Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rim to Rim to Rim

So someone once said why climb Mount Everest, and the answer was, "Because its there." This provides the explanation, if there is one, as to why to run the Grand Canyon rim to rim. Running from side to side of one of the natural wonders of the world is awful tempting. But why rim to rim to RIM? Well, when you are on the other side, unless you have someone willing to drive 6 hours to pick you up, you have to haul your carcass back to the other side. So Rim to Rim to Rim is a function of practicality as much as it is anything else.

When I realized I had some vacation time to burn, running Rim to Rim to Rim became a reality. I was fishing for companions, but everyone had other plans, so I knew I would be running on my own. I looked at the most popular routes down and up the canyon as I was going to be running alone and unsupported, so wanted to be assure that if I gave up along the trail that some other hiker would find my sorry carcass. There are two routes on the South Rim. The South Kaibab trail is the steeper and shorter of the two. It is also supposedly the most scenic as it traces a ridge line. The Bright Angel trail is longer with a water stop at least halfway up and more frequent depending on the season. I decided to take South Kaibab down and Bright Angel up to ensure that I saw everything on both trails. If I had to do it again, I would probably go up and down South Kaibab. Before ascending Bright Angel, you run for about 2 to 3 flat miles, which makes the climbs up to the South Rim, once they start, very similar on both trails. And Bright Angel has some pretty scenes, but no open vistas like are supposed to be on South Kaibab. Assuming you can carry enough water, and in late fall you can, South Kaibab is probably the way to go.

South Kaibab Trailhead a little after 3 AM. I had brought my camera but forgot the memory card, so all pics were taken with my cell phone. I apologize in advance for the so-so quality.

So, fast forward to last Monday at 3 AM. I was standing on the precipice of the South Kaibab trail, a 6.5 mile plunge to the bottom of the canyon. I had a pack which weighed between 5 and 10 pounds with the following:
4 20 oz. arrowhead water bottles
rain jacket
3 turkey sandwiches
2 pop tarts
ziploc of chips
24 packets of roctaine gu
salt pills and Tylenol
chart of mileage, elevation, and water availability at landmarks
cash and credit card for Phantom Ranch for canteen

That seems like a lot, but I wasn't sure exactly what I would need, and there wasn't much of a safety net if things went wrong. My main concern was that I had enough food, because it would suck to get really hungry and not have enough to eat. I tried to choose as much salty food as I could knowing that I have trouble with getting salt pills down. Of course one thing I forgot was the memory card to my camera, so that meant the only pics I would have would be the ones taken with my cell phone. Oh well.

It was a little chilly as I started down the trail. It was a little after 3 AM, and I was hoping to finish by the time the sun went down between 5:30 and 6 that night. I was in a long sleeve under a short sleeve under a vest with a beenie and gloves as well as compression shorts and regular cargo hiking shorts and my new La Sportivas. The descent was fairly relentless, but went smooth for the first hour or so. It was hard to get a rhythm because of all of the wood and stone barriers that were built in the middle of the trail to divert run off. Once or twice I had to search for the trail, but no mishaps all and all. Until about 4 or 5 miles in when my light started to flicker. Uh oh. It wasn't a battery problem as the light would come back when I would wack it, but soon it would start to flicker again. And with all of this weight, I had chosen not to bring a back up light. Stupid mistake. Nervous about my light, I tried to get down to the bottom of the trail as quickly as possible. On the radio, Art Bell was talking about EVP's which are electronically recorded ghostly voices, enough to keep me focused on the trail and give me the creeps more than once. At one point, I got low enough that I could look behind me on the south rim and see the lights of the lodges up above as well as a single light on the north rim, which I have no idea what it was given the north rim lodge was closed.

Finally, I bottomed out at the black bridge over the Colorado River which I crossed relatively quickly and made my way into Phantom Ranch. This is a collection of cabins and a campground surrounding a fully powered canteen. As I ran through, the crew was up cooking breakfast, and I could smell the flapjacks and bacon cooking. Yum. I came up on a worker to ask where the water faucet was and scared the crap out of her as I'm sure she wasn't expecting anyone at 4:30 in the AM wandering around the camp. It had warmed from 35 at the trailhead to about 50 at the ranch, so I stripped off my beanie, longsleve, and gloves and stuffed them in the pack. Knowing the next water was in about 9 miles, I made sure I had 3 full bottles and headed out.

