27 April 2012


View of Grand Canyon from upper South Kaibab Trail.
By Thursday afternoon, we all had arrived in Phoenix, ready to head to the Grand Canyon National Park. Rich had arrived earlier and I had already been there since Monday, so we picked up Dan at the airport and took off straight from there. We arrived at the halfway point in Sedona, AZ just in time for a late lunch. One of the Phoenix locals had recommended this quaint little town a little off the beaten path but definitely on the way to the Grand Canyon as a great spot for lunch. After refueling on sandwiches and soda we continued on our trip, eager to make it to our destination. After another couple of hours, we finally arrived.

We decided to check into our cabin first (Dan had hooked us up with a lodge for 2 nights right at the South Rim and inside the actual National Park. Thanks, Dan!) before doing South Kaibab trailhead reconnaissance in anticipation of our early morning start the next day. There is no parking allowed at the trailhead, but we found a parking spot just a short three quarter mile walk from the trailhead. After we arrived at the actual trailhead, I almost lost it: "We were gonna do what? Run across that? No way, the other side is like 2 states away. It didn't look this big on the map. There is no way we can make that! I can't even see the bottom". After my inner voices stopped talking for a moment, I decided to stop thinking about it and head back to the cabin for some much needed rest after carb loading at the lodge cafeteria. By 7PM, I was out.

View of Grand Canyon from South Rim.
My alarm went off at 2AM. I had spend about 30 minutes the night before lining up my gear and loading up my pack. I ended up with close to 20 lbs in my Inov-8 Race Pro 22 pack mostly due food and water. I had also received some very sound and helpful advice from local ultra runner Eric Charette who had just completed the run weeks earlier. He willingly shared of of his gear and food lists with me, allowing me to cut down on some serious logistics time. In hindsight, I overpacked...as usual. However, while I plan to run much lighter if I ever do this run again, it is definitely better safe than sorry on this run. In addition to some essential gear I was also carrying trekking poles (the most challenging piece of gear to stow away for the downhills) and a GoPro Hero HD camera (video footage to be shared online at a later time) as well as some other non-essential gear.

Gear & Food List
After a quick cup of coffee we bundled up in some warm clothes and grabbed our packs on our way out the door. Temperatures were in the high 30s as we drove the 10 minutes to the trailhead. I decided to wear my winter running jacket, which was nice and comfy for the first 30 minutes. After that, it quickly became a heavy piece of non-essential gear stuffed in my backpack. At 3:06 Mountain Time, Dan, Rich and I started our adventure, running down the South Kaibab Trail in complete darkness, our path illuminated only by the light of our headlamps. I was kinda glad I couldn't see where we were going. It just seemed too daunting. We kept shining our headlamps just to the side of the trail and there was nothing there, no bottom for the light to bounce off of. Most if not all of the trail is basically cut into the side of the canyon, so one side is generally the canyon wall and the other side is what I like to call "the abyss".
Approaching the hanging bridge across the Colorado River from the North Rim on our way back.
About 2-3 miles from the trailhead, we got lost for the first and last time at a mule station just along the trail. Instead of bypassing the station we though we had to turn right. Well, it was dark and you really couldn't see where the trail continued. After about 5-10 minutes, we finally spotted the trail to continue our journey. Richard and I would "dart" ahead (I'm using the term dart ahead very loosely) with Dan and his 40 lbs pack following behind. We had hoped to cover the first six miles to the Colorado River and the bottom of the Grand Canyon rather quickly, but the lack of light coupled with the steepness of the trails made speeds faster than 15 min miles nearly impossible. I know, I know, that's crawling and not running, but that is the nature of the Grand Canyon....unless you're a genetic ultra running freak and not a midpacker like us;-)

We arrived at the Colorado River at the bottom of the Canyon about 2 hours after we started around 5AM. Just before we arrived at the bridge crossing the river, a caravan of hikers started to kake their way up the South Rim. They had started their hike just minutes earlier at the Phantom Ranch and already the majority of them was soaked in sweat and breathing heavily. Oh great, so this is what we'll get to do on our way back during the hottest time of the day. This is gonna be fun!

