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Hiking the Grand Canyon - Young, Stupid and Lucky
 by: Trevor Paetkau

Twenty years ago I nearly set the Grand Canyon National Park on fire. I was young, stupid and lucky.

Young, stupid and lucky also seems to characterize a whole host of latter day Grand Canyon backpackers. Hikers die in there, every year in greater numbers than one would at first imagine ... at least six during the summer of 2005.

Accidents and heat-related illnesses are the leading causes of death in the Canyon. What is striking is how easy it is to avoid either through proper preparation and common sense. What does this mean?

Be in Good Physical Shape.

A descent into the Grand Canyon is not a walk in the park. It will tax your body and, if you're out of shape, chances of a heat related affliction are magnified. Know your physical limits and respect them.

Be Hydrated. Bring Provisions to Stay Hydrated.

120 degrees is hot! Your body needs fluid. Hikers can lose one to two liters of water per hour. Rangers at both Phantom Ranch and Indian Garden treat as many as 20 cases of heat exhaustion a day.

Know Where You Are Going.

It's odd to have to say it, but in this day and age of easily available topo-maps and hand-held GPS units, hikers still get lost and still die because of it. Why!!!? It doesn't take a lot of advance effort to ensure your safe return. Really, the only excuse to get lost is because you are young or stupid. Hopefully you are lucky. Really.

Prepare for Self-Rescue.

Knowledge, my friends. Go out and get some. Knowing how to get out of a jam comes with experience. To a certain degree however, it also comes from a store. A whistle, solar-still, 1st aid kit, and reflecting signal are the bare essentials ...

Common Sense.

Hmmm ... either you've got it, or you don't. If you've got it, you won't chase your water bottle over the edge of a cliff; you won't attempt a mid-afternoon ascent in July; and you won't build a fire where you shouldn't. You will let people know where you are, and when you plan to return. Yes, hikers make mistakes ... those with common sense make fewer.

Just in case I haven't made my point, I'll let the National Park Service make their's. The following is from their web-site.

There are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon!

Grand Canyon's Inner Canyon (below the rim) is a place of extremes. Hiking below the rim requires preparation. Each season brings its own hazards, and all trails below the rim are steep and precipitous. Over 250 people are rescued from the Canyon each year. The difference between a great adventure in Grand Canyon and a trip to the hospital (or worse) is up to YOU.

Got it?! People die down there.

Here, by-the-way, are the abbreviated facts of my own moments of stupidity.

During the late spring of 1981 I lit an illegal cook-fire on sandy soil, which in turn lit a root, and travelled underground to a fallen log. Smoke tendrils gave away the momentous stupidity of the act and I spent the entire night digging and waiting, digging and waiting, digging and waiting. By the time I was confident that the fire was out, I was dehydrated, my back and arms ached from the digging, and I was thouroughly chastened. What made it worse was the walk out, and the knowledge that I had to tell somebody. The tongue-lashing I received from the Service Ranger almost seemed like a relief, tempered as it was by the water he passed me from the jug he had stored in his truck. It turned out fine, but another 8 hours without water, or a different sort of luck with the fire, and I or somebody else could easily have been a pile of bones.

About The Author

In addition to his lifelong interest in the outdoors recreation community, Trevor Paetkau is the proprietor of Moraine Adventure Books, an independent source of Adventure Travel and Outdoor Recreation books, articles, advice and resources.

This article was posted on November 12, 2005


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