Monday, June 8, 2009

Grand Canyon Backpack Trip

Bob & Brian's Most Excellent Vacation May 15-17, 2009

In the above short clip, Brian describes our hike...


Backpacking on the Tonto Trail;
A Traumatic Grand Canyon Adventure

The Trauma.

Many things raced through my mind while I was laying on the hospital bed in the Grand Canyon Village Clinic. Foremost among those thoughts was how my wife and daughter would take the news that I had died there. It felt like every muscle in my body was twitching uncontrollably; the doctor called it “tremors”. My heart is a muscle, too… right? I had vomited a few times on the way to the clinic. The staff struggled to get a needle into my arm without the vessel collapsing. Up to six staff members stood around me, including the park Ranger they pulled in off the street who was good at getting needles into injured Grand Canyon hikers. I heard words like “organ damage” and “helicopter transport”. Although it was difficult for me to speak, I told my hiking companion, Brian, what to tell Jane and Genna after I passed away, and I felt fortunate to have that opportunity for a few last words. Brian reassured me, but I hyperventilated with fear. The Ranger managed to get an IV into my arm and began a saline drip - both for hydration and to restore the electrolytes that I had lost over the course of hiking 3 days and 28 miles in the heat of the Grand Canyon. This has a happy ending, so perhaps I should back up a bit…
Sometime last fall, my kayak touring buddy, Brian, asked me if I’d like to do a hike with him in the Grand Canyon. It really didn’t take too much persuasion for me to agree. I expected to finish my Winter 46 in March (**see footnote), and thought hiking in the desert heat would be an interesting way to celebrate that accomplishment. The fact that I had never been to the Grand Canyon piqued my fascination with the trip. We chose a window of April or May, in order to avoid the hot summer temperatures that routinely soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit below the canyon rims. Later, my daughter told us that she would be receiving her Masters Degree from San Diego State University in May, and wanted Jane and me to be there for the event. Once we were informed of the graduation date, Brian and I were able to plan backwards and set our hiking schedule in order for me to combine the 2 trips. We would hike the weekend before Memorial Day; the tail end of our chosen window to avoid a hot hike.
In the 9 years that I’ve been hiking and backpacking, I had already acquired most of what I would need for the camping aspect of the trip - but I didn’t have a 1-man tent. We both opted to purchase ultralight solo tents, and settled on matching Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 shelters weighing about 2 pounds each. Previously, I had obtained a Spot Satellite Messenger that I could also use on other solo or remote trips I had planned. With no dependable cell phone reception, the Spot’s ability to send a distress signal (in addition to an “I’m OK” signal) to one of many satellites orbiting the earth provided an additional means of calling for rescue in the event of an accident or life-threatening situation. Brian and I would fly out a week ahead of Jane. After the hike, I would drop Brian at the airport, then drive to Southern California to see my brother Jim, and later meet my wife and daughter in San Diego for the main event. It was to be a very memorable vacation, to be sure.
The Grand Plan.
