Human Interest


On weekend hospital rounds, doctors have more time to chat with one another. There is less hub-hub and employee activity, and the number of patients in the hospital is less. One Saturday morning just after New Years Day, Dr. Bob Dicks and I were sitting in the nurses station talking about The Grand Canyon. At the time, both of us had only been there once. I had often thought about going back someday but just hadn’t made any plans. Bob was interested in going back, too, but he wanted to ride the mules to the bottom of the canyon and stay at the Phantom Ranch. 

The idea sounded great. I was immediately interested, but knew my physical size exceeded the maximum allowed to ride the mules. If I went, I’d be hiking. Bob thought a couple of other doctors, Buzz Koons and Tom Wisler, might be interested, too, and said he would talk to them. He also heard it was hard to get reservations at the Phantom Ranch, and waiting a year wasn’t unusual. Staying at The Ranch was an essential part of any trip into the canyon. So unless we intended to camp out in a tent, which we did not, we would have to wait until space became available. Hiking to the ranch without a reservation was not a good idea.

When Bob called, he learned the first openings at the Phantom Ranch were in early November, eleven months away. That was less than a year and not too close to the holidays, so he decided to reserve one night for five of us. Thus began months of anticipation and decisions to get us ready for the trip. The plan was, the night of the hike down to the Ranch, we would stay in a bunkhouse cabin that slept 8. We ordered a bowl of beef stew for dinner, and scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast the next morning. Bob thought to acclimate we should be at the canyon for two days before the hike and for one day of rest after. The other four nights, we would stay in the Bright Angel Lodge at the south rim.

From then until November 5th, my focus became preparation for our trip. To get in shape, I took several three-mile hikes. I had boots, a backpack, and other necessary equipment available so I just had to get it all together.

In early November, we flew to Las Vegas, drove a rental car to the canyon, and checked in to the Bright Angel Lodge. We got our backcountry permit, and spent the next two days acclimating to 7000’ feet above sea level. My backpack was packed with everything I needed, especially four one-liter bottles of water. Even in November, canyon experts recommend taking at least four liters of water on a hike to the bottom. Descending into the canyon, the air temperature rises and dehydration can be a concern.

The night before we set out, we had a “last supper.” At a round table in the center of the El Tovar Hotel dining room, after a delicious dinner, one-by-one, we talked about our concerns and expectations for the hike. It was serious and sobering because we were about to take a hike none of us had a clue about. We knew it would be rigorous and hoped we would make it without injury.

The morning of the hike, after a quick breakfast, a bus took us and our equipment to the trailhead of the South Kaibab trail about a mile east of the main visitor center near Yaki point. The south Kaibab is the shorter route to the canyon floor and winds downward for 7.1 miles to the Colorado Riverbed. After reaching the river, the Phantom Ranch is about a mile inland and sits alongside Bright Angel Creek. Several times a day, mules use the south Kaibab to transport supplies and people to the Phantom Ranch. We stepped aside each time a group of mule riders and pack mules passed us on the way down. At the trailhead, we saw a short, thin man dressed in running shorts and a sweatshirt. He looked out of place because the temperature was only 28°. More about him later.

The Grand Canyon on foot is awesome! From beginning to end, hiking down hill, you’re looking at one amazing panorama after another. Instead of looking down, you’re always looking up at where you’re going. The view never gets old. Around every corner, there’s a new scene you haven’t seen before. The trail is wide enough that I never felt unsafe. But you don’t want to get too close to the edge because there are no guardrails. In some places, there’s nothing to protect you from falling a long way down.  

Hiking the south Kaibab is a 7.1 mile continuous downhill walk. That’s a long way. Your toes get crammed into the ends of your boots, your knees, shins, and thighs ache, and soon it becomes hard to walk. About 3 miles into the hike, one of our guys, who was hiking in Sperry topsiders, got into trouble. His knees and feet hurt so badly he could barely walk. If he stopped frequently and walked slowly, he could inch his way along. For awhile, the situation looked very serious, but with maximal encouragement from the rest of us, he finally made it to the ranch. The trip took at least an hour longer than usual.

The Grand Canyon is a geologic wonder. It’s made up of inner and outer canyons and hundreds, probably thousands of different rock layers. The outer canyon begins at the rim where visitors enjoy views from numerous vistas. The trail descends quickly through a series of switchbacks to a long plateau that slopes very gradually to the rim of the inner canyon. The steeper inner canyon walls descend via switchbacks to a level area probably 50-75 feet above  the Colorado River. There, the trail enters a short tunnel that leads to a very long enclosed foot bridge that crosses the river.

The Colorado River is muddy, turbulent, roaring, freezing cold, and frightening. People who try to swim in it must choose a spot where the current is safe and nearly still. Otherwise, being swept away in the current is inevitable as is hypothermia from the cold water. Crossing via the bridge you get a real sense of the river’s power and danger. The bridge is built into the rock walls on both sides of the river and is far enough above water level that the river cannot damage it. Crossing it was interesting. Here we are at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon, standing above the powerful force that carved the canyon over millions of years. Five hours earlier we were standing at the rim of the canyon. Now, we’re at the bottom. AWESOME!

