March 5, 2010
The Game Plan: Starting at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, run down the South Kaibab Trail (7.2 miles), connect with the North Kaibab Trail and take it as far as possible up to the North Rim (13.7 miles), turn around, retrace steps along the North Kaibab (13.7 miles) and take the Bright Angel Trail back out to the South Rim (9.6 miles). Total mileage: 44.2 (or 46, depending on your source of information).
The Twist: Although Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) has become a popular run among ultrarunners, most attempts are done in Spring or Fall months when temperatures are pleasant at the Rims, hot in the Canyon, and most of the water sources are open for business. A conference for work landed me in Arizona in late-winter, and not being one to pass up an opportunity, I went full steam ahead on R2R2R planning. Then, a week or so before the run I learned that the Grand Canyon was hit with near-record-breaking amounts of snow with reports of three feet of untouched powder roughly two miles down the North Kaibab Trail. Awesome. So, I packed my snowshoes for the trip and accepted the fact that a full R2R2R might not be possible.
The Story: When the alarm went off at 5:00am Friday morning, I was hoping to hear that Vince’s recent illness had miraculously disappeared. Vince, an ultra buddy of mine that graciously flew out to Arizona so I wouldn’t have to run a solo double-crossing of the Grand Canyon, had been battling a cold all week and was hoping that things would settle by game-time Friday morning. Sadly, they did not, but since he was already out there he wanted to run as far he comfortably could. We planned on running down to Phantom Ranch together and from there, depending on how Vince was feeling, we would either continue together or part ways and I continue up towards the North Rim while he made his way back up to the South Rim. Phantom Ranch was a perfect location for this as the South Kaibab, Bright Angel and North Kaibab trails all meet just north of the Colorado River was. Being solo, I opted to not bring along my snowshoes as they would likely tempt me into crossing dangerous trail sections. Instead, I acknowledged that my turnaround might come earlier than planned, but so long as I went as far as safely possible I would be contempt.
We drove to a small unmarked parking area maybe a half-mile from the South Kaibab trail head, parked, and hit the ground running. Temperatures hovered in the high teens and the sun was starting to poke its head out. We hit the South Kaibab trail right around 6:30am and instantly we were greeted with snowy and icy switchbacks. We put on our Yaktrax to be safe and within 10 minutes we were stopping to take them back off. Temperatures and trail conditions changed rapidly in those first three or four miles, and within 40 minutes, as we were stopping to stare in awe as the sun lit up the canyon, I had stripped off my windbreaker, longsleeve shirt, gloves, headband, and now was down to just a t-shirt and arm warmers.
Water erosion bars quickly became our least favorite things in the world, followed closely second by the smell of mule poop. The joys of the Grand Canyon, right? High-stepping and poop-smelling aside, there is just no real way to describe the grandiosity of this canyon, especially knowing that over the course of half a day you will run across it twice.
With the constant stopping for photo ops and canyon gazing, it was a slow trip down to Phantom Ranch. The seven miles took just under two hours. I remember this because Phantom Ranch did not open until 8:30am and we still had a few minutes to spare. This was our first opportunity to refuel, and as I was topping off my bladder and handheld bottle Vince informed me that he wasn’t feeling too hot and he would be turning around soon. He wanted to run a few miles on the North Kaibab trail, but not knowing how well his body would temperature regulate or take in fuel, he didn’t want to push on too hard. Since I might possibly be fighting daylight later on, we decided it was best for me to go ahead at my own pace and Vince would take his time going back up Bright Angel.
I know what you’re thinking at this point. “Never separate, this is how fatalities occur.” True, but I like to think we had a solid plan in place, we were both more than physically capable on taking on the Canyon, and I was carrying more than enough fluid and calories. Needless to say, I am here writing this report, but I do respect the dangers of Mother Nature and her beautiful and deadly big ditch.
The North Kaibab Trail offered a much different change of scenery. The trail meandered north along the Bright Angel Creek for a few miles with tall rock walls surrounding on both sides. This narrow area caused my GPS to lose signal a few times, but it usually caught back up with no significant measured distance lost.
The trail then opened up to what was probably my favorite section. The steep walls disappeared and I was now running on an undulating desert trail with open “fields” and plenty of cacti. I use quotes because that is what it would appear to be for someone with tunnel vision. It’s hard not to notice the monumentous and snow-covered North Rim ahead, or the equally enormous and snow-covered South Rim behind. The grade in this section was slightly uphill but my legs were feeling fresh and I was loving life so I kept on at it with a comfortable but fairly decent effort. So long as I was keeping my heart-rate in the 150’s (or lower), there shouldn’t be need to worry about significant fatigue later in the day.
