Rim to Rim to Rim
Saturday, May 19, 2012
North Rim, AZ
|North Rim Grandeur|
AJ Wellman got the ball rolling on the adventure back in february when he first contacted me about coming along for the ride. It takes a lot for me to agree to let someone who is still a bit of a stranger to ride 12 hours in a car with me, run for 17 hours into the biggest ditch in America, and then 12 hours on the car ride home. I gave AJ all of the typical warnings and prerequisites about hanging out with an ornery jerk like myself. He seemed to mostly agree. Jeremy Ebel is a member of the Colorado Mountain Ninja's with me, and he decided a few short weeks ago that he wanted in on the Adventure himself. Jeremy has a sense of humor very similar to my own, I knew I couldn't say no to him as his comic relief would be well received throughout the journey.
So there we were, a team of three, camping at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is quite literally in the middle of nowhere in somewhere Arizona. AJ and I shared a pasta dinner around the camp fire on Friday night after having driven all day long (4am departure from Boulder) and spending a little bit of time playing tourist at The North Rim's Bright Angel Point. We went to bed around 10:00pm and Jeremy strolled in not long after. Our alarms went off at 4:00am and we began to prepare for a 5:00am departure. I cooked Egg McMuffins on my camp grill while we all filled our packs with the supplies we'd need to run 50 miles of the "Devil's Crotch." At approximately 5:15am, late as usual, we turned our backs on our campsite and started running down the camp road.
The North Rim
As we ran down through the North Rim campground, I was surprised to see how many people were awake at this early hour. it seemed like most people who stayed in this campground are only here to embark on their own journey's across the canyon. The run from our campsite to the trailhead of the North Kaibab Trail on the Canyon's North Rim is paved for the first half mile or so. I definitely wasn't awake enough to take on all of this fast paced uphill just yet. Near the entrance to the campground we took a hard left and was now running on the trail that connects the trailhead with the campground and the visitors center. We started to run downhill again and soon found ourselves standing at the sign which welcomed us to The Grand Canyon. From here, the next 13.4 miles would be almost entirely downhill.
The parking lot at the trailhead is all ready full. People are tightening their shoes and extending their trekking poles. I got out my camera and welcomed my future video audience to the adventure. After I spoke into the camera, "from the North Rim to the South Rim and Back.. all in one day," a woman preparing for her own journey butted in, "Oh wow.. really?!" Yes really. She reminded me of the woman we met yesterday, who after hearing what we were to undertake today, she told AJ and I that her and her husband were going to "enjoy the canyon" implying that we were not. I guess as ultra-runners, we sometimes tend to forget that even as our sport grows exponentially, and it seems that everyone in Boulder knows what Ultrarunning is.. there are still many in this world who do not and cannot fathom the extent of what we dare to undertake.
Regardless.. we head off and start running down into the canyon. The first section of trail is like beach sand. bright white rock that has been broken down into fine, deep sands. It isn't long before we start running into other trekkers and get into the routine of "On your left" and "on your right" and hoping that folks know which way to step off and let you pass by. In some places along the trails descending into the canyon, there is little room for error. Tripping and falling or the tiniest of mis-steps will send you plummeting to your likely death. There isn't much else to say about it. Though I knew pretty early how much us runners were a thorn in the side of all these hikers.
|AJ and I on an early switchback|
A few miles down we came upon a rocky outcropping that I'd refer to as "The Perch." I had to climb it. It made for a magnificent early picture spot. So, I ran off trail and started scrambling up a precarious rock face where one false step would mean the end of our adventure early on. I scrambled to the top and stood atop this precarious spot nearly inches from a long free fall. I was scared stiff and could only muster enough courage to stand up straight for a photo. I guess the comments of the other hikers were pretty entraining. For a few minutes.. not only was I an idiot for running in the canyon, but an idiot for climbing this rock face.
|The Perch - I'm on top|
As we approached the intersection with Roaring springs cutoff, I came across a family of overweight individuals. The dad was sitting. slumped down. on a rock and another hiker was writing a S.O.A.P. note. I knew there was an injury and the man was in good hands if someone knew enough to start writing a S.O.A.P. note so I continued on. At the intersection we stopped with a bit of hurried confusion. Aj signaled for us to go right and so we did. He told us this was the way to go but I had my doubts as I looked at the lay of the land. In the end, we had added a mile to our adventure with a short out and back to the Roaring Springs cabin/pump house. At least we had someone to rag on AJ about for the next few miles. One we got back on course, we had to pass all of the hikers we'd passed before.. except now some of them were being passed by us for the third of fourth time. We were such a nuisance and I was starting to feel bad.
