Scott Thybony's Grand Canyon Commentary: The Unseen Canyon

Nov 8, 2013

The Grand Canyon is - without a doubt - a visually stunning place. But, there's more to that beauty than what can be seen with the human eye. That's something commentator Scott Thybony has learned on his backcountry adventures below the Canyon's rim.

As we drifted downriver, a blind paddler on my boat mentioned how he liked to visit the South Rim several times a year. The Grand Canyon is such an overwhelming visual experience, I had trouble understanding the attraction for someone who couldn't see. So he explained how he would stand alone and just listen to the stillness, sensing the great emptiness before him.

His comments opened my eyes, so to speak, to the unseen Canyon. I thought about the rhythmic swish of a raven's wing, the low rumble of a rapid growing in volume and pitch as the boat drifts closer, even the digital chirps and clicks of cameras on Bright Angel Point at sunrise. The sounds I could remember ranged from the transcendent to the terrifying.

I once stood next to a BASE jumper, dressed in a black wingsuit, as he strapped on a parachute. We were on the rim of the Little Colorado Gorge above a sheer, 1,500-foot drop. After taking several deep breaths and exhaling heavily, he paced off a few steps and simply kept walking into empty space. A sense of unreality kicked in as he fell precipitously, dropping straight down at a tremendous speed. I was amazed by how fast a human body falls. In a split second he was out of sight, and I could hear the roar of his falling body build to a crescendo as his speed accelerated.

In a movie, when someone falls off a cliff, it's shown in slow motion and silent. So the sound of a body ripping through air caught me by surprise. As he reached terminal velocity it changed pitch to a tremendous, tearing rush. Then, suddenly, the canopy exploded open with a loud pop, slowing his descent, and I heard a couple of faint whoops of joy far below. I leaned over and watched him steer to a perfect landing on the sands of the dry riverbed. His jump had lasted 14, very long seconds.

On another occasion, I climbed through a narrow passage into a chamber where sandstone walls stepped upward almost a thousand feet. It was night, and we had reached the end of a branch canyon. Inside the alcove our conversation quieted, the way it does when people enter a hushed cathedral. There was little need to talk as Paul Winter and 2 other musicians unpacked a saxophone, a French horn, and an oboe. They were about to record in a place where the natural acoustics perfectly matched those of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

The 3 of them began to play at midnight when a pale band of moonlight appeared on the outer rim. At first, only a few notes. Then, before I realized what was happening, a haunting song rose from the depths of the rock chamber. The music reverberated in the darkness with a strange beauty. It seemed to have been drawn from the heart of the Canyon itself, as the musicians improvised in a space enclosed by soaring masses of rock.

From the blind paddler I had learned how our senses are only facets of a single consciousness. When sight fades, other senses strengthen. Here, in a dark rock chamber, I could only listen as a canyon wren, stirred awake by a sound it had never heard, joined in and added its clear, descending trill to the music. A rare and unexpected moment had taken place in the unseen Canyon.