Temperatures in the Canyon were now in the 60’s from what I would guess and the sun was shining bright. It was a seven mile stretch from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground, but at this time of year the Cottonwood faucets are turned off, causing me to stretch my fluids out for a few more miles. Cottonwood was a pleasant little oasis with a few trees, fallen leaves, and for the most part empty campsites.
Caretaker’s Cabin or Roaring Springs would be the next opportunity to refuel. The ranger I spoke to the day before had told me that the faucets at Roaring Springs had just been turned on and that the Caretaker’s Cabin was a crap-shoot. Either way, I could fill at Roaring Springs and purify if need be. There was no need for purification since the faucet in front of the Caretaker’s Cabin was spewing water as I approached (they leave faucets dripping to prevent pipe freezing). This was an interesting little spot since, from what I can tell, a ranger lives here and leaves offerings to hikers on a picnic table out front. Hell, he even has a basketball hoop for hikers smart enough (?) to pack in a basketball!
The grade of the trail became significantly steeper around this point, causing me to start speed-hiking most of the way. Roaring Springs requires a slight off-trail detour to get water, but since I had just topped off at the b-ball court I passed right by without checking to verify that the water was indeed on. Originally, I had thought that Roaring Springs would be where I would turn around. Some ranger reports indicated that snowy trail sections started around here, but all was clear, I was feeling good, and I had plenty of time to explore further; so I did.
The trail started switchbacking and I was now on the big climb up to North Rim. Switchbacking up also brought steep drop-offs, so extra caution was taken with each step. It was nice being on a section of trail that not many people had traveled in the past few months. The North Rim and all roads leading into it are closed at this time of year, so anyone wanting to reach this section of the North Kaibab has to do so from the South Rim, a task that most are not up for. This, consequently, meant that as I got up into the snowy trail sections, they weren’t as nicely packed as they were coming down South Kaibab. Trail was broken but these were individual footprints that post-holed down approximately one foot into what would become almost three feet of snow.
It was fairly awkward trying to move fast through these tracks, but it was passable and I wasn’t getting myself into anything I couldn’t get out of. At one point I came upon a small stream of melting snow that created some crunchiness and a bit of ice. I found some dry spots for foot placement and carefully passed on through. Then, not even a quarter-mile later, I came across another bout of melting snow. This one created a small waterfall from above and a patch of ice that covered roughly eight feet of the trail. The snow leading up to the ice patch was also covered in ice and was extremely slick. I approached cautiously but realized passing would bring about significant risk.
And just like that, my trek towards the North Rim came to an end. Even if I put on my Yaktrax to pass over the ice, likely there would be something similar around the next corner, and the next, and the next. I had traveled 20 miles, was maybe a mile or two from the North Rim, but oh well; I went as far as I safely could.
Turn around. Do it again.
Once I passed through the snowy switchbacks, I was able to open up the pace and get some good downhill quad-trashing going on. Here is where I was able to first feel the effects of the climbing, descending, and overall time on feet. It wasn’t much, but enough that my body was saying “yeah dude, a couple more hours of this and good luck walking next week.” Shut up body, I’m the one making the decisions here.
Again I blew right by Roaring Springs and stopped at Caretaker’s Cabin. I filled up my bladder (2/3 of the way for those wondering, and I was also drinking a strong Perpetuem drink mix in my handheld all day) explored down to the creek for a few minutes, and stretched a bit. I was hoping to get a peek of the elusive Caretaker, but alas, nothing. Onward!
I was now back at my favorite section of the North Kaibab, only now instead of having a slight incline it was slightly declined, allowing me to really open up and throw down some 7:30 miles at one point. It felt great.
As Phantom Ranch got closer and I ran along Bright Angel Creek, the steep rock walls reappeared, and at one point, so did a man with two mules. I didn’t immediately see him since he came around a blind turn and my head was down, but once I saw him it appeared as though he was backing into a crevice to let me by. Boy was I wrong. I hadn’t even moved forward five feet before this crotchety old man with a white beard and half his teeth proceeded to yell and chastise me for not immediately stopping. “Don’t you see that these are mules? Do you not know the rules? You don’t know the rules? Get the hell out of my way and stand over there! Don’t look at the mules! Don’t move a muscle until I’m at least 50 feet past.” Easy there old-timer, this is my first time in the Big Ditch and if you couldn’t tell, I was running and didn’t notice you. Oh well, lesson learned: stop for mules or feel the wrath of crotchety old guys.