This is the view of the "black bridge" which ran over the Colorado along the South Kaibab trail. This is much later that day coming out of Phantom Ranch, looking back over Bright Angel Creek.

The next part of the run was really nice and gentle along Bright Angel Creek, even if it was gently uphill. I was still running in the dark, with the babbling of the brook calling me along. On either side of me, I could sense great cliffs climbing above me for thousands of feet. The footing on the trail was good, but my light was faltering more and more. That made me determined to try to keep my speed up and hit the south rim again before dark, as rain was supposed to hit that night, meaning an earlier sunset than usual.

The 8 or so miles from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground were gentle but with some steep rollers. It was all runnable, so I ran it, trying to take advantage of my legs while I had them. It was definitely uphill, but very gradual. After coming out of the canyon, I came out into an open boggy area as there was finally enough sun to put away my light. I could make out lots of small cottonwood and other trees with yellow leaves surrendering to the fall. Graceful, rugged red walls soared directly above me to my right, and across the creek, I saw rock walls of red, yellow, and white climbing dauntingly high, dusted with pines that looked like pins from where I stood now, but which would tower above me by the time I arrived.

At Cottonwood Campground, campers were just starting to stir. Knowing I would be coming back through there and that it was getting warm, I stashed my rain jacket and warm weather clothes as well as some gu packs behind a tree and pushed on. The mistake was not spreading them out to dry so that all my warm clothes were still wet when I would need them later.
About a mile and a half later, I was at the caretaker cabin, another water fill. This is a ranger station that used to be a private residence. The house looked fairly comfortable, and much to my surprise, even had a basketball hoop in front. Man, I can't beleive I didn't have a ball to shoot. Next time, I'm going to figure something out, even if its bringing a deflated beach ball. From here, it was still 6 or so miles to the top, so I filled all my water bottles, although the morning was still cool and gray clouds were rolling in from the north.

Oh, what a brilliant place for a hoop! And me with no basketball . . .

After the cabin, the trail started climbing in earnest, and the power hiking began. From the cabin to the top, I ran probably 10 to 20 percent of the way up as opposed to the 90 to 95 percent running I had been doing to this point. Its never super steep, but very, very steady. The winds were really strong through here, and I had to take off my hat to keep it from blowing away. I was later told that winds in the Canyon were gusting to 50 mph. I would believe it.
I was hiking quickly when I did hike and soon came to Roaring Springs, which is an incredible sight. This one spring supplies almost all the water for the north rim trails and Bright Angel Creek. The springs literally rip out of the side of the mountain and are framed, at least in Fall, by yellow and red smears of vegitation. Pushing past, I came across my first two hikers of the day who I quickly put in my rear view mirror. Past Roaring Springs, the footing on the trail got a little unsure and the fall if you tripped, precipitous. At one point, the trail actually descended to a bridge which gave a nice break to the climbing legs, but back up it went. Finally I went through a tunnel which I knew meant 2 miles to the top. By this time, I had finished Art Bell, not only the EVP's but his night of Halloween ghost stories, and was onto Jay Mohr hosting the Jim Rome show which provided for a few laughs as I grinded up the last switchbacks. The climb just seemed to go on and on, and you never felt like you were making any progress.
A fairly poor shot of Roaring Springs. You really can't appreciate how much water is just gushing out of the side of this mountain unless you see it yourself.
Finally, I saw the sign for the north rim. I walked over and touched it and saw it was 10 AM, almost on the dot. It was about an hour slower than I wanted to run it, but I also wasn't pushing at all, not only because I wanted to "enjoy" the run as much as possible, but I also wanted to make sure I had legs left for the climb out the South Rim. I turned around and headed straight back down the trail as it was cold on top and windy. Fairly anti-climatic. At this point, I had 21 miles and about 6000 feet of climbing on my legs, and I felt like it. I was ready for some downhill. After about a mile down the trail, I found a nice place to stop with a nice view of the canyon. I stopped here and ate a sandwich which I had to force down. The chips tasted good though and I had about half of the pop tart I brought. It was getting harder to take food, but I was being good about taking gels, so things were OK on the fuel front.

