About the Author, Melanie Alvarado: “I have been a lifelong avid hiker. After growing up in southern Germany, I moved to the US at the age of 21. I work as a Nurse Practitioner and currently live in Central California with my boyfriend and 3 dogs. My favorite activity is hiking. Recently, my most frequent hiking destination is the High Sierra.”
Today I’d like to write about what I consider to be my biggest hiking misadventure. I believe while we can learn a lot from sharing our successes, we can learn at least as much from sharing our greatest misadventures; the times when we miscalculated, overestimated, under prepared, the ones that left us with a bruised ego that only made us wiser.
In December of 2017, after a lifetime of increasingly longer and more challenging hikes in a variety of terrains and countries, I embarked on what was supposed to be my longest solo hiking adventure yet: about a week of backpacking in the backcountry of the Grand Canyon, followed by about two weeks of hiking southbound on the Arizona Trail. I was fit and healthy. I had hiked around twenty miles or more on most weekends. I had done overnight solo hikes and a few multi-day group hikes. I had never encountered significant danger on any of my hikes. My upcoming trip was of a bigger caliber than my previous ones, but I was confident, felt well prepared and reasonably experienced.
In the morning my adventure was to begin, I took a taxi from my motel room to the Tanner trailhead. I had notified my boyfriend and a few family members and good friends that my hike was about to start and they knew not to expect to hear from me for about a week. I remember the impressive view from the trailhead down in the Canyon in the rising sun.
I started questioning the sanity of this hike after approximately the first fifteen minutes. The Tanner trail down into the canyon was quite rugged, steep, and challenging, and my backpack was heavier for this hike than for any previous one. I stopped to dump the water out of two collapsible bottles that I had attached to the outside of my backpack and that kept swinging around and dragging me down significantly. The weight of the backpack became more bearable. I still had plenty of water for a day hike and it was not very hot. I pushed through my fears and marveled at the scenery around me. There were quite tricky and steep parts to navigate with a heavy backpack. I stepped cautiously, taking a few breaks to rest my back and take in my surroundings.
With all the hiking I had done, going about a mile downhill over a nine mile trail was certainly new, and after a while my knees started to protest. I got quite weary of the steep downhill hike and I remember the joy when I started to see the Colorado River where my campsite would be. As much as I love my solitude when hiking, after spending all day alone in this vast and somewhat inhospitable wilderness, I felt a sense of relief at the thought of encountering a few other people down at the campsite. When I finally arrived at the campsite at Tanner Beach achy and tired, but in a significantly shorter time than the sign at the trailhead had estimated, I was a bit in disbelief at the total solitude that welcomed me instead. It was a bit eery to realize just how alone I really was, and how far away from civilization I had gone. One time in the evening I saw some boats pass by on the river, which somehow assured me that I was not entirely alone after all. I set up my small tent, enjoyed a magnificent sunset by the river and looked back on my day quite pleased. After all, my first day went well, and I was enjoying the unmatched beauty around me and went to sleep by the majestic roaring river.
View from my first night’s campsite.
The next morning, I was very pleased to notice that the aching in my knees had resolved over night. I packed up early and got back on the trail without any significant sore spots anywhere. I was in good spirits. I had planned about a cautious ten miles on the Escalante route for the day, which seemed very doable. I figured with yesterday’s all downhill hike behind me, it could only get easier from here on. Little by little the trail proved me wrong. The National Park Service recommends this trail for “highly experienced canyon hikers only.” I considered myself an experienced hiker and had hiked plenty of trails that were considered “strenuous” or “difficult” without any real difficulty, so I had concluded if others regularly were completing this route, it should be appropriate for me. However, the heights and narrow ledges started to scare me. I found myself for hours hiking on very steep and narrow paths, at times with just enough space to cautiously set one foot behind the other on a slanted trail, with a steep and long way down to my right.
A few more boats going by down on the river and a few occasional boot prints on the trail were the only signs of closest encounters with humanity this day as well. The majesty of my surroundings was incredible, but much of the time I did not even dare to look around me and instead kept my eyes on the path I was following with careful steps. I had to admit to myself that these trails were not what I had expected. I was greatly relieved whenever the trail widened and leveled out enough that I could find a place to set down my backpack and take a break. Despite my discomfort with the trails I was making good progress and I had no significant difficulty following the trail. So I pushed ahead, always hoping that the worst was over and that the route would get easier from here on. After all, I told myself, it can’t really get much worse.