Big trips like that are rare for me, so everything about it was special. Brian and I flew into Phoenix on Thursday May 14. While in the air, we discussed alternatives to our original plan, which was to descend over 4 miles from the South Rim (trailhead elevation 7260ft.) down the hot, dry (no shade) South Kaibob trail to the junction known as “The Tipoff” (approx 4000 ft.), then hike about 18 miles on the hot, dry (no shade) Tonto trail, and finally ascend back to the South Rim via the very steep, hot, and dry Grandview trail (upper TH elevation 7399ft.), for a “Grand” total of 28.5 miles. In summer, when the trail is even hotter and water sources are not dependable, our specific itinerary is described by the Frommer’s guide book as “especially dangerous” - we were hoping for cooler temps and sufficient water sources. The only water that Rangers told us we could depend on was at the middle and far end of our hike on the Tonto, at Grapevine Creek and Cottonwood Creek. Until then, creeks and springs could very well be dry in this unseasonably warm season. Fun wow. Other options included rim-to-rim-to rim (South to North and back again) in 2 days (plenty of water). The 20 miles of accumulated uphill didn’t particularly appeal to me, nor did the 10,000+ feet of elevation gain over a period of just 36 hours or so. We settled on trying to complete our original Tonto trek in 2 days, in order to provide an extra day for a drive up to Zion or Bryce National Park in Utah. Upon landing in the stifling desert heat of Phoenix, we picked up our rental car (a nice, keyless, Volvo V70 wagon), and headed North. Brian had visited the Grand Canyon with his family last year, so he served as my guide. We stopped in Flagstaff to check out one of the many outfitters there, and I bought a new map that offered much better trail detail than the National Geographic map that we used while dreaming and planning for this adventure. I recommend that canyon hikers carry the Sky Terrain Grand Canyon Trail Map by Kent Schulte. After the backpack trip, I hoped to hike up Humphrey’s Peak, the high point of Arizona at 12,600+ feet above sea level. While packing my bag, I had to leave out my snowshoes, but managed to fit my crampons into the duffel. We were informed by the store staff that, because of the higher than normal temps recently, most of the snow was gone from the peak, and climbers would not need even snowshoes to summit that mountain. We continued our journey toward the trailhead. Immediately after we arrived in Grand Canyon Village, we headed to the overlook at Yavapai Point for my first ever glimpse of the Grand Canyon. When I was close to the rim, I did the “look at your feet as you approach the railing” thing, and raised my gaze to see a slightly hazy view of the grandeur that awaited us the next day. I must admit that, as a member of a camera club for more than 3 decades, I had seen countless wonderful images of the canyon - mostly with better atmospheric conditions, and combined with the fantastic scenery I have enjoyed so many times on Adirondack summits, I wasn’t as impressed as perhaps I should have been. Nevertheless, I shot numerous photos of the view while we were there. My opinion of the canyon would change when I got a look at it from within.
We did a little shopping (food, Gatorade, etc.), had a good spaghetti w/meat sauce dinner (actual meatballs cost 60 cents extra for each) in the village cafeteria, consumed a couple beers strictly for hydration purposes, then hit the sack in the Maswik Lodge. Brian had been concerned about riding the 5AM shuttle bus to our trailhead at South Kaibab, because he didn’t want to hike with a bunch of other people. I assured him that even if there were others there, we would all soon spread out on the trail, so I politely told him, in a most friendly way, to “get over it”. We drove to the Backcountry Office in time to board one of the 5AM South Kaibob shuttle buses that was transporting a crowd of hikers to “our” trailhead! We had managed to choose the day that the North Rim opened for the season, so an entire bus full of rim-to-rim once a year hikers was there. Great timing. Once at the trailhead, the crowd dissipated while we took photos and finished our preparations. After the mandatory hero pictures on the top (now referred to as “before” photos), Brian and I stepped onto the first of many switchbacks on the South KaiBOB. In addition to our cameras and tents, we each carried a pair of trekking poles, cold food (no stove), a water filter pump, iodine tablets for water purification, powdered Gatorade or Camelback Electrolyte tabs, a lightweight sleeping bag, ground pad, some extra clothing, 2 gallons of water each, and sundry items. I also carried the Spot satellite rescue device and a GPS receiver. The 2 gallons of water we each carried was divided among various containers, including a hydration system (w/hose and bite valve), flexible Platypus bottles, and 32-ounce Pepsi bottles or Nalgene containers. Everything, including our ground pads and tents, fit inside our packs. As promised, the bus load of hikers spread out on the trail, allowing us all to have our personal space on the descent. The switchbacks were fascinating to view from above as we made our way down. Hiking in the Grand Canyon is essentially the opposite of climbing a mountain; the easy part comes first, and returning to the trailhead is much more difficult. The saying goes something like: “a mountain will turn back the weaker hikers, while the canyon keeps them”. Many plants were in colorful bloom, and I captured images of them. We were told that mule trains were discontinued from the S. Kaibob, but we did see one string of six mules carrying supplies and/or trash up from Phantom Ranch. As a photographer, I had a great time grabbing pics of the spectacular scenery with my little Canon camera (8MP Powershot A720IS) as we walked ever deeper into the canyon. As our elevation decreased, the flora gradually changed from PiƱon Pine, Juniper, and larger shrubs and flowering plants, to cactus and other smaller desert plants Our chosen route was to hike from the South Rim down South Kaibob to the Tonto trail, which can be followed for approximately 70 miles along the shelf known as the Tonto Platform. From the Kaibob/Tonto junction, the Kaibob trail continues down to river level near Phantom Ranch. After crossing a bridge over the Colorado, it becomes the North Kaibob trail and climbs 14 additional miles to the North Rim at over 8200 feet. Every hiker except us was bound for the river, Phantom Ranch, or the North Rim, and we did not see any other backpackers - just day hikers. When we reached our jumping off point at a place called “The Tipoff” (there is an emergency telephone there), we descended a little farther to catch a glimpse of the moving water in the Colorado River far below. We climbed back up to the junction, and once we diverged from the main South Kaibob “highway” (sort of like the popular Van Hoevenberg trail to Marcy Dam in the Adirondacks), we were totally alone in solitary (binary?) bliss on the Tonto trail. That would be the last trail sign we saw until reaching the base of the Grandview trail on our way out, still 18 miles away in the scorching heat of the inner Grand Canyon.
