6 Painful Lessons I Learned By Hiking the Grand Canyon

Mike St. Pierre and Kevin Fedarko negotiate the exposure on top of the Red Wall layer which cliffs out some 500 to 800 feet straight to the river in Marble Canyon. Photograph by Pete McBride
Mike St. Pierre and Kevin Fedarko negotiate the exposure on top of the Red Wall layer which cliffs out some 500 to 800 feet straight to the river in Marble Canyon. Photograph by Pete McBride

I guess you can call it a Grand beat down. I knew it would be hard, but not spirit-crushing hard. Our plan to walk the Grand Canyon as a sectional thru-hike would be a lengthy, logistical monster of sorts. Our food would be weighed by the ounce. Almonds and prunes would be rationed and counted per day. Caching supplies via hiking, raft trips, and possibly even mules is a jaw-dropping jigsaw puzzle that rested our food (and lives) on the digits of GPS coordinates in a place with dodgy GPS coverage. Oh, and the permits … there are a lot when you are dealing with nine Native American Reservations and one of the most regulated national parks in the world.

So the hiking part seemed simple—comparatively. I don’t mean to suggest that I took it lightly. On the contrary, I trained for three months climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado with a heavy pack. Writer Kevin Fedarko did similar in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona. The two of us have also worked in challenging predicaments on assignment before—dusted by avalanches in Nepal’s Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest, deported from the oven-like heat of Djibouti in the horn of Africa while covering a story on narcotic trade. We even tromped across bug-infested tundra of the Canadian Arctic without losing our sense of humor.

Kevin Fedarko stands below Navajo Bridge inside Marble Canyon on day one while walking the length of the Grand Canyon—over 277 river miles and estimated 600 walking. Photograph by Pete McBride
Kevin Fedarko stands below Navajo Bridge inside Marble Canyon on day one while walking the length of the Grand Canyon—over 277 river miles and estimated 600 walking. Photograph by Pete McBride

I’ve never claimed to be a fitness fanatic or an outdoor expert, but I have reveled for decades in the challenges of expeditions that often lead toward the “pain cave.”

So walking 600 miles across the desert landscape of the Grand Canyon would be daunting and humbling, but kinda fun and, of course, stunning. I’d hiked chunks alone before, boated the Colorado inside the canyon’s abyss multiple times, and even bushwhacked the same river’s dry, forgotten delta at the end. So this wasn’t my first rodeo. So I thought.

Beyond the adventure, this grand stroll would serve as a powerful backbone to document the hidden wilderness between the rim and the river that is so rarely seen or even known, but also remarkably under pressure by multiple entities looking to cash in on the canyon’s grandeur.

Writer Kevin Fedarko after falling into a bog in a slot canyon, Marble Canyon. Photograph by Pete McBride
Writer Kevin Fedarko after falling into a bog in a slot canyon, Marble Canyon. Photograph by Pete McBride

Of those that have hiked the entire canyon, only 12 have completed it nonstop so far, and just 12 have completed the jigsaw hike over time via sections. For comparison, 12 have stood on the surface of the moon, 5,000 atop Everest. Some call it the Everest of thru-hikes when comparing to other long walks like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the Grand Canyon has one major difference. Unlike others with “trail” in the name, there is NO trail through the vast majority of the Grand Canyon, excluding a few short sections on the south rim and even less on the north. There are also no towns, limited water, no cell coverage until the West, little sat phone coverage and a daunting 5,000-plus-foot vertical climb out if things go wrong (the potential list is long). I frankly think “the K2 of thru-hikes” is a better description (less traveled, less supported, more technical).

Chris Atwood treats water with a UV water filter. While walking the length of the Grand Canyon, hikers will consume up to six or more liters a day. Atwood is on a 56-day consecutive thru-hike. Photograph by Pete McBride
Chris Atwood treats water with a UV water filter. While walking the length of the Grand Canyon, hikers will consume up to six or more liters a day. Atwood is on a 56-day consecutive thru-hike. Photograph by Pete McBride

In late September we set off from Lees Ferry and clawed our way West. And just days in, let’s just say, a few things went wrong. To my surprise it happened remarkably quickly, too. Fedarko and I shadowed a team led by canyoneering guru Rich Rudow doing a 56-day thru-hike. We planned to join them for just 15 days, but left even sooner due to unforeseen challenges that a sweltering September heat wave helped instigate (temps soared well above 100 degrees F for a week).

But during what I’d call an intense thrashing (physical and psychological) some valuable lessons emerged… for the next legs:

1. The Canyon respects no one. Period. It doesn’t matter how many “rodeos” you have done.

2. Weight kills. I never counted ounces before, but now I am fanatical. Ounces make pounds and pounds slow you down, creating more time between water access—and water is life. As thru-hiker Andrew Holycross told me, “You quickly learn to carry what you need, not what you want.” One problem, when documenting for Nat Geo. You need (and want) professional cameras, and solar panels, and batteries, etc.. This adds 10 to 12 pounds that other trekkers don’t worry about. That creates the question: Where to shave weight elsewhere—food, clothing, underwear?

