(Almost) There and Back Again: What I’ve Learned From My Hiking Misadventures
Whether it's hiking in the Grand Canyon or climbing dangerous mountains, I’ve made some brave and unwise decisions that have led to personal growth.
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea,” my friend said, with a tone that really meant, “You’ve got shit for brains.”
I’ve made questionable choices. Many of us have in our early 20s. I’m not sure what you’re imagining for yours, but what I experienced was less forgiving, more powerful and indescribably more wonderful than any night of partying or one-night stands that might occupy top spots on a typical 24-year-old’s list of regrets. (I had those too, but they didn't make the cut).
I’m talking about experiences with Mother Nature herself. Have you ever spent time with her, away from everything? It’s the absolute best, but you damn sure better know what you’re doing. With this sentiment in mind, my friend advised me against my latest idea: hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day.
Googling “day hiking at the Grand Canyon” has this top result from the National Park Service: “Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year. The difference between a great adventure in the Grand Canyon and a trip to the hospital (or worse) is up to YOU. DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day, especially during the months of May to September.”
Naturally, I went in June. I couldn’t get a permit to stay overnight and therefore do a multi-day rim-to-rim trip. So I did the next best, far less intelligent thing and decided to hike down to the river and back in one day. In June, when temperatures inside the canyon can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The trail was 7.8 miles, one way. While the elevation change is just shy of one vertical mile, the merciless switchbacks take you down almost four miles to the plateau.
I had plenty of backcountry hiking experience, all the gear and was in great cardiovascular condition. I thought heat stroke, exhaustion and a helicopter rescue wouldn’t happen to me because I knew, theoretically, what I was getting into and was prepared, theoretically, for the challenge. I was lucky to make it out safely.
Doing the Grand Canyon Rim to River Hike in One Day
My descent began at 4:30 a.m., past the sign that read “Down is optional. Up is mandatory.” National Park Service, you tried your best. I practically ran and reached the bottom by 10 a.m. after lollygagging to eat a second breakfast at Indian Gardens. This is where Havasupai families used to spend parts of the year near the ever-present, forested creek before Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson evicted them from their ancestral homelands in the early 1900s for the park’s creation. The trail I hiked is what Havasupai people utilized to get up and down the canyon regularly.
It was positively stunning down there.
Sure enough, “up” was really fucking hard. The sun was relentless, the trail much steeper than the way down (I swear) and the nine liters of water I drank never enough. Eventually, I rested on a rock at every other switchback corner, questioning my abilities until I realized I was leap-frogging two fit-as-fuck young guys resting on every other switchback corner that I was. The validation helped.
At one point, an out-of-place mechanical noise cut through the canyon’s silence: a helicopter. Looking like a fly against the backdrop of the North Rim, it descended near Indian Gardens and sat for 20 minutes before taking off. A rescue, I figured. One of the 250 that occurs annually for people like me who bite off more than they can chew. As I said, I was lucky. That day, the internal canyon temps reached only 85 degrees. It was over 110 degrees on both the days before and after.
By 3 p.m., I emerged to throngs of tourists and buses, in stark contrast to the quiet nature below. The hike was incredibly difficult and I will never do it again. I don’t recommend it. My body was crashing as I dragged myself back to my tent. I felt ill and napped until evening. Still, I was proud of myself. I still am, with the caveat that it was inadvisable. My body successfully carried me in and out of one of the most amazing places on the planet, to a place most people never see.
- Mother Nature holds the cards.
- My body is amazing and can do really hard things.
You Can’t Be Too Prepared When It Comes to Hiking
The next summer, I learned another valuable lesson about backpacking. I was doing an overnight trip in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas. I climbed switchbacks, ate lunch on a rock next to a rattlesnake that I didn’t see until I was leaving and kept watch for a mountain lion that had been spotted on the trail every day for two weeks.