Most of the hiker's we'd passed were sitting down and taking stock at the Roaring Springs water station. This is the first weekend that the water spigots are on in the canyon and everyone is filling up. We took a brief moment to refill our bottles while we were here, knowing full well, that as the sun continued to rise the earth would continue to heat up around us. We didn't stay long before turning back to the trail and opting to get ahead of the crowd that had assembled at this point. As we continued down the trail, we marveled at all of the towering painted rocks rising above all around us. It was incredibly spectacular especially with the rising sun illuminating everything around us. I was amazed by the enormity of the cactus plants closer to the ground as well as the huge aloe plants that spotted the landscape every so often.
Cottonwood CampsiteAs we made our way towards Cottonwood Campground, we started to see the Ultra-ground who started on the South Rim began to work their way towards us. I can only imagine the much earlier start many of them had this morning in order to be here by now. We continued to pass a group of folks who all were wearing the same shirt which I soon discovered said something to the effect of "39th Annual Rim 2 Rim." I've yet to find any information online about this organized event. Some folks knew spoke about it while many others chose not to.. which indicated to me that they knew how illegal organized events in the canyon actually are. Even after the run, I can't find ANY information on the internet about a 39th annual rim 2 rim anywhere.
As we run through the Cottonwood campground, the bathroom lets off an incredibly pungent aroma. We didn't even bother to stop here and just plowed on through. The deeper into the canyon we got, the closer the canyon walls closed in on us. The trail followed along Roaring Brook and soon, we'd be running right next to the brook on a tight trail carved into the walls of the towering rock. More and more ultra-runners continued to pass us going in the opposite direction, so many so that we could't believe the number of runners in the canyon today. By now, we've seen at least 30 ultra-runners. Then we ran into Adam Gifford, owner of Sedona Running Company, who told us that they spotted a few dozen more runs down below at Phantom Ranch. It was good to see Adam. He used to live in Maine and I used to see him pretty often at East Coast ultras before he made the decision to move out west.
As we enter Phantom Ranch, it's hot all ready. It's around 8:00am and this place is crowded with folks who have strewn themselves and their gear all about. It's in the 80's all ready and people are sucking down cups of iced lemonade. I stood in the long line for the bathroom and later the long line to refill our water. I opted to not refill my hydration bladder but refilled both of my handheld bottles. Jeremy reapplied his lube while AJ was.. well.. waiting for us to be ready to rock and roll.
After our brief stop at the ranch we took off for the Colorado River. About 3/4 mile down trail from Phantom Ranch is the banks of the Colorado. The river is glowing green from the collection of algae and effects from a hot unimpeded sunlight. The water called me. I have a thing about historical rivers and dipping my legs into their storied waters. While I didn't get my legs in the water, I dunked my hat and used it to wash my face and my head. I was instantly cooled off, dunked the hat one more time, and placed it upon my head to allow the chilly waters to drip down the back of my neck.
