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The dumbest idea I ever had nearly got me killed

Approaching Cedar Ridge in the Grand Canyon.

Martin McCarthy/iStockphoto

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

My trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon really began when I enrolled in a historical geology course in university. I was awed by the majestic scope of geologic time and evolution. Unfortunately, the poetic approach was inappropriate to distinguish between eons, eras, epochs and developments in the Devonian, Cretaceous, Cambrian or Permian periods.

Our prof frequently used the Grand Canyon as an example, and arranged a trip the following summer. Here we could see evolving fossils in canyon rock cut by the Colorado River – but you had to hike down the switchback path to see them.

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The challenge, of course, is not the 15.3 kilometre hike down to the river and Bright Angel Creek, but the steep vertical return. That 1.3 kilometre gain in elevation in searing hot temperatures would take twice as long.

Everyone else in the group decided the view from the rim was sufficient. For me, the chance to see more of the Grand Canyon was essential.

I developed a plan with my prof: leave at first light, spend the afternoon resting and drinking water at the bottom, then start the return trip when it wasn't so hot in the early evening. The light of the full moon should help me find my way on the trail at night.

The trip down was cool with great views of the canyon and rock layers. But after a while I stopped noticing the geologic wonders and worried about the climb back up. Would I be able to make it? Waiting at the bottom (it was 49 degrees in the shade), I drank water until I could swallow no more.

On the hike down I'd noticed strategically placed telephones where hikers can call for a mule ride if they can't make it back up. Mule drivers did very well financially from stranded hikers.

The return trip started well but as the light faded there was soon complete darkness. No moonlight reached into the depths of the canyon as I climbed. I was alone and in real trouble.

Then in the darkness I noticed a pattern on the trail.

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I was saved not by the mules, but by their dark-coloured droppings on the light sand of the path. Hope comes from many sources, and I kept going from one mule dropping to the next.

My geological adventure had turned scatological – but I lived to tell the tale.

I reached the rim after midnight, totally exhausted.

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