Kashyapa A. S. Yapa

The moist-heavy morning air felt so refreshing that I gulped down several lungfuls. The snow-dusted peaks, dancing among sun-streaked clouds in the far horizon, beckon so charmingly that I wanted to extend my wings and leap across.  Below my feet, multi-colored rock contours face the erosive roots of the Colorado River so defiantly that I snapped a few etchings for eternity.

I found myself all alone at the edge of the South Rim.  Everybody else who rode the “Kaibab Express” had already gone down the trail.  I began my run-slide, run-slide down the trail, my heavy pack swaying side to side.  Soon I whisked past an elderly couple treading gently, shifting carefully the body weight from one ski-pole to another.  I flew down the steps, jumping from one cross-log to another.  What fun, I thought, who said this trail is difficult?  I did cover one-third of the way in half an hour and gained on most of my fellow bus riders. 

At the next series of steps I felt something was bothering my right knee.   Recalling my occasional knee troubles in climbing down steps, I stopped at a plateau muttering to myself, “Ok knees, you earned your rest.”  After a 10-minute break, I found my legs no longer obey me.  The small knee irritation had developed into a major inflammation.  Frantically, I began rubbing the joints and exercising the leg muscles, hoping the pain would go away soon.  But as I caught a glimpse of those ski-poles trudge past me, I knew I was done for.

I did not intend to race down to the river. Rather I was running scared: a storm front was moving towards the canyon that day.  The same weather reports froze four-month-long preparations of five friends, all veteran canyon hikers.  I had no choice: do it now, or see my dream of sleeping inside the Canyon shattered, since I had to leave the US before the next spring.  Steve, our group leader, informed me of the decision to abandon the hike only a couple of days before.  I tried to convince him why I could dance where the experts fear tread.  More than my rich, intriguing worldwide hiking experience, probably my stubbornness finally won him over.  Yet his concern showed as he piled me up with a tent, a poncho, crampons and a letter to Park Service transferring the campsite reservation to me (which also implied that he assumed no responsibility for my eventual death in the canyon.)

The bad weather had already caused havoc in my hike preparations. I had planned on sharing certain gear with the group to lighten the load and carrying only minimum amount of clothing.  Now I had to carry all the gear plus additional clothing for the inclement weather.  Along the trail I noticed being the only “Wal-Mart sponsored” hiker.  Everybody else had all-weather windbreakers, lightweight ski-trousers, frameless packs, snow-proof hiking boots; an REI trade show.  I had to double, triple or quadruple my cheap clothes to withstand the cold.

Hiking alone for a few days or weeks would not scare me, but a freezing rain would.  I still shudder recalling my rain-soaked trek for 10 miles along the Ecuadorian Inca Trail at 13000 ft above sea level, equipped with soggy sneakers and cotton socks.  This time I toyed with the idea of buying a pair of boots, until the mockery of it dawned on me:  the one who crossed snake-infested tropical jungles in rubber sandals, now traversing the Grand Canyon highways in boots?  Yet, I bought some snow covers for my used pair of sneakers.

I wanted this solo hike completely veggie-powered.  Seeing pre-cooked packs of Kashmir spinach, Punjab brinjals and channa Masala at Trader Joe’s, I jumped at them.  (Imagine a dish of eggplant by the Colorado River!)  I also prepared a huge collection of trail mix, needing nutty energy alternatives for all the side trips I was dreaming about.  Into the pack also went fresh apples and bananas, for the trip down (whence the weight would not be a problem!)

To avoid the expense of hotel rooms on the way, I found a cheap rental car and left at 3am from Phoenix, four hours away.  After an hour, I felt sleepy and pulled over.  Heavy raindrops drumming on the car roof woke me up.  The storm had already arrived!  I floored the pedal of that matchbox and soon beat the rain clouds, but lost the battle against the gas pump.

I was prepared mentally for the hike, but physically, I wasn’t sure.  Some 3 days before the hike, I experienced a sudden chest pain; something blocked my lungs from expanding.  I have had such bouts before, but this dug deep and persisted.  Always against embalming oneself prior to the death, I didn’t seek medication and the pains died after a while.  To my friends’ inquiries about the risks of the trip, “Hiking alone into the canyon, in winter?” I stated my preference for dying in the Canyon than on my way to work, entangled in a crash.  A will-of-sorts took care of who gets what of my belongings in case comes true my wish.

Now gripping the painful knee, I evoked the will but also weighed my chances.  I could abandon the project, drag myself up a couple of thousand feet to the stormy-cold South Rim, and blame myself till death for a lost opportunity.  I could also stagger down, using a wooden stick as a third leg.  Hopefully, I would be able to hike up with the pack lighter and the leg rested.  At the worst, I could get the rangers to tie my pack and myself to a mule for a ride up the trail.  

Then I would have, at the least, accomplished my dream of sleeping in the Grand Canyon.  “Heck, if not to make real your dreams, why would you live?” I grabbed the stick and tested it with my 125-pound body and the 70-pound backpack together.  It held.  Yet, the next half a mile took me more than half an hour to conquer.  I can now appreciate the care the old couple gave their worn-out joints.

I was again lying down on a rock slab, rubbing and massaging my lame knee, when a pair of ladies approached me.  The older of the two, also walking laboriously, had a very concerned look, “Are you hurt?”  Hurt mentally even more than physically, I gave her the blurb on my botched attempt to fly down the trail.  Only the wise can sympathize with the fools: she too has a bad knee and knew what to do.  She pulled out an inch-thick sticky bandage and wrapped it expertly around my hairy joint.  Two girls, running up the trail (yes, they do, but with no gear, except a bottle of water) preparing themselves for careers in sports medicine, nodded their approval watching the roadside operation.  My macho now all but disappeared, I profusely thanked the ladies and lifted myself up. 

The steady pain of sprained ligaments was now camouflaged by something else: the prickly sensation of body hair being pulled by the bandage at every leg movement.  Yet, I could handle that; it wasn’t my fault.  I learned a lesson.  I took my shoes off.  The rolling gravel, squeezing and mushing the epidermis under the heavy load, or the razor-sharp rock fragments cutting right through, distracted my attention from the knee.  Besides, with my arched foot, I could better balance the pack, now heavier with the shoes added.  Immediately, I achieved celebrity status on the Kaibab Trail.  Everyone had something to comment on my feat.

Still, every half an hour or so, my body would get used to these externally-inflicted stings and the knee ache would resurface.  I used such occasions to put the pack down and shoot some pictures.  After the seventh hour on the Trail, I realized that I may have to make it down in the dark and all alone.  I was close, the roar of the river now audible, the campsite across now visible, but the trail dropped sharply and my pain soared accordingly. 

Then I noticed my saviors, the two ladies who helped my knee with the bandage, at the entrance of the tunnel leading to the suspension bridge, and I waved.  They waved back.  I dragged myself to the next lookout and they were still there, looking up once in a while.  A thought crossed my mind: could it happen?  Would some strangers wait down there for me to catch up?  The next look out convinced me.  Yet, how long are they willing to wait?  The half a mile that separated us, the most treacherous part of the trail, consisted of many loose rocks, dislodged steps and hairpin bends.  To speed up, I had to jump from step to step, something like pole-vaulting.  I didn’t stop to wave anymore, but concentrated on the obstacle course.  I could count every pebble I missed and slid on, because the pain was excruciating.

I felt rewarded. 

They did stay on, to cross the river together.


(To be continued …)

– January 2001.

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