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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The beauty and brutality of wildfire

“Those clouds look like smoke.”

I brushed it off as the work of a funky summer storm system floating over the Eastern Sierra. “Yeah, the clouds are very cool.”

In a way, I was right. The object of my wife’s curiosity was indeed the result of a thunderstorm. But she was right, too: it was the start of what is now the 13,500-acre Indian Fire that’s scorching the sagebrush and pine-shaded slopes just southeast of Mono Lake. Only a few hours before we approached the apocalyptic horizon along CA 120, a cable of electric tightened to earth and ignited the basin’s hillside.

As the sun set in front of us, the sky blazed into a spectrum of astounding reds and ambers above the ridgeline. The intrinsic drama of our heading directly into this mountain-high mass of grey and flickering red was almost too much for us to understand, so our certainty that it was a fire wavered. “The sun can paint some incredible scene with clouds and a mountain range,” I offered. Each corner brought new theatre.

Once the rest of the world around the smoldering tower of lightening and smoke faded to black, we knew for certain what it was, and that it was surreal.

We stopped several times to photograph it but our point and shoot and iPhones were hardly up to the task. We convinced ourselves that its origin as a natural occurrence meant we could wonder at it, that it was alright to be amazed by this epic bonfire raging against the blackened high desert wilderness above Lee Vining.

Soon though, as the distant sirens indicated, people would be fighting it. Families would be separated as loved ones responded to it and residents in Benton and Lee Vining would begin to worry about their livelihood. We didn’t know how to feel.

CNN reported today that more than 70 wildfires are tearing across the west. It’s dry and windy everywhere and people are losing homes.

For them, there’s nothing amazing about wildfire. For us, it was only that.

I think we’re both right.