Sixtymile - Grand Canyon Glossary

A Grand Canyon Explorer's Glossary

The Importance of Terminology

A favorite lesson learned from the Harvey Butchart "Treks" books is the value of precision in language. Harvey, probably because of his training as a mathematician, uses words more carefully than most and with a consistent meaning. However, some fieldwork is useful to calibrate his terminology. Then you can appreciate the particular meaning of "arduous" or "perfectly safe." The definitions supplied here should help the reader to more quickly understand hiking guidebooks, and to calibrate their own experience to mine. I may not be perfectly consistent in terminology, but I am making an effort to be.

The Terms

Alluvial — A geographic term referring to an area deposited by surface erosion over a period of time, a generally level region of a canyon bottom or delta area. Distinctly different from slope.

Arduous — This can't really be defined because it is entirely subjective, but those who have hiked with Harvey Butchart, or attempted to duplicate his travels would not easily believe that he ever found hiking "arduous."

Bay — Refers to a curvature in the line of the rim between two minor promontories or points. This most often refers to the rim of Grand Canyon but can also apply to a portion of the Tapeats (Tonto rim) or Redwall cliff. The structure of the cliffs enclosing any major or minor side canyon are made up of a series of bays. Although this is a useful descriptive reference it is often difficult to interpret precisely.

Bench — Larger than a shelf. See also: ledge, shelf, and terrace.

Boulder-hop — Refers to the skill of moving rapidly from rock to rock across a boulder field. This is more energy-efficient than finding a stable balance for each step. Make sure to try this only someplace where the rocks are big enough and have settled long enough to be stable, such as close by the riverbank.

Break — Is part of a cliff that it is not a cliff. The ease of access for such a place is subjective and uncertain. More often than not there is some climbing, and if the discoverer of the break was a good climber it may be quite difficult and may have exposure. Most breaks that are a key access on a popular route are not difficult ones.

Cairn — Refers to a stack of rocks designating a trail or route. Trails are usually distinct and don't need such marking, but parts of the Tonto Trail or sections of Thunder River Trail on the Esplanade are quite obscure. A cairn of importance at a fork may be extra large, but some cairns are for other purposes such as geographic survey or mining. An alternate term is "duck" along with the expression "two rocks do not make a duck," meaning just one rock upon another could be accidental. There is also a formation at the rim known as "Duck on a Rock" that relates to this term. For more commentary, see About Exploring.

Chockstone — Refers to a large boulder wedged in a crevice, ravine, or streambed, and is generally some kind of obstacle. The term "chokestone," appearing in some writing, seems to be a misunderstanding of this word.

Cohort — Is defined here because I am annoyed with the way it is often used. The term originates as a unit of the Roman army that would number from 300 to 600. Today, a cohort may be understood to be a loosely associated group, perhaps even several hikers. But to refer to one person as a "cohort" or to a couple of companions as "cohorts" is completely wrong.

Climb — Indicates that handholds are required. If it's just an elevation change the preferred terminology should be "ascend," "descend," "go up," or "go down."

Creek — Does not mean that there is water. Most drainages in Grand Canyon have this word for the place-name, but most "creeks" are dry more often than not, especially below the south rim. Any time you are hiking or camping in or near a creek be aware of the danger of flash flood (See Hazards and Risks).

Downclimb — Means climbing down (surprise!); it is always more difficult to climb down than to climb up at the same place.

Drainage — Most often refers to an unnamed feature that is a side-canyon to a side-canyon or a minor side-canyon to the river. Usually larger than a ravine.

Dropoff — Signifies something impassable with a height that would make any fall fatal. If no bypass is mentioned then none is known.

Exposure — Means different things to different people. It's generally used where the drop would be close enough to be threatening, a fall would probably be fatal, and handholds or extra care are critical to staying safe. See Hiking and Exposure.

GCLH-I and II — These are the George Steck "Loops" books, perhaps the most valuable and well-written guides on Grand Canyon hiking in print today (more comments and info in Essential Books). Important cross-references to these books appear often in my notes.

GCT — This is the new edition of Grand Canyon Treks (currently in print) that combines the three original books. I suppose it would be better to only use references from the new edition since they are now all in one volume, but I wrote much of this material before the new edition. See Essential Books.

GCT-I, II, and III — These are the original Harvey Butchart "Treks" books, or what might be considered the second-generation guidebooks (the first being G.W. James). OK, the first title doesn't really have a number, but I like it better that way and it distinguishes from the new, combined edition. Most of the guidebook references in my notes are from this set. See Essential Books.

