin sheet of hard to tear aluminum foil with a plastic coating. So I bought one at Any Mountain. It only cost about $5. It is supposed to be an emergency shelter for up to two people. Until you open it, it is about the size of a deck of cards and weighs almost nothing. I could put it over my sleeping bag I figured if it got really cold.
The low probability of it getting that cold was not a risk-management technique. The space blanket was a risk-management technique.
The sleeping bag liner is basically a minimal sleeping bag made out of nothing but a cotton sheet. It supposedly added about 10º or 15º of cold protection to the sleeping bag I already had. I mainly used it as a sheet to cover my air mattress and used the sleeping bag opened like a blanket. A liner is a risk-management technique.
My other extreme cold protection was to wear all my clothes and my balaclava inside the sleeping bag. Those, too, are risk-management techniques.
In the event, on Monday night, although it would probably be 40º, it was 33º when we woke up in the morning. And I had to be inside the bag wearing all my clothes and the liner and with my bag zipped all the way up and the draw strings on the neck and head tightened all the way. The air hole in front of my face was about the size of a half-dollar. It was very damp. I suspect that made the cold feel colder than 33º. I did not have to use the space blanket, but I was not far from it.
Ostensibly, a five-day ranger patrol and our five-day hike in the Canyon look like the same thing. In both cases, we had backpacks and went up and down mountains (in the middle, mountain phase of ranger school which takes place in Dahlonega Georgia). A layman would think the main difference was that in ranger, we carried 9.5 pound M-14 rifles, lots of blank ammunition, and once a day, we did some pretend ambush or small hit-and-run attack against American soldiers playing the role of “aggressors.” They were scripted to lose the encounter and they always did.
But the bang-bang stuff was a minor event. The main thing about ranger was we were not allowed to have a rain coat, poncho, tent, sleeping bag,. We were restricted to one C ration meal a day. You are supposed to eat three a day. We were starving and lost 15 to 20 pounds each during the 60-day school. We walked about 10,000 meters a day, that’s 6.2 miles compared to the 4.6 miles we walked each day in the Canyon.
In the Canyon, it is illegal and dangerous to go off the trail. There were signs saying exactly that.
In ranger school, we were not allowed ON the trails—we were supposedly behind enemy lines and you get ambushed if you take trails. Was it dangerous to only walk off the trails in the Dahlonega mountains? Oh, you bet. Especially when you learn we generally did that in the middle of the night, often moonless or rainy nights when there was no light whatsoever. In the Canyon, almost everyone had a head lamp LED flashlight. In ranger, the slightest, most momentary use of a light was something like a capital offense. So how did we see where we were going? We did not. We could not see our hands in front of our face many nights. So how did we avoid walking off cliffs? I guess because the ranger instructors did not let us walk near cliffs or tried to.
In ranger, we were ripped to shreds by the bushes and tree branches. We had a zillion cuts on our hands and faces. Many got infected and swelled up as a result. We were constantly tripping and falling at night accompanied throughout by the crash of the rifles hitting the rocks and curses. We had to carry the rifle in our hands at all times. We had no sling and therefore could not sling it over our shoulders. Plus, we would have have been allowed to do that even if we had a way to do it.
I think the military is generally utterly incompetent. SNAFU is the more common word to describe it. But I figured they were actually pretty good with regard to stuff like boots, backpacks, rain gear, and all that. When I started planning for the Canyon hike, I figured I would replicate my ranger equipment.
Boy, was I mistaken! My brother and the sales people at the mountain stores listened to my ranger equipment list and more or less said it was insane.
• one canteen (qt)—not enough water and it weighs one pound when it’s empty!!! literally World War II surplus that we used in Vietnam
• no tent—have enough sense to get in out of the rain
• no sleeping bag—absolutely required in cold weather—we slept in wet leaves when the temperature was in the 40s and it was raining with no protection except for a space blanket—and most ranger students did not know to buy one so they did not have one
• no raincoat or poncho—sign of weakness to the Army
• one C ration a day—not enough calories, too heavy
• one-size fits all aluminum pack frame—too heavy and each pack must be custom fit and worn for a while to see if it hurts the wearer
• leather boots same as used for parades—not waterproof and smooth sole tread surface
• no pillow—gotta have to avoid stiff neck
In this article, I tell how I trained for this specific hike trying to replicate the pieces of it over four months. That is also how we coach football which I have done in the past. We scout the upcoming opponent and we film our own games and practices. We study each film to find out every little thing we are doing wrong and what specifically the upcoming opponent does. Then we try to recreate the upcoming game as much as possible and try our various ideas about how to attack that particular opponent’s weaknesses. Our second- and third-string players pretend to be the upcoming opponent (called scout teams) and run the opponent’s formations, plays, and defenses.
Occasionally, you read that the military did this for a specific mission, like building a mock-up of the Bin Laden compound and training at it for seven months before killing him. In that case, they should have just bombed him to death, not do that chopper operation. See my article on that. But that specific mission preparation is what the military ought to do all the time. What they actually do almost all the time is a bunch of bullshit generic stuff like calisthenics and reveille runs and weight training and target shooting.
For example, the MAIN claim to fame of the U.S. Navy SEALS is the toughness of the generic basic BUDS training they undergo. As far as I can tell, nothing in that training contributed one iota to the success of the bin Laden mission. The BUDs training’s sole contribution to the SEALS is “boy are we tough” public relations bullshit.
Had I used the military approach to training for the Canyon hike, what would I have done differently?
Run five miles every other morning in step with a bunch of other climbers chanting “I want to live a life of danger. I want to be an airborne ranger.” I would line my boots up precisely under my bed each morning for inspection. I would go for a swim with my hands tied behind my back. I would do a painful number of chin-ups before every meal next to the entrance of the dining room. I would have sadists hang around my house and run full speed and put my pack on every time they unexpectedly yelled, “Hit it!” They would also call me a “maggot” several times each day.
Some morons going to write to me that all the stuff they do in SEAL and ranger and other elite military training is logically, if indirectly, related to the various missions they later are expected to carry out. “You gotta toughen ’em up.” “Are you saying you don’t need discipline to carry out a military mission!?” “Are you saying attention to detail is a bad thing?”
No. I’m just saying that mission-specific training like hiking up Mount Diablo with the same clothes and pack you will use at the Grand Canyon is a far more targeted, efficient, intelligent, productive, specific use of your time than all this general, nice-to-have, miscellaneous exercise, bravado, and mindless regimentation. I am also saying that the New England Patriots will not prepare to play the Green Bay Packers by making the players align their football shoes precisely under their beds. They will not crawl through the snow with their hands and feet tied behind their backs to prepare for that game.
The U.S. military is winning too many Hollywood PR contests and not enough wars. They need to knock off the show-off, “look how tough we are” rituals and body building and all that and spend more time preparing for specific missions by replicating those missions as much as possible in advance. More time learning to speak Pashto; less time building their biceps and polishing their brass. Stop rotating all over the world every year or so and doing all sorts of different jobs. We did not do that during World War II. Focus on the current war and killing Taliban. For my little, non-combat, five-day “patrol” in the Canyon, I did that sort of specific training and you can easily see the benefits and the problems I avoided by doing so.
The fundamental problems with the U.S. military are:
• hidebound bureaucracy
• no concern about war-winning results
• we have become a nation of draft dodgers who are not only afraid to criticize the military no matter how many die without victory or how many trillions are spent producing zero results, but go to the other extreme and praise them as “heroes” for merely putting the uniform on
• incentives all aim at attracting those who would hang around for 20 or more years to get overgenerous pensions and benefits
• total process orientation in the military, not results orientation
• belief by liberals and military that good intentions and occasional progress, although not net progress, are a 100% substitute for results
I have written a bunch of articles about the military. National defense is actually extremely important. But apparently because of Vietnam and the end of the draft and all that, the now-inbred U.S. military has spun farther and farther off the results-oriented, “for the duration” mind set of the World War II draftees who defeated Germany and Japan in about three and a half years in the 1940s.
People kept telling me to have fun and asking afterward if I had fun. I was freaking homeless for five days in freezing or near freezing temperatures the first and last days, eating freeze-dried food and unable to light a fire, and trying to avoid falling off a cliff most of each day. I don’t think fun was ever the idea.
Some would say I lacked the right attitude. No, buddy, you lack the ability to tell fun from misery—which is a pretty large problem. I have long been amused by people who are at some activity that is supposed to be fun and when, say, it pours rain on them at a football game and they are not properly dressed for it, or they need a leather ski mask at the slope, they refuse to admit they are not having fun. Everything is “great!”
Folks, you can tell if you are having fun by whether those who live there all the time are also having fun alongside you. People who live at ski slopes and ski almost every day do not wear leather face masks to ski. On those days, they stay inside. And in the Grand Canyon, there are no park rangers or Phantom Ranch employees sleeping in tents or wearing dirty clothes or eating freeze-dried food or pooping in outhouses or not taking daily showers or packing their trash and garbage and used toilet paper out of the Canyon. If those things were fun, they would do them every day. They NEVER do those things.
If there is an infirmary down near Phantom Ranch, and one would expect there is, it is apparently kept secret from the visitors. I expect if there is an infirmary, the ranger would refer you to it if they knew of a pertinent injury or illness. But keeping it secret probably cause some visitors to assume it does not exist.
All creatures comforts available to the Phantom Ranch employees should also be available to the cabin and campground visitors. If anyone in the inner Canyon can get dry and clean and comfortable, then everyone in the inner Canyon can, and should be allowed to.
There are health and safety implications to all of this. Humans need to be clean and dry, not every minute of the day, but generally. Staying wet and or dirty for extended periods cause disease. In ranger school, we got a bacterial infection called pitted keratolysis. This is a military disease. The Wikipedia discussion of it said,
Fairly common, especially in military where wet shoes/boots are worn for extended period of time without removing/cleaning.
In the event, I did not get this in the Canyon, but I did in Ranger school. The reason for getting it in ranger but not the Canyon appears to be simply that it rained when we were in ranger but not in the Canyon. But neither ranger school nor The Grand Canyon Park Service gave us an opportunity to get dry and clean if we were rained on. Park employees can get clean and dry. Visitors are on their own.
