Some of the best experiences come from spontaneity and a lack of planning, but then again, so do some of the worst. This experience in the Grand Canyon falls in the latter category, but like all painful but non-fatal lessons, it can be considered a cheap seminar on how do to things better next time. In some ways I provide this as a warning, in others because I’m very curious what happened to my body and how close I was to collapse, rescue or even death. I never felt that close to real danger, but then again, I was throwing up a lot…
A Little Background
Experience in the Grand Canyon? Yes!
Kam (my girlfriend) and I have been to the Grand Canyon many times. We’ve done pretty much every trail you can access from the South Rim, a few from the North, done Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) multiple times, etc. We know this canyon, if mostly during fall, winter and spring, and felt safe in it. Perhaps we took it for granted.
Experience with Heat? Yes!
I had hiked in Borrego Springs in 117 degree heat. I had done Cactus to Tram (up Skyline Trail) out of Palm Springs twice on a day when it peaked at well over 100 degrees (this is 18 miles up and over 17,000′ of elevation gain, so it’s meant to sound super impressive). I knew I sweat a lot, but I knew I could take the heat if I stayed hydrated…and had electrolytes and salt.
Physical Fitness? Yes!
I was not formally training for anything, but I had “run” the Leona Divide 50M on April 15 and done the R2R2R with Kam and John on April 30. The R2R2R hike was nearly as long in one day, and had more total elevation gain and loss, than this entire three-day hike from New Hance to South Kaibab. I was actually a bit beat up after the failed training and injury prior to Leona and the knee pain from R2R2R, but in terms of overall fitness, I was great.
In other words, we run, hike, spin and generally work out regularly. I am not a fast runner, or fast anything, but I have endurance and strength. In fact, one of the reasons why I think I made it out of the Canyon on this hike was that my body was in better shape than most. The reason I nearly didn’t was that I sweat more than most (a lot more).
Self Awareness? Yes!
Did I mention the sweat? Yeah, it’s not a good thing. In a regular spin class I’ll lose 5-7 lbs/hr no problem. If I don’t re-hydrate and consume electrolytes, I’m not much use after that. I did try yoga once right afterward and, while it may be funny to watch a man seize during Downward Dog, it does not improve flexibility. This issue has plagued me my entire life, even when I didn’t know what the problem was. I simply cannot go the same distance on the same water and salt as others. I know this. Why I didn’t remember is a bit baffling.
Safe to Go? Not so Much
I think about this hike every time I see someone on TV or in an article being interviewed about why they did some dumb ass thing that got them in trouble:
“Why didn’t you bring the extra fuel?”
“Don’t know. Weight, probably.”
– Every climber, ever
“Why didn’t you tell anyone where you were going?”
“Just didn’t occur to me.”
– Aron Ralston?
“Why didn’t you turn back at the designated time?”
“The peak was just so close.”
– Just about everyone in Into Thin Air
Or, in my case:
“Why didn’t you bring the baggies of pre-packed electrolytes and the salt pills that were in the back of the car with your food?”
“It just didn’t seem necessary…???”
To this day, I don’t get what I was thinking.
Day -1 / Pack for the Mountains
The Thursday before we were set to leave for our hiking and camping adventure, we packed for a hiking and snow camping trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains out of Lone Pine (probably around Mt. Langley). For the geographically challenged, this is nowhere near the Grand Canyon. When we saw that a storm was imminent with high winds and poor visibility, we made a last-minute decision to go to the Grand Canyon instead. This meant that on the Saturday morning after we got to the Grand Canyon, we had to re-pack everything in the back of the car for warm/dry weather rather than cold/wet weather. I swear it made sense at the time.
Day 0 / Drive to the Desert
On Friday, we left work early in our pre-packed car and drove 8-9 hours to the Grand Canyon, getting to the hotel in Tusayan (just south of the South Rim) around 10 pm, I think. This is pretty normal for us, but it’s undeniably draining and you end up dehydrated and stiff no matter how well you try to avoid it.
