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Canyon Death

Fulbright scholar 'Yowana' Hociota, 24, was close to becoming the youngest woman ever to hike the length of the Grand Canyon when a ledge gave way beneath her, plunging her to her death.

Ioana "Yowana" Elise Hociota started hiking segments of the Grand Canyon some five years ago with her boyfriend, in borrowed boots, not minding the blisters they created.

Little by little, they covered segments from near the Utah border to near Lake Mead. A year and a half ago, they set out with friends on short backpacking trips to connect the missing pieces so they could say they did the whole thing.

"It was our excuse to go more often. It was an excuse to see some parts we hadn't seen," said Andrew Holycross, a Mesa Community College instructor who became her husband.

Hociota spoke four languages and had moved to Arizona from Romania with her family. She was a Fulbright scholar and was working as a teaching assistant and tutor at Arizona State University when she took what turned out to be her final hike in February.

She stepped onto a fragile ledge that day in a remote section on Great Thumb Mesa, well west of the developed parts of Grand Canyon and any major trails.

Instead, she ended up dead beneath a high cliff.

At 24, she would have been the youngest woman ever to hike the entire Grand Canyon.


Hociota was following in the footsteps of at least 16 other people who have walked the entire canyon, traveling areas where no trails exist. A hiker must gain and lose sometimes hundreds of feet in elevation to work around sheer cliffs.

It's estimated at about 600 walking miles -- the ultimate hike, wrote author and physician Tom Myers.

Less than 50 percent of the canyon can be traveled along the banks of the Colorado River, he wrote.

"... (I)t may stand as the canyoneering equivalent of summiting Everest or perhaps a peak even higher," he wrote. "After all, as of 2012, more than 5,000 people had reached the summit of Everest, but only (16) have walked the full length of the Grand Canyon."

Holycross and Hociota liked the physical challenge, but they also backed out of hikes whenever conditions looked poor or dangerous.

"I loved the canyon, but it wasn't an obsession," Holycross said.

They were really intrigued by a German hiker, Robert Benson, who hiked the entire north side of the Grand Canyon, then the entire south side in 1982 and 1983, in his mid-20s, before committing suicide.

Before him was a 25-year-old river guide who did it in 1976.

Famous hiker Harvey Butchart, a math professor at what is now Northern Arizona University, completed the 250-mile trek of the smaller Grand Canyon National Park in 1945, mainly on weekends.

Backcountry ranger Lon Ayers did the entire north side in probably 65 or 70 days, by doing five- to eight-day treks over about 19 years.

Some hiked it all at once: In 1998, 19-year-old from Colorado named David Philips hiked from the Rockies to where the Colorado River heads for the ocean, mostly solo over the course of four months, Myers writes.

Engineers, mathematicians and backcountry rangers working for the National Park Service have been among those to accomplish it.


Hociota ran ultramarathons, and she was a rock climber and a swimmer.

One of her sayings was: "Don't talk about it. Just (expletive deleted) do it," her husband recalled.

It appealed to her to become the youngest woman to hike the entire length of the Grand Canyon.

Matthias Kawski, an Arizona State University math professor, was hiking with Hociota that day in February.

"Everything was perfect -- absolutely perfect. The temperatures were right. Perfect sunshine. The wind did not materialize," he said.

They and other friends hiked conservatively and typically stayed some 20 feet away from and above cliff edges.

Hociota had spoken to her husband, Holycross, on the satellite phone the night before.

"The last thing I told her was 'Be safe and stay high.'"

The two friends saw what they had left to do for the day and were out for a three-day trip.

She stepped on a broad, flat ledge that anyone on their group would have walked on, Kawski said.

"Anybody would have stepped there. One rock gave away, and it must have thrown her into a hidden chute," he said.

The ledge had given way. Scrape marks down a muddy chute ended at a 300-foot cliff.

"I heard some rocks tumble, a very short scream, a muted scream, then a few seconds of silence," Kawski said. "Then I heard her body hit the ground. I did not see her body -- ever."

She had fallen 300 feet, to a place Kawski could not reach.

The satellite phone he might have used to call for help was in her backpack, with her.

"I had no choice but to keep walking," he said.

Kawski met Hociota's husband at a remote point, their agreed-upon meeting spot, and Kawski recalled that terrible moment.

"He could see me coming up alone. Usually, that means somebody has an injury and can't walk, but I said, 'It's not an injury.'"

Search and rescue followed, and Holycross saw photos of a place where the rock shelf gave way, and slide marks in the chute below it.


Hociota and Holycross had 5 1/2 years together, during which they traveled extensively, canoed, backpacked, visited museums and learned to tango and to sail.

"She just lived as authentically as she could and, I think, sucked every minute out of life," he said.

Holycross and others plan to complete the rest of the walk this fall in her memory.

At least four other people are known to be heading for hikes of the entire Grand Canyon currently, Myers wrote.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at or at 913-8607.


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