Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim Hike, 2003

a true story by Lynn Adams

 

“Do you believe in God, Nancy?”  My mind floated to a recent email I had sent to a new friend in California.  “How could anyone see something like this and not believe in God?” I thought.

At 5:00am on September 11th 2003 I stood side by side with my husband at the trail head we were to take on our rim to rim hike across the Grand Canyon.  A full moon cast enough light on the rugged canyon that we didn’t need our headlamps.

At 22 miles it wasn’t the longest one day hike I’d ever done but it certainly was the most challenging.  With a 7 mile decent to the bottom, another 7 miles of gentle incline and a final steep 8 mile accent to the top of the other side, rim to rim hikes are so rigorous they are considered dangerous and are openly discouraged, though not forbidden, by the National Park Service.  But we were experienced hikers, athletic and well prepared.  

 

Months before our trip we studied the canyon in detail and spoke at length with several other rim to rim hikers.  We developed a special training program using ultra light hiking gear, an important factor in long distance desert hikes.  Our planning and preparation included a thorough understanding of the dangers of hiking in a desert environment and the complexities of extreme arid conditions.

As I stood there that morning I recalled a passage from a book I had been reading called The Lies Women Believe.  “I have enough time to do today what God has planned for me to do.”  I rested in that truth. Proverbs 16:9 was a tool in my counseling toolbox and a brick in my spiritual foundation, “A wise man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps.”  My trust was in God, my Jehovah Shemaah, the God who Sees, the God who is There.  I had nothing to fear and my moments are all His…That thought would resonate with me just 16 hours later as I lay dying at the bottom of the Canyon. 

The truth is, God ordains our days.  We plan.  We prepare.  We wisely consider all our options and prioritize our efforts.  But it is God who directs our steps.  At that moment on the rim of the Grand Canyon I rested on this truth and trusted God for the outcome that we had planned. In the weeks before our hike I acknowledged each day before the Lord that it was His day and that I would have time to do whatever He had ordained for me to do.  I had wrestled with priorities and was learning to graciously accept God’s to-do list as best for my life.  It was this truth that brought me amazing peace when, those many hours later as I prepared to see Jesus face to face, I realized I had accomplished His plan that day and not mine.

The first 7 miles of our journey were like hiking through a Galenesque picture book of the Grand Canyon.  We walked down the steep trail to the Colorado River making good time stopping only for photos and rest.  The experience was intoxicating.  The colors of a yawning canyon at dawn are unmistakably divine – blue, purple, gold and crimson.  The full moon slowly dropped behind the canyon rim as the sun rose casting a whole new color palette on our view.  There were rock walls of translucent green and amber and vivid blooming vegetation.  When we arrived at the river we were energized and eager for the second leg of our trip. 

 

After we crossed the Colorado River we stopped at Phantom Ranch, a hundred-plus year old mule train respite with running water, a pay phone and a much acclaimed bunk house for hikers.  It is staffed by the National Park Service year round and serves as an overnight stop for mule train riders and hikers, though reservations for an overnight stay must be made as much as two years in advance.

We took our shoes off and rested in the shade by a creek.  Mike was not feeling well, having just finished a round of antibiotics that morning from a recent sinus infection.  His heart was beating faster than normal and he felt lightheaded.  We discussed stopping the hike, briefly considering the implications of this decision.  We were 7 miles down in the canyon and we knew the only way out was up.  If we had to hike back up we might as well continue the way we had planned so we quickly dismissed the idea. 

We had worked so hard to get to this point – trained for months, spent money on special gear, took precious time off of work and traveled 2/3rds of the way across the country.  After eating and drinking Mike took several salt pills and felt better so we started out towards Cottonwood seven miles away. 

Five miles into this section of the hike Mike again began to feel very weak.  It was about 95 degrees and extremely dry.  We rounded a corner on the trail and came upon a sliver of shade.  There Mike collapsed and was limp and unable to focus.  I dropped my backpack and began to pray.  “Lord, send someone to help us.  I don’t know how to help my husband.” His heart was beating out of his chest, he was dizzy and pale. I feared he was having a heart attack.

