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Grand challenge: Niskayuna woman ready for 11th 25-mile canyon hike

Grand challenge: Niskayuna woman ready for 11th 25-mile canyon hike

'This is my idea of paradise; it's so beautiful, so remote'
Grand challenge: Niskayuna woman ready for 11th 25-mile canyon hike
Andrea Schwartz, photographed on Aug. 16, will leave for the Grand Canyon on Aug. 24 to do her 11th 25-mile hike of the canyon.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

The Arizona heat will be on for Niskayuna's Andrea Schwartz this coming weekend.

Schwartz, 69, will begin a personal retreat at the Grand Canyon. For the 11th time, she will hike 25 miles -- from the north rim to the south rim of the famous national landmark.

"I do it to raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation," she said, "and I do it because I love it. It's the most wonderful sanctuary being down at the bottom of the canyon."

Schwartz estimated she has raised about $45,000 for the foundation during her canyon adventures. People can donate by visiting her fundraising page at fundraise.ccfa.org/hikeforthecure2018.

The canyon steps are not easy exercise. Schwartz has hiked in temperatures as high as 125 degrees, persevered through torrential downpours and hail storms, watched her steps over washed-out trails, waded through streams and managed slippery rocks.

Schwartz, a former educator who now runs her Travels With Andrea travel agency, is always prepared for her grand challenge. She will fill a lightweight backpack with a plastic container that can carry three liters of water; a water purifier for creek water; a pocket poncho; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; salty snacks; and powdered additives for water that will provide extra electrolytes.

Schwartz and her family -- husband Allen, daughter Lauren and son Adam -- often made national parks part of their vacation plans. The quartet visited spots all over the country.

Schwartz conquered her first canyon with Lauren in 2004. Adam was her companion for the sequel in 2006.

"After that I was hooked," she said. "Nobody will come with me now; everyone's afraid of ledges, cliffs, heights and oh, two years ago I came this close to a mountain lion. I said, 'That's a big cat.' I was alone and I froze and he just leaped away. He didn't want to see me, either."

For Schwartz, big heat and big adventures are worth the risk.

"This is my idea of paradise," she said. "It's so beautiful, so remote and so exclusive in the sense that a fraction of 1 percent of the people who even visit the canyon ever go down the trail."

The National Park Service tells prospective hikers that people have different experiences when they challenge the canyon.

"The day hiker and the overnight backpacker must be equally prepared for the lack of water, extreme heat and cold and isolation characteristic of the Grand Canyon," reads a passage on the Grand Canyon website. "Hiking in the Grand Canyon is so demanding that even people in excellent condition often emerge sore and fatigued. Yet small children, senior citizens, and people with physical disabilities have successfully hiked the canyon."

The danger is real. Last August, A 38-year-old Texas woman -- an experienced hiker -- became lost on a trail with two children. While searching for water and help, she died of heat exhaustion. The children survived, as the woman had left them in a safe place while she tried to find water.

Schwartz said people must be careful. And they must be smart.

"They'll try to take a picture on a ledge and the wind catches them and they fall off to their deaths," Schwartz said. "They walk out to a ridge and slip and fall. They get caught in a rock slide and they don't take cover. I've seen five helicopter rescues in the last 10 hikes."

Schwartz said she's always watching.

"Once I had hail, but it didn't last very long," she said. "The danger is if you're in a narrow canyon and the water comes rushing down. People have gotten swept away, but I'm really careful."

Schwartz, who leaves Friday, also will travel with hiking sticks, a wide-brimmed, sunscreen-treated hat, sunglasses and bandanna. She will bring her cellphone, although there will be no service when she begins walking down the north rim shortly after 5 a.m. Sunday.

Schwartz won't wear walking shorts -- sun means sunburn. Lightweight long pants and a long-sleeved shirt are planned for the weekend wardrobe, and she will try to keep her clothing as wet as possible. If Schwartz sees waterfalls along the trail, she'll take five for a quick shower.

Hydration is key. Schwartz will sip from her supply, using a pliable straw-like apparatus that will be near her mouth. "They say if you think you're thirsty, it's too late," she said. "Don't wait until you're thirsty."

Descending from the north, Schwartz will cover 15 miles and cross seven bridges as she descends 8,200 feet to reach the canyon floor.

"My two favorites go across ravines because there's no hiking trail," Schwartz said. "You have to cross over a ravine to join the hiking trail again. These are steep rocks and very narrow cliff ledges."

The heat is an acquired taste.

"The first time I experienced it, I really felt I had opened an oven and climbed in," Schwartz said. "I'm used to it now and I know how to deal with it."

Fifteen miles from the north will put her on the canyon floor and an overnight stay at the Phantom Ranch -- cabins and campsites along the Bright Angel Creek that attracts other hikers and a contingent of forest rangers. Reservations are required.

The ranch was built during the 1920s and is the only lodging below the canyon rim. It can only be reached by foot, on mule or by rafting the Colorado River.

The walk up the south rim is 10 miles, a climb of 7,200 feet. Schwartz said she is fit enough for the challenge -- even after she donated a kidney to her husband in 2015. Her active lifestyle does not include hikes through the Adirondacks; she doesn't like forest paths and scenic payoffs that come only at the end of a journey.

"When you're hiking out west, the minute you step on the trail there's a view," she said.

She walks at her own pace. While others will be walking the canyon, Schwartz said strangers generally do not meet on the trail and travel together.

She will meet people who gather on the south rim, which she said attracts the most tourists. That will happen Monday afternoon, at journey's end. People will ask how far she walked.

"Pretty far," Schwartz said she answers. "Then they ask, 'You did it all by yourself?' 'Yeah!'"

The south rim has cellphone service. Schwartz will call home and share the accomplishment with her family.

"They really do appreciate the phone call when I get to the top on the south," she said. "I call and they're all happy. My kids don't worry. My husband worries."

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].

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