I think it is ironic that liberals, who hate the military, are inflicting military diseases on taxpayers by subjecting them to the same sort of overly tough ordeal that the drill sergeant types in the Army engage in.
Charge appropriate fees where necessary. But do not deny guests the same things employees get. All that is is environmentalist harassment of taxpayers because they really hate human beings and would throw them all off the planet if they could.
People who live in hot countries observed that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Also, only vacationers to the Grand Canyon hike up and down a ten-mile, 4,300-foot vertical trail with a pack of tents and food on their back in the summer sun or sleep in tents at 33º in the winter there. People who work in the Grand Canyon have enough sense to get in out of the rain—and cold and scorching summer sun. They also have enough sense to have washers and dryers and hot water and showers and refrigerators and air-conditioners and microwave ovens—even way down in the bottom of the Canyon.
The contrast between the accommodations for the help and the visitors reminded me of Kona Village in Hawaii. There, we guests/visitors lived in thatched huts which were un-air-conditioned because we were in “paradise.” But if you needed to interact with the employees of Kona Village, you did so through a small hole in a window—like paying your fee at an inner city parking garage.
Why? Because only the guests live in “paradise” that requires no climate control. The employees are inside air-conditioned buildings. They do not want the oppressive, all-natural heat that tourists are incapable of perceiving because they think they are in paradise to penetrate the Kona Village offices.
Memo to visitors to Kona Village: to remain connected to reality, check the temperature and humidity while you are in Kona Village. I believe you will find that it is about the same as Biloxi, Mississippi in August. To be intelligently comfortable, move down the road to the Hyatt Regency where they understand that Hawaii is a visual paradise, but unfortunately rather hot and humid and in need of air-conditioning for both the guests and employees. Similar deal in the Grand Canyon. It is a visual wonder, but the climate, access, and creature comforts for backpackers suck.
The Park visitors who think they are having fun walking 4.6 miles a day through slush and mud and sleeping on the ground in 33º weather are manifesting a psychiatric phenomenon subset of cognitive dissonance known as “effort justification.” They went to a lot of trouble and expense to be there, therefore it IS FUN! Say it with me, guys, WE ARE HAVING FUN!!
The lady at the Bright Angel Lodge check-in counter asked me on Friday after I dragged my cold, tired, homeless ass out of the Canyon and was trying to get my Friday-night heated hotel room with a bath tub and hot water if I had “fun” in the Canyon. “There’s that word again. ‘Fun.’ Have you ever gone down into the Canyon?” “No way,” she said. “Do you plan on ever going down there?” “No way!”
Smart lady. But she is having fun working full-time in the Bright Angel Lodge lobby about 15 feet from the roaring fireplace. And I had fun sitting on the hearth talking to ladies from Scotland and Ireland while waiting for my room to be ready. Trudging through slush two feet away from oblivion was not what I normally consider fun. Although walking up to that check-in counter in the lobby after five days “in the hole” made me positively giddy—literally. I felt like Alex Hailey in Roots when he exulted, “I found you kunta kinte!”
Until I hit the top of Bright Angel Trail at 2:15 PM on Friday 11/11/11, I was never sure I was going to make it out.
I made it.
The Canyon is beautiful. The hike was an intriguing, satisfying challenge to overcome. It was a new experience in part. My brother and I rarely see each other and we had fun reuniting and talking about our parents and life and joking around. The other hikers were all helpful and friendly and nice. So were the employees except for the astonishingly, belligerent, harridan park ranger who slipped going down hill above 1.5 Mile Rest House on Friday around 1PM. My brother was about an hour ahead of me climbing out. When I later made some comment about how nice the employees all were, he said he had passed some grump of a female park ranger going down hill who ignored his friendly greeting.
“Oh, I met her, too,” I said. The four-year-old twin boys were a bit ahead of us and I asked her quietly if she agreed with me that they were a bit young to be running around on a slippery, slush-covered trail with steep cliffs all around. She gave me a tongue-lashing for saying such a thing. I’m guessing she has not reproduced and don’t think we’re not grateful for that. But if true, her lack of children may have caused her to be ignorant of the need to protect the little guys from their own lack of judgment.
I often comment that government employees—most famously the various state DMVs—are maddeningly lazy and numb to the customers. But I also say that if the government employees in question are in “show business,” that is, they sort of perform before audiences of strangers like state college football coaches, park rangers, and White House staffers, they bust their asses. There’s “no business like show business and no people like show people, they smile when they are low.” But apparently, the female Grand Canyon park ranger near the top of Bright Angel Trail around midday on 11/11/11 is impervious to the spiritual incentives of “show business” and she is not “show people.”
Another piece of evidence of the reality of the inner Canyon is that the full-time employees there seem to treat it as a hardship tour. I asked the ranger at Indian Gardens on Monday 11/7/11 if his wife and kids lived in the park ranger station house with him. No. They live in Flagstaff. He works there for some stretch of days—4 to 8 if I recall correctly—then is off that many days. Those kinds of hours are only used where the job in question is very unattractive or a hardship so severe that no one would remain in the job if they had to stay there all the time. It is lighthouse keeperish.
At a lecture on the history of Phantom Ranch we learned that it was previously a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The CCC was a Depression New Deal jobs program. It mainly did stuff in the middle of nowhere. Why there? Because the unions opposed the whole idea of it. So they had to put CCC workers in Godforsaken places where unions did not want jobs. Like the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Or Sitka, Alaska where my CCC member Uncle Frank was killed when a CCC truck backed over him.
Because the Phantom Ranch CCC camp was such a miserable place to be, when one guy got out by getting appendicitis, another 40 guys claimed they, too, had appendicitis. I don’t know if the doctors back then needed to operate to find out whether the guy really did have appendicitis. They might have.
Reflect on that. The first “guests” at Phantom Ranch thought it was so awful that they would rather be cut open by a pre-antibiotic surgeon than stay there. And I don’t think the appendicitis claim was a permanent escape from the Canyon. Just a brief respite. This is spite of the fact that they built basketball courts, volleyball courts, and a swimming pool so the CCC guys would not be bored or unhappy. Perhaps if they had built a girls school there they might have had a smaller appendicitis epidemic.
After you laugh you figure it’s better since then, right?
Nope. The pool and courts are gone. There is nothing there now but some military barracks type lodging (The CCC was modeled after and run by the U.S. Army.) And there is the room where you can buy candy and eat breakfast and supper (if you have reservations) and some flush toilets and showers (only for those who stay in the cabins, not tent people like us) with hot water. In the 1930s, there were large tents and some buildings. I think maybe the CCC built the current buildings. In other words, the reason people are trying to go there now and were trying to get out of there back then is simply a reality-distortion field. Those who are there a lot—employees, CCC—have few romantic illusions about the inner canyon. The hikers and mule riders, like me, are only down there for a few days like the park rangers who rotate in and out.
When the Indian Garden ranger was explaining his on-off days, I asked, “So you have to walk down here for your shift?”
“I GET to walk down here,” he corrected me. So he sees himself as a lucky guy. But I would point out he still only stays down there for a few days at a time. And I assume his wife and kids also GET to walk down there, but they apparently passed up the chance that week.
Contrast that with Denali in Alaska. My wife and I went there in 2005 I think. Denali was sort of an odd, far inland cruise ship and the visitors there were mostly coming in buses operated by the cruise ships. The employees were largely the sort of young men and women you see in the crews of cruise ships—no two from the same country and few from the U.S. It seemed like they had landed a great summer job and they were thrilled to be there. Denali is another remote location, but it is reasonably enjoyable, if only for a summer, not a lifetime. What’s the difference? Denali has roads, cars, trucks, stores, hotels, restaurants, gift shops, entertainment, unattached similar age men and women. It is not an ascetic monastery for the worship of trees and “take your damned pictures and get out‚” environmental movement park operation. Denali is like Grand Canyon Village up on top of the South Rim.
I compared Phantom Ranch to Whistler-Blackcomb in the off-season. Another valid comparison would be a cruise ship. Denali and Whistler are like cruise ships. They are all alone on the ocean and out of sight of not only land but usually also other ships. So why do people enjoy that isolation and great view but not, if they think about it, Indian Gardens and Bright Angel Camp grounds? Because a cruise ship has good food, comfortable cabins, climate-controlled indoor public areas, entertainment. You drive up to the dock.
The Bright Angel and Indian Gardens camp grounds, if they were cruise ships, would be barges where you could pitch your tent on the outdoor deck. They would also have picnic tables, porta potties on deck, and a hose bib offering cold water. And the road to take you to the dock where you got on the barge would end ten miles from the dock and you would have to walk the rest of the way carrying your tent, food, etc. Finally, it would only cruise to Newfoundland and equatorial Africa.
The three Rest Houses on Bright Angel Trail are more like rest carports. They are a roof held up by stone pillars. There are no doors or windows on the “house.” The toilets are near the rest houses and are outhouses—Porta Potties that are not portable. Nowadays, in my area, the port potties at street fairs and such have a sink with soap and water so you can wash your hands. Not in the Grand Canyon. The federal government may have made that law requiring hand-washing facilities, but they do not comply with it. There was some sort of hand sanitizer on the wall in one outhouse in the Canyon, but it was out of order.
We did meet an interesting group of women in the 3-mile rest to use on our way down. They were on the way up. They were in their fifties I think. One was the 16-year-old daughter of another. That mom was sort of celebrating surviving serious brain surgery a year before. Another was a breast cancer surgery survivor. Half the group knew the other half because two of them had met on another hike as strangers some time before.
Until I met those guys, I thought I was due some extra credit for making this hike at age 65. Ha!
Turns out, backpacking is predominantly a senior activity. I should have gotten a clue when the American Alpine Club told me I was too young to get their senior discount. “I’m 65!” “You have to be at least 66 to get our senior discount.” “65 is not a senior in a mountain climbing club?!” Nope.
I joined the Alpine Club to get their rescue insurance.