Pancake prickly pear cactus is quite common on the Tonto platform; we also saw a few barrel cacti. The succulent Agave (Grand Canyon Century Plant) dotted the dry landscape as we followed the unmarked, but very apparent dusty path below the high buttes that dominated the terrain. Many of the Agave plants had produced a once-in-their-lifetime seed stalk, a 3 to 4-inch diameter woody appendage that grew up to 14 feet high from the center of the spiny clustered leaves, and had seed pods hanging from the upper part of the remarkably tall stem. This unusual plant would accompany us most of our hike, along with large patches of flowering prickly pear and the ever present 2-foot tall and 3-foot wide blackbrush, a small-leafed tumbleweed type of shrub uniformly spaced out about 4 feet apart across the entire surface of the plateau. The Tonto trail seemed to follow contour lines and maintain a steady elevation of approximately 3800 feet throughout the day, with the exception of where the trail crossed side drainages bound for the Colorado River that coursed some 1500 feet further below. As Brian and I walked along the Tonto platform, we were both aware that conditions could force us to radically change our plan and retreat. If we could not find water by day’s end, we would be forced to backtrack to the South Kaibob trail and descend to the river before climbing out of the canyon via the same route we had entered. That was not an attractive option. We continued our easterly walk on the Tonto. As the sun rose higher into the blue sky, the temperature climbed as well. Brian wore an altimeter that also indicated temperature, and by early afternoon it reached 104F; we were in the midst of an early heat wave. Extremely low humidity meant that as we perspired, it evaporated just as quickly. Salt-stained shirts provided a clue to our body’s reaction to the heat. We had begun hiking at 6:30AM, dismissing a ranger’s advice to avoid the peak heat (10-4pm), in order to cover more miles. He had suggested we start our trip in the late afternoon, and we finally conceded to the soaring temps by taking an early afternoon siesta break in the shadow of a large overhanging rock - really a slab of sedimentary stone that had shifted into that position. We reclined in the relatively cool shade and napped. Our siesta lasted 3 hours, and by then, we were ready to re-enter the 100+ degree heat to continue our hike. We wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts for comfort, with wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen providing protection from the sun’s rays. A light, steady breeze made the intense heat bearable - even pleasant much of the time. We walked, sipped water, and snacked lightly. Cremation Creek was the first major side drainage of our trip, and we looked into the deep ravine that it had formed over eons of erosion. We knew that the trail would not directly cross that obstacle, and instead we would have to follow it on a detour toward the canyon wall until the creek bed rose to a manageable level. Our Sky Terrain trail map labeled trail sections with an “E” for easy, “M” for moderate, “D” represented difficult areas, and more difficult terrain was labeled as “DD”. As I learned with Adirondack trail guides and their ratings, “difficult” is a subjective term. The flat section of trail we had been hiking was labeled as moderate, though I considered it easy. We would now see what 2 consecutive sections of “DD” would be like. Getting around the gorge required us to walk upstream, although that term seems to be inappropriate for a dry wash. Soon, the path descended a rugged section to the dry bottom, then climbed steeply up again over the rough, rocky trail. There was no water in Cremation Creek, and we weren’t surprised. This “Doubly Difficult” section would be considered just another part of the trail in the “What’s a switchback?” Adirondack Mountains that I enjoy so much. Next came a crossing of Boulder Creek that was quite easy. The name was appropriate, and it also failed to offer water.
