Trip report: Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run
Date: April 25, 2010
Distance: 46 miles + ~2 miles to trailhead
Elevation gain: 11,000 feet
Elapsed time: 14:50
Below, our route generally follows the gorge in the center of the photo all the way to the horizon.
It's almost 3 am and I'm tired of waiting for my watch to alarm. I haven't slept all that well and I want to get up, but it's cold out and my sleeping bag is warm. Nate makes a little noise in his nearby tent and I know it's time. After a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal and a few last minute preparations, we jog away from our campsite in the dark. He and I share a sense of excitement; after 4 months of planning and waiting Nate and I are finally ticking another one off the life-list. We intend to savor it.
Two miles of paved bike paths bring us to a stone wall on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Beyond the wall in the dark lies the most famous abyss in the world. We're both wearing shorts even though it's 28 degrees out, but occasional warm drafts breathe out of the canyon, letting us know we won't be cold for long. With a little bit of starlight we can make out some of the featured terrain ahead of us and a dim speck of light marks our destination on the North Rim 10 miles away in a direct line. Lacking wings, our route, will take us 9 miles and over 5000 vertical feet down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, then another 14 miles and 6000 vertical feet up the North Kaibab Trail. From there we'll turn around and run it all again on the return trip, all in the same day. Nate and I are both well prepared for this adventure, with countless training miles and dozens of challenging mountain ultramarathons under our belt.
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in a single day. ;-) I'm tired already.
At almost exactly 4 am we pass though a break in the rim wall and start our run down the Bright Angel Trail under headlamp. The footbed is a well worn mix of water bars, rocks, mud and the occasional mule turd that keeps us on our toes. The grade is fairly easy by New England standards as the trail switchbacks back and forth where it's carved out of a steep cliff face, even passing through an occasional tunnel.
We exchange our usual juvenile jokes and insults with each other as we make fast progress and the sheer walls grow ever higher above us.
Around 5 am we pass through Indian Garden Campground where a few people are stirring, but most are still asleep. It's just starting to get light out and we put our headlamps away. The trail levels out a bit on the Tonto Platform and with the daylight we're able to stretch our legs out a bit and really run. Everything here is foreign to us, cacti and cottonwood, sandstone and giant squirrels with tufted ears. We're constantly stopping to take pictures and point things out to each other. This is the most fun I've had in a long time. Soon the trail resumes its plummeting descent and we enter a section of switchbacks known as the Devil's Corkscrew.
We zig-zag crazily back and forth for a few miles, then bottom out in a section with a bunch of stream crossings. The water is low and we easily hop across the rocks, keeping our feet dry. Rounding a corner, we get our first sight of the mighty Colorado River. Here, it's a hundred yards wide, brown and slow moving. The river used to be more clear and fast, but that's been altered by the dams that throttle it far upstream.
We followed along the edge of the river for a few minutes until we arrive at a beautifully constructed suspension bridge.
An older gentleman with an enormous pack steps off the bridge and we jog past him on a wide section of trail. He scowls at us and quips "You win", as if we were running a race in his canyon. I feel a brief burst of anger that quickly gives way to pity. I could explain to him that I've spent plenty of time hiking and backpacking at a leisurely pace, enough to know that I like my way of doing things better, but I also suspect it would be a wasted to effort to someone set in their ways. Nate and I will enjoy our adventure through the canyon on our own terms and see it in ways this man may never conceive of. I give the grouch an over-enthusiastic smile, wish him a good day, and run away from him across the bridge.
Quickly deposited on the other side, we wind our way through Bright Angel Campground where we pause for a minute to eat and top off our water. At only 2 hours in we're feeling strong and the day is still quite cool. It will be some time before the sun rises high enough to shine directly into the depths of the canyon and really heat things up. We pass through famous Phantom Ranch and are on our way up the North Kaibab Trail along Bright Angel Creek.
From here, the trail takes a very gradual uphill grade through a narrow box canyon for the next 7 miles. It is wide and flat and we're able to maintain a steady jog. The scenery is spectacular as we're surrounded by dark towering walls on all sides. This place reminds me of the entrance to Mordor. A few miles later the walls part a bit and we're out in relatively open scrub land.
At one section we have to wade across Wall Creek, which is running a bit high. It's no use trying to keep our feet dry on this one and we carefully make our way across in shin-deep water. We can see the trail winding far ahead over many twists and turns which lead to Cottonwood Campground and shortly thereafter, Ranger Cabin.
The Ranger Cabin is nestled in a small grove of trees and is a nice spot for a brief rest. We have a 10 mile round trip to the North Rim and this will be our last water stop before the North Rim, so we're sure to fill everything up.
From this point on the trail begins to climb in earnest, another 4,000 feet in the next 5 miles. Our path leaves the creek we've been following since Phantom Ranch and switchbacks steeply up the gorge walls. On the other side of the tributary canyon we're in, water rushes out of the steep rock wall and crashes down several hundred feet to the creek below. This is Roaring Springs and it lives up to its name.
Climbing ever higher, by now the steepness of the trail has reduced us to a fast hiking pace, we pass through several sections where the trail has been blasted out of the cliff face, leaving a very steep drop-off on one side. We're careful not to stumble here.
In a few places water cascades down onto the pathway from high above and we have to walk through it. The temperature is rising and all the uphill is making us sweat, so the cool shower these spots offer is much appreciated. Standing under a small waterfall, I can hardly believe how lucky we are to be doing this.
We continue on covering lots of distance, but the canyon rim never seems to get any closer. Finally the climbing relents a little and we pass through the Supai Tunnel, before encountering our first patches snow.
