It was early May, but a raw breeze was blowing as we tracked bootprints through an inch of new-fallen snow. Shortly after dawn, we had parked on the Desert View Drive and set off through the ponderosa forest toward the Grand Canyon, leaving behind the tourist traffic hurtling along the canyon’s South Rim.
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After hiking a mile, the three of us—mountaineer Greg Child, photographer Bill Hatcher and I—emerged abruptly from the trees to stand on a limestone promontory overlooking the colossal chasm. The view was predictably sublime—distant ridges and towers blurred to pastel silhouettes by the morning haze; the North Rim, 20 miles distant, smothered in storm; the turgid flood of the Colorado River silenced by the 4,800-foot void beneath our feet.
But we hadn’t come for the scenery.
We scrambled off the point, slithering among boulders as we lost altitude. A few hundred feet below the rim we were stopped by a band of rock that dropped nearly ten feet. We tied a rope to a clump of serviceberry bushes and slid down it, leaving the rope in place for our return.
We had found our way through the canyon’s Kaibab Limestone cap rock and alighted atop a 400-foot precipice of Coconino Sandstone. For miles on either side, this band of grayish orange rock was too sheer to descend, but the prow itself was broken into sharp-angled steps. We took the line of least resistance, sidling around towers and straddling grooves, with the emptiness below our soles reminding us of the consequences of a misstep.
Then the going got really tricky. We faced inward, moving slowly from one handhold and foothold to the next. All three of us are experienced climbers, but the terrain was as difficult as any of us dared tackle without ropes and hardware. Just as the “route” threatened to blank out, Greg, in the lead, placed his foot in a rounded hollow that gave him just enough purchase to keep his balance. Another hollow for his other foot—six in a row, all told. From years of prowling through the Southwest, we knew that these subtle depressions were man-made. More than seven centuries ago, some daring acrobat had pounded them with a rock harder than sandstone.
So it went for the next 90 minutes: wherever the path seemed to vanish, early pioneers had stacked a platform of flat rocks here or carved a few footholds there. At last we came out onto a broad saddle between the plunging prow and an isolated butte to the north. As we sat eating lunch, we found red and gray and white flakes of chert scattered in the dirt—the debris of an arrowhead-making workshop.
Bill looked up at the route we had just descended. Had we stumbled upon it from below, we might well have judged it unclimbable. “Pretty amazing, huh?” was all he could say. But what was the trail for, and what long-vanished culture had created it?
The Grand Canyon occupies such an outsize place in the public imagination, we can be forgiven for thinking we “know” it. More than four million tourists visit the canyon each year, and the National Park Service funnels the vast majority of them through a tidy gantlet of attractions confined to a relatively short stretch of the South Rim. Even people who have never visited America’s greatest natural wonder have seen so many photographs of the panorama from Grandview Point or Mather Point that the place seems familiar to them.
But the canyon is a wild and unknowable place—both vast (the national park alone covers about 1,902 square miles, about the size of Delaware) and inaccessible (the vertical drops vary from 3,000 feet to more than 6,000). The chasm lays bare no fewer than 15 geological layers, ranging from the rim-top Kaibab Limestone (250 million years old) to the river-bottom Vishnu Schist (as old as two billion years). The most ecologically diverse national park in the United States, the Grand Canyon embraces so many microclimates that hikers can posthole through snowdrifts on the North Rim while river runners on the Colorado below are sunbathing in their shorts.