Goes — We say that something "goes" when there is reason to think there might be a serious obstacle to travel but it is actually a practical (perhaps difficult) route for passage with pack. This term generally should not be applied if there is serious or dangerous climbing involved, in which case it "doesn't go."

HGCB — Refers to Hiking in the Grand Canyon Backcountry by J.D. Green and Jim Ohlman. This is included in my list of Essential Books.

HGC — Refers to the Sierra Club book Hiking the Grand Canyon by John Annerino. This is the most comprehensive hiking guidebook and is included in Essential Books.

Ledge — Refers to a relatively narrow surface ranging from a few inches to a couple feet. See also: shelf, bench and terrace (progressively larger).

Lemmy — The lemonade drink name at the Phantom Ranch canteena.

Mile XXX — Always refers to the mileage downriver from Lees Ferry, which is Mile 0. This is a useful way to compare references, as river travel and unnamed locations are often described this way. There are differences in the mile-points found in different sources. I tend to favor using the markers from the two-part set Guidebook to the Colorado River, by W.K. Hamblin and J.K. Rigby, based on aerial photos. These mile-points differ from the well-known Larry Stevens river-runner guide by about a half-mile in some places. The Trails Illustrated map (Essential Maps) also has mile-points.

Pouroff — Is the same as a dropoff in the bed of a drainage or creek. The term most often tends to imply that there is no way to get down this, but there might be a bypass.

Post-holing — Upper sections of trails can be buried in snow in wintertime. Hiking in deep snow without snowshoes is called post-holing because each step goes deep into the snow and leaves a "post-hole" behind. In the worst-case, the soft snow depth may be longer than your legs and progress becomes nearly impossible.

Promontory — Is a fairly large and dramatic point of a cliff, perhaps like the bow of a very large ship. It is a common landscape feature in Grand Canyon.

Scramble — Is widely understood by off-trail hikers to mean a climb up or down requiring some skill, possibly involving some exposure. However, a "scramble" should be safe enough unroped with proper skill and caution. Someone accustomed only to trail walking might get in trouble. Someone with rockclimbing experience would find it trivial.

Ravine — Smaller than a drainage, but almost always with some difficulty in crossing. This may be a gradual ravine in an alluvial area or a steep ravine in a slope or cliff. Even alluvial ravines may have nearly vertical banks.

River-left and River-right — Is always referenced facing downriver. The same convention is used for creeks and streams.

Route — Indicates a way that is passable with a backpack. Travel may be easy or difficult, obvious or obscure, safe or hazardous. Packs may have to be lowered or raised by rope at some spots. A trail that has not had much use for some time may be more appropriately described as a route.

Shelf — Is a bit larger than a ledge; someplace you could feel more comfortable and secure.

Slide — An extensive unstable area of loose rock, very steep with risk of more rockfall, or where stepping on rocks or grabbing rocks could add risk. See Loose Rocks.

Slope — Any surface area somewhere between vertical and horizontal, generally possible to walk on but not always.

Steep — Refers to a slope that may be insecure for travel with the possibility that a slip could become a tumble that would be difficult or impossible to stop. Small obstacles requiring handholds may exist even if there is a designated trail. A very steep slope area may be a slide.

Talus — Loose rock surface covering a slope, not fun to walk on and rolling rocks could be a hazard to other hikers. Very steep talus may be a slide.

Terrace — Is a break in a cliff offering a substantial amount of space... perhaps large enough for a house or two. See also: ledge, shelf and bench. The verb-form "to terrace" means traveling across a slope at a relatively constant elevation. Whether to terrace around or go up and down can be a difficult judgment. Advice on resolving this is offered in the Theory of Least Energy.

Trace — Is less than a track. The description, "sign of travel" is sometimes used to refer to a route with very faint sign of use.

Track — Is a route in good condition... more than a trace; less than a trail. A good gametrail may be a track. A track may be faint in some parts and more than a little difficult to follow. For hints on following faint routes, see the Theory of Least Energy.

Trail — The terms "trace," "track," and "trail" are conveniently grouped by a fortunate coincidence of spelling. Most trails in Grand Canyon are not maintained and are much more difficult to follow than the Bright Angel or Kaibab trails. Unmaintained trails exist because they are used. A trail without a traditional name is often called a "route." Some trails, the Boucher for example, once disappeared from maps but were marked again when use restored them. Many, such as the Tanner Trail are not in quite the same place today as shown in older surveys. Some trails, particularly sections of the Tonto Trail, have always seen more wildlife travel than hikers and the term "trail" gives the misleading impression they were planned that way. See About Exploring.


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