Conquering the Canyon

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Unlikely team helps paraplegic reach new heights – and unimagined depths

By Phyllis McLaughlin








“Let’s get going!”

After waiting more than three years for her chance to hike the Grand Canyon, 22-year-old Sarah Service wanted to get moving. Now.

So, at about 5:30 a.m. Arizona time, her 11 companions – dressed for the cold morning air in fleece jackets, sweatpants and ski caps  – bowed their heads for a short prayer, then donned headlamps, checked gear and descended over the canyon rim in the darkness down the Bright Angel Trail with Sarah – a para-plegic – strapped onto a vehicle called the TrailRider.

Fresh from a good night’s sleep and excited to finally begin executing a plan in the works for more than a month, the group started off, chattering as they hit the trail. Bob Brocious, pastor of Carrollton Christian Church, took the front position, holding the handles of the TrailRider like a rickshaw to help maneuver it down the trail. Jim Ebert, director of Carrollton’s Camp Kysoc, took his position at the rear of the vehicle, in charge of braking and helping to lift the one-wheeled cart over rocks and other obstacles.

For most of the hikers, it was an adventure unlike any other. They carefully picked their way in the dark, with only round spots of light from the headlamps to guide them down the trail, which for the first mile and a half was a 10- to 15-degree grade.

Chris White, pastor of Carrollton’s First Baptist Church and a former U.S. Marine, and Amy Hewitt, special education teacher of Cartmell Elementary School, forged ahead to keep an eye on the trail and alert the team of any upcoming obstacles. Following behind were three Carroll County High School seniors, Noah White, Kory Brocious and Daniel Service, Sarah’s brother; Beverly Service, Sarah’s mother; Carrollton businessman Vernon States; Casey Northcutt, a Murray State University student and longtime friend of the Whites.

Erosion logs were the most common obstacle on the trail, and would quickly become the team’s nemesis on the hike, eliciting groans as the men had to lift the TrailRider – and Sarah – carefully over each one.

Placed at varying intervals along the trail by the National Park Service to battle erosion, the logs often seemed to cause more problems than they were intended to solve. Some of the logs had created steps more than a foot high, making the steep trail even more challenging.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, during a trial run with the TrailRider, Ebert and another team had been forced to turn around after only hiking a mile and a half down the South Kaibab Trail at the canyon. The logs made the descent impossible with the TrailRider.

So far on the Bright Angel Trail, Ebert observed, there were far fewer of the logs. He smiled, a gentle giant encouraging the others to keep going, and hoped fewer logs would allow the team to reach the canyon bottom that morning.

On Sunday evening, the night before the trip, the team gathered with several members of the Christian Church for a prayerful send off.

It was a moment “to share concerns, raise each other in celebration and pray for the success of this trip,” said Brad Becraft, president of the Christian Church congregation.

“I think the Grand Canyon is God’s most glorious creation ever,” Ebert told the group, after explaining his mission – to provide outdoor adventures for disabled people everywhere. “Sarah’s gonna be amazed at how absolutely gorgeous this place is.”

Eliciting continued prayers from the church members, Ebert explained that most of the team members were not trained for the task that lay ahead of them. “We’re not marathoners; we’re just average folks with a mission to help Sarah open doors.”

To his team, he added: “We need to be focused, to use the proper technique and watch our footing; we need to keep encouraging each other. We need the Lord to give us strength, perseverance and tenacity to forge ahead and get this done.”

As the descent continued, team members stopped here and there, just long enough to watch the peaks glow pink, then golden, in the gathering morning sun. Cheerful banter echoed off the canyon walls, and as the daylight increased, those with cameras tried to capture the beauty of their surroundings.

Sarah, bundled up for the cold, remained cheerful and smiled, and couldn’t resist teasing her fellow hikers whenever possible.

Without being asked, Chris White and Daniel Service took up posts at the sides of the TrailRider to help lift Sarah over the increasing number of large rocks and deep steps created by the logs. On the outer position, Daniel often scrambled catlike along the tops of rocks dividing the dusty trail from the steep drop into the canyon.

