National Geographic : 2016 Sep
Losing the grand canyon 139 Then he removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he said softly. “It’s very emotional to be standing here.” Then he told us the story of what had happened to the young woman in whose memory the stones had been placed. HER NAME WAS IOANA ELISE HOCIOTA. She originally was from Romania, spoke four lan- guages, and had degrees in mathematics and biology. She was 24, newly married, and she and her husband, Andrew Holycross, were close to completing a sectional thru-hike of the canyon. By the winter of 2012, Hociota had set her sights on the 20-mile stretch of ledges near the Great Thumb Mesa. When Holycross realized that his work schedule would prevent him from going, Hociota paired up with Matthias Kawski, a math professor and her academic mentor. They were in the middle of Owl Eyes when they stopped for lunch. Afterward Kawski head- ed farther up into the shale. Hociota opted for a more direct line that took her out of Kawski’s sight. A minute or two later Kawski heard a rock fall, followed by a sharp scream, and then, after a few seconds, a hollow thump. Scrambling to the edge of the cliff, he peered down, looking in vain for Hociota. He called out over and over. Nothing. The next day Hociota’s body was discovered, and a ranger tethered to a helicopter was low- ered to retrieve it. When Rudow finished his story, he looked west, where the sun was angling toward the canyon’s rim. “Guys,” he announced. “ We’re gonna have to spend the night here.” That night all of our water bottles froze, even though we stashed them inside the two tents that we pitched on the tiny patch of flat ground next to Hociota’s memorial. Our shoes froze too, and the next morning we had to hold them over our camp stoves to thaw them out. We broke camp and trudged the rest of the way across the snow-encrusted slopes to the flat ledge on the far side of Owl Eyes, where we dried our gear in the sun and looked back at the ground we had crossed. It was a sad and dangerous place, and I was glad to be done with it. But I couldn’t help but note that it was also quite beautiful. In the morning sunlight, even the face of the cliff down which Hociota had fallen was coated in a honey- colored glaze that seemed to glow from with- in. In that moment I may have glimpsed part of what Edward Abbey meant when he wrote about how it’s necessary to crawl across this terrain and bleed before you finally see something. What I saw—or rather, what I understood— was that of the many things that had drawn a math prodigy from Romania into this landscape was that the canyon is emphatically not an amusement park. It is without handrails, a place where the dangers are real. But no less real are the rewards—among them the fact that when you move through an ancient wilderness that has not been compromised, you are reminded of our species’ humble place in it and the fragility of life. Apparently Ioana Hociota understood that she needed places like that. And I suspect that the rest of us may need them too. Four days later we hiked out. And after re- supplying in Flagstaff, Pete and I resumed our thru-hike in a series of pushes that, by the mid- dle of March, brought us to within 50 miles of the end. But the canyon wasn’t through with us. One morning the thermometer on Pete’s watch hit 111 degrees, hotter than the tempera- ture that had triggered his hyponatremia six months earlier. Thirty minutes later we started hiking out. When we began this quest, we had no way of knowing that even after flinging ourselves at the canyon on nine separate trips over the course of a year, the end would still lie before us. As you’re reading this in September 2016, it’s likely we’re back on the trail, trying to finish our thru-hike. If you’re reading this story decades from now, say in 2066, hopefully a vast Grand Canyon wilderness, in the truest sense of the word, still exists. j Discover much more of National Geographic’s adventure coverage, including updates on the final section of Kevin Fedarko and Pete McBride’s 650-mile thru-hike across the Grand Canyon, at ngadventure.com.