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There’s an old saying that comes to mind from my youth that goes something like this – ignorance is bliss. That old adage resonates fully with me after having to be helicoptered out before I finished hiking Grand Canyon. In addition, I was homeless for two-plus days waiting for the rest of our group to hike out. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
The sheer joy and excitement of reaching my life’s seventy-year milestone was met with anticipation. Having outlived both my brothers, this old geezer doesn’t take it lightly. Although some of my body parts are getting a little rusty, they all still work.
I believe in the expression “we don’t stop hiking because we grow old – we grow old because we stop hiking”. With that said, what could be more fitting than hiking Grand Canyon to celebrate.
A hiking buddy of mine made plans a full six months in advance. He scheduled which hiking trails, the number of days both in the canyon, and playtime in Las Vegas. Additionally, he checked the full moon lunar cycles. We wanted to enjoy the canyon’s majestic nighttime beauty. And be able to hike if we had to at night.
Access to fresh water in the canyon is more often than not problematic. Also, I knew that we would each be carrying an additional 9 liters of water. Adding 20 pounds or so in our packs. That meant my backpack would weigh in at 45 pounds with equipment, food, and water while hiking Grand Canyon.
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I had never hiked any of the trails in Grand Canyon before. In addition, I know from experience that I am usually the slowest hiker in our group. That was quickly apparent to everyone on this hike. Carrying extra weight in my backpack did not help. I started training in January. Hopefully, by hiking three to five miles twice a week it would condition me for the trip.
Denying My Physical Condition Before Hiking Grand Canyon
Old geezers should never force themselves to keep up with the young bucks on the trail. Hiking all the time with hikers much younger than me should be a sign that my body is beginning to slow down. Most importantly, I should be content to go at my own pace.
But NO – not this geezer. I decided the first week of March that come hell or high water I wasn’t going to be the last one to finish the hike. So I started trail running on the gentler stretches of the trail so I wouldn’t fall behind. BIG MISTAKE!!!!!
Trails are not highways and more often than not have rocks and tree roots that one must navigate over. Well, my right foot caught one of those rocks and I fell straight forward and landed on my right knee.
Although I didn’t think anything was permanently damaged, I was definitely sore for a couple of days. In hindsight that was the beginning of my hiking Grand Canyon misadventure.
Did Hiking Grand Canyon Trails Match My Abilities
My wife constantly worries when I go hiking. I’ve been known to stretch the truth by explaining away recent cuts and bruises because of a “tree jumping in front of me” – at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I knew the trail we were hiking had a 20’ rappel toward the end of the hike down to get to the Colorado River. Two of my hiking buddies, Patrick and Maria, nor I had ever rappelled before. Steve, our other hiking buddy, wanted to make sure we had rappelled a couple of times before reaching the point of no return in the canyon.
I carefully downplayed to my wife the picture my youngest daughter posted on Facebook of her and me rappelling off a boulder on one of those training hikes. Because you know she worries.
The day before we left on our adventure, I gave my better half a photocopy of our Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit so she would have our itinerary and could get word to us in case of emergency. I purposely did not photocopy the last couple of pages that described the finer details of the hike (ie: the 20’ rappel). Remember she worries!
Little did I know that the 1st page of the permit included the phrase “hike includes a 20’ rappel”. I just didn’t want her to worry ahead of time. This geezer subscribes to the philosophy that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Thankfully she was only a little ticked. But, then again she knows me.
The last week of March finally arrived and Steve, Patrick, Maria, and I left for hiking Grand Canyon. We arrived at the South Rim on Sunday. That first night we stayed at the lodge since nighttime temperatures were dipping into the mid-20s. We awoke early the next morning and headed to the South Bass Trailhead.
The South Bass Trailhead is both beautiful and functional. Had it not been so cold on the rim the night before, it would have been a great place to camp overnight in order to get an early start on our trek into the canyon.
Picnic tables at the edge of the parking area made putting on heavy backpacks easy to do. As it was getting toward noontime, we had a bite to eat and drank close to a liter of water before heading out.
My hiking buddies, Steve and Patrick, hiked the Canyon the year before and kept telling us Canyon newbies, Maria and me, how beautiful it was. Each said on more than one occasion that words could not describe it.
Even the NPS trail guide tells of “more natural beauty than humans can absorb”. Those descriptions scarcely do the experience justice. From the moment we left all traces of civilization behind, the utter silence and beauty of the canyon enveloped our senses.
The first leg of the trek had us descending down the South Bass Trail to the Royal Arch Loop junction about a mile and a half down from the rim. From the moment we stepped off the edge and started the steep descent the beauty was overwhelming. The view of Mt. Huethawali looming in the distance was spectacular and was but the first of many sites to come.
Few hikers attempt the Royal Arch Loop as the route we would be taking is considered the most difficult of the established trails on hiking Grand Canyon’s south side. Hence, our entire trip saw but a couple of other hikers.