My brother who does this a lot says most backpackers he sees on the trails are seniors. They seemed to be all ages including families with children around nine or older. But I would have to say the mode (largest category) seemed to be 50s, 60s and some 70s.
People who knew me and who were not hikers were impressed I was doing it at 65, but not the people on the trail. Too many of them were my age or older.
Before this, I thought backpacking was the province of liberals in their twenties and thirties.
The Park propaganda says the Bright Angel Trail is a “well-maintained trail.”
Compared to what!? It is a piece of crap by any objective standards. I will give them credit for creating and maintaining it under very difficult circumstances. But you gotta be kidding me to call it well-maintained.”
Here is a photo of it my brother took on the first day. This stretch is in the vicinity of the 1.5 mile rest house near the rim.
As you can see, it is a freaking mess. It was all mud and loose rocks and rocks that are not loose. About every yard in many spots, there is a log nailed to the ground with rebar. These are apparently water dams to prevent the water from running down the trail and washing it out. But the effect is to have a puddle behind each log. If it gets cold enough, the puddles freeze.
In the photo above, you can see that the ground around the puddles is damp but still solid. But on the way back up five days later, these stretches of the trail were four-inch deep sloppy mud from one side of the trail to the other. There was no non-mud place to step. Again, we were wearing Yak Trax as we went through this stuff but some people were not.
I also had waterproof boots. (The box says Merrell J50219 Col Mid Waterproof Bungee Cord.) Originally, I was told I probably would not need waterproof boots. But low probability is not a risk-management technique. Thank GOD I had the waterproof boots! I originally wondered why I could not just wear my everyday Pegasus 27s—street sneakers. Ha! F’get about it. I would have gotten trench foot. After I got above the muddy section, I talked a number of day hikers out of going down Bright Angel on Friday. I had one leg crossed over the over as I was sitting on a rock and pointed to my Yax Trax covered with soupy mud and said about 200 yards below here, the entire trail is like this for a long stretch. You cannot avoid it and the street shoes you are wearing will not be able to handle the mud. Most turned back.
Why did the Trail get far worse between Monday and Friday? It never got warm, never dried out, and the mules go through here every day on the way to the bottom. As narrow as this trail is, you share it with the mules. They poop and urinate on it and you have to give them the right of way when they pass you. I suspect that if you have a puddle and semi-solid damp ground next to the puddle, after a week of mules tromping through it, the whole trail becomes soupy, deep mud.
My family used to visit the West Virginia farm where my dad grew up. There was a barn yard and animal pens. The farmers put on high rubber boots to go into the barnyard or animal pens. The reason was the animal’s hooves and eating and potty habits turned the ground into a wet slop of mud, manure, urine, and animal feed that ended up on the ground instead of in the stomachs of the animals. Bright Angel Trail is not that bad, but it has most of the same ingredients I just described only the percentages of dirt and rain are greater and the percentages of urine and manure are lesser.
Just understand that the Bright Angel Trail ain’t Disneyland. And that Trail is sure as heck no place to walk without waterproof boots.
A mule is half donkey and half horse but they show no evidence of having a small ancestor like a donkey. They are all as big as horses.
A friend of mine owns a number of McDonalds restaurants. When he owned two, he was being sued by about 60 people at any given time; more now. He fought every suit. He said he won the food poisoning ones but did not do so well against the slip-and-fall con men. A local black church taught classes on how to sue stores for slip and fall. A judge said that fact was inadmissible.
Politically, the liberal tree huggers who decide how the inner canyon is run are allies of the ambulance-chaser lawyers—the guys who file the slip-and-fall lawsuits. Odd when you walk the Bright Angel Trail. The most irresponsible operator of a place to walk on earth is probably the Grand Canyon Park Service.
Outside of the Grand Canyon National Park, God forbid a tree root might raise a slab of sidewall concrete a half inch. The owner of the sidewalk is expected to immediately paint it bright yellow and have it ground down to being even with the adjacent slab.
I encountered no trail that even remotely resembled Bright Angel in terms of trip and fall hazards on Mount Diablo or Angel in my training nor do I recall any such trail in my life except being OFF the trail in the middle of the night in the mountains of Dahlonega Georgia in ranger school. I have not been a camper but I have had many occasions in 65 years to day hike on trails in parks all over America. Bright Angel is the most preposterous trail surface I have ever seen.
Do they do such things on Bright Angel Trail? Ha! NO. There, the federal government is the mother of all hypocrites. Do as I say, not as I do.
You really need instruction on how to walk on most of Bright Angel Trail. When you step there, your foot can land in about an 18 inch by 24 inch area. For the vast majority of your steps on that Trail, that three-square-foot area will contain outcroppings of buried rocks, a log, loose rocks, loose stones, and, when conditions are wet, a puddle, mud, or ice.
Initially, I just stepped wherever. Then my ankle joints yelled up to me, “What in the hell are you doing with us!?”
Every time I took a step, my ankle would twist to the front, back or side because I was on a log or rocks or outcropping that was not flat. The muscles, ligaments, and tendons on the stretched side would fire a blast of pain messages to my brain. So I quickly figured out that on the Bright Angel Trail, one must find a flat space big enough for a whole foot for the next step. Generally you could find such a place although it took a few seconds and it often required a change of direction at hip level to get to it.
Initially, where there were log steps, I always stepped on the log. Not a good idea. Think about it. You put the ball of your foot on the log, as you do on stairs when climbing them. That requires the muscles and tendons of your ankle joint to lock in a 90º position.
There are about 2,000 normal steps to go a mile. I’m guessing 3,000 to go downhill in the Canyon and 4,000 to go up hill there. Why? You have to take shorter steps because you must find a flat place big enough for your foot. The distance between Indian Garden and the South Rim is about five miles. If you are doing down, that means 5 miles x 3,000 steps per mile = 15,000 steps. If you step on a log every other step, that’s locking your ankle 7,500 times a day on the way down and 5 x 4,000 = 20,000 or 10,000 locked ankles a day going uphill.
Not gonna happen. So you do not step on the log. You step over it. By the way, we learned in ranger school to do the same for a different reason. Bees often build hives in fallen trees in the forest. If you step on their tree, they will attack you. Step over it, and they will not. I saw no mention of bees in the Canyon.
The whole purpose of being in the Canyon is scenery. But under no circumstances should you ever try to look at the scenery while you are moving. If you want to sight-see, come to a full and complete stop then look around. You cannot look while moving because you may step off the cliff side of the Trail or walk off the end of a switchback. Never move while looking through the viewfinder of a camera. Come to a full and complete stop, then look through the camera.
Best case if you step without looking, you will twist your ankle because you stepped on something smaller than your foot.
When moving, keep your eyes on the ground in front of you at all times. Take a step, then find another flat place to put your whole other foot, then put your other foot there. Repeat 15,000 to 20,000 times a day, if you do as we did and camp overnight at Indian Gardens on the way down and the way back up. If you are going to walk all the way to Phantom Ranch on one day and all the way out on another, make that 30,000 to 40,000 times.
You can lock your ankle dozens of time a day to go up and down stairs, but don’t try to do it 7,500 to 10,000 times a day. And I would not recommend twisting your ankle even once a day. Injuring your ankle joint in the Grand Canyon will probably force you to call for a helicopter rescue. If they charge you, I understand its about $3,000. How do you avoid twisting your ankle every step all day? Keep your eyes on the ground and find a flat place to put your foot for every step. In that three square feet where you could step in front of you, there is typically one, maybe two, places to step. If you step without looking, about 90% chance you will twist your ankle. If you move too fast to find the flat spot before you put your foot down, you will twist your ankle.
About 90% of Bright Angel Trail appears to be deliberately strewn with the sort of trip-and-fall hazards that the ambulance chasers have wet dreams about. There are more real trip-and-fall hazards in every 36 inches of the Bright Angel Trail than in all the McDonalds in the world. It is really quite astonishing. Watch where you are going.
You think I am exaggerating? Happy trails to you.
I got a twinge in my right knee going down hill the first day and twisted my left ankle that day. Then I wised up and had no more problems. The first-day problems were not limiting, only a shot of pain from the joint in question to tell me “Don’t do that again.”
Another favorite federal law of the ambulance chasers and liberals is the Americans with Disabilities Act. It says roughly speaking that public buildings have to make reasonable steps to accommodate the handicapped. I can report without fear of contradiction that neither the Bright Angel Trail nor Indian Gardens nor Phantom Ranch has made the slightest effort to accommodate the handicapped. (Except for a handicapped rest room stall that one camper said he saw down there. Morons) It is like a set built for some TV series set in the 1950s. There are no ramps except for the trail, which is not what the ADA has in mind when it comes to ramps.
There is no sign that says
Cripples need not apply
But it is implicit in the way the Grand Canyon is operated.
When our first son was born in 1981, my wife and I had to take Lamaze classes. As they progressed, I began asking my friends, “Were you aware that the liberals now own childbirth?” The LaMaze classes were an embarrassingly large dose of lefty political indoctrination and nutty theories. At one point our instructor seriously told us that many believe childbirth should take place under water on the theory that the baby is in amniotic fluid and coming out into the air cold turkey might be too shocking a transition.
My feeling about that and all the other similar nonsense was, “You’re liable to drown the newborn you moron. Having the baby born without water is not an untested theory. It has only been done that way for a few billion babies. And it appears that the baby was designed for the amniotic fluid to air transition at the factory.
This sort of politically-correct thinking is what killed the little boy whose parents gave him Odwalla apple juice. Why Odwalla? It was all natural and no chemicals and not even any pasteurization.
Pasteurization!? You mean raising the temperature of liquids to be consumed by humans above 140º so all bacteria and viruses in them are killed? The process invented by Frenchman Louis Pasteur? You oppose that as unnatural? I thought you guys believed the French could do no wrong. Lamaze was French.
What happened to the kid? He died of natural causes, he said ironically—drinking apple juice infested with bacteria that would have been killed by pasteurization. Nowadays, Odwalla pasteurizes their juices, but let me guess, it has to be done by barefoot virgins under a full moon to pander to their all-natural kook market segment.
