In late March, a group of hikers — including four Casper men — set out to complete the R3 hike at the Grand Canyon. (Submitted Photo)

CASPER, Wyo. — An 18-year-old California man who nearly lost his life earlier this year attempting the Grand Canyon’s rim-to-rim-to-rim, or R3, hike is ready to return to the challenge, and this time he’s bringing friends.

Those friends are his rescuers-turned-mentors, a group that includes Casper resident and former Colorado Rockies pitcher Josh Kalinowski.

The Rescue

The R3 in Arizona’s Grand Canyon is well known to seasoned outdoor adventurers as a meaningful achievement. The vistas of the natural wonder attract nearly 5 million tourists annually, but only about 1% hike to the bottom. Of those, upwards of 250 require rescue mid-hike, and the canyon claims an average of 12 lives per year.

David Hatton II, of Crescent City, California, didn’t finish the R3 on his first attempt in March 2023, but he did come away from the experience with a fantastic story and an indelible connection with a new band of brothers.

“I prayed for my life to be saved and this group of men found me out of nowhere. It was like divine intervention,” Hatton said.

Late last winter, the 18-year-old had started the R3 with a friend, only to face the hike alone after the friend turned back. Determined to complete the task, Hatton forged ahead. He was caught by the weather and soaked, stranded in the canyon snow with his body temperature falling fast. The clock ticking as he braved the elements, he reached the Manzanita rest area only to find that the Park Service Ranger Residence was seasonally staffed and not yet open. He found a bathroom to shelter in and stripped out of his wet gear. As far as he knew, no help was coming.

Luckily for Hatton, another group was out on the frosty trails in the early pre-dawn hours. A band of 13 men was attempting the R3. The group was led by the three founders of Man-Made: Kalinowski, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Kleager, and retired U.S. Navy SEAL and sniper school instructor William Branum. The three leaders and their clients had been training for this adventure for weeks, yet everyone was caught off guard when they heard cries for help in the dark as they reached Manzanita.

That’s when they found Hatton dangerously cold, shivering in his underwear in the rest station bathroom. According to Kleager, Hatton was wise to strip down after his cotton gear got soaked.

“In the adventure world, there is a saying, ‘cotton kills,’ because as soon as it gets wet, it wicks the heat away from the body. Wearing wool or other technical clothing is preferable, but for David, it was too late.” Kleager said. “Even in underwear, a person is in a better situation than they’d be with wet clothes on sucking out body heat. I’m just glad we could help him in time.”

The expedition members jumped in to help. They wrapped Hatton in a sleeping bag and space blanket and broke out their camp stoves to make him hot chocolate and deliver needed electrolytes. When the group contacted Park Service rangers from Phantom Ranch to mobilize an evacuation team, they collaborated on a game plan. It was more efficient for team members to walk him to the safety of Phantom Ranch themselves, including Kleager.

On the long hike to Phantom Ranch, the men forged a genuine connection. Kleager spoke at length with Hatton, learning about his upbringing in Sacramento and his relationships with his family. They talked about proper mountaineering gear. They spoke of his drive and desire to accomplish great things, his search to find his way in the world and what it means to be a man in 2023.

Planned Return

Six months later, Hatton has completely recovered and is eager to return to the canyon that nearly claimed his life.

On Oct. 2, he will rejoin his rescuers-turned-mentors to attempt to conquer the R3 hike once and for all.

“Exposure is no joke. That situation easily could have gone so much worse. Another couple of hours, and I wouldn’t have made it. I feel so incredibly lucky,” Hatton said.

“I have often thought of David and his predicament over the last few months. Running into him that night was miraculous. I think the situation was as meaningful to us as it was to him,” Kleager said. “He has heart, and we’re so happy to have met him … even if it wasn’t the trip we expected.”

“You could say that the R3 and I have unfinished business. Only this time, I’m not going it alone,” Hatton said.