The trees have changed over to ponderosa pine and I know we must be getting close.
Finally, I see the trailhead sign and I know we've reached the halfway part on our journey at the North Rim. It's about 10:30 in the morning, sunny, the temperature is hovering in the 60s, and there's almost 3 feet of snowpack on the ground. What a difference a few thousand feet of elevation makes.
We break for a few minutes, then turn around and begin our long descent back to the Colorado River. 14 miles and 5000 feet of downhill lie before us, all at a very reasonable grade, and we're both itching to stretch our legs and run. All the downhill switchbacks are a blast and we cover ground in a fraction of the time it took us to ascend. The sun is out, the scenery is breathtaking, and the running is fast. Life is good.
We know we're thrashing our quad muscles pretty thoroughly, but we won't really feel the effects until tomorrow. On our way down we pass a dispersed group of three other runners, all doing the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim as well. It's fun to share something like this with strangers from across the country.
The 7 miles to Cottonwood goes by in a flash and we've consumed only part of our water supply, so I just refill my handheld bottle, but don't bother to top off my camelback. The 7 additional miles from here to Phantom Ranch are at a much lower elevation and this is the hottest part of the day. The open section of canyon offers little shade and the temperature must be in the 90s in the sun. We sweat and drink water rapidly to keep cool. Back at Wall Creek again, the water is very cold and it feels good to linger in the middle for a bit.
On a short uphill rise, one of my calves begins to twitch, signaling the imminent onset of a cramp that could shut down all running. I've been taking salt tablets, GU gels, and a sports drink, but my body is now forcefully telling me that it's losing electrolytes faster than I'm replacing them. I've been through this before so I start popping the salt tablets at a faster rate and I'm able to fend of the cramp before it fully materializes. An indirect result of upping my salt intake is that I'm also drinking more water and my hydration pack is starting to feel awfully light. The water in it runs dry, and shortly thereafter I'm down to a few sips in my handheld bottle. The ranch and its water spigot are a few miles away yet and I'll need to ration my remaining water. I know that if it really comes down to it I can get water out of the creek next to us, but I'd rather not.
This little guy seems quite at home.
We run the last two miles to Phantom waterless and are feeling a bit parched by the time we get there. The Ranch has a small snack bar where we buy lemonade and pretzels; very refreshing. We take almost an hour rehydrating, resting, and doing some repair work on our feet. Nate is suffering from some difficult blister problems as result of the stream crossings and the sand that has worked it's way into his shoes. My mini-gaiters have kept out the majority of debris, but I have a few developing problems of my own. It's roughly 2 in the afternoon and I know the final 9 miles out of the canyon won't be easy in the heat. Soon enough though, we've collected ourselves and are on our way.
The Colorado passes under our feet on the bridge and we give it one last look before heading up the Pipe Creek drainage for the South Rim. The flatter sections of trail are being sun baked, but we feel lucky that the steeper sections are all the shade. With the sun going down at this time of year, most of the switchbacks on Devil's Corkscrew are shielded by the high canyon walls. Nate is dealing with his foot issues and I'm still feeling a little out of sorts from the heat earlier in the day. Conversation grows more sparse between us and we both go through brief grouchy phases. Finally we stop in a shaded area and sit down on a rock. Nate and I agree to take a step back and look at things, how fortunate we are and how we should appreciate all we've accomplished so far, how we'll miss this place after the trip is over. We call this our "chill-the-hell-out" break and it goes a long way toward lifting our spirits. Once we're on the move again, things seem to go much better and we're back to laughing and joking.
The final climb to the rim is steep and we walk nearly all of it. It seems to go on for quite a long time, but soon enough we're recognizing landmarks we passed in the dark that morning.
Nearing the very top, we look back on all we've covered. I'm not really sure how to describe the feeling.
Finally, the last few switchbacks come into sight. We're running into more and more casual tourists out for a short walk, so we know the top must be close. All too soon, our adventure comes to an end.
Feeling a little beat, Nate and I opt to take a shuttle bus back to our camp rather than run like we did in the morning. We don't really need to outwardly advertise what we've just pulled off, but when the bus driver asks where we've been, the rest of the passengers gives us congratulations and bombard us with questions. Still, we smell bad enough, and my shirt is encrusted with enough dust and dried salt that nobody wants to sit too close to us.
We spent the entire next day being as lazy as possible. Nate and I are highly trained athletes, you see. We take our recovery and rehydration very seriously.
Also, our campsite got invaded by mule deer. They approached us and we had a stare down. I think I won because the deer backed down.
Nate pours a 40' out on the curb for our dead homies. Not that we have any dead homies... But if we did, we'd pour out a 40' for them.
When Nate and I first discussed the idea of the RRR back in December we agreed that we would be going out for an adventure, not a race, time be damned, and that's exactly what we made for ourselves. I'm sure we could shave hours off our time fairly easily, but that just wasn't the point this time. In fact, two days before our run, the Double Crossing was completed in less than half our time. We had everything from cold, to heat exhaustion, to dehydration, to blisters and fatigue thrown at us and we successfully dealt with it all. In terms of pure difficulty, I would rate the RRR as the hardest 50 mile run I've ever done, and that's saying something.
All told, the Grand Canyon Double Crossing blew away every expectation I ever had for it. Perhaps my standards are too high, but I find most things to be exaggerated once I actually experience them. This, however, was a most pleasant surprise and is an experience I'll remember for the rest of my life. The sheer scale of the canyon, the variety of climates, and the landscape are not something I can really describe adequately. You'll just have to experience it for yourself.