The Very Dangerous Grand Canyon Hike: Here’s What Happened (Outdoor Diary)

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Amy bushatz humans outside episdoe 334

You’ve been wondering what happened on the Grand Canyon trail that made it so hard to talk about.

Now, after sitting with the story for more than a week, I’m ready to talk about it. Here’s what went wrong, what I wish I had done differently beforehand and how we can all avoid being part of what causes this kind of problem in the future.

Spoiler alert: honesty is the best policy — with yourself and with others.

Hear the whole story — or at least my side of it. Listen now.


Some of the good stuff:

[:35] I wish this story was about something different

[1:50] Here’s what you need to know about the canyon hike

[3:10] Here’s what training is for

[4:21] How our hike was set-up — and what I should’ve known in advance

[7:35] Here’s where things started getting very dangerous

[9:26] Finished at last

[9:40] The aftermath

[10:38] Two important lessons here

Connect with this episode:

Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

I want to tell you that when I hit the trail at the Grand Canyon’s south rim, I had no idea that I was about to experience a long, dangerous hike to the north rim that stretched 19 hours and included dangerously low levels of water and hypothermia conditions. I want to say that I didn’t see that coming.

But I did. And in many ways, that’s the worst part.

This is the story about my rim to rim Grand Canyon hike on September 30. It is a cautionary tale about following your own intuition, and about the importance of actual preparation for big adventures, most importantly training, and the danger you can put other people in when you purposefully ignore all warnings and do something anyway.

I’m not going to use names in this story. Instead, I’m going to talk about one group of people and two individuals — our road crew, which was a group of hiker friends who knew coming on the hike would create too much of liability for themselves and everyone else and instead decided to be a crew dropping us at the south rim and driving to pick us up in the north; My Friend, the hike organizer, whose birthday we were celebrating through this adventure, and someone im going to refer to as The Other Hiker, a friend of my friend.

First, a little bit about the hike. Stretching 21 miles from the South Rim to the North Rim, the south to north grand canyon trail is considered an extremely challenging hike. It’s not just because it’s very steep, though it most certainly is. You hike 4,852 feet down to the bottom over 7 miles, and then 5,761 feet back up, with over 4,000 of that climb over the last 6 miles. There’s really no way to explain just how steep and long that is so you’re going to have to take more word for it — that’s big.

Then, there’s the heat situation. It was 86 degrees in the hottest part of the canyon, but more than 40 degrees cooler than that at the top when we finished. There was also a dry wind for a lot of this, which we know is super dehydrating.

And of course heat means hydration challenges — drinking electrolytes and supplementing those with salt chews, electrolyte chews, salty snacks. And while there is water along much of the trail piped or available to filter, at about 5.4 miles below the north rim that stops if the water at the final rest stop is turned off, which it was for us, or its too dark to find the water source to filter, also a problem for us. That meant refilling our 2.5 liters for me and 3 liters for the others, then climbing 4,235 feet.

So yeah, it’s challenging. But it’s not impossible. Facing this challenge is why we have training. And of course training is about so, SO much more than just getting your muscles and heart ready for exertion. It’s about learning what big challenges feel like in a fairly controlled environment so when you go into the uncontrolled one, you’re ready. It’s about understanding how you, personally, will react and knowing how to eat and hydrate to keep yourself going. It’s about practicing with your clothes and bags. Training is about getting ready in all the ways.

It’s knowing that while the outdoors is for everyone, some spaces are, themselves, more dangerous than others and that you have to be ready to be there. And if you’re not and you decide to go anyway, you will put lives of others around you at risk or, in the worst case, put at risk the lives of the people who have to rescue you. Understanding that going unprepared into a dangerous place doesn’t make the place ableist and it doesn’t make the people who tell you to prepare ableist –it’s reality.

While the road crew was helping us, I was hiking with my friend and the other hiker. That other hiker had been a friend of mine on social media for a long time, but was a real life, very close friend of my friend, the birthday girl. But over the many weeks before the hike as both my friend and I traded training notes in our group chat, the other hiker told us she wasnt training, that it was too hot where she lived in texas. I was very concerned that she wasnt ready and was going to have a lot of trouble, but she insisted she was. She told my friend she was. And even when she point blank told us the day before “I didn’t train” I still chose to ignore my intuition and believe her.

Although even now I wonder what I really, truly, could’ve done differently at the moment before the hike. Throw a fit and refuse to go? Pull my friend aside and tell her how concerned I was? Tell the other hiker that I simply didn’t believe her?

And so we set off into the canyon at about 5 a.m.

Within 2 miles it became very apparent things were going to be hard, tho the other hiker said she was struggling because of her knees on the decline. That’s a reasonable problem to have, and one faced by even very prepared people — so instead of saying “maybe you need to go back,” my friend and I looked at each other and kept going down. When we hit the bottom, within just a few minutes we encountered a rattle snake on the trail. The other hiker tripped on a rock trying to get away from it, and hit the ground hard. It didn’t help anything, but it also was not the core problem — just icing on the cake.

