Writers on the Range: What every hiker should know (by now)
Writers on the Range
It is neat and proper that human beings should hike in the Grand Canyon. This would be even truer if they would pack in a few of the essentials, such as food, water or common sense.
People seem to believe that nothing will go wrong. I’m just going to dash in and out for just a few miles. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.
Ah, but what if it does? What if someone sprains an ankle? Trips over a waterbar on the trail?
In 2015, Grand Canyon rescuers answered 318 calls for assistance, involving 271 injured or ill persons. The park boasts the most search-and-rescue incidents of any national park. Cost: more than $875,000, for just that year.
Grand Canyon sees from 12 to 20 deaths a year. Contrary to popular belief, most are not from falls but from heat and heart attacks.
It is expected that in a national park, someone will rush to our rescue if we get in over our heads. During the height of the season, park rangers may get 30 calls a day for assistance. Most of these involve a sympathetic talking-to and a bottle of water. Two to three times a day, for a true medical emergency, the helicopter may be summoned, at great personal risk to all involved.
Rescue by mule? Forget it. If you are fit enough to ride a mule, you are fit enough to walk.
Should venturing into the backcountry be completely safe? Not at all. Part of the wilderness experience should be getting cold, or hot, or tired, or thirsty, or hungry, or scared or worried. There should always be that tiny frisson of potential peril.
However, there is no need to actually invite trouble. Risks can be mitigated by taking simple precautions and bringing extra clothes, food and water, not to mention some food, water and clothes.
Take shoes. All boots are not created equal. Riding boots, cowboy boots, snow boots and Uggs are not hiking boots. Flip-flops belong at the beach. High heels — don’t even. Blisters are the least of the problems. On occasion, someone slides off the trail and is injured or killed.
Take food and water. Hiking burns calories, and that energy must be replaced. One can of an energy drink will hardly hydrate you for 14 miles. It can get so hot in summer that it is physically impossible to carry the amount of water required to keep you alive. Dehydration and heat stroke claim many victims, often young, strong males. Our first-aid classes told us that as long as a person is sweating, he or she is not at risk for heat stroke. But at the Grand Canyon, it is entirely possible to be sweating right up to the time the body temperature spikes and the victim face-plants from heat stroke.
Remember common sense. Not so common. It is easy to hike down. Back up, not so much. Park rangers call the Grand Canyon the largest Venus flytrap in the world. Most people manage to complete their hike, underprepared as they are. But often they do so after dark, without a light. Sometimes they simply don’t.
Visitors should hike here; that is one of the reasons people visit. However, they should be cognizant of all the ways that the canyon can mess people up. The Grand Canyon is a desert. It is arid, there is limited water, and the tough uphill part comes last.
There are people whose job it is to walk the trails advising day-trippers as to the wisdom of their plans. This is called preventative search and rescue. This is not my job. However, I must exude an aura of competence, because I am often asked for advice anyway.
When not in uniform, I am not paid to be diplomatic. “Is it really harder to hike up than down?” (I wonder: Is this a trick question?)
Five hundred feet below the rim: “Where is the bus stop?” (Not here.)
One thousand feet below the rim: “Where is the snack bar?” (Also not here.)
“It must be cooler in the bottom, because heat rises, right?” (That’s why it is tropical at the summit of Everest.)
“I brought organic, holistic, low-sodium snacks, and I feel horrible.” (Dude, Cheetos!)
“Is there water available in the outhouse?” (Don’t even go there.)
I was coming out of the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail at 2 p.m. when a woman hiking down — but wearing espadrilles and carrying a half-pint of bottled water — asked me, “How far to the river?”
“Fourteen miles round trip,” I said, “9,600 feet elevation change.”
“How long will it take me to get there?”
I fixed her with a gimlet eye. “The rest of your life.”
Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She works at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
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