Our trip to the Grand Canyon was amazing. Backpacking in the canyon is a completely different experience from standing at the edge and snapping pictures. As grand as it is from the rim, you still can’t imagine the true vastness of the place until you have hiked down inside it…spent the night under an equally vast sky, filled with stars…and then hiked back up and out.
Our trip started as we hiked down the Grand View Trail (carrying far too much stuff–we’ll go lighter next trip, promise) to Horseshoe Mesa, which was itself a daunting, 2,000-foot, downhill hike for two winter-pale northerners fresh out of their cocoons. But from Horseshoe Mesa we still had to hike down another 2,000 feet to Cottonwood Creek where we had been told we could find water and several flat places to pitch a tent (yes, we had a permit).
But somehow we missed the turn-off for the shortcut to Cottonwood Creek. (In the continuing saga of dumb-luck-stories that is my life, this turned out to be a good thing, as a “shortcut” that involves a 2,000 foot altitude change with a 40 pound pack on one’s back down a steep gravel path is not a happy shortcut.) But this meant we had to drop three miles down the back side of the Mesa without another human in sight. (How quickly “no one around” can go from inducing a calm, peaceful state to causing out-and-out panic really would be an amazing timeline. Someone should do a study.)
Our water supply was quickly dwindling. Hikers in the canyon must diligently replace body fluids lost from the sweat of exertion, the heat, and even from the low humidity. It is possible to become dangerously dehydrated in the Grand Canyon, even without sweating, and not sweating wasn’t an option for us. The canyon’s 7% average humidity was responsible for preserving the body of a hapless hiker whose mummified corpse became a tourist stop for more than sixty years before the body suddenly disappeared in the 1970’s. And we passed several conspicuous piles of tin cans left over from miners and prospectors who had tried to conquer the canyon in the 1800’s (an era when man’s dominion over nature was believed to be a biblical imperative). The cans were rusted, but completely intact, with the method of opening obvious to the point of being able to picture the miner cranking away at his stubborn tin with a pocket knife.
Contrary to what most people believe, the temperature at the bottom of the canyon is much hotter than the temperature at the rim. About 40 degrees hotter, on any given day. And three-quarters of the way into our first day of hiking, we started to ration water to make sure we would have enough. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But we learned later that this is not a good plan. The rule of water in the Grand Canyon: If you save it, you might not make it. It turns out the dividing line between “I’ve got a powerful thirst” and “I’m speaking gibberish and walking off alone into the desert because I think I’ve found a good shortcut” is a very fine one, and it can happen much faster than you would think. Never save your water for later. Many a delirious hiker’s remains have been found with a half-full water bottle that–if he had but consumed it–would have given him the strength and the presence of mind to locate the water source that was often just over the next rise. As a Park Service Ranger put it to us the following day, “In the Grand Canyon you don’t hike to water, you hike from water.”