A phone call from his wife almost ended 85-year-old Dale Sanders’s third world record attempt before he even hit the trail.
At 7:50 am on Oct. 5, just moments prior to embarking from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, his wife told him, “I know what it is. I’ve already been to the emergency room. You go on and hike.”
Ahead of him he faced a 4,520-foot descent to Bright Angel Campground not knowing exactly how his wife fared.
“It was a really bad, rough, challenging start,” he says. “There are no communication services of any kind. I did carry a spot tracker so I could send an emergency signal if I had a problem, but there was no way for her to reach me if she had a problem.”
As she did three years earlier during his record-breaking thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, his biggest supporter still urged him to continue.
“She said, ‘No. You’ll never forgive yourself. You’ve got to finish it,’” Dale remembers. “After that, there was no way I was going to quit.”
The same perseverance that earned him the nickname Grey Beard on his 2017 hike, kept him going on his mission to become the oldest person to complete the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim.
Despite the rough start and limited altitude training, Dale began descending steep switchbacks with five friends from the Bluff City Canoe Club, each with a key role that helped him earn another world record.
“I have to have a timekeeper, assistant timekeeper, two witnesses, and an overall coordinator,” he says. There’s specific evidence required to officially set a new Guinness World Record. “The five people had to sign letters and I had to do video evidence.”
With a pack base weight of 10 pounds, Dale carefully planned his meals and water sources to minimize the amount he would need to carry during his five-day hike.
On Day 3, Dale and two of his hiking buddies woke up before dawn to make their way up to the halfway point of the 48-mile round-trip trek.
“The trail is pretty steep getting up to the North Rim. It hadn’t rained much this summer, so all the dust and sand had gotten soft,” he says. “That last couple of miles is that loose dirt, and it’s steeper there than the rest of the darn trail.”
It took them seven hours to climb nearly a mile in elevation on a path forged through Redwall Limestone to reach the North Rim. Dale’s reward? He got to call his wife.
“I was able to talk to her and find out she’s okay,” he says, and learned that low sodium levels caused his wife’s health scare.
Tackling the steep and precarious trail made of loose dirt heading back into the canyon was difficult, but hearing good news from his wife put an extra spring in Dale’s step. In just three hours, they made it down to Cottonwood Campground, where the rest of his group was waiting.
The last 13 miles back to the South Rim were split into two days, making for a more leisurely hike at the end of a breathtaking trip.
Speaking of the Grand Canyon, Dale says, “It’s just beyond words. Literally, beyond words. You almost have to see it to understand the vastness of it.”
Over the five days the group from Memphis spent hiking, word of Dale’s world record-breaking attempt was spreading up and down the rim.
“Everyone came running from all directions and they would tell other people, so it was a good crowd,” he smiles. “I walked out and all those people were there cheering and clapping. It was all worth it.”
If you’re wondering what drives someone well past the age of retirement to continue pushing boundaries and proving that anything is possible, it’s this:
“It goes back to my years in grade school,” he shares. “I was bullied a lot, all the way through until I became a sophomore in high school. Deep down, I think I equated the fact that I was doing something nobody else could do. I think that’s why I go out and do these things. I’m the person I am now because of it.”
Rising above the pains of his past drives Dale to continue breaking world records, but it’s the way he feels out in nature that lures him to the water and into the woods for each adventure.
“It’s easy for me to put the troubles of the world behind me. I do that the instant I put my feet on the trail.”
Dale Sanders is the oldest person to ever solo paddle the Mississippi River from source to sea (September 2015; age 80). He also holds the world record as the oldest person to complete the thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in one calendar year (October 2017; age 82). On Oct. 10, 2020, at 85, Dale broke his third world record, becoming the oldest person to hike the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim.
By Kelsey J. Lawrence