2016 – Grand Canyon

This was the trip where things went wrong for us! What is confusing about the Grand Canyon is that the rim of the Canyon is about 6000 feet higher than the bottom of the canyon and this constitutes a significant temperature change. If you google Grand Canyon weather right now, you likely will find moderate temperatures that are no higher than 85 degrees. We can hike in 85 degrees! The problem is that every 1000 feet you go down constitutes an increase in temperature by about 5 degrees. That means a decrease of 6000 foot in elevation equates to a 30 degree temperature increase! 85 degrees at the rim is 115 degrees at the bottom! It didn’t help that we started our hike at 11am which means the majority of our hike was during the heat of the day.

The trail we took into the Canyon is called the Tanner Trail and it was incredibly rugged. The opening descent is so steep it’s hard to even spot at a distance. It just looks like an impassible ravine. It was also completely covered in boulders so it was like doing leg presses with each step down. It was a total of 9 miles which we could normally knock out no problem, but the heat combined with the 6000 feet of descent slowly but surely drained us. As the sun got lower in the sky, the Colorado river was still so far away in the distance. The day wore on and we were all drained and dehydrated from the dry weather. We considered stopping early, but decided to continue on because it was so important to reach the only water source in the canyon. We finally arrived at our campsite right around 9pm as the sun was dipping below the rim of the canyon. I remember my fingers and wrists cramping/locking up as I put my tent up. My sister was the MVP because she managed to quickly cook up some hot dogs and handed me two as a I lay incapacitated in my tent.

Despite the brutal first day, we still had optimism that the trip could get back on track. Day 2 was only a 3 mile trek and it was along the Colorado river which meant less elevation change. After sleeping in, making a big hearty breakfast, and filtering water to replenish all of our stores, we started our hike once again at about 11:00am. This was a big mistake. Normally a 3 mile hike like this would be over in about an hour or 2, but we were moving slowly and taking frequent breaks. The trail was still very rugged and there were rolling hills that contributed to slowing us down, but the overwhelming heat was what really did us in. Eventually, my Dad said he needed to go sit in the river because he was overheating. We all went down to the river and setup camp, we had not even made it 3 miles to our campsite. This was the moment it set in that we would not be able to finish our trip as planned. This was a scary realization because we could not complete a 3 mile hike, yet the only way out of the canyon was to hike 12 miles back the way we came. That evening I filtered and drank multiple liters of water until, for the first time on the whole trip, I was totally hydrated because I knew that I had to be strong. I’ll also never forget my little brother using his high powered laser to try and get the attention of helicopters taking tours of the canyon.

The next day we waved down a large motorized raft going down the Colorado River and begged for help. My Dad literally had his credit card out offering to pay whatever it cost to join their raft expedition. The lead guide of the expedition was an outdoorsman through and through. He had on the type of outfit that Steve Irwin would wear. He let us know that he legally couldn’t take us due to limits on the number of people on his watercraft, but he was generous enough to share some ice cold Gatorade with us! He then brought our whole group together to discuss our plan and give us a pep talk. First he told us to give him all the extra unnecessary weight in our packs and that he would mail it back to us later. This included things like knives, machetes, frying pans, and even our tents. Next he told us we would only hike at night from now on. He said we should be breaking camp and leaving at 2am. He rafted our group the half mile down river to our originally intended day 2 campsite. This campsite had better shade for us to hideout in. The plan was to spend all day relaxing and staying cool in the shade and then we would hike 3 miles back to our day 1 campsite.

So that is what we did. The rest of the trip involved a lot of lounging about in the shade and dipping our feet in the ice cold river. When we hiked back to our Day 1 camp at 2am, this time it was a mild enough temperature and we easily completed it. It was this day that a rattlesnake scurried between my legs as I turned a corner! We arrived at camp between 5 and 6am as the sun was rising. Once again we had all day to lounge about, eat, drink, and stay as cool as possible until night time.