We had been told the spring at Lone Tree Creek was a seasonal, undependable water source. Optimism dominated, as both of us still hoped to reach Grapevine Creek by day’s end - sort of a midway point in the hike. Lone Tree Creek was not as eroded as Cremation Creek, so with just a little more walking back toward the South Rim, we finally approached the main rut of Lone Tree Creek. Although there was no hint of a creek there, there was a very small, shallow, pool of water. This water was also occupied by a couple dozen polliwogs that seemed to be enjoying what would be our trip-saving water source. Brian dubbed this liquid refreshment “Polly Water” or “Tad-2-Oh”. We pumped and refilled our bottles back to our 2-gallon capacity. We knew then that if we hadn’t found water there, the 2 quarts we each had remaining would not have been sufficient to backpack another 10 miles or more to Grapevine Creek in 100+ degree desert heat. In the Adirondacks, 2 quarts would probably be enough to walk 12 miles on level ground (if you can find any level ground there), even in summer, but things are quite different in the desert. Shadows grew longer, and we realized that our high hopes of doing the 28-mile traverse as a one nighter were unrealistic - you might say “high and dry“, for we were far from reaching the mid-point of our hike. We walked back out closer to the center of the canyon and chose a flat place to make camp before the sun set across the sprawling canyon. Despite a grand plan, our progress on Day 1 was only the descent into the canyon followed by an additional 6 miles or so of walking along the Tonto.
It gets dark quickly in the Grand Canyon, and the trail is very difficult to see by headlamp. We worked fast to locate a spot that was flat enough, and far enough away from the cacti and the scratchy blackbrush shrubs to set up our ultralight and frightfully thin silicon-nylon solo tents. I’m glad that we chose to carry separate solo shelters, because finding a spot large enough to accommodate even a small 2-person tent would have been near-impossible in the short span of time we had between deciding to stop, and the arrival of the canyon night. Although we each carried a rain fly, we left those in our packs. My original excuse for carrying a fly on this canyon trip was, as I told Brian, “Do you really want to see that mountain lion sniffing your tent during the night?!”. We set up our Big Agnes shelters as a means to separate us from any creepy-crawlies that might be in the area; we also scanned the ground for red ants before putting up our tents. After reading about all the canyon creatures that might want to take our food, I had purchased an Ursack - a white tough-as-nails bag made of “bulletproof” fabric to leave our food in overnight. All of our combined dry food fit into my Ursack, then I cinched it tightly closed, tied some kind of knot in the drawstring, and secured the loose ends to a large rock to discourage smaller critters from dragging it off somewhere. As far as I know, nothing found or messed with our food while left on the desert floor overnight. No lions, ringtails, lizards, or even an ant seemed to notice. Our packs, water, and boots went inside the tents with us, and we found that the Dry Creek UL1 solo shelters provided enough room for us and all our belongings. I chose to carry a ThermaRest Z-Lite foam pad, and Brian had a new Big Agnes air mattress. My pad was lightweight but bulky, and Brian’s mattress was light, packed small, but required that he blow into the mattress for manual inflation. For a while, we just lay there, looking up at the starry starry night. We managed to see a satellite cruise past, one tiny meteorite dashed across the sky, and lots of high-altitude aircraft flew nearly overhead. It was very still and quiet, and we both slept just fine, with no big cats interrupting our rest. In order to beat the heat, we got up before sunrise. The combo altimeter/alarm clock was set for about 4:30AM, but we got up early enough. Breaking camp was quick and easy, and we were able to hit the dusty trail in pleasant darkness well before the sun peeked over the rim. Our goal for Day 2 was updated to reach Cottonwood Creek, in order to be primed for the big climb out of the canyon on our third and final day. Early on in our second day in the canyon, we came upon a broad flat open space that would have made an ideal camp for us. Huge patches of prickly pear cacti spread out across the smooth ground, and a covering of moss made a perfect cushion. We figured that the flat ground tended to hold water a little longer, allowing moss to get established as well as for the cacti to expand to the largest size we would see in 3 days. Later, the trail meandered over to the very edge of the platform, providing a spectacular look down into Granite Gorge and a long stretch of the Colorado known as Grapevine Rapids. A friend of mine will be rafting past that point in July as he floats and paddles from Lees Landing to the base of the Bright Angel trail near Phantom Ranch, and I would be sending that photo to him as a preview of what he’d be enjoying. We walked off trail to get closer to the edge - the near vertical 1500-foot walls sending thrills, if not chills, down my spine.
