Havasupai Survival Tale
by Dave Howard
This is an adventure. Adventure being defined as something that we would choose to avoid if we knew before starting what was about to happen.
While working at a portrait studio in Tempe, AZ., one of my co-workers, Tony (a very energetic Portland native 15 years younger than me) decided to photograph Havasupai falls located on one of the southern tributaries feeding the Colorado river where it runs through the Grand Canyon. He liked photographing water falls but water falls are understandably rare in Arizona.Arizona is a desert, after all. Even though Havasupai Falls are rather small, and several hours away, they are the biggest falls in Arizona so you take what you can get, and they were chosen as his latest subject.
Havasupai falls are located such that there are only three ways in, hike, helicopter or mule train. Since he didn’t have much money he decided to hike in. Not being an experienced outdoors-man, he tried to convince his camping friends to go with him. These friends had grown up in Arizona and were familiar with the stories of misfortune befalling even the prepared individuals who ventured into the Grand Canyon, none would agree to go with him.
So he asked me.
Being a photographer and having gone camping and hiking quite a bit, I was eager to go. I could camp for a weekend and take some pictures. So plans were made, food was gathered and climate research was started so that we would know what clothing to pack. All research indicated that weather in February at the Grand Canyon would be cooler than Phoenix by an average of 20 degrees, putting it in the mid 40s. So we packed for cool weather. We gathered film, cameras, meters, tripods and loaded up my Suzuki Samurai for the trip.
A series of clues began at this point, all of which were ignored.
Clue number one – ignored: What we planned on carrying on our backs FILLED the back of my Suzuki Samurai! While a Samurai is not a large vehicle by any means, it easily holds more than you would want to carry on a hike.
We set off on the adventure on Saturday in mid February a few years ago (after a normal morning of work) and climbed from 1500′ elevation at Phoenix to over 7000′ at Flagstaff, where there was still snow on the ground. Good thing we put the top on the Samurai as an afterthought. An hour North of Flagstaff, the roads we saw in front of us no longer agreed with our map.
Clue number two – ignored: We weren’t really sure how to get to the start point for the hike.
We finally found a road that appeared to go in the right direction and left the pavement. It was now evening, the sun was low but our confidence was high. We drove 40 mph along a nice smooth dirt roads for about an hour (talk about a big cloud of dust!) so now its fully dark.
Then we encountered a Born-Again Christian out gathering mule-deer antlers – in the middle of the desert, in the dark of night. We asked for directions to Havasupai Hilltop, he scratched his head and said the best way would be to go back to Flagstaff, go west on I-40, then turn north at the sign that said “Havasupai Hill Top”, but it was obviously too late for that. He said that if we continued North West across the desert we would either encounter the Grand Canyon, so go left, or the paved road to Havasupai Hill Top, so go right.
Then he said “Wait here, I have something for you,” and went back to his antler laden pick-up truck (Dueling Banjo music begins to play in the background). I couldn’t resist scaring Tony, I acted like I was starting to panic and couldn’t get the car into gear, and said “He’s coming back with an AXE, he’s gonna kill us!” Tony’s head whipped around so fast I’m surprised he didn’t get whiplash! I started laughing at that point so he called me a jerk and some other choice names… sticks and stones.
The antler gather-er simply gave us one of those squashed pennies with the Ten Commandments on it and asked if we were interested in religion. I told him I’d already accepted Jesus as my savior and was trying to save my friend here. We thanked him and shook hands. He said he’d pray for us.
Talk about serendipity: Lost in the middle of a desert, in the dark of night, and we encounter a man of God who steers us in the right direction, then prays for us to arrive safely.
I’m convinces he was an angel sent to save us from ourselves. I have learned that angels aren’t always of your religion, all they have to do to be an angel is listen and obey the spirit of God so that they are in the right place at the right time for someone who needs them.
I also discovered that if you’re bound and determined, no amount of intervention – divine or otherwise – is going to save you.
So we headed Northwest.
Its important to note that the compass I brought, and with which I am experienced and well practiced, was buried in the back of the car and we both made the conscious choice to leave it there and follow the stars which were as bright as I’ve ever seen. The stars were so bright that we drove for a while with the headlights off… until we started thinking about the Grand Canyon somewhere up ahead….
We continued driving North West (according to the stars) across the desert for another three hours, thank goodness for my Samurai’s high ground clearance.
En-route, we encountered what we called poo farms. Clearings in the desert covered with a solid layer of old, dried cow dung and sporting cattle chutes. We figured the ranchers would herd the cattle to these clearings, hold them for a couple of months (based on the depth of the poo) then load them up in trucks to send out for processing.
That reminds me of a joke: What’s brown and sounds like a bell? DUNGGGG!
Much as it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, after 3 hours driving straight across the desert at about 25 mph, we encountered the road to Havasupai Hill Top turned right and followed it to an impossibly huge paved parking lot perched ½ way down a cliff in the middle of nowhere. We got there after midnight and were both very tired. I rolled out my sleeping pad, put my sleeping bag on top of it, pushed it under the Samurai, crawled in and went to sleep.
When we woke up the next morning it was so cold that all our water had frozen. So much for only being 20 degrees cooler than Phoenix.
Clue number three – ignored: The weather wasn’t what we prepared for.
We then loaded up our gear and looked like refugees rather than hikers. I think we were both carrying about 75 pounds of gear, most of it being camera gear. But since we had been reliably informed the hike was only 5 miles over compact dirt, I wasn’t worried.
