Spotlight On A Backpacking Wilderness Guide

One of the most visited national parks in the US is the Grand Canyon National Park, with nearly five million visitors per year. Of those millions of tourists, only about five percent dip below the rim and broaden their exploration. Further, of the five percent that hike below the rim, only about ten percent actually make it to the Colorado River. This is the magic of a backpacking trip to one of the most beloved national parks in the country. You don’t have to go far to have the place to yourself.

On a three-night adventure with Four Season Guides, I backpacked with new friends from the North Rim, perched at 8,000 feet, to the South Rim, stretching up to 7,000 feet. Down, down, down we went, past the most incredible geologic landscape where millions of years of history can be seen in the multi-hued layers of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. And that’s all before we even hit the Colorado River, where you can marvel at an unbelievable diversity of flora and fauna.

I pitched my single tent one night next to a black and gray sheet of rock, excited to watch the sun paint different shades as it dipped out of view. When brushing my teeth, I leaned forward to spit and realized that I wasn’t alone. A black widow spider, with its trademark red hourglass shape on its abdomen and venom several times more toxic than that of a rattlesnake, was inches from my face. Yep, time to move my tent.

All a part of the adventure, I also saw deer, heard mice scampering at night, and was left thunderstruck as a big horn sheep danced on the thin and rocky trail—my trail, the one I was standing on!—right past me. From Bright Angel Creek to Ribbon Falls to the snaking trails of The Box to sipping a Bright Angel IPA at Phantom Ranch to watching the sunset at Plateau Point, where we could see little lights from cars and tourists dotting the rim above, this was most certainly an experience of a lifetime.

One of the guides on my trip was Karne Snickers, a strong and mighty woman who carried a backpack that looked larger than she was. Her positive attitude and general love for the outdoors inspired and motivated our entire group. When I asked her what she loves about the Grand Canyon so much, she said, “What’s not to love—the Grand Canyon is filled with the most complex, intricate, and intriguing landscapes on the planet, at least for this gal.”

“Every time I step off the rim with my new best friends (clients), my heart goes pitter-patter,” Snickers says. “Little do my guests know that I’m so giddy at the prospect of spewing fun facts, history—current and ancient, geology, and biology with every step we take on our rim-to-rim journey, that I’ve not slept all night. Coaching them on learning and mastering the skills of backpacking, which for many is the first time they’ve ever slept under the stars or even in a tent, gets me just as excited as they are to share in this grand adventure we are on!”

Of course, guiding backpackers in a potentially dangerous environment can prove to be a stressful prospect. “Guiding guests across the canyon is a demanding profession and often has some challenges,” says Snickers. “Keeping your guests hydrated, well fed, and safe is a constant thought as you hike along but the reward is beyond description when you have a guest accomplish their journey, which is a hard journey.”

Some guests begin the adventure with real fears about what they are actually capable of mentally and physically. And, when they finish, it’s a real evolution in thought. This is what keeps Snickers returning as a backpacking wilderness guide each season.

“It’s something they doubted they could ever accomplish,” says Snickers. “They look me in the eye, tears start to flow, and it’s then that my heart is overflowing.”

Of course, there are tricks of the trade, ways to be successful when taking on a big challenge that involves carrying weight on your back, in the heat, and backpacking every day. “When hiking in Grand Canyon National Park, we teach baby steps—tiny little steps going up or down the trails that are efficient and that conserve energy by saving our quads for long miles on the trail.”

For training, Snickers suggests using the idea of baby steps to develop good fitness habits. “It can help us stay motivated and allow for us to incorporate outdoor activities into a routine,” says Snickers. “Ten minutes walking around a park or in a neighborhood is a perfect baby step.”

The health benefits of being in nature are many. “Spending time outside hiking or walking in nature is a proven way to boost endorphins, which in turn makes us happier humans,” says Snickers. “This world of ours is a magical place and what better way is there to discover it than by foot, with a backpack, and on a trail!”

For more adventures, follow Wendy Altschuler on Instagram.

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