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May 18, 2005

Still not dead

Or at least if I am, then heaven is a cafe in Williams with Wi-Fi, excellent espresso and a waitress with a gorgeous smile.

Hmm. Let me check my pulse.

The canyon was rather warm: 110-115 in the inner gorge along sunny parts of the trail, and Bill hefted my pack late in the trip and estimated it at 40 or 45 pounds. That was after we ate a bunch of food and before I'd (yes, Pica and Kathy) refilled the 240 ounces of water container. Call it a 55 pound pack downhill on that first grueling day, past the struggling, clueless day-hikers who had decided to ignore the warnings not to hike to the river and back in one day with no water.

I gave two of said hikers, who looked as if they would not make it up the waterless South Kaibab, about a quart of water. Not enough to save their lives unless someone else up the trail did the same. But it lightened my load and I - uncharacteristically - made it to the river with plenty to spare.

I have stories and a few photos. I'll tell you a few after I get home on Friday. Here's one to hold you.

On Friday, I met my fellow hikers Bill and Joan and their friend Cindy at the South Rim. Joan had scored us rooms at the El Tovar, and theirs had a wide balcony with a view of the Canyon, the rim only a few feet away. Bill and I sat there, catching up, talking about desert writing. We stretched out in the shade on chaises longue. California condors flew overhead, slowly soaring maybe thirty feet directly over us.

They were the Vermilion Cliffs condors, released a few years back to diversify the range of released condors, and they'd moved to the populated South Rim. They roost at the top of the Bright Angel Trail these days: my pack and I walked past them yesterday after climbing 2400 feet or so from Indian Gardens. They were nonchalant as polyglot tourists pointed and shrugged. ("Some kind of bird, I guess. Should we throw a rock to make them move?" "I might throw something larger after your rock," I told one such joker.)

Unfortunately the condors have not migrated to feed on the mouldering corpses of clueless rim-to-river dayhikers from the frat houses of Texas A&M, but rather on a couple poor, innocent pack mules who took a wrong step somewhere down the trail. Those mules now soar above the canyon, hours at a time hanging motionless on a thermal with not so much as a flicker of wing.

I know now what wording to put into my living will, and it involves haaving my mercury amalgam fillings removed for recyling, Becky to haul the remainder to the North Rim somewhere to be chucked over a convenient ledge: incentive for the condors to stay away from the kind of people who throw rocks.

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A sky burial! I wrote in my living will about wanting a sky burial, too. I would love to be part of a condor after I die.


Posted by: GrrlScientist at May 18, 2005 04:22 PM
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Sounds like heaven to me, all of it, smile & wifi & condors & canyon. All except the rock-throwers, of course.

I spent my seventh birthday at the bottom of the Canyon, with the river rushing by. I still remember the red cliffs, and the green river, and the delight I took in the name "Kaibab."

Posted by: dale at May 18, 2005 05:27 PM
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I've never spent time in a desert, except to skirt the edge of the Sahara once and drive through Western Oregon, but nothing close up, kneeling in the sand, eyeing Gila Monsters and Saguaro. I've often dreamed of lying and watching the stars in a desert and so I envy the times you get to wander in the western deserts that I've read so much about. But at least I have your rich words to bring me as close I am likely to get for a while.

I've been wondering how the American condors are doing in their comeback. I heard that the news has been encouraging. Do you often get a chance to see one?

This year I'll be spending a lot of time up in the alpine regions of the mountains here in Japan. I've spent the last two years learning how to cut my pack weight down to the recently popular "ultralight" weights (base pack weight of about 10 pounds) and finally feel comfortable enough with tarping, light sleeping bags, and lightweight shoes that I can get up into the alpine ridges, where the winds can be ferocious, without feeling I am inadequately prepared. It's such a liberating feeling to be walking so light and to have that connection with wildlife and the weather that a tarp provides (though I have yet to see how the system works with black flies, no-see-ums, and mosquitoes!).

I've never walked in a place where worry about water is such a primal concern. There are mountain creeks and springs everywhere in the high mountains here, almost all pristine and not even needing filtering. What must it be like to have to carry 240 oz of water! Phew! Must make you feel like a camel!

Posted by: butuki at May 18, 2005 07:14 PM
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Just glad to hear from you Chris. Enjoy.

Posted by: OGeorge at May 18, 2005 10:42 PM
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You do know that oogling waitresses uses up more water due to excess blinking?


