Fran Anderson overcame a near-death bout with pneumonia, cancer and a knee surgery to finish the hike. About why she took on the grueling hike, she says: ‘Because I wanted to’
Watch this 81-year-old with cancer tackle a 24-mile Grand Canyon hike
81-year-old Fran just completed a 24-mile, rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon with her daughters and family while battling Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Sportskind, USA Today
An 81-year-old Southern California woman living with cancer has conquered a 24-mile, rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon.
Fran Anderson of Orange finished the hike in about 21 hours on Sept. 4, only five months after pneumonia nearly killed her. She had hoped to do it 14 hours but it was much harder than she anticipated, and at times she could barely put one foot in front of the other.
Most would have chosen to turn around rather than continue down into the canyon — where temperatures were in the 90s — and up 10 miles to the top of the other side.
“Finishing was my goal and it was going to happen no matter what,” said the mother of four and grandmother of nine.
Anderson spoke with USA TODAY exclusively about the feat, sharing what the hardest part was, why she was actually disappointed in herself after finishing the trail and the next big thing on her bucket list.
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Anderson is living with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that has compromised her immune system.
When she got pneumonia on a month-long cruise to the South Pacific in April, it nearly killed her. Luckily for Anderson, she has prioritized a healthy lifestyle and remained extremely active long after her days as a chorus line dancer who performed for U.S. troops.
“At the hospital they said, ‘You’re 80??'” Anderson recalled. “They said, ‘You are just not our typical 80-year-old patient.’ And I said, ‘I’m getting out of here, I’m making it through.’ And I did.”
Not only did Anderson overcome cancer and the hospitalization, she also broke her shoulder and knee when she fell off a table while putting up Halloween decorations in 2018. She had to undergo extensive surgery and couldn’t bear weight for three months.
Anderson being Anderson, she was at Machu Picchu in Peru three weeks after she left the wheelchair.
“I had this trip planned and my doctor said, ‘No way are you going on that,'” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’m going.'”
‘We’re gonna do it’
Anderson’s Grand Canyon hike also was not without its own obstacles.
She was supposed to complete the rim-to-rim journey last October but her hip gave out on the way down into the canyon, forcing her to turn back. She was determined to return and conquer it.
Anderson’s family decided that it’d be best if their mom did the hike over two days, a common strategy among rim-to-rim hikers of all ages. The plan was to hike down the North Rim to the bottom of the canyon one day, stay at a rustic hotel called Phantom Ranch overnight, and then hike up the South Rim the next morning.
But the hotel canceled their reservation at the last minute because of a water-main break.
That left Anderson with two choices: cancel the trip altogether or slug out the massive hike in one day.
Anderson, again being Anderson, was actually excited to do it in one day, despite her family’s reservations.
“She was like, ‘I get to do it all in one day! This is great!'” said her daughter, Lynnette Anderson Opp, a realtor also living in Orange. “And we were thinking, ‘This is not great, Mom. We should break it up into two days and she was like, ‘No, we’re gonna do it.'”
Considering the risks and being practical, Opp signed a healthcare directive beforehand, giving her family the power to make medical decisions for her. She carried it the entire hike, joking about not leaving home without her do-not-resuscitate order.
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‘Every step was a struggle’
Anderson’s adventure at the Grand Canyon began at 5:45 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3. She and six family members began the hike together, wearing custom T-shirts that said “Fran Canyon. Three family members went ahead early on, and Anderson ended up hiking with Opp, her other daughter, and her niece.
Pretty quickly into the day, Anderson began struggling.
“We were only one-tenth (or 2 miles) into the hike and my knees gave out, my left hip gave out,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh.'”
She was baffled as to why, having completely a rigorous, months-long training program designed by her other daughter, Brenda Sibley, a life coach.
The ladies soon realized that the only thing that Anderson was doing differently was wearing a brand-new backpack that ended up being a big mistake. “It didn’t fit me, it had a bone in it and it just threw me off balance,” she said.
So, the three other women dispersed the weight in Anderson’s pack among themselves and took turns carrying it the rest of the way, allowing the 81-year-old former stay-at-home mom to hike without any added pressure on her joints.
Still, it was a tough start to the day and “every step was a struggle” for Anderson, Opp said.
While the three family members who went ahead made it down to the canyon in an hour and 40 minutes, it took Anderson and the other women four hours and 40 minutes.
‘Zip in my step’
Anderson and the other women took an extensive break at the bottom of the canyon, loading up on electrolytes, water, snacks and a few prayers for good measure.
It gave Anderson the legs she needed.
“I got up and I had zip in my step and they said, ‘Go Mom, look at you,'” she said.
But they had 10 miles, all uphill, to go. Soon, it felt like it would never end.
“The end was just very, very long and very, very so slow,” Opp said, adding that she was struggling with plantar fasciitis. “It was truly like, one step, two step, push her up the step. One step, two step, push her up the step. We just knew we weren’t quitting.”
After the longest 21 hours of their lives, they made it to the South Rim at 2:45 a.m. on Sept. 4. Waiting there was Anderson’s husband of 60 years, 84-year-old LaMarr Anderson, a former NASCAR driver, commercial airline pilot and truck driver.
Family members cheered as she looked at him, clearly exhausted, and said: “I am …”
Too tired to find the rest of the words, she hugged and kissed her husband.
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‘Why would you do this?’
At first, Anderson recalls feeling disappointed in herself for taking 21 hours to finish the hike and slowing down her family members.
She got over it.
“When I got to the top and I accomplished it and the kids were all happy … I said, ‘You know, if they’re happy I gotta be happy. This is this is good,'” she said.
“None of my friends have done anything like this,” she continued. “They wouldn’t even think of it. They said, ‘Why would you do this?’ And I said, ‘Because I wanted to.'”
Anderson is a decade shy of being the oldest person to hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. That record is currently held by a Colorado man named John Jepkema, who was 91 when he did the hike in 2019, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Just a few days after the grueling day at the canyon, Anderson was already talking about what’s next on her bucket list.
She’s going on a girls trip to New York in December, plans to cross off a few more national parks in the next year, is planning a train tour in Canada and trying to make it to Israel by the end of 2024. She’s already been to six of the seven continents, though she did get to wave at Antarctica from a cruise ship once.
As for physical feats, she next wants to conquer Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, a 17-mile hike that culminates in a steep and dangerous climb up a granite dome using cables.
Just another Sunday in Anderson’s world.
Amanda Lee Myers covers news, adventure and the human experience for USA Today. She can be reached at AmandaMyers@usatoday.com and found on X at @AmandaLeeUSAT.