The Skywalk.

Buzz Aldrin Leads The Skywalk Stampede

On March 20, 2007, Dr Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin took the long-awaited "First Walk" on the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-bottomed, U-shaped walkway that hangs over the western rim of the canyon, 4,000 feet above the Colorado River. We'd been eagerly anticipating this unique man-made attraction's opening on the canyon's otherwise natural western lip, if for no other reason than activating a new map pushpin to a big, blank part of Arizona.

The folks at Grand Canyon West, who are the tourism arm of the Hualapai Nation, invited us to join the "invitation only" Grand Opening media frenzy, and we gleefully shouldered in among CNN, BBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and a lot of French, Germans, Australians, and Japanese crews. If you closed your eyes and mixed up the facts a bit, it was just like walking on the moon.

An estimated 800 people were present for the festivities -- or at least that was our rough count after a couple trips to queue in the buffet line and admire the ice sculptures. Many of the tribe members were garbed in traditional dress and performed ritual dances; a tribal elder slowly rose from a wheel chair and delivered a Hualapai blessing of the Skywalk.

We were pleased to find the Skywalk has a functioning public restroom, in a region where electricity is provided by generators and water is trucked in.

Miss Teen Hualapai.

Important dignitaries arrived by air. A tiny nearby field was packed with helicopters and private planes. On the shuttle bus to the Skywalk we overheard a boast that the jet 'copters could make it from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon West in 11 minutes (driving to this remote spot from Vegas takes four hours). We tested the main tourist approach from the west, a rough ride over 20 miles of unpaved, dust-choked switchback roads.

Buzz Aldrin was the co-pilot of Apollo 11 and the second man to walk on the moon. No one seemed to mind that moon guy #2 was to take the "First Walk," not moon guy #1 (Neil Armstrong).

Buzz was scheduled to walk out on the Skywalk and meet, halfway, a contingent of Hualapai led by John Herrington, the only Native American astronaut, who set out from the other side. But the Hualapai, more eager than Buzz (who paused for a salute to an American flag and a couple of waves to the crowd), were standing and waiting by the time he arrived at the midpoint. Number 2 again -- but no one seemed to mind (According to Bill Karren, Skywalk engineer, and Mark Johnson, Skywalk architect -- who we chatted with -- an early idea was to have George W. Bush meet Chinese President Hu Jintao at the halfway point, but that plan fell through.).

Buzz Aldrin.

At the press conference after the Walk, Buzz endured the usual barrage of dumb questions. One reporter asked for a comparison between walking on the Skywalk and walking in space; Buzz gruffly replied there was no comparison, since in space there is no gravity, though he acknowledged both have beautiful views. In response to a question about Skywalk's safety, Buzz noted it was "well built."

After Buzz exited, it was time for the crowd to experience the Skywalk. This quickly turned into an anxious crush. Everyone wanted to get on at once, like a horde of Spring Breakers pushing their way into Girls Gone Wild party. The security people from Vegas were having none of it. "Back UP!" they kept yelling, to which one reporter replied, "Where? Into the canyon?" A media pecking order eventually emerged; the TV networks were let on first, then anyone waving a video camera shouting "I've got a deadline!"

As the press donned disposable shoe covers to prevent scratching of the skywalk, one cameraman complained, "I don't want a lot of MEDIA in my shot; I want PEOPLE." But there was no avoiding the press, who quickly packed the glass walkway. Some reporters threw themselves down onto the glass for the cameras, apparently trying to impress audiences back home with their bravery or outrageousness. "Move along!" the security people yelled, sweeping the crowd -- standing or prone -- forward with their burly arms and booty-clad feet. One reporter complained, "CNN's already been out here a HALF HOUR!" But he received no sympathy, and was swept forward with the rest.

Wacky TV host down on all fours on the Skywalk.

Fears that the Skywalk would collapse from the burgeoning mass of reporters and happy Hualapai were unfounded. In fact, the Skywalk seemed sturdy and much safer than the canyon precipice from which the pack of press videographers had been getting their covering shots. We asked Bill Karren, the engineer, about that. "The Skywalk is officially rated for 120 people," he said, "but it really can hold much more."

What about that photo op precipice? Bill, who'd had his fill of the media, smiled. "We've done no load testing there."

[03/24/2007]
Address:
Diamond Bar Rd, Grand Canyon West, AZ
Directions:
Rough unpaved roads. I-10 exit 48. North on US 93 for 29 miles. Turn east at the Dolan Springs/Meadview City sign (near mile marker 42) onto Pierce Ferry Rd/Hwy 25. Follow Pierce Ferry Rd for 29 miles, then make a hard right onto Diamond Bar Rd/Hwy 261 for 21 miles. The first 14 miles are very bad. Do not attempt to drive it if thunderstorms are in the area. Instead, make a reservation at 702-260-6506 and drive a mile further east on Pierce Ferry Rd/Hwy 25 to the Skywalk Park & Ride.
Hours:
Daily 8 am - 6 pm. (Call to verify)
Phone:
702-220-8372
Admission:
$32/person (+$48 to get on reservation).
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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