Inexperienced Grand Canyon fastpacking becoming a problem

An accomplished ultra-marathoner died in the heat of Death Valley this week. Michael Popov was only 34 and recognized for hammering through some of the longest and most rugged trails across the west. His last run was less than ten miles.

I’ve hiked rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon six times since early March. Three of those trips were in May, when the summer heat starts to ripple up from the canyon floor and coat the corridor trails in a thick haze of shimmering, translucent fire. I was surprised then to come across so many unprepared fastpackers attempting the under 24-hour rim-to-rim trek.

The experienced ultra-runners are easily identified from the fastpackers who happen to read about Andrew Skurka and then decide they want to be Andrew Skurka. I spoke to more than a few of them while offering extra food and water while they suffered trailside from the many effects of dehydration and stupidity. They would be cramped and nauseous in an alcove along the North Kaibab Trail or trying to recover under the shade of a tapeats shelf on the Bright Angel. Each time, a single, searing similarity stood out to me: none of them were Andrew Skurka.

From crashing with a mat and an emergency blanket along the trail or scaring the rafting guests at Phantom Ranch with convulsive vomiting over the steps of the canteen, the number of unprepared, not ready for primetime rim-to-rim trekkers is growing to an uncomfortable number.

More than a couple of rangers confirmed for me that beyond the safety issues they create, there’s the ever-growing trail of trash left behind in an effort to shed weight, countless forgotten water bottle stashes and evidence of damaged desert plant life as a result of temporary campsites.

Michael Popov was an accomplished beast of a runner and it took the heat less than 10 miles to claim him. It was a terrible way for an obviously tough-as-granite athlete to go. And sure, Death Valley gets hotter than the Inner Canyon; but on some days, not by much. Then there’s the unrelenting switchbacks, drop-offs and occasional pipeline breaks.

The most egregiously unprepared fastpacker I came across was a guy passing our group between the Three Mile and Mile-And-A-Half Rest Houses along the Bright Angel Trail. He told me he was hustling to get a mule for his sick friend.

Apparently, using all the excess funds and people and resources available to them suddenly, the National Park Service established a fastpacker SAR mule service, complete with genetically-enhanced-for-speed horse and donkey crossbreeds that can span the distance between rim and river in under an hour while burdened with a fully equipped ER doctor, which is what this guy needed because he said his friend had heat stroke.

I tried to confirm. “Heat stroke. You’re sure.” Yes. “Where is she?” Down at Indian Garden. “You know there’s a ranger and a helipad there, right?” Crickets. “You know you already passed an emergency phone, right?” Tumbleweed.

As his brain attempted to process the possibility that maybe he hadn’t fully thought out his rim to rim trek all that well, a woman walked between us up the trail.

“That’s her,” he said. Of course it is.

I assured him she was fine, probably in need of some sodium and liquids, but otherwise okay.

I can only imagine what rangers have to deal with sometimes.

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5 thoughts on “Inexperienced Grand Canyon fastpacking becoming a problem

  1. I have done the rim to rim, and even the rim to rim to rim and agree that too many average everyday types are setting out with the idea that because they can hike Camelback Mountain or Squaw Peak in Phoenix that they can go rim to rim.
    Every time I am there I come across at least one person who is in the stages of biting off more than they can chew. Parts of me thinks that the Parks services should outlaw rim to rim adventures if for nothing more than to save money in rescue costs.

  2. I’ve got to admit there is a lure of doing rim to rim to rim. I think people are just getting back to realizing that it feels good to do hard things and that is why you see incredible growth in everything from marathon running to those stupid races where you crawl in mud under barbwire. I like doing hard things, but not just for its own sake. Doing a million jumping jacks would be hard, but I’m not interested. For me when you can couple something hard with incredible terrain and discovery – I’m in. So I get the lure, and I’ll probably do it one of these days, but not sure what to about folks who jump in with two feet without perhaps the right preparation. Perhaps the park could require certain stuff in a pack, or have a sign-in log dedicated to folks doing the run with a park employee keeping an eye on it?

  3. Thanks for the fun read. I have hiked across the Grand Canyon (rim to rim) more times than I can remember. I have always done it is in a single day. I think the first time I did it was when I was 12. Two time I have jogged/hiked across the canyon and back in a single day (Rim to rim to rim). The last time I did it, we took our time and it ended up taking about 17 hours. Almost every time I go to the Grand Canyon, I meet several other people who are there doing rim to rim, or rim to rim to rim in a single day. I have never seen one of them in trouble. Most years I end up going in November, which avoids most heat related illness. This year we went in May, which was hot but not impossible (Max of 95 that day in the inner gorge.) I’ve never dropped trash in the canyon. Never spent the night in the canyon, only on the rim. Never called SAR. Never even asked another hiker for so much as a salt tab.

    So, as you have noticed so far, I just don’t know where you’re coming from. You probably there in late July, and anyone that tries a rim to rim to rim in late July is pushing their luck. I’ve never go the grand canyon in mid summer. It’s just too hot. I guess you’re talking about the mid summer grand canyon ultra runner and I’m talking about the late fall, early spring ultra runner. These are two totally different activities, so I suppose I’m comparing apples to oranges.

    I just hope I’ve convinced you that there are sane, and responsible ultra runners that enjoy the grand canyon as well.


  4. Hi Ed, thanks for reading, and taking the time to comment. I do agree that there are many responsible canyon hikers and if I didn’t make that clear enough here, I should have. Unfortunately, most of them are local or have spent time becoming acclimated to the conditions. The popularity of the rim-to-rim trek is growing and as a result, more are trying it for the first time. It’s these folks that I think are putting themselves and the sanctity of the canyon at risk. My run-ins have been in early April, May and early June.

  5. Well, I would hate to see the NPS limit accessibility to the inner canyon and they certainly do what they can to educate hikers about the conditions. I think too many don’t take the time to hear what the park is trying to say. It’s unfortunate, but a harsh truth to providing our public with such wonderful wilderness.

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