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Columbus resident reflects on ‘Grand’ experience


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Editor’s note: Columbus resident Robert (Andy) Smithson’s latest hike was in the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks. He wrote about his experience and shared it and photos from the trip with The Republic.

Many people have visited the wonderful Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks, but I would guess that few have had the opportunity to venture off the beaten path. I keep thinking this may be my last hike, but fascinating opportunities continue to materialize.

I am still blessed with good health, and as a diabetic I walk regularly. So with extra road work I was ready for this trip. The cutoff age for this strenuous trip is 65, and so I am 10 years “out of date.” The organizers and the National Parks Service sensibly require medical releases plus full evacuation medical insurance for senior citizens to hike in out-of-the-way, non-tourist places. So with not too much arm twisting, my internist, cardiologist and endocrinologist all kindly provided their approvals.

The trip started with an assembly at the airport hotel in Las Vegas. Six other people from vastly varied backgrounds came from Washington, D.C.; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Palo Alto, California; and Cincinnati to make up the group. We quickly meshed and became very compatible. Our guides professionally streamlined all the arrangements and took us under their highly capable wings.

Both of our mentors loved and knew essentially everything about the canyon lands: the first people, the Mormons, the geology and fauna. This informed commentary provided another level of understanding and greatly added to the enjoyment.

The daily mantra of our guide Tim Dice of Mountain Sobek was: “Drink five to six liters of water a day, eat like a lumberjack and do not step back for a photo.” The last advice was very pertinent as where we hiked there were no guardrails!

Over the week we had an outstanding series of hikes, which I discovered to be just within my capabilities. The first day from the seldom-visited north rim of the Grand Canyon we started on the Kaibab Trail. As the altitude was over 8,500 feet, I was conservative and hiked only to the Coconino Overlook; others went farther. Then after lunch off to Cape Royal, which was reported to be the best sweeping views of the canyon. A bright cloudless sky and 90-degree temperature made the visas and the day even more amazing.

On to Utah

The next day we drove north into Utah and ascended the Paunsaugent Plateau before entering Bryce Canyon National Park. The amphitheater was in all its glory. We hiked downhill through the surreal maze of pink hoodoos, spires and rock windows. All in all, about 10 miles of easy going.

The following day we hiked in Kodachrome Basin, which contains eroded multicolored rock formations in various shades of red, yellow, pink, white and brown. Together with the deep blue sky the color combinations led the National Geographic Society to name the park Kodachrome Basin (with the consent of Kodak).

That afternoon we drove the 10 miles on a very dusty, barely graded road to the remote Willis Creek Canyon, located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Here the canyon seems to squeeze and twist to form a slot canyon, the definition of which is when the stream bed is far narrower than the height of the walls. We walked in a trickle of water through slivers of rock cut steeply through the bands of Navajo sandstone. Amazing!

Then onto my now favorite national park: Zion. After getting the appropriate insulated scuba-type socks coupled with special water boots and armed with hiking staff, we walked the 3 miles to an access point and into the Virgin River narrows. We were lucky as the river was accessible. The national park service closely monitors the current weather forecast, especially in the watershed, as the river can quickly become a fatal, raging torrent.

Over eons the water has cut relentlessly through the Navajo sandstone, and once it reached the Kayenta shale the canyon widening accelerated. One of these undercut places is called the cathedral of Sinawava, and just being there was very special.

We hiked and waded 6 miles in 53-degree water. Our maximum water depth was about 3 to 4 feet. The narrows scenery was breathtaking, for as we walked the river progressively narrowed to approximately a width of 16 feet. The water deepened, and the almost vertical walls at that point were over 1,000 feet above us.

Land of the angel

On our final day, at dawn, we took the Zion shuttle to the far lodge, and after a quick breakfast we walked the 4 miles to the start of the signature hike up to Angel’s Landing. In 1915, a Methodist minister, Frederick Vining Fisher, remarked “Only an Angel could land on it.” (I believe him!)

The route then rapidly gains 1,500 feet of elevation in 2.5 miles through steep switchbacks, called Walter’s Wiggles, to dizzying heights. The final 500 feet accessed via chains anchored into the sandstone were there to maybe reassure the hiker. One connecting ridgeline is barely 6 feet across and has a solid handrail, but the vertical drop on both sides is an acrophobic 1,200 feet. Obviously the hike is deemed safe, yet I did not discover until visiting the Zion gift shop that over the 30-plus years of this hike 24 people have perished. Maybe some might have stepped back to take the perfect photo!

That rounded out the final day. That evening was the long drive across the desert back to Las Vegas, with the next day flying home to Columbus.

All in all, a super fulfilling experience, as there is nothing like having the experts take you to places that one probably either would not know about or visit on one’s own.

The next quandary: What to plan in 2015?

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