In my earlier years, I worked as a psychologist, teacher, and leader of outdoor excursions. I hiked, backpacked, and did some technical rock climbing. I was also someone who seemed to have to learn many things in life the hard way. I should have known better than to backpack into the Grand Canyon ALONE and in the middle of Winter. I should not have been surprised at the harrowing events which followed. Why did I do it? By the grace of God, I lived to tell what happened.
I worked one year as an instructor for a small, private high school in Allenspark, Colorado, elevation 8500 feet, in the Rocky Mountains. The school's outdoor activities included backpacking, technical rock climbing, and cross-country skiing. Both students and staff had packs packed and gear in order at all times for trips which might start at very short notice.
In the winter, we heated with a huge pot-bellied stove which had been doing pretty well at keeping us warm. One morning in January, however, we had the stove going so hot that the sides glowed orange-red, but we just couldn't get warm. We were wearing ski hats, down parkas, and gloves as well. The temperature was 27 degrees below zero! The whole week, the temperature never got above 15 below. Everyone was miserable. One kid ran away, and the rest begged to go home. The school folded. I headed quite happily for Arizona where I secured other and warmer employment.
Enroute south, I stopped the first night at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It was still the same cold front which had closed the school the week before. Not wanting to stay at the lodge (very expensive) and not wanting to set up my tent (too tired), I slept in the back seat of my car. In the morning, the moisture from my breath had frozen into sheets of ice on the inside of the windows. I couldn't see out. I groped in the side-pocket of my pack for the thermometer. The temperature was 13 degrees below zero. Seven inches of new snow greeted me as I struggled from the car. I was shaking too much to light my stove. The car would not turn over.
It was very hard to think clearly. What I should have done was somehow make it up to the lodge (about two miles away) and have a hot breakfast. What I did do was wolf down some hard sausage and peanut butter, throw on my backpack which was still packed from the school, and head for the bottom of the canyon and some warmth. I had always wanted to try backpacking into the Grand Canyon--though not exactly at this particular time of year and not alone.
I ran the first two miles of trail through deep snow. Soon enough I began to warm up, the trail became dry, and I began to really enjoy myself. The trail was just simply spectacular with steep switchbacks and considerable drop-offs at times. At virtually every turn, breathtaking vistas made me want to stop and look for much more time than I had. The Grand Canyon was clearly a place I would have to return to many times to fully appreciate.
Six thousand feet down and 7 1/2 miles of trail brought me to the bottom of the canyon and the Colorado River. I had read about the mighty Colorado before, but nothing prepared me for the torrent of raging water which foamed and surged before me and was off in a rush toward the sea. The sound was deafening at first, but I very soon got used to it and then to love it.
I already knew that the rock of the inner gorge was the very oldest on earth exposed to the view of man. It occurred to me that I was now standing on an Earth created in its very earliest days. Indeed, the rock all around me looked very dark and solid in contrast to the much lighter and grainy sandstone and granite I had seen everywhere else in the canyon. The walls of my new home stretched up and up until they seemed to touch the very sky itself.
In addition to being so very spectacular, there was something else I noted almost immediately about this remarkable place. It was a lot warmer! Although it was already getting dark, the temperature was still up in the high 40's. It was a regular heat wave. I lit my stove easily and cooked some macaroni and cheese. I remember that dinner as one of the best I ever had in my life.
I had solved the cold problem, but I had inherited another little problem in its place. Hiking when I was tense and cold and hiking always in the same direction (down), my legs had cramped up hopelessly. I had to hike the last half mile into my camp BACKWARDS. My legs just wouldn't work anymore forward. In the morning, I could not walk at all. I crawled down to the river to get water.
In light of my infirmity and the fact that I had not seen another living soul in the past 36 hours, I was beginning to get worried. The campground had been empty up on top. I had encountered no one on the trail coming down. There were no campers or hikers or rangers or anyone in my private world of roaring water and towering rock walls. I have never felt so alone and so very, very small and insignificant. I felt very close to God.
After a lot of massaging and rest that morning, I was finally able to get to my feet and start up the trail. Slowly. Very slowly. I'm glad I didn't know it would take the next 13 hours to reach the rim again. I thought I was sore when I started from camp, however, it was to get immeasurably worse. I knew it would be a lot harder getting me and my pack up seven miles of steep switchbacks and 6000 feet gain in elevation than it was down, but I was not prepared for what was to come.
