They converse in hushed tones about sightings of black-and-yellow helicopters. Those weren't sightseeing tours they were medical evacuations.
At the risk of tempting fate, they might even invoke the name of Margaret Bradley, a supremely fit young woman who lay down in the depths of the canyon last summer and put her head on her pack. She died of dehydration.
This is what accompanies a hike of the Grand Canyon from rim to rim: a mix of awe and respect, with a vague twinge of fear.
Some hikers might tell you that the primary motivation for a rim-to-rim hike is to peruse the colorful rock striations up close, spot wildlife and bask in the magnificence of the Colorado River gorge.
Don't believe it. These are ancillary rewards and they are abundant but this is a hike that is taken because it's there. It's a trophy, not unlike a Sierra Nevada peak.
"As we get older, we look for a different challenge to do every year," said Steve Shannon, 42, of Clackamas, Ore., after
"It's like a notch in your belt," added Lou Harbrecht of the World Outdoors, an outfitter that conducts guided hikes of the route.
Indeed, this one really tugs at you. It's natural to stand on the canyon lip, peer down into this yawning gash and then lift your gaze to the opposing rim. On a direct line, it is only 11 miles from here to there. But what a unique walking path it is that connects the two.
It's 23 1/2 miles from one point to the other, but with some punishing elevation changes. From the North Rim (most hikers tackle it from this direction) to the cabins of Phantom Ranch, hard by the Colorado River, the descent is 5,800 feet more than a vertical mile in 14 miles of the North Kaibab Trail. Nearly 5,000 feet of that is logged in the first 4.7 miles of trail, when the knees take a pounding and toes jam painfully to the front of boots.
Then comes the real work. It's another 9 1/2 miles to climb out of the canyon to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail, with a trudge along switchbacks that relentlessly ascend 4,370 feet.
It's an undertaking that requires extensive planning in advance, and a full measure of common sense in the midst of it. On average, rangers make 250 rescues a year.
"We get a lot of Europeans who come to Grand Canyon," said Ken Phillips, chief of emergency services for the park service. "They all recognize that they've hiked the Alps, and they don't think the canyon is going to be much of a challenge. But if you hike up a mountain and you get tired, you can turn around and go back down."
Going from rim to rim in the Grand Canyon, by contrast, is what's called an upside-down hike. And because of the high temperatures here in the Southwest, it is sure to be the most withering you'll ever take.
"No one has ever hiked anything like Grand Canyon," said Denise Traver , a former inner- canyon ranger who now operates a Web site that dispenses invaluable hiking tips (www.hitthetrail.com). "You will experience things that you never have before."
How to approximate this? Imagine having a helicopter set you down atop Mount Whitney. Now walk down the trail 11 miles to Whitney Portal Campground, near Lone Pine. Spend the night, then turn around the next morning and hike back to the summit. Just for spice, borrow the climate of nearby Death Valley and envelop the mountain with it.
On our hike in May, at Traver's advice, we set an alarm for 3:30 a.m. at our North Rim cabin, then set out from the trailhead a little after 4, sweeping the path before us with flashlights. It was 40 degrees out, with a brisk wind blowing, and we shivered in wind breakers.
But what striking contrasts this hike delivers: By early afternoon, we were slogging through 107-degree heat on the canyon floor.
Throughout the day, we encountered hikers (and even runners!) who trudged along with fixed, determined gazes, so keen were they on accomplishing this task. Oh, they were missing so much. It seemed to make much more sense to take our time, stop frequently and drink in natural wonders that visitors to the rim can only fantasize about.
Soft, morning light bathed the upper reaches of the canyon walls just after dawn as we descended a trail hacked into red-wall limestone. Flowers ranged from columbines near the rim to brilliant cactus blossoms of yellow, dark red, purple at the bottom. Roaring Springs was true to its name as a result of prodigious snowmelt up on top; two main torrents poured out of the rock, with at least five other waterfalls evident.
Butterflies flitted among the wildflowers. And what a treat: A California condor, one of several flourishing here after their recent introduction, soared right over the top of us as it climbed the length of Bright Angel Canyon. There was no mistaking it, what with that bulbous, misshapen head with red coloring.
There was another wildlife encounter we could have done without. As we hiked along the canyon bottom, a pink-hued Grand Canyon rattlesnake suddenly chattered to life, coiling alongside the trail not 3 feet from where my wife's next step was to be. We lurched back, and, hearts pounding, marveled at how its coloring identically matched the creek-bed stones as it slithered into the underbrush.