The trail departure at the juncture put us on the Explanade and a much-needed level portion of the hike. We hiked another 4 ½ miles until my knee was at the point of giving out and made camp for the night on the Drummond Plateau near Toltec Point.
Not Wanting To Accept Help and Admit Defeat
The third mistake took place the next morning. We should have turned around and headed back, but Patrick was determined to trudge on.
I have scrambled upsides of peaks in the Sierra’s on numerous occasions, but nothing prepared me for what lay ahead. In hindsight, I believe the trail description that the Park Service puts out is less than accurate.
It reads that you have to negotiate car-sized boulders piled on top of one another. I would rewrite that to read truck-sized boulders.
The physical exertion of taking packs on and off, lowering them down the boulders, and the pounding my knee took each time jumping down to the solid ground below did a number on this geezer.
We should have easily made it to the Royal Arch, even with the difficult trekking. But after only making it three-quarters of the way, we stopped and made camp for the night in the Royal Arch Canyon.
Having absolutely no appetite, I set up my tent and literally fell into it before it was even dark and without so much as taking off my clothes, crashing ‘till morning.
The short hike down the canyon the next morning presented the final straw. One last truck-sized boulder a half-mile or so from the Royal Arch was more than I could take. I made the decision to stay put and let the others see this landmark without me.
I figured I could make it down the boulders but would never be able to climb back out and would DIE in the process. Also, I saw nothing but rocks and there would be no place to bury me afterward. We continued up and out of the canyon along the Tonto Trail to the 20’ rappel. This was after the group returned from replenishing fresh water from the spring at the Royal Arch.
The 20’ rappel was the highlight of my hike. It was much easier than the practice rappels earlier that month. I think it had a lot to do with the size of the rappel rope being much larger in diameter.
However, as easy as the rappel was, the approach was mind-boggling. We passed a 200’ cliff just before the rappel and it didn’t look like there was any hope of finding a 20’ section, but there it was and we rappelled just fine.
Scrambling down the boulders after the rappel was a royal pain. Once again backpacks had to be taken off and lowered down. This process was getting monotonous. It took the better part of three hours to hike the short distance to our campsite at the river.
The trail from this point was steep and the feeling in my right knee had changed from being sore to actual pain. Thank goodness for quality hiking poles, as I was using them as crutches on the rest of the descent to the river.
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Finally arriving at the Colorado River gave much-needed refreshment to weary bodies. A quick dip in the ice-cold water of the Colorado lessened the pain in my knee. We had arrived late afternoon with plenty of daylight left to set up camp and fix dinner.
The rock outcropping chosen to fix dinner offered protection from the wind but required me to hike up a small hill and tested my knee to its limits. Dinner conversation revolved around my knee and whether I would be able to hike out of the canyon.
I always carry prescription pain pills just in case someone is badly injured on the trail. At this point, I thought I would still be able to continue the hike.
This was almost mistake #4. Steve suggested we call the Park Service and get me evacuated out but I told him we could revisit the situation in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Obviously, stubborn old geezers don’t always think clearly.
Morning broke at Toltec Beach on our 4th day in the Grand Canyon and greeted me with excruciating pain, so much so that I almost couldn’t get out of my tent to a standing position.
My leg was doing better after a few minutes on my feet but I knew that the Tonto Trail would not have any available water and I would have to carry at least another nine liters on the hike out.
Between the additional weight and my sore knee, I didn’t think I could really do it.
White water river rafters pass by on the Colorado River every day and it didn’t take any convincing from Steve to have him flag down the next set of rafters. As it was still early, we knew that the rafters would not be on the water for a couple more hours and that gave us time to break camp and be ready when we spotted them.
It was heartbreaking to resign myself to giving up on the hike but I knew I had no choice if I didn’t want to die on the trail. Steve has told me more than once that he is NOT going to be the one to call my wife if I die on the trail. As older hikers, we watch out for each other.
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We spotted the first set of rafters, a private party of friends, down the Colorado just before noon and were able to flag them down and explain our situation. Rich and Kathy pulled their rafts to shore and Rich pulled out a Sat phone from under the seat and called emergency services at park headquarters.
After several tries being cut off because of spotty reception, he was finally able to get in touch with the office. He was instructed to take me downriver about ten miles to an extraction point where a helicopter could land and limit my gear to 20 pounds.
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That meant taking only my backpack, sleeping bag, and tent – leaving behind much of my gear and the remainder of my food, water, and tequila (to drown out my misery of course). Who would have guessed that I would get to do a little white-water river rafting and canyon tour by helicopter on this trip?
Not Being Prepared For The Unexpected While Hiking Grand Canyon
The next mistake came when I suddenly came to the realization that I was headed out of the canyon with only my driver’s license – no money, no credit cards, and no health insurance card. Note to self – never leave everything in the car at the trailhead because you never know when you may need to get out of a jam.
After learning that I was going to have to fend for myself for a couple of days until the rest of my party hiked out of the canyon, Rich felt sorry for me and gave me $20 for food. This selfless act was the beginning of my homeless experience and my realization that people are genuinely nice.
