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Three Men and a Canyon

A band of brothers discovers the obvious — that hiking down is the easy part.

By Jordan Rane
Photography by Adam Schallau

“I’m sorry, but there’s no way a river did that,” huffs a voice among this evening’s mesmerized herd of South Rim-at-sunset gawkers.

The voice belongs to my buddy Mark Segal, 40, a food-service account manager from Long Beach, California. Or maybe it’s my other friend Vic Leyson, 34, a business manager from Studio City, California. Or maybe it’s me — or anyone else in this silhouetted Grand Canyon Village crowd staring dumbly into a glowing pink-orange megascape through iPhone screens because how else are you supposed to deal with such a hole?

The next comment, though, is unmistakably Mark’s.

“So that’s what we’re walking to the bottom of tomorrow morning,” he says blankly. He turns away. He’s seen enough. “All right, where’s the bar around here?”

A few years ago, Mark, Vic, and I tested our aging knees, our semi-firm resolve, and our rock-solid-ish friendship by hiking to the top of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas together and vowing never to do something like that again. [Find the story from the July 2011 issue at www.cowboysindians.com.]

Then the inevitable happened. Amnesia and that restless, middle-aged itch to tear ourselves from our families for 72 hours and log another long-weekend bucket-lister with the guys led us to talk about our next big, cheap, doable conquest within two gas tanks of Los Angeles. Where should we plant our flag this time? The discussion lasted about four seconds.

What about the Grand Canyon?

It was unanimous and obvious enough. After all, it’s the Grand Canyon. A 277-mile-long, mile-deep gap in the earth carved by the Colorado River more than 6 million years ago that’s discernible from outer space. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, attracting close to 5 million annual visitors to its namesake national park — most of whom come just to gape for awhile and maybe take a few flirtatious steps into the thing before retreating back to the Bright Angel Lodge for a smoked buffalo bratwurst or Packer’s Stew in a sourdough bowl.

The Grand Canyon. Probably you’ve heard of the place.

And perhaps, like us, you might just be drawn by some inexplicable higher calling here. Or lower calling, entering the planet’s most famous cleft and hoofing 7 to 10 miles along vertiginous trails to its riverine basement. And (important) walking all the way back up again. Don’t forget that second part.

Only a very select group of people have actually made this remarkable journey (hundreds of thousands, of all ages, from everywhere) and in myriad different ways. On mules with Phantom Ranch reservations. In football jerseys with day packs. In spandex with heart- rate monitors. In crampons and occasionally, we’ll soon discover, in tutus and kilts.

Some embark from the canyon’s remote, higher North Rim. Others go rim-to-rim, walking the canyon’s entire width. A few crazies go rim-to-rim-to-rim — hiking down one side, up the other, back down again and out the original side.

Our plan this brisk weekend in mid-October (brisk at the top, it’ll be pushing 100 degrees at midday down below) is to backpack the classic South Rim “loop.” Down the steeper, and more exposed, 7-mile South Kaibab Trail to the bottom, camping for a night by the river at Bright Angel Campground, and then back up via the canyon’s main corridor, the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail. Backcountry permits get snatched up months in advance for expeditions like this, especially during the Grand Canyon’s more temperate fall and spring shoulder seasons. Winters get icy, rainy, and frigid. Summers, the most popular time to visit the rim, swelter in the lethal triple-digits down in the inner gorge during what the park calls its “danger months.”

Our plan isn’t exactly an original one, but it’s ambitious enough. Probably, like Mount Whitney, we don’t exactly know what we’re about to put ourselves through.

“A lot of people don’t totally know what they’re getting themselves into in the Grand Canyon, even if they think they do,” says Mark Wunner, the park’s backcountry information center supervisor, who likens its signature rim-to-river hike to an upside-down mountain climb governed by conditions just as extreme, only different. “The fact that those conditions aren’t as immediately obvious as on a snowy summit can make them even more treacherous,” he says. “And, don’t forget, the toughest leg of the journey happens to be on the way back. Not that walking down is easy,” he adds. “It’s not.”

As a general rule, says Wunner, any route you take into the Grand Canyon is more demanding and magnificent than you could ever imagine. And every year, people run into serious trouble or worse on all of them. The sun, the wind. The heat, the cold. The wet, the dry. The knee-wobbling exposure. The hubris. They exact their toll on regular folks and marathoners alike. More than 250 people are rescued each year from the depths of this tourist Mecca whose popularity is dwarfed only by the setting’s staggering immensity.

“How are you guys feeling?” Mark asks us from a stool at the historic El Tovar Lounge, the night before our departure. “Excited? Nervous?”

“We did Whitney. It’ll be a walk in the park,” says Vic, a fitness buff who runs marathons but admits he had to take a step back this evening when he stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

Outside the lounge, a book titled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon — compiling more than 500 grisly incidents dating from the canyon’s earliest 19th-century river expeditions to its most recent rash of fatal mishaps — winks from a gift shop window. But let’s not go there.

To read the rest of the article from the July 2015 issue of Cowboys & Indians, visit www.cowboysindians.com.