That Time I (Sort Of) Crossed the Grand Canyon

“You’ll be fine. You’re going to walk out of here on your own power.”

“But I was just lying in that ditch.”

It started off so well. I was with my brother (Joe) and sister-in-law (Sarah) on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It was dark and cold, and I couldn’t wait to get moving.

Downhill we went, headlamps bouncing off the well-worn trail. My brother had done this before. Plus, he is in tremendous shape as a marathon runner. Sarah had trained and seemed ready for the challenge. I thought I was trained, and I brimmed with excitement and confidence.

I clearly remember Joe telling me to make sure to stay ahead of both thirst and hunger. This is a warning I should have taken much more seriously.

As the sun came up, the beauty of the Grand Canyon was breathtaking. In the next moment, the enormity of the Canyon struck me. Is that doubt creeping up? Is that fear I feel racing down my neck? Nah, I’ve trained for this.

The training went well. I hadn’t trained for anything so hard in my life. So, what if I didn’t do a lot of it in the heat? Movement is movement, right? Right?!?!

We stopped for a quick rest and to take in the sites from the suspension bridge. This didn’t seem so bad, but the sun was starting to really beat down. I thought about eating but figured I’d wait for Phantom Ranch.

On we went. I felt pretty good despite the heat. We made it to Phantom Ranch and we sat down for a bite to eat and something to drink. We weren’t there very long because everyone was doing well. I didn’t take in too many electrolytes, opting for water instead.

Soon after leaving Phantom, the heat of the day really kicked in. My brother stopped to get a towel wet to put around his neck. I didn’t. 

The gradient starts to climb as the heat picks up. Joe and Sarah have hiking poles. I don’t.

I remember the moment. It wasn’t gradual, it was like lightning. I’m not good. I feel sick to my stomach. My ability to really push forward is dropping. I just need a little rest.

We trudge on and get to the next stop. It is full of picnic benches. I lay down. Uh oh, I’m in big trouble. Nothing sounds good to eat or drink. I cannot even imagine doing either at this point.

We wait a long time and, eventually, my brother and Sarah have to go on. Who knows how long the walkie-talkies will go. I try to move and go a few feet. I’m in real trouble.

At this point in the Grand Canyon, leading to the north rim, the terrain is uphill and fairly steep with sheer cliffs along the switchbacks. I can see what I think is an entrance to the final couple of miles up ahead. It isn’t far as the crow flies. It is an eternity in my condition.

People ask if I need help. Nah. Then more people ask, and I just barely move my head. I’m defeated, embarrassed, and very scared.

I push on little by little, a measly few feet at a time. I press my back into the wall if anyone comes near to pass so I don’t stumble.

There is mule dung on the trail and I’m not dealing well with it. I try to move faster to get by it and reach near the entrance I had viewed many hours before and I lose what little is left in my stomach. I’m now very dehydrated and the sun is setting very fast. As hot as I was a few hours ago, I’ll soon be as cold.

I’m not sure the distance to where I was to where the campground/mule area was, but somehow, I made it there and sprawled on the ground. I was so sleepy and in incredible pain.

My brother was able to raise me on the walkies and he came back down for me. He was so amazing and patient. I knew then and know now he had to be upset, there were signs, but he was just as worried, probably more so. He told me I needed to get up to get out. 

I stood up and had a cramp the likes of which I’ve not felt before or since. I screamed. I tried to walk. I failed. 

Joe couldn’t help me. He had just hiked the Grand Canyon and come back down to get me. He’d have to hike up on his own and get the rangers. I felt bad then for him. I feel worse now because I realize it was inevitable given my shoddy training and care for myself.

Joe helped me get settled in a ditch off the left side of the trail and took off. I looked up and, as tears dripped from my eyes, I could not believe the night sky. To be in a place so awe-inspiring while so scared for my life was the ultimate tug of war in my soul.

I went in and out of consciousness. People would come by sporadically, some concerned, some snickering “poor bastard.” It seemed like hours went by but honestly, I don’t remember how long it was before help arrived. My brother had done it. Thank God.

“You’ll be fine. You’re going to walk out of here on your own power.”

“But I was just lying in that ditch.”

“Nonetheless. Time to eat.”

These two young guys took off their enormous packs and started going through what there was to eat while talking to me.

“Stop me when you see something you want.”

“I’ll take those Cheese Puffs.”

“What about to drink?”

“That red Gatorade, is it fruit punch?”

“Yep.”

We chatted while I had a few Cheetos. Then I wanted something else, the cherry Pop Tarts. My favorite.

“You’re looking better already. You’ll be ready to walk a bit. We’ll carry your pack.”

This is when the stories started. The stuff they probably tell everyone. Things like… “We had a few helicopter rescues today. Brutally hot. Amazing you’ve come this far, you’re doing better than you think. One lady told me today she ran Badwater. You know what that is? Some sort of race she said.”

Um, yeah, a 135-mile race in Death Valley. Are you sure you got that right?

“Yeah. Said this kicked her butt today though. How you feeling?”

I’m ok. Let’s try to walk.

“Are you sure, it’s only been about 40 minutes.”

I’m sure, let’s go. And we set out. It was like I had a real second wind. Who knew that a few Cheetos, a cherry Pop Tart, and half a Gatorade was the answer all along?

We pounded the steep mile-plus climb, stopping only once for about five minutes and the rest of the Gatorade. I made it out on my own power. My brother and sister-in-law were relieved. I was in agony. But I was alive and had finished on my own power. And I knew immediately – I need to do this again.

This is my albatross. I made it, sure. I also really put my brother in jeopardy and worried the hell out of my family, especially my wife. I was arrogant and stupid. I was fat and undertrained. My adventure became an experience I would rather forget in all too many ways. The beauty and grandeur were lost in my suffering and burden I had put on others.

My failure haunts me. I think about going back so often it has become mythical. There are many more steps for me to get back to that giant hole in the ground. Every pounding step, every ounce lost, every obstacle overcome gets me that much closer.

This is a big part my why right now. I’m going back. Not if, when.

#bebettertoday