Day 1 / Hike into the Grand Canyon
We left our hotel in Tusayan in no particular hurry and made our way to the Backcountry Information Center in the Grand Canyon Village to get information about trail conditions and water sources. They were helpful, if a bit confused, and honestly, they didn’t seem terribly confident about the information they were giving us. We put marks on the map where “someone” had “recently” told them there was water, but even then it didn’t feel right. Clearly, there was some guesswork going on, but I figured that even if they were wrong 50% of the time, there was still plenty of water.
We drove from the Backcountry Office to the General Store to pick up metal mesh squirrel food storage bags (yes, the Canyon’s squirrels are freaking savages) and some last minutes supplies. Then we took the long drive to the trailhead and parked in a small pullout on the side of Desert View Dr. (Hwy 64). Some quick re-packing and re-re-packing, and we were off.
Down the New Hance to the Colorado River
The New Hance Trail is a crumbly affair that switchbacks around broken layers of the south rim and into a lower creek wash with great determination. You get down and you get down quickly. It’s actually less of a trail than a guideline with the usual misleading cairns and rockfalls. (On a side note completely unrelated to this hike, it’s almost impossible to follow the upper section after a few inches of snow). It’s not that technical, but in heavy packs the trekking poles were definitely necessary to protect ankles and knees.
Once we made the saddle, the trail become more green and sheltered, and more easily followed. It was green and beautiful and the sky was remarkably clear, but it was also hot. The breeze was entirely gone, and the temperature rose rapidly as we descended.
After reaching the Red Canyon wash, we came across three people resting under a large rock in the riverbed. The heat had become truly oppressive, and would turn into an oven right after that as the canyon narrowed, so we took a break with them and chatted. We later saw them at the river where they camped and we refilled our water bladders.
The temperature in the narrow part of Red Canyon was well over 100 degrees and felt much hotter. I remembered thinking that I didn’t expect that much heat, or to feel it getting to me so quickly. It was a heavy, palpable thing.
The river was a wondrous thing, cold and wholly out of place in the heat-distorted canyon. I’m not sure I was dehydrated at this point. We had been drinking a lot and we took in a lot of fresh, cold water. I just know that I had not taken in any electrolytes or salts because I didn’t have any.
Below, you can see the trail segment from the Colorado River to campground 1. Google Maps will not show the complete correct trail before or after this part of the Tonto for some reason (I blame the squirrels), so I can’t show the full distance from start to finish–a common problem with Google in the backcountry (Don’t rely on it).
Colorado River to Campground I under Horseshoe Mesa
I can’t say I felt great on the hike up the river on the Tonto Trail as we started the long, climbing contour toward the bottom of Horseshoe Mesa, but I didn’t feel any worse than I often do for random reasons. We just hiked and hiked and waited for the sun to go down. When it dipped behind the Canyon walls, the temperature dropped and our spirits lifted in perfect synchrony. This was more like it.
We made camp under a darkling purple sky, had a little food and water, and settled in.
Well, first we had to build a tiny stone food storage facility because the General Store had only had one medium sized mesh bag. We started with large rocks, then filled in the cracks then the holes until you could have stored water in there. You know, if we had some. In the morning, the food was 99.5% fine, but one little varmint had squirmed through the rocks, nibbled through my Sil bag, through a Ziploc, through a wrapper, and taken the tiniest little bite of a Starburst. Kudos.
I was a little baffled by what happened to my body after we lay down. I had taken in food, including salty snacks and water. The temperature had dropped from hot to warm and quite pleasant. I felt like I should have been recovering.
What happened instead was that every single muscle in my body started to cramp. My quads went first, then my hamstrings would seize, and then another muscle group would go. My jaw seized shut for a minute. The muscles in my neck cramped. My freaking toes seized up so badly my little toe started shaking (poor little thing). I don’t know how Kam slept at all because this lasted for hours until I just gave up and let the cramps win.
Until then, the pain was quite interesting. I had to knead each offending muscle brutally with my knuckles, once I got my hands to release, but in the time between knot formation and grinding and release, there were some precious words spoken under my breath. It just went on and on and I never recovered.