We had just completed the first of four legs of our double crossing, making our way down the South Rim in just over 2 hours. After we crossed over to the North Side of the Canyon via one of the two hanging bridges, I realized that the sun still hadn't come up. These two trail bridges near the Phantom Ranch are the only bridges crossing the Colorado River within 200 miles. I hadn't snapped a single picture yet, but that would change as soon as the sun came out. We would reach Phantom Ranch in about a mile to refill our water bottles and hydration bladders before continuing our trek up the North Kaibab Trail.

We passed the Bright Angel Campground just before arriving at Phantom Ranch. At this point we had descended almost 5000 feet from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We now had about 6000 feet of climbing to the North Rim ahead of us. Although it was still dark, there were already some hikers and trail runners scurrying around and getting ready for the day ahead. We found the water spicket just outside the Phantom Ranch canteen to refill our hydration bladders. The canteen was still closed at this time. I was already looking forward about stopping here on the way back for some ice cold lemonade. Still struggling with my new pack, I took some time to refill my hydration bladder and shove it back into my pack.

After about 10 minutes we continued our trek up the North Kaibab Trail. This trail was about 14 miles in length and led us through the Bright Angel Canyon criss-crossing back and forth over the Bright Angel Creek along the way. We hoped for good weather on the North Rim and for making it to the top in a reasonable amount of time.

We moved slowly but steadily and the temperatures never really got too cold on the way up. Dan and I reached the top in a little over 7 hours with Richard right behind us. I couldn't believe it, but there was actually still snow at the North Rim, how cool was that!

We took a 30 minute break to refuel with the snacks we had packed and to top off on salt. I had been taking salt and gels quite regularly during the entire duration of the run so far, but it seemed like I wasn't taking in enough salt. I devoured my first bag of Fritos and ate a cereal bar. Once Richard caught up to us, we adjusted our packs, stowed away our trekking poles (Rich and I, Dan was using any) and started the second leg of our adventure.

I was now wearing the GoPro HD Hero camcorder and holding my digital camera, ready to snap tons of pictures. After all, this run wasn't about being fast, but about taking in this amazing scenery. However, no matter how hard I tried, none of the pictures or videos I took truly captures the enormity and grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Around every corner there was another breathtaking view, literally. I still tried to capture these images, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

While we didn't meet any fellow runners or many hikers for that matter while descending the South Rim early in the morning, on the North Kaibab Trail there was almost constant back and forth traffic of runners and hikers. There were still many hours of solitude, but we were definitely not alone out there. I think we might not have been the only ones that had this one on our bucket lists (add sarcastic undertone here).

We continued our steady descend back down through a man-made tunnel and on trails so narrow, I kept wanting to "hug" the canyon wall on the other side of the trail. I kept wondering how they actually built this trail so many years ago and how they even decided on where to build it. We were fortunate enough to see some park rangers and volunteers on the trail so we could actually thank someone personally for the work they do to maintain these trails and this amazing place for all of us to enjoy.

About a mile out from one of the ranger stations near the bottom of the canyon, I finally ran out of water. The North Kaibab trailhead has access to water about 1.5 miles away from the trailhead and neither one of us felt like going there just to fill up. Instead, we figured 70oz would be enough to get us up and down from the North Rim. And it did...almost. Thankfully, the water had already been turned on at the ranger station, so we were able to refill our hydration bladders here rather than wait another mile or so to reach the Cottonwood campground. After washing the salt off my face and refilling my water, we continued on to Cottonwood campground. Dan had stashed about 20lbs of food and gear there on our way to the North Rim and it was now time to retrieve it for a lunch break.

