Grand Canyon — a hiking challenge for the mostly over-the-hill set
A group of friends, ages 49 to 76, warms up at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
07/19/2014 12:00 AM
07/19/2014 5:14 PM
It wasn’t my idea. Paris was my idea.
But last November, I joined my husband and his buddies — five hoary photographers and a graphic designer, ranging in age from 49 all the way to 76 — in a challenge to hike the Grand Canyon, down to the bottom and back out again.
We called ourselves the Way Out West Gang. The sports and rehab injuries among us could keep chiropractors and orthopedists busy for a year. Whenever we’re together, our dynamic includes chaos and close shaves and aching bones. Who wouldn’t think that’s fun?
Let’s face it. With the possible exception of 49-year-old Melina Mara, the baby of the bunch who was recovering from hip surgery, we were basically a group of variously experienced East Coast city slickers, even though several of our number had previously hiked the Grand Canyon and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
We all tried to train for months on Virginia’s Old Rag Mountain; or at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; or in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. But our real warm-up was crawling through some slot canyons in Utah. Where I came up with my list of Lyden’s rules of hiking. Starting with Rule No. 1: Know where you’re hiking.
On our first afternoon in Escalante, 20 bone-rattling miles off-road down a dirt track, our most exuberant hiker (Robert Reeder, recently recovered from heart surgery) led us along a hike that he thought he recalled from six years earlier. He assured us that it was “a mostly horizontal trail,” with no steep grades of any kind. In fact, there was almost instantly a sharp and confusing slip-slide into a hair-thin slot canyon.
Now, I’ve crawled through catacombs beneath Paris, and I can say that, especially for people of a certain size, a slot canyon is definitely one of those places where you have to inhale — deeply — to make it through the sandstone crevices. My husband, Washington Post photographer Bill O’Leary, thinking that he’d be hiking “horizontally,” was carrying his backpack and his 10-pound Nikon 800-D. Bill is almost 6 feet tall and built like a footballer. He did get horizontal — slithering like a snake through this slot canyon, known as Spooky Gulch for the darkness and the panic-inducing narrow walls. At one point, the opening was narrower than his rib cage.
That afternoon we’d been joined, providentially, by a woman who didn’t want to attempt Spooky alone. She turned out to be a West Yellowstone National Park firefighter with a few days off. Her name was Cindy Champion and, yes, she proved worthy of it.
The problem with Spooky wasn’t just the compressed walls, but the surprise of giant “choke stones” that had tumbled down onto the exit passage. These choke stones, so called because they choke off an opening after a flash flood or a rock slide, were more than six feet high. The only way out was to climb over them, but we had no ropes. So we had to stand on one another’s backs or get a leg up, which made it awfully difficult for the last person out. That was Dayna Smith, age 60-plus, who ran and jumped and pulled herself out in a mighty, unassisted pull-up. I guess all those years of hoisting cameras around had paid off.
We celebrated by — what else? — taking pictures. It was only upon truly exiting Spooky that we discovered that our scrappiest hiker, graphic designer Robert Barkin (the 76-year-old), was missing. He hadn’t told anyone that he was leaving or where he was going, violating Rules 2 and 3. Impatient and feeling crotchety, he’d bolted. (“I was just finding the path back for all of you,” he said later.) The late-fall light was fading. Barkin had no water, no flashlight, no headlamp or GPS device and zero food — nothing. (Violations of Rules 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.) It was possible that he had matches.
We didn’t get hysterical. We’re battle-hardened journalists, after all; most of us have been in pretty tough places, even war zones. But we were discombobulated. I had mental pictures of Barkin with a broken leg, and of course, of James Franco sawing off his arm in the film 127 Hours. But Barkin had no knife. (Violation of Rule 9.) He would just have to gnaw his arm off.
It was getting on toward 5 o’clock. In the gathering dark, Cindy Champion mentioned that in Yellowstone, firefighters have buddies and counts and all kinds of rules to stay found, as the mountaineers say.
Inexplicably, in the rush to “save Barkin,” two of the group took off through another slot canyon, called Peekaboo, and vanished from view and audio range in seconds. That left four of us “canyoneers” to save Barkin.
Barkin’s wife, Susan Biddle, and I volunteered to hike to the rim with the firefighter. “This is difficult,” Champion opined as we struggled to reach the top. She squinted in the fading light to see the stone cairns that identified the best route to the rim. Fortunately, she had brought an extra headlamp, which I put on. Once at the top, we drove her car to the canyon rim and turned the headlights on, hoping that together with the headlamps, they would serve as a beacon.
