National Geographic : 2016 Sep
138 national geographic • september 2016 canyon has been opened to unlimited air traf- fic by the Hualapai, a tribe whose reservation borders the south side of the Colorado River. Thanks to a Federal Aviation Administration rule change requested by the Hualapai, the tribe may operate an unrestricted number of helicop- ter flights. These are filled with sightseers, many from Las Vegas, and fly below the canyon’s rim from sunrise to sunset. The noise they generate is so intense, and so continuous, that the area is locally known as Helicopter Alley. “ When you look across this vast landscape now, it’s hard to believe that it could possibly be damaged or lost due to acts of man,” Clark said. “But each of these threats is capable of eroding a piece of the canyon’s majesty, and together they will strip the landscape of its ability to do the thing that makes it unique, which is to instill hu- mility by demonstrating that human beings are tiny in relation to the forces that have shaped this planet, and that we are not the center of the world.” The bigger threat, Clark contends, is that Tu- sayan, the tramway, and Helicopter Alley have the potential to accelerate neighboring devel- opment projects. He noted that the Hualapai’s wildly successful helicopter operation has drawn interest among some Navajo, who be- lieve that the cable-driven gondola system could be an anchor for a similar explosion of air tours along the eastern flanks of the canyon. If that vision were realized and if Tusayan’s de- velopment were to move forward, Clark said, the impact would be enormous. “ You would have a mega-resort perched directly above the central portion of the canyon and bookended by a pair of massive air-tour operations, each anchored to its own new development,” he said. “In a very real sense, the entire sweep of the canyon would be transformed into something that looks less like a national park and more like an amusement park.” AFTER THANKSGIVING Pete and I headed back to where we’d ended our previous push and began hiking downstream. One hundred twenty-two miles later, we climbed back out, at the park’s South Rim entrance. Next came a 66-mile push that began just after New Year’s. Our pace each day was determined by the loca- tion of springs, which we relied on for drinking water, hopscotching from one to the next. At a place called Horn Creek, we had to bypass a large spring contaminated by an abandoned uranium mine just below the South Rim that has poisoned its water since the 1960s. At the end of January, as we were preparing for the most formidable leg of all—a 155-mile thrust around the Great Thumb Mesa—our friend Rich Rudow reentered the picture. He and his partner, Chris Atwood, had passed through the Grand Wash Cliffs in late November, becoming the ninth and 10th people to ever complete a con- tinuous thru-hike of the entire canyon. (Their friend Dave Nally had pulled out early with re- spiratory problems.) Rudow had been tracking our progress via satellite texts we’d been sending and was worried about the challenges Pete and I would face on the Thumb in winter, when storms can blow in with little warning and dump several inches of snow. Rudow had decided that he needed to return to shepherd us through. Which is how, on the af- ternoon of February 1, we all came to be standing in almost a foot of snow at the edge of Owl Eyes, wondering how we were going to make it across. At the far end of the horseshoe-shaped bay was a massive ledge. If we could reach that flat piece of ground, we’d be OK. But getting there would require navigating directly across a steep slope of shale, hoping that if we slipped, we’d be able to stop our slide before shooting over the 400-foot cliff. It was already late in the after- noon, and if we failed to make it to safe ground before dark, we’d confront the appalling pros- pect of having to spend the night on the treach- erously slick slopes of Owl Eyes. After more than two hours, we’d only made it to the middle of the horseshoe, where a small promontory extended out from the slope. It was no more than 20 yards long, but there was a flat space on top, and at the far end there was a small pile of stones. When we reached the stones, Ru- dow halted and bowed his head for a moment.