Over the Edge
The Syracuse Post-Standard
Sunday magazine Stars
December 17, 2006
(hard copy only)
The Arizona Reporter
February 27, 2006
The Long Island Press
March 9, 2006
“We are now ready to start our way down to the great unknown,” the explorer John Wesley Powell wrote in 1869, as he stood by the banks of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore.”
One hundred and thirty six years later, I stood on the only rock around where my phone would get reception, and told my father back in Brooklyn: “Dad, we’re going to try to hike to the bottom tomorrow.”
“Just don’t get yourself killed,” he replied. “Don’t be stupid.”
Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, was the first American to explore the Canyon. His crew probably faced more dangers than any group of adventurous young bucks looking for a cool hike.
But even though the Grand Canyon is America’s most-visited tourist attraction, too few people know, or possibly really understand, what awaits them down there. Dr. Thomas Myers, a physician and Grand Canyon buff, can tell them: it’s heat, heat so intense it can kill, through heat strokes and dehydration.
“The biggest risk comes when folks overestimate their ability, and underestimate the canyon,” says Myers, who lives in nearby Flagstaff, AZ. “It gets pretty toasty down there.”
Myers’ book, “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon,” tells stories of tragic deaths and ironic predicaments. He was inspired to write it after a 10-year-old boy collapsed into a creek, and died of heat stroke. He wanted to help other hikers avoid such a gruesome fate.
“No child should die that way,” Myers said. “That was a decent family, just ignorant of heat.”
The trouble is, hikers can quickly and confidently trek down early in the morning. The far tougher climb back comes in the hottest part of the day - and this “reverse mountaineering” is dangerous. Twenty-two people have died in the canyon in the canyon in the last five years, Myers told me later.
But we didn’t know anything about that then.
Into the Canyon
Anticipating dawn by an hour, my companions Jonathan Fromm and Carlo Canetta and I wolfed down a cold oatmeal breakfast and set off for what was, for us, definitely a “great unknown.” We intended to hike down and back in a day. That’s eight miles down, a drop of 6,000 feet.
The scenery was fantastic, featuring the winding river making its way through the immense and multi-colored canyon walls. And we made incredible time. But a thermometer hanging silently in the shade presented some disturbing news: 109 degrees F.
We ate our melted cheese sandwiches.
“Hey why don’t we try that tuna fish stuff that we found as we were hiking down earlier?” someone suggested.
This statement for some reason did not sound so ridiculous at the time. Jon and I briskly devoured a package of Starkist Lemon Pepper Tuna Fish that some wiser soul had discarded on a rock. Carlo shrewdly refused to touch it.
I wanted to hike back up via the closer south rim. But my friends insisted that we return to the further-away north rim, where car and tent awaited. Outvoted, I worriedly but ungrudgingly lifted my backpack, gazing up at a scorching 12:45 p.m. sun, and out to the seemingly endless trail heading straight into it.
My morale dropped as we trudged along the narrow path. An hour later, I regurgitated all the lemon pepper tuna fish. I was overcome by dizziness, and Jon had basically lost his speech. Dehydration plus food poisoning - with a straight-up eight-mile climb in front of us.
Out water was undrinkably hot. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with dirt. My head was like a half-deflated hydrogen balloon.
Why hadn’t we listened to my Dad?
I was never happier to see any sight than the “Roaring Springs: 1.8 miles” sign. We had heard of this mythical location of waterfalls and shade. Collapsing, hallucinating, we staggered there. We drank, ate and slept on the cool rocks for hours.
Yet our adventure, one of the most beautiful and traumatizing experiences of my life, wasn’t over. With the sun setting, we hunted for and found a campground called Cottonwood. In the dark we ate cold soup, cursorily checked the ground for unfriendly venomous entities, threw our sleeping bags in the dirt and reclined under the stars. I assure you the setting was not as romantic as it sounds.
Later I asked Dr. Myers: should people be stopped from hiking the Canyon at all?
“I wouldn’t support that,” he said. “This is America, a free country.”
So I say, do hike to the bottom, and enjoy the Colorado River rapids, the vast canyon walls and the layering of ancient rocks. But before you set foot on the trail, check out the books, and take seriously the warnings about water, emergency supplies and hiking farther than your body tells you you can. And don’t get any bright ideas about picking up mysterious food. Or you could end up like us — nearly candidates for Dr. Myers’ next edition.