I arrived at the Grand Canyon the afternoon before my planned one-day down and up of the Canyon. It’s a 17-mile down and up, a mile deep, so that means two miles down and up of elevation. The Canyon is opposite of most of my training, where you climb down first and then up. My biggest concern was over my arthritic knees. Would the downhill crush them and disable me? At this point, I had seen the Park Service postings advising against hiking the canyon in one day at least three times. “We rescue over 300 people a year out of the canyon, and most of them look like this.” Next to the text was a photo of a young, taut, model who looked liked like Matt Damon in the Bourne Identity movies. What am I doing, thinking I can do this?
Yet, I had trained my body for this – just two weeks earlier, I hiked a trail more technical and deeper into wilderness area than the Canyon. I thought I was ready until I stood there, looking into the maw of the Canyon. I lost my sense of my back – my sense of all the training and strength in the body. The canyon always looks larger and more amazing than any photo can capture, and I was in awe over it beauty and size.
I thought, “This is what change feels like to many people,” – coming from great strength and previous accomplishment, then feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of what lays ahead. At the Canyon, one can see the trail disappear into ever-deeper canyons. I knew the mileage and elevation change intellectually, but here I stood looking into a path that seemed enormous and unavailable to view.
I had to get back into touch with my “back”, that sense of what I am able to accomplish. I recalled the hike from two weeks ago, one that was very difficult due to the primitive nature of the trail and the steep heights involved. There were places the trail was barely wider than my shoes, and there was a 100-foot drop-off on my left. And I am really afraid of heights. I remember asking myself then, “what am I doing, and how will I get out of this?” Then I recalled what I did– I put one foot in front of the other, and told myself I can do it. I repeated that same sensation at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Slowly, the strength of my “back” – the knowing of what I can do – came back to me. I turned to my wife, Deedee, and asked her to tell me that I can do this. She said so with confidence.
How do we support this same in others in leadership? How do we work to recognize when someone is standing at the edge of what they see as a maw of a canyon, with the trail disappearing into an abyss? Do we slow down and remind them of the one-step-at-a-time approach, knowing that they can accomplish this “canyon” because they have conquered other “canyons”?
I hiked the canyon the next day well, my body being like a never-ending, never give up, tank. Down the steep Kaibab trail with postcard views at every turn. I smiled at the beauty. I laughed as I put my bare feet into the Colorado River. I knew then I can do this. A man and his young daughter brought swim suits and were slashing in the cove along the river. Our eyes met, and we exchanged a knowing smile. I reached the top of the Bright Angel trail feeling like I could hike for five more miles. My thoughts were of the return to the canyon. I felt my strength.
(By the way, that great photo of the trail disappearing into the canyon is from this trip.)