The core problem was that, as she warned us, she did not train.

The more we hiked, the more of a problem this became. Because she did not train, she bonked hard in the hardest part, depleted from drinking straight water, which you’re advised not to do, and not knowing how she needed to fuel for this particular challenge. Soon she had become so slow, taking so many breaks, that we found ourselves in the hottest part of the canyon at the hottest time of day, which you are specifically warned not to do.

It took us 8.5 hours to get about 12 miles. We spent the next 11 hours going 9 more miles, willing the other hiker up the canyon through encouragement, distraction story telling, waiting, sometimes almost crying, begging, honesty and, ultimately being very cold and scared. We asked multiple times if she wanted to seek the help of a park ranger, who could’ve provided hydration and even a place to stay the night. She insisted we keep going, moving somewhere between .03 and .15 miles at a time between long breaks, often sitting down.

The other hiker simply couldn’t go faster. And no, she should not have been there. Not because going slow is bad, but because going very slow in a situation where you do not have enough water and clothing to support that is dangerous for you and for the people you are with.

The sun set sometime just after 6 p.m., as we were about 5 miles and 3,600 feet below the north rim, with our last water stop behind us. The wind was still hot and dehydrating, and as we crawled the six more hours it would take us to get to the top, the wind died to a breeze and weather moved in. Lightening and thunder crashed above. The temperature dropped and it started to rain. I pulled out my rain jacket, gloves, mittens, hat and neck gaiter. A few hours later I dropped in my emergency hand warmers. And still I was so, so cold — from barely moving and from being wet. Not long after 9 p.m., still 1.5 mile from the top, it started to hail — hard. It was so, so dark and my headlamp barely cut the pitch black expanse as it reflected off the rain and fog.

I was shivering violently at this point, rationing water for hours and no longer feeling able to eat. I was worried about my friend. I was worried about the other hiker. I was worried about ice on the trail. I was worried about the crew waiting for us endlessly on the rim, and how scared they must be. And I, too, was scared. The lightening in the canyon was terrifying, the pitch black darkness hiding the precipitous drops off the side of the canyon and trail. I couldn’t leave my companions, but because I’ve been there before during adventures here in Alaska, I knew how actually, truly, physically dangerous being this cold was becoming. Frankly, I was very scared. I knew what we were doing was very, very dangerous.

And, honestly, I was angry — angry that this other hiker had put us in this circumstance and angry at myself for ignoring my own intuition.

Finally, at about 11:15 p.m., my friend insisted that I hike ahead the last .25 mile because I was shivering so violently. I powered up the trail and to the van within about 15 minutes, finding a crew very grateful to see me and ready with dry layers and gatorade. My friend and the other hiker made it in about 30 minutes later. After some snacks, a hot shower and my roommate and crew member friend heroically killing a spider in the bathroom I went to bed.

I woke up with a dehydration migraine after hours of nightmares about how angry I was at the other hiker. A caffeine, gatorade, tylenol and and motrin cocktail calmed it down. But I felt like raw nerve endings, and any time someone talked to me I started crying. Spending 11 hours in increasing levels of fear capped by being so, so, dangerously cold apparently is not good for your nervous system. When my friend came in the room we just hugged and cried together.

You’re probably wondering how the other hiker was feeling, and Im going to be honest: i dont know. She didnt talk to me, and I didnt talk to her. I had nothing to say — I was still so angry at her for putting us in danger, and so angry at myself for letting her. It was a very uncomfortable six hours in the car. Later that evening when I tried to talk to her in person about what had happened, I found that she’d taken medication and was completely sound asleep. The next day — two days after our harrowing hike — I tried to talk to her on the phone, but she declined, asked to text and then rejected any responsibility for what happened.

But that ending isn’t why I’m telling you this story. Why I’m telling you this is two fold:

First, trust your intuition. If something feels dangerous, or if you feel like a person might be a risk to you for whatever reason: trust it. Trust it even if you’re going to hurt feelings, even if people will think you’re a jerk. Have boundaries and own them. I am still not comfortable with what the fall out would’ve been on the front end from me doing that, but I am certain it would’ve been less dangerous than what happened.

Second, if you are heading out on any adventure ever, be honest with yourself. Are you really, truly ready? Is going creating risk of life for the people with you? For the people who have to rescue you because you are unprepared? Bad things happen, even to the prepared. But you most certainly do not need to create a situation that will harm by not facing reality from the get go.

Well, I dont really have any photos of my trip through the grand canyon, because the other hiker took so many during all of her breaks that I just figured id get them from her later rather than taking my own. My bad. But you can see a photo from just after the fact and ones of plenty other adventures on Humans Outside on Facebook and Instagram. And I want to see your photos, too. Share them with #humansoutside365. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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