A young German reached the summit of Elaine Castle on October 11, 1982. He was engaged in an epic trek, determined to be the first person to hike the length of Grand Canyon on both sides of the river. Before starting out, Robert Benson had overstayed his visa and taken an American name from a tombstone.
With a raven feather stuck in his cap, he descended from the summit and began traversing a crumbly ledge. Benson was working along the rock face when both handholds suddenly broke free, throwing him backwards over a thirty foot cliff. As he fell, he remembered seeing the bottom getting closer and closed his eyes.
"Felt impact," he wrote in his journal. "No pain. Tumbled and rolled 2o feet, silence! Still no pain, face down, could not believe it happened, must be a dream, opened eyes, saw blood stains on rock, couldn't move, paralyzed probably from shock, remained there for some time, then slowly got up, could move everything but accompanied with severe pain..."
Alone and seriously injured, he faced the added danger of spending a cold night wearing only a t-shirt and running shorts. He needed to get lower. Pain shot through his body each time he tried to stand up, so he crawled. After four hours, Benson collapsed for the night, unable to sleep due to extreme pain. His ordeal continued at dawn. "Pain with every step," he wrote, "couple of wrong steps when crossing creek, twisted let, screamed, must have been heard for miles..."
Seven hours later, he reached his old camp at Merlin Abyss. He tried using a mirror to get help by flashing overhead aircraft. No luck. That meant his only hope was reaching shelter on the North Bass Trail, ten hard miles away. Climbing to an upper bench the next morning he continued to crawl, pulling a pack behind him. He crawled all day and he crawled the next, always in pain.
When the injured hiker intersected the trail, he faced a difficult ascent of 3,200 feet. He inched up it until at last reaching the old ranger cabin in Muav Saddle, fourteen miles from where he fell. He had been crawling for five days. The rim was close, but Benson was unwilling to exit the canyon even temporarily, afraid it would invalidate his attempt to set the record.
Three days later when the pain had subsided somewhat, he continued his trek. He could walk with difficulty using a stick, but stream crossings were pure agony. The water was bitter cold and the current swift. For days, he forced himself to keep moving, and finally on November 23rd, Robert Benson reached the end of the great canyon.
Only after returning home did he learn the extent of his injuries. The fall had broken several vertebrae and cracked his pelvis, yet he had managed to cross some of the most difficult terrain imaginable. Having completed the north side, he returned a few months later to do the south, becoming the first person to walk both sides of Grand Canyon.
Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Grand Canyon commentaries are funded by the Grand Canyon Association, supporting education and scientific research for Grand Canyon National Park since 1932. On the web at grandcanyon.org.