Pumped up kicks: Death in the Grand Canyon, part II

By Rick Hinton

My first glimpse of the Grand Canyon was from a terrace at the rear of the hotel. The sight and majesty produced a stupor that everyone seems to experience their first time. The vastness … the colors … the quiet emanating from below was staggering. I couldn’t wait to get on the trail! I was not aware that people had died literally just days before my arrival, continuing on long after I had left. My companions and I bluffed the park rangers into believing we were experienced canyon hikers; we were not. A rookie mistake was setting foot on the South Kaibab Trail much too late in the day, resulting in blindly stumbling into the Phantom Ranch campground under the cover of pitch black darkness; stupid, yet lucky! It was Halloween night.

The second day on the Tonto Trail taught us about heat and how lips crack open when not kept moistened by continual draws of water. We sought shelter until the evening hours, which brought cooler temperatures. We continued our hike toward Hermit Creek. This became our pattern and it worked: rest in the heat of the day and make miles at night.

Resting: The author comfortably resting. (Photos by Rick Hinton)

Those night hikes became my own personal moments of solitude as I pulled far out in front of my friends, enjoying one on one time with the canyon as the moonlight and stars illuminated the thin sliver of trail between rock and cactus. I didn’t use a flashlight … your eyes quickly adapted. Up on the bluffs, canyon donkeys – descendants of the mining days – would watch silently. I was ready for anything. Over each rise I would expect to meet specters of prospectors from the past and the pink canyon rattlesnake that comes out in the cool of the evening. Whispers of the past engulfed those arroyos and desert plains as the canyon slowly gave up its secrets.

On our first trip to the Grand Canyon there were mistakes, yet no one died as a result. On the second trip – more stupidity – yet no one perished. The Canyon quickly places one on a crash course of rationality (if you choose to pay attention) which guarantees your survival. And, with each and every trip, gives a little more of herself in return for your respect. I don’t know how people continue to die there yearly, but sadly they still do. Sudden unexpected deaths are thought to be harbingers for spirits to remain behind at the place of their demise. If this is the case, then the Grand Canyon has a continual supply of new recruits joining those from the past.

We were just poor wayfaring strangers.

On the last day of my second excursion into the Canyon, my friend Chuck and I encountered a young couple making their way into the interior. It was already midday, yet their goal was to make it down to the Colorado River, rest for a short spell, then continue their trek up the trail to the more secluded north rim. All in one day! The girl was doe-eyed and new to hiking. She smiled a lot, but wouldn’t make eye contact. Her boyfriend was brash and boasting, yet also had no hiking experience. They wore shorts and tennis shoes, didn’t have a tent or sleeping bags, no rain gear and carried a small day pack containing a quart of water and a single bag of trail mix. We tried to get them to rethink their plan. They assured us they would be fine and moved down the trail as we moved up.

So many years later I still think of them, wondering if they accomplished their goal, or instead, became a statistic.