Oddly, when the cramps started, I wasn’t that concerned; a similar thing had happened when I ran a half marathon distance on the beach in hot, humid weather with no water at all and for no particular reason. I had collapsed on the living room floor for a while, but after water and crackers, it all went away quickly enough. This time? It only went away when I surrendered and just let the good times roll.
I would later look up what had happened to me on the internet, which is really useful if you have an infinite amount of time to filter out the nonsense. This was the best (if not the simplest) explanation I found:
“Delayed dilutional hyponatremia occurs when dehydration shock has occurred and the patient probably has had severe gut ischemia with minimal water absorption in the intestinal area. The patient now consumes a large quantity of water or exercise drink. Add that to what was stored in the gut and you have a high level of hypotonic fluids. You rest, your gut is no longer ischemic and releases hypotonic fluid into the bloodstream, diluting sodium levels, and bingo you start seizing in camp, long after the hike is over.” – Sherrie Collins, Chief, Branch of Emergency Services
So, mystery solved; I was by this point substantially hyponatremic (short on salt) and probably dehydrated (short on water) as well. An audit of my food stores, carefully protected inside my new metal mesh bag, would have revealed lots of carbs and sweets, but very little in the way of salty snacks and no electrolytes or salt pills. Pretty much the opposite of what I needed.
When the sun threatened to rise, I started licking my lips just because they were dry–but the salt was like manna. While Kam slept peacefully beside me in her wee little bag, I licked my hands and arms and then my legs. There was some dirt there. I’m not proud. It was delicious, which is to say that I was delicious; my own personal salt lick. And yes, I did feel a little better afterward. I thought about licking Kam, but there wasn’t enough salt there to risk the reaction, explanation or counseling.
Day 2 / The Oven Wins
I can’t describe how I felt that morning without using profanity and some highly illogical metaphors. If I were to describe it, the word “fresh” would not appear, but a large number of testicular references would feature prominently. Suffice it to say, I was not overjoyed to greet the new day.
I cracked my joints apart and stutter-stumbled out of the tent, bent over as my back seized, and started laughing. I wasn’t dead, so it was all just funny. When I could stand I tried to pee. This was more painful than productive, but still funny and the sunrise was lovely and our campground offered a splendid view of the South Rim and the Tonto Plateau running east to west.
Water was only a few miles away, and even if I couldn’t stomach food now, I would be able to after taking in more water. It was all going to be just fine.
Campground I to Cottonwood Campground and Water
At Cottonwood, water was plentiful in the sun had not yet made it completely into this side canyon on the west flank of Horseshoe Mesa. From the Campground, the Tonto continued west and another trail led up toward the mesa neck, Grandview Trail and the South Rim. We never considered taking this relatively easy way out.
Cottonwood Campground to the Shady Rock
The sun came up and I realized we were not friends. I went from an easy pace to breathing heavily, from long casual steps to heavy plodding in what seemed like minutes. It got hotter and hotter and I realized I was practically hyperventilating. Fortunately, at this point we happened across a tumble of rock and probably the only shade on the trail. I surprised Kam by suggesting we stop, and I crawled into the cool protection of the beautiful, kind, gentle rock of shady love.
I could not catch my breath. It just wouldn’t come. I ate. I drank, but nothing helped. We decided to wait a few hours until the heat diminished slightly, and then we started up again.
My Beautiful Shady Rock to Last “Water” Source
Things changed after the shady rock. It went from a hike to a slot to a death march in pretty short order. My stomach was never stable, and I could never catch my breath — I would be hyperventilating from this point until the Rim the next day, more than 24 hours, even when lying down in the tent.
i thought I was dehydrated and went through my water quickly, thinking there were two or three water sources between there and camp, or at least two. The first was completely dry, and I was a bit disappointed. The second was un-filterable wet mud, and I was a bit angry. From then on we just moved. There was no pleasure in it. The view was unchanging walls and sky; the trail wove endlessly up and down and in and out of canyon washes. My feet burned in my shoes and I suddenly and very distinctly realized I had nothing salty to eat. It was a low moment.
