Don’t Hike the Tanner Trail in August or“The Art of Drinking Brown Piss”
Updated: Sep 8, 2018
It occurred to me, as I was attempting to urinate into an empty water bottle with temperatures exceeding 105 degrees on the Tanner Trail of Grand Canyon National Park why nobody else was on the trail that day. The trail’s rugged to begin with, but to boot, it’s almost entirely exposed without shade, provides no drinkable water sources but for the Colorado River at the base of the canyon, and August just isn’t an ideal time to be covering those miles.
I failed to take any of these things into consideration when I set out to trail yesterday. They were all obvious facts that any sensible person would have seen right away and planned to hike elsewhere, but somehow I had convinced myself that hiking the nine miles down to the Colorado River on a trail that I’d never traversed before was a sound idea.
When I pulled into the park after camping just outside it’s gate in the Kaibab National Forest, there was a forecast sign at the park entrance. At the rim of the canyon the high was forecasted to be 87 degrees, and at the canyon’s base it would be 108. And somehow I decided in that moment that those numbers couldn’t be right—it had to be a mistake.
I’d hiked the Grand Canyon from top to bottom and back well over a hundred times before yesterday. Granted, most of those descents were along the main corridor on the same three or four trails over and over, I just assumed that the Tanner Trail would be more of the same of what I’d seen before. But as I sat there in the glowing heat of the sun, trying to piss into an empty water bottle so that if worse came to worse I could drink that instead of die, I realized that I’d made a terrible miscalculation.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d found myself considering the prospect of having to drink my own urine to stay alive, but it was the closest that I’d ever come to actually doing so. Having hiked thousands of miles throughout Arizona in the last ten years since moving here in 2006, I’ve encountered more than a few situations where water scarcity brought me to the point of thinking about what it meant to be severely dehydrated. I’ve spent long miles dreaming about cold running water and wishing for that more than anything else that life could give me in the moment. It wasn’t until yesterday however that it almost happened.
When I set out on the Tanner Trail it was 6:20am. From the top of the canyon to the Colorado River there wasn’t a single other hiker to be seen. There weren’t even any footprints along the trail since the last rain had fallen. This was a barren and desolate land devoid of the hundreds of people that I’m so used to seeing along the canyon’s more populated trails.
I should have taken the amount that I was sweating on the way down as a warning to turn around. Usually I can make it to the bottom of the canyon along the other trails with which I’m more familiar without even breaking a sweat, but the exposure of the Tanner Trail made this a different day.
I was stupid though, and I didn’t take that as a warning to turn around short. Instead I made it to the canyon’s floor and bathed in the cold waters of the Colorado River at 9am. Twenty minutes later, after a drinking a third of a liter of water and three trail bars, I started my climb out. That left me with two and a half liters of water. It should have been enough, but even in that moment, I was aware that I would be cutting things close. How close however is what ended up nearly costing me my life yesterday.
Immediately after starting up the trail, I could feel that the temperatures of the Tanner Trail were higher than I was used to. I’m more used to hiking in the heat than most people whom I’ve met on trail, but the variable that I really failed to take into consideration was that even though I’d walked the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails again and again and again, those two trails actually provide shaded relief from the hot desert sun in the early morning hours. The Tanner Trail gives no relief. For the entire length of the trail the only shade provided are in isolated little pockets behind boulders and sparse Juniper trees. But during the hike itself, there’s no shade to speak of. It’s all exposed.
Within the first two miles of climbing it occurred to me that this would be a more challenging day than I’d anticipated. Sweat was pouring off of me at an alarming rate, and it started to sink in that this was going to be more of a climb than I was looking for when I started out three hours prior. Then by the third mile out of the nine that it would take to get to the top, I was keenly aware that it was going to be more than a challenging afternoon. At that point I was actually becoming worried.
A mile later worry turned into fear. It was sinking in more and more with every step that I’d gotten myself into a situation that I should have been smart enough to avoid. I spent an hour thinking long and hard about these facts: This is Arizona. It’s August. There’s no shade on this trail. There’s no water along this trail. There’s nobody on this trail but for me. I didn’t tell anyone where I’d be today.
Condors circled overhead. I know that most people would write that facetiously, but I mean it literally. Granted it’s the Grand Canyon and condors circling overhead isn’t too unusual, but when you’re out in those conditions, contemplating what it might be like to die from a heat stroke, you wonder if they might be watching and waiting.
Around half way up the trail I finished half of my water. I’d consumed a third of a liter on the way down, started the trail with two and two thirds liters, and now I was down to one and a half with around five more miles to go. The voice in my head that normally pushes me right out of the canyon kept saying that if I just kept moving then I’d be in higher elevations where the temperatures are cooler, but I reached that point at the half way mark of the Tanner climb where I was physically incapacitated. I took a break three miles into the climb, then another break a half mile later, then another break an eighth of a mile later, and then finally I was resting at every switchback. I was curling up behind little stones that almost provided enough shade to keep me out of the sun, but every time I stopped it occurred to me that I was still sweating. Sweat is water. If I sat there and sweated out all of my water then I’d be in even worse trouble than I already found myself.
