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Walking a dog throughout the summer in Phoenix begins with a test: Hold the back of your hand to the sidewalk for a couple of seconds. If your hand can’t take the warmth, neither can your dog’s bare paws.
Since returning to Phoenix from a 36-hour reporting trip in Grand Canyon National Park, I’ve added one other step to my routine: I throw my T-shirt within the kitchen sink and soak it with “cold” water. Park rangers recommend the trick for decent days, and I can testify that it makes an enormous difference. During triple-digit temperatures, the one option to experience anything resembling a cooling sensation is to feel moisture wicking off your skin.
You might think that living within the Southwest would robotically construct up your tolerance for this sort of heat. But the fact for most individuals living through summer within the Sonoran Desert is that life unfolds indoors. You scuttle from a temperature-controlled house to your baking automobile, crank the air-conditioning and, inside a couple of minutes, arrive at one other man-made oasis.
With its supermarket and steakhouses, hotels and chilled coach buses, Grand Canyon Village extends this bubble to the sting of the wilderness. For a recent article that appeared within the Travel section of The New York Times, I wanted to know how the park’s search-and-rescue staff mitigated risk on this borderland, a spot where you’ll be able to buy a milkshake a couple of steps away from a trail that results in among the world’s most rugged terrain.
Much of that work is targeted on what rangers call preventive search-and-rescue, referred to as P-SAR, which amounts to creating sure people have the knowledge and supplies they should get through a hot hike.
Talking to rangers who’ve watched people reach critical condition inside a few miles of an air-conditioned food court has a way of adjusting your perspective on risk. Even as an avid hiker with a couple of years of desert living under my belt, I spotted while reporting this text that I had never really considered the hows and whys behind lifelong trail habits, like snacking on potato chips or dipping a bandanna within the river.
In “Desert Solitaire,” the naturalist Edward Abbey famously railed against the paved roads and utility projects being pushed into distant parts of the country. “Why is the Park Service so anxious” to cater to “the indolent tens of millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to guide them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and cranny of the national parks?” he wrote.
For probably the most part, his argument lost out to what he called “industrial tourism,” and in consequence, about five million of us get to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon every 12 months. But topography has put not less than a part of this impulse in check: If you ought to see the canyon from below the rim, you might have to walk or hire a mule to take you down. And, because the park’s superintendent, Ed Keable, told me during my visit in June, “Some of our visitors just aren’t prepared for the intense conditions of climbing within the Grand Canyon.”
Conventional wisdom is that the population most liable to needing rescue is “YAMs” — young adult males with an excessive amount of testosterone to heed warnings from nature (or their clever, naysaying friends and relatives). But data from Grand Canyon National Park in 2018 showed that individuals over 60 needed help most frequently. The altitude, and the results of worldwide warming, which push more days over temperatures that we will stand, conspire to make a nasty time creep up on you, or accentuate the results of a chronic health condition.
When I asked one ranger how individuals who got into trouble within the canyon normally explained how they’d ended up within the situation, he answered, “They thought they’d be tremendous.”
Fourteen years ago, I spent a month floating through the Grand Canyon on a rafting trip down the Colorado River. For my latest trip, I used to be careful to not tempt disaster and packed a couple of essentials: a water bladder, a wide-brimmed hat, a pair of sunglasses and good shoes. But after a day of interviews with search-and-rescue rangers, I felt unprepared for the trail. I hadn’t studied maps or plotted out my descent with goal departure and return times. Rather than heed their advice to avoid climbing between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is at its most punishing, I overslept and followed the June crowds down into the canyon shortly before 9 within the morning. The temperature was already within the 80s and climbing.
I’m normally an overambitious, seat-of-the-pants type of hiker. But after I reached Havasupai Gardens, which is 4 and a half miles into the journey along the Bright Angel Trail, I resisted the temptation to go one other mile and a half to Plateau Point, where you’ll be able to see the blue thread of the Colorado. I turned around as a substitute.
The advice of the rangers had entered my subconscious.