August 4, 2008
This was one of my most disastrous hikes in the Grand Canyon.
I first learned about the Canyon’s trails through the awesome Sky Terrain map. In browsing the map, I noticed the New Hance Trail’s short distance to the bottom when compared to the other trails. It was listed as only 5.5 miles from the rim to the river.
Later editions would increase this to 6 miles – still relatively short. The notes on the Sky Terrain map included a short blurb about the trail, stating that it was the South Rim’s oldest (and therefore most historic) trail, as well as its most rugged – a siren song.
Within my first month living at the Canyon, I successfully day-hiked to the bottom at Phantom Ranch – a distance of about 17 miles – in the heat of June. So looking at the New Hance Trail, I calculated that it would only be an 11-mile round trip.
The elevation changed looked to be about the same as Phantom Ranch. So all things considered, I figured I’d have no problem with this hike… in August.
What could go wrong?
I did not have a vehicle at the Canyon in 2008, but this was a unique summer for the Park’s shuttle bus system. The Park ran a temporary, standard shuttle line all the way out to Desert View. The Hermit Road was closed for construction for the summer, so the Park kept its designated fleet in service by running it along Desert View Drive.
So I used a shuttle bus for transportation, and began the day from Moran Point. The walk from Moran Point to the actual trailhead could add at least a mile to my total round trip distance.
I’ll also add that I had a small bout of diarrhea after stepping off the bus, in the woods somewhere between Moran Point and the trailhead.
I didn’t find this to be very concerning.
So off I went, down the historic, rugged New Hance Trail. I was immediately struck by its rough character as I slid on my butt down the steep rocks. I needed more attention than usual to stay on the trail, as it was faint in some places, or only discernible by watching out for cairns.
There wasn’t a single other hiker to be seen.
These factors only invigorated me. It felt good to finally be getting out on a “real” Grand Canyon trail – or so I told myself – as I took big steps down the rocks and clambered over fallen trees.
Soon I encountered a lone backpacker making his way up the trail. He was the only other person I’d see for the entire day.
On I went down the trail, taking photos as I went. It was fortunately an overcast day (or maybe not so fortunate, because direct sunlight may have penetrated some good sense into me). In retrospect the clouds made for better photos, too.
By the time I descended into Red Canyon, the bottom segment of the trail, a little voice inside my head was telling me that the descent was taking too long. The voice said it was taking too much energy, and probably too much water.
By the time I was in Red Canyon, I knew I had to be close to the Colorado River. I hoped to see the River around each turn in the canyon (or even begin to hear it), but it eluded me for longer than I liked.
Still, the geology – specifically the unique rocks – throughout Red Canyon held my interest.
At last I made it to the Colorado River at Hance Rapid – my turnaround point. In hindsight, the lower stretches of the trail had seduced me in to the old mountain climber’s trap – summit fever – or in this case, river fever.
Here at my destination (err… halfway point) I finally paused to take stock of my situation.
I’d packed 6 liters of water to get me through the day, and I’d already drank 4 liters. Going downhill. Not good.
Something about my decision-making capabilities was just totally misguided on this day, from beginning to end. As I broke in to that 4th liter on the way down the trail, less than halfway through the hike, you’d think I would have registered that it was time to turn around.
There at the River, you’d think I would have taken some drinking water from it… but it was brown and filled with sediment, and I had not brought a filter or other method of water treatment. You’d think that logic would have told me that sediment-filled, untreated water is better than none at all. But that would have been wise, and I was seemingly determined to be void of wisdom on August 4, 2008.
The hard truth of the matter, in hindsight, was that I was still ignorant to the dangers of the Grand Canyon. You could say I was aware of the danger from an academic perspective, but I had yet to personally experience its lessons.
In other words, the Canyon hadn’t kicked my ass yet.
I’d lived at the Canyon for less than 3 months. I was 27 years old and in excellent physical shape. I could muscle my way through most problems that the trails threw at me. I’d been through a handful of difficult Grand Canyon hikes by this point in the summer, instilling a false sense of confidence despite the heat.
I knew I was low on water, low on energy, and knew I was making poor decisions, but I suppose I figured I could muscle my way up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, too.
Did I mention that it was monsoon season? Flash flood season?
The rumble of thunder accompanied my first steps away from the river, up Red Canyon.
I had, again, the academic knowledge that flash floods were a hazardous possibility, so I kept an eye out for anything unusual.
Fortunately the day’s troubles were not compounded by such a flood. A few drops of light rain fell in the bottom of the Canyon for a few minutes, but that was all. I would have welcomed more rain. I knew I could be in some trouble with the heat, and things were likely to get uncomfortable.
Then I lost the trail.
I couldn’t find the place where the trail left Red Canyon. I remembered that it should climb up and out to the right, but that was all. What I’d forgotten is that the trail first climbs out to the left, and then cuts over to the right (west) as you head up the trail.
What mattered was that I was off the trail and could not find the place where it progressed out of Red Canyon. I think I’d missed the initial eastern exit from Red Canyon, and found myself facing chokestone obstacles in the main bed that were growing increasingly difficult to navigate.
I remember trying to bypass one of them on a steep slope. The slope felt dangerous and unstable, with poor footing. I was sweating profusely now, sweat that I could not afford to lose.
I dislodged a big rock and watched it roll below. It was the wake-up call I needed to decide that this wasn’t right, and that I needed to turn around to find the trail.
I lost at least an hour before finding the trail again – an hour of expended energy, an hour of progressed dehydration. Accepting the loss in this department (versus pushing up the canyon and likely compounding my trouble in a very bad way) was the first good decision I’d made all day.
From there I had a very long way to go, up and out of the Grand Canyon, but the most tenuous moment of the day was behind me. It was touch and go for a moment there on that off-trail, unstable slope.
Night fell when I was still deep in the Canyon, clawing my way up the Supai drainage adjacent to Coronado Butte. It was around here where I ran out of water, even after rationing the last liter as best I could.
But I did not lose the trail again, even by the light of my headlamp.
The worst was the very last half-mile as I climbed the Kaibab limestone to the rim. I sucked on some m&m’s I carried – not for their calories, but for their hint of moisture. One at a time.
I was in such poor condition that I could go only 5 or 10 steps at a time. At each rest break I’d sit, or even lie down on a rock. There I’d remain stationary until I could muster enough willpower to get up and move another 5 or 10 steps, repeating the process.
In this way I eventually made it to the top.
The final insult was the shuttle buses were retired for the night, so I was stranded and left to hitchhike to my bed in Grand Canyon Village. As a lone male along the dark, winding Desert View Drive, I didn’t stand a very good chance of catching a ride at 11pm.
I was fortunate that it was only the second car to pass that offered a ride. It was a middle-aged couple that worked in the Park, working for the water utility system. They were traveling home after a few days off at Lake Powell, and assumed that someone out here alone so late at night was surely in need of help.
They took me to the Rowzer Hall dormitory where I lived, and I remember that I raided the soda machine there before I passed out.