We started our hike at 8:00 am, when the air temperature at the south rim was 28°. Five hours later, when we reached the Phantom Ranch, we had descended 5000 feet and gained 44° of warmth (it was 72° on the canyon floor). As we hiked downhill, we took many breaks for rest and a drink of water. We stopped to take pictures at fabulous scenic vistas, and removed layers of clothing as the temperature rose.

When we crossed the Colorado River, I mistakenly thought we were close to the Phantom Ranch. Wrong! We still had a mile to go. The ranch is a good mile away from the Colorado River bridge up one of its many tributaries, Bright Angel Creek. The trail to the ranch follows the stream, passes around the mule corral, and through campsite after campsite. After the Ranch, the trail continues north and becomes the North Kaibab Trail. It continues 13 miles to the north rim. We passed many other hikers camped along the trail.

The Phantom ranch is a cluster of rustic, wood floor, poorly-heated, stone-sided cabins. Each cabin has bunk beds that sleep 8-12 people. The cabins surround a central mess hall/general store. As soon as we got to the general store, we had a snack and rested. Some of the guys bought postcards and mailed them from the Ranch. I learned a postmark from the Phantom Ranch is a valuable collector’s item.

During our stay, for some reason, there was no running water in the cabins. We couldn’t shower and had to flush the toilets with a bucket of water pumped from the well. It was a bit more than spartan. The ranch was the same then as it was twenty years before, I’m sure. There is no pretense of luxury accommodations because it was meant to be rustic to fit in with the remoteness of the canyon floor.

By the time the five of us got to the Phantom Ranch, our buddy in the topsiders could barely walk. Both knees and shins hurt terribly. He was discouraged, scared, and worried. His spirit was broken, and he didn’t think he could go any more, especially knowing he had an 11-mile hike ahead of him the next day. We helped him to the bunkhouse, got ice on his legs, and insisted he stay down and rest. We hoped he would feel some better the next day. When hikers are stranded or injured, they are evacuated by rescue helicopters. Bob thought we were close to having to get our friend out that way, but decided to see how he felt, later.

Dinner in the mess hall that night was the most delicious beef stew I have ever eaten. It was probably right out of a can, but I was so hungry, anything would have tasted good. We ate with  other hikers from all over the country who were staying at the ranch. It’s been too long to remember where they were from and what we talked about, but I do recall sitting with a group of emergency room nurses from Washington or Oregon. That evening, a park ranger gave us an interesting talk about the geology of the canyon and talked about the stars and constellations. The sky from the canyon floor was amazing!

The next morning, after a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the five of us set off on the 11-mile hike up the Bright Angel trail to the south rim. That’s eleven miles uphill the whole way! Four-and-a-half hours into the hike we were half way up the trail. At the half-way point is Indian Gardens, an old spring surrounded by a flat, “lush” area with picnic tables. A water pump was there so we stopped for a drink of water, sandwiches we brought from the ranch, and a short rest.  

Our friend with the leg pain was having trouble walking again. He was really hurting and could barely move. If he walked slowly, he could keep going, but we needed to hang with him, and give him a lot of reassurance and encouragement. We had to encourage him to keep moving on. He just wanted to sit down and quit. For awhile we thought we might have to carry him out, and that was going to be very difficult. I have to give Bob Dicks all the credit for getting him out of the canyon. His determination to stay with him and encourage him kept him from giving up. It took us another four hours of slow plodding along, but finally we made it to the south rim.

The hike down the South Kaibab was 7.1 miles over five hours. The hike out was 11.1 miles that took 9 hours. Hiking 11 miles uphill is exhausting. Unlike hiking downhill where you’re looking out and ahead, hiking uphill you’re looking down the whole time. If I looked where I was  going on an uphill climb, it seemed like I would never make it to the end. As I said before, hiking from the river level, you hike three miles up the wall of the inner canyon until you reach the Tonto plateau. The plateau slopes gradually upward for 4 or 5 miles to the wall of the outer canyon. Looking ahead, you see switchback after switchback leading to the rim. “As the crow flies,” it’s a distance of 1000-1500’. But on foot, you still have three miles to go. 

Hiking uphill for 11 miles is brutal. When you get to the outer canyon wall, in your mind you’re almost home, but in reality you still have a couple of hours of hiking left. When one of your buddies is struggling to walk, you know it’s going to take even longer because the pace is glacial. Finally, when we made it to the south rim, I was never so glad to be there, because we had made it and our struggling buddy had made it, too! 