I’ll spare the details, but by the time I was two miles short of the rim of the canyon, I was almost completely out of water. I’d run out of electrolytes, despite thinking that I’d brought a surplus. My legs were cramping, and so too were my abdominal muscles, my shoulders, and my jaw. I started licking the salt deposits off of my arms and legs to keep sodium in my system and stop the cramping, but all the while I knew that was bringing me deeper into dehydration. Once I ran out of salt to lick off of myself I started sucking it out of my hat.
I thought about the newspaper headlines that would be published after they found my body. It was embarrassing, but motivating too. They’d tell the story of the guy who’d hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to river and back over a hundred times, and then was killed attempting his 135th descent. I thought about the signs that clearly tell hikers to not attempt hiking from the top of the canyon to the bottom and back in a single day. I thought about what they’d say about me after I was found there, being picked apart by condors. “See,” they’d say, “that’s what happens when you play with fire. Eventually you get burned.”
And then when it finally came down to it, I couldn’t even pee. I tried at first, but failed. I had started my hike very hydrated, and no doubt that this saved my life yesterday. All through my hike down to the bottom of the canyon I was stopping regularly to urnate alongside the trail. That morning I’d drank a large coffee and two liters of coconut water. The second one was almost an afterthought as I left the car towards the trailhead, but I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to have just a little bit of extra fluid in my system. As I worked my way down the trail, my urine went from clean and clear to a light yellow, but then as I reached the halfway point of my climb out the Tanner Trail, I realized that I hadn’t peed in too long. It had been more than two hours. I thought long and hard about how much water I had left in the little bag that I was carrying, and finally decided that when I peed next—if I peed again—then I’d have to bottle it in case worse came to worse and my choice was drinking piss or dying out here on the trail. But when it came down to it and I thought that I needed to pee, I couldn’t do it. I was scared, hunkered down in the little bit of shade that a Juniper tree provided, because I knew that if I couldn’t pee then I was already short on water.
Within the last mile and a half I was suffering. I’d walk ten steps, and fall to the ground, rest for a minute or two, and then get back up and do it again. I finished off the very last of my water, but saved what couldn’t have been more than four ounces. Finally, I managed to pee, but when I did, it was horrifying. What I produced was no longer clean and clear like I’d seen in the morning. This could barely even be called yellow. I peed what would most accurately be considered a brown fluid. You know you’re in a bad place when you are comparing your pee to molasses. And what I did produce was barely six ounces. Six ounces of the darkest, thickest pee that I’ve ever seen in my entire thirty-one years on this earth. That, I realized, was what I’d have to drink if things continued going the way that they were.
I never wanted to reach the point where I’d have to drink piss, but as I sat there, looking at the little bit of off-brown liquid that I’d excreted, I realized that if your’e going to drink piss, this isn’t the kind of piss that you want to have to drink. I wondered if it would even do me any good if it came down to drinking it. Would I just end up puking, and if so, would I be doing more harm than good at that point? Would that thick, dark fluid even help me in the least, or was it so full of minerals that it would just dehydrate me further. These are things that you don’t want to have to ask yourself out on the trail, alone, like I was yesterday, but these things raced through my head over and over again in those final miles.
My vision became blurry and I intentionally leaned away from the cliff faces as I climbed the final mile of the trail. I worried about blacking out and falling off of one of those cliffs, and I wondered how long it would take for anyone to find me down there.
Yesterday was the closest that I have ever been to perishing on trail. I’ve had moments that scared me before, and amongst those instances, dehydration has almost always been the cause of my fear. But up until yesterday, I never came so close to dying on trail.
The mere fact that I’m writing this today is an obvious testament to the fact that I made it out alive. No rescue was ever called, nor could it have been, because in the end I walked all 18 miles without seeing a soul on the Tanner Trail. Nobody hikes that trail in August. You’d have to be stupid to hike the Tanner in this time of year. And I profess to being just that. I made a lot of mistakes yesterday, but somehow I made it out alive. I genuinely believe that if I’d chosen to forgo that last coconut water before hitting the trail that I probably wouldn’t have made it out alive. The canyon eats people. Don’t believe me? Read “Death in the Grand Canyon”; it’s a wonderful read, and I’d like to refrain from becoming a chapter in the next addition. But yesterday I came close.
I didn’t end up having to drink my own piss, and I’m grateful for that. Had I brought a half liter less water, had I started out a half hour later, had I brought just one fewer electrolyte replenishment, or if I’d made any other mistakes to add to the series of bad choices that I made yesterday, then I suspect that I wouldn’t be writing this today. Luck was on my side though. And luck really is what saved my life. Luck, and the determination to not be found dead alongside the trail with six ounces of brown piss in a water bottle.
So what’s the lesson to be learned? I suppose there’s plenty. But the one that really comes to mind as I look back on it this evening is simple: Don’t hike the Tanner in August.