On death’s doorstep in the Grand Canyon

A misstep in the backcountry alters an avid hiker’s perspective.

 

Hiking Tanner Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Kathy Sharp

When I was 9, I watched a TV show called Four Winds to Adventure. In one particularly vivid episode, a raging, muddy Colorado River tossed wooden boats around like toys. I yearned to see that river in person, but back then the Grand Canyon seemed about as far away as the moon.

Yet, when I finally got my first glimpse of it, in 1973, it was like “coming home to a place I’d never been before,” as John Denver sang on the radio that Memorial Day weekend, while two friends and I drove through the night toward the park.

We slept for a few hours in a U.S. Forest Service campground in Williams, Arizona, and then drove in early to obtain a permit for the Grandview Trail. And suddenly there, behind the gift shop, was the canyon, overwhelming all my senses. I felt as astonished and eager as the young cat whose first encounter with catnip was described by writer Joseph Wood Krutch: “Can such things be? Indubitably they can. He flung himself down and he wallowed.” 

For the past three decades, I have wallowed in the Grand Canyon. My bookshelves sag with the weight of more than 40 volumes on its history, geology, biology and trails; my children’s heads are filled with the bedtime stories I told (and embellished) of John Wesley Powell’s epic first trip down the Colorado River; and my own brain is stuffed with the memories of dozens of trips made with family and friends.

What ignited my obsession with the canyon? I used to think it was the sense of freedom it gave me. I grew up in a small Illinois town, where my mom knew before Saturday morning which girl I’d sat with at the Friday night football game. I was trapped by a conservative religious upbringing, complete with eyes drawn on the blackboard when the nun left the room: “He is watching you!” The first time I hiked to Hermit Rapids as a young man, I came upon a mixed-gender group of skinny-dippers. Can such things be? When I was a kid, an angry farmer once pointed a gun at me for straying over his property line in pursuit of rabbits. But Grand Canyon National Park encompasses nearly 2,000 square miles, and I could explore every square inch. Here was freedom on an unimaginable scale. 

With it came the opportunity to confront and overcome my fears. That first trip, I bought Harvey Butchart’s book, Grand Canyon Treks. It came with an official warning in stern capital letters: THE SUPERINTENDENT OF GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK HAS DETERMINED THAT HIKING IN MANY PARTS OF THE GRAND CANYON CAN BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH. There’s a thrill in navigating a dangerous landscape, enduring hardship yet coming out on top.

But Butchart’s message struck home that winter when an acquaintance of mine, an extremely fit and strong hiker, died in a snowstorm on the Tanner Trail. Much later, my daughter and I ascended Tanner Trail in the same kind of whiteout conditions that killed my acquaintance. I had told her the story the night before. We decided to wait until the fog lifted enough for us to see at least 10 feet ahead, and to camp at 75-Mile Saddle, which we could reach even without a trail — as long as we didn’t climb the butte on the right, or fall in the canyon on the left. By the time we made 75-Mile Saddle, the fog had lifted enough for us to climb out.

On another hike, in the boiling heat of the summer, my son badly sprained his ankle at Sapphire Canyon, nearly 20 miles from either the South Bass or Hermit’s Rest trailheads, at a place one guidebook author called “no man’s land.” Looking into his anxious and pain-filled eyes, I recalled the words of the driver who’d taken us to the trailhead the day before: “I don’t go down there this time of year.” A trickle of water in Sapphire Canyon meant we wouldn’t die of thirst, but I faced a difficult choice: Should I hike to the river and flag down a raft, something I could probably do in a half day, with some climbing and route-finding, or just hike out to Hermit’s Rest, which would take more than a day? We found a third way: We rigged two walking sticks, and I carried my son’s gear while he hobbled to the end of the trail. It was an oddly empowering experience.

 

On a backpacking trip below Horseshoe Mesa, Nic Korte stops to bury the pins and metal rods that had held his arm together for two years.
Courtesy Nic Korte

But a few years ago, everything changed. I wanted to visit Deer Creek and Thunder River with my daughter and son-in-law. It was my fourth time there, so I thought I’d spice up the itinerary with a visit to Tapeats Cave and Spring — a major source of water to Tapeats Creek — and then make a cross-country exit at Crazy Jug Point. 

Ryan and Ann were both experienced climbers, and I had done my due diligence, gathering trip reports, studying maps and talking to people who had hiked the area. Ryan brought gear for the little rappel (no longer permitted) into the Deer Creek narrows. We slid around in the chutes and pools and had a blast. Two days later, we hiked over to Thunder River and then up Tapeats Creek. It required some wading and pack-hoisting; there were places where you could fall and break an ankle, or an arm. But we were careful and took our time.

