Even the fitness challenged can enjoy views from below

That dream hike starts with first step

Some people work here so that they can immerse themselves in this hikers' paradise in their off time. Then there are the rest of us ­ somewhere in the neighborhood of middle age and, to put it gently, not in the very best shape. You know who you are, by the way it hurts just to look at the Bright Angel Trail from the rim.

If, like me, you think it would be a terrible shame to have lived here and never seen the Canyon from the bottom up, take heart ­ you are in the very best environment to prevent that from happening.

For most of the 40,000 hikers who spend at least one night below the rim each year, training involves simulating what locals find practically in their backyards. And unlike residents, visitors generally have only one time-constrained shot to see if their training was effective.

Before they even set foot on the trail, people who've lived here more than a month have already overcome one challenge ­ they've become acclimated to the altitude. Where to go from there depends on age and previous ability.

According to Doug Nering, president of the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association, often younger people in reasonably good health make the trip without much training and without ill effects though they don't always enjoy it. For an older person with a less-than-active lifestyle, the baseline is "an everyday level of fitness. You have to get there before you can start training for a Grand Canyon hike. If you're overweight, you don't have to lose all of the weight, as long as you have the mental backbone."

How long?

It takes around four to six weeks with at least four days a week of training from there to prepare for an overnight hike.

Though going down hill seems like the easiest part, that's where hikers generally train the least and where they face the greatest risk of injury.

"The downhill is what folks are usually not prepared for," says Ranger Della Yurcik, who patrols the Inner Canyon trails as part of the Preventative Search and Rescue, or PSAR team. "They think 'It's so easy,' and they're zooming downhill and that is what's beating up your knees and your calves and sometimes your quads. You're engaging all those muscles going downhill and you may not really feel it until the next day."

"The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to train for," says Tom Martin, physical therapist at North Country Community Health Center and an avid hiker. "It's unique in that you start off by hiking down many thousands of feet and hiking many thousands of feet up."

He explains that while the push of moving upward as in climbing stairs­ a concentric contraction ­ is something people are accustomed to, their muscles are less developed when it comes to ecentric contractions, or the pull of muscles when going down hill.

"If you think of two teams playing tug of war, the team that's losing the tug of war battle is doing the ecentric contraction. That's where dynamic stuff is happening," Martin says. "That's where tightening fibers are working. The training that people need to do is in the ecentric realm."

Yurcik said that "canyon knee," or bursitis, is common among hikers who overdo it going down, especially those who descend on steep trails like the South Kaibab. "Canyon toe" is another downhill injury caused by ill-fitting shoes that rub against the hiker's toenails, causing them to blister underneath and fall off.

"That's an issue with people from out of the area, they come here with all new gear. Sometimes we have to cut the toes out of people's boots so they can hike out," Yurcik said.

Avoiding injury

Martin advises beginners to take it "miserably slow" at first to avoid injury that can set their training regimen back.

"If you hurt yourself in training, then you have to heal from the injury before you can train for that event," Martin said. "It's 'no pain, no gain,' when you're 20. That's the concept that makes John Elways throw touchdown passes in Superbowls. When you're 45 and 50 and you can barely get to your local Ford dealership because you hurt so much from doing what you did when you were 20, at that point, no pain means you have a brain."

For some with certain systemic conditions, like arthritis, hiking the Canyon may not be a good idea at all.

"The answer is sometimes 'no,'" Martin said. "If you've got some arthritis, some knee pain, hip pain or ankle pain, you'll probably make it worse mucking around in Grand Canyon. If you're a candidate for a total knee replacement, it's probably not a good idea to walk from the lobby to the 10th floor of a building. But there's only one way to find out. Get into training and see if you are up to it."

Help and support

As you're learning what your body can and can't do, you should also seek advice from medical experts and other hikers. Along with many locals who are familiar with the Inner Canyon, the Web offers a wealth of resources that can also be helpful to those who live here.

One such community is the Grand Canyon Hikers discussion group on Yahoo!

"We have quite a few people who are newbies on that group," says Nering. He cites the example of a 50-year-old woman in Germany who wanted to hike the Canyon but knew that she had some work to do to be up to it.

"She joined the group to ask what she should do," Nering said. "She came to Grand Canyon this year and did the hike. It worked for her. We've had a lot of people that this is their first and only trip to Grand Canyon and they've been successful at it."

"If you have questions, ask," Martin said. "People out there are happy to share their experiences."

Equipment

Outfitting yourself properly and putting your gear to the test before a major hike can prevent injury. Try new shoes at a forward incline before you buy them and choose a pair that doesn't crowd your toes. Give yourself at least a month to break them in.

Martin said that the choice of high or low-tops depends on personal preference and how much stability is needed in the ankles.

"If you have a history of sprains, you want high tops with lots of support," he said. "If your ankles are strong, you could hike in flip-flops though I wouldn't recommend it. Choose one of the low top, lightweight hiking shoes that are popular now."

Trekking poles are also overwhelmingly recommended and provide numerous advantages.

"They improve stability," Nering said. "People find that they save a lot of physical energy that they would spend keeping balance. It helps them conserve energy as they manage pack weight and find their balance. They avoid the possibility of overloads when stepping down."

Martin advises borrowing or renting a set before buying.

Staying nourished

Taking care of your own internal engine is critical as well. Yurcik says many hikers arrive at Phantom Ranch suffering general malaise from overdoing it ­ not resting, and not taking snack breaks.