Posted by: susurra at May 18, 2005 11:36 PM
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The South Rim really is a mess. Having come from New York City when I visited the Grand Canyon, the numbers were not at first offensive. It was only after hiking the Bright Angel Trail and spending time in the tourist village that I realized just how many of the visitors viewed the experience as an alternate Disney World.

Miles down the canyon, though, side trails offered the intimacy I was seeking. Time spent sitting and listening proved most productive. In this way I spotted many curious bird species and found (or saw once I knew what to look for) several reptile species, including one I had so hoped to see in the wild, the beautiful Grand Canyon rattlesnake (Crotalus abyssus).

Frustratingly, once back with the group, I again had to contend with the refrain, "So when is the next big one?," referring to the Colorado's rapids.

Despite the attitides of some visitors, I envy you your current location. Enjoy yourself.

Posted by: Hun at May 19, 2005 12:05 PM
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"Unfortunately the condors have not migrated to feed on the mouldering corpses of clueless rim-to-river dayhikers from the frat houses of Texas A&M, but rather on a couple poor, innocent pack mules..."

That's a little over the top of the rim. I think your sublimated light-pack envy is showing.

Posted by: murky at May 20, 2005 07:46 AM
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I'm keeping my fingers crossed for pictures of the condors! Trade you a chipping sparrow, ok?

Posted by: Rurality at May 20, 2005 07:58 AM
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Sorry, Rur; no condor shots. Sometimes they took me by surprise, and the rest of the time I really wanted to watch them without a camera lens in the way.

Murky, I appreciate your ongoing efforts to keep me civilized. However, I stand by my hyperbole. We're talking about people who:
1) disregard strongly worded advice not to walk rim-river-rim in one day in the printed material given every single person entering the park;
2) walk past signs saying "don't do it";
3) walk past rangers stationed at intervals along the trail who say "don't do it";
4) get all huffy when said rangers are even slightly persistent in pointing out that a 16-mile hike with more than 4000 feet in elevation gain in three-digit temperatures wearing tennis shoes and carrying a 48-ounce bottle of water for two adults and a pre-teen child will likely have repercussions ranging from unpleasant to multiply fatal;
5) require helicopter rescue when their stamina gives out, resulting in significant expense and extreme risk to the helicopter pilots and rangers.

Part of the reason my pack was heavy was that I always carry extra water for these clowns. The ones I helped this time were in bad shape, and had deliberately chosen not only to walk the round trip in one day with insufficient water, but had chosen the harder direction besides: down Bright Angel and up the steeper South Kaibab. I'm sorry that some of these people die, and have gone to some personal inconvenience and discomfort to do what I can to improve their odds of making it to the top when I'm there.

But the mules had no choice in the matter. They were conscripted. I'm not going to apologize for thinking their loss the greater sadness.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 20, 2005 09:01 AM
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"But the mules had no choice in the matter."

Then according to Aristotle their tale is less tragic.

But I think I see now where you're coming from. At first I read you as saying "if I could kill two beings, I'd rather kill a couple of the frat guys I've met than two of the mules I've met" but really you're saying something more like "if I were writing a country music ballad on deadline, I could write a sadder tale of two mules than I could about two of the people I consider most likely to find dead down in this valley." I sympathize with the misunderstanding, because I often undercontextualize when I make my jokes about hanging black people.

Posted by: murky at May 20, 2005 10:40 AM
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No, nothing over-the-top about that one, including the pumping up of idle preference into a wish to murder. And the American history version of Godwinning.

Welcome back to civilization, Chris. Geez, you missed all the rain.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at May 20, 2005 03:27 PM
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murky - Some might say this is a skinny limb I'm going out on, but I'm guessing your not a PETA fund raiser.

And for the record, I find your jokes about stringing up black people to be in extremely poor taste.

As to: "The ones I helped this time were in bad shape, and had deliberately chosen not only to walk the round trip in one day with insufficient water, but had chosen the harder direction besides: down Bright Angel and up the steeper South Kaibab. I'm sorry that some of these people die, and have gone to some personal inconvenience and discomfort to do what I can to improve their odds of making it to the top when I'm there."

Chris - Since you're a scientist, I would have thought that you, of all people, would understand the importance of natural selection in culling the unfit from the gene pool. Yet here you go throwing a wrench in the works. Unbelievable.

Posted by: tost at May 20, 2005 03:40 PM
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i did once do a 16 mile day hike up mt san jacinto in desert heat wearing my usual footgear--thongs. but i went up first, so the return was, as we say, all downhill.

you are indeed a good soul to carry extra water.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at May 21, 2005 08:38 AM
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The world is full of morons.

