The Grand Canyon is not to grand for these blind students

Mike Armstrong is the health and wellness coordinator for SAAVI. Mike lost his vision over twenty years ago but that did not stop him from being active and accomplishing the things he wanted to do. Mr. Armstrong is an avid hiker completing the 800-mile Arizona Trail along with a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon trek in a single day. Mr. Armstrong is a personal trainer and martial arts instructor who owns his own dojo for teaching. His mission in life is to show others that being visually impaired doesn’t mean they can’t be active and fit.

The Grand Canyon is not too grand to keep these blind students out In May of 2016 I led two groups of blind and visually impaired hikers in and out of the Grand Canyon via the Southern Kaibab trail. Due to my role and responsibility as the Coordinator of the hike, I felt an extremely strong connection to this entire group. Training the group of blind students from no hiking experience to trekking in and out of the largest Canyon filled me with concern for their safety and finally relief and pride for their accomplishment. I am an avid hiker with thousands of miles under my belt, but the Grand Canyon SAAVI Hikes were one of the most memorable. This is just one point of view of over a hundred involved in the training, logistics, and execution, but I hope this helps you experience a bit of what we did in the Canyon.

When I first brought up the idea of taking a group down into the Grand Canyon SAAVI’s management was supportive, but interested to see how serious I was about leading the group. After a few months of conversations with both C.E.O. Mike Gordon and C.O.O. Amy Porterfield I was asked to give a solid plan of what it would take to lead a group of our students and staff in and out of the Grand Canyon. Amy challenged me to reach out to some friends that I respected for their opinion on techniques and suggestions. So I presented an outline of a 14 mile hike to the bottom and out in two days. I also contacted a few respected hiking and climbing buddies.

The four people I contacted for advice were Eric Weihenmayer, Trevor Thomas, Daniel Kish, and Kevin Churilla. These guys have serious experience with world class expeditions. I received several suggestions. They had varying opinions, but all of them were supportive. I felt honored to have these guys’ experiences to pull from.

Our training started in November of 2015. My first count of interested blind hikers was around forty five. The size of the interested group between our three locations was daunting to say the least especially as most of these interested parties had never hiked. There are three main types of techniques used by blind hikers. The first is a variation on sighted guide. Next is a mix of using a cane and a trekking pole to feel the terrain. Lastly the third method uses a sound source for tracking and two trekking poles to navigate the trail. This third technique is the one that I am most experienced with and as such taught. We used bear bells as the sound source in conjunction with the sound of our team’s feet on the trail and their voice as they talked. Some of the team leads would call out major changes in the trail, some kept a constant communication, and while others just focused on keeping their breath s some of the hikes were quite difficult. Another area we put a lot of focus on was posture/body position. To keep balance one needs to keep the knees bent with the hips back and use a set of trekking poles to feel the trail. This allows the hiker to move over the terrain in a manner similar to the shocks on a vehicle. It also gives the hiker more stability with less jarring to the back and neck. The method enables the blind hiker to hike hands free from a guide allowing for a more independent type of hiking. With practice this technique can be used completely independent with just a compass and a fun trail.

The training was getting harder and though the teams were training aggressively to be ready, several hikers had to make some difficult decisions. As we continued the training hikes our numbers gradually lessened. Some of this was due to health issues; some was from time and family commitments and others were to new jobs and school. Even though some of the students had to drop out I honestly don’t feel any of them failed. The experiences during the training hikes made for their own adventures. Every one that had to drop out reported that they wanted to be able to make it on one of the following year’s hikes. It seemed like the six months of preparation flew by, but All three of SAAVI’s locations were pushing through their barriers to succeed!

We had four companies that stepped up to help us on this journey. Peace Surplus from Flagstaff really went to bat for us with contacting manufactures for discounts and donations. What they could not get donated they gave us at what seemed like less than their own cost. Leki donated several pairs of trekking poles. Mountain Smith also sent us several pairs of trekking poles. KAVU gave us the gift of shade with their sweet Chilba hats. We were blessed with their belief and help. Now we just had to show them that we could actually hike it.