Grapevine Creek.
It was late morning when we approached Grapevine Creek, and we were stunned at the width and extreme depth of that side canyon that looked so unassuming on the map. Vertical walls plunged up to seven hundred feet straight down to a thin ribbon of water, and the trail kept a respectable distance from the edge. In order to travel about a half-mile east, we would have to walk over 2 miles up the edge of Grapevine Gorge, cross the creek, then walk back out again - a detour of about 5 miles to get around the tributary! As we walked farther toward the canyon wall, another, smaller ravine diverted us again and we were actually walking back toward the South Kaibob for a while until we crossed the secondary drainage. Unlike Lone Tree Creek, this part of the Tonto trail was rated only “D”, and was quite easy. I figure the “D” part was more mental - the proximity to the creek’s rim and subsequent risk of falling into the side canyon. The walk back to the headwall of Grapevine Creek was easy enough, just long. We again found that the spring was occupied by diminutive swimmers (“Wog-2-Oh!”), and topped off our water supply from the puddles that were only slightly larger than the previous day’s water source. While we sat in the “cool” shade by the puddles, we were surprised to see a man walk down and sit in the shade of one of the small trees - the only person we had seen since leaving the South Kaibob Trail the previous day. Brian spoke with him at length, while I pumped water from a spot farther down the slope. I had found my own tadpole inhabited puddle with the thinnest of little streams running into it. We learned that “Jim” was a Grand Canyon enthusiast, and had visited the canyon some 40 times, much as I have traveled to the Adirondacks, only I’ve been to Northern New York more times than that! Jim, perhaps in his 60’s, hiked down the Grandview Trail and was going to spend one night at Grapevine Creek before ascending to the South Rim via that same route. Because he knew the area well and was to spend only one night, he carried little in his day pack. Jim knew the spring was dependable, so he carried minimal water and no shelter. He told Brian that he has an occasional hiking companion who refuses to camp sans tent since being stung by a scorpion, so I felt justified in having carried a 2-pound tent for our 2-night trip. Because I am a much slower hiker, I got up and headed out on the trail in advance of my companion, as Brian lingered at the creek with the silver-haired lone hiker.
On the way out to the main part of the plateau, the trail had to skirt yet another side canyon. This one was fairly short, but what it lacked in length was more than made up for in depth. I marveled at the perfectly vertical walls that suddenly plunged 200 or 300 feet below me to the bottom; the scale there is so massive that I found it difficult to estimate distance. For me, this was the solitary “tight cheeks” portion of our 3-day journey. The narrow gravel trail was the only flat spot as the surface sloped down sharply from Lyell Butte. Below the 2-foot wide path, the ground fell at a sharp angle, perhaps 30 linear feet, before abruptly falling hundreds of feet straight down the side canyon . There was only small vegetation there, providing scant hope of a self-arrest in the event of a fall. One misstep there would very likely would bring your trip, and your life, to a sudden and very traumatic end. Using both trekking poles and taking only small, careful steps, I slowly made my way to the head wall, turned the corner, and walked along the other side of the short gorge. If I wanted to look around, I stopped in a place next to a rock. Only after determining that I had secure footing would I look back across the void. I kept looking for Brian, both from concern, and hoping he would come along to provide a human figure on the other side, so if I took a picture, there would be some sort of scale to show the narrow width and extreme depth of that part of the trail. I hiked out without getting the photo, but the memory of the brief but spectacularly extreme exposure there is embedded in my brain, even more so than the overall views of the Grand Canyon itself. I loved it!
