Scrappy hikers face canyon challenge

Special to Washington PostJuly 5, 2014 

  • Details: Escalante National Monument and Grand Canyon

    Where to stay

    Boulder Mountain Lodge, 20 state Route 12 N., Boulder, Utah

    A collection of comfortable buildings adjacent to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Dixie National Forest. Rooms from $135 in high season. Luxury suites, which sleep up to four, are $295. Info: 435-335-7460 or boulder-utah.com.

    Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon

    Cabin reservations are first-come, first-served, with bookings taken on the first of each month, up to 13 months in advance. Rustic bunkhouse-style log cabins, with showers in a separate building. Communal breakfast and dinner. Dorm beds are $48.03, four-person cabins $137.69.

    Info: 888-297-2757 or grandcanyonlodges.com

    Bright Angel Lodge, South Rim, Grand Canyon

    On the canyon rim, rustic and old-fashioned but cozy. Standard lodge room with shared bath $83.25, with private bath $94.25. Cabins from $120.25.

    Info: 888-297-2757 or grandcanyonlodges.com

    What to do

    Kolb Studio, Grand Canyon Village

    Historic photo studio run by Kolb family for 61 years, now chiefly a bookstore and exhibit space, is open year-round. Summer hours 8 a.m.-8 p.m., otherwise 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.

    Info: 928-638-2481 or grandcanyon.org

    Ranger lectures

    There are several free guided ranger talks daily within Grand Canyon National Park on subjects from canyon geology to ghost stories. .

    Info: nps.gov/grca

It wasn’t my idea. Paris was my idea.

But last November, I joined my husband and his buddies – ranging in age from 49 to 76 – in a challenge to hike Arizona’s 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, who was recovering from hip surgery, we were basically a group of city slickers, even though several 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, W.Va.; or in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. But our real warmup 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. In fact, there was almost instantly a sharp and confusing slip-slide into a hair-thin slot canyon.

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.

Lost one

It was only upon truly exiting Spooky that we discovered that our scrappiest hiker, 76-year-old Robert Barkin, 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. 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 and 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.

In the gathering dark, Champion mentioned that in Yellowstone, firefighters have buddies and counts and all kinds of rules to stay found, as the mountaineers say.

Barkin’s wife, Susan Biddle, and I volunteered to hike to the rim with the firefighter. Champion 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.

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.

He had appeared like a ghost on a cliff, and they’d given him directions down. 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.

“Been quite an afternoon,” said Champion 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. 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 violating Rule 10: “Don’t you dare wander off, or there will be hell to pay.”

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, brothers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb 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.

The 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.

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 1,000-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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