Millions of people do not agree with Joseph Ives. In fact, if they actually knew what he said, they would be left speechless. But Joseph Ives isn't a politician or some famous person spouting out his opinion on something he knows little about. Who is he then? Well, in 1857 Lieutenant Ives led a team of men to survey the River Colorado and the Grand Canyon and returned, declaring it and the surrounding area "altogether valueless", adding that his expedition would be "the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality". Time has proved him starkly wrong. Today, 150 years after he made that statement, the Grand Canyon, known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, attracts almost 5 million people to gaze at it each year. How wrong can you get? I went to check it out for myself.
We flew to Phoenix for our Christmas holidays primarily because we wanted to see the Grand Canyon, this amazing gash in the surface of our planet. Photos, pictures, paintings, writings, statistics... they say a lot but we wanted to experience it for ourselves. After all, it seemed tantalisingly close now that we live on this side of the Atlantic and was only a four-hour drive from Phoenix.
Our visit took place on Christmas Day. As there were just the four of us and no family or friends within a radius of a thousand miles to gather around the table and share a feast of roast turkey, stuffing and all the culinary trimmings, we decided we would make it a special day and drive up to see the Canyon. It was an excellent plan. Being winter AND Christmas Day meant that the crowds stayed away. Divide 5 million by 365 and there should have been about 14,000 people joining us there that particular day but fortunately only a few hundred turned up and we hardly noticed them.
Saguaro cactus by the road
Early morning landscape
Open road and horizon
We left Phoenix early and found ourselves on an empty freeway heading north as the bright colours of the desert dawn pushed the black night up like a roller blind. Saguaro cacti and shrubs covered the hills and mountains until they too disappeared and the open road unzipped the wide horizon, soon bereft of even a tree. It would all change soon. The odd dwarf tree appeared, and then we entered the Coconino Forest National Park where we were surrounded by tall ponderosa pines. To our surprise, we found ourselves not only dreaming of a white Christmas but in the middle of one. Earlier snowfalls had left a white blanket all around Flagstaff, turning the countryside into a wintry scene more suited to the Alps than Arizona. The highest of the San Francisco Peaks stood over 12,500 ft (3800 m), all frosted up. We were at 7000 ft (2100 m), the same altitude as Mexico City, and it was colder than we expected.
Snow along the way
Log cabins covered in snow
San Francisco Peaks capped with snow
Wintry road scene
As our Dodge hummed its way through the whitened landscape, I wondered what it would be like at the Canyon and whether there would be any snow there. Would we find the Canyon as impressive as everyone else said it was? I mulled over the statistics. They were staggering, I had to admit. Apparently the Grand Canyon was 277 miles (446 kms) long, a distance greater than London to Carlisle or Paris to Geneva or Mexico City to Veracruz. And this was no ordinary gap. Its width ranged from 1 mile (1.5 km) to 18 miles (almost 30 kms). But what really kept buzzing through my head was that I had read it was up to 1 mile (1.5 km) deep. This statistic was making me a bit apprehensive. You see, I'm not good at heights. Ask my kids. Whenever there is some dizzying height or long drop around, I have a way of embarrassing my family by making sudden urgent moves to grab the nearest solid, unmoveable object (like a car), closing my eyes tight (but the image doesn't seem to go away even then) and emitting slight groaning noises and desperate "No! Stop! Don't go any closer!" phrases. It happened most recently at a viewpoint in Yosemite National Park last Easter. The question that kept popping up in my mind was "Has anyone ever fallen into the Grand Canyon?". I couldn't get it out of my head. I didn't want to be the first one.
Old wooden house
At Williams we turned north and once again, as we entered the Grand Canyon National Park, fresh white pillows and sheets of snow lay under the pine trees. No sign of the canyon though. Parking was easy at the Visitors' Centre and when we opened the car doors, streams of icy cold air froze us, warning us to dress warmly. And then I saw it, a sign greeting us almost as soon as we'd stepped foot out of the car. It kind of answered the question uppermost in my mind. It read: "COMMON QUESTIONS. How often do people fall over the edge?" Well, it seems that it's a rare occurrence but those who do, don't usually survive. I should have known. Be careful, it warned. I made sure all my family saw it and read it and took notice of it.
Grand Canyon National Park
Snow under the trees
Heading for the rim, I began to wonder when we'd ever see the canyon. Just then it appeared without warning. One miunte we couldn't see anything, the next minute, there it was, gaping wide in front of us, just beyond the comforting metal railing to stop us being swallowed up by the abyss. It was much more impressive, much larger than I had imagined. With the deep blue sky above and the reddish, orange, brown or beige canyon walls in front, iced thinly in parts, nature's colourful scenic wonderland took our breath away.
