Just below Point Sublime in the Grand Canyon, a rock cairn marks the site where a small plane and a helicopter collided in 1986, killing everyone onboard. The cairn was placed there by KNAU commentator Scott Thybony…his brother John was one of the victims. Scott’s trek to the crash site nearly cost him his own life, and in this month’s Canyon Commentary, he recounts his journey of love and loss.
It happened much faster than expected. I ran out of water deep in the Grand Canyon during the intense heat of mid-August. A hard push, I figured, and a degree of pain would be the only price I’d have to pay. Instead, dehydration quickly took its toll as heat radiated from the surface and thirst worked its way from mouth to throat and then much deeper. A heaviness weighed down each step, my scalp began to tingle, and a shimmering darkness closed in around the edge of my visual field. Earlier I had passed a water pocket, but my chance of reaching it was quickly slipping away. For the first time I realized I might die.
Two months before my brother had lost his life here in a midair crash. He had flown secret missions during the Vietnam War as a combat helicopter pilot, often coming under heavy enemy fire. On a clear, blue morning below Point Sublime his luck ran out. In the wake of the tragedy I felt something still remained unfinished, and decided to make a long trek below the rim to the crash site. Finding it took an effort, and to mark the site I built a cairn by carrying stones between the palms of my hands to keep from burning my fingers. I then said a prayer for the twenty-five passengers and crew caught in the fatal collision. With the air temperature topping 100 degrees I began retracing my steps, now desperate to find water.
When the body becomes seriously dehydrated judgment deteriorates and simple decisions become difficult. I began to veer off course, choosing harder routes despite my experience. Soon my choices narrowed to one: give up and end the struggle or keep going. At that moment my thoughts turned to my wife and son, and without hesitation I chose to live.
The sun flared overhead as light swept down, wave after wave. Reaching a ravine, I could barely descend the cliff to where a low overhang held the last piece of shade. Pulling myself partway beneath it, my strength gave out and a deep inertia set in. I lay still with only half of my body in shadow. All I could do was wait five hours for the sun to drop below the rim.
As I began recovering a bit, my resolve to wait until sundown weakened. I considered the possibility of pushing on, worried I would keep dehydrating even in the shade. Suddenly I began to hallucinate, and it may have saved my life. Next to me sat an old Indian with his black hair hanging loose, framing a broad face, unsmiling. It was as if I had stepped outside a dream and looked back. I didn't talk to him, but I did listen.
“Yes, we wait here, sun go down,” he said in broken English. “Then go to water.” The words were spoken with a simple kindness, confirming what I knew to be necessary. To have continued in the heat would have been lethal. A few minutes later he had disappeared.
The sun finally set, and with apprehension I set out. Moving cautiously, I climbed the far side of the ravine and continued slowly, one step following the other until a glimmer of water appeared ahead. Offering a few words of thanks for the beauty of the world and the life it gives, I knelt down and filled a cup. I kept drinking until it was drained without being able to quench my thirst. Finding a spot to bivouac for the night, I curled up in the sand thinking about the climb out tomorrow.
Despite the difficulties ahead, I knew I would live. In a time of loss I had lost sight of the need to be alive, and had stumbled into circumstances where the choice became clear. Facing death, I had chosen to live. Above me the highest cliffs dissolved in a burning incandescence, glowing red for a long moment as the darkness welled up from the inner gorge.