Near Tapeats Cave, we dropped our packs and headed for the nearby spring, taking only our water bottles and some lunch. Ann asked Ryan to help retrieve a granola bar from her daypack, so I said, “I’ll go ahead and take a look.”

I followed a faint path to the head of the canyon and reached a cliff. We couldn’t continue west. I walked down the slope to a lesser cliff, maybe 15 or 20 feet high. This wasn’t the way either. I yelled, “We are too high.”  Ryan nodded, pointing downward toward some trees as a better route. I hurried to meet them, returning to the narrow, rock-filled ravine I had crossed just moments before. It was only about three steps across, I thought. I tentatively tested a big block of redwall limestone. It seemed solid — until I put all my weight on it. And then, suddenly, unbelievably, it wasn’t. “No, no, no, no!” I yelled as the slope about 10 feet above me collapsed.

Only shards of memories of what followed remain. But I clearly recall waking up in the intensive care unit of the Flagstaff Hospital — five days later. “This isn’t a nightmare, is it?” I asked the nurse.

I later learned that Ryan sprinted 10 miles to the river to get help, while Ann, a rehabilitation specialist, used all of her medical training to hold my fading body and spirit together. She wrote in her diary:

As the hours passed, I became more and more terrified. I was worried that Ryan might have gotten hurt rushing out for help or that he just wasn’t able to find anyone. My dad was becoming so cold that I climbed under the vegetation with him and tried to lie over his chest. He just kept shivering and his vital signs were weakening. At 6:30 p.m. I thought I heard a helicopter and I jolted up. I grabbed my headlamp and turned on the flashing mode and ran to the highest rock I could find nearby. The paramedic later said they only spotted us on the first pass because of the flashing light. I still don’t know what made me think to do that when it wasn’t even dark.

I almost died. My pelvis was separated and had multiple fractures. I had multiple broken and dislocated ribs, a fractured sacrum, a collapsed lung and a badly shattered wrist and femur. (Somehow, my femoral artery wasn’t severed.)  I also damaged my left knee. All this was on my left side; I didn’t learn until later that my right humerus had sheared off soft tissue in my shoulder socket. Miraculously, my internal organs were spared. Two surgeons worked on me for three long days. I spent a month in the hospital. Over the next two years, I had shoulder and knee surgery and six wrist surgeries. 

And I still deal with the aftermath. My metal femur, pinned hip and chained pelvis have ended my running days. My surgeons warn me that their “fixes” are only temporary. Several times a month, I go to physical and muscle therapists. My personal exercise routine is down to about 17 hours per week — half of what it was the first two years after the accident. But I keep at it to maintain flexibility and control the ever-present aches and pains.

 

Falling always seems to occur slowly. Thud! — face down on the trail. A few inches to my right, and I would have cracked my head on a ragged piece of rock. I lie there for a moment, unhook my backpack, roll away and sit up. What happened?

Three years after my accident, I am once again on the Tanner Trail, near where it meets the Bright Angel shale. It is a moderately steep section that I have hiked several times without a second thought. This time, I stubbed my right toe on a protruding rock. It spun me around, so my right arm and pole were behind me. I instinctively tucked my left arm to my side to protect my multi-surgeried, inflexible left wrist.

I fall more often these days, taking tumbles while hiking and skiing. My reflexes haven’t adjusted to the loss of agility in my new left hip. Sometimes, my brain tells me everything feels right when it isn’t right at all.

I finish backpacking trips with a sense of relief, rather than exhilaration. I am way more careful, knowing how vulnerable my body is. This sometimes surprises, even disappoints, those who knew me before the accident. People like to say, “You’re all healed now!” They want reassurance that when bad things happen, they can be erased. My recovery has been remarkable, yes, but the scars of the accident are permanent, both physical and mental.

I always liked Stephen Crane’s famous poem:

 

A Man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist.”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

 

But now I know it in my very bones.

I used to go to the Grand Canyon believing that, every time I went, I could possess it a little more. But the Grand Canyon cannot be possessed. We fool ourselves if we think inanimate objects care about us. The Grand Canyon is neither my friend nor my nemesis. Yet I learned important lessons there. Embedded in its strata is immutable evidence that life changes — sometimes slowly, over eons; often dramatically, in an instant.

This essay is excerpted from a longer piece published in On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, published by the Vishnu Temple Press.