Dan had thought of everything. There were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and even three full-size oranges, one for each of us. Dan, you are the man! Instead of refilling my hydration bladder again once at Cottonwood, I refilled a collapsible bottle I had brought along for emergencies with Gatorade. I guzzled down the Gatorade and my last bottle of Ensure (I had finished the other bottle on the way out). We took our time before continuing on. The heat was starting to climb. The sun had finally reached the bottom of the canyon, which is exactly where we were at.

While we were still running somewhat together, the three of us now stretched out over a mile. It gave each one of us the opportunity to let our thoughts drift and to take it all in. We knew we would catch up with each other at the Phantom Ranch. To me, the running part of this adventure had become all about the final 6 miles up to the South Rim. We had chosen the traditional route (South Kaibab Trail - NorthKaibab Trail - South Kaibab Trail) and climbing the 6 miles up South Kaibab Trail would be a significant challenge. Approaching Phantom Ranch, I was still feeling pretty good and actually pushing a little. When I arrived, the place was hustling and bustling. Folks were eating their lunches and hanging out in the canteen or under one of the many shade trees surrounding the ranch.

The whole gang during a brief break.
I grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables and refilled my bladder before heading into the canteen for a big cup of lemonade. By the time I came back out, Dan had arrived as well. I sat down and started chatting with another group of ultra runners , who were doing the R2R2R as well, but they had chosen the Bright Angel Trail as the route up and down from the South Rim. We all started to compare notes about ultra races past and future. As it turned out, quite a few of us had run in some of the same events, proof again that the ultra running community was still fairly small.

Richard arrived at the Ranch a few minutes later and we all took our time to refill and refuel. We knew what lay ahead and none of us were very eager to "get on with it". No matter who we talked to, guesses ranged from 3-4 hours as the time it would take to reach the South Rim from Phantom Ranch. We decided that we would all go our own pace up to the South Rim. It would be a crawl and each one of us crawled at a different pace. My camera battery was running low and I started to slow down on the picture taking. To be honest, I quickly became too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to even think about snapping pics. Every switchback felt like eternity. Luckily, the sun started to disappear behind the canyon, but it was still hot. I continued my climb, literally stopping every half mile to catch my breath and to regroup.

Dan was fairly close behind me, while Richard took his time about a mike back. During the initial climb, I would still see him on the trails below, but as we progressed upwards, I stopped seeing him. I knew he was there, struggling with the rest of us. I slowly started to get concerned about reaching the top in a reasonable amount of time. We had taken some long breaks and I was now starting to think that we might not make the top of the South Rim before sundown. It didn't make a difference, I couldn't go any faster if I wanted to. Instead, I decided to pull out my camera again to try to capture some of these amazing views and images from the South Kaibab Trail.

I reached the bottom of the final set of switchbacks around 6:30PM local time. Dan was right behind me and he somehow convinced me that these switchbacks were another mile or so away from the trailhead. At this point, I had no recollection of earlier in the day, when we first descended this section. I just believed him. I agonized over this final section, but I wanted to get it done. I started to push and after just 6 quick switchbacks, I couldn't believe my eyes, I saw what looked to be the trailhead sign.

After 15 hours and 44 minutes I had reached the South Kaibab trailhead, the place were it all started earlier in the day. I was ecstatic. Looking back over the canyon, I still could not believe that I had crossed it, not once but twice.

Dan arrived just a couple of minutes later and we decided to get the car, take a shower and pick up some food, so we could meet Richard at the trailhead with food and beer at hand.

Just a little over an hour later, Richard had completed his journey as well. We all enjoyed the cold beer and headed back to our cabin for a 2 hour nap before taking off for Phoenix Airport. It all was still a little surreal and it still really hasn't sunk in all the way.

A map of our run and the elevation profile can be seen at the bottom of this post.

RunningAhead.com statistics based on Garmin FR 310XT readings.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! When I was a kid, my family took a trip to the Grand Canyon. We didn't go down in it, but we did make a special point to see the sunrise over the canyon. It was pretty amazing.




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