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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)

Jake, who’d been training so he was in awesome bucket-list shape, had gotten so far ahead that Matt could no longer see him. Matt tried to quicken his pace, maybe be a little less over-cautious so he could catch his brother. His focus moved from the chest pain to just getting down the next three feet of trail. Slide and brake. Down and down.

Jake came into sight, and he was off the trail. He was doing a kind of walk/run scamper along the edge of a promontory on the Supai formation that jutted into the canyon like a shark’s fin.

“Check this out!” Jake shouted back at Matt. “You can see the river from here!”

Matt paused and sipped from his CamelBak. Jake stood still, looking down. Then the Grand Canyon moved. Just a small shift, as it had been doing for millennia. Sandwiched between Coconino and Redwall limestone, the sedimentary Supai was made from 300-million-year-old river deposits of ancient mud that were constantly sloughing off like a snake’s skin. The earth underneath Jake dropped away.

Matt watched as Jake tumbled 20 feet in a cloud of red dirt. He landed on his back and slid down the fine scree like a luge runner. Jake grabbed at cactus and scrub on the 50-degree talus slope, flailing his legs for something, anything, to stop gravity. But he kept sliding, down and down, over the lip of the Supai and out of view.

Matt heard crashing rock. A rapid fire pop, pop, pop echoed off the canyon walls. Strafing.

Matt tossed his trekking poles and ran and slid down the trail. He was laser-focused. He had done this before. Get the guy out alive. Matt reached the bottom of the Redwall and dropped his pack on the trail. He scrambled up a ravine, furiously pushing upward now, toward the point where he had last seen his brother. Giant boulders and brush pushed back at him, the thorns tearing at his fatigues.

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