On Saturday July 26, on my mother’s 85th birthday, I began a 10 mile hike up Bright Angel trail with three fellow hikers to the south rim of Grand Canyon. We started at 2:30 AM using our headlamps to pierce the cloudy darkness only to finish in bright sunlight.
My trip planning started in February of 2007, a journey that was to take only me to the Canyon in August. On June 18th all my plans were placed on hold. A call from my doctor confirmed that I had incurable colon cancer. I spent the next seven and a half months recovering from an operation to remove the tumor and six months of chemotherapy. Throughout my ordeal I kept short and mid-term goals in my mind. I rescheduled my Canyon plans for July of 2008 not knowing if I could accomplish this goal. Goals are important. As my sister said to me, “You are either living or dieing with cancer.” I choose to live with it.
In my daily prayers I asked God to give me the physical and mental strength to hike Grand Canyon for my 7th time. I began walking every day to build up my endurance. At first it was only around the area of my yard then a few blocks. Even in rain and snow I kept up my training and goals. I may have missed ten days in the year leading up to my journey. I was walking two miles a day by the time I was to depart.
On Tuesday, July 22, Steve Lash, Jim Grieser, Justin Olson, Lindsey Edwards and I began our descent into the greatest cathedral in the world. A world so ancient that each step into this great chasm would represent 20,000 years in geological time. A place so vast and remote; places remain unexplored. We took a leisurely pace with a few rest and water stops. We covered the ten-mile trek in five and a half hours. Our final rest stop was at Pipe Creek just a hundred yards before the trail would skirt the Colorado for a mile. We arrived at our campsite before Mother Nature turned up her thermostat to triple digits as it did every day we were in Grand Canyon’s embrace. We set up camp along Bright Angel Creek, our home for the next four nights, and regained our energy with rest, food and water for Wednesday’s foray into Phantom Creek.
That evening we slept under a blanket of stars. The Milky Way was very evident. It reminded me of cotton candy because of all the stars clustered together. Around 2 AM the moon would rise eliminating most starlight as if saying, “I am the dominate night star.”
We awoke Wednesday morning, ate breakfast, filled up our water bladders and headed north one mile up the main corridor trail to where Phantom Creek empties into the Bright Angel. Phantom is a beautiful side chapel in the cathedral called Grand Canyon, a nature’s water park. Places so narrow that you could touch both sides of the canyon just by stretching out your arms. Pink granite rubbed smooth by thousands of years of water and sand became our water slides. We came to see these slides as a challenge, employing teamwork to climb up them. You could not go around because of the steep granite walls surrounding them. We spent the day wandering in and out of water while we snaked our way up Phantom Creek. At times, the water would be up to our necks.
Returning from the Phantom one could detect a certain gait in our step the rangers called the Bright Angel shuffle. One would limp along with toes pointing outward to each side of the canyon reminding me of a penguin waddle. Your body exclaiming to the canyon, “See what you have done to me!” She would smile back as if saying, “Not me.” This is one of the lures of Grand Canyon. She does not care if you live or die, that is your job. She just keeps on being herself.
We began to notice that Lindsey’s walk was getting worse and not better. She was also becoming alarmed. At first she thought it was just soreness like everyone else experienced but her calves were getting tighter and tighter as the day wore on. We made the decision to consult with one of the rangers. The next day she was diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis brought on by extreme exertion to the muscles, put on an IV and helicoptered out. She spent the next 5 days in a Flagstaff hospital.
The ranger, Ann Peterson, saved her life. She could have lost the use of her legs forever and her kidneys could have shut down. This was a reminder that the Canyon does not play favorites. Lindsey was in great shape but Grand Canyon has a way of finding one’s weakness and exploiting it. Steve stayed with Lindsey and would try and catch up with the three of us on Thursday’s hike if he could. As it turned out, Steve did not make it to Ribbon Falls.
Ribbon Falls is a 12-mile round trip through the main corridor of pink granite walls 200 to 300 feet high, nature’s stained glass windows. I kept reminding myself that I was hiking inside a mountain. The last 1.5 miles opens into a gorge about ¾ of a mile wide, with no shade and the temperature was about 110. Our guarding angel was Bright Angel Creek. We could jump in and cool off and keep heading to our destination.
The waterfall plunges over a cliff about 75 feet onto a rock about 50 feet high. You might call this rock a stalagmite because it is the sentiment in the water that has built it up. We just hung out for about 3-4 hours and then started the hike back to base camp.
When we got back to camp we learned of Lindsey’s fate. We were now down to just four of us. We had mixed emotions. She was gone, yet she was safe and did not have to hike the 10 miles out on Saturday.
As was our ritual, Justin and I would sit in Bright Angel at the end of the day’s activities and talk. Justin is my godson and we definitely grew closer. Hardships and good times will do that to you.
On Friday we took a short walk to the Colorado and crossed the black bridge. This is the bridge the mules use to cross over the Colorado. We reversed course and went about a ½ mile north up the main corridor and hung out in the creek and rested under a rock overhang in the shade. We were conserving energy.
Hiking out is like leaving the arms of a loving yet stern parent. Grand Canyon has a lot to teach someone if you will take the time and let her do her magic. This was my 7th and perhaps the last time for me. I have left that in God’s hands. To be among rocks almost 2 billion years old is awe inspiring. Two billion is a hard number to wrap ones mind around.
I have taken many people to visit this grand cathedral and I tell them that she will change you. I do not know if it will be positive or negative but one cannot do what we did and come away the same person as when you started. Her secrets are not given up without a struggle as most things in life worth having are. She has blessed me and hurt me at the same time. I have shed tears of joy and pain and I thank God for allowing me to experience Grand Canyon one more time.