GRAND CANYON - Starting out on a six-day series of wilderness hikes in the Grand Canyon on unmaintained trails where even a minor misstep can cost you your life is probably not the best time to discover you're terrified of heights.
The "learning adventure," organized by the Grand Canyon Field Institute, was called "Six Days, Five Trails" and I was only five minutes into trail one, the steep Tanner Trail, when I panicked. Surveying the terrain, the drop, and what Grand Canyon-ophiles refer to as the "exposure" (defined as how close you are to the edge of a potentially lethal fall - in this case very close), I had concluded that this adventure might be a huge mistake.
But how to back out? "I have to get back to the office." "You guys go on ahead."
Alas, there was no turning back. Only two other people had signed up for the trip and I was married to one of them, an occasional hiker who was turning out to be as skittish as I was. Our departure would have been noticed.
So we stayed, and lived to tell the tale. I'm glad we did; I found that if you can swallow your fear and soldier on, you'll learn that each trail on the South Rim has a wonderful story to tell about topography, geology, history, and the colorful characters - miners and entrepreneurs - entwined in its history. We were fortunate to have historian Mike Anderson as our guide. A kind of national treasure himself, Anderson has researched the history of the Grand Canyon for nearly 20 years, surveyed sections of it, and written three books about it. He put the canyon in the context not only of its geological history but also American history, from prehistoric Native Americans to the miners and fortune hunters lured to the region in the late 1800s.
The Field Institute is a nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park, and it offers more than 200 programs a year about the canyon's natural and cultural history. These range from single-day guided hikes - perfect for families - to 18-day Colorado River float trips and advanced wilderness backpack trips that ordinary mortals would do well to avoid.
I stumbled across this trip on the institute's website and thought it would be a great fit for us. It was rated as a modest Level 2+ on the institute's numeric scale, where Level 1 is a walk on level terrain and Levels 6-10 involve lengthy off-trail backpacking trips with rock climbing and belays. How hard could 2+ be? The requirements were regular exercise and "good physical fitness." No sweat!
What is not taken into account on the scale is one's comfort with heights. It turns out that a lot of hapless tourists become paralyzed the moment they peer down into the rugged and cavernous chasm, which is 277 river miles long, 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. It is not safety-proofed. There are not many fences or railings.
The canyon "paralyzes people," Anderson says. "Some people have to back away. Sometimes they crawl away. There are people I know who confronted it for the first time and hit the ground; it just screwed up their balance."
There is almost nothing to prepare you for the breathtaking labyrinth that is the Grand Canyon, "the most convoluted, massive, and jaggedly vertical landscape on Earth," according to Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, authors of "Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon" (Puma, 2001), a fascinating account of the most famous fatalities in the canyon.
(If you're curious, these include a 21-year-old man struck by lightning in 1993 as he hiked the Tanner Trail; the 24-year-old man struck by a cascading boulder in 1968 as he hiked down the Bright Angel Trail; and the 17-year-old boy who tumbled off a 125-foot cliff in 1974 along the Grandview Trail.)
There are about 100 ways to get from the top of the canyon (the rim) to the bottom (the Colorado River), at least theoretically. The routes are generally along fault lines that break up the canyon's otherwise impenetrable cliffs, according to Mike Buchheit, director of the Field Institute. People have been walking these routes for millennia: first Native Americans, and later the pioneer prospectors, miners, and tourism operators who shored up the trails.
Yet there are only about a dozen established rim-(North and South)-to-river trails. Buchheit categorizes these as corridor trails (such as Bright Angel), which are user friendly, regularly maintained, and have established campgrounds; wilderness trails, which are less regularly maintained and less frequently patrolled by the National Park Service; and "routes" favored by hard-core hikers, which are seldom-patrolled and difficult-to-trace off-trail paths that follow the natural breaks in the terrain.