More than an hour after they started out, the team was at the first resthouse – 1.5 miles from the rim. It was the first real break, where the hikers could take off their backpacks, set down their walking poles, refill water bottles and head to the bathroom, about 50 yards farther down the trail.

“Do you want a snack?” Bev said, slipping easily into “mom” mode and passing around food from a seemingly bottomless pack.

Turned toward the canyon in her TrailRider, Sarah gazed at the view and smiled. “It’s so beautiful.”

Her mother gave her candy and water, to help keep her energy up. Though she was riding the trail – and not hiking, as brother Daniel enjoyed pointing out repeatedly – it was still exertion for Sarah, who has been wheelchair-bound since a car accident in the summer of 2002.

Everyone was getting tired, but no one gave any thought to giving up.

The journey to Arizona began about 7:30 a.m. Monday, after leaving Camp Kysoc and a quick stop for coffee at a gas station on the way out of Carrollton.

Estimated at a 27-hour drive straight through, the trip yawned into more than 30 hours, when counting bathroom breaks and meal stops.

The lucky few without seat mates took full advantage of their space, stretching out in attempts at sleep. In between naps, some read books and magazines while some watched movies on portable DVD players. Bob Brocious and States played on laptops; Kory Brocious and Daniel, both reading the novel, “Brisingr,” by Christopher Paolini, began a friendly competition to see who could finish his book first.

Chatter broke the monotony, and the group never lost its sense of humor.

Morning, it seemed on Tuesday, would never come as the bus hurtled through the Texas panhandle darkness and into New Mexico. By Albuquerque, the sun finally made its appearance. The sleepy, fatigued travelers stopped for coffee and doughnuts at a busy gas station, while Beverly helped Sarah wash up and get ready for the rest of the ride.

Sarah, despite the hand she’s been dealt in life, is continually optimistic about life and determined to live it. She returned to school only months after coming out of a four-month coma after the accident. She graduated with her class, and now is attending the Carrollton campus of Jefferson Community and Technical College.

“God has given me this for a reason,” she said simply. “I just don’t know what that reason is.

Still on the road to Arizona, Sarah was looking far ahead to Ebert’s plan of taking her up Mount Kilimanjaro. She turned toward White, who was driving. “I’m going to Africa in January, Chris. Are you coming?”

Before he could answer, she smiled again and added, sagely, “I’ll see how I do on this trip first.”

As the group descended, other hikers – curious about Sarah’s situation – asked if it was a rescue.

Hewitt took every opportunity to explain what the group was doing. Eventually, hikers that were passing the team already knew about the plan and were giving words of encouragement before continuing.

A group from Trimble County, who had read about the trip when it was first reported in The News-Democrat, were excited when they discovered they were hiking just behind Sarah’s team.

With sophisticated technology in the palm of his hand, States continuously kept the group apprised of how far they were going, and how fast. On the way down, the group averaged about a mile an hour, at times going as fast as 2 miles an hour.

Still, the trip was taking longer than Ebert had planned. It was almost noon when the team reached Indian Garden, an oasis more than 4.5 miles from the head of the trail. Ebert had hoped to reach the canyon bottom and the Colorado River (7.7 miles from the trailhead) by about 10 a.m.

It was time for a decision.

Michael Tellis, a woman ranger with the park’s safety office, met the group to assess how they were feeling and what they were planning to do. Another ranger living in quarters at Indian Garden also checked in with the hikers.

Though they didn’t outright tell the group to turn around, White said the rangers made subtle suggestions that the consider going back.

Completing the last three miles, six miles round trip, they argued, would add another six hours just to bring the team back to the Garden, Tellis reminded them. It would be nearly dark, and the team – which didn’t have a backcountry pass to allow them to stay out overnight – would still be facing the a long climb back up the trail.

For nearly an hour, team members debated – at times hotly – whether to complete the remaining three miles of the hike to the bottom.

“Sarah wanted to do it,” White recalled. It was her dream, after all, to be that first paraplegic to see the Colorado River after hiking the canyon, and giving up that dream was toughest on her.

