Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grand Canyon Rim-Rim-Rim 3/13/2011

Early in the fall of 2010, I began entertaining the idea of travelling to the Grand Canyon to run Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim.  I had never been to the Grand Canyon before, but I figured if I was going to see it, why not see the entire thing while getting in some extraordinary mountain trail running?  Like all adventurous ideas that enter my head, I thought this would remain just a dream until February 2011, when I purchased a flight to Arizona for March 11th with two friends.  It was actually going to happen.
We landed in Phoenix at almost midnight on Friday, March 11th, without any kind of plan whatsoever.  We started driving in a rental car toward the Canyon, but decided it’d be a better idea to just find a cheap hotel for the night and make the drive the next day.  After a couple different hotels, we found one that only had its “deluxe” rooms available…for $70.  Perfect.
After a beautiful, scenic drive the next day, we got to Grand Canyon National Park and checked out the trailhead on the South Rim.  It was probably 60 degrees and very windy, with a little bit of residual snow lying around in spots.  We went to a park office to inquire about conditions on the North Rim…I’d been told to expect deep snow over there at this time of year.  The ranger we spoke with reinforced that.  She said we would definitely need snowshoes and told us the latest report was of 41 inches of snow on the North Rim.  We should expect knee- or waist-deep snow for at least the last few miles up to the North Rim, if we make it that far, she said.  She wasn’t very happy to even be telling us all this.  Our run was not a good idea in her mind but, “I can’t tell you not to,” she said. 
Honestly, after talking to the ranger and reading a bunch of signs and posters about the conditions on the North Rim, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to do the entire run.  They made it sound nearly impossible at this time of year.  And we didn’t have snowshoes, trekking poles, crampons, or even long pants…and they’re talking about waist-deep snow?  Ah well, still worth a try, we figured.  We’ll do what we can.  We kind of thought all the warnings were slightly exaggerated.
We drove into Tusayan, the very small town about 10 minutes from the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim.  After getting some food supplies for the run at the General Store, we checked into the cheapest hotel in town: the 7 Mile Lodge (highly recommended; nice folks, free wi-fi, fridge, and like 60 bucks). 
Sunday, March 13th.  3:00am wake-up.  We get dressed and packed, eat a little breakfast, and drive to the trailhead, trying to figure out exactly what time it is.  We heard that Arizona doesn’t participate in daylight savings, which just went into effect at 2:00am.  So it took a while to figure out if we were actually starting this run at 4:00, or if it was really 5:00.  Charles’ and Ted’s smart phones said 5:00, my dumb phone said 4:00, and my watch was still on east coast time so it said 6:00.  But it was really 7:00 on the east coast now.  Whatever, we started the run at about 4:00am Arizona time. 
Ted, Charles and I set off in the pitch black darkness (with headlamps of course) and very quickly ran into the first reason why running in the Grand Canyon at this time of year is not ideal.  The switchbacks of the Bright Angel trail were covered in solid ice almost continuously for at least the first two miles.  Those first two miles took almost an hour.  What’s the level of fear right under “scared to death”?  I think that if I had feared for my life, I would have turned around or stopped and waited hours for the sun to rise and melt the ice.  But I didn’t, so I must have been not quite that scared.  The three of us all fell countless times on the ice, usually on parts of the trail where our headlamps could not illuminate the magnitude of the drop when looking over the side.  The only thing that kept me going, I think, was feeling the temperature rise gradually as we lost elevation and knowing that the lower we got, the less ice there would be.  Plus, I wanted that North Rim.  There was no turning back.
Then I started thinking, if it’s this icy on the South Rim, maybe it really will be bad on the North Rim.  Only one way to find out, though…
Ted on the Bright Angel trail, past most of the ice
 After an hour or so, we were passed the ice, and we continued down the trail toward the river at a leisurely pace in the dark, just taking it nice and easy for the early miles.  We reached the Bright Angel campground on the other side of the Colorado River at about 7:00am, and took our first solid food break.  Unfortunately, Charles had been dealing with an injury for several weeks and it was hurting him too much to continue at this point, so he turned around to head back up to the South Rim while Ted and I continued on northward. 
This is me coming across the bridge
For the first 6 or 7 miles on the North Kaibab trail, Ted and I were making very good time.  The trail gains elevation only gradually, so we were able to run at a good pace for several miles.  The sun and the temperature were rising, but it was still quite comfortable.  And the views were astounding. 
Our routine became to take a break roughly every hour.  Somewhere between Cottonwood Campground (6.8 miles from North Rim) and Roaring Springs (4.7 miles from North Rim) we took a break.  We were 5 hours into the run.  We did not know exactly where we were, or even how far those check points were from the North Rim, so, out of curiosity we took out the trail map to try to get an idea.  “That must be that bridge we just crossed,” we reasoned, pointing at the map, “which means we only have like two or three miles to the top!”  I think it was at this break that I tried sending a text message: “Think only 2mi to north rim. Not sure. Still 60 degrees probly. Trail getting very steep. 5 hours. Food break.”
Our spirits somewhat lifted by this revelation, we continued upward as the trail got steeper.  Every once and a while, I would look up at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon towering above us and wonder aloud if we were seriously going all the way up there.  Ted wondered the same thing.  Two miles to go and our destination still looked thousands of feet above us?  Something had to be wrong.  It can’t be that we were wrong about our estimation from looking at the map.  No, certainly not.  “That must not be the rim…that must be some other peak that goes above the rim,” we reasoned, looking straight up.  Our minds were tricking us.
We reached Roaring Springs, 4.7 miles from the rim.  Again, at the time, we didn’t know that it was 4.7 miles.  Another look at the map, and we realized that we must have been wrong before about only having 2 miles to go.  Now, we figured, it most only be about 2 miles.  I think it was a combination of our minds playing tricks on us and the map not showing enough detail.  Had we pulled out the trail guide that labeled all of the checkpoints and their distances from the rim, we would not have kept frustrating ourselves so much. 
As we continued past Roaring Springs, I stopped believing what my mind was telling me.  Even if I really thought we only had a couple of miles to go this time, I wouldn’t let myself believe it…if that makes sense.  Then I started remembering hearing about the Supai Tunnel, another checkpoint which I thought I remembered hearing was less than 2 miles from the top.  I knew we hadn’t seen it yet, so I came to terms with the fact that we had not been reading the map correctly.  It was 3 miles between Roaring Springs and Supai Tunnel…3 long, steep miles.  Still, Ted and I would look up once in a while and try to convince ourselves that we weren’t going all the way up to the highest cliff we could see.  We were, though.
As we approached Supai Tunnel, we started seeing more snow.  The temperature was still fine, though, probably in 50’s.  Our skepticism about the levels of snowfall on the north side was soon eliminated.  Luckily, most of the snow was packed enough so that we could step on top of it without falling through.  However, countless times we would be moving along and suddenly have one leg waist-deep in snow.  Eventually we reached Supai Tunnel.  Now, it was less than 2 miles to go, and we knew that for sure this time.  The rim still appeared to be very high above us. 
That last 1.7 miles must have taken at least an hour.  The trail was covered in that deep snow except for short breaks that got a lot of sunlight.  Having one leg fall completely into the snow so often got very frustrating, and drained all kinds of energy each time.  I felt like the trail was deliberately messing with me.  We wanted the North Rim, though, and we really were almost there.
Cacti and 80 degrees in the Canyon - pine forests and waist-deep snow on the North Rim
 Finally, we reached the trailhead.  The North Rim is a pine forest with several feet of snow on the ground, although the temperature was still probably mid-40’s or low-50’s.  I saw that there was a road, albeit snow-covered, so I tried reaching it.  But I couldn’t walk on top of the snow up there without falling through.  I took about three steps, falling all the way through each time and working my leg back out, before an excruciating Charlie Horse took over my left hip.  I laughed at myself as I rolled in pain with my entire left leg stuck in the snow, exhausted and feeling defeated by the trail and the snow.  Ted and I then worked our way over to some rocks to sit down on and take a break.  I tried sending this text message: “7h20min. North rim. Finally. Trail just kicked our ass. Very snowy up here but doable”. 
Our break on the North Rim lasted about 30 minutes, probably.  Then we started back down the North Kaibab trail.  We went slowly and carefully for the first couple miles through the snow, but still making much better time that we had been on the way up.  We passed Supai Tunnel and all the snow, and started making good time.  We stopped at a little waterfall flowing down the rocks on the side of the trail to fill up our Camelbaks and water bottles.  That water was perfect: ice-cold and crystal clear.  Our good pace continued all the way back down to the river, getting even steadier as the trail evened out for the last several miles before the river.  