It would get lower. In the sweltering midday heat, we arrove at the last marked water resource before camp. There was nothing; no water, no spring, no wetness and nothing but nothing and rocks. I sat despondently on the creekbed bank and tried to figure out if we were in trouble.
I was out of water, but Kam had some and some electrolytes. She shared a little and then decided to search upstream for water. I thought it was a fool’s errand and she would just waste water and energy, but she came back with good news a short time later; she had found water. Not good water, but water. All worry left me.
Some fun facts about this water. First, it was so far up the creek bed that it was invisible from the trail and there was no other evidence of water anywhere. Second, it was trickling down from a puddle above that was 90% covered in a thick layer of viscous slime. Third, it was utterly saturated with little black polliwogs all desperately trying to survive the tepid heat of their shrinking world. Lastly, while we had ultraviolet SteriPENs to kill bacteria in the water, we had no physical filter to clean the water.
“Are the polliwogs going to grow in my stomach?” Kam asked.
“Well, not for long,” I responded. “Unless they’re really tenacious, and then maybe. Is that a problem?” I could have been more helpful, but I was too busy being impressed I could say tenacious without slurring.
After we had drunk 2-3 liters of water and filtered another 3-5 liters each (I don’t really remember) into our bladders, we slowly left the “spring” and headed toward camp II. They key point here is that this was the last water we’d get until we reached the Rim, and that while I’d taken in more water (I was less dehydrated), I had taken in no real salt (I was more hyponatremic).
Last Water Source to Campground II
It was roughly midday and at least 95 in the shade when we slogged out of wherever the heck we were. I have very little recollection of this part of the hike. I know it was slow and awful, but I was less concerned than just bummed out. I had really let Kam down, and felt badly that my energy level was so low.
I do remember an odd obsession with Duff Beer from The Simpsons. I realized somewhere that Duff was probably a play on the term Dumb Ugly Fat Friend (DUFF) and that Duff Beer was basically just a play on the term ‘beer goggles’ meaning that Duff Beer makes everyone beautiful.
Duff Beer, I thought, Duff Beer.
Duff, Duff, Duff…
And that made me think of fact that Joe Simpson couldn’t get “Brown Girl in the Ring” out of his head when he was crawling across a glacier in Peru on the verge of death, and that it nearly drove him insane. Or more insane. Who can tell at that point? I think a lot about people like Joe when I’m having a bad day, because, damn.
Duff, Duff, Duff…
Honestly, a cold beer of any kind would have been delicious.
Kam was cheerful as always and kept offering me her electrolytes. I started taking them, and it really helped, if only to get rid of the taste of slowly dying polliwogs and slime. There wasn’t nearly enough to make a difference with the advancing hyponatremia.
Because Kam was smaller and sweats far less, she simply wasn’t experiencing any discomfort other than a very natural response to my body odor. I readily admit to being ashamed of how badly I was doing, and how much I was slowing her down. So I pushed on, trying to keep a good pace and I think doing a good job, until the machine just broke down. I’m the machine in that metaphor if you’re wondering, the giant sweaty white machine.
I started throwing up rather suddenly about half mile out of camp 2. The nausea came on almost instantly, and after that point my energy was just gone. I could not keep any sort of reasonable pace, and could not drink or eat without throwing up even more. The water issue was probably more likely related to the horrible stink and taste of the water itself, but the reason was irrelevant; I had to get to camp before I could start to recover.
By the time we made camp, I was a bit useless. I did what I could to help setup the tent and generally contribute, but mostly I was too slow and weak to help. I remember staring a rock for a long time and thinking how proud it must be to just sit there on the trail like that, all stony and cold as if it owned the place. I tried to kick the rock, but it hurt so I left it alone and retreated.
I could barely eat anything, and when I finally did, I threw it up immediately. I could drink but only in sips and I wasn’t thirsty enough to care. I just crawled into the tent and grumbled. Fortunately, it was a cooler night and my body no longer had the energy to cramp, so sleep was better. I’m not saying good, but it was non-zero, which was a step in the right direction.