The last part of our escape from the canyon was retracing our steps back up the Tanner trail to the rim of the canyon where we started on Day 1. The first time we made this trek, it took 10 hours and that was going downhill. We knew that this hike was going to be beastly and we absolutely did not want to get caught out in the heat of the day again. With this being our last major effort, we decided that we would take a short nap and then break camp at midnight to start our hike. It was a truly bizarre scene as we lumbered up cliffsides in the dark with only our headlights and the stars to guide us. Throughout the entire night we were accompanied by the most beautiful view of the cosmos. There is absolutely zero light pollution that far into the canyon and we could see each star in the sky as clearly as you could in a planetarium. You could even see the hazy glow of the Milky Way Galaxy. Seeing something so beautiful while doing something so hard and dangerous left me with mixed emotions. It was one of those times in life that felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Slowly but surely, we continued making progress and after another 10 hours we made it back to our car. The combination of the immense physical effort of the hike, lack of sleep, and anxiety surrounding the uncertainty of our trek meant that we were all completely spent. When we reached the car I began to empty all of my water bottles and pack up my gear. As I was doing this my little sister sat in the back seat of the car and instantaneously started snoring. She literally sat down and immediately passed out. When my Uncle Steve started driving his motorcycle he was wobbling all over the place as if he was half conscious. We stopped at the first gas station and my Uncle Steve opened a Powerade and started chugging it without hesitation. After having a half-hearted celebratory meal of pizza and wings we had to hit the road. Due to time constraints, our hotel was an 8 hour drive away some place in Colorado. All of us were too exhausted to drive, but the more time we spent sitting around napping meant that we would be getting to our hotel that much later. I decided that I would take the first shift and my brother agreed to keep me company up front. Of course within 5 to 10 minutes of driving everyone in the car was passed out including my brother. I vividly recall some soothing Coldplay song coming on and having to quickly skip it for my own sake! In retrospect driving was a bad idea because it was a struggle maintaining my lane and the proper speed. Luckily, there was basically no traffic and my Dad somehow woke up from his 45 minute power nap completely refreshed. He took over for me and drove the rest of the way. What a beast!

It’s easy to hear about this trip and think we were idiots for going to the Grand Canyon in July. One thing that has always been tricky for us when planning these adventures is that we usually only have certain times of the year when we are available to go on a week long trip. At this time, my brother and sister were in school and I had just finished, so summer was the only time we were all available. It’s easy to get locked in on a location and book it based off your availability without considering whether it’s the proper season to do so. It’s something we try to be more cognizant of now. Also, we always book hotels near the finish of our trips now. We know that the last thing we want to do after a week of roughing it is have to drive for hours upon hours. Finally, it would be easy to blame my Dad for how he planned the trip, but at this point I was a 22 year old man with a full time job as a web developer. There was no excuse for me to have contributed no planning or research for the trip. I knew that moving forward it was my responsibility to help out more.

The final thing I will add is the crazy toll the desert took on my body. Upon exiting the Canyon, my lips were the most chapped they had ever been. They were completely dried out and dead. Additionally, my feet had multiple layers of blisters due to the heat and pressure on my feet from hiking up and down boulders. After a few weeks my feet appeared to be healed but then another layer of dead skin appeared on the bottom of my feet. It probably took about a month for my feet to entirely heal. At a stop during the road trip home to Illinois, my sister accidentally stepped on my Dad’s big toe and some giant blister under his toenail painfully exploded. His toe gurgled with every step he took. The Grand Canyon is an incredibly dangerous place and it’s honestly surprising that rangers let us book permits for campsites without a bit more education/warning of what we were getting into. Once I had a moment to myself, I searched Grand Canyon deaths online because during that trip I had the realization that people had likely died in our exact scenario. It turns out about 12 people per year die in the Grand Canyon mostly due to exposure to extreme elements and falls into the canyon. Check out these cool pics that make it look like everything was a breeze hahaha.