75-Year-Old Leads Another Trip into the Grand Canyon

by Bowden Quinn, Dunelands Group

Geza Csapo made his first trip into the Grand Canyon in 1985 at age 60. He was scouting it out, solo, as a possible excursion destination for Hoosier Chapter backpackers.

He went down the south Kaibab trail and spent the night in the Bright Angel campground on the canyon floor. On his way out, he stopped to talk with some rafters on the beach.

Their leader turned out to be from Indiana. "Hey, Hoosier," the fellow yelled as Geza was leaving. "How would you like to ride the Colorado?"

Geza was worried about getting stranded, but the leader explained that the Bright Angel trail parallels the river for a couple of miles. So on his first hiking trip in the canyon, Geza also got to raft the river.

His unexpected side trip delayed him. He was still a long way from the canyon rim when it started getting dark. "I didn't think I could make it up," he recalled as we were chugging our way through Kansas on Amtrak 15 years later, homeward bound from our most recent Grand Canyon trip and Geza's fourth visit.

"And to be honest," he added, "I wanted to spend another night in the canyon." So he found a ledge that ran back from the trail, with a small cave at the end, and there he spent the night.

Geza began organizing trips for the Hoosier Chapter in 1978, the same year he helped form the Michiana Group, of which he is the only remaining charter member. At the time he was very active in the battle to save Grand Mere Dune (now a state park) west of Stevensville, Michigan.

To give club members a break from their campaigning, he decided to organize an outing. But not just any outing.

"I wanted to find something a group could do economically and feasibly," he explained. "I looked at a map and noticed that the railroad tracks went from Chicago right next to Glacier (National Park)."

So in June he and two other people took the train to Glacier for the first of what has become a rite of summer for Hoosier Chapter hikers. June turned out to be too early in the year (the three hikers got snowed in), so the annual outing is now held later in the summer.

Geza has organized other train-hike excursions to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah and the Colorado National Monument and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, but Glacier remains his favorite. "Glacier's an easy one; anyone can do Glacier with a little preparation," says the 75-year-old Osceola native with twinkling brown eyes.

The Grand Canyon is a different story. Even though he emphasizes preparation for those who sign up for his trips, it's impossible to train for the South Rim's 8,000-foot altitude in Indiana.

We (Geza, Bob Friend, Ken Kovach and myself) arrived in Flagstaff about midnight on the most recent Grand Canyon trip, only three hours behind schedule.

The coyotes and pronghorn antelope seen from the train, plus a spectacular lightning display in Missouri, made the delay a small inconvenience.

Geza had reserved a room at a motel near the station, where we found the fifth member of our team, Paul Pearson, snug in his sleeping bag on the floor. To save time, Paul had flown into Phoenix and taken a bus to Flagstaff.

The four train riders shared two double beds (not much of an improvement over the previous night's Amtrak coach chairs). Conditions were much better the next night in the Mather campground at the national park's Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, even though the temperature dropped below freezing. We broke camp before dawn with flashlights and frozen fingers to be first in line for breakfast at the Yavapai Lodge.

Four of us (Ken had rented a car for a trip north) took a shuttle to the south Kaibab trailhead and were on our way down by a little after 7 a.m. A flock of Clark's nutcrackers flew through the Ponderosa pines as we left the rim. Although Geza realized that time had caught up to him, he remained in good spirits, determined to go on. At Cedar Ridge, a mile and a half from the trailhead, he told us to hike on at our own speed.

Since I hadn't backpacked in about 12 years, I was wondering how I was going to do on the steep 7-mile trail, which has no water. Drinking from a tube that led to a 70-ounce water pouch in my backpack (one of two that I carried, along with a quart canteen), I marveled at the awesome spectacle of the canyon, which I had never visited before. As the Colorado came into view, my legs began to wobble. I wondered how Geza was doing as I struggled into the Bright Angel campground a little before noon.

Paul showed up about an hour later and increased my worries as he shook his head, unloaded some gear, and headed back to meet Geza. I had the easy job--guarding the gear. Paul came back a few hours later. He had met Bob on the trail waiting for Geza, who did not show up for another two hours. Paul was uncertain whether the pair would be able to make it to the campground by dark.

They did, coming into camp as the canyon shadows deepened, after 11 hours on the trail. Geza was stripped to the waist and walking slowly, but still smiling. Cheerful as ever, Geza regaled Bob and Paul with World War II stories around the camp stove. (He is a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.) I heard a little from my tent before falling asleep, exhausted.

The next day we bathed in the cold waters of Bright Angel Creek; marveled at the prices ($30 steak, $18 beef stew) of the Phantom Ranch, where people on loose budgets can sleep in cabins; and enjoyed the pleasant temperatures (a high of 90 and a low of 69) and beautiful scenery. We saw a fox near the mule corral in the middle of the afternoon, and I (the only birder in the group) added Virginia's warbler, American dipper and rock wren to my life list.

The following morning Geza was on the trail before I was out of my sleeping bag, leaving in the dark around 5 a.m. We were taking the Bright Angel trail, a gentler though slightly longer route, with Indian Gardens campground at the halfway point.

I caught up to Geza about 10 a.m., as he sat on his "favorite rock" just below the Gardens. Bob and Paul joined us in the campground, where we ate lunch. Geza napped on a table and we others had the temerity to hike the mile and a half out to Plateau Point, a spectacular overlook of the river and canyon gorge.

Geza started up the final leg around 3 p.m. A thermometer at the side of the trail in the camp read 90 degrees. Soon after we all found each other on the way up, we were lucky enough to see some desert bighorn sheep across a ravine. But as evening fell, we were still more than 2 miles from the top.

We began looking for the ledge that had served Geza well 15 years before. We did not find it, but Bob and Paul found similar lodgings. We spent the night looking out at the north rim under a sky full of stars. Geza made it to the top around noon the next day.

Our return to Indiana was long and uneventful (though I recommend the burritos sold from the back of a truck at the Albuquerque station, and the fascinating talk by a Native American guide as the train travels between Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico).

"This was my last trip into the canyon," Geza said as we rode the train home. "Well," and his eyes sparkled, " . . . probably."

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