Section hiking the Grand Canyon…the length of the Grand Canyon!….is (almost) insane. Only 12 people have managed it. Only 12 people have been on the moon. Just saying.
The lessons learned are not totally unique. Well, maybe the one about cactus prickles is unique.
So, they live and learn, and share those lessons with others.
It’s incredibly hard. And almost seems impossible. But they got the first leg done. We applaud them and can hardly wait to hear about the second leg!
Photograph by Pete McBride
I knew it would be hard, but not spirit-crushing hard. Our plan to walk the Grand Canyon as a sectional thru-hike would be a lengthy, logistical monster of sorts.
I don’t mean to suggest that I took it lightly. On the contrary, I trained for three months climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado with a heavy pack. Writer Kevin Fedarko did similar in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona.
So walking 600 miles across the desert landscape of the Grand Canyon would be daunting and humbling, but kinda fun and, of course, stunning.
Unlike others with “trail” in the name, there is NO trail through the vast majority of the Grand Canyon. There are also no towns, limited water, no cell coverage until the West, little sat phone coverage and a daunting 5,000-plus-foot vertical climb out if things go wrong.
Chris Atwood treats water with a UV water filter. Photograph by Pete McBride
In late September we set off from Lees Ferry. And just days in a few things went wrong. Fedarko and I shadowed a team led by canyoneering guru Rich Rudow doing a 56-day thru-hike. We planned to join them for just 15 days, but left even sooner due to unforeseen challenges that a sweltering September heat wave helped instigate (temps soared well above 100 degrees F for a week).
But during what I’d call an intense thrashing (physical and psychological) some valuable lessons emerged… for the next legs:
1. The Canyon respects no one. Period. It doesn’t matter how many “rodeos” you have done.
2. Weight kills. I never counted ounces before, but now I am fanatical. Ounces make pounds and pounds slow you down, creating more time between water access—and water is life. As thru-hiker Andrew Holycross told me, “You quickly learn to carry what you need, not what you want.” One problem, when documenting for Nat Geo. You need (and want) professional cameras, and solar panels, and batteries, etc.. This adds 10 to 12 pounds that other trekkers don’t worry about.
3. Salt is key. And a lifesaver. Hyponatremia is a term I didn’t know when I started , but now I understand it too well. It’s not fun. Due to exertion, heat and sweating too much , you deplete your salt levels too far and often make the situation worse by drinking excessive water thinking you are dehydrated because your body stops urinating to preserve salt. I was close to flapping around with seizures and ending in a coma. Luckily, when I neared the unconscious phase, before seizures (wobbly and tunnel vision, two days after full body cramps), I was slightly restored thanks to some packs of soy sauce (high sodium).
The blisters of fun. High temps, sweat, sand and angled walking make for tough feet. Photograph by Pete McBride
4. Blisters: Take ‘em seriously: I’ve never had problems before , but they can be the bane of your existence if they fester. Mine did, thanks to high temps, endless fine-grain sand filling my shoes and acting like sandpaper for miles of angled trail-less, exposed hiking.
5. Cactus: Avoid. Hiking gaiters help (we purchased some for this next leg). But if you can’t avoid them—impossible, really, during miles of trail-less desert terrain—then extract needles with aggression. I had a few cactus kisses and didn’t remove needles with enough vigor. Two weeks later, they worked into my ankle joint and required surgical removal. Also, not much fun.
Fedarko and McBride hiked much of the canyon in this image. Photograph by Pete McBride
6. If you prepare properly, the canyon and its magical, secret world of ancient rock and wonderous wildlife, may speak to you (amidst occasional pain caves). If you are ill prepared, then expect the canyon scream. My ears (and ego) still hurt from 60 miles of canyon screaming on our first leg.
Just 540 miles to go… prepare, prepare, prepare. Back to the scale to weigh ounces.
On Sunday writer Kevin Fedarko and photographer Pete McBride return to the Grand Canyon to start the second of six legs of their thru-hike.