Things get very basic when dehydration sets in. The higher aspirations of life evaporate into wisps of nothingness. When dehydration grips you there is nothing left but the desire for water and for shade. It's a curious thing about water—it's something very ordinary until you really need it. Then it is everything.
After we passed Tilted Mesa on the Nankoweap Trail we finally began our descent into the deep, hot basin of Nankoweap Creek. The first act of that descent was a squeeze into a well-defined, geometrical slot in the rocks. A drop of a dozen feet on the other side of the slot was mitigated by a dead and twisted tree. The tree, uncannily placed by nature, was an absurd kind of ladder that both aided you and threatened to snag your pack. A snag can knock you off balance and if there was anything more important than water at this point in the hike, it was your balance.
We lowered ourselves down and thus began our torturous descent. The deeper one goes into the canyon, the more oppressive is the heat. The sun, by now, had lowered itself to an angle that taunted us with its shooting rays. I had now finished my first reserve bottle of water and was drinking the second, and last one, far too quickly. I couldn't help it. My thirst was relentless.
We could now see the outline of the creek. It was still far, far below us. I knew there was water down there, or at least hoped there was. The ranger assured us that the creek was perennial but at this point my optimism for just about everything was waning. I was fading at an alarming rate. The angle of descent steepened to the point where I simply wanted to sit down and slide myself all the way to the creek. But a slide like that would be uncontrollable and deadly. The trail was actually getting worse since we left the red-rock traverse. The drop was just as bad and now we were sliding down a trail that seemed to be covered in an endless supply of greased ball bearings.
The trail then turned into a kind of roller coaster of ups and downs, intersected and punctuated by large washes and slides. Each time we got to a wash, the trail would disappear. Every time a cairn on the other side of the wash signaled the continuation of the trail. Up and down we went, still working our way generally downward through a massive debris field. Exhausted and hot we came to a vast and precarious wash where a slide had taken out the trail. This time the cairns led us downward, right into the wash. Down we went and then we went down even further. Something seemed wrong. We skidded to a stop. The only place to go, at this point, was over the edge. There were no cairns, no trail, no nothing. It was a dead end.
As I stopped I could hear the meager sloshings of the remainder of my water. I had a sip or two left. The sun was dangerously low in the sky and we were perched vertically in the slot of a hell hole. Rocks and shale surrounded us but no trail of any kind could be found. We looked at each other, having really nothing much to say. Our facial expressions said it all.
One of the first signs of advanced dehydration is confusion. Another is hallucination. I was both confused and hallucinating. I thought I saw cairns. Then I thought I saw footsteps. Then I thought I saw the trail. Then it all vaporized along with my hopes. I figured, at this point, I'd just whither away, dissolve into a babbling idiot and then fade off into unconsciousness. I'd read about this kind of death in Grand Canyon. It's not a pretty way to go.
I was so thirsty. Thirstier than I'd ever been in my life. As badly as I wanted to figure out how to find the trail I simply couldn't think straight. I just stood at lowest point of the wash and in a very low point in life. I looked up at where we lost the trail. I was probably a hundred, vertical feet down from that spot, looking up at all lost hope. I drank my last, tiny swig of water.
Karl decided to go back to the previous cairn of the trail and see if he might find something. Nothing. A few more long minutes passed. The sun was getting lower, then lower still. This was not a trail that could be hiked by headlamp. Soon, the only option would be to sleep on the rocks—a long night with none of my water. Karl had a liter left for the two of us. A liter for a long night and then a long, two-mile walk in the morning—if we ever found the trail again.
Karl decided then to go back yet one more cairn. He was even higher up the wash now. He looked straight ahead. He paused. "Wait a minute," he said. I watched him walk across the wash and look out. "Here it is!" he said. It turned out that some hikers had placed several cairns in illogical places, maybe to mark spots where water had been cached. Those errant cairns had led us astray. No matter. At that moment I realized that all was well, very well. An invigorating shot of adrenaline boosted me straight up the rocks like a bottle rocket, my arms doing all the work as my legs dangled into free space. "I'm getting the goddamn hell out of here," I said to myself, the rocks, and the entire canyon.
Our stalemate with the canyon lasted for one and a half hours. It seemed longer. Now, within minutes of our rediscovery of the trail we were back on it and bounding our way downward. Karl gave me half of his remaining water, just enough to keep me going. We worked our way into a plateau filled with cactus. I weaved and bobbed and staggered like a drunk, missing most of the cactus (yet another symptom of dehydration is loss of coordination). I struggled unsuccessfully to keep up. And then Karl suddenly stopped.
"Listen!" he said. A grin came to his face, a grin I've seen a thousand times in the almost fifty years I've known him. Saved only for special occasions, that particular grin always means joyous news. "The creek! It's the sound of the creek!"
The last half mile was a riot of cactus, rocks, gravel, and emotion. I felt like a punch-drunk fighter in the fifteenth round of his last bout. I nearly rolled down the last descent. I actually fell into the creek itself as I tried to stop myself. The water was sweet and cold and plentiful. Karl had already filtered two liters of water for me. He said nothing as he handed them to me. I drank them both within several minutes. Water! As my body temperature cooled, I began to shiver.
"Is it cold down here?" I asked. My senses were still raw. I think I was still seeing things.
"No, no it's not," Karl laughed. "It's still hot."
At that moment the sun had set and things really did begin to cool down. We were safe and with an endless supply of fresh, blessed water. I never wanted to leave this creek. I was afraid to leave the creek. It had saved my life and I was getting attached to it. The next day this very stream would lead us to one of the most dramatic days of my life—the second such day in a row.
As I sunk into my air mattress in our two-man tent I groaned. My entire body ached, particularly the two enormous blisters on my feet. The drama of the day was racing through my exhausted mind. Nankoweap was certainly living up to its promises.
To be continued…