Hugh Illsley goes the extra mile for others.
At 71, he hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim for 24 miles in a day to raise upwards of $25,000 for Maasai Girls Rescue Center, a nonprofit that cares for vulnerable girls in Tanzania, Africa.
Illsley completed the charitable journey in 10 ½ hours, culminating a bucket-list dream hatched when he turned 70 and combining his first major hike with his wish to support the work of his friend Rick Morro, who founded and runs the rescue center.
“I wanted to help Rick because I think what Rick does is really heroic,” Illsley said. “To me, hiking the canyon to raise funds is nice, but it’s not heroic. He’s the hero.”
Illsley and Morro – both retired Scottsdale businessmen – became friends years ago through a Bible study group. Illsley leads Christian outreach programs, such as Tales from the Tour, and sponsors three girls at Scottsdale Bible Church’s schools in Tanzania.
Morro signed up for a tour of the church’s schools and was so inspired by what he saw that he packed up his life in Scottsdale and moved halfway across the world.
Over the last decade, Morro has developed his own Maasai Girls Rescue Center. More than 50 girls currently live at a temporary site in Karatu, Tanzania, while a permanent ecoVillage is under construction a mile away.
Funds are being raised to build the ecoVillage, which will provide not only shelter for the girls but a farm and small lodge for safari and adventure travelers visiting nearby World Heritage sites. Revenue from the tourists will sustain the center’s operations.
Like Morro, Illsley approached his Grand Canyon challenge a step at a time, beginning two years ago with a demanding training program hiking in the desert four to five hours three days a week.
“This has been the toughest goal I’ve ever set,” Illsley said.
He also tapped his network of friends and family to contribute to the cause, which is still generating donations through the center’s website: maasairescue.org.
On June 1 at 5 a.m., Illsley started the hike at the North rim trailhead. A friend dropped him off and drove to the other end. It was 40 degrees.
“The first five miles were straight downhill,” he said. “I followed a stream for nine miles until it arrived at the Colorado River. It was a gorgeous hike. I went two hours without seeing anyone.”
When he reached Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, he loaded up on water and drank the best lemonade ever. It was 100 degrees. Then he started the uphill climb to the top.
“That whole section is in direct sunlight with very little shade,” he said. He slogged through sand dunes that irritated his feet, washed in the river and put on fresh socks. Then he met a 52-year-old man from Wisconsin who was hiking with his daughter.
“Next to me, he was the oldest guy on the trail,” Illsley said. Their presence was reassuring as the hike wore on, getting harder and harder.
“The last two miles were tough,” he said. “It took me an hour. One foot after another. Every time you look around the corner, you wonder, is this the last switchback? When I saw my buddy sitting on a bench on the South rim, that was great! I reached the top and saw the father and daughter were also waiting for me to make sure I was okay.”
Illsley and his friend drove to Williams to check into a hotel to recover. In the shower, sheets of mud rolled off his body. He rested, took some Advil, and went out for a steak dinner.
Now he’s back with his wife, Joanne, at their home in Scottsdale’s DC Ranch.
“It was a very satisfying thing to do,” he said. “Spiritually, it was rewarding. But while I’m sitting here in my comfortable house looking out over the city, Rick is getting up every morning with more than 60 people to take care of. He gave himself up completely to serve others. That is the epitome of self-sacrifice.”