But finally, at about 12:30, Ebert stood and took his position at the rear of the TrailRider.

“It’s time to turn around,” he said, gently but firmly, White recalled.

Though there was bitter disappointment – with a little relief mixed in for some of the hikers, White said everyone took their positions without complaint.

Noah White took the lead harness, tethered to Kory, tethered to his dad, Bob Brocious. States and Brocious would take turns in the third spot. Chris White and Daniel Service continued their positions helping to lift from the sides. Hewitt and Northcutt led the group, ranging ahead and returning to report upcoming  obstacles were ahead. They  hiked an extra mile ahead, at one point, to refill water bottles for the others.

The men all stayed in their positions, despite the building fatigue as they ever-so-slowly ascended  toward the rim.

By then, States announced they were averaging about a half-mile an hour.

Physically exhausted though they were, the team remained determined to get Sarah out of the canyon before nightfall. Ebert had estimated they would be out by 5 p.m. By the time they reached the first resthouse again, it was already past 6 p.m.

Beverly continued offering food and water, actually hand-feeding the pullers as the climb became more grueling and exhaustion set in.

On her cell phone at 7:30 p.m., Northcutt reported the team was still nowhere near the top of the trail. After 8 p.m., she said Ebert estimated they’d be out by 9, maybe 9:15.

At 9:20 p.m., two hours after nightfall and more than 16 hours after they set out down the trail, the team pulled Sarah back to the rim. One by one, they staggered – weary and sore, but still smiling – into the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant, where a large table for 13 was waiting for them.

Revived somewhat by being able to sit and talk about the experience, the team began to recount the final hours of the trip.

“We were mules,” Noah said, matter-of-factly.

“There is no way that was just four-and-a-half miles,” Daniel said, sinking onto a chair.

“How do you climb a canyon? Forty seconds at a time,” said Bob Brocious, as he stiffly sat at the table.

“Honestly? This is the best roll I’ve ever had,” Northcutt said, after the waiter brought them to the table. Later, she admitted with a smile, “There’s something about pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do.”

“We finished strong, I know that,” States said as he joined the table.

Banter turned to analysis. “A wise decision was made” when the group turned around at Indian Garden, States added.

Tellis caught up with the group at the restaurant. “I was worried about you,” she said to Ebert. “I’m sorry you turned around, but I’m thankful. Keep trying.”

After changing clothes and freshening up, Sarah entered the restaurant to cheers from the table, and joined the group with her mother. Obviously exhausted – a condition that plays havoc on her already diminished short-term memory, a result of a brain injury from the car accident – Sarah was still smiling.

“I never complained once,” Sarah announced. She had kept the promise she made weeks before the trip. “I did it!”

Heading home

Before the bus set out, headed back east to Kentucky, Beverly asked everyone for a moment to speak.

Quoting the Bible, she recited, “There is no greater love than that a man layeth down his life for a friend. You all gave up your free time; you laid down your life. You fended off spotted squirrels,” she joked, but was serious again, and holding back tears. “You were hand-picked by God. We couldn’t have done this without any one of you. Every single person here was needed. It’s very humbling to me, and you guys are all family now. I love you all.”

Later, Bob Brocious said the trip – something special he and Kory wanted to do before graduation in the spring – held many levels of meaning for him. “It would be very nice to say that this was just altruism, that we are just good-hearted people who wanted to help Sarah. It was a great opportunity,” he said. Contemplating what it meant to share the experience with his son, Brocious stopped – unable to speak.

With tears rimming his eyes, he whispered, “Never have a father and son worked so hard and so well together,” he said. Then, nodding toward Daniel and Noah, too, he added, “These aren’t boys; these are three men here. They were and acted like men.”

Calling them the “Fellowship of the Rim,” Brocious added: “I guarantee you that for the rest of Kory’s life, he will remember this time with his dad, to get Sarah out of the Grand Canyon.”

It was clear from his expression that Brocious knows the trip will stay with him, too, but continued as though only talking about his son. “It will be a lifelong memory.”

Phyllis McLaughlin is editor of The News-Democrat. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to pcodling@mytrimblenews.com.