By George Watson, Craig Grad 2015
Following the success of my trip to Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world, I decided to attempt another outdoor adventure that had been on my bucket list: Havasu Falls. This famous set of waterfalls is located on the Havasupai Reservation in Grand Canyon National Park. After deciding to take on this challenge and obtaining a permit, I made the rather momentous decision to make this a solo backpacking trip. I would carry everything and look after my own well-being and needs. Figuring out how to do this safely became the biggest piece of the planning process.
At a length of 12 miles, the Havasu hike wasn’t the longest I had done with a pack, but it involved 2,500 feet of elevation loss/gain. More than half of the elevation change takes place in the first and last 1.5 miles of the hike along a steep series of switchbacks, and I trained for this by doing progressively steeper hikes and adding weight as I went. I wanted to carry as light a pack as possible, but I found that my tent was a bit heavy at 8.25 pounds. I elected to take it anyway since I was familiar with setting it up and doing my procedures in it. I decided to trim everything else to a minimum but still took one extra day’s reserve of food.
I took three means of communication with me for safety. One, of course, was my phone, because I read that there was some cell service in the Havasupai village of Supai, which is along the trail about two miles from camp. I also took my two-way handheld satellite communicator so I would have satellite-based SOS and texting capacity, as well as a handheld VHF/UHF radio with local emergency channels and some amateur radio repeaters pre-programmed. Unfortunately, none of these would prove useful in the canyon near the falls below the village since it is quite narrow and no signal can really reach there.
On the drive to Arizona, I had to push back against feelings of doubt. I was going alone into unfamiliar territory. Oddly, though I was going into a situation that was in many ways easier than my previous backpacking endeavor, the fact that I had no one close to me to rely on was unnerving. However, as I got farther from home, my sense of commitment to the project increased, and by the time I checked into the motel nearest the trailhead, I mostly felt positive anticipation for the challenge ahead.
I got an early start the next morning because there was still a long drive to the Supai Reservation and the trailhead. Looking around at the familiar landscape of the rim of the Grand Canyon, a sense of excitement and a little apprehension replaced all other feelings that I had been experiencing. And when I arrived at the parking area, my perspective on this trip changed immensely. The main parking lot was already full, and there were vehicles parked along the road leading up to the lot. I took my place in line realizing that though I was solo, I would certainly not be alone.
After “re-booting” my legs from sitting during the drive (i.e., waiting for leg spasms to dissipate and stretching), I headed to the trailhead overlooking a cliff to have a look. As expected, the first section of the trail was a steep set of switchbacks that lasted a good 1.5 to 2 miles. This would be a significant challenge for me. While you might think that downhill is always a good thing, it’s tricky for me whenever the ground changes angle, and with the heavy pack I was carrying, it was going to be especially challenging. I negotiated the initial switchbacks slowly and carefully, taking frequent pauses to let my hips settle a bit. Once I got to more level ground, the work became far more pleasant and I could focus a bit on the beauty of these canyons. The landscape is breathtaking, and the effects of wind and water on the rock make for an endless variety of shapes.
The more level and wide ground was a relatively easy surface for me, and I was able to make decent progress despite being fatigued from the steep descent. One interesting accessibility thing I noticed was that the trail would be suitable for the narrower quad cycles used by people with paraplegia or tetraplegia. It struck me that this might be an accessible wilderness experience for people with varying levels of mobility.
After several miles of relatively gentle trail, I finally arrived at the beautiful azure stream that leads to Havasu Falls. Trees grow thickly (for the desert) alongside the stream forming a pleasant canopy to walk through. I started to encounter more people and made friends with two sisters from Virginia. I was able to keep up with them, and it was nice to have some conversation partners as we continued along the trail. After 11 miles, we arrived at Supai, the home village of the Havasupai people. Amazingly, this apparently thriving village is entirely supplied by horseback. This includes Amazon prime packages, which I saw lashed to the backs of horses traversing the trail in small caravans making their way to the village.
By the time we reached the village, my legs were extremely fatigued, so I decided to sit at a rest location. I purchased a drink at the village store and enjoyed chatting with a couple of people. The company was quite pleasant, and the social ease I found in the village and in the campground with fellow hikers completely shattered any illusion of this as a “solo” trip.
