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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: "Heat Zombies" - Summer On The Bright Angel Trail

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Scott Thybony
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The heat wave has eased, giving me a chance to slip in a canyon hike before the next one begins.  I time my arrival at the trailhead for dawn to avoid peak heat.  A week ago the bottom of Grand Canyon registered a high of 115 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it gets into triple-digits hikers shuffle along with blank stares, becoming what the inner canyon rangers call “heat zombies.” 

Bright Angel Trail cuts sharply back on itself, reversing direction in a long switchback as it descends deeper.  The constant tread of boots and hooves has worn smooth the rocks in the trail as each year thousands of visitors head below the rim.  Most make it back up.  

The hikers I pass speak a half-dozen languages and come in all shapes and sizes and states of disrepair.  They range from serious trekkers to those who’ve never stepped off a sidewalk before.  Terrified of the big drops, they hug the inside of the trail while inching downward.  One guy wears flip-flops, and I once saw a woman wobbling along in high heels.  

This morning I find myself as much a part of the parade as the daytrippers and bucket-listers, needing to put in a few canyon miles to test an injury.  When I first began exploring Grand Canyon, we would tear down Bright Angel as fast as possible to get beyond the main corridor and into the backcountry.  The wilder and rougher, the better.  On our return after spending days far from any trail, the Bright Angel felt like a freeway at rush hour.  Sometimes I’ve pushed up it willing each foot to lift one more time.  On other days everything clicks into place as a natural rhythm carries me steadily along. 

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Credit Scott Thybony
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Hiking the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park

The trail winds downward in corkscrew twists, and at the four-mile mark I turn back.  When a string of pack mules approaches, I step off the trail and let them pass.  My rule of thumb is to yield the right of way to whoever has the biggest ears.  Continuing up, I soon pass a place known as Heartbreak Hill.  A visual trick has fooled many hikers into thinking they’ve reached the top.  Then they round a corner and find a last, long switchback climbing steeply ahead.  Some give out here, collapsing next to the trail until they regain the will to continue.  And one time it lived up to its name when a hiker died of a heart attack right on Heartbreak Hill.

Working as a guide I once headed to the top under the weight of two backpacks when someone needed help.  But I draw the line at carrying people out, unlike Jeffe Aronson.  The river guide told me about a hitchhiker he had invited on a hike down the Bright Angel.  She weighed only 90 pounds, ate a strict macrobiotic diet, and happened to be on a fast.  After reaching the bottom she was too weak to hike out.  Jeffe used all his tricks to get her moving but nothing worked.  His only option was to carry her out on his back. 

“Once we reached the rim,” he said, “she heads straight for the snack bar for a burger, fries, and a chocolate shake.  I couldn’t believe it!”

At the trailhead I find a Boy Scout sprawled out exhausted.  “When I look at the Grand Canyon after hiking into it,” he tells his friend, “it scares me.  That last mile and a half was a lot longer than a mile and a half.”  

A hike below the rim has taught him the difference between a mile measured on the map and a canyon mile.  Like most of us, he’s had to learn a hard lesson the hard way.   

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Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.