Here at "the beach" are a few white water rafts who stopped to allow their passengers to visit Phantom Ranch. Two sun at hers are soaking in the early morning rays. I peered up towards the sun and spotted Black Bridge, our crossing point, as we agreed our group would take the shorter steeper route to the top of the South Rim, leaving a long gradual downhill for the way back. The bridge is incredible. It reaches far across the vast expanse of the Colorado River at the very bottom of the canyon. Then it hits me. I'm at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. A deep canyon one cannot truly appreciate from the sheltered rims to the North or South. A canyon much grander then it's name advertises, souvenir stores sell on post cards, or the casual tourist fantasies about. We're here.. the bottom of the big ditch and it's magnificence is breathtaking. I can't believe I'm here and.. I'm left dumbfounded and speechless.
|The Colorado River - Canyon Bottom|
As we start climbing up the South Rim the sun is at our backs and we now know it'll be with us for much of the day. The climb up to the South Rim is long, yet is our shortest climb of the day. Many false summits will tease us and we're always unsure about where the top of the rim actually is. There really isn;t no better idea then to keep your head down and plug away as we try to rise to the top. I take out my hiking poles and use them to help keep me upright and my lungs filled with air. The carrying colors of Canyon sand radiate different temperatures and amounts of heat.
Temperatures quickly soar into the 90s and I'm beginning to roast. I made a huge mistake by not refilling my hydration bladder at Phantom Ranch. I can feel that my pack is light and I'm likely almost out of water. As the clown story continues, we lose "North Face"and don't see him again until the first plateau where we all stop to share an orange. The views while ascending the South Rim are mind boggling. Simply spectacular. I'm glad I'm taking my time and soaking all of it in. The rocks, the views, the sun.. everything. This journey is everything I thought it would be and then some.
Five miles along the top of the South Rim and it wasn't anything like what we expected. The "trail" between South Kaibab and Bright Angel Point is not only paved, and hot, but littered with tourists. Many of whom never run, so are entirely uncertain what to do when a runner comes up behind them. This got rather frustrating real quick. The saving grace on the South Rim, are the views. I've now been to all 3 rims one can visit of the Canyon (West, North and South) and can attest to you that I feel the view from the South Rim is the very best. It's awe inspiring how huge the canyon actually is. We can actually see where we came from and what's left to do. I began to wonder.. how the hell did we run this far and how the hell are we going to get back. Meanwhile, Jeremy gets me out on a cliff's edge for a pic. Out on a rocky ledge and in the photo.. you can see the canyon we ran down from the North. Incredible.
AJ bought me a Sierra Mist, which I'd carry with me for hours to come. I only slugged down a tiny sip before throwing it into my pack and we carried on down the trail. The Rim Trail takes visitors on a journey through time. The trail is lined with an example of every single rock found in the canyon and how many millions of years ago the rock would have been exposed. It was too much to soak in at this point. A marathon in to our Grand Canyon Adventure, having run for nearly 8 hours.. my brain could not compute or fathom the sheer magnitude of the history found within this place.
As we reach Bright Angel Trailhead, the crowd here is huge. People are everywhere. This is where the canteen and restaurants were. Cultural shows. The 39th Annual Rim to Rim crew had come down from the North Rim and climbed the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. This was their finish line and their numbers were still out cheering each other one. The people we saw earlier in the day.. many of them you would say, "No Way" if they told you they were doing a R2R.. inspirational, amazing, humbling.. are just a few words to describe them. We fill up our water once again and begin, take one last look around.. and then begin to run back down towards the bottom of the hole.
HOT HOT HOT
We started to head down off the South Rim and would't ya know it.. all those folks we ran around in the morning, 4 or 5 times mind you, were having to get out of our way again. Only this time, they were rising to the top of the rim and finishing their own adventures. It was hard to not feel bad having to ask these folks, one last time, in their final moments of exertion, to get out of our way. Meh.. I got over it. The further down the trail we went the hotter it got. It was like running straight into a hair dryer. With each step you could feel the temperature rise. It was a comfy 75-80 degrees on the South Rim. You could tell it was hot down below because the R2Rers were looking toasted. These folks looked bewildered at us as we ran back down into the hole. They could't believe these nutty runners heading back in for more. Truth is, I couldn't believe it either.
The further in we get the more we started to see hikers sitting in what tiny pockets of shade existed in the canyon. It was as if the shaded spots offered moments of tiny oasis for resting heat stricken bones. At leads folks were being smart. The downhill was brutal though. Trail builders had put many wooden logs in the trail to serve as steps and they wrecked havoc on our knees. It was incredibly difficult to get into a cadence. This was the last quad pounding downhill we had to endure and it was shaking the crap out of us. Our group was splitting up a bit, running at our own pace and methodically taking on the hill. The day had been like an all day stairs work out. Either you're going downhill or uphill.. that's it. All Day.
