About 20 yards up the trail from the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, C. threw up for the first time. The trail was what the National Park Service brochure called "strenuous." With the arrogance of the young and healthy, we'd decided nothing was too strenuous for us, and at first the trail seemed utterly tolerable -- steep grades along a series of switchbacks through pretty evergreens and wild roses.
Then we reached the part of the trail where a heavy chain has been struck into the ground to help you repel backwards 80 feet or so down a part of the trail that is more or less vertical and full of sliding, crumbling shale rock on which it's impossible to get a footing. The chain made it possible, though, even fun. Problem being that the chain ends rather abruptly, but the trail keeps going -- vertical and sliding and dusty and scary as ever -- another 1,200 feet to the dang bottom.
We made it down, though. Once you're down there it's beautiful but there isn't much to do, as per se. There are no river beaches or friendly wading pools along this stretch of the Gunnison -- just big, jagged boulders and rushing white water. The educational video at the visitor's center kept calling the canyon "impenetrable" and damned if they weren't right.
So you just sit on a rock and contemplate the sinister beauty of raging water and steep black rock walls, in this little crevice where the sun is only overhead for a little sliver of the high afternoon and the rest of the day is twilight. We were there an hour or two or three. We ate lunch and listened to the water and then there was nothing much else going on so we decided to head back up. This put us climbing vertically up the canyon side in the broad heat of the middle of the day, but we still thought we were young and healthy and nothing could ever happen to two kids like us.
We took a lot of breaks because there's just no other way to climb a bitch of trail like that. It was our third or fourth break when we broke out our last bottle of water. C. unscrewed the cap and started slugging it down, and because it was one of those yuppie camping accessories with ounce-measurements on the side I could see two, four, six, eight ounces of water -- a quarter of what we had -- disappearing into his mouth. I said "Fuck, dude, go easy" and he froze with the bottle at his mouth giving me what I thought at first was a look of sheer hostility. Then he went pale under his stubble and his eyes glazed and he leaned forward and vomitted eight ounces of our precious water into the dust.
Immediately, he said he felt better. He said it was probably the sardines at lunch making him sick. He said he was in tip-top form and ready to climb. I know what heat exhaustion looks like, but there wasn't really a lot of choice. What was I going to do, carry him on my back?
He threw up two or three more times and we kept climbing in short little staggered stages, me going ahead and him catching up. Sometimes I could hear him scrabbling and shifting stone behind me and sometimes I couldn't. I didn't know what I would do if he fainted and fell so I hoped that he wouldn't. I would yell his name and after pauses so long I wanted to claw myself with despair he would yell back. Then he didn't yell back and I hiked back down to find him curled up in the shade of a scrubby bush, big-eyed and panting.
I left him there with strict instructions not to move and hiked back up the ranger station for help. It was just about the worst 90 minutes of my life. I wanted to run the whole way but my legs wouldn't go above an exhausted shuffle. At the top of the canyon I located a sweet young park ranger named Wendy and a burly first-responder named Steve and we hiked back down the canyon together and found C. collapsed on the trail several hundred yards above where I had left him. (His explanation, much later on, when I was laughing and crying and boxing his ears: "I didn't want you to have to climb down so far to get me.")
Steve the First Responder gave C. some water, which he puked up immediately, and then some more water, which he also puked. After that he only allowed C. a capful of water ever 25 minutes and, after an hour, a few nuts and raisins from my bag of trail mix. Eventually C. started keeping stuff down and after a few hours we were able to hike slowly back up. By the time we got to the top, C. and I were giggling and cracking gallows jokes, which is the only reasonable way to handle a brush with mortality. Wendy and Steve thought we were pretty strange.
Steve thought we ought to go to the hospital and we had to sign a piece of paper saying he had advised us of this. Then we cheerfully ignored all his warnings and drove into town to have a motherfucking steak and sleep in a real bed at the Best Western. And we slept like stones that night because we had no way of knowing that the next day I would die.