This article is from the vaults of my previous Grand Canyon blog. Because of its popularity, I did not want to delete it. Please enjoy!
I saw some very sad news this morning. After a multi-day search, the body of a 69 year old man was recovered near the Hermit Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. The article did not state the reason for the man’s death, but my guess would be hyperthermia/heat stroke, trauma/fall, or some type of heart failure. As you may know, I am so closely connected to the Grand Canyon. And when I hear news like this I feel terrible.
I have hiked on the Hermit Trail and it is definitely a very difficult strenuous trail. Not only is it very steep; there are several areas of washouts and rockslides. What this means is that you could be joyfully hiking along this trail when all of a sudden you come to a wide-open part that is totally covered by rocks. So unless you have some route finding experience in the canyon, I could absolutely see how it would be easy to actually go off trail and get lost. As an aside, a few years ago when I was on a backpacking expedition in the Grand Canyon, I remember one person in our group actually crying when we reached the bottom of the Hermit. She ended up doing totally fine, but I think it was a more difficult trail than she had anticipated!
Getting lost in the Grand Canyon is no joke. It could be deadly. Because once you are off trail, everything pretty much looks alike, and it’s very possible to keep wandering the wrong way and get yourself into serious trouble.
You may have read my previous blog entitled “David Madow Explains Why He Loves the Grand Canyon.” In that entry I talked about my bad experiences in the Grand Canyon. And all of those were on highly traveled, clearly marked trails. Once you take it to the next level on a trail such as the Hermit, it is a totally different ballgame. You really need to be totally prepared for anything.
So many people get into trouble while hiking into the backcountry of the Grand Canyon, and the crazy thing is that almost every bit of it is preventable. That’s the reason I go back to the Grand Canyon every summer to help as a PSAR (Preventive Search and Rescue) volunteer. Out of everything I have done in my life, helping people in the Canyon is one of the most fulfilling. Prevention, by simply asking hikers on the trail what their plans are, can go a long way!!
Generally the way it works when I am volunteering is I get assigned an area on a trail where I need to “hang out” for the day. It generally would be on either the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails. Sounds like fun but remember, I need to get to the assigned spot and there are no escalators or elevators, which means I need to hike down to wherever I need to be with a backpack. And although my backpack is not as heavy as if I were spending multiple days on the trail, I still need to carry plenty of food, water, electrolytes, safety equipment, etc. which does indeed weigh it down a bit! And I do this in the summer so it is very possible for the temperature to climb close to 100 degrees in the middle of the day.
Last summer I was on assignment at the Three Mile House, which is three miles down the Bright Angel Trail. The Three Mile House can get fairly crowded in the middle of the summer as hikers on their way down as well as on their way up like to stop there for a place to rest, eat and drink out of the direct sunlight. I remember it was a fairly hot day, probably around ninety degrees when an uphill hiker approached me and told me that there was a woman down the trail just a bit heading up this way that was in distress.
I immediately made my way down the trail about fifty yards or so and encountered a woman who appeared to be in her sixties who looked like she had had it. She just looked horrible. As it turned out, she was hiking out from a multi-day trip with her son and daughter-in-law. The son told me that his mom was exhausted and had been vomiting. By the way, vomiting happens to be one of the symptoms of hyperthermia.
I slowly hiked them up to the Three Mile House and found a little area where the woman, whose name was Carol, could lie down. But before she lay down I gave her some crackers (always think salty) and some Gatorade to help get some electrolytes back in her. While she was resting, I got on my radio and called up to the rim for help. Or at least some advice. What they told me was to let Carol rest for several hours, make sure she eats and drinks, and when the sun starts to set and the temperature begins to get cooler, she should try to hike out.
We waited and waited. I made sure Carol was getting fluids and food. Carol was showing some signs of improvement but I knew she was exhausted. And I also knew she still had three very difficult uphill miles on the Bright Angel Trail to go before she would be done.
At about 3PM we got lucky. A cloud cover started to appear. The sun was obscured, causing the temperature to go down by about ten degrees. I figured this was the time. We had about a four hour window before darkness. I asked Carol if she thought she could start walking and she said yes. I told her that I would hike up with her, her son and daughter-in-law. Since I carried a radio, plenty of water and food, I knew I could be a source of help and encouragement.
The going was very slow. Carol felt tired. She felt sick. And I knew she was dehydrated. Problem is, when one is in that situation, the last thing they really feel like doing is eating or drinking. The reason is that all of the blood leaves the stomach to go to the muscles and the brain, which makes you not feel like eating. So I had to insist that Carol eat and drink a little bit at a time along the way.
Carol was a good person. I could tell she felt terribly embarrassed about her situation. She kept apologizing for troubling me. I told her not to worry, that I would get her up safely. But in the back of my mind I was very worried that she would go into severe hyperthermia, which could be very serious. One of the things that ended up helping quite a bit was that I would continually spray water all over her face and head with a spray bottle that I carried.
The most worrisome time came when we were close to the top and she was throwing up and had a bout of diarrhea. That is never good. But we were so close. It was getting dark at this point, so I had an idea. First, Carol’s son and I put on our headlamps so we could see better. Then we had Carol get in between us and we literally carried her up the final quarter mile or so.
When we arrived at the top, I made sure Carol got medical attention immediately. She was taken to the hospital in Flagstaff, treated for dehydration and ultimately released. Carol and I have been in touch ever since. She tells me that she believes I saved her life. I am not sure. I was just someone who happened to be there at the right time to help a wonderful woman.
This is just one very small sample of incidents that happen basically every day in the Grand Canyon. It is very hot. It is steep. It is very difficult to calculate the difficulty of hiking there. Carol got off lucky. The 69 year old man on the Hermit Trail was not so lucky. Please be careful.