Just before we get to Indian Hot springs I sprung a leak. My nose started to bleed and it was bad. The dry dusty air had dried up the inside of my left nostril. I stopped to shove as much toilet paper up into my nose as I could in the hopes of stopping the bleeding. "Stop the bleeding! Please stop!" Ok.. it wasn't that dramatic.. but thats how I felt running downhill. As we approached Indian Springs, we stopped to refill our water again. I washed my face and head again with my HeadSweats hat and got some footage of the thermometer down there that read 108 degrees. Yeah... it was incredibly hot. New Englanders will tell you it's a dry heat.. but let me tell you something.. hot is freakin hot.
After leaving Indian Springs we were approached by a frantic female runner who was running uphill. She was looking for a ranger. She was panicky and told us of a runner being "down" up ahead. We ran our fastest 2 miles of our entire trip to run ahead and try to assist the runner given the fact that I am a Wilderness First Responder. When we arrived at the runner he looked like a walking Margarita. He was dry as a bone (no sweat) and covered from head to toe in salt. I looked at his Garmin and noticed he was at mile 40. I asked if he had ever run an ultra-marathon before to which he responded with assertion, "No, But I've run over 50 marathons." Well.. aint that cute?! I tried to explain to this gentleman that the R2R2R is a graduate run for Ultra-Runners. Meaning, you need to be a pretty damn experienced ultra-runner and on top of your game to safely and comfortably complete the journey. Marathon training, in most cases, just won't cut it. I was honestly quite insulted that this gentleman thought that he was well prepared for an adventure of this caliper and then, he refused most of our assistance. I even had a moment of lapsed judgment when I commented to him, "Sounds like you need to do more research on the chemistry of this kind of distance running." It wasn't until I explained to him that I was a WFR and a seasoned ultra vet that he decided to receive our help. Poor guy had 6+ miles, UPHILL, left to his adventure. After trying our best to assist the gentleman, "marathon man" decided to keep moving. Before he left, we gave some of the runners who were with him some ginger chews, a pepsi, some salt tablets, and some around advice form our group of ultra veterans in the hopes that we'll be able to help after he's gone.
Take me to the river
As we reached the Colorado River for a second time, a young boy aged 11 years, was excited to see us. He was hiking with his parents heading to Phantom Ranch for the night. As we passed him by, he latched on to us and began to run with us stride for stride and step for step. The things this kid talked about were out of this world. For 11 years old, he had a fantastic sense of humor and personality and wasn't so ugh in awe of what we were doing as much as he was intrigued and vocal about the "extreme" things he'd like to do in his day like cliff jumping into a river.
As we ran the few miles along the rivers edge towards Silver Bridge, we hit a long patch of "beach sand." Our legs were mush from the long run downhill and the beach sand wasn't agreeing with any of us. We made do though, and soon, we were crossing over the green waters of the Colorado. I bent over at one point and picked up a piece of pink granite what had snaking layers of quartz melted into it from the fires of hell some 300 million years ago. My nephew collects rocks and I felt that he'd love having one from down here. I put the rock in my bag and carried on. As we entered the Phantom Ranch area, We spotted a deer right on the trail. A lizard in a tree (we'd been seeing these all day), but it was a cool remind roy how thriving life actually is down here in the frying pan.
As we reach the main canteen at Phantom Ranch we notice it's closed. It's dinner time in the hole and we still have a long way to go. I knew I wasn't going to be back by 9pm so I needed to call Sarah to let her know. I made my way to the pay phone and placed a collect call. When it asked for my name I said, "John - Phantom Ranch- OK." I knew a collect call from the ranch would be expensive, but relaying my message in my name would simply inform Sarah of what she needs to know. I heard the operator talking to Sarah on the other end "you have a collect call from... John, Phantom Ranch, Ok" and then the price "this call will cost $8.99" I knew the message was received and so I hung up.
