This article is from the vaults of my previous Grand Canyon blog. Because of its popularity, I did not want to delete it. Please enjoy!
As many of you know, one of my favorite places on the planet is the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. Whenever you see my postings, status updates, tweets, etc., they oftentimes revolve around that tremendous hole in the earth. I thought I would take a few minutes to let those that are interested know how I became so much in love with the Grand Canyon and why I travel there several times every year from my home back east.
I guess it all started many years ago when I was taking a cross-country trip by car and first saw the Grand Canyon. I was viewing it from the south rim as I thought all visitors did. But during that visit I happened to notice an occasional person wandering around with a backpack and dusty hiking boots, which led me to believe that there was another way to actually see this big crack in the earth – perhaps a better way!
As much as I wanted to venture down right then, I was by no means equipped to hike right there at that visit, but it was at that point that I said to myself “I will be back sometime in the future to actually hike down into the canyon!”
A few years later I was back at Grand Canyon with a friend and we decided that we would hike down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and back up in one day. This would be about a fifteen mile round trip. Doing this hike in one day was supposedly very dangerous and not recommended by the officials in the park. There were signs all over the place warning against attempting to do this. Some of the signs said that “YOU CAN DIE” if you attempt this. But we were young and in good shape and we simply figured the literature and the signs were referring to the average out of shape older person and didn’t apply to us.
We disregarded the advice and went down. Totally unprepared I may add. I won’t go into all of the details but let’s just say I was very lucky to have made it out alive. I’m sure I was totally dehydrated, my legs were cramping up and most likely some degree of moderate heat exhaustion. Oh, by the way, did I tell you this was July and we hiked in the middle of the day where the temperature in the inner gorge goes well above 100 degrees? ALL steep uphill (7.5 miles) on the way up! This was stupidity to say the least.
I swore I would never return to the Grand Canyon.
Fast forward two years. Time has a way of erasing the bad memories. I came back. This time the plan made a little more sense. We would hike down to Phantom Ranch, stay overnight, and then return to the rim the next day.
Phantom Ranch is a little oasis at the very bottom of the canyon where you can actually sleep in a bed in a hostel like setting. And you can get a meal as well. Sounds great, right?
Well the first mistake was that we went back in the summer again. The second mistake was that we started our hike down at about 9:00 AM because we wanted to have a nice leisurely breakfast and screw around on the rim before we ventured down. This would put us hiking during the absolute hottest part of the day. The third mistake was that we took the wrong trail down. The Bright Angel Trail, which we took, is roughly two miles longer than the preferred trail for descending into the canyon, the South Kaibab trail. The fourth mistake was that we had absolutely no idea how to properly eat and hydrate on the trail in a hot dessert environment.
I’m sure you can guess what the outcome was.
Yes, before we reached the bottom, I felt as if I were going to die. I was sick to my stomach, cramping, fatigued and, well… I think you get the picture. I literally ended up crawling into Phantom Ranch wishing I were dead. What ended up happening was that the staff and ranger down there saw what kind of terrible shape I was in and allowed me to stay an extra night at Phantom to rest, eat, drink and hopefully ultimately be OK to hike back out of the canyon.
But even on that third morning when I was attempting to hike out, I felt absolutely awful and was afraid that I’d never make it up the 9.6 mile trail which would gain roughly a vertical mile. I did end up making it out. Barely. I can’t remember how long it took but it must have been at least 12 hours. It was horrible. I honestly thought I could have dropped dead from heat exhaustion. By the time I reached the top I was crying.
I vowed NEVER to return. And this time I MEANT IT!!!
But of course as you probably guessed, a few years later I was back! This time I tried again with a similar result that led to a “drag out.” A drag out means they took me out of the canyon on a mule. Let me tell you something… they do not normally like to evacuate hikers on mules. You have to be pretty darn sick for them to even consider a drag out. But they did. I guess I was sick (in more ways than one at this point). I ended up in the Grand Canyon Hospital (they call it a clinic but it sure looked like a hospital to me). I had doctors all around me and IVs stuck in my arms. They said I was terribly dehydrated. What a horrible experience. Just pure stupidity.