Meanwhile, Biddle managed, miraculously, to get a signal on her cellphone and dialed Utah Search and Rescue. “My husband’s been missing since Spooky,” she explained.
That’s not all that was missing. I couldn’t help thinking about the fabulous dinner we’d been anticipating at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. But I shouldn’t be so selfish, I chided myself.
Suddenly, I saw O’Leary’s flashlight — actually, his iPhone set to strobe — down in the canyon.
“Did you find Barkin?” I yelled down, my voice floating out into the night.
“Yessssss,” came the faint reply.
Madre de Dios, they had. He had appeared like a ghost on a cliff, and they’d given him directions down. Reeder and Smith, the two who’d gone off separately, had used an iPhone app, “Map My Hike,” to navigate in the dark. Now together, they all struggled up to the rim, with us beaming our various lights at them.
Barkin looked bad. Really bad. He’d been missing for at least an hour and probably longer. Dehydrated and with a nasty bruise, he could hardly speak, stand or walk. Nonetheless, O’Leary had paused (of course) to take a haunting photo as they hiked to the rim. It shows three tiny figures, two with headlamps, peering down from the cliff, etiolated in the manner of a little cave painting — Biddle, Champion and me.
“Been quite an afternoon,” Champion said as she disappeared into the night, heading off to Yellowstone.
With Barkin retrieved, we carried on to the enchanting Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we ate a sumptuous dinner provided by owners Blake Spalding and Jen Castle. Hell’s Backbone Grill is a destination for culinary cognoscenti — if you’re willing to drive four hours from Salt Lake City. We talked about chili creme pots and pumpkin soup, and life and death. Barkin didn’t appear for dinner that night. “Pulling a Barkin” became our shorthand for Rule 10: “Don’t you dare wander off, or there will be hell to pay.”
The next day, we hiked past Anasazi pictographs of gods in headdresses on our way to Lower Calf Creek Falls. The day was warm, the stream water a luscious jade. The sandstone was buffed a tawny red, with sculpted, soaring cliffs all about us. Canyon wrens swooped and chortled overhead. We felt like 12-year-olds. Astonishingly, with a hiking pole, Barkin covered the six miles with us. Slowly. Very slowly. But trek with us he did.
INTO THE CANYON
We had a treat waiting for us at the Grand Canyon. Helen Ranney, development director for the Grand Canyon Association, gave us a private tour of the Kolb Studio. More than 100 years ago, the enterprising Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery, built a five-story home on the South Rim, at the head of the Bright Angel Trail. It has 22 rooms, with heart-stopping views of the canyon from nearly every one.
From this precarious perch, starting in 1905, the Kolbs photographed mule trains and sold the pictures to tourists. In the early days, the brothers ran three miles down to Indian Gardens creek to develop their plates, and three miles back up to make their sales.
The actual hike down South Kaibab Trail was, of course, steep and grueling. It’s 6.5 miles. But everyone made it, stopping to do yoga poses or other stretches and to swoon over the Grand Canyon’s rock formations. My favorite was the Temple of Zoroaster. Just over a decade ago, I met O’Leary after going to Iran to do a piece for The Washington Post magazine on a Zoroastrian shrine in Yazd. So it was easy to imagine that the Zoroaster outcropping was “our” temple. I’m a romantic that way.
Barkin and a few of the others hiked Bright Angel Trail. It’s the original old Indian trail and a longer way in and out, but the descent is thought to be less hard on the knees.
We all straggled in to the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon by mid-afternoon. We grabbed beers and ice packs and clapped each other on the back or stuck aching feet into the rushing Colorado River. For a day and a half, the rustic Phantom Ranch, with its double bunks and double calories (steak or stew) would be our home. A park ranger gave wonderful talks on geology, the Civil War-era explorer John Wesley Powell and the reintroduction of the California condor. I hung on her every word.
When we left, hiking the nearly 10 miles up Bright Angel, Barkin was third to the finish line. Of course, he’d taken off a half-hour earlier without telling anyone (well, maybe his wife) and hadn’t stopped for lunch. But at least Bright Angel is well marked, and we didn’t worry. Too much. I was too busy just breathing, especially on the thousand-feet-an-hour final ascent.
Still, except for wind-blasted cheeks, a sore hip and strange pain in my IT (that’s iliotibial) band — hip-to-knee muscles I hadn’t even known existed — I didn’t suffer any damage. I’d do the whole thing again in a heartbeat.
Probably not with Barkin, though. Unless he was on a leash.
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