I drank the last of that soda I bought on the South Rim and refilled all of my hand helds' and bladders. By the end of this adventure, I had drank over 500oz. of water. That's 4 gallons... think about that! Then I passed around some more of the bacon I had left in my bag which ended up being a huge hit. The fat in the bacon was an instant pick-me-up and got everyone moving. Jeremy was rinsing his socks and preparing for what looking like a bath. We knew he'd spend a bit more time at the Ranch. He was the only one with a head lamp. AJ and I knew we had to get going.. so we took off without him. Before leaving, I grabbed the rope that rings the dinner bell at the ranch and pulled down on it. "CLANG!" As soon as I did it I started off for the trail again, felt like a bit of a rebel.
Right as we were leaving Phantom Ranch, another trekker told us he had been waiting for his friend Nate to appear from the North Rim. If we see him out there, let him know they were waiting for him. We never saw a Nate on our way out of the canyon.. I still wonder what happened to him and his buddies who were waiting for him.
For the next few hours, AJ and I would put the pedal down. The first 9 miles from Phantom Ranch to Roaring Springs is all uphill, but most of it has an easy enough grade that you can run it. There are some flat sections and small downhills thrown in the mix. We knew we had 2 hours until it got dark in the canyon.. without a headlamp, we wanted to get as close to the top.. if not at the top, before it happened. I wasn't worried.. I'm not afraid of the dark. But I did want to get out at a reasonable time. The average time it takes a mid-pack runner to complete a R2R2R is 14-16 hours... for the traditional 42-46 mile route. We were taking on a 53 mile journey that was much tougher then we anticipated. Needless to say, there was little talking.. and just a lot of working.
The sun continued to set, yet it stayed in the 80's down here in the canyon. The array of colors the setting sun displayed against the canyon walls was incredible. I felt like I was beneath the fires of hell, looking up for escape. The shadows in the canyon grew longer and the winds began to pick up ever so slightly. At one point, a guy walking down towards Phantom stopped us and asked us if we had headlamps. When we said no, he was appalled and was ready to scold us. I didn't have time to talk and debate with him though, so we took off. Jeremy eventually caught up shortly after and we all took a short break as we stared in at Ribbon Falls.
After our break we pushed on, making quick time back to Cottonwood Campground with the nasty smelling bathroom. As we pushed passed the campground, a camper noticed us. He smiled, waved and then said, "Keep pushing.. only 7 miles to go." It was kind of discouraging to hear the mileage. I had talked myself into believing that we had less then that.. even though the facts say different. We decided to take a break to share Jeremy's final orange. He took it out and brandished a knife. He cut the orange into halves. Then cut one half into quarters, giving AJ and I the pieces. We all sucked down the orange and decided to just keep moving. AJ and I led the way into Roaring Springs.
Upon arriving at Roaring Springs, we saw a heavier gentleman sitting on a bench next to the spigots. We stopped to top off our water bottles while I engaged the man in Conversation. He asked, "Where you boys heading?"
"My name is Sam, do you mind giving my wife a message for me?"
"Sure Sam.. what's her name and the message."
"My wife's name is Liz and she'll be waiting for me. Just tell her that I decided to stay the night down here."
We then started asking Sam questions about his decision which we all knew wasn't the best. He was tired, attempting his 16th R2R adventure. Yet, he is admittedly out of shape but had run out of gas. Thing is.. Sam was still talking fine and full of good humor. We knew he had energy left. We asked what he had for the night, "I have a space blanket and a few long sleeve shirts." We knew the night time temperature was going to drop into the 30's here, and that if had stayed the night, Sam would likely freeze to death or run into troubles with Hypothermia after a day in the heat.
Without question, Jeremy stepped up and handed AJ and I his headlamp. Sam had some extras in his pack, and then.. Jeremy convinced Sam that he would lead him to the top of the rim. "What are you.. some kind of salesman?!" I guess Jeremy kind of is. Before you know it.. AJ and I had a headlamp to share and Jeremy had stayed behind to walk Sam out of the hole. In all honesty.. there is no question that Jeremy saved this mans life.
