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A walk in mortality

Published October 27. 2012 09:01AM

Harry loves to walk and hike. I think he's fairly fit at almost 63 years old. Recently, he went on a walk in mortality.

Our first full day at the Grand Canyon, Connie, George, Harry and I decided to take the shuttle that visits all the different viewing sites along the South Rim. But the shuttle was way too tame for Mr. Antsy Pants and by 10:30 a.m. he told us he was going back and hike part of Bright Angel Trail into the Canyon.

Bright Angel Trail is almost five miles down. The trail zigzags back and forth. It's about three to four feet wide with no guard rails and traveled by mules, as well as walkers, into the Canyon.

People are advised not to attempt it unless they are physically fit, carry enough water to remain hydrated, and rest often.

Here is what Backpacker Magazine says about Bright Angel Trail:

"Trekking from rim to river (and back) is one of the planet's iconic journeys, an achievement nearly every Grand Canyon visitor longs to notch. (Except Linda.) Trouble is, canyon temps routinely top 110°F in summer, and that hellish heat, combined with the exertion of climbing 4,380 vertical feet over 9.5 miles, results in about 200 rescues in the park each year. In fact, a spate of deaths 10 years ago prompted the creation of PSAR (Preventative Search and Rescue), a team of rangers that patrols the Bright Angel Trail, assessing individual hikers, dispensing water to the suffering, and urging the unprepared to seek safety. That convenience attracts scores of impulsive hikers who find that going down is easy, but climbing up is torturous. The death zone (THE DEATH ZONE????) is between the river and Indian Gardens, about halfway up. People feel so hideous they keep going to get it over with, instead of resting. Carry lots of water. It is recommended drinking five to six liters on the round-trip and pace yourself on the ascent. Don't just go steadily until you drop dead. Rest for 15 minutes of every hour you climb."

This is the trail my husband decided he had to hike. He took one bottle of water and a trail bar. And a kiss from me for good-luck.

"I wanted to do it because of the sense of accomplishment to do something like that," he says.

He never dreamed he would encounter death on the trail.

About two and a half miles down, he heard a helicopter approaching. He watched as it hovered nearby and dropped something yellow. He then came upon a ghastly scene. Along the trail in front of him, he saw three people surrounding a man lying on the ground. He watched as they placed him in the yellow bag, and zipped it up. Completely. The helicopter lowered a cable, the body bag was attached and it was airlifted out of the Canyon.

"I thought, 'Oh my God. That man's dead," he says.

Harry learned from one of the other hikers that the man had died of a heart attack. He was a former Marine and considered to be in good shape.

Suddenly, Harry didn't feel as confident about his decision to hike all the way down Bright Angel Trail.

He went a little further to the three-mile water station and rested a while. It had taken him one hour and 10 minutes. Talking to another hiker about the poor man that had died, the guy said, "We probably think we're in better shape than we are." Harry thought that might definitely apply to him after his hike back up the trail, which took him two hours and 45 minutes.

His goal was to do the whole trail, so he was somewhat disappointed that he hadn't.

"I was pretty tired and my legs ached. But I felt good I went as far as I did," he says. He even bought a T-shirt that boasted "I hiked Bright Angel Trail."

He paid for the experience the next day in body aches, even giving in to asking for aspirin.

"It made me aware that I'm getting older and that I'm not as young as I think I am."

The man that died was David Roberts, 72 of Cleveland, Tennessee and he died of a heart attack. Was it the trail, or just his time? Or both? We'll never know.

We read that 683 people have died at the Grand Canyon over the years. Of those, 379 died in scenic flight air crashes. Some others were suicides, falling accidents, drownings, and some hikers, like poor David Roberts, died on trails. Each year, around 300 people are rescued because of injury or becoming ill on the trails. Heat and the altitude, over 7,000 feet, are contributing factors to illness and fatigue.

Sooner or later, we all come face to face with our own mortality. Some through illness, some with close encounters, others as a natural end to life.

"The hike down Bright Angel Trail brought some harsh realities to light for me. We're very vulnerable and death can happen at any time," he says.

It also made Harry more determined than ever to work harder at staying in good physical condition because he wants to be up for challenges that may come his way, like Bright Angel Trail, if and when the opportunity presents itself.

"Hiking down the Grand Canyon is something I'll never forget. In spite of the death of that poor guy, it was an experience of a lifetime. I'm glad I did it. I'd like to go back someday and do the entire trail."

Linda says she'd go back to the Grand Canyon, too, and gladly wave to Harry as he descends Bright Angel Trail. She would make sure he takes a backpack along next time with more water and trail bars. She will also make sure his life insurance policy is paid up.

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