The trip from the village to the campground was slow and difficult as my extended rest had allowed my legs to tighten considerably, causing leg spasms that tripped me regularly as I made my way down. I soon passed the first of the famous waterfalls, and it was every bit as stunning as all the photographs I’d seen. When I finally arrived at the campground, a narrow canyon spread over about a mile and a half, I took the first available site I found, a pleasant spot against the west wall of the canyon. As I laid in my tent in my sleeping bag and cooked a large meal, my skin was on fire and my legs were spasming. I took some baclofen and ibuprofen with dinner to try to calm things a bit so I could sleep, but I went in and out of a fitful sleep with my legs and lower torso spasming regularly. As I laid awake, I was concerned about whether or not I could make the 12.5-mile steep walk out of the camping area tomorrow, and if there was any weight I could shed. The one thing that went well that evening was my nighttime cath. All of the rehearsal, practice and experience prepared me well.
I woke up late the next day, stiff and highly fatigued. I considered maybe even contracting horse transportation for my gear sine many people do this to get their gear in and out while they hike the trail. My original choice to carry my own gear was starting to look like I’d bitten off a bit much. Fortunately, I had two more days and nights to work out how to make it possible to get out. During that first day, I walked a bit between the steep incline to get out and to the top of Mooney Falls, the tallest of the Havasu falls. The area was beautiful and helped me forget how uncomfortable my legs are and how I’m not yet sure how I’m getting out.
I concocted my exit strategy that evening. I decided to consume every bit of food I could, leaving only a couple of energy bars for the walk out. I wrestled with how much water to carry because it’s quite heavy but also very necessary for desert travel. I chose to carry the full three liters I had in my drinking bladder since I could consume half of it on the approach to the final section and consume the remainder during the difficult part of the climb out. Thankfully, that night was far better than the first and I got some sleep since the fabric of sleeping bags feels far better on my skin than normal linens.
For my second full day at the falls, I made the attempt to descend to the bottom of Mooney Falls. It’s about 100 vertical feet of steep, narrow, exposed trail with improvised ladders, hand chains and other engineering to get to the base and swim in the pool. I started the trail and realized very quickly that there was no way I was going to be able to make it without an assistant/spotter or being roped in. I’d have to save this for another time. Despite being disappointed about not being able to make the descent, I still marveled at the azure water and the bizarre travertine formations at the falls. I walked back up to the campground and met up with some of my new friends to hike to some of the higher falls. It was a wonderful afternoon of playing in the water where I even managed to jump into one of the pools. This day alone made every bit of worry, effort and pain worthwhile.
I woke up the next day, and having consumed everything possible, I shouldered my pack. It felt lighter, but I knew I had a long day ahead of me and was worried how things would go. I negotiated the initial steep section between the campground and the village reasonably well, and on the long ascent up the various creek beds, I paced myself and my food and water consumption very carefully. I reached the base of the final steep ascent feeling reasonably confident. I had planned to do the steep part in intervals of 20 minutes of hiking followed by 3 minutes of rest. It took me two hours to negotiate the entire ascent, which is a mile and a half long. There were some short steps at the top that felt like huge boulders to me as I heaved myself over them, relying as much as I could on my poles.
When I finally reached the top, it had taken me eight hours to get out. I got to my car and shed my burden. I sobbed from the relief, the beauty, the pain and the difficulty that delivered me yet another experience at the edge of my ability. I had a long drive ahead to a shower and a bed in Utah, so I skipped the baclofen and took four ibuprofen to help with the pain.
I do not know what has always driven me to explore the limits of my own capacity. Perhaps knowing what I can do makes the world a bit more manageable. Perhaps I am not comfortable unless I know just how big an effort I can make, how much I can possibly push and keep going. Each of my excursions has introduced some additional burden for me to see if I can bear, and I feel as though I will keep following this path with my spinal cord injury as it’s the only way I know how to live. Everyone’s spinal cord injury journey will be as different, and so the only advice I can offer is that each individual is best served by finding their own “edge,” by working to expand their own envelope just a little.