Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
April 11, 2009
First off, I am trying to do the impossible here. Even the most eloquent writer, and I am nowhere near that, would be unable to describe the beauty of the Grand Canyon. My goal was to do one of the “classic” trail runs, the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, 42+ miles from the South Kaibab trailhead at the South Rim of the GC, down to Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River, and up the North Kaibab trail to the North Rim. Then all the way back again.
There is no parking at the trailhead, so I took the shuttle from my weekend home at the Mather campground. I stepped off the bus at 7:15AM and began my adventure. Lots of fog provided limited visibility. “Great,” I thought to myself, “I’m not gonna be able to see a thing out there.”
The South Kaibab trail immediately begins dropping you down towards the Colorado River. Lots of switchbacks. Lots of erosion bars. Lots of mule poop. After a few minutes I drop below the fog and am stunned at what I see. The Grand Canyon in all its glory. I had seen thousands of pictures of the GC before, but not even the most professional ones did the Canyon any justice. Different shades of reds and oranges and greens and browns just jumped right out at me. I felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss book, I had never seen such a combination of colors and shapes before. The twelve hour drive from Manitou was worth it just for that single moment. All this time I had just assumed that because the Canyon was in Arizona, it was all desert. It was incredible to see now many different plants decorated the place and how many different colors a rock could take on.
It was just as amazing to see how deep the Canyon is. About four miles down the trail I had to pull over to let a mule train pass (yes, there are lots of mules on the trails and yes, they poop all over the place). I took a look over a cliff and caught my first view of the Colorado River. It was flowing at a level even deeper than I thought I had to drop to. I knew that from the South Rim to the river was almost a 5,000 foot drop in less than eight miles, it was just hard to picture that much of a descent.
Soon enough I was crossing the suspension bridge 100 feet over the Colorado River. Another half mile or so and I was at Phantom Ranch, the lowest point of the run at 2,400 feet, just before 9AM. The ranch was quiet, as most people were either out hiking or riding their mules back up to the South Rim. I discovered that a can of Tecate costs $4.25 here. Not too bad considering how much work had to be done to get the beer to the Ranch.
I filled up on water at Phantom Ranch and found the North Kaibab trail, which would be my home for the next 28 miles. The park rangers (bless their souls!) really, really, really discourage people from hiking into the Canyon at all, let alone give blessing to people attempting the double crossing. Signs at the top of the Canyon warn of death to people who try to hike to the river and back in a single day. As I left Phantom Ranch a ranger asked me where I was going. “The North Rim,” I said. She looked at me like I had just walked on water. “That’s 14 uphill miles away, you shouldn’t do that” she replied. I said thanks and took off running. To be fair, the day after finishing this run I asked a park ranger why they discouraged any serious hiking or running. He replied, “We do more than 300 rescues a year. Do you know how friggin’ hard it is to carry a person from the Phantom Ranch to the South Rim?”
I thought that going rim to rim would have you running in the main canyon, but I was wrong. After leaving Phantom Ranch you actually follow some sweet singletrack along Bright Angel Creek up through Bright Angel Canyon. For about two miles after the ranch, through Box Canyon, I felt like I was running in the Royal Gorge. Cliffs shooting straight up on both sides of me, with only the fast flowing creek and the trail in between. I had decided early on not to take any pictures of the run (other than the obligatory shot from the North Rim to prove I’d been there) since every step I took provided a new beautiful view. Had I taken all the pics I wanted to, this run would’ve taken several days.
As Bright Angel Canyon began to open up the rain started to fall. A few drops at first, but before long it was a steady drizzle and then a heavy rain. No big deal, it was nice to run in the rain after all the snow I’d been running through back in Colorado lately.
I ran past Ribbon Falls, one of several zillion waterfalls in the Canyon. Continued on past the Cottonwood campground, about seven miles from the ranch. The water was still turned off here, luckily I was carrying a large camelbak and didn’t need to refill. One good thing about the rain and low temps was not having to worry about overheating.
I continued on at a decent pace. The trail is all uphill but this section was not something that a Colorado trail runner would notice. Soon I reached the Roaring Creek pump house. The water here was on, and I refilled my camelback. Also took a break here to wolf down a cliff bar and hope the weather would improve. I was soaked pretty good by this point.
Roaring Creek has a huge waterfall spilling into it, and it’s used to generate electricity. This marks the spot where the real climb to the North Rim begins. Shortly after passing the waterfall it also marked the spot where the rain turned to snow. Things became real rough here. I was hiking the steep parts of the hill, which were most of it, and running the flatter parts. The snow was heavy and the temps were dropping. The trail here was a lot less rocky, and the snow was quickly turning the trail to mud. I climbed for what seemed like forever and eventually come to a bridge, and this was where I had a real bad section. From the bridge, through the Supai tunnel, I felt like I wasn’t moving at all. I was sliding all over the place in the mud, freezing my ass off, and wondering if I should turn around.
