Heading down the Bright Angel Trail on a mule, 82-year-old Paul Des Jardins began to remember. There was the Three-Mile Resthouse, where his near-frozen body was found in the rafters. There was the spot along the trail where the body of his friend Casimar Pultorak was found in a snowbank.
Paul Des Jardins is hauled out of the Grand Canyon on the snow-packed Bright Angel Trail aboard a mule. It would take five weeks for Des Jardins to recover from frostbitten feet and 63 years before he returned to the Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Paul Des Jardins)
It was an emotional experience to return to the scene of a such a life-changing incident. While on the mule ride, strong feelings of grief returned. It was so long ago, more than 63 years to be exact, when Des Jardins had nearly died on this trail. He’s had a lifetime to go over the events of those few days in his mind.
Now, here he was on a late summer vacation with his two daughters at the Grand Canyon. It was a chance for closure.
"It’s so much different than from what I remember," Des Jardins said, resting on a couch in a cabin on the South Rim. "When I’d see those spots, I thought, oh yeah, Cas was found here, then I’d remember what went on."
It was the winter of 1939, the country was immersed in the Great Depression. Casimar Pultorak was 22 years old, one of 10 children in a Polish family that had immigrated first to Canada and then on to the United States.
Paul Des Jardins lived in Detroit, not far from the Pultoraks. Nineteen years old at the time, Des Jardins was fresh out of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Michigan.
Over that winter, Pultorak and Des Jardins’ older brother George planned to go on a trip out West. But George ended up getting a job with Western Union. During a time when jobs were scarce, they were not turned down to go on a vacation.
As a result, his younger brother took the passenger’s seat in Pultorak’s 1937 Ford. They headed to Grand Canyon. On Feb. 9, the pair set out early in the morning for a hike down the Bright Angel Trail. Both signed a register at the trailhead before heading down and were apparently told about some risks involved with their endeavor. They intended to hike to the river and then come back out that afternoon.
Warren Hamilton, GCNP’s assistant chief ranger, reported that the pair was advised not to attempt the hike. Newspaper accounts in the Coconino Sun and Williams News reported they were warned about the dangers. But those facts are conflicted by Des Jardins.
"I remember talking to someone, but it was more of advice than a warning," Des Jardins said.
Despite what happened on the rim, Des Jardins and Pultorak made their nine-mile descent to the river. They were dressed in jeans, light shirts and light jackets. After reaching the river with relative ease, the pair had lunch on the pork and beans and soda crackers they had taken along. Then it was time to hike back out.
"It started to drizzle and we got a long way up there before it started showing snow," Des Jardins remembers. "It was cold. We had on just our clothes and had nothing to keep the rain out."
The pair found out just how slow it was to hike out and with the storm approaching, they decided to attempt a more direct route. Des Jardins and Pultorak began to cut through the switchbacks, a method that was faster but more tiring.
The hikers reportedly came upon a ranger at Indian Garden, who advised them of the dangers of continuing. The ranger also added that climbing straight up through switchbacks could result in an avalanche. They decided to continue the hike, but would now stick to the trail.
With each step upward and conditions getting more difficult, hypothermia began to set in. The effects of the pair’s condition took their toll and it became difficult to make rational decisions.
There are conflicts about what exactly happened in those final decisions. Worley says Des Jardins continued on up to Three-Mile Resthouse, leaving the exhausted Pultorak behind. A report by Bob Audretsch, who has worked as a park ranger at Grand Canyon since 1988 and is a nephew to Pultorak, said Des Jardins apparently stopped at Three-Mile Resthouse while his friend continued up the trail.
The latter seems to be the case based on what Des Jardins remembers.
"Why Casimar continued up the trail, I don’t know," Des Jardins said. "I always thought we were close together, but he went on ahead."
An emergency telephone was located at the Three-Mile Resthouse and Des Jardins attempted to use it to call for help. But in his advanced state of hypothermia, he could not figure out how to use it. The phone featured a "knife switch" that had to be pushed in before it could be used.
Since the resthouse had no walls with only stone pillars and a roof, Des Jardins could not escape the biting cold conditions. He decided to crawl up into the shelter’s rafters to try to escape the elements.
"I have no recollection of that at all," Des Jardins said.
The 19-year-old spent the rest of the night in the rafters and would not be found until the following day.
Meanwhile, Pultorak apparently tried to continue on up the trail and made it to within two miles of the rim before collapsing.
The next day, Wilber Stuart, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and his wife headed down the trail in heavy snow aboard mules. The couple came across a hand sticking out of the snow alongside the trail. It was Pultorak’s frozen body.
Stuart went to the Three-Mile Resthouse to use the emergency phone. While on the phone, he heard moaning in the rafters above him. It was Des Jardins.
"They took me back down to Indian Garden; I had always thought they took me back down to the bottom," Des Jardins said. "I remember one of them giving me a Hershey bar but it had no taste. They cut my shoes off and I couldn’t sit up. Someone held me up so I could drink water."
From Indian Garden, he went to Grand Canyon Hospital and was told his feet would be amputated because of severe frostbite. However, Des Jardins was transferred to Williams Hospital where a doctor there took over the case and removed dead tissue from his feet over the next five weeks.
There are conflicts on the doctor’s name, either Ewell or Edell, but he appeared to know what he was doing. Des Jardins ended up losing only his left foot’s big toe.
Recovering in the hospital was a long and painful ordeal for Des Jardins. The technique for reviving previously frozen tissue was to test his skin for sensitivity to pain. Starting above the knees in healthy tissue, he was poked with needles until they reached an area where he couldn’t feel anything. At that point, dead skin was peeled away.
While Des Jardins recovered in the hospital, Pultorak’s body was transported to Williams where over the next weekend, his brothers Leo and Frank arrived to make arrangements. While his body was shipped back to Detroit, the two brothers picked up the car and drove back to be there in time for the funeral.
Later that month, Leo Pultorak visited Grand Canyon and was escorted to the place where Casimar’s body was found.
In late March, Des Jardins left Williams Hospital and headed back to Detroit.
Upon his arrival in Michigan, he was greeted at the train station by his parents and older brother George, who was supposed to have gone on the trip originally.
"Dad said being on that Bright Angel Trail was a very emotional experience, but it helped to bring closure with the exception of knowing how Dr. Ewell became involved," Doll said. "That is still a mystery and he would like to know more about that if there is information available anywhere."