Kevin Fedarko and Pete McBride rest before hiking out early on their first leg of their sectional hike. McBride suffered hyponatremia, dangerously low salt levels. Photograph by Pete McBride
Kevin Fedarko and Pete McBride rest before hiking out early on their first leg of their sectional hike. McBride suffered hyponatremia, dangerously low salt levels. Photograph by Pete McBride

3. Salt is key. And a lifesaver. Hyponatremia is a term I didn’t know when I started (rookie), but now I understand it too well. It’s not fun. Due to exertion, heat and sweating too much (I sweat like a pig), you deplete your salt levels too far and often make the situation worse by drinking excessive water thinking you are dehydrated because your body stops urinating to preserve salt. Dr. Tom Myers, a thru-hiker himself and first father/son team to hike the Big Ditch, told me after I limped from the canyon, I was close to flapping around with seizures and ending in a coma. Luckily, when I neared the unconscious phase, before seizures (wobbly and tunnel vision, two days after full body cramps), I was slightly restored thanks to some packs of soy sauce (high sodium). Thanks, Rich Rudow.

The blisters of fun. High temps, sweat, sand and angled walking make for tough feet. Photograph by Pete McBride
The blisters of fun. High temps, sweat, sand and angled walking make for tough feet. Photograph by Pete McBride

4. Blisters: Take ‘em seriously: I’ve never had problems before with my leather feet, but they can be the bane of your existence if they fester. Mine did, thanks to high temps, endless fine-grain sand filling my shoes and acting like sandpaper for miles of angled trail-less, exposed hiking. Despite bandages, moleskin, cutting away chunks of flesh, even duct tape wraps, nothing beat the sweaty infection recipe. One of my heel blisters infected its way to the bone, but I ignored it as I was too focused on not falling. Kevin endured worse. Not fun.

5. Cactus: Avoid. Hiking gaiters help (we purchased some for this next leg). But if you can’t avoid them—impossible, really, during miles of trail-less desert terrain—then extract needles with aggression. I had a few cactus kisses and didn’t remove needles with enough vigor. Two weeks later, they worked into my ankle joint and required surgical removal. Also, not much fun.

Aerial view of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon - above Marble Canyon. Fedarko and McBride hiked much of the canyon in this image. Photograph by Pete McBride
Aerial view of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon – above Marble Canyon. Fedarko and McBride hiked much of the canyon in this image. Photograph by Pete McBride

6. Enjoying the “Grand” relates directly with how prepared you are (without adding weight–see #2). If you prepare properly, the canyon and its magical, secret world of ancient rock and wonderous wildlife, may speak to you (amidst occasional pain caves). If you are ill prepared, then expect the canyon scream. My ears (and ego) still hurt from 60 miles of canyon screaming on our first leg.

Just 540 miles to go… prepare, prepare, prepare. Back to the scale to weigh ounces.

On Sunday writer Kevin Fedarko and photographer Pete McBride return to the Grand Canyon to start the second of six legs of their thru-hike. Their story will appear in a future issue of National Geographic.

Comments

  1. Arnas
    Chile
    October 23, 2015, 4:38 pm

    This truly sounds all, scary, amazing and inspiring at the same time! Great article, fantastic hikers!

  2. Helen Howard
    Bullhead City, AZ
    October 23, 2015, 4:51 pm

    Godspeed on the second leg. I hope you find the joy in the hiking in spite of all the work

  3. Helen Howard
    Bullhead City, AZ
    October 23, 2015, 4:53 pm

    Godspeed. I hope you find the joy of being in the canyon and that the hiking gets easier.

  4. Jim McDonald
    Phoenix, AZ
    October 23, 2015, 8:59 pm

    At age 60 (and with immense preparation), I just completed the North Bass Trail. While it pales in comparison to what you have experienced (I am quite sure), I understand and appreciate all you have written. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences. The Grand Canyon is mighty, unforgiving and wonderful. And it keeps calling you back regardless of the pain it constantly inflicts.

  5. Tom Martin
    Flagstaff, AZ
    October 23, 2015, 9:39 pm

    Hi Pete, don’t mean to quibble and I apologize in advance for being wedded to accurate details, but your sentence reads “Of those that have hiked the entire canyon, only 12 have completed it nonstop so far, and just 24 have completed the jigsaw hike over time via sections. 12 nonstop and 24 by sections? Actually, it’s 12 nonstop and 12 by sections. Only 24 folks total have done the walk (that we know of), not 36. Hope this helps, yours, tom

  6. J Kellogg
    Bend, OR
    October 23, 2015, 9:53 pm

    Is Kenton Grua included in the 12 non-stop? Just wondering.