First view of the Grand Canyon
View from Mather Point
It goes without saying that we were wide-eyed and totally awed by the sight of Earth's history laid bare before us in the layers upon layers of multicoloured rock, exposed over an unbelievable amount of time by the River Colorado cutting down through the canyon. And yet, at the same time, seeing all those lines and slices of geological DNA stacked up all around, I couldn't quite get the picture out of mind of my Mum's delicious sandwich cakes, with billows of thick creamy butter icing sticking the layers of sponge together, topped by butter icing or chocolate frosting. Some of the rock outcrops actually looked like slices of cake carefully cut and about to be dished out onto someone's plate. I had to admit that Nature had surprised us once again. I felt as if the Creator of all this had deliberately allowed the earth's crust to be sliced open in this staggeringly enormous canyon just so we could get a glimpse of our world's past history and be overawed by the beauty and complexity of the planet we were living on. And to put mankind into perspective. In fact, no matter what perspective you see it from, whether peering across and down from the rim, flying above it, walking down down down into it or from the river itself, the Grand Canyon cannot fail to impress the onlooker. Except maybe Lieutenant Joseph Ives and his team of explorers.
I felt particularly small and vulnerable standing on the rim, and totally dispensable, with just a small scrap of metal between me and the huge gap which yawned just a few centimetres from my toes. While the railing was there, giving me an undescribable sense of security, I was fine. I could take photos. I could peer over and look down at the trails below. As soon as the magic barrier disappeared, however, I was unable to fully enjoy the sight. My mind began to fast forward and I pictured myself or my family or some of the other more daring walkers plunging over the side and unwittingly ending up in the River Colorado below, or dangling off some of those stripy rocks stacked up below. To my horror, I saw a man climbing down a rocky point with no barriers, and peer down into the abyss. So people do take risks, I thought, looking away in case his foot slipped.
Man peering down into the Canyon
A while later, we drove along Hermit's Rest Route, stopping at Trailview Overlook. I gingerly got out the car and, with my eyes intentionally looking inland, inched my way behind the row of vehicles parked right on the rim behind what seemed like a very low wall protecting them from accidentally slipping down into oblivion. A bit further on, where the Rim Walk had been made safe, with steps and railings and signs, I once again became brave and enjoyed the scene in front of and below me. The Bright Angel Trail, tiptoeing down through the icy snow, could be seen zigzagging down down down. Vertical canyon walls accompanied it and the sight of walkers, mere ant-like dots, seemingly oblivious to the drop right next to them as they made their way down the slippery trail, sent my heart into palpitations. I couldn't look for long and lifted my gaze to the far distance across the canyon. At least I couldn't see anyone fall out there.
View from Trail Overlook.... far left, people; far right, lodge on the canyon rim
Dusting of snow
Icy Bright Angel Trail zigzagging down
Lunch was a wintry picnic standing outside the Dodge, surrounded by snow and a gang of about 15 or so shiny black crows hoping to get their share. No-one else was around except a carful of Mexicans, also eating lunch. Inside the nearby National Park Headquarters, a crackling fire was roaring in the fireplace and a lady sat in a rocking chair having a Christmas skyping chat on a laptop. It felt like winter here.
Sharing a rather large sandwich
Sign showing the Rim Trail
Diagram showing the Canyon's age
View of the canyon from the road
Grand Canyon National Park Headquarters
Crackling fire inside
Much later, when we were back on the road to Phoenix, we aired our impressions in the car. Clearly, we too disagreed with Lieutenant Ives. How could he have made that statement? you have to ask yourself. I suppose unlike us, he didn't have the benefit of good roads, maps, marked trails, GPS systems or modern transport. The Canyon must have seemed an incredibly hostile and apparently useless place to settle or extract resources from. After all, he was sailing down the River Colorado with his men in a steamboat. "It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic ways shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed", he wrote in his report in 1861. I wish he could see it now.
Back at home, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to investigate the question of how many people have fallen over the edge of the Grand Canyon. I learnt that about 600 people have died in the Grand Canyon since the 1870s. Of those deaths,
- 53 have resulted from falls;
- 65 deaths were attributable to environmental causes, including heat stroke, cardiac arrest, dehydration, and hypothermia;
- 7 were caught in flash floods;
- 79 were drowned in the Colorado River;
- 242 perished in airplane and helicopter crashes (128 of them in the 1956 disaster when two planes collided);
- 25 died in freak errors and accidents, including lightning strikes and rock falls;
- 48 committed suicide; and
- 23 were the victims of homicides."
All in all, there are about 10-12 fatalities a year, quite a small number considering the millions that visit this place every year. An interesting book entitled "Over the Edge; Death in the Grand Canyon", by Michael Gighlieri and Thomas Myers, is full of details. Like the mind-boggling comment by the Chief of Emergency Services. "A passenger jumped out of a sightseeing helpicopter. I thought I'd seen everything." More recently, in 2007, a tragic accident occurred when a four-year old girl fell to her death at Mather Point, right where we had been standing. I'm glad I didn't know it at the time. And maybe the luckiest guy on earth is the 21-year-old who accidentally drove his car over the rim in April last year. It snagged on a pine tree 200 feet down, stopping him from certain death.
I also came across a series of photos taken by Hans von de Vorst, showing a daredevil photographer. Even though there is a ledge beneath him which cannot be seen in the photos, I would probably have had a heart attack watching this leap of faith.
Still, despite these gruesome stories, I would earnestly recommend a visit to the Grand Canyon. It's something everyone should do at least once in their lifetime which I guess is why 5 million people did the same as us last year. Just go on Christmas Day and avoid the crowds. And whatever you do, BE CAREFUL!