I panicked when I realized we were in the middle of the Grand Canyon miles from a phone or help of any kind.  I stupidly checked my cell phone.  “No service down here,”  I thought, bitterly.  I refocused on God’s priorities.  I prayed out loud, again and again, “Lord send someone.”  In the middle of the desert with audible words I cried out to my Jehovah Shemaah and He heard me.

 

In less than 5 minutes 6 people came around a corner in the direction we were headed. “Praise God!” I had no idea who they were but I knew they were God’s answer to my prayer.  I rushed toward them calling out for help. In that group of 6 people were 2 EMT's, an Ironman 5-time competitor, a Dental Hygienist and a New Age healer.  My! God does have a sense of humor!  We could not have asked for more prepared and generous people! 

They knew exactly what to do to revive Mike from what we now know was heat exhaustion.  They soaked our shirts in the cold river and force fed him high energy gels and bars. They gave us food and water and toilet paper as by that time I had developed diarrhea. We had thought this was from the emotional stress but later learned it was the first sign of my own serious trouble.   We knew that diarrhea could be deadly in an arid and remote environment so I immediately took some Imodium and ate a power bar.

 Sara, the dental hygienist, held me while I sobbed.  I told her how she was an answer to our prayers. I thanked her over and over again for comforting me and caring for my husband. I asked her to call my daughter when she got to Phantom Ranch, which she did, but by the time Sara made that call of encouragement things had changed for the worse for me and Mike. 

Though he felt better almost immediately, Mike and I remained in that spot for a while to rest.  We knew we had lost precious time and began to readjust our priorities.  I was again reminded of that verse in Proverbs, “A wise man plans his way…”  We felt we could still get out of the Canyon that night but were prepared to sleep on the ground if that became necessary. 

Our new friends left us heading for Phantom Ranch feeling comfortable that we were in good shape.  When Mike felt fine we hiked another mile. 

 

After we started hiking I began feeling sick and so I started praying for another sliver of shade.  I knew from our training that shade was critical with the extreme effects of the sun and the climate. I plodded on ahead of Mike afraid to tell him how bad I felt.  How could this be?  After Mike’s rescue from heat exhaustion or worse was I now to become sick in this desolate place?  I prayed again for shade.  Something was very wrong with my body.  I was not thinking straight.  My legs felt heavy.  Again, I prayed for shade.  But God didn’t provide shade until just after we passed the turnoff for the trail that leads to Ribbon Falls. 

Much later we discovered that this sweet answer to prayer probably saved my life.  Because the Grand Canyon environment is so foreboding virtually no one makes the trek between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood in the heat of the day. The foot traffic for the rest of that day would only be between Ribbon Falls and Cottonwood.  Had we stopped below the falls no one would have come past us until morning and I probably would have died. 

In our new shady spot I collapsed.  I developed a full blown case of Hyponatremia which is water intoxication.  In just a few short hours from the time we left Phantom Ranch I had drunk a gallon of clear water and had not replaced the electrolytes lost while hiking with enough salty food. I had further overwhelmed my system with too much water, bringing about this dangerous chemical imbalance.  I knew it was important to take in salt and thought my plan was adequate.  But I didn’t know that a non-prescription drug I had been taking at the advice of my doctor had predisposed me to this condition.

My health deteriorated rapidly.  I could not walk unassisted and I was not able to think straight.  The diarrhea became so severe that I couldn’t control myself – I went in my shorts which I ended up having to wear for 24 more hours. 

Mike began taking my vital signs which he knew how to do as a result of his First Responder training.  It was his turn to pray this time!  He specifically asked that God would send someone to help us.  Not long after he prayed a young couple came by on their way to Ribbon Falls.  They wet our shirts down with cold creek water and, not knowing what else to to for us, they went on their way.  They said they would be back by in a couple of hours if we still needed help.  That brought us some comfort.  A while later two young men came by.  By this time it was clear that I was very sick and would need medical attention. Mike was steady and calm but inwardly he was a wreck considering all the possibilities.

