YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The resistible call of the Grand Canyon

First, it was Mt. Whitney, then a trio of friends decided to hike the Canyon's South Rim. It was a weekend of great beauty — and perseverance and fortitude.

August 07, 2012|By Jordan Rane
  • With the Grand Canyon as a magnificent backdrop, hikers make their way along the South Kaibab Trail. From here, there’s a glimpse of the Colorado River below.
With the Grand Canyon as a magnificent backdrop, hikers make their way along… (John Kieffer / Getty Images,…)

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Who hasn't peered into this brain-bending abyss and failed to conceptualize 6 million years of stream erosion through a vertical mile of primordial rock?

"I'm sorry, but there's no way a river did that," huffs a voice among this evening's mesmerized herd of South Rim-at-sunset gawkers.

The voice belongs to my buddy Mark Segal, 40, a food service account manager from Long Beach. Or maybe it's my other friend Vic Leyson, 34, a business manager from Studio City. Or maybe it's me — or anyone else in this silhouetted Grand Canyon Village crowd staring dumbly into the glowing pink-orange megascape.

The next comment, though, is unmistakably Mark's.

"So that's what we're walking to the bottom of tomorrow morning," he says blankly. He turns away. He's seen enough. "All right, where's the bar around here?"

A couple of years ago, Mark, Vic and I tested our aging knees, our semi-firm resolve, our rock-solid-ish friendship by hiking together to the top of Mt. Whitney — and vowing never to do something like that again.

Then the inevitable happened. Amnesia and that restless, middle-age itch to tear ourselves from our families for 72 hours and log another long-weekend bucket-lister with the guys led us to talk about our next big, cheap, doable conquest within two gas tanks of Los Angeles. Where should we plant our flag this time? The discussion lasted about four seconds.

The Grand Canyon. You've probably heard of the place.

And perhaps, like us, you might be drawn here by some inexplicable higher calling. Or lower calling, entering the planet's most famous cleft and hoofing along vertiginous trails to its riverine basement. And (important) walking all the way back up again. Don't forget that second part.

Some people embark from the canyon's remote, higher North Rim. Others go rim to rim, walking the canyon's entire width. A few crazies go rim to rim to rim — hiking down one side, up the other, back down again and out the original side.

Our plan on that brisk weekend in mid-October (brisk at the top, it will be pushing 100 degrees at midday down below) is to backpack the classic South Rim loop. Down the steeper and more exposed, 7-mile South Kaibab Trail to the bottom, camping for a night by the river at Bright Angel Campground, and then back up by the canyon's main corridor, the 91/2 -mile Bright Angel Trail. Backcountry permits get snatched up months in advance for expeditions such as this, especially during the Grand Canyon's more temperate fall and spring shoulder seasons. Winters get icy, rainy and frigid. Summers, the most popular time to visit the rim, swelter in the lethal triple digits in the inner gorge during what the park calls its "danger months."

"A lot of people don't totally know what they're getting themselves into in the Grand Canyon, even if they think they do," says Mark Wunner, the park's Backcountry Information Center supervisor, who likens the signature rim-to-river hike to an upside-down mountain climb governed by conditions just as extreme, only different. "The fact that those conditions aren't as immediately obvious as on a snowy summit can make them even more treacherous," he says.


6:31 a.m.: The morning's first load of Hiker Express shuttle riders disembarks at the South Kaibab Trail head (7,260 feet), atop an incomprehensible panorama of pastels and monstrous receding shadows. A dawn moon hangs in the west, ending its shift. The sun's first reflected rays blast the tip of the North Rim, 10 miles of empty sky away.

"It just doesn't seem real," says Vic, setting up a wide-angle-lens-defying shot of the three of us before we head down into the canyon's gaping jaws.

It's true. From up here, your eyes can't help but refab the Grand Canyon into a magnificently fake 1950s Hollywood backdrop. It's two-dimensional. Not real at all.

"It'll seem real pretty soon," Mark mutters as he tightens a strap and blows into his hands. It's still in the low 40s. We can see our breath. Last night was barely above freezing. Thank God for air mattresses and warm socks.

7:08 a.m.: Get these socks off me. The sun still hasn't shown its face above the cliffs, but after our first set of switchbacks, my mouth is like sandpaper and it's already time to strip off layers and swig more water.

7:22 a.m.: At a dizzying overlook called Ooh Aah Point, we stare into the gorgeous void, grinning stupidly. If you're not experiencing ineffable joy at Ooh Aah Point, please consult your doctor.

"I'm really happy we're doing this," says Mark, succumbing. Vic and I nod. Enough said. We continue heading down. Down. Down.

Los Angeles Times Articles