  7. kalisma
    ky
    October 23, 2015, 10:20 pm

    good luck on this next leg of your journey! i feel your pain, the Appalachian Trail defeated me last year. i am 59 and serious hiking is too physically demanding for me but you guys sound like you are ready for this challenge!. hang in there! I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip!!!

  8. David
    Mesa Arizona
    October 24, 2015, 2:34 am

    One of my favorite tricks to prevent blisters is luekotape. It’s like a sports tape for blisters. I used it to prevent blisters on my trip to Havasupai.

  9. Shaun Lynch
    Saint-Lazare, QC
    October 24, 2015, 1:19 pm

    Great article, but one misspelling needs to be addressed. The things you wear to protect your lower legs from cacti are “gaiters,” not gators. The latter produce wounds that are infinitely worse than those produced by pointy vegetation, and they’re pretty much useless as protection from cacti in any event.

  10. David
    Usa
    October 24, 2015, 2:07 pm

    I’m sure the journey was done by native people’s many times before.

  11. Marc
    Canada
    October 24, 2015, 4:00 pm

    I spent 5 days in the Grand. North rim a vertical mile down to the Colarado then back up. it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, and I,ve done lots. The trip described in this article, should be labelled “Epic!”

  12. Junaid
    CO, USA
    October 24, 2015, 4:51 pm

    Pretty cool! I’ve been thinking about doing this trip, so I’ll be curious to see how it goes. Good luck!

  13. lisa artesga
    munster indiana
    October 25, 2015, 9:06 am

    Couldn’t imagine doing that. Good luck on your next attempt, great article one day I’ll go there but just as a tourist!

  14. Bob Hostetler
    Colorado
    October 26, 2015, 9:05 am

    For anyone considering such an adventure, here are some things to consider:
    1. I’m surprised that McBride didn’t know about hyponatremia. Doctors have warned for many years that since everyone has been extremely aware of the need for water and is carrying a water bottle everywhere, water poisoning (too much water, too little salt) has been a bigger problem in the canyon than hypothermia…and it can kill. Talk to people about what kinds of things can happen to you in the Canyon.
    2. For those of us in the mountains, training on trails in the mountains can be deceiving. You never have the severe heat you can experience in the Canyon and you miss the slowing of your pace, the foot problems, etc. of off-trail scrambling.
    3. Do a few several-day off-trail hikes low in the canyon to make sure you experience the heat, the constant hiking at an angle, the problems with brush, needles, etc.
    I’ve done all that but recently (at 73) got in trouble with heat and realized that I hadn’t backpacked in extreme heat for a number of years…and apparently age had caught up with me. I’ll now be doing my hikes in March and November instead of April and October.

  15. Jo Ostgarden
    Portland, Oregon
    October 26, 2015, 11:36 pm

    And wind, especially if you travel in March or April. I’ve experienced 70 mph gusts that nearly turned me into Birdman while hiking the Esplanade, the Tonto, along the death ledges in Grapevine, and even Horseshoe Mesa. 37 trips in the Canyon since 1975, and it’s the wind that scares me even more than blisters or hyponatremia. But still I would trade everything I have for an opportunity to spend 56 nonstop days in the Grandest Canyon on the planet.

  16. Kirk
    Tulsa
    October 30, 2015, 11:33 am

    Hey,

    You should have read Death in the Grand Canyon. Sounds morbid, but excellent on “what not to do.”

    Be smart, good luck!

  17. Ken Ransford
    Carbondale Colorado
    October 30, 2015, 3:45 pm

    Hey Pete, thanks for not inviting me!

  18. Peggy
    Mexico
    October 31, 2015, 1:47 pm

    Arizona my home state!! Have spent many hours at the canyon since the 50’s..never hiked it. You guys are amazing and so are many of the commenters on here..you too are amazing!! I’ll stick with my horse in the Sierra Madres!!

  19. Scottyb
    Spicewood, TX
    November 3, 2015, 7:29 pm

    The Grand Canyon is one of the most incredible places on earth. I have been fortunate enough to raft the full length and hike in it’s tributaries. I am looking forward to further updates and I hope there is a book in the works . Kevin Fedarko’s book “The Emerald Mile” is one of the best I have read on the Grand Canyon.

  20. Noline
    November 5, 2015, 7:25 am

    Wow… I have done some extreme hikes, but this sounds really harsh. I m not sure that I am up for the complete hike, but would love to hike some of it. Maybe in the south.

    Good luck and take care of yourselves and each other. Looking forward to your next installment…

  21. Kshaun
    India
    November 18, 2015, 5:11 pm

    I’m working with http://www.Alienadv.com and have been on quite a few hikes. It is absolutely true, what they say about ounces. Every single one of them counts. In fact, if you don’t need it, throw it away.

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  24. annie
    March 17, 2016, 11:48 pm

    It’s 4+ months later – would love to hear news of the 2nd leg of your epic adventure!

  25. Robert Fullerton
    Marble
    April 10, 2016, 7:37 pm

    Are you following “the factor” Kenton Grua’s epic?