A nap, a hot shower, and dinner were next on the agenda. We had accomplished a feat many dream about but few actually experience. It is nowhere near equal to summiting Mt. Everest (which I have NOT done), but to us, it was just as big. Five old guys over 50, overweight and out of shape, pulled it off. Most of us had the right foot wear, adequate food and hydration, did several practice hikes, and were never at risk of failing. The South Kaibab is scary in some places, but is not unsafe. Yes, there are many steep drop-offs alongside the path, but the trail is so wide, you’re protected from slipping and falling over the edge. The mules go down and up the South Kaibab several times a day so you must watch out for ruts, rocks, and natural droppings along the way. 

Mules don’t use the Bright Angel Trail so there’s no “natural droppings” to watch out for there. Steep drop-offs exist, but they don’t have the intimidation factor of those on the Kaibab. A lot of visitors use these trails, and even in early November, there were many people hiking. Some folks even attempt to hike round trip in one day. Park officials don’t recommend that because it is too physically demanding, and most people can’t do it. The weather was not a factor in November. We beat a snowstorm, missed rain, and were never too hot or too cold. It was 28° at the Kaibab trailhead, 72° at the Phantom Ranch, 55° that night and the next morning, and 60° when we finished. The temperatures were almost perfect. 

Several times a year, the Park Service permits running groups to have “rim-to-rim” races. People with masochistic personalities find enjoyment in running 20.3 miles from the south Kaibab trailhead on the south rim down to the Phantom Ranch and back up the North Kaibab trail to the north rim. OR They run the opposite way north rim to south. OR They run both ways—south to north and back to south. The general store at the Phantom Ranch is a stopping point for racers.

That brings me back to the guy at the South Kaibab trailhead. When we got to the Kaibab trailhead the first day, there were several people in running attire — shoes, warm up sweats, knit hats, including this guy — who ran off down the trail. The fella looked like a street person, was very thin, and not particularly athletic appearing. After he ran off, the two men with him told us about the rim-to-rim race and this guy in particular. He had run rim-to-rim so many times they had lost count, but the man had not. He was quite a self-promoter and made sure everybody knew all about his accomplishment and the number of times he had run rim-to-rim. He claimed to hold the record for the fastest time run for each segment of the race, but that claim was disputed by other runners. He was a legend in his own mind, but to park rangers, he was annoying!

During our time in the general store that afternoon, several sweaty, exhausted runners came in the store for a drink of water and energy bar, then headed back out to finish their run. That race is brutal. It’s almost the length of a marathon plus it’s half downhill and half up. A change in altitude of over 4000 feet occurs, also. Ruts, rocks, steps, and mule droppings are all parts of the trail runners must watch for. Stumbling is not a good thing. Such obstacles have to be avoided, or met cautiously, or an ankle or foot injury will knock you out of the race. Plus all the pounding and trauma aggravates your knees, ankles, and feet.

Back to the strange man. I learned later, from reading the fascinating book, “Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon,” this fellow was called Maverick. He had an incredible ego and was quite a narcissistic self-promoter. He hoped to get his name in “The Guinness Book of World Records” by running rim-to-rim a record number of times. In 2006, alone, he did it 106 times. When he reached the age of 80, however, his physical abilities declined, and he became depressed. He actually became suicidal and shot himself in the head, but not before he also shot his wife in the head while she was asleep. Investigators theorized he was despondent and so narcissisistic that if he died, he thought his wife couldn’t live without him so he shot her first. After killing her, he called “911,” then shot himself. What a story. And we saw that guy!

Seeing the Grand Canyon “intimately” like we did gives me a real sense of accomplishment. I’ve done something only a few people have done. It was an experience I will never forget. It was hard to take it all in. From the south rim you can feel the awesome size of the Grand Canyon. Leaving the rim and actually walking down into the canyon is whole other dimension of awe! Walking on the South Kaibab, I began to feel a unique attachment to the trail and the whole canyon. With each step, my excitement increased, and I felt differently about where I was. The canyon became a part of me. I felt a new closeness to this most amazing of nature’s wonders. 

It’s massive size, it’s expansive vistas, it’s multi-colored geological layers, and it’s ability to make you feel an attachment to it are all part of its attraction and intrigue. Did water erosion really carve this mammoth hole? Did earthquakes or other natural disasters form this huge crater? Why is it even there? What is its significance to man? It accepts many men into its mysteries, while rejecting others who don’t respect its awesome power and danger. I never felt fear at the canyon, but we recognized it for the dangerous place it can be and were well-prepared; at least, most of us were. It made the hike much easier and the journey a real pleasure. Here I was at one of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders, taking it in and becoming a part of it. It’s an accomplishment of which I am very proud. 

Putting my feelings into words is very difficult, but it ranks with the most awesome events of my life. The excitement and the memories from it are still clear in my mind. Of course family events take precedence, but it ranks with events like the start of my first Indy 500, the Masters practice round trip, or the first day of medical school. Hiking the Grand Canyon fits right in with all those events and will always be remembered for commitment, organization, and perseverance. When given the opportunity, there was no way I would pass it up. 

Reference: Ghiglieri MP, Myers TM, Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon, 2nd Ed., Flagstaff, AZ:Puma Press; 2012.

William M. Gilkison MD 

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