When I went down into Havasu, as part of an elementary school field trip, even all of us kids knew that we needed to bring a bunch of water, and none of us thought that eleven miles was short enough that we could walk it twice in a day, let alone with the second trip being uphill.

Your story reminds me of this one family I encountered in the San Jacintos. It was late spring, so I was expecting that there would be snow on top and the possibility of late storms, and so was all geared up with warm things and enough supplies to survive an overnight if I got caught in a storm. Anyway, I encountered this family about 2/3rds of the way up. It consisted of father, mother, and two boys. The father, who was hiking without water and wearing only jeans and a sweat-sodden t-shirt, was a good quarter mile up the trail from the others (I only knew they were "together" because she kept yelling plaintively for him to slow down). The older kid was somewhere behind him, walking with no direction or clue -- I had to point out the difference between the real trail and a deer trail to him -- and the mother was struggling in the rear, trying to keep the younger child from melting down. (She was the only one dressed appropriately, and carrying a pack and water, of the lot.) So I stayed in constellation with them all the way up the trail, catching up with the father, then slowing to allow the others to catch up to me, until we got to the top (where it was windy and chilly and there was indeed snow). Up there were a well-clad father and son in camping gear, so I figured I could leave the family behind at that point.

There are benefits to having urban areas near to wilderness, but increasing the likelihood of underprepared people getting into trouble in an unforgiving environment is not one of them. Especially when they worry and irritate the people who know what they're doing. I hope that some of that family will have gotten enough from the experience to learn to go about it properly, but I'm doubtful.

Posted by: Rana at May 21, 2005 09:57 AM
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Americans and Californians in particular are equipment fetishists, and used to middle class comfort besides. No one setting out on a National Park trail is looking for a potentially fatal physical and emotional ordeal, but if one just remembers that Homo sapiens are capable of enduring a lot, I think one has to conclude that water and snacks and shoes and all kinds of things aren't matters of life and death but for a few especially unlucky and/or unfit doofusses. I suspect most people die because they can't believe what might be necessary for them to save themselves. Few people are as sober and rational as the guy who cut off his hand.

Posted by: murky at May 22, 2005 06:48 AM
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murky, I concur. As a skinny not-so-fit person who likes to hike and camp alone, I figure it's my brains and judgement and determination that save me from disaster, not my stuff per se.

That said, I like my gear, and it does make the whole experience more enjoyable, and I'd rather have it than not when disaster strikes.

Posted by: Rana at May 23, 2005 07:00 PM
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Sometimes I wonder how the human race will fare in the evolution scramble, seeing as how we deliberately condone stupidity and obliviousness as a legitimate state of being to lead our daily lives. We puff up our chests in inflated frumpery about our so called intelligence, and yet, when I walk to work every day and eye the huge jungle crows that watch me with so much keen awareness I can't help but think, since they spend each and every day using their wits to survive, they surely must be more intelligent than I am.

Two years ago I took a three-day walk around the eastern base of a caldera volcano north of Tokyo. The landscape had been blasted away about 140 years ago as if by some gargantuan sneeze, trees and earth obliterated, and even boulders lobbed into the hillside opposite. It was rocky walking, with razor-edged volcanic rock that ate even leather boots for breakfast. My wife and I made the seven hour trek to the campsite at the other end of the great dish in the earth, where we camped just out of sight of the ranger station (the only source of water there).

The next day, after I spent the entire morning wandering alone with my camera in the forested hills behind the campsite, we sat talking and drinking coffee with, and then joining for lunch, the ranger and his potter wife. It began to grow dark and then began pouring rain as we sat looking out at the volcano. Suddenly a herd of about twenty walkers appeared out of the mist and came trudging up to the ranger station. We stared. All of them were tourists in bright colored Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts, drenched to the bone and shiveriing from the alpine chill. But what really shocked us were that the women were wearing high-heeled slippers. One woman's slippers had shredded to strips on the volcanic rock and her feet were a bloody, slashed up mess. The ranger dashed for his first aid kit and bound up her feet, while his wife found an old pair of sneakers for the woman to use. It was getting dark and the walk back to the trailhead seven hours away, but the whole troupe insisted, in deference to their alpha male, on heading back out and finding their way along the treacherous trail.

Nothing we could do except shake out heads. I think even the ranger's two stately Samoyeds shook their shaggy white heads.

Posted by: butuki at May 24, 2005 05:58 PM
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