At Cottonwood Campground, one of three locations where piped drinking water is available, a ranger urged us to "wet up." It was another seven miles to Phantom Ranch, but a good bit of that would be spent in the Box, a narrow gorge of black metamorphic rock that radiates afternoon heat like a pancake griddle.
No drinking water is available over those seven miles, so plastic bladders holding eight liters went into my pack 17 1/2 pounds in all and we heeded the ranger's admonition by repeatedly dunking our shirts and hats in the stream and donning them sopping wet. This becomes "artificial sweat" for the hiker, providing evaporative cooling as it dries in the sun. And those shirts seemed to dry in about 10 minutes.
The Box went on forever. Other hikers we talked to agreed that it seemed to be some kind of cruel trick. Was some unseen force imperceptibly elongating this thing, as in a bad dream?
Never was there a sweeter sight than the trees, rooftops and rustic vestiges of civilization that is Phantom Ranch. And in the Canteen, never did a lowly Budweiser taste so good.
"Welcome down," said the young woman who checked us in.
Some of the cabins here date to 1922, designed by the masterful Mary Colter, who is responsible for the South Rim's most distinctive historic structures. But though the pillars of sandstone boulders, dark-wood paneling and well-scuffed concrete floors provided character, rim-to-rim hikers seem to have much greater appreciation for the overworked window air conditioners and the central shower house.
Regrettably, the dining fare seems to be mired in Colter's era steak, a heavy beef stew. It's not what your body should have to process at a time of extreme daily exertion.
The slumber here tends to be deep and peaceful, with windows opened to the cool nighttime temperatures and the music of a tumbling creek. The stargazing can be wondrous, too, depending on the moon's cycle.
The dawn, of course, brings an inescapable mandate: getting out.
Muscles and joints groan from the abuse of the descent, and although there are many impressive sights ahead the greenish Colorado River swirling beneath the Silver Bridge as you cross, idyllic Pipe Creek, stout red-rock monuments like the Battleship sightseeing tends to lose the high priority it had on the hike down. It is soon overtaken by a dogged compulsion to keep putting one foot before the other.
But prudence is advisable in that regard, too. "A lot of people get this press-on-regardless mentality," said Phillips, the rescue ranger. "They have a flight to catch in Flagstaff. They have a dinner reservation. They end up pushing it. What you really need to do is pull over in the shade. It's not the interstate. You have to listen to your body."
We encountered one fellow on the trail who was heeding that warning. He was collapsing into one patch of shade after another, every 50 or so feet along the trail, before finally deciding to hunker down in the shade of Indian Garden and wait out the afternoon. He and his girlfriend planned to hike out at 6 p.m. or so, under the light of headlamps.
Others clustered at the three water stations on the Bright Angel Trail, drinking, ducking their heads under the tap, reclining in the shade. Thus, these stations took on the character of desert oases on the trading routes of ancient Arabia. People were visibly psyching themselves up to leave these restorative havens to strike out and ever upward on the trail.
It's heartening on a rim-to-rim hike to encounter a kind of fraternal spirit among all hikers. If someone is dragging or has taken on a zombie expression, passing hikers will ask, "You OK?" "How're you doing?" Complete strangers offer water, food and encouragement. I poured some water over the head of an overheated woman, and she fairly blubbered with gratitude.
At Traver's suggestion, we also got our minds off the uphill drudgery by conversing on various subjects, or by setting incremental goals let's just get to that next turn in the trail. What you don't want to do is look too often toward the rim. It seems so far away, so high, so unattainable.
"Hiking Grand Canyon is 95 percent psychological," Traver said. "Yes, it's physically demanding, but if you've got the right attitude I can do this you'll make good decisions."
Cruelly, any ascent of the Bright Angel Trail concludes with Heartbreak Hill "a long, arcing switchback," said Phillips. "It is a steeper grade, and it really gets to hikers."
But what a sense of accomplishment to reach the mouth of the trail and step onto the rim at the Kolb Studio.
True appreciation for this accomplishment might come later, after you've ridden one of the commercial shuttles on the circuitous, 215-mile drive around the east end of the canyon and back to the North Rim.
Following a delectable night of sleep, you'll probably want to stand at one of the overlooks and pick out some of the distant landmarks that you traversed on foot: the craggy length of Bright Angel Canyon, the top of the Colorado River gorge, the green sliver that is Indian Garden, and of course the pinyon-crowned Kaibab limestone of the South Rim.
A family near us marveled at this view, and one member was overheard saying, "Mom was talking to a guy last night who hiked all the way down there and out the other side."
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