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Conquering the Canyon

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The Park Ranger stands in the shadow of a midget tree, halfway into our march down towards Grand Canyon’s deep riverbed. Wearing a wide hat for shade and shorts to cope with the red dust and Arizona’s compact heat, he suddenly materializes himself out of thin air.

“How’re we doing, folks?”

He asks about our water supply. I’m carrying no less than 4 liters, little over a gallon. That ought to be enough.

But the Ranger doesn’t seem convinced.

“How far are you guys going,” he asks as he eyes our sub-perfect shoes and notices our heavy breathing.

“Not too far, we figured we’d turn and head back somewhere behind that rock over there,” I say and point a finger.

With that, he is apparently convinced we may just survive after all.

A cactus halfway down the South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon. Photo: Erik Bergin

A cactus halfway down the South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon. Photo: Erik Bergin

And he has reason for his doubts. For this is the Grand Canyon, stretching 277 miles/446 km along the Colorado River and encompassing an area by almost the size of Delaware. At the South Rim, near Grand Canyon Village, where we’ve started out, it’s a vertical mile (about 5,000 feet/1524 meters) from rim to river (or 7 miles/11.3 km by trail, if you’re walking). At its deepest, the canyon musters a 6 000 vertical feet/1829 meter drop from rim to river. In other words, the place is so big that the eye can’t take it all in.

And then there is the heat and the dust. Inner canyon temperatures are extreme during summertime. And this is June. Daytime highs at the river, 5000 feet below the rim, often exceed 100° F (38° C). At the same time, the air is dry so you won’t feel your sweat, luring you to drink less that you should. The red dust covers everything, underwear, cameras, bottles of water.

The Grand Canyon, looking to the north. Photo: Erik Bergin

The Grand Canyon, looking to the north. Photo: Erik Bergin

We continue. The trail we’re walking, South Kaibab Trail, will take us down to the river in about six hours, we’re told by a sign in the village. You could even call it a warning sign, for it also states that hikers better calculate with twice that time for the walk back up again. So if we walk down three hours, it’s six back.

We stop at a plateau, Cedar Ridge, for drinks and food. There are almost no trees here, only cactuses, but one tiny pine offers some shadow.

“Man, it’s hot.”

“How far should we go on?”

One of many steep and narrow gravel paths on the Kaibab Trail. Photo: Erik Bergin

One of many steep and narrow gravel paths on the Kaibab Trail. Photo: Erik Bergin

We decide to continue a little more. The path seems to flatten out down below, winding back and forth on its way down to the river which is actually hard to spot from down here. It’s silent, but for the wind. The wind, though, intensifies as we go, cooling us down but covering us in even more reddish dust. We walk for one hour more, then decide to turn back. You never know with canyons, there might be tricky weather systems in play here. Maybe there’s a storm coming. And, after all, we did promise he Ranger we’d turn back by the bid rock.

The climb back up along the narrow path takes almost all our strength, even though walking downwards actually kills your knees even more. Halfway up a man comes rushing past us. He is from Europe and afraid of heights, he says.

“So I want to make this as quick as possible,” he laughs and continues upwards to meet with his party who has decided to stop and turn back after only a mile or so.

Those who haven't the strength to walk the Canyon can rent on of these. Photo: Erik Bergin

Those who haven’t the strength to walk the Canyon can rent on of these. Photo: Erik Bergin

In the end it turns out that the warning sign was wrong. We are able to make it back up to the Sough Rim in just about the same time that we spent walking down, six hours in total.

My gallon of water is empty long before a set foot on the last steps at the parking lot.

And there, far to the East, I finally get a glimpse of rippling water. It’s the Colorado, seemingly so close but yet so far away.

 → FACTS About the Grand Canyon National Park

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The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.