Early on the morning of May eighth the first group of hikers from Tucson, Yuma, and Phoenix were up and heading out for the Grand Canyon. Several of them had family and friends going on the hike with them. As the vehicles were loaded up one could feel the anticipation and nerves working through their system. The lists had been reworked and rechecked several times and they were ready. Little did we know that this day would be the scariest life threatening part of our trip.

The first part of the morning went pretty smooth. I was in one of two vans that came up early to start setting up camp and scout out any issues that could come up. We had intermittent rainfall throughout the day, but things looked good for Monday. We were right on schedule and all went well at the campsite. As the vans started arriving we heard about some terrifying news. The family of two good friends of mine Mark and Melody had most of their family have a severe rollover accident on the way up. After hitting a flurry of sleet and hail their daughter lost control and flipped their S U V over the median through and past oncoming traffic. At the time I first heard about it there were two passengers that were not responsive and the vehicle was so damaged that they thought it would be lucky if anybody survived. Thank the Lord this was not the case. It took the Jaws of Life to extract them, but everyone made it through. By Sunday afternoon we had the news that things were looking amazing considering the severity of the accident. There were two major injured, one with a broken back and the other with a broken neck. They both had successful surgeries. They both were released and walking out within a couple of days.

This event put a sad and serious note on the camp that night. We were all extremely thankful that they all made it through, but were concerned for the Taylor family. I remember lying awake in my tent praying for them. It ran through my mind that if I had not planned the event the accident would not have happened. I knew rationally that there was nothing I could have done to stop the accident, but I still hurt for my friends.

After a fitful night of sleep to the sounds of coyotes and other wildlife I awoke prior to my 4:30 alarm. I could hear some of the other campers stirring and Kryslen starting the hot water for coffee. This first group had 41 people involved, so getting everyone moving was a bit slow. Our start time of 7 did not happen. We were able to assemble the entire crew at the trail head around 8:30. After a short group prayer the smaller groups gathered and began their way down the Canyon. I was partnered with Mustapha as the lead group. I had Mike O’s team (fellow Health and Wellness Instructor) in the back so that one of us would be at each end of the line.

On this first hike day the goal was to hike down as far as each team felt comfortable with. We set a maximum distance of Skeleton Point or the turnaround time of 11:30, which ever came first. Skeleton Point is a bit shy of the half way point. At any point the teams could head back up if they felt that they had gone far enough. I made sure that everyone knew it was all about experiencing the Canyon regardless of how far they went. Our goal was to get the whole crew in and out of the Canyon safely.

As I started down I felt Excited to be back in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. You do not have to see the Canyon to experience its wonder. Immediately as you descend you hear the sound change all around you. The wind at the top begins to lessen, but the sound of the empty space next to you is almost tangible. I always enjoy talking to the friends I hike with as I can hear the wonder in their voice and create images of the scenery from their descriptions. One thing I remember about seeing the Canyon before losing my sight was how it looked so intense that it looked unreal or fake. This has been the same thing I heard from several hikers this time as well.

Whenever you hike a dangerous trail there is this constant feeling or buzz of tension due to the threat from the drop off. In the Grand Canyon you are very aware of how close the edge is and how far down a fall would be. I use a scale for drop offs from 1 to 5. It works kind of like this; a 1 means you might sprain an ankle, 2 would end your hike for the day and might involve a trip to the hospital, 3 is a trip to see a doctor with a serious injury incurred, 4 is where you would be very lucky to survive, and 5 is a death drop with no chance of surviving the fall. In the Canyon most of the time a 5 is just a couple of feet away. The first time I hiked it I was terrified and there was a constant feeling of mortality. I knew that many of our hikers were feeling this, but I also knew they all had hiked more technical trails with no serious injuries.

I made a point of descending the trail at a quick pace. Our 3 land marks were Ooh Ah Lookout, Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point. As you work your way down you pass through several changes in the rock. The first section is rather smooth with a step down about every few feet. This gradually becomes more difficult as you get to Ooh Ah Point. Then the next section is much rockier and far less flat. As you hit Cedar Ridge it mellows from time to time, but has some very challenging areas before you hit Skeleton Point. The rock also changes colors as you travel. I have heard how it is like layers almost like a pattern on material. It has also been described similar to a cake. Although I think that describer might have been a bit hungry at the time. The colors range from dark to light brown, yellow, tan and gold, orange, pink and red and even one section that was green.