The mind set of the U.S. Park Service regarding issues relating to the health and safety of backpackers in the inner Canyon is the same as that of Odwalla when they did not pasteurize their juice: pander to mindless, anti-modern-health-practices ignoramuses. Odwalla did it for profit. The implicit no pasteurization marketing was “Don’t buy Welch’s grape juice. It’s pasteurized. Buy ours instead.” The Park Service has you carrying human feces in your pack, and all the other “not recommended by your doctor stuff,” apparently to pander to mindless, anti-modern-health-practices ignoramuses who think living like the Indians before the the white man came, or better yet, like the animals (animals don’t use toilet paper), is better than modern health and safety prevention and treatment practices.
Old is better than new
Foreign is better than American.
Natural is better than man-made
Native American is better than American.
This is nonsense, mostly self-loathing which is a psychiatric defect, yet it appears to be the underlying thought process behind not pasteurizing Odwalla apple juice in the past and current policies discouraging camping in the Grand Canyon. I think I heard the official rationale at a talk about the history of Phantom Ranch down at Phantom Ranch. There used to be no restrictions on camping, and there were too many campers. So they had to place limits, to ration, a favorite government/politician solution to scarcity. Better they should use economics, which is the study of the allocation of scarce resources.
Well, rationing and making camping more unpleasant is one response, albeit a dumb typical government, environmentalist one. The fact is there are a hell of a lot more people in Yosemite Valley in my state of California and, environmentalists notwithstanding, because they are impossible to satisfy unless you make all the national Parks off limits to humans, the visitors to the Yosemite Valley are generally very glad they did and want to go back. You can also go there at less crowded times as we Californians typically do.
The population of the U.S. has doubled since when Phantom Ranch was “too crowded” in the 1960s. A more appropriate response would be to figure out how you can let more people enjoy the park, including the inner Canyon, without destroying the natural beauty that is the reason they go there. At ski resorts like Stowe, VT and Whistler, Canada, which are privately owned, they are at least as concerned about overcrowding and destroying the natural beauty as the bureaucrats at the National Park Service. Yet they allow far more people to visit their inner venues than the Park Service does in the Inner Canyon.
I discussed their methods elsewhere in this article—gondolas and such. And they allow a far wider variety of people to see those inner venues, not just the 1% in the best shape and willing to endure a masochistic ordeal for the privilege. They also use pricing. Gondolas and hotels cost money. So they charge enough for each to pay for it plus return on capital and incentive to bother and all that. The prices of the Gondolas and the hotel room rates do, indeed, reduce usage a bit, but that is the choice of the visitors. Maybe they would rather spend the money on a Princess Cruise. There’s no accounting for taste. On the other hand, the ability to make a profit from helping people see natural wonders causes the operators to try to handle as many people as efficiently as possible without damaging the star of the show: the canyon or mountains or whatever. They certainly do not deliberately jerk people around or ration the number of visitors the way the Grand Canyon does backpackers.
The federal government, on the other hand, whines constantly about the budget and uses it as an excuse for all their bad management. So rent the Bright Angel Trail to a private concession. The original Bright Angel Trail was privately run and charged a toll. People are disgusted by the very idea, but those same people admit that socialism doesn’t work and take their kids to Disneyworld—which charges a huge toll. Places like Disneyworld have, at times, gotten too crowded. Some of their lines were too long. But they came up with intelligent solutions like letting you reserve a time to go on Pirates of the Caribbean. The federal government would have used the original Disney solution: line corrals, and never figured out the better way because the government has no incentive to do so, plus they get overly influenced by kooks, who too often get their way because their mental defects come with excessive zeal—the trump card of politics.
The liberals not only took over childbirth, they have taken over the Grand Canyon.
Only 1% of visitors to the Canyon go to the bottom. Why? Because the liberals make it an ordeal to get there. Gives new meaning to the “We are the 99%” slogan at the Occupy protests. They should occupy the Grand Canyon. Take your tents. You’ll need them.
The liberals expect 100% of the taxpayers to pay for the Canyon. My Irish grand-mom and her relatives used to tell us how they used to see signs saying “Help wanted NO Irish Need Apply” and “Irish and Dogs Keep off the Grass” in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. They could put a sign on the Grand Canyon saying,
See the inner Grand Canyon
No one unable or unwilling or unable to endure a 20-mile forced march and sleep on the ground need apply
Taxpayers are allowed to pay for the Canyon, they just can’t see the bottom of it unless they become tree huggers for at least two days. Perhaps the most egregious requirement that shows the tree huggers coup d’etat is the rule that if you poop other than at a rest house outhouse or in the flush toilets at Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground, you have to do it in a hole 8 inches deep, at least 70 feet off the trail (an impossible requirement at many spots on the cliff side trail), cover the poop with dirt afterward, AND PACK THE USED TOILET PAPER OUT IN A ZIPLOC BAG!
Why not bury the toilet paper with the poop? If there is anything that is man-made and biodegradable, it is toilet paper. The only reason I can think of is that the tree huggers are nuts and as always with movements, have pushed their agenda to the point where it becomes ridiculous. It almost sounds like they are punishing people for the unavoidable human need to poop. If the mules were BYO, they would probably demand that the mule owners pack their mule manure out. The federal government, on the other hand, just leaves it on the trail.
I have a solution. It appears obvious that the reason for the “no-burying toilet paper with the poop” rule is that the environmentalists would be apoplectic should someone be able to spot a speck of unnaturally white color in the Canyon. Liberals hate white rice, white sugar, white bread. I once saw a news story about a liberal government official who got in trouble for saying, “Don’t eat anything white.”
Okay! Okay! we hear you. You hate white. So let’s do this: We’ll sell Grand Canyon Sierra Club approved toilet paper at the rim and in the Phantom Ranch Cantina. You have to pack the used white toilet paper out of the canyon in a Ziploc bag, but if you use Grand Canyon Sierra Club Approved toilet paper, you can bury it with the poop. That’s because it will be desert-camouflage colored. If it should accidentally become visible because of erosion, wind, or animals digging it up, you won’t be able to see it. Maybe we could sell a different color toilet paper for each altitude because the Canyon is like a layer cake and the different layers are different colors ranging from the Vishnu Schist at the bottom to the red layer near the top. This way we are acknowledging that schist happens (Put that on a T-Shirt—proceeds to the Sierra Club, a group that is full of schist lovers—we could even make some sort of hat like the cheesehead worn by Packers fans so the Sierra Clubbers could proudly show everyone that they are schist heads—but I digress). We are trying to blend our evil human activities into the background. Or we could make it poop-colored toilet paper. If the cactus huggers do not mind seeing the poop, then they should not notice poop-colored toilet paper that might become visible.
It’s win-win. I’m a uniter not a divider.
Fortunately for my brother and me, nature never called when we were between rest house outhouses. I carried toilet paper in case because I had needed a bathroom on one of my training climbs and barely made it to the mountaintop rest room. Indeed, the men’s room was out of order and I went into the ladies room without knocking. No time. The only one in there was another guy who apologized to me for being in the ladies room.
Let’s step back and look at what the Grand Canyon really is then contrast how normal people with common sense would run it to the way the current politically correct Park Service is running it.
The Grand Canyon is a ski resort that is always out of season. My wife and I visited Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains in Canada in August 2010. The 2010 Winter Olympics were held there. Oddly, Whistler is some sort of dirt bike Mecca in the off-season. Ignore that for the purposes of this discussion.
Why go to Whistler other than during the ski season? It is a beautiful, scenic mountain area. We took a nice train to get there from Vancouver (there is a train from Williams, AZ to Grand Canyon Village that we did not take) and flew back in a float plane to Coal Harbor in Vancouver where we literally walked from the plane at its dock to our Hotel the Fairmount Pacific Rim, about 50 yards away.
At Whistler, we took gondolas up to the top of one mountain then took another cable car across to the other main mountain (peak2peak) then took a ski lift down to the hotel area. Very nice.
We saw all the sights and never had to walk a great distance, carry a backpack, risk a dangerous fall, suffer from inclement outdoor cold or heat, use an outhouse, sleep on the ground, cook our own freeze-dried food, wear dirty clothes, or do without bathing.
Whistler Mountain in summer is essentially the Grand Canyon year round. Lots of spectacular, natural, vertical scenery that is worth seeing. If the same crowd that has gotten control of the Grand Canyon ran Whistler Mountain it would be like this:
• the only ways to get to Whistler summit would be walking, mule riding, or white water rafting 10 miles each way
• the cable cars, hotels, rest rooms, restaurants on the mountain tops, ski patrol, gift shops, and all that would be moved back to the 10-miles away point
• all roads and buildings closer than 10 miles from the summit would be wiped off the face of the earth except for tiny, old Army barracks-like “hotel” with bunk beds and a 15-month waiting list on top of the mountain
• the only flush toilets, showers, and hot water would be in the barracks on top of the summit and off limits to those staying in tents because they could not get room reservations
• the only restaurant would be on top of the mountain, would have no menu, serve middle school cafeteria quality food, charge high prices, open only a few hours a day for breakfast and dinner, and require reservations four months in advance
• the only modern way to get within 10 miles of the top of the mountain would be by helicopter and that would only be available for Park business and emergencies
What America should do is operate the Grand Canyon inner canyon the way many ski resorts in the off-season and other mountain scenic attractions are operated when there is no government control. Install the cable cars/gondolas so everyone who wants to can go from the South Rim to the Phantom Ranch area. Upgrade the Phantom Ranch hotel to at least Hampton Inn standards. Keep it visually unobtrusive, which is easy in the Grand Canyon because there are a zillion nooks and crannies—canyons within canyons—where it could be hidden. Charge rates that pay for it all and that let people reserve rooms with normal reservation lead times. Let those who wish still go in by mule, boat and on foot, but do not limit a visit to our best national park inner wonders only to the 1% granola-eating, Odwalla-drinking elite. That would greatly reduce the traffic on the trail and adverse effect on it.