 

We were amazed to discover that one of these two men was an emergency room doctor from Detroit, Michigan!  This detail is singularly significant because this man had made his reservations 6 months in advance for this one night at Cottonwood campground.  Now why were we so surprised?  God was actively ordering our day.  His priorities were clearly being met through every step of our journey.  His goals were being accomplished in His time.  And so, in some other way, God was also ordering this doctor’s day and his steps and his priorities as well.

The ER doctor generally assessed my situation and decided I needed the immediate help of the park service.  He and his brother went back to Cottonwood and got on the Rescue phone to call for help.  The Park service dispatched a Ranger from Phantom Ranch 7 miles away, on foot. 

Things move slowly in the Grand Canyon.  There are many areas that are still so remote that if an incapacitating injury were to occur you would die before another person came along.  We praise our faithful God that this little 1 mile stretch of the trail was the most heavily traveled section at that time of day for many miles in both directions.

About another hour had elapsed and I had taken all the Imodium I could take, which we had in our First Aid kit.  The young couple came back by just before the doctor returned and Mike implored them to go up to Cottonwood and call the Park Service.  The young man went running up the trail and the girl stayed with me and Mike.  She got me to eat a power gel a quarter of a teaspoon at a time– just some nutrients to give me strength...but I was nauseated.  She held me while I whimpered -- I don't even know her name. 

Pretty soon the doctor returned with the young man.  Another couple came by and stayed with us offering to do whatever was necessary to help. They were from France so they didn’t speak much English but they were able to help carry things when we set out for Cottonwood.  The Park Service had asked the doctor to do everything possible to get me to the Cottonwood Camp.  So they all made a plan and, with Mike on one side and the Doctor’s brother on the other side, they helped me walk the final mile to Cottonwood. 

 

It took all of us 1 1/2 hours to go that one mile!  I was completely out of it.  I had my eyes closed for most of the walk and kept sitting down on the trail.  Dark came and they all put on headlamps to see.  As we ascended above the creek some 40 or 50 feet, Mike, who was on the side of the 3 foot wide trail that had the sheer drop off, prayed that God would keep his footing sure. 

When we arrived at the Camp they laid me out on a picnic table.  There were 3 doctors there in total,  a hematologist and two ER doctors.  They were all friends from Detroit and were hiking together; God certainly knew what we needed.

They made food for us and tried to make me comfortable while we waited for the park ranger to arrive from Phantom Ranch.  I could hear the three doctors discussing my condition.  I drifted in and out of reality and thought at times I was somewhere else.   They believed my condition was heat related and never considered hyponatremia.  This erroneous diagnosis became critical later in the evening.

The ranger had a key to the cabin at the camp which had emergency provisions, a bed and a two way radio.  When he finally came they helped me over to the cabin and laid me out on the bed. 

 

The ranger reported my vital signs to the ER at Flagstaff Regional Medical Center.  After much discussion they issued a diagnosis of hyponatremia, not dehydration.

They gave approval for the Detroit doctor in Cottonwood to administer an IV to me.  There were medical supplies in the Ranger Hut but only doctors, nurses and EMT's are authorized to administer IV's.   Our new EMT friends were many miles away and had no idea of this new medical problem.  The Ranger was not medically qualified to administer IV’s.  He only had First Responder training,  just like Mike.  “A wise man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”  Without the IV that night I would have died.