Mustapha and I made it down to Skeleton Point around 10:15. We kept in contact with the rest of the groups via radio and waited until our planned turn around at 11:30. Most of the teams made it to Cedar Ridge and The teams with Mike, Nicholas, Ben, Alison, Gabriel, Cyrus, Luis, Josh, Loreto, Glen and Mcdaniel continued to a point just shy of Skeleton Point, but had to turn back due to fatigue or time constraints.

As the groups started up they realized the strain on the body was totally different. On the way down you feel it on the knees, and ankles with little cardio work as you are working with gravity. Going up on the other hand is technically easier, but much harder on the legs and cardio endurance. There is a saying about the Canyon that warns you about this “You choose how far you go down, but don’t have a choice about how far you hike up”. I made sure the group was very aware of this, but it still surprised several of them how truly challenging the climb out is.

After about thirty minutes Mustapha and I met up with Gabe and Alison. They were taking a break and seemed pretty tired. Alison had a rough time with her team coming down and was ready for a break. She had switched teams with Mike O so she and Gabe were working their way up. Gabe seemed exhausted, so I offered to guide him out. That’s right the blind guiding the other blind guy up. I had Gabe grab on to one of the heavy duty straps on the back of my pack. I told him to put as much weight as he wanted on my pack and I would tell him about the terrain as we came to it. This immediately got both of us fired up! I felt like I had all of this energy coming from being able to help him. This was such a powerful and emotional experience for me. I felt a lump in my throat as I realized how much I had grown. Knowing he trusted me and trusting in myself to use sound and my trekking poles to get us both safely out of this Grand Canyon almost brought me to tears. The strange thing for me was I honestly felt more energy than I had the whole day. The next two hours we worked together. Mustapha rang the bell, I listened with more focus than I had ever before, Gabe held on and pushed through farther than he thought he could while Alison encouraged him on. The thing to keep in mind was that his difficulty coming out had nothing to do with blindness; it was about exhaustion from this trail. We were the last group out, but emotionally charged.

When we all made it back to camp we celebrated and told stories of the Canyon. Every person had an incredible experience and learned more about themselves. There were even three students (Nicholas, Josh, and Luis) coming back the following week to do it again, only this time it was going to be all the way to the bottom and back out…

The Second hike was very different than the first. The camp site was in the same place, but we only had half as many participants and only twelve of us were hiking to the bottom. We had one group of four doing a partial hike and we had a couple of campers that came along to help. Our logistic masters Kryslen and Sandra who helped organize most of the camping plans could not come on this trip. We did have McDaniel’s Aunt and Uncle helping with the cooking and Amanda helping with logistics. Fortunately everyone made it safely to the Mather Campgrounds this time. The smaller group made things less busy. Also the mood was lighter. I felt like the hikers were a bit more nervous, yet really excited about the next day.

We had two new members of our party from the Arizona Republic. They were there to write a story about SAAVI and this hike. The photographer was even going to hike the Canyon with us in spite of the fact that he had not been hiking or training for it. I was a bit concerned, but he seemed really up for it. I also know that about ninety percent of hiking difficult trails is mental.

This morning of the hike we were much more proactive about getting started earlier. I was up at 3:45 and could hear the camp stirring. We had all prepared our packs the night before and were ready to go at 5:15. The distance of the day’s hike made it imperative we get an earlier start. We made it to the trailhead by 5:35. After a prayer for safety and some pictures we were off.

This time we changed the order of our groups. Mike O, and Nicholas took the lead with the Yuma crew shortly behind. Yuma had the site manager West and Ronda representing for the long hike. Tucson had Josh and Lewis going to the bottom and out with McDaniel shooting for Skeleton Point. We also had Nate going down with Jorden, and Jonathan doing a partial hike with Mcdaniel. My team was the last to start down at 6 on the nose

As Mustapha, Erin, Gabriella and I worked our way down the South Kaibab I could hear the augh in Gabby and Erin’s voices. This is an experience that can last a life time and give you a sense of accomplishment. Gabby and Erin were ecstatic about the experience and this energy permeated our group.

