Author Coert Voorhees shares a challenging hiking experience that partially inspired his YA wilderness survival novel On the Free.
I’ve had some rough outings in my day, but I think my most intense experience came in the Grand Canyon when I was 19 years old. So intense was it, in fact, that I’ve incorporated some elements of this story into On the Free.
It was early summer, and I was just back from my first year of college, and a few friends and made the drive from Albuquerque for a 3-night trip. The plan was to spend a couple of days hiking a nice, aggressive trail from the South Rim down to the Colorado River, camp at the river, and then take two days to get back.
We were all experienced in the backcountry, and before we started the hike, we checked with the Forest Service to make sure our maps were up-to-date. Given that it would take us two days to get to the river, it was particularly important for us to know the locations of the various springs and streams we’d be using to refill the two 1-quart water bottles we each carried.
I had never been to the Grand Canyon, and it was every bit as breathtaking as I had heard. It was hot, and it hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks, so the trails were dusty. We reached the first spring on the map within an hour of hiking, but none of us refilled because the bottles were mostly full, and we didn’t want to add untreated water to our good water and have to use purification tablets.
Bring on the heat
As the day progressed, and as we descended, it got hotter and hotter. (The temperature difference between the South Rim, which is at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the river below can be as much as 40 degrees in the summer.) The next spring was dry, as was the next one, and it was mid-afternoon when we started to worry.
Over the course of the day, we’d each gone through our first bottle and had started to make a dent in the second. We stopped at that second dry spring, about halfway down to the river, and pulled out the map and tried to figure out what to do. Because we’d had two dry springs in a row, we couldn’t count on any of the other springs on the map.
When the going gets tough…
We were still at least 12 hours of hiking away from the river—the one place we KNEW there was water—but if we chose to go that way, it would mean a significant hike back up. Two days, much of that time in 100-degree heat, with only two quarts each.
I remember talking about the pros and cons with my friends, looking out over the ridiculous canyon, and being struck by the power of the place. I was nothing—my friends were nothing—as far as the Grand Canyon was concerned. People had died here before and they would die here again.
The hardest part of the decision was ignoring the “goal” we’d set for the trip (making it to the river) and looking at the situation clearly. Ultimately, even though we all had less than a quart of water each (some of which we would need to use that night to make dinner) we chose to turn around right there and head back to the top.
…the tough forgo coffee…
We made camp after a couple of hours hiking uphill, and we cooked and rationed water as much as we could. The next morning we regretfully went without our cups of coffee. Even so, we ran out of water early the next day.
We were all starting to freak out a bit. It was so hot, and the trail was steep, and we were sweating profusely—way more than the little water we’d had since the previous afternoon could replenish. At about noon, we came across a handful of large holes that had eroded in the limestone, like a series of salad bowls had been pressed into the rock. The water still in them, left over from however long ago it had rained, was orange-brown and filled with little bugs, but that didn’t stop us. It was the first water we had seen all day.
…and use unorthodox water filters.
I covered the opening of one of my bottles with my bandana and poured the festering water slowly through the fabric to filter out the floaters as much as possible. There was enough water in the bowls for each of us to fill one bottle, and we doubled up the purification tablets. Unfortunately we didn’t have Gatorade or other powdered drink mix, so the water tasted awful, but we didn’t care. We now had water, and it lasted long enough to get us to the top.