After about 10 minutes, I hit the trail again. Running downhill felt good, and I started to stretch my legs except the sections with the tricky footing and steep falls which I picked my way through. I ran into a few hikers coming up from Cottonwod Camp on my way down and stopped for a minute or two to answer questions about conditions, etc. At this point, I was onto my book on tape, enjoying Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is about a bunch of hardasses running around the Spanish Mountains fighting the fascists. Great book. As I passed Roaring Springs, I ran into a couple who had left South Kaibab at 5 and asked to see the bottom of my shoes as they were literally following my footsteps. They were running rim to rim where a friend was picking them up. I wasn't smart enough to think of that, so I pushed on thinking about the giant climb I still had ahead of me. Fairly quickly I was at the Caretaker Cabin again where I filled up one water to get me to Phantom Ranch, again rueing my lack of basketball.

This is coming down into the only bit of uphill between the North Rim and the Caretaker Cabin. A pretty typical view of the trail which you can see stretch on for miles in front of/behind you.

After another mile and half, I was back at Cottonwood where I gathered all my cold weather gear. The ranger had found it and taken all of my gels I had left and put them in a metal box, leaving me a note that all food had to be properly stored. I thought that was a little excessive as gels seem extremely non-food like, but not a big deal. Reweighted, I headed down through the bog and into the box. At this point, the run was frankly becoming kind of a grind. It was nice to see the creek which danced jauntily over the rocks next to me, and I was awed by the sheer walls of the canyon in the box, but at the same time, I was too busy looking at my feet to make sure I didn't trip to truly enjoy the vistas, and my energy was starting to wane.

Finally, I pulled into Phantom Ranch about 1:20, a little ahead of schedule, meaning I had made up some time on the way down. At the Ranch, I took a break. I tried to use the phone down there to check in, but I wasn't smart enough to figure it out. Oh well. Inside, the canteen was bustling with people staying at the Ranch, many enjoying ice cold Tecates. I bought a lemonade and took a couple of tylenol which helped my aching feet. After sitting for about 20 minutes, it was time to head out again for the big climb back to the South Rim. On the way out, I passed 3 gorgeous mule deer, much darker and grayer than the mule deer in California.

The Silver bridge which connects Phantom Ranch to the river trail over the Colorado River.

But the climb didn't come for a while. First, I ran across the silver bridge which leads to the river trail. Then it was another rolling mile and half to the Bright Angel trail. As I turned up the trail which runs along Pipe Creek, the grade turned upwards. There were 4 or 5 trail crossings which required agile stepping or wet feet. I chose the former. The trail at this point was very runnable, but I didn't have the energy or the desire. Maybe if it were during a race, but for my purposes, I was pretty done. As I moved along, a heavy shower hit with big cold drops. It felt good as the day had warmed up into the upper 60's. As I left the creek, the climb to the south rim began in earnest. Up and up and up it went. I quickly drained my water which I had refilled at Phantom Ranch. I knew there was a refill at Indian Gardens, but it seemed never to come. In retrospect, I thought it was 4 miles from Phantom Ranch when it was 6 miles. That's what I get for not looking at the chart I had brought for this very purpose.

Spring out of the side of the canyon walls along Pipe Creek.

Finally, the trail leveled out, and Indian Gardens came, an oasis of shade trees in various colors with a peaceful brook running right through the middle. I refilled my water and headed up for the last push. I knew from here it was 4.5 very steep miles back to home base, so I prepared myself to push up 3 segments of a mile and half each. I looked at where the trail went, and all I saw was a 600 foot vertical stone wall. How the hell was I going to get past that?! Further up I saw some short switchbacks, the Devil's Corkscrew, way up by the rim. How the hell was I going to get up there?! Well, I guess I was going to find out.