Going down is actually more difficult as a blind or visually impaired hiker. When going up one falls into the mountain, but going down forces you to be very careful with each step. During the training hikes Gabby expressed her dislike of going down. It is generally harder on the knees, neck, and back. So as we descended we were very aware of using good technique squatting and sinking those hips back. We went through Ooh Auh and Cedar Ridge Then Skeleton Point and the last stop before the bottom, Tipp Off.

After Tipp Off the trail becomes smoother as the rock is replaced with a softer dirt. Also the angle of descent is a bit less. It is really hard to tell because your legs and knees are ready to be done. At this point everyone just looks forward to going back up. This section is where we ran into two of the groups coming back up. Mike, Nicholas, and Cyrus were in great spirits and let us know we had about twenty minutes to the bottom. Shortly thereafter Ronda and West were cruising up.

After six hours of hiking we made it to the bottom. There is a foot bridge that crosses the Colorado River that is suspended about a hundred feet over the river. After you cross this it is a short walk down to the Colorado.

Although we had a long hike out, we still took some time to eat lunch and dip our feet in the river. Bailey, Josh and Luis waited for us so we could get a picture together on the bottom. The water is unbelievable but seriously cold. It is like putting your feet in a bucket of ice water. The feeling of being on the bottom is amazing. I always want to just pitch a tent and enjoy the Canyon, but this was not in the cards for this day. So, after refilling our water we started back up.

Counter to the laws of gravity, what goes up must come down; we who went down had to come back up. This is the real test on ones cardio and leg strength. At first it feels good to get the legs working the other direction. This however is short lived. About an hour after starting the trek back up we were all filling it. This is when Gabby jokingly said “Mike can you just give me a push up from behind?” We laughed and then I said “Let’s give this a try instead”. I then had her grab on my straps on my pack like I did with Gabe. This picked up our speed and again I felt the added energy from helping guide a fellow blind hiker out.

A step by step explanation of our assent going back up the Canyon would become tedious and extremely difficult to describe. I can tell you that it is really hard and a serious mental game as much as a physical one. I have heard from several people that it is the hardest thing they had ever done with comparisons to being tougher than a Tough Mudder (an extremely difficult half marathon obstacle course) and child birth. . In fact, Rob, our photographer from the Arizona Republic, called to have a helicopter fly him out at Tip Off, the one-third point. They asked him if he was bleeding profusely or had a life threatening injury. He said no and they said he could hike back down or they could have someone meet him at the two thirds point Cedar Ridge. So, he sucked it up and kept following the Caboose. We took some of his weight off his pack and made sure he stayed with us. the next six and a half hours crept by. We made contact via radio from time to time, but we just kept hiking. Erin had this constant banter that lifted the spirit. Laughter is an excellent balm to fatigue. Mustapha’s back hurt Rob’s leg and hip hurt and were all getting exhausted. We were not quite able to beat the sunset before we made it out, but we did it! At eight ten we stood at the top of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. As we made the last few steps Gabby told me she was confused with the terrain change. She was so emotional as I told her “we made it! We are at the top! You did it, we did it!”

This set of hikes was truly successful. Everyone that hiked into the Grand Canyon made it in and back out safely. The groups as a whole had an amazing time. Rob our photographer actually called me two days after the hike and said he wanted to do it again. When everyone asks me what is next, I try to motivate them to find their own new adventure. You do not need me to pursue these types of activities. Make a goal and go for it. You can live your own adventure, just set the bar high and do your due diligence. Also don’t for get to TRAIN, TRAIN, and TRAIN some more!

These types of challenges/adventures are something that helps us grow and expand what we think we can do. I believe they have helped me understand about myself and improve my confidence more than I can ever communicate. The memories from living these adventures create bonds and memories with my teams that will stick with me until my dyeing day.