The cable car trip would probably be affordable to almost everyone. Stowe, VT charges $20 round trip for seniors. The tree huggers can give “grants” or “scholarships” out of their own pockets to the “poor.” The rest of us will save up to go as my wife and I did in Whistler. Off-season would be a lot cheaper.
I attended a lecture about the history of the Phantom Ranch. They actually used to have a cable car to take people across the Colorado River. That was when private enterprise and common sense prevailed.
Using tree-hugger logic, I would point out that a cable car has almost no footprint per thousand people carried. It is virtually silent, has no emissions (unlike mules), is hard to see (hell, the liberals could hire experts to camouflage it or make it transparent), and doesn’t require a trail to be cut or maintained.
I half-jokingly suggest that Bright Angel Trail be replaced by a combination hang glider-hot air balloon concession. Or the world’s most exciting zip line combined with a hot-air balloon (zip lines, like hang gliders, only go one way). Of course, I wonder if hot air balloons would work at the bottom of the canyon in the summer. All the air there is hot then.
I wondered what the hell surveyors found the place to put the Bright Angel Trail, which looks like a maze if you look at it on Google Earth—or if you just walk on it. A lecture on Phantom Ranch answered that. No surveyors.
Well, who then, Martians? Vikings?
Animals. Mule deer and bighorn sheep I guess. For millions of years they wandered up and down trying every possible way. By trial and error they found the best way, such as it is, and remembered and used it enough to make it visible to humans when they came along.
At Indian Gardens, you get a picnic table with a carport over it, a steel post to hang your packs on to keep some animals away from them, 2 large military ammo cans to put all your food, toothpaste, and anything else that smells or looks like food to animals who are used to humans, and some flat ground on which to erect your tents. There used to be outhouses nearby, but they tore them down to put up new ones which they were working on when we were there. We had to use an outhouse on the Bright Angel Trail about a ten-minute one-way walk from our camp site.
There is also a hose bib at Indian Garden, that is, a faucet like you have on the outside of your house for a garden hose. Exactly like that.
You can probably find many photos of Indian Garden on the Internet.
On Tuesday, 11/8/11, after surviving the very cold temperatures, my brother ate freeze-dried scrambled eggs and bacon. I had tried that before I went to Arizona and found it too salty. I had teriyaki beef jerky and oreos for breakfast—thereby hitting two of the major food groups. Here is a photo of me wearing my balaclava and rain jacket and pants (for sleeping warmth) and pulling my sleeping bag out of my tent. The tent is a Big Agnes one-man Fly Creek UL-1 made in China. I have the rain fly cover on it for warmth and wind stopping more than rain protection.
UL means ultra light. It weighs 1 lb 14 ounces. I cannot complain about it, but I must say that lying in it at 2:00 AM unable to sleep and staring up at the tiny tent in the dark (there was always a moon at night when we were in the canyon and it was full on Thursday the 10th), I found it a bit claustrophobic and depressing. Every night, that happened, and I had to get up and go for a walk. I went to the out house, a long walk at Indian Gardens, and by the time I got back and stared at the moon for awhile, I was ready to get back in the tent and try to sleep.
One problem with the tent. It was cold out. I was 98º. My breath, like everyone else’s, contains a lot of water vapor—apologies to Al Gore for that. Water vapor is the number one greenhouse gas. His main bogeyman, CO2, is an infinitesimal fraction of water vapor in the atmosphere. But you can’t make much money selling water vapor credits.
When you or I exhale in a tent in cold weather, the water vapor rises to the tent ceiling. When it comes in contact with the cold tent fabric, the water vapor condenses into visible water droplets on the ceiling or inside of the top of the tent. If you bump the tent, or the droplets get too big, they fall on you or your sleeping bag. In other words, on a cold, clear-sky night, it rains inside your tent.
The same thing would happen in your house attic but for a couple of mandatory building code requirements. You now need insulation in the floor of your attic in most cases. Also, there are ventilation openings at the top and bottom of the attic. In our house, they are under the eves near the floor of the attic and eyebrow vents on the top of the roof on the back side away from the street. Those three requirements try to keep the temperature in the attic the same as the temperature on the outside of the roof. That keeps any moisture in the house from condensing into internal rain in your attic ceiling.
My brother said there are bigger tents that have that house roof sort of venting to prevent this problem. If there is a solution that does not weigh a lot, I would like to know what it is. We had to be very careful when taking the tent down in the morning to keep from knocking the water loose. Take your sleeping bag and clothing out before you jostle the rain fly or tent. It is often hard to get your clothes or sleeping bag dry in cold weather so you had better prevent them from getting wet to begin with. When we could, I had to hang my rain fly and tent up to dry during the day.
One reader said some tents have the house roof type arrangement in that the rain fly is above the tent from and the tent is below it. Mine was like that. You can see in the photo above that the rain fly is away from the tent itself along the bottom, like the eve vents in a house. The tent, on the other hand, is really a pyramid-shaped closed bag with the bottom of the pyramid on the left in the photo above and the top of the pyramid on the right. It is not just a pup tent like the Army had which is not much more than two rectangles joined along the top. But the tent I had and that most buy today, is not really a tent, it is mostly just a mosquito net. So although the drops of water are on inside of the fly, not the tent, you are lying there looking at them through the net.
The purpose of the rain fly is to stop falling water that is not stopped by a net (and to give you privacy and keep you from knowing what you do not want to know about wild animals who are a few inches away from your head in the dark). I think the fly above and tent below the frame is a design that makes it better, but it leaves you with a very wet fly and tent in cold, rainless weather. I was successful at not bumping the interior rain drops such that they came down on me and at peeling the fly off very carefully when we broke camp, but the situation is such that cold weather camping tents need more thought and work. Maybe they need eyebrow vents on top. A lot of umbrellas over tables at sidewalk cafes have that. Indeed, I just Googled eyebrow vent to get you a photo of one on a house and found this link to Big Agness, my tent maker, advertising their new tent with eyebrow vents.
Jesus, guys! I just got here and took one measly camping trip. How can I be that close to the cutting edge of the tent design?
Sleeping in a tent when you are not used to it is difficult. In Army ranger school none of us had the slightest difficulty sleeping. Indeed, we had trouble staying awake. I fell asleep standing up, which I previously would not have believed was possible. But it happened to everyone in Ranger school.
I saw guys there fall asleep walking. How can I be sure? They were supposed to follow the luminous tape on the back of my hat. Many nights, you could see absolutely nothing else because it was raining and no moon. At times, the column would stop, and the guy behind me would walk right into my back. I did not walk into the back of the guy in front of me because I was still awake and could see that his tape stopped.
We had no tents or sleeping bags in ranger. We just fell asleep on the ground in our clothes. Sometimes, I curled up in the fetal position in my space blanket.
But I never got a good night’s sleep in the tent. Others told me they have the same problem. But I worked on it. I did not relish the thought of not getting any sleep for four nights before my ascent up that final slushy, high altitude, steep trail.
I pitched my tent and tried to sleep in my back yard probably about four or five times. I did the air mattress (Thermarest neo air) and sleeping bag and pillow in my bedroom several times. I went camping one night with my son on Mount Diablo, a CA state park in the tent.
Each time, I tried at least one new approach and made some progress.
I bought a camping pillow. No good. Felt like a slightly deflated Rugby ball. My normal pillow is a memory foam sort of flat thing that is about 5 inches thick so my neck is perpendicular to my shoulders when I lay on my side. My wife had another such pillow she did not use. It was 45 ounces. Too heavy. But also too big.
I put it in our office paper cutter and cut off one third of it. Now it’s 15 ounces. And big enough to sleep on in a one-man tent. I had to make it thicker to get up to 5 inches thick. I did that by putting stuff I was not using during the night under the pillow and using a shirt or towel as a pillow case. The stack of stuff and the pillow added up to five inches thick and worked great. When I got back from the Canyon, I put the part of the pillow I cut off back in the snug zippered case it came from and you cannot feel it was cut when you use that now restored 45-ounce pillow.
I tried some over-the-counter sleeping pills. Melatonin seemed to help me sleep, but I did not like it overall. It made me have weird nightmares and seemed to make me depressed. On balance, I decided I was better off without it.
I needed the cotton liner between me and the air mattress and between me and the sleeping bag, both of which were not meant to be next to skin.
Ultimately, I used the liner as a sheet on the air mattress as you would in a bed and I used the sleeping bag like a blanket open rather than zipped up with me inside it, except for Monday night when it was too cold to be anywhere other than zipped up inside it. Essentially, my ability to sleep in the tent was dependent on how much I could trick my body into thinking I was in my bed at home. The pillow and liner-as-sheet and bag-as-blanket routine seemed to accomplish that. I got pretty good sleep the last three nights, although not as good as at home.
If you have to sleep in a tent, You’d better practice and experiment beforehand.
The photo below is me resting after we got through the Devil’s Corkscrew on Tuesday. It looks like I am sunning myself and I sort of was. But it was only in the low 60s. I was in direct sun which was nice and had been hiking for about two hours so I was hot from the hike.
You can see the above-mentioned boots. The socks are black Smart Wool. I was not aware of this, but your socks need to be wool, not cotton. I wear cotton every day. But that does not get rid of water and sweat fast. Wool does. Also, a number of people told me to get sock liners, including my doctor. But the experts said no, just use wool socks. We got wool socks issued to us in the Army, but I thought it was just because everything at West Point was wool.
I never got a blister either in training or during the five-day hike. Don’t remember ever getting one in the Army. I think I got some playing basketball and tennis recreationally.
The pants are lightweight Eddie Bauer hiking pants I bought in Whistler Canada. They worked fine. I usually slept in them during the hike. I had UnderArmor long johns on under them on this day because of the cold morning start.
The shirt is a Vietnam era, but brand new war surplus U.S. Army shirt exactly like the ones I wore in Vietnam. I bought it several years ago for a Halloween costume party I ended up missing because I was out of town. I wore it because it has four, big accordion-pleat pockets. It is cotton, but rip-stop fabric. Under it, I had my only synthetic polo shirt. On warm days, I only wore the polo shirt. This day started cold and I did not strip down to the polo until we got to the bottom and warmest part of the canyon at Phantom Ranch.