I was surprised to learn that of the roughly 4.5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon each year, only a couple of hundred thousand - less than 5 percent - venture below the rim onto the trails. The typical Grand Canyon visitor spends less than half a day at the park, Buchheit says. They're essentially gawkers - "flip-flop tourists" as one recent visitor put it - who stroll along the rim from one scenic overlook to another. (The Park Service offers free shuttle buses with stops at eight canyon overlooks.)
There were no buses in the plans for us. Anderson had organized a sampler of challenging all-day South Rim wilderness trail hikes, and for some reason, he started with the most challenging one on the list, a 4-mile round-trip section of the Tanner Trail, which is all but impossible to locate unless you know what you're looking for. "Nothing really announces it," says Anderson. "If you hurt yourself, nobody will even stumble on you."
The Tanner - which offers a gorgeous view of a swath of the Colorado River - was originally a prehistoric footpath that was added to and improved in the 1880s by Seth Tanner, an early pioneer aiming to provide access to mining claims. He didn't improve it enough for my taste, however. All the trails on the South Rim veer down steeply at the beginning, because the uppermost geological layer of this erosional landscape - the Kaibab Formation, the rock that makes the canyon rims - is a hard, cliff-forming limestone. Trails tend to level off farther down toward the older Supai Group, which has gentler slopes. But the Tanner is not only steep but very narrow, and when we hiked about 1,200 feet down the trail in April, there were still icy patches that made it even scarier.
Anderson is a geology buff and liked to quiz us - often - on the names of the rock layers: Kaibab Formation, Toroweap Foundation, Coconino Sandstone, Hermit Formation, Supai Group. I came to despise the steep Kaibab, which always sent my heart racing, but I would relax a bit when we got down into the slope-forming formation of the Toroweap. Eventually I figured out that I could get through the day without too much trepidation by keeping my eyes focused squarely on the trail, and not looking into the canyon at all. (Of course this defeated the purpose of hiking the Grand Canyon. There are always postcards in the gift shops.)
Day Two, with legs aching, we embarked on the Grandview Trail, built in the late 1800s by miner-prospector Pete Berry leading down to his mine at Horseshoe Mesa. Eventually he found tourism more compelling and built the Grandview Hotel on the rim, attracting sightseers into the canyon by stagecoach from Flagstaff.
I realized on the Grandview that hiking in the canyon is about more than exercise and scenery. It's also one gigantic archeological dig. The Park Service has surveyed less than 5 percent of the 1.2 million-acre park, says Buchheit, but "there are archeological sites everywhere," he says. "It can be anything from a shoe left by a miner in the late 1800s to a 2,000-year-old grinding stone."
On our hike, we found evidence of early pioneers. Anderson pointed out clearings in the trees along the rim - all but invisible to me - just wide enough for stagecoaches. He spotted rusty old tin cans and, based on their size and the way they had been opened, concluded they had held evaporated milk used by prospectors and miners.
The trail itself was another narrow, eye-averting adventure, so on Day Three, Anderson took pity on us and steered us to a portion of the more manageable Bright Angel corridor trail. The park's most popular trail, Bright Angel was improved in 1891 to provide access to mining claims. It is scenic and well-maintained, with rest houses every mile and a half, yet extremely steep as it descends through several rock layers. We hiked about 3,000 vertical feet down through six geological layers, which I found physically challenging, especially climbing back up. Luckily there were diversions: mule trains, other hikers to chat with, and Anderson's interesting archeological digressions. He knows every step and switchback of the trail, which he helped to survey, and pointed out prehistoric fire pits and ancestral Native American inscriptions.
Day Four was the Waldron Trail ("a bit rugged," Anderson acknowledged), built more than a century ago by pioneer prospector Louis "The Hermit" Boucher to access his mining claims and tourism facilities. It was the fourth full-day hike in a row, and exhilarating as it was, it was also exhausting. The prospect of Days Five and Six on the South Bass Trail, with an overnight camping trip, was looking less and less enticing. I needed a vacation from my vacation!
So we said goodbye to Anderson, and on Day Five hopped on the shuttle bus, with all the other gawkers. You know, that rim walk isn't half bad.
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.