The doctor  was still convinced I was dehydrated so he allowed the 2 bags of IV fluids to flow into my veins at a rapid pace that actually made my condition much worse instead of better.  I could not feel my hands and I was barely conscious.  It was like being drunk -- I could not focus, walk or talk clearly.  Because my system had been further overwhelmed with fluids from the rapid IV’s, my hands, feet and face swelled up like balloons.   After some time I began having trouble breathing from the fluid build-up in my body.  Though I continued to urinate frequently – my wonderful husband hauled me into the little bathroom some 15 times that night --  I had taken in so much fluid that my body was storing  it everywhere it could to keep it away from my heart.  PRAISE GOD for His miraculous design!

Through the night as I lay there I knew that I was dying. I felt like I was suffocating, couldn’t focus my eyes, couldn’t walk.  I drifted in and out of consciousness and told the Lord that I was ready to die.   I had complete peace knowing that I was going into His presence.  “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.”  I thought of this modern version of the 23rd Psalm that a wonderful friend had recently read to me.  I recited this Psalm over and over again and God used every bit of it to give me peace. 

 

As I prayed I also told the Lord I didn't want to leave my husband and daughter.  I thought of how hard it would be for Mike to fly out of there with my body. I imagined this in detail but didn’t have the strength to cry.  I thought of my precious daughter, Claire, back in South Carolina.  I ached for her voice and so desperately wanted to tell her one more time how much I loved her. I prayed for both of them that God would give them grace to endure my death if that was His will. 

In those moments I felt called to submit to God’s plan…to God’s priorities.  I knew that if I died God would be enough for them because it would be His plan and His perfect will for all of us.  I told Mike to tell Claire how much I loved her.  I continually called out to him through the night.  After he answered, "Yes, honey.  What is it?"  I would say, "I love you, Mike"  because that is the last thing I wanted him to hear from me.  I wanted him to always remember how much I loved him. He never lost hope.  He prayed for me all night long.  He prayed for a helicopter....and he prayed that I would make it through the night.

Mike talked to the Ranger off and on all night long .  They took my vital signs and periodically reported my condition to the ER.  At some point early in the morning they put me on oxygen, another life saving piece of equipment that was available in this little cabin at the bottom of the Canyon.  And though it was improperly administered, the saline IV probably saved my life.  After many hours at the peak of fluid overload those life saving minerals began to have an impact and my condition stabilized.  Hyponatremia has three stages and though I was in the final stage my condition was arrested at a point short of death.  There have been numerous cases of death from hyponatremia in US Marines in training at Paris Island.  And a recent article about the New York Marathon details hyponatremia as the cause of death for a female runner just months after our ordeal.

 

By about 5 am they had gotten the approval to rescue us by helicopter.  The helicopters can’t fly at night in the canyon because of the hazards of lack of visibility.  We were second priority behind a huge rafting accident that had stranded 17 people on a rock in the middle of the Colorado River. 

After the river rescue was complete the helicopter came to us at about 10am.  We were zipped into a flight suits and I was loaded into the center laying down.  With Mike sitting next to me I prayed for God’s mercy and off we went.  I am typically afraid of flying but realized I could die at the bottom of the Canyon or I could die trying to get out.  It was an easy choice!

The helicopter took us to a landing pad on the South Rim -- a ride of only 15 minutes, -- and transferred me to an ambulance that took me to an emergency clinic.  They know how to treat this condition better than anyone in the US as they see 20 or 30 cases per year there due to the arid nature of the canyon's climate.   I was in very good hands, indeed!

The doctors tested my blood salts and indicated to Mike that I was in very serious condition.  They administered 4.5 bags of saline to me over about 5 hours.   After 3.5 hours I became lucid and it seemed like the whole thing was a dream.  I remember feeling as if I was at the very fingertips of God – He was right there ordering my day and providing for my every need.  I profoundly knew that it was God who had brought us through.  His provision at every turn saved both of our lives.  After just 5- 6 hours I was able to walk out on Mike's arm. 

On September 11th, 2003, we accomplished what God had planned for us to do.  We wisely planned our way, trained for the most rigorous of hikes and executed our plan to the best of our ability.  But God ordered our steps and His purposes prevailed. 

 

 

copyright 3/2004, Lynn Adams, all rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

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