The hat is a Tilley hat with a cloth that protects the back of your neck and ears from the sun. I have three Tilley hats. Love them.
Behind me is my Osprey Kestrel 68 pack which I was well-pleased with. The only problem I had was my left shoulder would get sore. Finally, at around this same spot but two days later on the climb out, I was walking alone. My brother was way ahead of me. I was thinking about the pack and wondered if maybe the straps were not evenly adjusted. I took it off and put it up on a rock ledge and studied the front of it. Sure enough, I found two sort of hidden straps near the tops of the shoulder straps where the left was shorter than the right. I adjusted them to make them the same. Bingo! Problem solved.
When I later told my brother, he asked me to show him the straps. When I did, he said, “Those are called load levelers.”
Good name for them. So why didn’t the Any Mountain people tell me about that when I complained to them that my left shoulder hurt when I wore the pack?
I am drinking in the photo some Country Time Lemonade made from a ziploc bag of the powder in a one-liter water bottle I bought at our local Safeway supermarket. I brought three such bottles and a half liter one. Originally, in training I was using a Camelbak. Then I realized it weighed seven ounces. The empty Safeway bottles were more like two or three ounces combined and were more versatile than the Camelbak. I could use them to mix powdered drinks, see when they were clean, and so on. Camelbak reportedly causes you to drink more. I will just force myself to do that. I did not bring the camelback to Arizona.
Fully loaded for this hike, my pack weighed 25 or 26 pounds. That was because I spent a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with what weight I needed and what weight I could get rid of. I even trimmed the strap ends on the Osprey and Army packs, although I was a little too quick on one strap on the Osprey and two on the Army pack. I violated the measure-twice-cut-once rule. I cut off straps I should not have cut and cut the other too short.
Here is the spread sheet list of stuff I carried and where it was located in my gear:
|Camping checklist||where stored|
|antiseptic||mesh pouch under cap|
|aspirin||right front belt pocket|
|Balaclava||top level of main pack cap|
|band aids||mesh under pack cap|
|blister treatment||lower level of top of main pack|
|chapstick||right front belt pocket|
|compass||left front pack belt pocket|
|Country Time lemonade bags||mesh under pack cap|
|down jacket||main pack/pillow|
|fork and spoon||top of main pack|
|gloves||one in each side pocket|
|head lamp||left front pack belt pocket|
|Immodium A-D||left front belt pocket|
|lighter||right front belt pocket|
|long john pants||right side pocket|
|map||left front breast pocket|
|Melatonin||left front pack belt pocket|
|mirror||right front belt pocket|
|pen knife||left front pack belt pocket|
|pen or pencil||mesh pouch under cap|
|Pillow||wrist sweat bands|
|rain coat||main pack|
|rain fly||main pack|
|rain pants||main pack|
|sheet||patch pocket on main pack|
|sleeping bag||main pack|
|space blanket||mesh pouch under cap|
|sunglasses||top of main pack|
|sunscreen||right front breast pocket|
|sweet snacks||lower shirt pockets|
|tent pole||back pack|
|tent repair kit||mesh under pack cap|
|tent stakes and pole splints||inside tent pole bag|
|Therm-A-Rest pad||main pack inside sleep bag stuff sack|
|toilet paper||bottom of pack|
|toothbrush||top of main pack|
|toothpaste||top of main pack|
|towel||middle pack loop|
|Trekking poles||loops on main pack|
|UA mock turtle||left side pocket|
|water purification tablets||left front pack belt pocket|
|water, 1 qt for every hour of hike||front pack, side packs, against back main pack|
|whistle||front pack strap|
|wool socks||wear1; 1 middle-level of top of pack/pillow|
|wrist sweat bands||right front belt pocket|
|Yak Trax||bottom of pack|
|ziploc bags||mesh pouch under cap|
There are several competing goals. For light weight, you would ideally carry nothing. But you cannot because you have to have water and salt snacks and other food. If you are camping, you need the tent and sleeping stuff. So you get all that stuff and try to get the lightest, adequate version.
You do two main things, walk and sleep. Ideally, you make as many things as possible serve both activities. For example, my sleeping pillow was made up in part of clothes I wore when I walked but not when I slept. Aborigines used their clothes—maybe a bear or buffalo skin—also as their tent. The more double-duty stuff you carry the fewer items you have to carry overall.
Also you need to be mindful of the fact that you do not need to carry water except for the later part of each between pure water faucet hikes. When you start a hike, you are in a camp with pure water. You drink a whole bunch of that and then you only need water for the latter part of the hike before you arrive at the next water faucet. The water moves from your back to your stomach then out your pores and lungs. Similarly with the food. You probably only need food to get you from the rim to the river. You can eat a big breakfast as we did at the El Tovar Hotel. That is the nicest most expensive hotel and restaurant, but their breakfast is surprisingly cheap and quite good. We ate there on Monday and Saturday. You only need enough food to get to Phantom Ranch assuming you have reservations for meals there. You can buy the food there for the climb back up albeit a limited selection.
Backpacking food is sold in the hiking stores. It is freeze-dried and made by several companies like Mountain House. I assumed that was the way to go and started trying different ones knowing I would not like them all.
You know what? I don’t get it. Freeze-dried food has two virtues:
• light weight
• seven-year hence “best by” date
Lightness is a virtue in backpacking. But I cannot think of another situation where you would want your food to be light. A seven-year hence “best by” date is irrelevant to backpacking and everything else other than trying to buy food now instead of seven years hence. I recommended in my book How to Protect your Life Savings from Hyperinflation & Depression that you “buy everything you will ever need” as an anti-inflation tactic. That phrase is a bit exaggerated to make it simple and memorable, but it is good advice and everyone, including those who never read the book or heard of me, will be doing exactly that if and when we get hyperinflation. In hyperinflation, the purchasing power of the dollar plummets and everyone tries to spend their dollars before the purchasing power falls farther. Do it now and beat the rush. But I mainly mean to buy things that do not spoil including things like computer paper, forever stamps, durable home features like a roof that never needs to be replaced, and a home that saves you on energy because it is in a mild climate area and within walking distance to shopping, school, and so on.
Food is one of the things where buying everything you’ll ever need is hard to do, mainly because of the fact that most supermarket food has “best by” dates ranging from 3 months to 48 months hence. I really have trouble imaging a need for food that lasts seven years. For example, when in the 20th century would Americans have needed that?
But my book also says that you can as well get future food by owning a plot of land where you can have a garden and chickens and a milk cow. And the book also says that episodes of inflation in first world countries like Germany in the early 1920s tend to last about 18 months, not seven years. Hyperinflation would likely have come and gone by the time your freeze-dried food is about to expire.
Freeze-dried food has some disadvantages:
• relatively expensive
• needs boiling water
• doesn’t taste very good
I tried a bunch of them over the months before I went to the Grand Canyon. I took my two favorites, Mountain House beef Stroganoff and Chicken Teriyaki. In the event, I threw half of the Stroganoff away. I ate all the Teriyaki. I also had Mountain House corn and that was okay. I tried a bunch of others including scrambled eggs and bacon, Backpackers Pantry milk, Beef Stew, Chicken and Rice, etc.
What I enjoyed eating were oreos, 100-calorie packs of pretzels (The Park recommends that you frequently eat salty snacks to prevent hyponatremia.), and teriyaki beef jerky. In ranger school, we had C rations. They tasted great except for ham and lima beans. C rations were chicken noodle soup, pound cake, chocolate, crackers, peanut butter, beef stew, and so on, all in tin cans. We also had Sterno and tiny little can openers called P-38s. They were heavy, but perhaps worth it considering that they tasted very good. You would open the can of Chicken Noodle soup or whatever, leaving the lid attached to the can. You would bend the lid out away from the can. Then you would hold the can by that lid and hold the can over the Sterno flame to heat it up. When it was hot enough, you ate it with a spoon or fork. Absolutely no water whatsoever was required to eat C rations.
To eat our Mountain House freeze-dried stuff, my brother carried and fired up for each meal a stove and cannister of cooking fuel (which he bought at the Grand Canyon General Store because you cannot take it on a plane). We had to get pure water—only available at Indian Gardens and Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground—measure the prescribed quantity, and pour it into the aluminum foil package, ziplock it up for five or ten minutes, then eat it out of the package. My brother also carried a bowl and pot and cup for all that.
There were signs saying “Do not cook on table” at the picnic tables at Indian Gardens and Bright Angel Campgrounds. In the case of Indian Gardens, I figure it was because the picnic tables were wooden and they did not want us to set them on fire. No, the ranger told us, it was because the fuel cannisters get tipped over by wind or campers and the flaming fuel goes through the holes in the picnic table and sets fire to the legs and crotches of the campers who are sitting at the picnic table.
Good safety tip, Egon.
Okay, I got another win-win idea. Open-flame stoves are dangerous. They can burn people, destroy park structures, and set forest fires. They also weigh something, thereby contributing to hiking injuries including heat exertion injuries. The same things are true of fuel cannisters, Sterno, and so on. And boiling water is dangerous. It can burn you.
How about we put four or five microwave ovens at each of Indian Gardens and Phantom Ranch for the use of those who could not get supper or breakfast reservations in the Phantom Ranch dining hall?
Liberals, think of it this way. A microwave oven is to a camp stove burning fossil fuel what a GM volt electric car is to an SUV with a McCain sticker.
Or how about this? A microwave oven is an “alternative” energy cooker or a “green” way to heat food.
For the non-liberals, the availability of microwave ovens would enable us to not have to pack stoves, ovens, pots, pans, and we would not have to risk flames or boiling water. We could bring a non-metallic microwaveable container of, say, Campbell’s chunky chicken noodle soup. Zap it, eat it, and toss it in a trash can at the camp. Good tasting, hot food. No water boiling, no fire starting, no muss, no fuss. What’s not to like?
I wanted to do that, but it essentially was not practical because I would need to find away to heat the soup in a pop-top can. That means at the least I need to pack some sort of way to hold the can over the fire.