Towards evening, the sun suddenly vanished behind angry, reddish-gray clouds. The wind picked up and within minutes, a raging thunderstorm was on top of me. I covered my pack with its waterproof cover but had nothing for myself. At higher elevation, surrounded by nothing but scraggly trees and rocks, there were few options for protection from lightning. As quickly as it arrived, the storm passed. Once again, Mother Nature dealt me a kind hand. It was warm and I dried off quickly as I hiked. I got stormed on twice more.
I pitched camp, made dinner and got comfy in my tent. Here’s the inadvisable thing I’d done: I left my tent’s rainfly in the car. Why? To save two pounds. I knew it got cold in the desert at night and thought my sleeping bag and layers would suffice. Forceful winds barrelled straight through the mesh of my tent. It was dark. Like, really dark. Big Bend is one of the best places for stargazing in the country and has the least light pollution of any National Park in the lower 48 states.
I don’t remember the stars that night, because I was too busy freaking out about every sound and feeling incredibly vulnerable and exposed. Does the orange piece of nylon that is my rainfly really protect me from anything detecting me? Practically, no. Psychologically, absolutely. I eventually fell asleep, knife in hand, imagining ancient supernatural creatures that roamed the mountains at night that would get me, all because I didn’t have my rainfly. Never again.
Lesson learned: When you’re backpacking, every ounce counts. But for the love of Gaia, don’t skimp on shelter.
Realizing It’s OK to Quit
Years passed. Wiser, I became. I met my now-spouse, and while we’ve had a couple of instances of being not entirely prepared, we put into practice the lessons we learned from our younger days.
Like, sometimes it’s better to quit.
I quit my trek through Bryce Canyon, dragging my sorry self off the trail at night and catching a ride back to the visitor center from a kindly British couple. I checked into a nearby KOA, showered and relaxed in my tent watching Netflix on the campground’s WiFi. Was it the backcountry, badass experience I’d planned? Absolutely not, but it’s what I needed.
Similarly, my spouse and I made the smart decision to abandon summiting Mt. Marcy, New York, halfway up when we ran into two French Canadians coming down the mountain. When we had planned our “autumn” trip up the tallest mountain in the state, we didn’t know it’d be 15 degrees Fahrenheit and that the treeless, rocky summit was encased in snow and ice. The descending Canadians noted our lack of ice axes and asked if we at least had crampons. We did not.
“Well, be very careful, there are two feet of snow covered in ice at the top,” they gently warned, but what I saw in their eyes was, “You’re gonna die.” We left and found a bed and breakfast in Lake Placid instead. Another lesson from this trip: Do your research.
How Hiking Lessons Translate to Real Life
The “deadliest” mountain in America is Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. At its 6,288-foot elevation, it’s hardly the size that matters. Mt. Rainier, the second “deadliest” mountain, stands at 14,411 feet, and Denali, the third, with a 20,308-foot elevation, would be taller than Mt. Everest at sea level.
So what gives? “Deadliest” is in quotes because it’s not the mountain’s fault, it’s the unprepared hikers'. Plenty of folks stroll up Mt. Washington for a day hike without knowledge and the necessary gear to survive the sudden ice storms and flashing 100 mph wind gusts. I roll my eyes at the bumper stickers that say “My Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” Cool, you sat there, hit the gas pedal and steered as a powerful engine did the hard work. I’m not knocking anyone who drives to gorgeous places, but is it an accomplishment?
Even with my mistakes, hard-learned lessons and close encounters, these adventures have been times of intense personal growth and self-discovery. I still take pride in my accomplishments and have some good stories. And I know sometimes it’s better to quit, adapt and go with Plan B.
When I emerged from the trail at the Grand Canyon, a woman asked me to take her family’s picture by the trailhead and she took mine. “We went down to that arch,” she explained, and I remembered the landmark I’d passed before it was 5 a.m. “How far did you go?” she asked me as she snapped my photo. I smiled.
“All the way.”