This time I was 100% positive I would not return. I realized that the Grand Canyon did not care one bit if David Madow died there. It tried three times to take David’s life without success. Let’s not give it another chance!
But come on, you may know that I am generally not a quitter. I realized if one keeps doing things the same way, one would generally get the same results. So after three failed attempts, I simply decided to study up on how I could successfully hike all the way into the canyon and then hike out with a smile on my face.
Without boring you with all of the details, I became familiar with electrolytes, and simply how much food and water it takes to hike. But not only how much food, but what type of food is best. I knew that my body does not do well in the heat, so I had to figure out what measures I could take to mitigate that problem.
After my research and a lot of thinking I came up with a goal. That goal would be to backpack down to the bottom and return to the rim safely. I would use the South Kaibab trail going down, which as I said earlier is the preferred route down to Bright Angel campground.
I decided to make the trip in April since it would be neither extremely hot nor extremely cold. I also planned to do the hike out of the canyon in two stages; stopping off at Indian Garden campground for the night, which is about the halfway point up the Bright Angel trail.
During this trip I was very cognizant about my eating and drinking. I would eat frequently and my hydration was water mixed with “Gookinade,” which is an electrolyte powder designed to replenish the salts lost through sweating. I walked slowly. And I took frequent breaks to rest my muscles.
The result was SUCCESS! I had absolutely no problem on this three-day backpack trip! I did it! I now felt that the canyon was my friend simply because I just took the time to figure it out!
Since that time, I have gone back every spring to backpack in the Grand Canyon. I challenge myself a little more each time. I have now gotten to the point where I have hiked some of the lesser traveled and more challenging trails such as the Tonto and Clear Creek trails.
Now I am able to actually look around, take pictures and enjoy the scenery when I hike. It is very hard to explain, but I feel so much at peace in this surrounding. I am hiking on rocks that are over a BILLION years old!
A couple of years ago I was traveling cross-country, helping my son Evan move to California. So of course we made the obligatory stop at Grand Canyon! I wanted Evan to experience this unbelievable place. We were doing a day hike down to Plateau Point, and on the way out we came across a man at the mile and a half house who was wearing a shirt with a patch that said “Volunteer.” We started chatting. His name was Ron Gould and he told me that he is a PSAR Volunteer. The PSAR stands for “Preventive Search and Rescue.”
Basically what Ron (and about thirty other PSAR volunteers do) is talk to hikers on the trail, find out what their plans are, and then assess as to whether or not they are equipped to do what they plan. The idea is to educate and help people so that they ultimately do not put themselves in a dangerous situation.
The Grand Canyon is a beautiful place but also can be a very dangerous place if you hike beyond your capability. Every year, many hikers become seriously ill or injured on the trail. Unfortunately some of these people die. With proper planning, many of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented.
I asked Ron how I could do what he is doing. After my near death experiences in the Grand Canyon, I felt as though I wanted to be able to give something back. Ron gave me a number to call, which put me in touch with Bonnie Taylor, the head of the PSAR volunteer program.
When I got home, I immediately called Bonnie and explained my situation and my desire to volunteer. She was happy to have me and let me know that there is a mandatory training session the first Saturday in May for the next season.
That next May I was on the plane out to the Grand Canyon to participate. What a great group of dedicated people I found myself surrounded by. We spent the entire morning in a classroom learning all about hiking the backcountry in Grand Canyon. We learned about dehydration, heat exhaustion, hyponatremia (water toxicity), and a slew of other conditions and injuries. We also learned how to use a two-way radio to communicate with other rangers, search and rescue, and dispatch.
The afternoon was spent learning how to carry patients out of the canyon in a litter, and basic helicopter procedures should we ever be in a situation to assist with a helicopter evacuation. When the day was over I felt fairly confident that I would be able to help hikers on the trails both by preventing problems and assisting if they were to get into trouble. This was undoubtedly going to be one of the best experiences of my life!
Next: My work as a volunteer in PSAR (Preventive Search and Rescue) in Grand Canyon National Park.