Lava Falls - September 9, 2010

Nancy and I returned from our Canyon trip on September 21. Today is November 6. Since then I have not wanted to sit down and push out the words to describe my experience on this trip. Today I am ready to walk down that path and start to explore.

Last summer we attempted this difficult hike - 1.5 miles from rim to river, 2,540 feet down the side of an ancient volcano, no marked path except for occasional cairns, no shade, incredibly steep, loose footing, with some rock climbing thrown in. John Annerino in his guide "Hiking the Grand Canyon" describes this non-trail as ".. an avalanche of a route waiting to throw you to your knees during the descent and to suck the last drop of moisture out of you during the debilitating crawl out. There is little more to say about the viper-plagued route snaking its way through the glass-black lava other than to follow the rock cairns ...." Last summer we didn't make it to the river - we went left at a cairn instead of right and found ourselves on the other side of the ravine.

One and a half miles - anyone can descend and ascend one and a half miles - I told myself. We each had day packs full of water, electrolyte tablets, Gatorade, surveyor's tape, first aid kit and food. We were ready to go. Approaching the trailhead we immediately noticed that the sign and cache of route maps that had been there last summer were gone. Nothing was left to indicate this was a trail at all. With this uncertainty we started down, saying that if all the cairns had been taken down we would turn around before we lost sight of our retreat. Almost immediately we noticed spray painted white arrows marking the trail - we had read about this "vandalism" when we stopped at the ranger's station the day before and the sign cautioned hikers to beware of following these marks as they were not accurate. I felt pretty anxious, but not ready to turn around. I needed to see more, to know more, before giving up. I needed to know it was too unsafe to keep going.

It was a beautiful sunny day, warm with a slight breeze. The route was hard to follow so Nancy began tying orange surveyor's tape to improve our chances of getting out of there. We decided to keep going. We got all the way to Vulture Valley, about half way, before it became easier to follow the painted blazed and remaining cairns.

Vulture Valley gave way to some steep down climbing at the top of a pour off - we put on our gloves since the sharp basalt rock was tearing our skin. We were out of the normal desert terrain that is filled with tufts of dried grass and barrel cactus, and into the dark basalt of a volcano. I felt ok, still strong physically and mentally present. In hindsight I wonder if I wasn't a little too present, too tightly wound, because as I approached each obstacle or traversed each difficult loose piece of ground, I felt myself becoming more alert and thus more tense.

We descended the right side of the ravine this time and reached the spot we had reached last summer. It was hot, the sun was merciless, and it was getting hotter as we moved toward the bottom of the canyon. We checked in with each other every so often - How's it going? How do you feel? We still good to go? I began to feel the steepness of the descent in my legs - they were starting to tremble and although I didn't realize it at the time, the strain of my tension was sapping me of strength. My physical strength and emotional resolve was oozing out of me with every step we took closer to the river.

I felt like I was staying hydrated, but kept losing energy like a slow leak. It was so small that I couldn't find it and had no idea how to repair it. Just a subtle, continuous spilling out of my courage and power. I told Nancy that I could feel my legs, that they were getting tired. It was very hard to say that, and I don't remember her response. I remember us looking at each other and deciding to keep going - let's go down to that ridge or clump of rocks. Let's go down to where the soil turns red. So I did my one-step-at-a-time thing, keeping my eye on the next marker and not looking down at the bottom.

When we were well into the unknown part of the route I did look down and back up and sideways. And I saw was dried earth, black rock, and sun. When I looked down I saw the cool green of the Colorado River, rippling below us, so close and yet I knew from having read other trip reports that we were entering the most difficult part of the descent and not going down the right pour-off could mean trying to climb 300 feet up a loose, steep cliff. Danger, danger, danger echoed in my brain.

We stopped. I stood there, legs trembling, wanting so badly to keep going and all I could feel was how dangerous that could be for me. The strong, indomitable Pat that started hiking 4 years ago was today a frightened, tearful, shivering soul standing in the broiling heat, looking back up and wondering if I could even make it out. I closed my eyes - oh god, this can't be happening. I knew Nancy wanted to get to the river, and so did I. There was something of a rite of passage about this hike - that I still had it in me to meet the challenge presented by this terrain and my own fear.

Nancy was 20 feet below me when I sat down. Through tears and shame I said, "I'm done." It took a few minutes for the reality of giving up to sink in for both of us - it was more real for me than for Nancy, but I knew she wouldn't go on alone and I knew that continuing was a risk I wasn't willing to take. I could have pushed on - I wasn't a mewling idiot barely able to stand or move - I could have continued - and I decided not to risk falling, not to risk putting either of us in danger. I was too scared and too tired and now I was feeling a little sick to go on.

We turned around with Nancy leading us back up. I really started to feel sick, nauseous, unbalanced, weird. I told her and she stopped and looked at me and at about the same time we both realized I was in deeper trouble than I thought. For the first time in my hiking life I was really feeling the heat. I thought I had been drinking appropriately, I was still sweating, no tingling or numbness, and my face was not flushed or pale, but I felt sick to my stomach and so unbalanced that it scared me even more. Nancy immediately kicked into survival gear and encouraged me to keep going, that I could make it, to keep drinking, and began looking for some shade. At one point she paused and I could see her shoulders heave, could hear her crying - she was scared - I was in trouble. We were in trouble. I put my arms around her and held on, feeling very connected to my friend. She pulled it together and we continued upward.

We finally found a rocky area that had a foot of shade. She asked me to take off my shirt so she could wet it. Then she sat me down and had me bend over so my head was out of the sun. I ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - slowly - and began to feel better.

We continued to climb up what we had so laboriously just climbed down. I moved slowly for the most part, although occasionally, after a rest, I could almost keep up with her. Every ten or fifteen minutes we rested in any shade we could find. There was never a doubt in me that I could make it to the top, but it was a hard, slow slog for me. Nancy was quiet, so was I, both of us disappointed. I wanted more than anything to get out of the Canyon and feel safe. Seeing the end of the trail was a huge relief to me on the one hand - on the other I was left with the heaviness that my need to turn around, no matter how right that felt, prevented us from reaching the river. In that moment I saw my choice as a failure, as weakness, but with some distance from the actual moment I know it was not a failure on my part. I will always feel disappointed that we didn't reach the river and I own a big piece of why we didn't reach the river, but anything could have happened had we kept going - one or both of us could have fallen, we could have succumbed to heat exhaustion, we could have gotten lost, we could have reached the river and not had the strength to walk out, or we could have reached the river and spent the heat of the day watching rafts run through Lava Falls. We could have died and we could have been full of joy. Anything could have happened had we kept going. Instead, we turned around and both of us got out of there, under our own power, very much alive.