Ted and I seemed to be beginning to feel and think exactly alike.  Going up an incline one behind the other, the person in front would start walking just as the person behind would start saying, “Let’s walk this one.”  Every time one of us felt the need to walk, so did the other.  And every time one of us felt like speeding up, so did the other.  The Canyon seemed to be treating us quite equally. 
We reached Bright Angel campground, the campground just before the river on the way back, and stopped for a break and Camelbak refill.  Then we continued to push the next couple of miles back on the Bright Angel trail before it became too steep to run.  We hiked probably the last 7 miles or so.  There were times when one or both of us considered running for a little bit, but decided against it.  We were exhausted, and the sun was beginning to set.  We were expecting to be finished well before sundown, but ended up hiking the last 2 miles or so in the dark.  The trail was still a bit icy up toward the South Rim.  Luckily it wasn’t completely frozen over again yet, though, so it wasn’t dangerous.
Ted and I reached the Bright Angel trailhead a little over 15 hours after we began that morning.  We were proud, tired, dirty, hungry, and sore.  We severely underestimated the Grand Canyon, especially in terms of weather conditions.  Lesson learned: next time, go later in the year, probably in April.
Ted and me - all done.
 I felt comfortable with my fluid and food consumption during the run, although, thinking back afterward, I realized that I really didn’t eat much considering what I was doing.  I ate two wraps that I made with a cheese stick and two pieces of turkey inside a tortilla, and about 4 ounces of the best trail mix I’ve ever tasted.  I consumed 9 gels, and I’m guessing about 6 liters of water, about half of which was mixed with electrolyte tablets.  I used the toilet paper that I brought along once, about 5 hours into the run, and watered the plants 2 or 3 times.  Afterward, I was as sore as I could ever remember being for a day or two, but was back to running normally in 4 or 5 days.
Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim was an extraordinary experience, and one that I definitely plan on doing again someday.  I highly recommend it for anyone with an affinity for trail/mountain running and some of the most beautiful sights nature has to offer.  If you’re going to see the Grand Canyon, you might as well see the whole thing.

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