Dawn was a sweaty fist down my throat and a knife in my eyes, but it was still not the worst thing I can remember. No real breakfast, not much water, and we were off.
Campground II to South Kaibab Trail Junction
Kam started giving me individual, highly salty corn nuts, which I could keep down if I ate one every five minutes or so. It helped. Honestly, I felt better than the day before in almost every way except for the waves of nausea. Is this what it’s like to be pregnant, I wondered? Yeah, probably.
After a long while we came to a surprisingly steep descent into Cremation Canyon, followed by a set of steep switchbacks on the way up. I crushed this bit. No idea why, but I felt fine. I made it to the top and waited for Kam, and then we moved on at the first good pace since the previous morning. This wasn’t going to be so bad after all. I think I started singing and it was probably “I am the Walrus” so definitely had what happened next coming.
I stumbled on a rock about a half mile east of the junction and that one, simple thing put enough pressure on my system to tear it all down. I threw up and I slowed way, way, way down. I threw up a bit more. The bathrooms came into view. I threw up the last little corn nut. Bye, little buddy.
We made it to the bathrooms, and I stumbled into the shade under the stairs, and tried to cool off. God it was hot. Someone offered me a gummy, but that wasn’t going to work. It reminded me of my friend Huy for some reason and I wanted to punch him. I’m not sure the two things are related, but it was a hard moment. Then I wanted to hug him because I felt bad and I wanted to cry.
I stumbled around the side to be less obvious in my spiritual turmoil and sat in a small swath of shade facing the South Kaibab Trail and a group of mule riders. Look at all you rich people and your silly mules, I thought. Will you be my friend? They were not my friends.
Kam appeared at some point and offered me a doughnut (one of mine, oddly enough, just a tiny bit) and I wasn’t sure but she looked so excited. So I put it in my mouth. I tried to throw up my liver this time. Organs strained to be released. Ribs ached. I fell to my knees and my eyes watered, and I drank them because, well, salt. Kam didn’t offer me anymore donuts.
As this went on for the better part of an hour, people looked at me with perplexity (not a single person asked if I was okay, which was interesting) and Kam convinced me to give her the tent I had been carrying. Or maybe it was earlier. Suffice it to say, all manliness had long since gone out the door. The tent passed wordlessly to her and I stared between my legs as ants tried to eat my calves. More power to them. I wondered if they were salty. I remembered sinking them on broken up Lego ships as a child as they screamed and stank like burning plastic. Was this vengeance? Still, they might be salty.
Up the South Kaibab
I have climbed from the junction with the Tonto to the South Kaibab trailhead at the South Rim more than a dozen times in all seasons except mid-summer. I’ve run a lot of it in a heavy pack. It’s only about 5 miles, but it does go up a lovely 3k’. In decent shape, it should take under two hours without much effort. It took more than eight (yes, I said eight), but there was a lot of fun along the way.
When we left the bathrooms at the junction around 11 am, I was hoping that the excitement of almost being there would be motivational. It was not. Every footstep was painful and slow. I was struggling to catch my breath while resting in the shade, let alone walking, so it came down to a long and and repeated process:
- Take 3-10 steps (depending on the height of each step)
- Curse the steps
- Try to hide in the shade (usually impossible)
- Curse the rocks
- Catch my breath (ha ha)
- Try not to vomit (mostly, successful because not much left)
- (Every half-hour or so, take a longer break to lie down and recover)
- (Try really hard to stand up again)
- (Curse everything)
Now imagine that each step in that nested sequence takes several seconds and involves a slight pause each time, and you get a feeling for how long this could take. We were passed by children, old men, mules, more old men, more mules, a Ranger, more people and so on until it was so late that there was no one left to pass us. We topped out in the cool twilight of the Rim just after 7 pm.
Wait, I mentioned a Ranger. He caught up to us below Cedar Ridge and asked if we were all right. Kam mentioned that I needed water. He said there was an emergency cache at the Ridge and he’d alert the other Ranger we were coming. Good news. We trudged on in the afternoon heat.
