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Conquering the Grand Canyon

Six determined women make it to the bottom and back on a beginner's trek that fulfills dreams--and punishes bodies.


GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK--There are six of us, all women, sitting in the dusk about 1,300 feet above the Colorado River. The rock "temples" of the canyon surround us, Shiva and Isis to the left, Brahma and Zoroaster to the right. All eyes are trained on a maiden moon, draped in gossamer clouds, hanging in the darkening sky. No one says a word. Everything is just the way we like it.

Tucked away safely in my mind and captioned "Six Women Gazing at the Moon on Plateau Point," this Ansel Adams moment somehow captures how the Grand Canyon affects people. Maybe awe of its grandeur strips away human egotism, reconnecting us to our small place in nature's scheme. Or maybe, as Melanie Miles, the leader of our little band of hikers believes, people come here for different reasons and take away whatever it is they need.

Miles is an instructor with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Like other field institutes associated with U.S. national parks, this is a nonprofit educational organization that offers in-depth outdoor programs on ecology, geology, photography, archeology, wilderness survival and other pursuits "in the field." Most are reasonably priced (mine cost $355, not including food, equipment and accommodations on the canyon rim) and involve hiking and camping. (The park service's interpretive programs, in contrast, last only a few hours and tend to stick to the heavily traveled South Rim.) "The field institute fills a need the park can't by providing back-country trips for people who don't want to do them on their own," says Judy Hellmich, head of the Grand Canyon's interpretive program.

Some field institute programs are easy, perhaps for families. Others are for experienced wilderness trekkers. My "Women's Introductory Backpack: Colorado River" program was based on a recognition that many women experience the wilderness differently from men. Programs like this one are intended to teach women their own brand of self-sufficiency in the outdoors.

Miles, a 5-foot-5, 110-pound Englishwoman who fell in love with the canyon 16 years ago on a cross-country bus trip, swears she has to use a clipboard and lift something heavy at the beginning of coed programs to gain the confidence of the men. She remembers only one man bursting into tears at first sight of the Colorado River after the hike down to the canyon bottom; women do it all the time.

But there I will leave it, because the story of my trip--seven miles down South Kaibab Trail from the South Rim to Bright Angel Campground at canyon bottom, then back up Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden and the rim again--hasn't anything to do with men. It has to do with six women between 35 and 55 and the goals they met by taking part in the program.

The trip wouldn't impress canyon veterans or lovers of extreme sports. It was a Grand Canyon classic, down and up trails trod by thousands, with a two-night stay at the Bright Angel Campground and a final night at Indian Garden Campground, halfway up the South Rim, to break up the tough climb out. Only 5% of the roughly 5 million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year go below the rim, and only about 10% of those make it to the river.

The canyon is a vertical world, extremely hard to hike. The South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, which lose about 5,000 feet in elevation from rim to bottom, severely tax lungs, knees and thighs. In the stiflingly hot summer, people blithely embark from the South Rim without enough water, expecting to reach the river and climb back out in a day. Some turn around partway down, exhausted. More than 400 people were rescued in the Grand Canyon last year, a national park system high.

The women in my group would make it all the way, with dignity, Melanie assured us. She surely would. At 37, Melanie has trekked from rim to river to rim at least 75 times, and between hikes works as a Colorado River rafting guide.

The first day was spent largely in a classroom at the field institute headquarters. We had filled out lengthy health questionnaires and knew what to expect because the field institute brochure carefully rates the difficulty of its trips (ours was a 3-plus on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the toughest). In class, we shared our reasons for taking part in the program. Melanie, who looks more like an elf than an Amazon, says women tend to want to talk about an impending challenge as a way of processing their emotions and getting support, while men just want to go out there and get through it. But there was little fear or soul-searching in my group.

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