Final Night on the Tonto.
Later in the afternoon, we came across a large slab of rock that tilted out and provided some nice shade, resembling an Adirondack landmark near Johns Book named “Slant Rock”, and we took a 2-hour siesta there before continuing our walk. After covering about 12 very satisfying miles on Day 2, it was again time to find a flat place to camp. We soon found an area with a minimum of large rocks, cleared away the bigger stones, and laid out our ground cloths. My site was close to a tall cluster of prickly pear, so I worked carefully while setting up Big Agnes. As I put the poles into the grommets and tied a guy line to a rock, I made the classic desert mistake - I backed into a cactus. Ouch! I told my dear hiking partner about my problem, and where my problem was located, but he refused to come to my aid. I pulled all the larger spines out of my pants, then dropped trou in order to access the other 15 or so smaller needles that protruded from my posterior. Satisfied that I was spineless, I re-panted and continued the work of preparing for my last night in America’s most famous canyon. My appetite had long since left me, as it often does in the midst of heat and strenuous activity, but I ate some cashews and dried cranberries. Again, I tied the food bag to a rock and stashed it under the lower pads of the large cactus that had only recently warned me to keep away. Not wanting the moment to pass too quickly, I laid awake for a while and gazed amazed at the star-filled sky above, wishing I had more time to spend there. I knew I was slightly dehydrated when I crawled into my 40-degree bag, but I would drink in the morning. We slept well.
Day 3.
We had camped near a spring that is very close to Cottonwood Creek, so soon after we resumed hiking, we found ourselves in the shade of its namesake trees, the largest trees we had seen since leaving the South Rim 2 days before. Even though we had only the 3500-foot ascent remaining, we refilled our water bottles at Cottonwood, figuring we could always dump water, but there wouldn’t be another source of water until we completed our hike up and out. In mountain hiking, the walk out and down is the easy part. In leaving this canyon, we would have to climb from an altitude of about 4000 feet to the top of the South Rim, 7399 feet above sea level. Again, I started out ahead of Brian and felt good as the long ascent began. Part way up, the climb would take us to the top of Horseshoe Mesa, the location of the long abandoned Last Chance Mine, claimed in 1890 for its valuable copper and abandoned in 1907. Just before reaching the mine, we noticed a large hole in the ground, about 6 or 8 feet across, just off the left side of trail. Brian walked over to look, and realized he was standing on the edge of a seemingly bottomless hole that went straight down. He carefully stepped away, and we walked a little farther to find a large trash heap of old, rusty, empty food cans that are apparently now considered historical relics. On the flat top of the mesa, we found more relics, including pick axes, some kind of large iron pump, a pry bar, and the ruins of a stone house. There was also a tailings pile, and a shallow cave carved out of the hill near the ruins. Today, Horseshoe Mesa is home to a small campground. A steep descent down the other side of the mesa would lead to Page Spring, but we were finished with “down” for a while. I missed seeing it, but Brian noticed a dead rattlesnake next to the trail near the mine. Shortly after resuming the climb, I heard a quiet, raspy sound just behind me. Brian asked me if I heard it, and I said “yes, I heard the rattle”. He was able to snap a few photos of a Grand Canyon Rattlesnake that had issued me an audible warning before retreating back into the rocks. Luckily for me and many other hikers, the local rattlesnakes are even more reluctant to strike than your average Diamondback, and prefer to avoid the conflict. Other than numerous small dark lizards, that was the only reptile we saw on our weekend trip inside the canyon. In fact, the only fauna that we did see was those lizards, a few birds, and many small red ants… unless you count those six mules on the South Kaibob.
