Grand Canyon Arithmetic

My wife and I recently spent an extended weekend at the Grand Canyon to celebrate our anniversary. It was great to get back there after a while; the place has become sort of a "go to" getaway, and it's very restorative. I typically get a lot of thinking done while 

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slogging uphill (all the photographs tend to happen on the way down), and I wanted to get down just a couple of things before life catches up and this doesn't happen at all.

This was my fifth time there, and we have a pretty good handle on everything there is to do on the South Rim, including the major trails and a couple of hidden vantage points. We had mostly beautiful weather, though some high cloudiness put a dent in our stargazing and night photography. The Grand Canyon is fabulous place to practice night photography, once you get over the idea that you're standing in a cold, windy place next to a black abyss of proportions that strain the imagination. Do you get the impression I'm uncomfortable with that? I use the somewhat technical tasks of night photography to keep myself distracted. My favorite night photo from this trip was the last one I took while walking back to the room: Lookout Studio. This is what it looks like by day, clinging to the edge of the precipice, and here's what it looks like at night.

Since I've been back, my conversations with people have mostly been around their enthusiasm on how amazing the place looks, based on just a few images we've published to Facebook. It underscores to me how relatively few Americans have been to the Grand Canyon despite it being one of our most popular national parks. So I'm anxious to finish processing my several hundred photos in Lightroom and exporting just the very best.

(Related: My high-resolution 3D walk down the switchbacks of the South Kaibab Trail)

While hiking on various Canyon trails, what strikes me every time is how dangerous this place can be, and how cavalierly many people ignore the danger. There are signs all over the place with these warnings, but the folly of human nature is to be able to lie to yourself and think it doesn't apply to you.

All of our trips to the Canyon have been in the off season, either Thanksgiving or January – February. We like this time because the place is relatively deserted, so we have privacy on the trails and at the facilities compared to what a madhouse it must be in the summer. (Indeed, I had the rim entirely to myself during my night photography session.) It's perfect hiking weather, with temperaturs in the teens to 40s on the rim and 40s to 60s on the trail with the intense sun of 7000' at mid-latitutes to warm you up. And because of this, the Canyon is at its most forgiving.

I'm more analytical than most, but when I'm far out in the Canyon, there's always a timetable in my head. This is because there's an implacable arithmetic associated with hiking in the Canyon you must take into account. If you don't, you may have a tiring day in the winter. In peak season – May through September – it could kill you.

In his book Hiking The Grand Canyon, John Annerino summarize the environment quite nicely:

"…the Grand Canyon isn't merely a desert; it's an inverted desert mountain range whose few reliable water sources can be far more difficult, preciptious, and dangerous to reach for the uninitated than those cool deep wells and fly-infested seeps that pockmark the relatively flat deserts of the Gobi, Outback, Sahara, and more forgiving arid reaches of the Souithwest."

Here are the variables you must keep in mind. If you're very clearsighted about them, you can probably drop a few – but not until you've carefully considered them:

  • Light. How much daylight do you have left? Do you know, accurately, how long it will take you to hike back out from where you are so you aren't doing it in the dark with a headlamp? (Did you even bring a headlamp?) Hiking up a trail clinging to the edge of a sheer drop-off, in the dark, perhaps tired, isn't my idea of a good time. This is a factor where winter hiking is a disadvantage. 
  • Sun. Where will the sun hit the trail you'll be on, at what time of day? Experienced hikers going down to Phantom Ranch, 5000' below the rim,  take the South Kaibab Trail because it's direct. They take the Bright Angel Trail back up because though it's longer, there's water (the Kaibab has none) and it's in shade much of the time (the upper reaches of the Kaibab are in full western sun against a rock wall). In the winter the Kaibab can be a bit sweaty; in the summer it's grueling. The stakes are much higher in the inner canyon as it's much warmer. Bring sun protection in the form of sunscreen, long sleeves and good head protection. I use a broad-brimmed Akubra hat that keeps the sun off my face and neck. A Tilley hat is also very popular for this and is very packable.
  • Heat. In the summer, the temperatures on the rim are pleasant, in the 60s and 70s. What people don't understand is that, with a full vertical mile of elevation change, the inner Canyon is a similar environment to the Sonoran desert of Phoenix – but much worse from rocks radiating heat back at you. Temperatures of 130 degrees in the inner Canyon aren't uncommon. You don't want to hike in that, especially uphill. (See Sun above). The heat kills people every year.
  • Altitude. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a bit over 7000 feet above sea level; the less-traveled North Rim is more than 8000' ASL. If you're a flatlander and not in good aerobic shape, you'll definitely notice it. You'll especially notice it when hiking back out of the Canyon after you've blithely scampered downhill a mile or two. 
  • Elevation. It's 5000' vertical distance between the South Rim and the Colorado river. There's an almost 4000' elevation change between it and the Tonto Plateau (the wide platform between the canyon rim and the inner canyon that has several day hike destinations). Don't underestimate the challenge of this climb when you take all these other factors into consideration.To paraphrase a mountaineering maxim, "Getting to the bottom is optional. Getting to the top is mandatory."
  • Distance. Are you comfortable hiking the distances involved?
  • Water. Water is perhaps the most critical factor. Despite the presence of the Colorado far below, water is a very scarce resource both in and out of the Canyon. Did you know the drinking water for all the South Rim facilities comes from a fairly small pipline from Roaring Springs on the north rim of the Canyon? That's right, all the way down one side and up the other. The South Kaibab Trail, one of the main corridor trails, has no water. Water is available on the Bright Angel. Don't underestimate the amount of water you need when exerting yourself in a hot, dry environment. I'm astonished at the number of people I see hiking along the trail with nothing more than a bottled water in one hand. Again, the winter is very forgiving time for this.
  • Food. There are no restaurants along the way.
  • Weather. Like a mountain range, the weather can be unpredictable, and when you're below the rim you can't see it coming. Fortunately, with weather radar widely available, if you check the short term forecast and radar before you start out you shouldn't have any surprises. This does mean that if there's any chance of rain you need to have a shell. And when you're below the rim, thunderstorms can be VERY dangerous due to flash floods and debris flows. And even if the forecast is nothing but sunny, if it's a cool day you need to dress in layers. What's hot in the direct sun can immediately become very cool when you round a trail corner into the shade.

(Related: Sunset Panorama, Shoshone Point)

As I said, you can minimize some of these factors in the winter. Heat and water consumption aren't the critical factors they are in the summer. But you must still pay attention to the others. If you've taken all of those into account, get an early start, get down into the Canyon and enjoy a day you'll remember for the rest of your life.

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