Tom Cross | Behind the Lens: “Into the Canyon”

Credit: Tom Cross

I set an ambitious goal to hike 17 miles in 24 hours while putting myself through a miniature survival situation.

Last week, I introduced my new weekly blog series, Behind The Lens, where I share adventures from what I do when I’m not photographing rocket launches. Today, we go to the Grand Canyon on a hike that I’d never attempted before but it was time I’d done something like it in my life.

I arrived here in the ’80s and like most people, was raised to operate in society. I hadn’t had a pleasant upbringing but I adapted in situations, worked hard, always had accomplished goals and was determined to survive. If we’re lucky, we get 100 years on this planet, which is a tiny pixel in the big picture.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most studied geologic landscapes in the world, 40 distinct layers of time are represented in the walls which span 2-billion years from top to bottom. The name certainly defines it in every sense of the meaning. One can evolve in reverse, or devolve, on the way down and evolve again on the way up. No better place, I think, for a soul searching adventure.

Photographing rockets had put me in touch with physics and the human potential to explore the cosmos. Yet, something was still missing – a human element connected with nature. I got a glimpse of our future and felt part of it but I hadn’t felt our past.

Hiking to the bottom of the canyon and out again is what I felt I needed to do. The more I thought about it and planned for it, the more sense it made to challenge myself and experience Earth as a homo sapien.

I set an ambitious goal to hike 17 miles in 24 hours while putting myself through a miniature survival situation.

Inside a new camera bag designed for hiking and photography, I packed all the supplies I’d need for such a journey. Food, water filter and 3-liter pouch, a burner and first aid kit. I also brought a lightweight sleeping bag and emergency blanket made of the same material as the walls of the Lunar Lander. Just in case, I packed my license too so that I could be identified.

The trailhead began at 7,260 feet (2,212 meters) in altitude. Signs warn of altitude sickness if you try to go to the bottom and back up again on the same day. “There’s no water on this trail.”, said a warning sign. Safety was paramount, so I planned to abort the hike before I’d be unable to return without sufficient water if I knew I wouldn’t make it all the way to the next source. Three liters in a pouch on my back would have to get me 7 miles (11.3 kilometers).

On the way down, I passed through multiple layers of ocean and desert. I saw seashells and barnacles in the walls, then layers of sandstone and layers of red rock in which l found a worm fossil. Near the bottom was an unusual spot with large boulders and jagged red rock with beautiful flowers. While squeezing a handful of gravel, I browsed around in the silence and discovered a unique pattern, a plate with ripples which was a fossil indicating that I had been standing on the floor of an ancient ocean. By this time, I’d been hiking for 5 hours and I was out of water.

The sun was setting while I was in search of a nearby water source. The one I had planned to refill with was down for repairs. Deep inside Earth now, the most beautiful shadows and highlights were being cast on the pink granite walls. I decided this is where I’d cook dinner. While eating re-hydrated chicken and pasta as the main course with a cup of strong coffee, I sat back and soaked in the experience. A park ranger approached me, saw my gear and asked if I was camping. He said someone who had reserved a site didn’t show up and offered it to me. One of these coveted campsites has a 6-month waiting list. Although I didn’t want to miss an opportunity like this, I feared to sleep without a tent.

The campsite was located next to a raging stream which kept the area cool. The ground was clean and level but spiders and other insects were crawling on it. A pole stood in the corner to hang my bag because rodents would crawl into it on the ground – I’d be on the ground though, I thought to myself…

I figured I would use the emergency blanket as a ‘footprint’ and sleep in my bag on top of that. Laying down now, checking for insects every 10 minutes or so, I found a few upsidedown on the slick foil of the blanket and brushed them off. I laid awake looking up at the sky, still concerned about spiders crawling on me or a rodent getting into my bag. My mind wandered and got lost watching the clouds pass overhead realizing we are all on a spaceship traveling through the Milky Way. I took a few photographs as the white noise of the raging water drowned out my fears. I fell asleep as peacefully as ever.

I woke up to the smell of campfires and bacon which gave me an appetite, so I got up and started breakfast. Mules across the river were delivering supplies to camp while another team of mules behind them was bringing campers who’d decided not to hike down. For breakfast, I had a fulfilling bowl of oatmeal made for strenuous hikes with fruit, extra salt, and sugar, plus 2 cups of strong coffee. I drank plenty of water and refilled my 3-liter pouch for the hike out. The route was considered the easy trail, I did not foresee the difficulty I’d experience.

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Even though I had been drinking water and eating proper snacks I could feel the effects of dehydration. The trail I was on had the most incredible views, streams, waterfalls, and a lush oasis, then, suddenly it would switch to desert-like conditions. Trail runners were wearing small water bottles on their waist belts and sweating profusely but seemed fine. I asked one of the runners if the next water source was open – he didn’t know. How could he not know if the water source was on or off? I asked another person if the water was on, they didn’t know either. “What’s going on?” I wondered. Mindfulness and communicating the right information are vital. Because hikers didn’t have information about water availability, I began conserving when I was thirsty – Not a good idea.

Sleeping under the stars inside the Grand Canyon (Photo: TomCross)

Many treacherous switchbacks, or zigzags, to get up a very steep cliff, 3 more people passed me while briskly walking and I realized I had been slowing down. Hours later I had finally made it to the water source in the center of the trail, it resembled a fountain of youth and many people were using it. How could hikers miss this on their way down? I was perplexed. I drank plenty of water to make up what I’d been conserving, refilled, then began the final trek with fresh socks.

The temperature was decreasing on the way up but I was still sweating too much. The weight of my bag had become uncomfortable and burdensome. Many of the electronics I brought were dead weight – I’ll never do that again. Rest breaks came more often. My calves were painful and normal steps had become quarter steps, my arms would cramp in place if I bent them to adjust my backpack straps. Even my mind was struggling and human instinct was kicking in; I was in bad shape and I knew it. Those who know me, know that I’m capable of pushing myself pretty hard and I was thrilled that I had experienced Earth’s strength, my own man vs. nature moment. Around this time, my Apple Watch knocked on my wrist, a fitness award flashed on the screen ‘Move Goal 300%’. The display read that I had been exercising non-stop for 270 minutes and I had climbed 192 flights of stairs.

As I neared the top now with 10 minutes of hiking remaining, I texted my friend to meet me down the trail and to bring fruit. I ate bananas and apples, split the load on my back between the two of us and proceeded to hike out together. I touched the trailhead sign to confirm the completion. I had come out of the other side different than I had entered. I still sleep without a tent most times, in fact, I sleep on top of my vehicle quite a bit. I prefer to be exposed and to feel the natural breeze and hear the crickets instead of being enclosed inside a hotel room.

Shortly after this adventure, I’d feel an earthquake for the first time in my life. It’s a misconception that we are all on solid ground. Next week, I camp in the epicenter of the Searles Valley, CA earthquake aftershocks.

Tom Cross | Behind the Lens: “Into the Canyon”
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