Rules of thumb come in handy at times. Commentator Scott Thybony has learned a few of them over the years from Grand Canyon guides, scientists, and rangers.
Rule 1. It’s bigger than you think, farther away than it looks, and deeper than you imagine.
One night a tourist walked behind Bright Angel Lodge and lifted her camera. Click, flash. The spark of light disappeared so quickly in the vast space below she checked to see if her batteries had died. Distances can deceive even in broad daylight. A hiker descended the Hermit Trail in 1915, intending to walk back along the river to the Bright Angel Trail in one day. He took no food, water, or the climbing equipment he would have needed. Three days later searchers found him in a delirious state wearing only his underclothes in a place called Hell’s Half Acre. A headline in the New York Times read, “Crazed in Grand Canyon.”
Rule 2. The rule of two.
The North Rim gets twice as much precipitation as the South Rim, and side canyons draining it are twice as long as those on the south. It takes twice as long to hike up the trail as to hike down. And finally, visitors spend twice as much time in the gift shops and restaurants than they do looking at the canyon itself.
Rule 3. It’ all downhill from here.
Only 10 percent of visitors go below the rim and only 1 percent make it to the bottom. Walking downhill is harder than walking on flat ground. More energy is expended going down since the body must check its forward momentum, fighting gravity all the way. And each step down the Bright Angel Trail takes you back in geologic time more than 100,000 years.
Rule 4. Taking heat.
The bottom of the canyon is 20 degrees warmer, on average, than the South Rim, so you’re hiking toward the heat when descending. As Mike Buchheit put it, “Start at the top in your snowmobile suit, and you might end at the bottom in your Speedos.” A person hiking in summer heat will sweat a quart of water an hour, but conditions improve when you reach the river. As a rule of thumb, it takes 7 minutes for a beer to cool to river temperature.
Rule 5. The sniff test.
Packrat nests, consisting of sticks, dung, and cactus needles, become cemented into middens by crystallized urine. In Grand Canyon they date back 41,000 years. As a rule of thumb, if the midden has an acrid, sharp smell then it’s less than 5,000 years old. “If it’s pungent but sweet, like a good wine,” said scientist Jim Mead, “it’s older than 5,000 years.” Tasting it is more accurate than just sniffing. But, he admitted, it’s an acquired taste.
Rule 6. A case of mistaken identity.
A couple rushed into the North Rim visitor center and asked Ranger Ernie, “When do the geysers go off?”
He paused for a moment, wondering if they were serious, then answered, “I’ll check.”
Pulling out the park service directory, he called his counterpart at Yellowstone National Park. He turned back to the couple and informed them, “Old Faithful will erupt in about 60 minutes.”
“Oh good,” the wife said, “we thought we’d missed it.”
Her husband wanted to know the best place to see it, so Ranger Ernie opened a map and pointed. “We’re here,” and then he moved his finger 740 miles north. “And Yellowstone is here. That would be your best place.”
As a final rule of thumb, you’ll have a better chance of seeing geysers in Wyoming than Arizona.