In the retrospect of travelogues, the real dangers of desert hiking can be cushioned in a fabric of good-humored wordplay and woven unreality. But there are real dangers, almost all avoidable through some luck, but mostly--to say it once again--by attention and observation.
Rocks, for the most part, do not fall. The Canyon works so slowly that, except very occasionally during the spring, rockfalls are never seen--unless hikers cause them. The near-accident descending into Slate Canyon is unforgettable, as the scree settled under Stevie's feet, sending a boulder bouncing directly toward me, fifty feet below. Knowing the trail led through unstable terrain, we deliberately separated so we would not be pelted with rocks; but this did not prepare me to face the dislodging of something large, round and unstoppable.
As unpracticed, returning hikers, we have endured many varieties of slip-and-slide in the first day or so. Following the trail over rockfalls requires care, and thin ledges around washes can give way. But an unexpected conspirator is your pack: If you turn your body to speak with your hiking partner along a ledge or next to a tree, your pack can bounce you right off the trail--wherever that sends you.
Exploring off the trail in at-large areas always presents some risk, and rappeling anywhere requires experience--and often permission. Avoid either of these as a beginner.
Plants won't hurt you if you stay out of their way ... an impossibility anywhere outside your car. Obviously, pick nothing. The scratches you get from blackbrush, acacia, locust, and various shrubs and trees are inconsequential to the un-allergic.
Although not poisonous, cactus spines are thoroughly unpleasant. A Field Guide to the Grand Canyon has some lovely illustrations in Plate 40, well worth looking up, showing the variety of spines: straight, barbed, curved and hooked. Well, you say, I'll just avoid them! Alas, cacti drop little starbursts of spines--reproductive business, I suppose--that can form highly uncomfortable ground cover. We had thankfully removed our shoes and socks at Boucher Creek, and were setting up our tent when we stepped into a bed of cactus radials. There was nowhere to go but up ... and down again, onto the spines. Zowdy!
Dead prickly pear cacti make their way onto the trail, and if you don't see one, you can kick the spines clear through your boot into your toes. The cactus areoles on beavertail produce glochids, not spines, highly painful and irritating collections of invisible hairs. I cannot phrase it as lusciously as Stephen Whitney in his Field Guide, who explains that cactus spines
...can cause severe local pain. Some are equipped with barbs or hooks and must be extracted with pliers, a distressing process; but unless a person accidentally falls into a cactus patch and receives numerous, widespread wounds, cactus spines pose no immediate dangers. Should a spine break off below the skin, however, one should see a physician to have it removed surgically. Otherwise, severe pain and serious infection can result.
I love it. He goes on about prickly pears and their glochids,
...which are extremely irritating when embedded in the skin. Because of their small size, they are often difficult or impossible to remove, even with the aid of tweezers. Eventually, they are dissolved by the body, but until then the afflicted area is painful when touched.
Having experienced many of these sensations, I can say: Don't touch 'em, don't kick 'em, and don't touch your boots if you kicked glochids, you glochid-kicker, you! (And don't back into agave, either.)
Most animals are no danger, except to your food supply. Little scuffling and snorting critters begin exploring the campsites in the early hours of the evening. Brazen kangaroo rats show up for dinner, waiting in the shadows, and sometimes continue their food search well into the night. Hanging supplies in smooth, synthetic stuffsacks is the best you can do, but these persistent and clever rodents will have at whatever you leave unprotected. In fact, they will chew through empty backpacks that still have even the scent of food--so leave those zippers open.
Once, sleeping tentless at Monument Creek, I felt something brush my face; as I came awake from the soft, gentle touch, I recognized where I was, but continued to breathe quietly and deeply. After a moment, my ears could focus on the creature's motion, and in the half-moonlight I could make out a shape. I had kept my flashlight at hand in my bag, and swung a beam of light toward a beautiful, slender, two-foot-long--and very shy--ringtail cat, member of the raccoon family. It slipped silently away.
We have never encountered scorpions, but we do shake out our boots before putting them on. Tarantulas have jumped scarily out of their hiding places to challenge us along the trail, and I must admit I was disinclined to explore whatever it was they were protecting. Spiders also skitter on the desert floor, virtually all of them harmless (yes, the black widow can be found in the Canyon, too).
More seriously, we have unexpectedly encountered rattlesnakes several times. We met our first rattlesnake in Monument Canyon, and have run into them in four of the last five hikes--in the scree at Slate Canyon, under a datura in Hermit Creek, on a ledge in Monument Canyon, and along a mud wall at Tanner Rapids. According to most literature, these encounters are a rarity, but our (safe-distance) photographs and the convincing evidence of our ears proved that these were unquestionably the genuine article. We have also learned the sound of their unusual pre-rattle chiff (as if someone was calling pssst! from under a rock), and have learned to respect the warning and get out of the area--quietly, gently, firmly, but obviously and always with an eye on the rattler. That sound of the full rattle is the unnerving stuff of nightmares.
The greatest danger of all is dehydration. It subtly creeps up on the inattentive hiker, causing symptoms from flights of fancy to death. Throughout these journals, food lists, pack contents, and so on, the oft-repeated rule is: take water, drink water, make water, drink water. In minimizing this, you become your own greatest danger. Be sure to purify water with a working filter pump (ceramic filters can crack, so check before you leave) or water purification tablets. The giardia and coliform in the Grand Canyon's sadly polluted creeks and groundwater cause diarrhea, which then causes dehydration, worsening an already difficult situation.
On the subject of water, there is also the converse. The clear, appealing waters of the Colorado (also often polluted) are cold and dangerous. Hypothermia sets in within a minute or two, and the swift currents can suck a person into the rapids and dash the hapless head against the rocks; even experienced swimmers have gone to their deaths in the 45-degree temperatures and rambunctious currents. A successful Canyon departure rarely includes being found a month later in the Gulf of California. Stay out.
A plethora of other warnings: Don't camp in dry washes, because it rains. Avoid camping under overhangs, because they occasionally do fall (just your luck). Keep off sandbars, because the water rises--and 36 CFR 2.10 forbids camping within 100 feet of water sources. Huh? It's on your permit.
Some remain good-natured and helpful through it all, like Ranger Julie, who was also a vampire fan, trading stories and addresses. Others become bureaucratic and provocative, like Ranger Tim, who "nuked" David's reservation and looked like he would take pleasure in using his gun. One ranger was David's first guide into love of the wilderness, whereas we watched two rangers do a tag-team act, taking lip-smacking pleasure telling horror stories of death and injury during the "A Broken Ankle is Not an Emergency" lecture. Still another advised us of our route with care and knowledge, offering trail descriptions and water conditions--which most of the time you have to ask for, since rangers largely want you gone so they can get some outdoor time.
What kind of ranger you'll meet is a tossup, and on the trail it's wise to treat them like you've been stopped for speeding. Protecting the environment from thoughtless intruders is not a pleasant task, and they will be there to help--perhaps not enthusiastically, but nevertheless hiking down with medical supplies and stretchers--when you do something really stupid in the middle of the night. So cut 'em a break (when they deserve it), do your hiking homework, and throw a few dollars into the big acrylic box for the BRO backcountry fund.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.