That afternoon, I arrived rather early at the beautiful Cardenas campsite by the Colorado River. Again, I would by now have welcomed seeing a few other hikers, but I was no longer too surprised that I again spent the night in complete solitude. I enjoyed the evening and the next morning by the river. I had come this far, so certainly I would be fine.
Part of the trail my second day.
I still felt quite good when I set out on my third morning. I had about another ten miles planned this day, but soon realized the Escalante route was continuing about the same as it ended yesterday. I cautiously found my way over a narrow path by a steep cliff that I avoided to look down. After maybe an hour, I arrived at a place that plainly did not look safely passable to me. It involved going up a very steep rocky incline immediately next to a cliff, and I saw no way to circumvent this section. I will likely never find out if there truly was anything wrong with this section of the trail, if others were still able to cross it safely, or if it was only my own judgment or fear making it seem impassable. Either way, I swallowed my pride, thought of all the people who would want me to be safe on this trip, and decided I wasn’t ready to fall off a cliff. I turned around and back tracked my path to last night’s campsite by the river.
My campsite on Day 2
At the river, I sat on a rock, weighing my options. I could backtrack for another two days, but by now the thought of going back on the trails I had come from made me a bit panicky. The only way out of the canyon was the trail I had turned around from today, or backtracking where I came from. I had a SPOT locator beacon with me, but knew this was not a situation to use it. I was fine. I was healthy, not injured, in no real danger, and had plenty of food remaining. Then, I remembered the occasional boats I had seen on the river over the last two days. I admittedly had no understanding or knowledge of white water rafting. I didn’t even know that’s what these boats were doing. In my ignorance, I imagined I could just wave down a boat, and an hour or two later they could drop me off somewhere where I could continue my hike. I did not realize white water rafting is a rather slow and risky means of transportation. So I decided to sit by the river to see if anymore boats might come by. If none came by, I would start back tracking the trails the next morning.
After a while, a group of boats indeed started coming past me. I stood on a rock and waved my arms, but they passed me without noticing me. I sat down again, bummed, discouraged. Yet, soon later, another group of boats was coming my way. I waved again, this time drawing more attention, until one of the boats turned around. “Are you okay?” someone yelled from a distance. I shook my head “No.” One of the boats slowly pulled up to the shore. When I explained my situation, to my own surprise I started crying, and I hardly ever cry. I had not realized how scared I had really been until the relief was now washing over me. Not knowing anything about the kind of trip they were doing, I naively asked if they could take me in their boat. The lady and the guy in the boat treated me kindly and warmly, packed my things in the boat, found me an extra life vest and helmet, and just like that I found myself on a two-day impromptu boating trip on the Colorado River.
From my unexpected rafting trip
Little by little I learnt that this trip was considered the pinnacle of white water rafting. I also found out there was some controversy among the trip members about whether it was safe to have me as a complete rookie on this trip, but the guy who had picked me up spoke up for me. I spent the night camping with the rafters. As we arrived at the shore, my body was shaking and my teeth were chattering, since my clothes had gotten soaked through from the water splashing into the boat during some rapids. A lady graciously handed me a bag of her dry clothes. My hands had gotten so stiff by now that I had significant difficulty changing out of my wet clothes, but soon I felt much better. When I tried to chime in with chores and meal preparation, the boaters assured me that I was their guest, yet when we sat around the fire at dinner time, they told me I was one of them and liberally shared with me.
The next morning, after a few more miles of rafting and a few more rapids, we arrived at Phantom Ranch, where the boat crew dropped me off. I left the group profoundly grateful, yet not knowing how I could properly thank them enough, and I hiked back out of the canyon on South Kaibab trail.
Although in this case a misadventure sort of turned into a great added adventure, my confidence was certainly bruised. I chose to forgo my planned hike of the Arizona Trail and instead rented a car and spent the next weeks traveling through Arizona and doing lots of day hikes. I have certainly become more cautious, make sure I have several backup plans during longer hikes, and I rather over-prepare. It has also taught me that I’m not a big risk taker and that my safety is what’s most important. I did for a while feel that I “should” have been able to complete this hike if others are doing so every year. However, the fact that it did not feel safe to me was plenty of reason to turn around and I believe this experience, as humbling as it was, was also an invaluable lesson.
Hiking back out of the canyon on day 4