I started my Choices blog in November 2007, and one of my very first posts was entitled The Bucket List. And first on the list was climbing down into the Grand Canyon. For the life of me I can’t tell you why that was such a prominent item. I do know after finally completing the climb down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, spending the night at Phantom Ranch, and then climbing back up this November 16 and 17 2016, it would have been much better to erase that item from my list and move on to less rigorous and dangerous endeavors.
One of my friends completed the climb a few years ago. She warned me not to take the steeper though shorter trail, Kaibab, but to go on the so-called “less steep” Bright Angel trail, which we did. She mentioned the steepness but not the trail’s narrowness and the very rocky and slippery terrain (perhaps when she was at the Grand Canyon the trail was less rocky). It goes without saying how close the trail is to massive cliffs on one side.
Though none of the above dissuaded me from going, had I known the dangers of going down on a mule – my husband’s chosen mode of descent – I would have crossed the Grand Canyon trip off my list without missing a beat.
The morning of November 16, my husband Bob and our friend David met at the mule corral, got the indoctrination and mule-riding instructions from the wranglers who would be going down with them, declined the offer to back out before leaving with a full refund, and started their journey. David’s wife Lisa and I began our climb down on foot about ten minutes later.
Within about 500 yards Bob began to feel a pain in his gut which he says was caused by the horn of the mule’s saddle bumping into him as they trotted down the trail. This bumping and jostling kept on until they reached their first resting point – Indian Garden – about half way to the bottom. When the wrangler said Bob could get off the mule, Bob told him he couldn’t move. David and the wrangler had to practically lift him off and take him over to a place to sit down because Bob could not walk on his own.
The wranglers said Bob’s condition was caused by dehydration. Well yes, he was dehydrated but not from the lack of enough fluid in-take on the way down, but because he was bleeding internally, caused by the constant bruising and his regime of blood thinners. The wrangler immediately caused a helicopter to take Bob back up to the rim, where he was met by an ambulance that took him to the Flagstaff Medical Center about an hour away. That quick action saved my husband’s life.
I knew nothing about what happened until Lisa and I arrived at the bottom and David said, “I’m sorry to tell you Bob is not here,” as he explained Bob’s situation. I was able to talk to Bob briefly from a not so reliable land line pay phone at the ranch that night, but couldn’t get a connection the next morning. As a result I wasn’t able talk to him or see him until we all climbed out of the canyon – David on a mule and Lisa and I on foot – and we arrived in Flagstaff about seven in the evening of November 17.
Bob’s recovery was slow because he had lost so much blood. Sometimes I thought he was taking one step forward and two steps back during his seven days in the ICU. But when he was finally promoted to the Step Down Unit, where he stayed another three days, I knew he was on the road toward home.
I cannot thank Lisa and David enough for staying with me in Flagstaff for the entire time Bob was in the hospital, making sure I had a good meal every night, bringing me tea in the mornings, and for driving us home. We all admitted that none of us knew enough of what we were getting ourselves into when we decided to tackle the Grand Canyon. That we all survived the nightmare that experience turned out to be is a miracle. We kept saying, “We are all lucky to be alive.”
I’ll write more about what the actual climb down and up were like another time. One thing is for certain, the beauty of the scenery didn’t make up for the treachery of the climb in either direction – on foot or by mule.
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