As I looked back from where I came, I saw a storm obscuring the north rim and the river. Uh oh. That didn't look good. I made it up to the 3 mile resthouse, 1.5 miled past Indian Gardens, and temperatures had lowered considerably, and the winds had picked up to gusts of abot 50 mph again. After a 3 minute stop, I kept going, knowing that now I was not only racing the dark but the storm as well. I quickly lost that race as not 5 minutes after leaving the rest house I got nailed. I could see my breath as the rain hit hard. I put on my rainjacket, and quickly found it was utterly ineffective. Thanks for nothing, Sierra Designs. Within 10 minutes, I was soaked as temperatures dropped even further and the winds contined to hammer. My cold weather stuff which I had not dried earlier was worthless. Not a good combination, and I was freezing cold for my lack of foresight and crappy raingear. As I steadily climbed through switchbacks, the rain mixed with sleet. At this point, I was fairly miserable and just wanted the thing to be done, but I knew at the rate I was moving, I still had at least an hour to go. I was doing some running through here mixed with power hiking just to try to keep my temperature up. However, my legs were pretty trashed, and I occasionally found myself losing concentration and literally staggering uphill, a mistake of temperature and failing to take any food for the last hour and a half.

At the 1.5 mile house, I again ducked into the structure and took a break out of the wind, gulping down a quick gel for some energy. As soon as I stopped moving, I started shivering uncontrolably, and I was rapidly losing light, so I quickly just headed back out on the trail to finish the climb. The trail finally evened out a bit, and the rain and sleet turned to snow, making it much more bearable as I wasn't actively getting wet anymore. I was nervous as I was losing the last bit of light. I tried to open my pockets to get my flashlight, but my numb fingers weren't responding very well. I finally got it out, and it faded in and out, occasionally going out altogether for 3 or 4 seconds at a time. But above me I saw the lights of the lodges fairly close, so my spirits were raised as I staggered through slippery mud that stole 1 step for every 2 or 3 I would take. Then I struggled across a slick, icy and snowy trail, watching to make sure I didn't lose my footing. The winds hadn't abated, and I don't think was ever as cold as I was for the last mile or so of that climb.
I went through a couple of short tunnels and then there it was! Artifical lighting, I have never been so glad to see you. I stumbled up into the Bright Angel Lodge a little before 6. I looked at the thermometer outside as I walked in. 21 degrees. It had been 65 at Phantom Ranch just 4 hours and 3800 feet ago! I threw my pack down and literally laid out in front of the roaring fire they had in the lobby, stripping off as many of my wet clothes as I could take off with a clear conscience. As several well dressed patrons of the lodge walked by, they cast glances at the muddy bedraggled figure laying prostrate in front of the fireplace. A few asked what I had been doing. When I told them, most shook their heads in disbelief or disgust. Probably both.

Having warmed up, I had to then walk about a half mile to my hotel. I gathered all of the stuff not wanting to put the wet stuff back on and then headed out across the parking lot in shorts and my short sleeved shirt. Man was that ridiculously cold. I walked into my hotel room which was already warm. Oh did that feel good. Then the warm bath. Even better!

Overall, I'm glad I did it, but it wasn't as great as I thought it would be. As I was in the Canyon most of the time, you don't get the spectacular views as if you were looking over the rim. There were lots of pretty scenes inside, but the run was mostly a grind up either side of the canyon, which didn't entail much running. Good to cross off the life list, but probably not something I would do again unless someone wanted me to go with them. At the end, I just really wanted to be done. Of course, the weather had a lot to do with that.
As for how hard it was, its hard to judge because I wasn't racing and had full training weeks leading into it, but I would say it was not as hard as Jemez, but harder than most 50 milers, and it was about 5 miles less! I was pretty sore the next day and am still not ready to run 3 days later. Next goal - Doughnut Man! More on that on Saturday.


  1. Wow! Great writeup! Congrats! Sorry I couldn't go with you. Glad you did it, and made it out safe.

  2. Sounds like a great adventure! Except for the part where it starts snowing. Any encounters with the mule trains?