Death March: This is a Vacation?

I am desperately clinging to the face of a rock wall 300 vertical feet above the Grand Canyon, and I am in mortal fear for my life.  I have reached this point after climbing, in kiln-like temperatures, up a tumble of boulders and loose scree that my guides laughably refer to as a “trail”.   The prickly pear and barrel cactus thorns have, like darts from a road side blow gun, turned my legs into a mass of scar tissue, and my surgically altered knee is singing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” (literally,  “I surrender”).

Four days into a two week, 225 mile vacation (?), paddling the length of the Colorado River, I feel like some latter day disciple of the original Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell, except that I have a nearly unsinkable raft, expert guides, and a cooler full of food and beer, while he had not much more than some very large and easily crushed wooden oar boats and an endless supply of guts.  Still, this is no luxury cruise, and the seventeen passengers are expected to be physically fit, ready to help, and able to look past a few minor inconveniences.  Like the lack of a trail.

This was noted at our post-breakfast campsite briefing, when Matthew, our ever-understated leader, told us that the hike to the Royal Arch (a graceful span of natural stone) was “somewhat difficult” but “well worth it”.  He did not tell us, at least at that time, that no other raft group, and possibly no other tour of any kind, had even attempted it this year,  and for reasons that insurance companies everywhere would deem as being perfectly valid.  After describing a “challenging” but “less strenuous” hike to some iconic and picturesque cliff-side granaries, the saner among us made the logical choice and opted for that popular photo op.  The lunatic fringe, which included teenagers (like my son Jonathan), myself (purely for bonding purposes), and seven other masochists, chose curtain number two, behind which lay a six mile Death March in blistering 116 degree heat, including over a quarter mile of vertical climb and descent, death-defying chasm hurdles, gratuitous century plant thorns to the buttocks, and more cuts, scrapes, and bruises than an Irish rugby brawl.  Matthew, who I believe secretly aspires to be a drill sergeant (“Get up that cliff, maggots!”), was delighted with our stupidity.  I knew this because, from behind his obligatory sunglasses, he dead-panned his trademark “excellent”, which he used as a standard approval for any and every occasion, as in:

“Lava Falls is a class rapid 10 today.  It’s never been more dangerous!”

“Excellent.”

“The monsoon is coming.  We’re going to get wet!”

“Excellent.”

“Nine have volunteered for The Death March.”

“Excellent.”

We set off at eight, having rafted down river to the trail head, which looks a lot like a beach, because it too is sandy and completely unmarked. The first three hundred feet of the hike are easy, at least until the sand gives way to loose gravel punctuated by an obstacle course of room-sized boulders that we must crawl over like the Third Army at Anzio.  An hour of this, and I am a little tired.  I can tell this because another hiker (Heidi, an ex-Olympic skier and apparently excellent climber) is concerned about the color of my face, and because my lungs seem to be, curiously, about to explode.  Up ahead, Mathew signals a stop.  When I reach him, I can see that he is not only not breathing hard, he isn’t even sweating.

“Is everybody OK?” he intones easily.

I am exhausted, but nod my head anyway.

“Excellent.  Drink water”

I empty half a quart in the time it takes for him to say this.

On we climb until we reach The Wall.  The Wall is only twenty feet tall but is perched on a dizzying precipice itself, a fact that would give intelligent people and cowards like me reason to pause and reflect on the possibility of turning back.  I consider this briefly before Matthew and another guide, Travis, explain that they will demonstrate how easy it is to scale the cliff freehand, even though we tourists will be provided with a rope.  Travis begins his climb and is in trouble almost immediately.  Swinging and groping his way for anything even resembling a foothold, after a few minutes he has achieved about the height of my kitchen stepladder.

Mathhew looks directly at us.  “This may be harder than I remember.”

It may just be me, but that’s not exactly what I want to hear, waiting for my turn, perched high up on this desert aerie, wondering if I would be the subject of a small article at the bottom of the local newspaper under obituaries: “Freak climbing accident claims the life of an obscure freelance writer and part-time climber!  What was he thinking?”  But after watching the two women and teenagers manage the climb fairly quickly and safely, my fear is overcome by my desire to prove something or other (maybe that I have a defective instinct for self preservation), and that’s how I find myself hanging off the side of a cliff, trying to concentrate on the guide’s advice but more conscious of the fact that right now I could use a prehensile tail and a clean set of shorts.    Fortunately, I know that if the safety rope fails my fall will be cushioned by the soft sandstone only thirty stories below.

Oliver, a lean and tanned guide who probably climbs glass buildings for fun, is coaching me from below and trying not to act like I am the useless, frightened man I have become.

“Just find the foot holds, Jon.  Use your feet!  Look to your left.  See that HUGE ledge?”

Actually, I don’t see anything except the grains of mineral in the rock my face is glued to.  In order to see the foothold, I must also see the chasm.  If I can see the chasm, I will get vertigo.  If I get vertigo….never mind!  I venture a look down.  The “huge” ledge is about the size of a deck of cards and is even with my left nipple.  Assuming I can even get my foot there, I will be relying on my bum knee for strength and leverage.  Excellent.  I swing my leg up and under until, impossibly, it is in the small stirrup of rock.  Knowing my leg is essentially useless, I use my arms (a definite no-no for real climbers) to do the hard work of hauling me into a better position.  Miraculously, I am over the top in just a few minutes.

The rest of the Death March is just an endurance contest, which for an Irishman is the easiest part.  We descend into a canyon until the trail turns into a streambed.   Cacti give way to mesquite and even a cottonwood or two as the clear water leads us inevitably to the Royal Arch, a massive yet elegant sandstone bridge framing a vertical rock finger and the Canyon beyond. The view from the arch is spectacular, a sweeping vista of breathtaking dimension and scope.   I pause, conscious for a moment of how lucky I am to be seeing this, of how impossible it is to describe to those who haven’t.  The silent majesty of the place strikes me to my core.  I am in awe.

I lie down in the stream and allow its pure water to cleanse and cool me.  I have hiked six hours to get here.  My feet are hamburger.  I am too tired to even be aware of how much I hurt, and I know the way back is as arduous as the way in.  Thunder booms in the distance.  We have only been here twenty minutes, yet we must leave for fear of flash floods and the real possibility of a forced march in the dark down a bad mountain trail.  I take a last wistful look through the huge rock portal and marvel.  In the early afternoon sun, the animate rock radiates a warm glow of reds, yellows, greens, and purples under a vast blue canopy of sky while a lone Golden Eagle silently plies the warm currents of air above the rim.   I am glad I came.

During my journey, I explored mining caves, played Frisbee in Redwall Cavern, showered under waterfalls, floated down the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado, observed Desert Bighorns, and enjoyed some of the best rapids to be found anywhere in the world.  I slept out under the stars and watched meteorites trace the night sky, ate like a lumberjack, went to bed early, and, best of all, had no news of the outside world for two weeks.  I gave up most of my privacy and all of my dignity and paid quite a bit to do it.

If you go, you can expect experienced, helpful staff with encyclopedic knowledge of the history and geology of the area, good, plentiful food, and an adventure every day.  You can also expect that, come what may, the Canyon will still be there, glorious and Grand after all these millions of years, Nature’s ultimate statement, and the one indispensable “must see” Wonder of the World…

Excellent, indeed.

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