Hiking into the Grand Canyon is not an undertaking for the average tourist. The intense heat that builds with each step toward the bottom can sap the strength of the most experienced hiker and make it a dangerous deal for the unprepared.
Margie Rodan of River Falls was prepared, though. “Anybody can do it if I can do it,” said Rodan, one of four women from River Falls who took that journey on Saturday, June 2, beginning their descent as the sun rose over the golden-brown, arid landscape. Fortunately for them, they were far from unprepared. With an 18-week training program under their belts, they were physically ready. They were also inspired — hiking for the countless numbers of people who suffer from blood-related cancers they had the all of the motivation and the mental fortitude that they needed.
“It was probably the most inspirational thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” said Sandy Harrison. “It was over the top terrific.”
"It was an incredible, life changing trip," said Anne Killeen.
HARRISON, RODAN, Killeen, and Ally McMahon had no previous hiking experience when the Hike for Discovery training program began in February.
Hike for Discovery is a program run by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Participants in the nationwide program raise money for the society while being trained and taught how to hike. At the end of the 18-week training program participants had the choice of hiking into the Grand Canyon or a hiking expedition in Yellowstone National Park to honor those who struggle with blood-related cancers. The River Falls women picked the Grand Canyon.
The fund-raising goal for the four women was $4,400 each, goals that they each met and exceeded, Harrison said. Hike for Discovery raised over $2 million nationally, Harrison said.
As they gathered donations from their friends, family and neighbors, the women exercised daily doing leg lifts, crunches and pushups. On weekends they hiked local trails, starting with the Billy Goat Trail in C&O Canal National Historical Park and working their way up to longer hikes in Shenandoah National Park like Little Devil Stairs and Old Rag Mountain.
“We were very well prepared,” McMahon said. “Hiking in the Shenandoah has much different scenery, but the inclines are similar.”
One thing that the women couldn’t prepare for was the heat of the Grand Canyon. Instead they got lucky. After waking at 3:30 a.m. and breakfasting on oatmeal, bananas, and “other power food,” said Harrison, the women began their descent around 4:30 a.m. beneath a lightening sky that remained overcast throughout the day, holding the temperatures in the mid-80s. Even so, it was plenty hot.
“You just perspire unlike anything [else],” Harrison said. “They can’t prepare you for the heat here. We were lucky with the temperatures, and it gets warmer as you get down.”
WRISTBANDS WORN BY the hikers bore the names of those battling blood cancers, and others who have died from them. The hikers also had a real live reminder.
Their hike leader was a nurse from Flagstaff, Ariz. named Madeline. As the women hiked, they talked. They learned that Madeline was in the midst of her own battle with cancer.
“She was undergoing chemo and still had her port in her chest and she had one more round to go and she was kicking our butts,” Harrison said. “We just were overwhelmed by her.”
“She was such a strong and invincible type of person,” Rodan said.
One of the greatest discoveries the women made during their training and fundraising was the number of people they encountered who have been touched by cancer. If they hadn’t fought it themselves, nearly everyone the women met knew had family or friends whose lives had been forever changed by a cancer diagnosis.
“Each time you talked with somebody it was like they had someone in their family who was going through that experience,” said Rodan.
That was true also of those they encountered in Arizona.
“Everybody had some connection, some reason to be giving back and the camaraderie of everyone was just spectacular,” said Harrison.
In addition to the wristbands, the women carried a bandanna with the names of cancer battlers, survivors and victims that donors, friends, and family members had asked that they hike for. In addition the women hiked in honor of their Hike Hero, Kelly Linderman, a local woman who died on Mother’s Day after a nine-year battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a variety of related illnesses.
“It was very sad, she actually died on Mother’s Day in her mother’s arms,” Rodan said. “She had been so sick for so long, it really meant so much to her mother and her family that we continued [to hike] and did that in her memory. It was really wonderful to support her.”
AS THE temperature rose, the four women drank judiciously from the four liters of water that they each carried with them. The zigzagging path of the South Kaibab Trail was well-defined and less boulder-strewn than some of their training hikes, but they knew that staying hydrated was essential if they were to complete their hike successfully.
As they twisted and turned their way more than three miles to Skeleton Point, the point where they would stop and hike back out of the canyon, their confidence grew.
“It was a great sense of accomplishment,” said Rodan. “I would say that some of the hikes we had done in the local training were longer and more challenging.”
They were struck, too, by the beauty of their surroundings.
McMahon said that the cloud cover made the scenery even more beautiful than usual.
“I wish I could find better words to describe it because it was amazing,” said McMahon. “It was one of those places that the pictures can’t do it justice.”
“It was the most beautiful adventure,” Rodan said. “Arizona was just this phenomenal desert.”
Seven hours after they set out, they River Falls women and their hiking group climbed back out of the Grand Canyon feeling tired but invigorated.
“Everybody finished,” Harrison said. “We had no injuries [and] we all felt like we could have done it [again] the next day.”
The women said that they will continue to hike local trails and encouraged others to get involved with Hike for Discovery and similar programs.
“It was phenomenal,” said McMahon. “It was beautiful… It was an amazing experience, we met a lot of inspirational people and we raised a lot of money for a good cause.”