Some more mules passed and, after a while, we arrived at the Ridge. The mules were still there, but the Ranger was not; apparently, he or she had been called away to help someone else and I had been forgotten. Awesome. I lay down under a tree, a bit bummed, but we were so close to the top it was just one more minor obstacle. My only thought was that Rangers just can’t be trusted. They were wrong in Utah on Kings Peak, they were wrong at the Backcountry Office and they were wrong now. It was an uncharitable thought, but not one I easily pushed away. At least I wasn’t thinking about Duff Beer.
Duff, duff, duff…
Kam approached the mule team and asked them if they had any spare water. They did, and it was cold, some had ice and it was wonderful. Thank you! I can’t thank you enough. It was not much, less than a liter, but the cold, clean water was a bit of a miracle and the tiny slivers of ice were orgasmic. They told Kam that they had thought about asking us if we needed water earlier, but we “looked like we knew what we were doing.” Wow. I’d hate to see the other guy.
At this point, I gave my sleeping bag to Kam to carry, and we continued on.
I could go on, but there is little point. It did not improve. I lay down for a while at Ooh Ahh Point. I rested and sat down on every subsequent switchback or trail change. And then, at long last, there were those last final steps to the top. I was fine.Just like that, it was all fine. I was looking forward to pizza and coke and Gatorade and fries and all manner of things. I was dreaming about air conditioning and soft seats, TV and bed. And we were almost there. Amazing. What a great adventure.
We caught a cab from the SK trailhead to the car, which took an inordinately long time at 35 mph. The nausea returned in no time. I literally fell out at the pullout and started throwing up again for a while. I think I showed real commitment during this session. There was someone asleep in the car behind ours, but he did not wake. I threw up some more and then, finally, it was done. Grand finale? Check.
Kam drove us back to the hotel and I crawled up the stairs to the room and showered while she went to get pizza and other goodies. I was barely conscious when she returned. I ate once slice of pizza, one bottle of coke, some Gatorade, a little salt, and I was done. That was it. There was no buffet to be had. I wished I had a saline drip.
Recovery and Contemplation
I couldn’t really eat anything the next day and all rational efforts at healthy recovery were gone. I drank water with electrolytes all day, but nutritionally, the only thing I could stomach were McDonald’s hash browns smothered in salty ketchup. We stopped at every McDonald’s, and I ate twenty-one (21) delicious, greasy, salty hash browns between Tusayan and San Diego, along with some rice and orange chicken in Barstow. I was still down 12 pounds when I weighed myself the next morning (day 5).
I’m not sure what I weighed when I made it out of the Canyon. I went in at around 208 pounds and came out at something way under 196. I suspect I was closer to 188, which meant I lost nearly 10% of my total body weight and an even worse percentage of my needed sodium. By all measures, I was in bad shape. Some websites say I should have died, but then again, internet.
What always struck me most about this trip was how quickly it went wrong, and how hard it was to recover. We could have hiked at night, and we considered it, but the trail was bad enough that it seemed a bit dangerous. We could have exited at Grandview (from the Cottonwood Campground), but I didn’t really understand how bad I was doing at that point.
The second thing I remember was that I never felt like giving up, and never panicked; it was just awful and it would be awful until it was done. I’m not saying I was perky, but I was fine. It seemed like the kind of thing you’re supposed to experience as you train for ultras. I’m not recommending it, but most of the world has it a lot worse every day.
Which makes the third thing most strange; it took me months to recover emotionally. I was just shell-shocked, beaten down, humbled and low. I’ve never felt that place before except when I was getting divorced, and I couldn’t process it. Where was this leaden melancholy coming from? Where was my courage and enthusiasm? Where had I gone?
But enough of that. Let’s talk about sweat, heat, water and salt. Hurray!
What the Heck is Hyponatremia?
- Hyponatremia on Wikipedia
- Hyponatremia on Mayo
- Exertional Hyponatremia Blog Post (Grand Canyon). I really should have read this before going into the Grand Canyon on a hot weekend.
A Few Pictures (None of them good)
There are more here on Google Photos. Thanks, Kam, for dragging me through the canyon…