CASPER, Wyo. — When a group of local men decided to hike the notorious rim-to-rim-to-rim trek at the Grand Canyon, they knew it would be a challenge. They didn’t expect, however, that it would be life-changing.
As part of local group Man-Made, which emphasizes positive expressions of masculinity, founder Josh Kalinowski, Peter Nicolaysen, Brandon Daigle and Arturo Miramantes have been on a number of expeditions together. In late March, they headed to Arizona to add another trek to their names at one of the nation’s most well-known geographic landmarks.
“We typically do trips like this a couple times per year,” Kalinowski said. “Last fall we climbed the Grand Tetons. And we’ll do local events throughout the year too.”
Nicolaysen had been to the Grand Canyon previously, and when Kalinowski approached him with the idea to do the rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, he jumped at the opportunity. Daigle and Miramantes were equally excited.
Before embarking on the trip, though, the group knew they’d need to be well-prepared. The hike involves traversing down into the canyon, then hiking to the far end, climbing a steep ascent to the top of the canyon and then turning around and going back the way you came. In total, the hike is roughly 50 miles long, and it had to be done in one day.
“There’s no camping involved along the way when doing the R3,” Kalinowski said. “You’ve got to do it all in one go.”
The group began training and planning for the strenuous hike, but as they got closer to the date of their trip, they realized the weather forecast was less than ideal.
“We were looking at the 10-day forecast and things were getting worse and worse down there. They were calling for lots of rain and snow,” Nicolaysen said. “We began repacking our bags and really thinking about gear and what we needed.”
With inclement weather that would make an already-difficult hike even more challenging, the group discussed possibly postponing the trip, but ultimately decided that wasn’t an option.
“We did discuss some contingency plans in case things got worse, but we realized nothing was stopping us from going,” Kalinowski said. “As the elements got worse, we kind of felt even more obligated to go. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy, and the harder it gets, then the greater story it would be.”
“For us, quitting wasn’t an option,” Nicolaysen said.
And so, after joining a group of hikers that totaled 12 men from across the country, the four Casper men set off into the Grand Canyon at roughly 10 p.m. on a cold and rainy night.
As they trekked through the canyon, the hike lived up to its challenging reputation. Damage to the trails caused by the recent weather slowed the men down, and waterfalls along the way ensured that they weren’t going to remain dry as they completed the journey. On top of that, Daigle said, winds were gusting at 25–30 mph.
“It was slippery, wet [and] uneven,” Miramantes said.
“The crampons went on back in the asphalt parking lot,” Nicolaysen added with a chuckle, referring to spikes that can be affixed to boots to help with traction.
Despite the challenges, it was also a profound and moving experience for the group.
“It was incredible; I’ve never seen anything like it,” Daigle said.
Roughly seven hours into the hike, the group stopped at a rest station just a few miles out from the ascent to the top of the rim. It was at this stop that the trip took an unexpected turn for all in the group.
When they arrived at the rest station, the hikers soon heard someone calling out for help from inside an outdoor toilet stall.
“When we first heard him, it took all of us by surprise,” Nicolaysen said. “We’d been out there for hours at that point and hadn’t come across anybody.”
When the group opened up the stall, they found a young man, nearly unconscious, clearly showing signs of hypothermia and without most of his clothes, as he’d taken them off in an attempt to dry them.
Immediately, the group jumped to help him. They quickly wrapped him in one of their blankets, and another hiker — who’d brought a burner, hot chocolate packets and Styrofoam cups — was able to help warm him up as well.
“He was turning blue. It was clear he was suffering from hypothermia at that point,” Nicolaysen said.
The group called for help and were able to gain entry into the locked ranger building. They helped the man, who later identified himself as David, lay down and put his clothes in the dryer on site.
Almost immediately, he passed out from exhaustion.
The group later learned that David, an employee at the park, had decided along with a friend to do the R3 hike in a very spur-of-the-moment decision. The friend turned back fairly quickly, but David pressed on. Without proper attire or hiking gear, he soon found himself wet and cold in snowy, sub-freezing temperatures.
David allegedly holed up in the restroom stall near midnight, and stayed there until he was eventually found about five hours later.
“When I think about it, I think, ‘Man, if we’d postponed this, David might not be with us today,'” Nicolaysen said. “That’s how serious it was. This hike — and especially in those conditions — can be life-threatening if you aren’t prepared. He was barely conscious and in no condition to use a phone, he’d been there basically all night, and now here it is, 5 a.m., and who knows when the next people would be by. I’m no medical professional, but he was in super bad shape, and people die every year in conditions just like that.”
Finally, most of the group continued on, though some — including Miramantes — stayed behind with David.
“We thought we’d be at that stop for 10, maybe 15 minutes,” Nicolaysen said. “Instead it was more like two hours.”
Miramantes said David slept for roughly two hours before waking back up.
“He was out and he was pretty much shivering the whole time,” Miramantes said. “When he woke up, he was still kind of out of it. He was wandering around, saying that he needed to leave and get back.”
Meanwhile, the other members of the group continued up the ridge. As they climbed, though, conditions became more hairy. That, coupled with how behind schedule they were, led the group to realize they should turn back before officially reaching the rim, though they were barely a mile away.
“At that point, we were waist-deep in snow and couldn’t really even see the trail anymore,” Kalinowski said. “From where we were, it was still going to be hours before we reached the rim, and then we of course still had the entire way back to go after that.”
“We were disappointed, but also not,” Daigle added. “We knew it was the right decision.”
When they arrived back at the ranger station, the group learned that they would have to take David back to a trail near the canyon’s entrance, at which point park personnel would be able to help him.
Rather than view the responsibility as a nuisance, Nicolaysen and another hiker viewed it as a chance to get to know the young man, and they soon struck up a conversation.
“At first, we were just talking about preparedness and the sort of things you need to know to be an outdoorsman,” Nicolaysen said. “But then we started talking more about our lives, and we learned he didn’t really have a father figure growing up. So we started talking about his faith, the future and some more personal stuff. … We basically condensed 10 years of advice into a 10-mile walk.
“Of course, if he hadn’t been as talkative or was having a hard time keeping up, we wouldn’t have pressed him and we would’ve gone slowly to make sure he was OK. But he actually was doing a great job keeping up.”
After returning to Casper, the group decided to reach out to David, and he responded with a heartfelt reply, thanking them for all they did for him. And though the group said it remains to be seen whether they’ll stay in contact, they know the experience with David left a lasting impression with them.
“This young man is the future,” Kalinowski said. “For Peter and [fellow group member Jimmy Kleager] to have several hours with him, encourage him and offer him guidance was an awesome experience for everyone involved. It’s really the epitome of what we’re trying to do with this group.”
As for the hike itself, Kalinowski said he’s already begun planning a return to the Grand Canyon in which the group can have another go at the R3 and hopefully make it all the way to the rim.
“It’s unfinished business,” he said with a smile.