Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – The Alpha

The CRACK was earsplitting!  It sounded like a tree limb exploding!  As if hit by lightning!  And I felt the blast simultaneously jolt through my left shoulder and ribs as the sound burst in my brain. 

I was disoriented in space.  Falling.  Spinning.  Tumbling.

Gravity showed no mercy as I rolled down the slickrock surface.  A surface punctuated by other large pieces of granite and ending in a pile of talus. 

The only thing breaking my fall was one of the other members of our group.  His position on the trail below crossed perpendicular to my trajectory.

But by the time he arrested my momentum, the damage was already done . . . 


Why would anyone return to places already traveled?  A Love of that particular spot? To recapture a feeling of youth – that return to Innocence? 

Perhaps the prior journey was simply incomplete.  There remained much more to see and experience.  Consciously and unconsciously.  Different “angles.” Shades of perception.  Echoes of time. To continue the exploration . . . of the Self.

A distant “calling.”  An urge pulling at the marrow of your bones. 

But what if you’d been warned by the Spirits before?  Would you go back?


I was in Southeast Arizona preparing for such a return.  A return to a place where the Spirits had nearly claimed me before.  Some 42 years earlier. (See my post “Torrent.”)

I was building up my hiking endurance to both the Arizona heat and the thinner air in the Sky Islands that are scattered about this remote countryside.  After a couple of weeks, I was routinely hitting the ten-mile mark, and my oxygen saturations were at 96 percent at the 4600 range, dropping to 92 percent at the 7800-foot elevation range.  My body was rapidly making more red blood cells to compensate. 

After 4 weeks of conditioning, I figured I was ready to take on Ongtupqa again. 

The Grand Canyon.

The South Rim sits at an elevation of 7,498 feet.  The North, at 8,803 feet.  But this time, I’d be at the very bottom of the Canyon from the very start.  On the Colorado River, averaging about a mile below the South Rim.  So why prepare for altitude hiking?  It’s counterintuitive looking into such a deep gorge but even at its greatest depths, over a mile below the rim, the Canyon floor still remains some 2400 to 2600 feet above sea level.  Over three times the elevation of where I normally hang my hat and breathe.

The River itself, varies in depth from 35 to 110 feet; the water flowing up to 35,000 cubic feet per second as controlled discharge from the Hoover Dam, moving some 168 million tons of sediment through the Canyon each year.   When the River was still “Wild” it could hit a peak flow of more than 100,000 cubic feet per second!

Some six million people visit the Canyon each year, with 27,000 making the River Run.  And a dozen or more of these annual visitors will not return home. 

The Canyon keeps their Spirits. 

Many of these deaths are chronicled in the book: “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.”  Some 550 souls lost in the years between 1869, when John Wesley Powell made his famous journey, to the year 2000.  I’ve seen that number updated to 770, including the years through 2015. 

While this number will be continually growing, little changes in the manner of these deaths.  Falls, heat stroke, heart attack, dehydration, drowning in flash floods or in the River, airplane and helicopter crashes, lightning strikes, rock falls, and even homicide. * 

Being expertly prepared may not save you.

While you might think the temperatures would be cooler because of the descent into many shadowed canyonlands, it is just the opposite.  The Canyon floor can easily be 20 degrees hotter than the rim.  The heat trapped in those towering rock walls and spires reaching towards the heavens.  In June, when I was headed to the Canyon, temps can easily climb upwards of 100 degrees.  This in stark contrast to the water temperature of the Colorado River being a pretty consistent 52 degrees. 

You can die of heat stroke or hypothermia here.


“Rivers have what man most respects and longs for in his own life and thoughts, capacity for renewal and replenishment, continual energy, creativity, cleansing.”

John M. Kauffmann, EPA Journal. May 1981

To be continued . . .

* BTW, I don’t recommend reading this book prior to a visit to the Canyon. No need to weigh your consciousness down with stories of peoples’ ultimate demise and taint your experience.

Photos: The Colorado River below with the Vermilion Cliffs in the background. This is only a couple of miles from Lee’s Ferry, the starting point for this journey. The second image, below, was taken from the Navajo Bridges.

I strongly recommend checking out the music and videos of “Ongtupqa: Evoking a Spirit of Place.” This will add a bit of a feeling of Native American spiritualism to these images.

13 thoughts on “Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – The Alpha”

  1. Wow! I would have thought the temps would be cooler on the bed of the canyon – interesting! I’ve always been drawn to the idea of visiting the Grand Canyon. I don’t know if I will ever get there but reading your post gives me a sense of the place and the history and dramas that have played out there – looking forward to part two!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Before COVID my son and his girlfriend were just beginning to explore the many spectacular climbs in Arizona and Utah – the kind of hiking that gives mothers like me nightmares. (A cue to spare some sympathy for your mother.)
    There it is – the point of balance between snatching some of the spectacular and loosing life while doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There certainly is. I’ll be writing a piece about hiking soon. There is o much beauty out there, and so many sacred places to see, but one has to recognize the risks, and the unexpected can always happen. BTW, I never told my mother about many things that would have worried her 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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