The first part of the hike was switch-backs down the face of a cliff, and we had to keep moving aside for horses and mules that were stragglers from the mule trains that supplied the town (cluster of huts would be more accurate) of Supai.
The mule trains are an interesting story by themselves, but since this is running long and we’re not even off the cliff yet, I’ll save that for another time.
Halfway down the switch-backs my legs were doing that jiggly, can’t-stop-shaking thing that happens whenever you over-exert yourself and I was starting to get worried. I know, I know, your thinking “You’re just NOW getting worried?” Shut up…
We got to the bottom of the cliff, the trail leveled off and my legs quit jiggling, so I stopped worrying. HA!
Clue number four – ignored: this is going to be hard to get out of.
The first part of the trail was on firm dirt and followed an ancient stream-bed. Beautiful water-carved sandstone was everywhere. We still had to step aside for the mule trains, but at least our water had thawed out. We were getting tired and thinking we must have hiked about 10 miles by now, I sure was ready to see the falls and put my load down. They’re not kidding when they talk about a country mile being longer than a city mile.
Then we found a sign that said “8 miles to go” WHAT!!
Turns out the hike to the town of Supai is 11 miles, and the falls are another 2 miles beyond that! I was ready to turn around at that point. But Tony wanted to keep going. We didn’t have an abort plan (you know, “if my legs get jiggley or if the distance is more than twice what we planned on we stop, declare defeat and go back”) so we just kept on going.
Clue number five – ignored: Our plans were based on wrong information.
A group of hikers coming the other way warned us that the rest of the hike was on soft sand. Of course we kept right on going….
Clue number six – ignored: Its getting worse!
When we finally got close to the town of Supai, I was reduced to a stiff legged shuffle – like every Frankenstein movie you’ve ever seen, so Tony would walk a couple of hundred yard wait for me and when I caught up, he’d walk a couple hundred more yards. I didn’t get to stop until we got into Supai. The town was only two or three hundred yards across, but I was so stiff and sore that it took me 1/2 hour and two rest stops to get across town.
I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get to the falls, or hike out for at least a couple of days. Tony was sore too, but not in derelict condition like me, so he wanted to press on. I finally told him that if I tried to continue the hike he would have to carry me and my stuff, as well as what he already had. Surprisingly neither of us got angry and short tempered, I think we were both just too beat and disappointed. I imagine Tony was more disappointed because it wasn’t his fault that he had to abandon his waterfall quest.
There was a little “hotel” in town, that charged $50 per night for a single-bed sized slab of concrete upon which to roll out your sleeping pad and bag. This in a room with a bunch of other concrete slabs and strangers. There was also a little restaurant where you could get a burger, fries and a milkshake for $15.00. That’s what you get without competition on, an Indian reservation, after a 4 hour hike that almost kills you. We still had plenty of water though.
There was also a little general store where a gallon of milk was over $10 and they had a phone you could use if you were willing to wait in line for a while.
We also found out that a helicopter service would fly us out for $75 each with out gear, or we could ride the mule train out for $65 with our gear. I decided that it would be cheaper to fly out right away, rather than spend a couple of nights is the flea-bag motel and then either try to hike out or ride the mule train. So I decided to call my wife and see if we had the money to spend on a helicopter ride out and hobbled over to the general store to wait in line for the phone.
While waiting I spotted a pint of strawberry milk and realized that I never wanted anything in life so much as that strawberry milk. So I got out of line for the phone spent $5 for the milk and decided that I was going to make an executive decision and take the next available helicopter out, WITHOUT prior permission! You married men will understand how courageous that decision was.
I don’t remember much of the $75 helicopter ride except that it was really short and cost $75. $75 for a three minute helicopter ride!! Helicopters are cool, but not $75 for 3 minutes cool. It was one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
We got to the top, shoved the gear in the car (it fit much easier the day before) and drove back home, via the paved road from the hill top, to the I-40 and back to Flagstaff in about 2 1/2 hours WITH a fuel stop. We each drank nearly a gallon of soda at an Arby’s in Flagstaff. Free refills (common in Arizona) really hurt Arby’s that day.
I walked stiff and sore for another 4 days. Good thing I didn’t stay at the motel and try to hike out after I’d recovered.
I found out later that I could have paid $10 to have all my equipment delivered by mule train and made the hike with a fanny pack filled with snacks and water. I have since offered to make the hike again or at least to fly Tony over the falls, but he’ not interested. He has also started his own photography business and has no spare time any more.
1 Planning information from the friend-of-a-friend is hearsay and inadmissible.
2 Saving money on maps is a false economy, and don’t use gas-station maps!
3 Take the easiest way available. Its usually the cheapest option.
4 Have an abort plan before starting and stick to it. Don’t let the “we’ve come too far to turn back now” mentality change the abort plan.
5 If it fills my car, I can’t carry it.
6 Three Strikes, you’re out. That is my secondary abort plan. If three minor things go wrong when I still have the option to turn back, its time to abort the mission, because things are only going to get worse.
I have used the three strikes rule in flying and discovered that most pilots have a similar rule. During the preflight inspection each minor flaw that cannot be quickly resolved counts as a strike. If I get three strikes, I cancel the flight. I have included “just not wanting to go” as one strike. One pilot I flew with included a full moon as a strike…
So now you know of the most physically draining adventure I’ve ever been on, the one that shows how bad my decision making paradigm was. And I’ve shared the lessons learned hopefully for your benefit.
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