Sixtymile - Grand Canyon Notes

About Exploring

Exploring is the highest calling and most noble activity for Grand Canyon hikers. Exploring doesn't mean that no one has ever been there before. It means that you haven't been there and don't know exactly what you will encounter. One of my favorite things about Harvey Butchart's books is that he doesn't give too many details.

This means that I am able to know that there is a way to get to someplace, but I don't know exactly how to find it or what the difficulties will be. Really good hikes are always a combination of using a familiar route and getting to someplace new. How many new things you decide to take on at once is up to your judgment. This is about recreation, not life and death, unless you decide to make it that way.

There are a few things to keep in mind when exploring.

Water: Do not trust springs solely on the basis that they appear on a map. Springs may exist in the season of the survey but not at other times. Other than the Colorado River, very few water sources are reliable throughout the year. One of my favorites is from George Steck's GCLH-I: "explore...FROM water, not TO water." Simple, important... never forget it!!! Also, always start your trip with plenty of water-carrying capacity. An empty bottle weighs little enough that you can always carry a couple more.

The importance of options: Exploration means the unexpected, so expect it and think about what options are available if the route seems too hazardous, the weather too hot, or the chance of a storm too great a risk. One of the group may become injured or sick, or may encounter an unexpectedly difficult place and not be willing to continue. The NPS rangers do not expect you to keep on your itinerary regardless of the consequences and will not be upset about bending the rules if you can justify your choice to some degree of reasonableness. ...Especially if it means they did not have to rescue you or go looking for your body.

Look at the map: ...Another simple recommendation... obvious, but easy to forget in the enthusiasm of the moment. Even though I am an excellent map reader I have made mistakes because I thought I knew the location and failed to confirm it by checking the map. The experience of learning from these mistakes can have a benefit: I recommend making photocopies of small sections of your planned route and sticking them in your pockets so you can consult a map more easily while on the move. Having access without the trouble of digging into your pack is easier. Also see Essential Maps.

Look behind you: You may have to return by the same way even if that is not your plan, so make sure you can follow your route in either direction. I'm better about this when I am the trip leader than when I am following someone else's lead. (See Hazards and Risks on the Leaderless Hike)

Use your equipment well: It can be quite unpleasant to put up shelter in the rain. If you are not obsessed with having a tent (I'm most often obsessed with not having one), make sure the location you have chosen for camp will facilitate shelter. ...Rocks, shrubs, and overhanging branches for anchors, and where runoff will not flow through or collect. There are lots of stories where people had enough clothing to keep warm but didn't wear it; had enough water bottles but didn't fill them; had enough water but didn't drink it.

Streambeds are dangerous places: It's always so convenient and often tempting... but never, ever camp in a creekbed or wash unless the sky is clear and the weather stable. When hiking a narrow canyon in the daytime, study the map so that you know the extent of the drainage you are in, and stay alert to the weather. Most drainages from the South Rim carry runoff only from below the rim. Most drainages from the North Rim drain a very large area above the rim that you cannot see.

Use of cairns: Cairns, ducks and trail markers can be a subject of controversy. Some people are offended to see a trail marker they think is not needed, and there is room for difference of opinion. It's true that as more markers appear over time it can detract from the sense of wilderness. The other side of this is that markers can be a great help to someone unsure of the way, or unsure that a way even exists. And it can help reduce multiple trailing, assuming that there aren't multiple trails marked by ducks... and this does occur. If you don't like to see a duck somewhere, or think it wrongly placed, you can knock it over. If you think a marker is needed, you can put one up. It's basic freedom of choice and expression. On the other hand, use of paint, as has recently appeared along the Escalante Route, is completely unacceptable.

The Global Positioning System: Now I am going to be obstinate and give an opinion which will probably lead to some serious disagreement. Hiking with a GPS is not exploring. Hiking by following a list of way-points derived from a map or obtained from someone else lacks any sense of adventure and (for me) is not even fun. Neither will hiking with a GPS assure that you will not get lost. A GPS is sometimes useful above the rim to connect with an obscure access or to locate your vehicle, but that's the most that I will concede on this point. Landforms in Grand Canyon are on such a large scale that it is difficult to be lost in the sense of not knowing where you are, but it is easy enough to know where you are and be in the wrong place. If you find you can't consistently identify your location by landform reference then I recommend doing your exploring with someone who can.


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