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Worst Nightmare: Man Down

A hair-raising tale of wilderness terror that will haunt your backcountry dreams
Oct12_WaterBottle_445x260Water Bottle (iStockphoto)

It could be a heart attack. The pinch under his left pec could be the first squeeze of massive cardiac failure. With only his naive little brother to help him, he could die here, in the jaws of the Grand Canyon. Matt knew his therapist at the VA would call this kind of thinking “catastrophizing.”

He tried to come up with other scenarios that were not worst-case. Maybe it was just a too-heavy pack pulling on his out-of-shape torso? Or it could be from the way he was braking with all his might against his trekking poles as he tried to lower his body over two-foot ledges. Matt took his eyes off his feet for a few seconds, sucked air, and looked out into the canyon. It was dead quiet and far more beautiful than he’d expected. And so damn big. Twenty miles wide and 5,000 feet deep—impossible to fathom until you were actually inside of it.

Jake was about 100 feet ahead of him, practically hopping down the rocks. They were here because it was on Jake’s bucket list. His brother had all these places to go before he turned 50. Grand Canyon was something like #10 out of 25. Matt couldn’t keep track. Nepal, Kilimanjaro, Alaska, Patagonia were also on the list. But Jake was just celebrating his 40th birthday on this trip so there was plenty of time. At least there was for someone as energetic and optimistic as Jake.

Matt was different from his brother. He would never tempt fate with a “things to do before I die” kind of pact. If he had a bucket list that he talked about the way Jake did, Matt was positive he would die in a dumb way (like a heart attack while hiking) before he got very far on the list. His therapist called this “survivor’s guilt.” Five years in Afghanistan had taken its toll. Fallen comrades were the hungry ghosts that followed Matt, sometimes appearing—broken, bloody, lifelike but always dying—in moments of stress.

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