I took a different trail this time, the more popular Bright Angel Trail which would come out right at the lodge on top. After awhile, long pack-trains of burrows passed by me as I made my way upwards, and I longed to have enough money to pay for a ride. I knew I was taking too long at this trek, and I had gotten too late a start. The day was vanishing before my eyes with a long way still to go. I hummed songs and wrote letters in my mind to friends--anything not to think about my sore muscles and growing panic and to speed up my pace. Several times it was necessary to stop and massage my legs to get them to work.
I got out my plastic recorder and played "Greensleaves" and "Camptown Races" as I walked. The sound which echoed back many seconds later seemed to be coming from everywhere in the canyon at once. It was beautiful and proved a big hit with fellow hikers.
As I grew nearer to the top of the rim, I found myself in the same terrible cold I had left a day and a half before. The last two miles were snow again, now turned to hard-packed ice by the continual pounding of the feet of man and beast and refreezing. It was dead dark by the time I hit this stretch of trail. I had not seen anyone for awhile now and would not seen anyone again until I reached the lodge. I used a small flashlight to find the "best" places to step, but the batteries only lasted about 20 minutes in the extreme cold. I didn't know how cold it was that night--I wasn't looking anymore. I was glad, again, that I didn't know what I still had ahead of me: three hours more.
I could make out softer areas of snow near the edge of the trail, but I could see why. No one in his right mind wanted to walk on the edge of a cliff. My progress was agonizingly slow. Food ceased to help me stay warm or give me much energy. I was beginning to shiver uncontrollably. No matter how carefully I tried to place my feet, I still slipped and fell many times on the ice.
Then it happened. I slipped and went down onto the ice with such force that my pack came off and slid away from me down the trail and into the darkness. I was stunned by the fall and could not move. Curiously, I wasn't feeling particularly cold anymore. Had I broken something? Should I just lie still for awhile? I knew I should eat something, but my pack was nowhere in sight. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep.
I dozed and awoke with a start. What was still working of my tired and numbed brain remembered bits and pieces of what I had told students over the years about hypothermia, particularly advanced hypothermia. Shivering stops. You feel numb and sleepy. Going to sleep is fatal.
Panic seized me, and I forgot about any possible broken bones. I crawled frantically down the icy surface of the trail until I found my pack. My clothes were now soaked. "Get some energy. Get out of here!" I told myself. I located the trail mix of peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms in short order and inhaled a few handfuls. I tried to stand and put on my backpack but fell back onto the ice over and over again. The bottle of trail mix jolted out of my hand, skipped across the trail, and disappeared over the edge.
I don't know how long it took to get to my feet, but at least I was awake and moving, not sleeping. I was alive. I thanked God for wisdom and for the strength I found that night.
I arrived at the South Rim Lodge at 10:30 P.M. I recall seeing a look of astonishment on the faces of people in the lobby as I made my entrance in full backpack and looking, I am sure, a little worse-for-the-wear. Not before or since in my life have I been so exhausted, so cold, and so sore. I suppose I should have been glad when I reached the lodge, but in truth I was in a thoroughly rotten mood by that time and don't remember smiling much in response to the cheerful clerks. I spent what seemed like a fortune for a hot bath that night and a bed to sleep in. This time I had no second thoughts about the expenditure. It was a bargain and a blessing.
Drinking coffee and warming myself in front of the huge fire place in the lobby the next morning, I felt pretty good. The Grand Canyon which I could see through plate glass windows looked again like it always had to me: one of the most magnificent of God's creations. I hadn't forgotten the travails of my little stroll in the canyon, but it didn't matter. I had seen and heard and felt things few have been privileged to experience. It was very hard to leave that fireplace, but I had a job interview further south in a few days, and I was very happy to be heading toward a warmer climate.
I would backpack in the Grand Canyon again, two more times. I would go in the Spring and in the Fall of the year. I was better prepared. I let friends know the details of each trip. I did not travel alone.
Articles by Jim Phypers / Solar Haven Main Page
- Copyright by Jim Phypers, 1996. All rights reserved. -