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Environment & Science

Close Calls: Hikers survive Grand Canyon rock slide




The Grand Canyon, Arizona seen from the Desert View observation point on May 11, 2014. Each year some five million people visit Grand Canyon National Park with its dramatic views into the deep inner gorge of the Colorado River.
The Grand Canyon, Arizona seen from the Desert View observation point on May 11, 2014. Each year some five million people visit Grand Canyon National Park with its dramatic views into the deep inner gorge of the Colorado River.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

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Bill Ferris is an avid hiker in the Grand Canyon. He rolled out a map of the Grand Canyon covered in red lines.

“All the red lines are places I’ve hiked,” Ferris said.

Ferris has hiked more than 1,000 miles in the canyon.

“Over here by Hall Butte is where the descent route is into Vishnu Canyon," Ferris said. "And so this is where all the badness happened."

Ferris and his friend Dennis Foster were on a nine-day backcountry trip in the Grand Canyon in March 2010. Both are middle aged and pretty fit. Foster has done more than 300 trips in the canyon. He heard this particular route was menacing.

“It had a reputation of being a little bit hairy so some exposure some loose rock,” Foster said. “And by the time we reached the descent it was getting to be dusk we were a little bit hurried and we were a little bit tired. Things that earlier in the day might be a little problematic almost turned tragic for us.”

They were zigzagging down a steep ravine. Each step dislodged rocks the size of golf balls. Foster, hiking above Ferris, recalls putting his hand on the canyon wall to steady himself.

“I could feel this big rock pass over my back,” Foster said. “Whatever it is I touched came right off the side. And this rock I’m pretty sure it was the size of a shopping cart.”

Foster tripped, and fell onto his back. But he could see the boulder rushing toward his friend.

“It was just thundering down that ravine making all kinds of noise,” Foster said. “I could see Bill looking up at it. I remember thinking he needed to move.”

“Watching the rock come down the ravine it was almost slow motion,” Ferris said. “I’m standing there thinking it’s going to miss me. Now was I kind of frozen? Here comes a large boulder towards me what do I do now?”

The boulder clipped Ferris' backpack just enough to send him tumbling.

 “He spun around in the air 180 degrees horizontally then he started tumbling down the ravine -- big tumbles up in the air, then hit the ground, then up in the air, then hit the ground,” Foster said. “I just thought he’s going to die.”

“It wasn’t an outer body experience but I did have this third-person perspective,” Ferris said. “I do remember thinking, OK, this could be it. It was completely out of control. There was nothing I could do to snap my fingers and stop it from happening.”

After half a dozen cartwheels, Ferris slid to a stop just shy of avery steep cliff.

“So then I called down to him I yelled, ‘Bill, are you alright?’" Foster said. "And he yelled back, ‘Dennis, are you alright?’”

They both were alright. They had injured knees but nothing life threatening. They crawled to the side of the ravine and tried to sleep. The next day the two hikers hobbled their way to a creek. Since they were only on the fourth day of a nine-day trip no one would be looking for them. Both were too injured to hike out. But Dennis decided he could walk even though his knee would buckle every few steps. Bill wanted to stay put. They rationed their food and said, ‘see you in a few days.’

Two and a half days later -- twice the time it would normally take him -- Foster reached a ranger, who sent a Search and Rescue team to Ferris.

“I was enjoying my lunch it was a fine spring day in Grand Canyon,” Ferris said. “I was getting comfortable.just after lunch I hear the wump, wump, wump. That was the second time that week I broke down and cried.”

Ferris had a bone-bruised knee and Foster had torn his ACL, but both lived to tell the tale. It hasn’t stopped them from hiking the canyon. In fact, Ferris has returned twice to the spot where he fell and says it was satisfying to leave on his own terms.