Heaven or Hell?
AJ and I continued to push hard up the final climb out of the Grand Canyon. 4.7 Miles from Roaring Springs. 4,000+ Feet of climb to go at nearly a 12.5% grade, with switchbacks, the entire time. This is why most folks start and end this adventure on the South Rim. But that's the easy way out. We took on the challenge of this place. 53 Miles instead of 42, and finishing on the North instead of the South. The higher we climbed the darker it got. I pushed as far as my night eyes would allow me. It was almost ruined by other hikers who shined a bright spotlight into my eyes and forced me to cover my eyes and look away. I still had it though.. and we pushed on until AJ could't see anymore. It was well passed sunset at this point and I was surprised we'd made it this far. I stopped and took out the headlamp and handed it to AJ. He put it on, turned it on, and illuminated the trail for both of us.
For the next 3 miles, I tried my best to figure out the movements of AJ behind me so that I could dodge the light so he could illuminate the trail just for a second for me. Otherwise, I was looking at my shadow and seeing nothing. Whenever I could get a glimpse of what was ahead, I'd take a mental picture of it and go. This worked rather well for the rest of our climb but it was incredibly exhausting. The winds blowing down from the 8000' rim's edge were bone chilling. The temps were dropping like a rock. 2 Hours ago it was 80 degrees, I'd say it's not in the 50's and approaching the 40s fast. The temperature swings of the day wreaked havoc on my body. Things were not happy.
I continued to slow down. I was falling asleep on my feet from exhaustion. I made a critical mistake. In smelling the barn and the top of the canyon.. I stopped eating and drinking some time ago. Nothing tasted good anymore anyway. But the mistake has cost me a lot of energy. I push my body further until I am forced to take breaks and lean in on my poles. 2 Miles from the top, I finally look at AJ and admit to him that, "I'm wrecked." I'm not sure, even today, that AJ understand how wrecked this cat needs to be to admit that. So I told him, "I've done some difficult things in my day. Pushed myself to my limits and then some multiple times. This is by far one of the hardest things I've ever done."
I pushed forward, counting paces. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.. then take two steps and count again. It was all I could do to trick my body into moving forward and pushing through the fatigue. I wasn't in pain, or hurting or any of the like.. I was just exhausted. At one point I sat down on a rock and asked AJ to turn the headlamp off. We saw how dark the canyon truly is in the night. I've never seen a dark so dark even with the stars out. We were glad to have one headlamp because without it.. we would't be moving at all. And yet at this moment.. I wanted to just sleep here. I was done.. convinced I couldn't go any further. So I stood up, turned up trail.. and walked some more.
At Cocochino Point, I knew the top was a mere half mile from here. I tried to kick it into full gear yet at to stop still to catch my breath. The winds were so cold, I had to throw my long sleeve shirt back on. I think AJ was shivering, and then we began to think and worry about Jeremy and Sam. Just then, we saw the sign at the Trailhead.. we'd done it. "Sam?!" A voice came down from above.. "No.. but I know where he is. I'll tell you if you give us a ride to our campsite!" And just like that.. it was done. We were in a pick-up truck with the heat on high. Explaining to Sam's wife and father where he was and who was with him. I could barely get the words out, but I managed. We poured out of the truck at our campsite. Where AJ and I rinsed in the camps sinks. I made Egg McMuffins again, and AJ cooked some fatty steaks on an open fire. I fell asleep in my camp chair almost instantly, waking up only long enough to eat the delicious meat. I ate half of it, and put the rest on Jeremy's driver seat in his car for when he returned... 2 whole hours after us.. with Sam in tow.
This was by far one of the toughest, yet most rewarding/incredible, journeys I've ever embarked on. It was worth every minute. 4 Gallons of fluid, 108 degrees temps, bitter cold winds, countless other trekkers. The canyon, the Colorado River.. indescribable. I'll return to take on this adventure again. I'll be as trained if not trained more for it.. as it is more difficult an adventure then most think. And yet.. the magic that lies within the canyon is life altering. We're all better for having been "out there", daring to journey within.