Our first look at the Canyon upon exiting the shuttle van at the South Kaibab Trailhead. I’m not sure now, whether we noticed at the time, the trail we would soon traverse snaking along the edge of the steep slope shown here beginning at the lower right of the photo. We climbed this rim rock and stared… foolish old men held in kryptonite… 17-degrees Fahrenheit. Later I would come to understand these distemporal moments as “stopping the world” and “seeing without words.”
Mapping the Abyss
Map displayed by the National Park Service at the South Kaibab Trailhead. Here, the morning of the hike, was the first I’d seen a hiking trail map. It outlines our intended route perfectly: down the South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch for two nights, across The River Trail and take The Bright Angel through Indian Garden and back up to Grand Canyon Village. The South Kaibab Trailhead, our starting point, is remote and accessible only by NPS shuttle. The hike to Phantom Ranch begins in a van. I think I was so excited to be going to the floor of the Canyon, I never thought to research the trails, the distance, or the conditions. Had I done so, I would have missed the adventure of a lifetime.
This map omits crucial markers like “Cedar Ridge” and “Skeleton Point” which would have alerted me to Jeff’s misremembering of many things on this hike. Thus, I was sanguine strolling out behind him onto the South Kaibab the morning of descent.
Trailhead of the South Kaibab
This is it. Where it all begins. A smooth, unassuming trailhead leading to a harrowing adventure. Now would be a good time to turn around.
The Point of No Return
Take a long hard look. Here, below The Trailhead, is the point of no return. The National Park Service cautions “turning around may be your best decision.” My friend was never known for turning around. Minutes later, it is already too late.
The Western Border of Iran
On Kaibab switchbacks, one false step and — Kaput. The far west border of Iran. Here, minutes below The Trailhead, it’s four-hundred feet to the slope which feeds you toward a free-fall of a few hundred more. It can take days or weeks to spot victims through binoculars. Grand Canyon is subjected to the same phenomena as other National Parks where the number of disappearances have swollen to over a thousand since the NPS was created (1916). Most disappearances occur within 30-50 yards of friends or family and most bodies are never found. Statistics reveal a disproportionate number of victims between the ages of fifty-four and seventy-four. Jeff and I were sixty-going-on-sixty-one when we started down The Kaibab that morning of January 28th 2014.
The Red Ochre Corridor
Down there is where I fell backward into an alternate reality revealing Rocinante, El Curioso Impertinente, Mr. Fantasy, The Queen of Maybe, and Claude Monet.
Scene of the Crime
In the book, this is where I… well… it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Walking the path for him alone. The book designer chose this shot for the cover of the novel. I think he got it right.
Magic Hour on South Kaibab
“Golden Hour” is photographers’ light in the minutes bracketing sunrise, or sunset. In the Canyon, due to the 7,000 ft elevation, sunrise comes several hours later than it does at sea-level. But, it’s worth the wait. The minerals reflect a unique color palette. In Grand Canyon there isn’t a “Golden Hour,” because the Sun is high in the sky by the time it rises over the Canyon. We just call it Magic Hour, which appears intermittently throughout the day for only a few moments at a time. It is great fortune to be in the right spot when it happens.
The two “pixels” are the thirty-something couple I met on the shuttle van out to the remote South Kaibab Trailhead. They became the basis for the characters, “Jim and Kate” in the book. I did not think they would make it down this rockface. Some don’t. I almost didn’t.
Our timing that morning was serendipitous. These moments last but moments. Capturing these images was never in The Plan but they’re always in my thoughts whenever I think of that day.