5 Things I'll Never Do Again After I Almost Died on Vacation (And It Was All My Fault)

5 Things I'll Never Do Again After I Almost Died on Vacation (And It Was All My Fault)

Do as I say, fellow adventurers — not as I do.

By Greg Cayea

I thought I was making the right decision in Santa Fe when I invited this kid I met at the hostel to join me the next morning in Flagstaff to hike the Grand Canyon. He seemed shy and in need of a friend — what better way to bond than a trip down to the center of the earth?

So we agreed to meet at a local Flagstaff hostel, where we’d gear up and go. But by the time I got there the next day, he’d already made about ten new friends, two of whom agreed to come along with us. We parked our cars by Bright Angel Trail at 2 p.m.: the kid I met in Santa Fe, a German chick, and a kid from Amsterdam. They were all 19 and 20; I was 31. No big deal, I thought. 

The sun was in the middle of the sky and so I didn’t want to waste too much time chatting. I threw on my backpack, stuffed the book I was reading in there, and filled up my water bottle. We grabbed an overpriced meal from the café before we left and started down the 9.3-mile trail at 3 p.m. Within 24 hours, my life would be in danger. Here’s everything I did wrong — and what fellow over-confident adventure travelers can (must) learn from it.

1. Fail to prepare

When I say I didn’t prepare, I don’t just mean I didn’t run 10 miles a day to get in shape — I mean I didn’t even stretch before we started down the canyon. And so on the third mile down, when it was far too late to turn around, I stepped on my ankle and hyperextended my left knee. This was partially because I hadn’t stretched, but mostly because I was wearing slightly-too-big-for-me basketball sneakers instead of hiking books. I don’t even play basketball.

From that point on, every step got deadlier and deadlier. Mind you, this is only on the third mile down, we still had six to go. I cringed when I noticed the trail getting more narrow and steeper by the mile. How would I ever get outa this hole? We hadn't even bothered to make a camping reservation. By the time we got to the Colorado River, the sun was down, we were hiking in the dark, and my left knee was incapacitated. So far I had learned that hiking boots that fit nice and tight are probably the most important item to buy, so spend good money on a good pair of boots. But what really got me in trouble was…

2. Let pride blind me

 They all asked me if I was OK — but I wasn’t about to be the weak American link. So, I simply said I was fine. But the reality was I was too scared about what these teenagers thought of me to say the truth. And the truth was that I wasn't fine. In fact, I was very badly hurt, but I wouldn’t find out just how badly hurt I was yet. Maybe being honest could have saved me from permanent physical injury, but no, I was just fine. By the time we set up our tent, it was midnight. I limped inside and couldn’t put any weight on my left leg. How would I ever make it back up? 

I got in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, hoping I’d be healed when I woke up. I didn’t realize I’d only get four hours of sleep, since we had to leave at 4 a.m. to dodge the 120-degree heat the next afternoon. I had then learned that pride will kill me, literally, and that it is the enemy of all men and women. And let me tell you…

3. Be stupidly spontaneous

I’ve always been spontaneous. That’s sorta my thing. But let's just say that those extra few minutes before we left down the trail coulda been used much more efficiently by thinking this whole thing through and not placing so much importance on maintaining cool, let's-just-go-for-it self image.

Truth is, I had no idea how demanding that hike was going to be. Sure there were signs everywhere warning me of the annual death counts due to improperly hiking the Grand Canyon, but surely that didn’t apply to me. I’ll even bring a book and chill out by the river! Uh, hello. Obviously, I should have replaced that book with an extra bottle of water and some granola bars. I learned on that day that yes — spontaneity is awesome, so long as the decision is a a reasonable one.

Alas, in this case I ran out of energy and alienated myself from the key ingredient I needed to succeed:

4. Underestimate the importance of camaraderie

On the way up, the kids kept hiking a couple hundred feet then stopping and waiting for me because I was injured. But it was still driving me crazy, so I told them to stop waiting for me and that I didn’t need their pity stops. So, what happened? They left me! And I nearly died, collapsing every 20 feet. I ran out of water, and had no food for calories and fuel. I fell down and crawled behind a rock at one point to cool off in the tiny bit of shadow it offered. I could barely move. I had no idea where those kids were within a few hours of setting out.

I still had 10 hours left of hiking and my knee was worse than ever. I’ll just call the police, I thought. They’ll rescue me on a helicopter, I thought. But when I looked around, I saw jagged rocks engulfing me in the canyon for miles. How would a helicopter even get here? My phone had no service. I thought about the many people who died every year and wondered if I might be one of them. So this is how it happens. 

I learned to never try to accomplish something so dangerous completely alone. I should have kept a close-knit team by my side at all times. But what truly kept me alive was this:

5. Give up hope

Though I’m not a religious person, I had never talked to God so much in my life. I learned the power of visualization that day, and the amount of strength I could muster when in dire need. I learned how capable I truly was. 

I can’t explain how I made it to the half-way mark — all I can say is that it’s a miracle. I never realized how much pain I could endure until it became a matter of life and death. It was then, at that mile-marker, that I finally began to see other people. Not many folks go all the way to the bottom like I did. I was so relieved even though no one could really help me. I mean, what could they do other than feed me? My leg was still destroyed. I still had three more miles on South Kaibab trail to the top. I’ll just rest for a little. Just a second. I’ll just… and I collapsed.

“Are you… OK?”

I looked in the eyes of a stranger who looked horrified.

They gave me an orange. I made it back up. My knee was shooting darts of nerve damage through my body as I, by sheer stubbornness, made it to that last mile of the hike. It had been 13 hours already. But I learned that goals are everything, and I was determined to make it outa that damn hole.   

6. Take kindness for granted

By now there were people everywhere; everyone hikes at least a mile down, and then hikes their way back up. So I was almost there. And even though it was only a mile left, it was the hardest mile of the hike.

A Canadian woman stopped in her tracks when she saw me. Her face said it all. She gave me her hiking stick, lightened my bag by packing its contents into hers. She scrambled in her bag for something, and found some pain killers. She was trying to keep calm, but my knee was badly inflamed — it looked like it might pop. I couldn't have been more grateful for her help. 

She told me about her family and her life in politics in Alberta. She just kept talking to me, and let me take my time. She was so kind. I learned on that day the power of kindness, and I will never forget that woman for the rest of my life.

When I got to the top, the kids from the hostel were waiting on me. They looked refreshed and ready to do it again. They had all made bets on how long it would take for me to get to the top.

I never even said bye to anyone. My leg felt destroyed, and my skin was badly sunburned. I drove back to Flagstaff barely able to think straight. I got to some motel and hobbled in the front office.

I got a room, and of course it had to be on the top floor. The construction workers in the motel whispered about me from down the hall. I got to my room, ordered a pizza, laid down, and dimmed the lights and wrote a letter to the Canadian woman, who had given me her email. I shacked up at that motel for days — a week even.

And all the while I reflected on how I had done it — but I would never do it that way again.

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