Does microwaving at the campsites violate the “live like the cowboys and Indians” rule? Yes. But the “cowboys and Indians rule” violates common sense. If your real goal is protection of the campers and the environment, microwave ovens are the best way to go. I would not make them mandatory. If, on the other hand, you are a Lewis and Clark reenactor, enjoy your wool clothes, leather boots, heavier load, flames, and boiling water.
I tried a thing called Mountain Oven the night I camped on Mount Diablo. It is made by Mountain House. It is a larger aluminum foil package. It cost $12.50 and comes with five gauze pads and five salt tablets, and a little plastic bottle. You put one pad in the bottom of the package, put one salt tablet into the bottle and put water in the bottle, shake to dissolve the tablet, then pour the salt water onto the pad. It immediately gets real hot. You then put the Mountain House meal you want to cook into the package and seal the Oven package. It has two hole at the top and “steam” sort of streams out of the holes. The package says it gets to 100º above the ambient temperature which is not hot enough to produce steam per se, but is a lot hotter than the 140º coffee that the litigious McDonalds customer got burned by.
The Mountain Oven is cheap and relatively light (14 ounces before you use any pads), and it worked rather well. I was a chemistry buff in my youth and am very curious what is in that pad. The package did not tell me. We did not take it to the Canyon.
Can you heat meals other than freeze-dried with it? I don’t know. If you put an unopened can in it, it might explode. Plus, how do you open a hot metal can? What happens when you do? What if the gas generated by the pad gets into your food? I don’t know.
Liberals seem okay with the Mountain Oven. Gee, were you guys aware it contains—forgive me—chemicals? Heck, they may have even been made by Dow Chemical, the guys who made napalm (gasoline with gelatin powder in it).
Here is another idea. Get some Cup Noodles soup. It is even lighter (2.5 ounces), far cheaper, has lots of calories. Many of you lived on it when you were in college. It requires boiling pure water, too. But it tastes better than Mountain House stuff. It may also be freeze dried. The Styrofoam packages are flimsy so you would have to protect them.
In general, I think you should buy your backpacking food in a normal supermarket. Everything they sell tastes good—to someone at least. They have lots of stuff for packing lunches for kids and workmen, powdered drink mixes, and lots of canned food. Backpacking is abnormal and requires some special stuff to deal with it, but food is probably not one of those things. You should eat nutritious food, but you can skip the politically-correct food for several days or a week.
In the Grand Canyon, if you walk down to the bottom then back out, you probably only need food for the first half of the trip. You can buy the food you need for the climb back up in the Cantina at Phantom Ranch. It’s not a supermarket, but they have enough to get you by. Also, you can send stuff down to Phantom Ranch on a mule. $64 is pretty expensive, but it will save you from carrying food downhill for the trip back up.
I ate supper and breakfast in the Phantom Ranch dining hall for four meals. My brother could have done the same but he skipped one supper and ate at the camp site instead. You have to have reservations to get those meals and I did, but it was a pain to get them. I had to call about five times to get cancellations for five of the eight meals we ended up reserving.
They have three suppers: vegan, vegetable-beef stew, and steak. People who preceded me told me the steak supper was great. No, it wasn’t. It beat the hell out of eating freeze-dried food at a picnic table in the cold. The dining room is heated and air-conditioned.
When you walk in at 5:00 PM, there are 12-man tables that have at each end a plate with 6 cooked NY strip steaks, serving bowls of corn, peas, and baked potatoes, a plate of corn bread slices, coffee, water, and tea. You can go get lemonade next to the sales counter if you want. Later, they bring chocolate cake with chocolate icing. I would characterize it as workmanlike, clean, hot, good. The problem is the phrase great steak dinner conjures an image the meal does not live up to. The only way to do a good job but still disappoint people is to promise more than you deliver. If this were, say, a pork chop dinner, I would have thought it was just fine. But “steak dinner” sounded better than it was. Steak is exciting. But the Phantom Ranch was about as unexciting as it could be. I suspect the Phantom Ranch employee dining room has much tastier food.
Another way to describe it would be you know those traditional diners that look like stainless steel railroad cars on the outside? The Phantom Ranch food is like the breakfast and steak dinner you might get in one of those. If you’re like me, you would have no qualms about going to such a place for breakfast, but if you were looking for a steak dinner, you would go to a fancier place where they felt a bigger obligation to make the meal special.
Breakfast there I loved. It was essentially the same as the steak supper, but the word “breakfast” does not raise expectations the way “steak dinner” does. Same deal for breakfast: the food is already on the tables when you come into the room. Scrambled eggs, absolutely perfectly cooked bacon, small pancakes, butter, orange juice, maple syrup, peach halves, coffee, tea, water. No milk. I would be a regular at a restaurant that served that meal prepared the way they do at Phantom Ranch. I would not go to a restaurant for the Phantom Ranch steak dinner. You can order and pay extra for beer or wine at supper.
Phantom ranch food is expensive. $40 something for the steak dinner and $20 something for the breakfast, but I would never be down there and eat supper or breakfast anywhere else. The main feature is it is out of the weather, protected from insects, the food is decent, and you meet lots of people from all over the U.S. and the world at your table.
They reopen the dining room as a “beer hall” from 8 to 10. I went there the first night, but not the second. They just sell stuff from the counter including beer, wine, lemonade, and I guess candies. The beer hall could be a great thing and probably is occasionally if you have the right group, but there was no leadership from the staff that could make it fun every night. The second night at supper, they said the beer hall was for playing board games, which they supply, conversation, drinking , and singles to mingle.
Singles to mingle? I looked around wondering who they were talking about. There seemed to be about 40 guests. They ranged in age from about nine years old to people in their 70s. There was about 50-50 male and female or maybe even more female than male. They were in groups of parents and small kids, two generations of related grown-ups together, pairs or foursomes of same sex friends of unknown marital status. So who were the singles who were going to mingle and where do they go to get romantic?
I am not sure there were any possibilities where a male and female who were unattached and within ten years of each other’s age could pair up and go somewhere private. I read the beds in the cabins are all bunk beds with 2, 4, or 10 people in one room. Maybe if a pair of women staying on one 2-person cabin pair up with a pair of men who had another two-person cabin, they could put each couple in a separate cabin for the night. Lunar eclipses probably happen more often. The cabins have bathrooms, but no showers. The showers are in separate shower buildings. I’m not saying romantic privacy was impossible, but it would be mile-high-club sort of romance. In short, I doubt Phantom Ranch is very often a good place to meet “chicks” or guys. At Phantom Ranch, the country western song “The girls all get prettier at closing time” would have to be changed to “The woman [singular] got prettier at closing time” and the admonition, “Hey, you two, get a room” would be changed to “Get a bunk.”
My brother and I are married to our first wives, we have grown children and we are near the 40th anniversary point. Not in the market. But 40 years ago I was a sort of expert on bachelorhood. I spent a couple of months as a bartender at a single bar on the Jersey Shore after college. I wrote about a very successful “System” for meeting women in my Succeeding book. My System partner was my former college roommate. So I view purported “single mingles” with the same sort of “professional curiosity” of a former Major League baseball player watching a high school baseball game. My conclusion on Phantom Ranch’s beer hall as a single bar—maybe if a large group of young single men and a corresponding group of women of the same age happened to be there at the same time. Otherwise, too many people you know seeing what you’re doing and too few possible matches.
I think hooking up at Phantom Ranch would be for the challenge of it, not something you would want to do regularly—same as the hike actually. My bachelor apartment mate/ranger buddy/college roommate/best man and I once sought simultaneous dates with homecoming queens just because it was difficult (and succeeded). We also tried to get a double date with twins (failed). My buddy always wanted to meet a girl on an elevator ride and get her name and phone number before she got off and managed to pull that off once. But we never made homecoming queens, twins, or elevators encounters our normal approach. Way too inefficient.
Like I said, hooking up at Phantom Ranch appears to be in the mile-high-club, 60-MPH club (moving Amtrak train), “office conference room table” category of sexual adventures that one only does once to say they did.
I was afraid of various potential problems. Heart attack, back going out, not being strong enough to haul a 25-pound backpack all the way to the bottom of the Canyon and back out again.
So what do you do about all that?
I asked my doctor if I could do it? Yes.
Then I just started trying to do pieces of it. My first attempt was done wrong. I had my wife drive me to the top of Mount Diablo (3,800 feet) then walked down to my house. I figured it would take four hours. It took four hours. I had not yet bought my tent and sleeping bag etc. So I just put four, full two-liter bottles of Coke in the backpack.
I was sore for a week. Also, I almost lost my left big toenail. Extremely painful. I walked backwards for part of the hike because it hurt so much to walk forward. Guy I know went to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with no prep. He did lose two big toe nails as a result. What’s up with that?
It is important that your boots fit properly. In particular you need a big “box” for the toes. My boots were size 12. Turned out to be too small. I traded them in for size 13. That fixed it. This is a downhill problem.
Four hours with no prior hiking was too much for the first time out. I should have started with one hour and gradually increased it.
Problem was driving to the top of Mount Diablo requires a park entry fee and is about an 80-minute round trip drive. My wife and son did not want to do it often enough.
Basically, the rest of my preparation was walking for various times including several hour hikes. I wore the backpack with the same stuff in it I later carried in the Canyon. Walked on flat trails in town for the whole three or four hours to see if my back could handle the weight of the pack. I also walked up and down Mount Diablo on a number of occasions—short distances where I never needed a ride. And I hiked on Angel Island twice. Angel Island is an island in San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz Island. It has a 800 foot high peak on it. The virtues of Angel Island is the views from the ferry and the Island plus there is no danger of being attacked by a Mountain Lion as there is on Mount Diablo.
Finally, I wore the backpack in my gym on the treadmill setting it at max 15% incline—a little more steep than the average slope on Bright Angel Trail. I set the speed at 1.7 mph,—a little faster than I expected to walk in the Canyon. I intended to walked on the treadmill for four hours—with breaks. But after two, it was just too boring. I ended up doing just one-hour sessions once or twice each week. Before long, I felt nothing in terms of muscle soreness going uphill or afterward. I could not practice downhill because the treadmill only mimicked uphill climbs. I never figured out a place to practice downhill.
