The Powerful Story Behind This Photo Will Move You to Tears

The landscape could humble anyone, but it holds particular meaning to one dad.

Courtesy Robin Phillips

Fifteen-year-old David Phillips had spent six months planning a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with his Boy Scout troop. No one could have known it would end in tragedy.

When the group arrived at the starting point for the hike, the scouts found out there was a problem with their permit. To sort it out, the five boys and three leaders trekked back up to the ranger station—only to find out it was closed. “It was a comedy of errors,” says David’s dad, Robin Phillips.

By the time the boys got moving, they’d already tapped into most of their water. (If you’re active, keep an eye out for symptoms of dehydration, too.) In the blistering sun, temperatures reached a scorching 115°F. Even the leaders were having trouble trudging on.

It took all day, but the group finally made it down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Heat exhaust was sinking in. (Watch out for warning signs of heat stroke during your own hikes.) “My son made it about 100 yards from the river and then dropped,” says Robin. Two scouts from David’s troop raced to the river to get him water.

Courtesy Robin Phillips

When the boys arrived, the Colorado River’s last rafting trip of the day was passing by. As luck would have it, the riders were paramedics. They rushed to give David first aid before going for help. The paramedics radioed an aircraft overhead and asked the park service to send a rescue team, then flagged down more hikers from the trail.

But it was to late. David passed away from heat exhaustion.

Without the group on the raft, the heat probably would have killed the rest of the boys, too, says Robin. But they were airlifted out the next day and returned home with heavy hearts.

It’s been 21 years since the boy’s death, and hiking still holds a strong memory of David for his family. The summer before the tragedy, Robin had been laid off, which turned into a blessing because he used severance money to devote time to his family. David and his dad spent the summer backpacking all over the High Uintas Wilderness in Utah, where snow-topped peaks reflect tower over glacier-formed lakes. “We were probably able to see over 100 different lakes,” says Robin. (Find more stunning photos of national parks covered in snow.)Courtesy Robin Phillips

Robin’s grandfather showed the spot to his own son, who in turn introduced his son. Robin is continuing the tradition. He’s brought his six biological children and their 23 kids—a couple of whom are named after David—plus his two foster children to the High Uintas.

The photo Robin took of Christmas Meadows in the High Uintas won the Reader’s Digest “From Sea to Shining Sea” photo contest and appeared on the July/August 2017 magazine cover. To Robin, it isn’t just a breathtaking landscape—it’s also a powerful reminder of his late son.

“My grandfather called that whole area around the High Uintas ‘God’s country,’” says Robin. “He wasn’t big on going to church, but he always told us that whenever he was up there he could tell that God loved him because He had created someplace so beautiful.”

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.