Just as all hope seemed lost, I saw a pair of hikers coming towards me. I stopped to chat with them and they said it was only about 1.5 miles to the North Rim. This cheered me up a bit. Shortly after I passed the hikers, the snow got real thick. I had to keep my head down to stop the snowflakes from blinding me. But now I was determined to make it all the way. I saw another pair of hikers and again stopped to chat, though this conversation was a lot shorter. I continued on with my standby mantra of “relentless forward motion,” a fancy ultrarunning phrase that sounds much better than saying you’re moving really slow, and was nearing the top when I saw a group of three runners headed back down. So all in all I saw four hikers and three runners on the North Kaibab trail. R2R2R is somewhat extreme, but it certainly isn't uncommon. About ten minutes after I saw the runners I was finally at the North Kaibab trailhead.
The North Rim, 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim, was completely deserted. There were about five inches of fresh snow covering the parking lot. The water was either turned off or had frozen. It was weird how alone I felt up there. They close the North Rim to traffic each winter due to the harsh conditions, and they aren’t opening the roads until May 15th this year. I took ten minutes to wolf down a ham and cheese sandwhich and then it was time for the second half of my run.
I started the trip back around 1:15PM. I tried to run hard, knowing that better weather awaited me once I got down far enough, but the heavy snow and muddy conditions made for some rough going. There were some hairy moments along the trail, running across some slippery sections where a fall would have taken at least 1,000 feet to stop. Good stuff!
The Supai tunnel, the bridge, and finally the waterfall, before I knew it the snow had once again turned to rain. I made very good time here, suddenly realizing that if I kept screwballing around I would be forced to make the climb back up to the South Rim in the dark. I had a flashlight and running in the dark wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I worried about how much the temps would drop once the sun went down. I’m a huge sissy when it comes to cold weather. And although my PPRR Winter Series jacket had more than paid for itself on this run, I didn't want to push my luck by testing it out in sub zero temperatures.
Before I knew it I was back at Phantom ranch. Total heartbreak – the Ranch was closed from 4PM to 6PM to serve supper to those staying the night. I arrived just before 5PM. No special souvenir t-shirt. No four dollar Tecate. Ouch. But in retrospect, that may have been a good thing, as the skies were already beginning to get a little darker.
I began the final section of my journey around 5:15PM. I passed a ranger on the way out, right at the mule stables. She told me I shouldn’t be leaving so late. I told her I had ran to the North Rim and was on my way back, had plenty of water, and had a flashlight just in case I didn’t make it before sunset. She told me I shouldn’t be leaving so late.
But it really was getting late, and I knew I’d hafta haul ass back up the South Kaibab trail. And haul ass I did! The final climb was a bitch and a half, but I hammered as hard as I could. No stopping for water, no stopping to eat. Just some more relentless forward motion, a bit more relentless than my slog up the North Rim. Running when I could, walking when I couldn’t. It was lonely as hell out there – saw nobody coming up or down, and the runners and hikers I had passed on the North Kaibab trail were probably over two hours behind me now. Nothing to do buy hurry up and finish.
Though I was underdressed and wet, and the temps were dropping and the wind was picking up, I was working so hard to get up that damn hill I never really got cold. Shortly after passing the 3.5 miles to go sign my spirits received a huge boost at there was a section probably a mile long that I was not only able to run, but run fast. At that section my thoughts went from “I might wind up dead out here” to “I need to stop at the grocery store on the way back for some more PBR.” It was a great feeling when I finally knew I was going to be successful with the run.
Another few million switchbacks later (a.k.a., Jacob's ladder), I hit the “do not hike to the river in one day or you will die” sign and shortly thereafter I was back where I had started twelve and a half hours earlier. I had completed the classic R2R2R!
I thought I still had a three mile hike back to my campsite as the shuttles stop running after sunset, but I was lucky enough to mooch a ride off a local guide. I arrived back at my tent, grabbed a shower ($2 in quarters for eight minutes, FYI), and began to feast on the grub that Katie Throndsen (a fellow PPRR'er who did a cool Bright Angel-Phantom Ranch-South Kaibab 20 mile loop earlier that day) had prepared. I was completely exhausted, but had nothing to do but eat, drink, be merry, enjoy the campfire, and talk about how much people from Wisconsin suck!