My finale of preparation was to hike to the top of Mount Diablo and get picked up there by my wife. You have to be prepared for various common illnesses like diarrhea and headache.
Again, I felt absolutely no muscle soreness at all after any of these later training sessions.
So did that work in the Canyon? To the extent that it matched the Canyon—yes. My brother’s training was just that he does this stuff regularly in his home area of Fort Collins, CO elev. 5,000 feet. Nevertheless, both he and I had sore shins the first three days. The first two days, we went downhill from the rim to the river. We took a side trip that was both up and down hill on Wednesday. The soreness had subsided by Thursday, our first day to climb back out.
Neither of us felt the slightest soreness or had any muscular difficulty on Thursday or Friday when we climbed from the river to the rim. Not during, not right after, not the next day, none.
However, although we did not notice the altitude on the first day, going down hill, we both had trouble with it going up on the last day at around the 6,000 foot altitude. Even my four-years-younger brother had trouble. Apparently living year-round at 5,000 feet does not prepare you for hiking uphill at 6,000 to 6,800 feet.
1. practicing climbing uphill wearing a backpack with the planned hike load for one-hour per day is totally adequate for climbing uphill for four to five and a half hours in the Canyon
2. I do not know how much training you need for downhill or where to do it but our preparation was inadequate but our only problem was muscle soreness.
3. Neither living at 5,000 feet nor spending one night in a hotel at 6,800 feet is adequate preparation for climbing from 5,000 feet to 6,7800 feet with a backpack. Again, our only consequence was it slowed us down as we stopped repeatedly to restore oxygen to our blood.
Overall, my preparation was to:
1. test whether my body could handle the Canyon hike at all
2. strengthen my body if possible to handle the Canyon if I was not initially able to do so
3. test my equipment to see if it was too heavy or not workable or find any unknown problems like a shakedown cruise of a new Navy ship, e.g., the boots problem was discovered before I was in the Canyon when it might have necessitated a rescue.
4. test my ability to prepare the food and whether I liked it
5. test and improve my ability to get a good night’s sleep in the tent
With regard to heart attack, I basically pushed myself gradually around where I lived on the theory that if I was going to have a heart attack from the exertion, I wanted it to be where I would get immediate medical attention.
With regard to the back, I kept trying to trigger it going out where I could call my wife or son to come get me in the car. Same with my muscles giving out. Let’s make that happen in the suburban area around my home where I can call for a ride home in the car.
With regard to altitude, ask the people who work at the Canyon how long one has to acclimatize at the 6,800-foot altitude so that it no longer bothers you. Maybe you would only need to stay in a hotel at the Rim for several days to accomplish that. I do not know. Also, even so, it may not be cost-effective. The alternative is to just understand you will be slowed at the 6,000 foot level and need to stop frequently to just breathe.
Putting a couple of cinder blocks under the back of a treadmill machine to practice walking down hill would probably take care of that problem. I have not tried it.
I used several reference sources I recommend:
• Grand Canyon the Complete Guide by James Kaiser
• National Geographic Grand Canyon Country
• One Best Hike: Grand Canyon: Everything you Need to Know to Successfully Hike from the Rim to the River—and Back by Elizabeth Wenk
• various pages on the Grand Canyon National Park web site
• National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map Grand Canyon (I would have preferred a Bright Angel Trail/River Trail/Phantom Ranch only topo map for my hike)
The third edition of the book I sell the most of came out on 12/9/11. It is called Succeeding and is about how to succeed in life in general with particular emphasis on career and spouse choice. It has a chapter called “Reconnoiter and Rehearse” which, to a large extent, is what I did in my preparation for the Grand Canyon hike. Recon and rehearse does not apply to everything in life. But it does apply to many things and when you are involved in one of them, you should do lots of recon and rehearsal to have your greatest chance of success.
One general complaint. The people who write about backpacking tend to inhabit the reality-distortion field where inclement weather and lack of creature comforts are sworn to be fun. They are the ones who say you “HAVE” to go to the bottom of the Canyon, not just the rim. It’s not true.
When I researched the Canyon initially, I had no great interest in going to the bottom. But the various experts said, “Oh, you HAVE to go to the bottom.” Apparently, that is like the experts on Hawaii saying you can’t just go to Oahu. You have to go to the other islands.
My wife and I did go to the other islands. Kauai on one trip, Maui on another, and Hawaii on another. Since then, we just go to Oahu. The statement that you have to go to the other islands is bullshit. Maybe generated by the Hawaii Tourism folks to get you to leave more money in the states. Basically, Oahu has it all and the other islands, while slightly different in a number of ways, are the equivalent of the suburban and rural areas around a major U.S. city like San Francisco or Chicago. Can you see things there that you cannot see in downtown San Francisco or Chicago? Would those areas love for you to go there? Absolutely. But the fact is we could go to whatever island we want and after trying some others, we now always go to Oahu. Oahu is to the other islands what the big city was to the farm in the Green Acres TV sitcom (look at the lyrics). Actually, Oahu has both the big city and the natural beauty: one-stop shopping. Oahu has it all. The other islands, just the rural natural beauty.
I really did not do the South Rim. I regret that. I am thinking I need to go back and see it. I will not go back down to the bottom of the Canyon. Should you go to the bottom?
Do the South Rim. There are a lot of vistas and plenty of creature comforts. If you also want to go to the bottom, do it only if you can get reservations for a cabin and breakfast and supper at Phantom Ranch each day. It is theoretically possibly to make such reservations in advance. I got the meals, in part by reserving them advance and in part by calling again and again to pick up other people’s cancellations. I tried and failed repeatedly to get Phantom Ranch cabin reservations. We were annoyed that many people coming up out of the Canyon when we were going down said they easily got cabins after they arrived at Phantom Ranch. That was apparently because of the snow I spoke of before. I surmise a lot of wimps canceled their mule rides and cabin reservations because of snow. One woman said she and her husband had a whole 10-person cabin to themselves for the two-person rate. I could not get squat.
So if you can get cabin reservations 14 months in advance, or at the last minute after you get to the Rim, go on down to the bottom by mule or walk. Skip staying at Indian Gardens if you can physically do so without dangerous risk to anyone in your party. If you skip Indian Gardens, which we did not, you have to walk 10 miles downhill on one day and 10 miles back up on the other. Also, there is the issue of where are you going to get enough water during the walk.
If the only way you can get to the bottom of the Canyon is by sleeping in a tent at Bright Angel Camp Ground, I suggest you skip it unless you get breakfast and supper reservations at Phantom Ranch and unless the month in question is October or March. Also, I would probably skip it if, when the day arrived, it was raining or forecast to rain during the trip.
Should you day hike to Indian Gardens or Plateau Point then walk back up in one day—which is the farthest the Park Service recommends? Not if it’s raining or hot or if the trail is muddy from recent rain or snow. Maybe in cold or moderate temperature dry weather. But I don’t think it’s worth the exertion and time. Seeing the canyon from Bright Angel Trail is not better than seeing it from the Rim, just a different angle. Plus, you can walk to the 1.5 mile Rest House and back out—probably about one hour—and see about all the Canyon walls up close that you need.
In other words, only go to the bottom if the weather is nice and you get breakfast and supper at Phantom Ranch or if you can safely get down there and stay in the cabins in other parts of the year when there is no precipitation. If you have to walk or ride a mule in the rain, skip it, even if you have reservations you made a year ago. Snow falling I would not mind. It’s kind of pretty and quiet although it may eliminate the view. Have enough sense to get in out of the rain. If you have to sleep in a tent in hot or cold weather, forget about it. Do not eat at an outdoor picnic table during very hot or cold weather. Hiking in dry cool or cold weather is fun. Hiking in the rain is not fun. Hiking in hot weather can kill you.
These rules are trying to help you distinguish between fun and misery, which is normally not a problem, but apparently becomes one when the inner Canyon is involved.
The Travel Channel said the Grand Canyon was the best U.S. National Park. I have not been to all of them, but I would say Yosemite in my home state of California is much better than Grand Canyon. The scenery is more varied. Yosemite is a pretty grand canyon itself. And essentially, all the hardship of Indian Gardens and getting to Phantom Ranch is replaced by the Ahwahnee Hotel and a bunch of other stores, restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds in about the same relative location as Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. My family and I have stayed in the Ahwanee and other hotels at Yosemite many times including once for Christmas. We love going there any time of year and look forward to going back. Only in Yosemite, they have everything in the inner valley that Grand Canyon does not have in the inner canyon. And you can park your car or RV within easy walking distance of your hotel or campground. In Yosemite, the bottom of the Yosemite Valley bears a lot of resemblance to Grand Canyon Village. I could not find any good photo of that, but here is the Lodging page of the Park Service web site. If you look at photos of the various stores and hotels there you will get the idea.
The Grand Canyon is essentially Yosemite National Park, only with all the stuff in Yosemite Valley ripped out and moved up to Yosemite West. That is the hotels, restaurants, roads, gift shops, RV campgrounds. Everything but some employee barracks and tent campgrounds. If Yosemite was operated like the Grand Canyon inner canyon, you would not be able to get into Yosemite Valley except on foot or mule or by canoing down the Merced River. You could only look at it from Yosemite West. 99% of visitors to Yosemite would never see its valley close up if it were operated like Grand Canyon.
Indeed, our local media report the Sierra Club or one of them is trying to close Yosemite Valley to privately-owned vehicles every few years. If they ever get their way, they will turn Yosemite Valley into Phantom Ranch.
I know and have read of people who just decided to do the hike we did with no preparation. What happened to them? Generally, some injuries, some difficulties that affected them more mentally because they were surprised and panicked a little. In other words, it was bad enough that they probably wouldn’t have gone down without preparation if they were to go again. Also, a number of people die or get seriously injured doing the sort of hike we did, especially if they try to do it in fewer than five days.
You probably won’t die or get seriously injured if you go rim to river and back to rim with no preparation, but low probability is not a risk-management technique.
John T. Reed