Onwards I proceeded to Phantom Ranch. Strangely this section seemed to take forever even though I was running at a decent clip. I finished off my handheld, was almost done with the water in my bladder, and the sun was making things pretty hot at this point. Phantom Ranch finally appeared and I was extremely grateful. Sensing that I had just put in a hard effort and that I may be a little behind on calories and fluid, I chugged a bottle of water while I stretched, then went inside and got a snickers bar and an ice cold glass of lemonade. I had heard somewhere that this was THE meal to get when R2R2R’ing it. Let me tell you, that one-two punch of sugar and fluid hit the spot!
I was now more than 30+ miles into the run and had roughly 10 miles left… all in the upwards direction to head out of the Canyon. After spending a good 20 minutes at Phantom Ranch to recharge and loosen up, I headed out. Rather than using the Black Bridge to cross the mighty Colorado River like we did on the inbound trip, since I was taking the Bright Angel Trail outbound, the Silver Bridge took me across the Colorado. Standing on the bridge really allows you to understand how much water is rushing by at any given second, and in that sense it allows you to understand how this single river was able to carve out the immensely vast Canyon you are standing in.
The first mile or two of the Bright Angel trail were decently runnable despite their incline. As the trail was running parallel to the river, I thought for a minute that I had taken the wrong trail and was running on the River Trail. However, I knew the River Trail would run back in to Bright Angel with roughly the same mileage, so I didn’t bother stopping to check the map.
The five miles from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens took an hour and a half, not bad for a combination of running and hiking. As expected, the pace slowed down significantly when the climb got steeper a little bit before Indian Gardens. Indian Gardens itself was a pleasant little oasis with lots of trees, camp sites, and Japanese tourists lying around in the shade looking like they were about to die of fatigue. I probably looked comparable and would have fit right in with them on the ground, but knowing that only 4.6 miles stood between me and the South Rim, I opted to top off fluids and keep moving instead.
I was now 7:30 into the run. In my head I calculated that if I hiked 20 minutes/mile I could make it in right at ten hours. This seemed reasonable, but then the trail got way steeper, way switchback-ier, and way more of the water erosion bars. Oh joy! No cause for concern though, this arbitrary goal was still attainable so long as I kept my head down and speed-hiked like there was no tomorrow, which is what I did.
Snow reappeared, but strangely the associated cold temperatures did not seem to necessitate the re-clothing that I had originally imagined. In my logistical planning I had thought this section would be a slow death march in the cold as the sun was setting. Miraculously, there was still plenty of daylight and warmth since I had been moving at a decent pace most of the day.
The pace and effort I was putting in to get up to the South Rim also generated a fair amount of body heat, noticeable to at least two people who, as we crossed paths, commented that I needed to keep moving lest I risk freezing to death. My inner monologue quickly chimed in, “Yes, I am aware that I am the only idiot out here in shorts and a t-shirt, and the size of my pack is vastly inferior to yours, but you are mistaken and I am not the underprepared, in-over-my-shoulders, know-it-all, twenty-something male that you are accustomed to hearing about in Grand Canyon tales of peril. If only you knew what I’ve been through today.”
Nonetheless, this was just more motivation to keep moving ahead strong towards the arbitrary 10 hour goal. I reached the 3-mile rest house at nine hours on the dot. Perfect. Then the 1.5-mile rest house at 9:30. Perfect. “Let’s not mess this last mile-and-a-half up” I thought to myself. The head went down and the arms started pumping to dictate the pace. Round and round I went through the switchbacks until the Bright Angel trail head finally appeared.
I tagged the South Rim at 10:03 with the Garmin reading 43.1 miles. Good enough for government work!
I hunched over the fence of the mule corral to rest. I was elated to have survived a mostly-solo, faster-than-anticipated, and nearly-completed in less-than-ideal conditions R2R2R. I really wish Vince could have been able to join me in more of the journey, but you have to play the hand you are dealt, and there is always next time. He ended up running for about an hour on the North Kaibab, getting in a total of 25 miles or so with a nice little Rim-to-River-to-Rim. Not too shabby of a run for a dude battling some serious sickness!
As I was hunched there, a few people at the trail head asked if I had just been down to the river. Trying not to sound too egotistical (a common battle for me as an ultrarunner, proud of what I have accomplished but also wanting others to be proud of what they can accomplish, no matter the distance), I explained I had indeed been down to the river, twice. Flabbergasted, they offered congratulations. While the congratulations were wonderful, I was really hoping someone would offer me a ride back to my lodge. Nada.
“Thanks everyone. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pathetically stumble back to my lodge.”