One of the rafters, Kathy, bless her heart, had just been helicoptered out of the canyon 6 months prior with a knee injury knew the drill. I could barely walk, and I knew that I would actually die on the trail if I attempted to hike across the Tonto and back up the South Bass Trail to the rim. The short walk to the helicopter, therefore, took almost a half-hour on crutches with a great deal of pain and hobbling along the way.
Watching the helicopter land on the beach (ie: rocks, cactus, scrub brush, and maybe a little sand) would have terrified anyone else. I was fortunate that I fought forest fires on a US Forest Service hotshot crew while in college and knew what to expect.
What I wasn’t expecting was the age of the pilots. Granted, old geezers have seen the years pass by but Eric and Heather couldn’t have been more than thirty. Not only were they buff and good-looking, but each portrayed not a care in the world as if this was their dream job. Rough terrain and wind shears were more of a game than an obstacle.
I had to reflect back on what it was like when I was that age. I lived for the excitement of fighting forest fires, never thinking of the consequences or what could have happened.
They seemed at home with the excitement of landing a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment on a postage-sized piece of real estate in the middle of nowhere. I had great respect for their abilities after seeing them land that bird where they did.
The ride to the rim of the canyon was breathtaking. I hadn’t been able to hike to the Royal Arch because of my injury but was able to see its splendor from the air.
The crew provided me with headphones and pointed out places of interest during our 30-mile trip back to civilization. It was as if I had a private tour of the canyon. I actually forgot about how bad my knee hurt.
After looking at the miles of trail and what they had to climb out of, I was happy that I was in the helicopter. I would be on the rim shortly instead of a strenuous hike out. I’m sure they weren’t saying kind things as they saw the helicopter fly overhead.
Megan worked in Emergency Service and was a godsend when we got to the heliport. Thankfully, I had my driver’s license on me. She was able to set me up with a handicapped campsite at Mather Campground. In addition, she provided me with crutches and gave me a loaner zero-degree sleeping bag to use while there.
We drove in one vehicle for this hike. It was still at the South Bass trailhead. So, I had no transportation until the rest of the group returned.
Megan not only took me to the Healthcare clinic for x-rays. Graciously, also to the village market so I could buy food with the $20 that Rich gave me. If that weren’t enough, every day she drove by in the ambulance. She would stop and visit me to make sure I was doing ok.
So in effect, I was homeless. I had no money, no credit cards, my cell phone was dead, and I was living on borrowed credit.
I could walk without the crutches even though it hurt with each step taken but dared not do so. Boredom quickly set in as I literally couldn’t go anywhere and had nothing to do.
The family at the site next to me started packing up the next morning prior to leaving at noon. I had never begged before but I took a chance and hobbled over to their campsite before they left.
Perhaps I looked the part with my ripped pants, crutches, and four days in the canyon without a shower. After retelling my story of woes. Kristina took pity on me and gave me their leftovers. Most importantly, they helped me survive until the rest of the group made it back.
The morning the group was due back, I spent dragging myself around to campsites trying to find a power supply to recharge my phone. I had to get the word out to the group where I was staying so that they could find me.
Every campsite I visited had iPhones and the connectors would not work with my Samsung. Finally, I asked a maintenance employee who was working in the area if he had a charger. Thankfully, he had an external battery that he used to keep his Android phone charged during the day.
I was able to get a 50% charge on my phone. Meanwhile, I left a message on Steve’s phone where I was camped. Thankfully Steve checked voicemail when he got cell phone reception. It was a welcome relief seeing the three of them drive up and finally being “rescued”.
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We left for Las Vegas. But, not before paying for the campsite and returning the items that were so graciously loaned to me.
This whole experience restored my faith in humanity. People, especially outdoor enthusiasts, are genuinely compassionate and accommodating.
Was I really hurt? Yes, definitely!!! The MRI of my right knee showed that I had oblique surface tears of the meniscus. In addition, micro-fractures of the tibia, bone contusions above and below my knee, sprained ligaments. As well as the discovery of cartilage loss over the femur (they call that old geezer arthritis).
Six months later after no surgery and some physical therapy, my legs were almost back to normal. I am back to hiking. You just can’t keep an old geezer down.
So, the overriding question is, would I hike the Grand Canyon again? MOST DEFINITELY. There are no words to adequately describe the beauty of the Canyon. Experience is all there is. You are left in awe.
Not Communicating With Family
Oh, and for the last mistake, I totally own it. It is my fault hands down.
Don’t have your daughters that you were to meet in Las Vegas in a couple of days tell their mom (my wife) that they spoke with you. I was supposed to be at the bottom of the canyon with no cell phone reception. Especially, that you took a helicopter ride, went white-water river rafting, and are a day ahead of schedule. These wonderful ladies in my life ganged up on me.
This love of mine knows there are no rides at the bottom of the canyon. Caught hell when I got home! But she still loves me and is happy that my injuries were not any worse. And it’s all because you know she worries.
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