With some difficulty…
Once again, I fell behind Brian as we made our way up the trail and over a long section comprised of large cobblestones; part of the man-made trail that initially provided access to the mining operation many years ago. My partner offered to lighten my load, but I insisted on hiking out with all of my own gear, and without help (that would come later). At around 6700 feet elevation, I began to feel more tired and my arm and leg muscles began to spasm. In the shade of a large tree, I took a long break, drank some water and consumed a Cliff Bar. Soon, I felt well enough to continue the climb and found Brian where he had waited for me to catch up. With renewed energy, we completed the ascent, pausing on that last stone stair before stepping up together for a simultaneous finish among the crowds of tourists milling all around. I felt good… for about 2 minutes, then the muscular twitching came back with a vengeance. I was able to take some photos from the overlook and of the information boards at the trailhead, and we posed for pictures as a tourist captured our “after” photos. It was when I headed over to a portable restroom that things started to deteriorate at a greater rate. When I passed a couple who were stopped in their red Jeep Wrangler with the convertible top down, the lady took one look at me and immediately handed me her open water bottle. “Here”, she said, “take it!”. I took it, and another bottle that she offered. Because of the trembling, I needed both hands to hold the bottle in order to drink. I didn’t feel dehydrated, but the water was refreshing just the same. Because the park shuttle does not come all the way out to Grandview, we expected to hitch hike back to the village. I had predicted that we’d get a lift within the first 10 cars that saw us. With great effort, I stuck out my thumb, as did Brian. One or 2 vehicles had passed us when I noticed a small RV backing out of a parking space. “Motor home!”, I shouted. Thumbs out, and we had a ride. A very nice couple from Northern Utah were seated in their Mercedes-made RV, and offered to take us all the way to the Village and our car. They provided us with more water, but I was unable to hold the bottle. My concerned friend dumped the bottle into my MSR hydration bladder, and I sipped as we drove. When they told me there was an elk outside, I said, with some difficulty, that I couldn’t turn around to look; that’s when Brain became even more worried. As I sat there trembling, Brian asked if I’d like to go to the clinic; I wanted only to lie down on the grass in the shade and eat something. The friendly Utah couple dropped us off at the backcountry office, and I managed to get into our car. Somewhere on the way to the restaurant, I said that maybe we should go to the clinic instead. Although there are signs at intersections in the small village that direct visitors to the clinic, once you turn, you seem to be on your own again, with no further indicators as to where exactly that is. After much driving around, we stopped to ask directions and finally approached the driveway to the Grand Canyon Clinic. Just before we turned into the approach, I shouted, “Stop, I’m going to be sick!”. I nearly had the door open (rental car) when most of the water I had just consumed came back out the same way it had entered. My stomach convulsed 3 more times before we got to the building, expelling just water. My friend, who had refused to assist my cactus butt the night before, was being very attentive now. While Brian ran inside, a clinic employee sitting out front on a break asked if I would need a wheelchair. I told her, “probably”. They wheeled me into the exam room and got me up onto a bed. Now the fun part began.
“Tell them good-bye and…”
As I lay there all a-quiver, a nurse attempted to stick a needle into my arm. In spite of the water I drank all day long and on the way there, I was apparently dehydrated, although I’m sure that I’ve been more dehydrated during a long day of hiking in the Adirondacks. Now, when someone is dehydrated, a good vein is hard to find. Each time a needle was inserted into my arm, the vein collapsed. The trembling in my arms and legs was as bad as ever, and nobody could get an IV started. To put it as a grand understatement, I was getting worried. In a moment of levity, I asked them if they had ever done this before, and they laughed. I gazed up at the ceiling fixture and told them, “I can see a bright light…” (I don’t know if they got that one). None of the clinic’s staff had managed to get a much needed IV started. Then another man walked in - a park Ranger who just happened to be stopping by the clinic - and he was good at finding veins. After many failed attempts by the health care pros, the lone Ranger came and saved the day (my Hero!). The IV began a slow drip of saline, but the trembling spasms continued unabated; I didn’t feel any better. I heard them say things like “possible organ damage”, and was told that I was going to be transported to Flagstaff in a helicopter. In spite of their reassurances, I hyperventilated with fear. I really thought I was going to die there in the clinic, and I gave Brian a message for my wife and daughter in that event. Brian also reassured me, but the tremors continued. The clinic doctor told me I had “Hyponatremia”, caused by the depletion of my body’s electrolytes. I know I drank enough water, but as a result of losing my appetite over the course of 3 hot days on the Tonto trail, all the salts now resided in my shirt. The saline drip would very slowly replace the lost electrolyte, and I just had to wait for the long process. I felt a bit better when I was informed that I didn’t need a chopper, and I would go to the Flagstaff Medical Center via ambulance. I also learned that multiple trauma victims was the norm on any given day in the Grand Canyon, and I was asked if I minded sharing the ambulance with a lady who had gashed her forearm down in the canyon while in the midst of a North-to-South Rim traverse. We both agreed to share, and we were on our way.