"When it gets warm, people lose their appetite and don't want to eat, and they drink too much water," she said. "But you don't want to wait until you're super hungry. You want to constantly stay energized so you want to keep eating and drinking Gatorade. (The hike) may take longer than you think. It's OK to take a little nap and hike out later."

Hikers need electrolytes, carbohydrates and salt. Beyond that, what to bring is up to individual preference.

"Choose snacks and drinks that will work," said Nering. "Go from experience. Don't go out and buy something just because someone says it's the right thing. Find out what works for you. The things you like when you're not exercising won't be the same things you like to eat when you are exercising."

Yurcik said that part of the training is trying a variety of foods and choosing what works best.

Plain water is best used for wetting your clothes to help your body's natural sweating process.

"It's real dry here and you don't realize that you're sweating," Yurcik said. "Everyone is sweating on the trail in the summer. When it's real dry out every time you go by water, get wet. Cotton is a good thing to wear in the summer."

Hikers should also avoid the hottest part of the day ­ between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ­ and to recognize the warning signs that their body needs fuel, fluids and rest. These include nausea and vomiting, headache, irritability and crying.

Starting out small

"To prepare to do hikes in the Grand Canyon, the best thing is to start out small," says Yurcik. "Start an exercise program, maybe do some weight training and do small hikes to start building yourself up ­ go to the second tunnel on the Bright Angel Trail and come back up (one and one-half mile round trip). Next time, go to Mile and a Half House and back."

Beginning hikers should also become accustomed to carrying a pack, as they can expect to haul between 15 and 30 pounds depending on their trip.

"Taking too much stuff is at the top of the list (of mistakes)," said Nering.

Numerous Web sites provide guidance on what hikers should or shouldn't bring. Essentials include water, first aid supplies, sunscreen and a flashlight. Yurcik says bringing a tarp instead of a tent can save weight, and Nering says even little things can make a big difference.

"Don't take extra clothes and camp stuff," he said. "Bring wraps of toilet paper instead of the whole roll. Bring a little bit of toothpaste rather than the whole tube. Share stoves and cooking gear, and leave the water filter cup at home. A tent is optional except in the middle of winter."

"For a day hike, I wouldn't want to carry more than 20 pounds," said Yurcik. "On the Bright Angel, there are water stops every mile and a half to Indian Garden but if you're going to go down Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa, you'll need to take all of your water with you."

Choosing a trail

Beginners are advised to stick to the corridor trails ­ the Bright Angel and North and South Kaibab ­ with Bright Angel being the best place to start. The South Kaibab is steeper, suffers more wear and has no water, while water is generally available along the Bright Angel, eliminating the need to pack enough to allow for a half to a full quart for each hour on the trail. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds.

Psychologically, coming up from Indian Garden is easier than other trails because hikers can view it in thirds ­ from Indian Garden to Three-Mile House, from Three Mile House to Mile and a Half House and from there to the rim.

Until a hiker spends some time below the rim, it's hard for them to develop a realistic perspective of distances in the Canyon.

Yurcik said another common mistake is thinking only in terms of miles.

"Folks will think, for example, on the South Kaibab Trail, 'Well it's only seven and a half miles to the bottom' but they don't take into consideration how steep the steps are and that they'll be hiking in the heat and will need to take breaks," she said. "How long it will take depends on the person."

"How many miles to someplace doesn't matter," Nering said. "When you are covering 5,000 feet of elevation, how many miles is secondary."

Self-assessing

"You need to be constantly assessing yourself on your hike down," said Martin. "Ask yourself, 'Am I hurting?' if I'm hurting, I'm turning around and hiking out."

Coming out is a matter of pacing where the goal is to exert yourself just enough to still be able to carry on a conversation. Yurcik likens it to doing a Stairmaster, in the sun and it can be the most daunting part of the trip.

"A lot is mental," she said. "When you look up, the rim looks like a long way away. What you have to do is look back and say 'Look how far I've come.'"

Yurcik said that Indian Garden, down four miles and 3,000 feet elevation from the rim, is a good place for a first overnight destination, either as an end in itself or as a first stop on a hike to the bottom. While there, hikers can take a level mile and a half hike to Plateau Point to enjoy the sunset.

"That is a significant, 12-mile round trip," she said.

Above all, hikers are advised to take time.

"A standard Grand Canyon hike is three days," said Nering. "Going down to the bottom and coming up the next day is not a lot of fun."

"What we see," said Yurcik, "is folks who come down for just one night, then the next day they're super sore and beat up and they don't have a day to take off. Folks should never plan just one night."

"The most important thing is to have fun," said Nering. "I hate to see someone in my favorite place who is not having a good time. Plan ahead. Don't try to do so much and slow down a little bit more so you can see things."

Permits

All overnight stays below the rim require a backcountry permit. While they are generally issued four months in advance, the backcountry office maintains a waiting list for redistribution of canceled trips.

The permits also reserve space at campgrounds below the rim, though hikers are still responsible for the fees. Backcountry rangers can help them plan an itinerary with stays at Indian Garden, Bright Angel Campground and Cottonwood Campground.

Information on reservations and cancellations at the Phantom Ranch Bunkhouse is available at the Bright Angel Lodge transportation desk. Yurcik said this is a good option for hikers who don't want to pack in a lot of gear. Dorms are not co-ed.

For more information, visit www.kaibab.org, or www. nps.gov/grca/backcountry/smart.htm.

You can find the Grand Canyon Hikers group on Yahoo! at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Grand_Canyon_Hikers/.

You can also call the Backcountry office between 1-5 p.m. at 638-7875 or drop by between 8 a.m.-12 p.m. or 1-5 p.m.

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