North Rim in Violet | Mark Lindsay

Regular readers will note that I've been away from my blogging for the past month. I'm just back from another Southwest adventure. This year, we hiked Nankoweap, perhaps the most difficult trail in Grand Canyon. My camera was in hand, recording many significant moments of the trip. This is the first installment of that adventure.

The balmy air at the North Rim was speaking to me. I should have been listening. Late September in these rarefied parts is normally brisk, sometimes even cold. On this day of our arrival we were comfortable in short sleeves. If it were warm here, the inner furnace of the canyon would be even hotter than normal. But the Nankoweap Trail was already playing with my head. I'd heard and read so much about its steepness, ruggedness, and dizzying heights I didn't even bother to think of its exposure to heat and sun. But in the end it's the heat that always matters in Grand Canyon. Always.

Sunset at North Rim is better than most anywhere else I've been. The relatively small crowd (the isolated North Rim gets a fraction of South Rim's visitors) gathers at the lodge to photograph the rapidly-changing canyon hues and shafts of golden light. One can hear most any language but the Germans seem to love the canyon more than anyone. One can always hear them marvel at the spectacle of the sinking sun as it finds its way to the rim. I never tire of photographing the rim at sunset though I often prefer to capture instead the images of the guests reacting to the sunset. After myriad canyon sunsets, it's the people's response to it that is often most interesting to me.

On this clement night it was hard to enjoy the intense lavender, violet, rose and scarlet hues before me. In the morning, the sun would find itself here again and by then we'd be on a gravel road that would lead us to the infamous trail head of Nankoweap. I'd done my homework and what I'd discovered was weighing heavily upon me.

The Nankoweap Trail was developed by John Wesley Powell in the 1880s. He sent a geologist and trail crew to improve an old Native American route to the Colorado River. Eventually the trail would become the northern terminus of the "Horse Thief" route. Ron Adkison, in his excellent book, Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, describes the trail:

The spectacular Nankoweap Trail is perhaps the most difficult and demanding trail in the Grand Canyon. This trip requires previous Grand Canyon hiking experience, route-finding ability, good judgment, and ample planning. The trail, with the greatest elevation loss from rim-to-river in the Canyon, is ill-defined in places, involves much scrambling over and around boulders, and often has a very narrow tread with considerable exposure along the edge of plunging cliffs.

Between my good friend and me, we'd hiked the canyon some 18 times (he more than I). We planned the trip with impressive detail. We rehearsed each day and carefully calculated our water requirements. I bought a new pack, new shoes, new compass, and a slew of new maps. But, it's hard to sleep the night before one is to encounter, “…a very narrow tread with considerable exposure along the edge of plunging cliffs." I tossed all night in our North-Rim cabin. In past years we'd turned on the heat to keep our cabin warm. On this night, I felt claustrophobic. The air was warm, the air stale and stuffy.

While I had visions of the plunging cliffs I paid no attention to the nighttime temperature. But, it was an omen. It would turn out that the heights would be a trap, a distraction. The canyon would play its tricks with me as it always does. Purple sunsets and dizzying heights are a ruse. It's always about the heat. And this year would be a scorcher.

To be continued…