Happy Ending.
The Ranger drove off into the sunset, and I got a scenic view of the highway all the way to Flagstaff. Joining us in the Medical Center’s trauma unit was a man who was sightseeing while he walked a canyon trail, and consequently fell 60 feet. This resulted in a leg fracture, so maybe he got the chopper ride. Just another day at the Grand Canyon for the staff! The tremors continued as the saline dripped ever so slowly into my arm. By then, I figured that I was going to live at least until the next stupid thing I do, but I still couldn’t walk without a lot of help. I anticipated an overnight hospital stay, and Brian expected to cancel his flight scheduled the next morning out of Phoenix. By 10:30PM or so, I started to feel pretty damn good, and the nurse asked me if I was hungry. I said “yes!”, and wolfed down a turkey sandwich. When my saline level got up to around normal, it was like they had flipped a switch. I could talk and walk, and actually felt like going for a hike. I was discharged around 11:30 that night, and we headed for a much delayed celebration. Our post-hike spaghetti dinner (with meat sauce) had to be postponed, but Brian had quite optimistically purchased a pair of 22 ounce bottles of brew for us; “Arrogant Bastard” and “Sierra Nevada” ale; I had the Arrogant ale. That night, we toasted to much more than just a completed hike; it was great to be alive, and we were back on schedule.
The Main Event.
The next morning, May 18, I drove to Phoenix and dropped my good friend off at the airport for his return flight. In order to avoid doing something stupid too soon after this traumatic adventure, I canceled my plan to climb Arizona’s 12,600 foot high Humphrey’s Peak the following day… “re-calculating“……. and instead decided to drive up to Utah. That trip included a solo tour of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. After that, I drove into Nevada and camped among the red rocks of The Valley of Fire near Las Vegas, followed by a quick side trip over Hoover Dam, then through the desert to visit my brother in Yucca Valley, a town near California’s Joshua Tree N.P..
Finally, on May 21, I drove to San Diego to rendezvous with my wife, Jane. She flew in that day so we could attend our daughter Genevieve’s commencement ceremony, where she would receive her Master’s Degree in Social Work from San Diego State University. I really would have been in trouble if I’d missed that! Until next time, thanks for reading about my exploits, and remember to eat! - Algonquin Bob

Our map of choice for most trails in the Grand Canyon: the Sky Terrain Grand Canyon Trail Map by Kent Schulte.

I am not an obsessed ultralight hiker, so I can't supply a complete list of exactly what I carried and how many grams everything weighed. However, if you want to know more about the gear or food I carried and used (or didn't use), I'd be happy to elaborate.

Of course, after experiencing HYPONATREMIA, I researched it on line and learned all about the cause and cures... too late for me, but perhaps helpful to you. The best info that I found so far is from a document on the Grand Canyon River Guides web site Prevention is emphasized. Don't allow yourself to become dehydrated or malnourished. Drink and eat frequently, even though your appetite is suppressed from heat and exertion. You must eat and drink! Gatorade alone is insufficient to replenish all the electrolytes you can lose through perspiration over the course of time while hiking in desert conditions. You must eat, and those healthy power bars won't do the trick – eat salty snacks (crackers, pretzels, etc.) - even junk food. You need calories and sodium in these strenuous conditions! Read the complete article at

** The “Winter 46 refers to a list of peaks in northern New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. A hiker who cumulatively climbs all 46 Adirondack “High Peaks” (over 4000 feet) during calendar Winter earns the distinction of being a “Winter 46er”. There are currently less than 450 winter hikers/climbers who have registered as having accomplished that feat in the past 50 years of record keeping.

Next up: June 18-21 - a classic Adirondack canoe trip; the Low’s Lake-Oswegatchie River Traverse

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