Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

Oct 16th, 2010

When Jonathan posted that he was heading to the Grand Canyon to run the R2R2R and he had extra seats, I jumped at the opportunity. Two and a half years ago myself and a crew of special idiots experienced a true test of our physical and mental limits on the same route. This trip would be partly for personal redemption and partly for the journey that a 42mile run through some of the US's most beautiful country brings.

Drive down to the GC. Sunset on the Grand Ditch. Jeff and Jonathan prepping gear the night before.

We awoke at 4:15am gathered our last bits of gear, shoved some food into our mouths, and left Tusayan for the South Kaibab trailhead. We started with a short jog down the road reaching the trailhead 5min later, passing by several groups prepping for an early morning hike to Phantom Ranch. At 5:10am we dropped off the south rim and down into the darkness below. I started at a quick pace, cruising down, down, down, the switchbacks. Within 15min the temperature had gone from high 30s to nearly 60, so I stripped off my wind breaker, gloves, and arm sleeves. 5:40am found me at Skull Point, where I stashed my 1L of water for the hike out and my jacket. As I dropped below Skull Point the flashlights above me bobbing down the trail disappeared, and I was alone. The early morning was calm and quiet with the only things visible being my flashlight beam and the silhouette of the canyon walls far above. 6:00am Found me at "The Tipoff" as the early morning light began to show the immenseness of my surroundings. Soon after, my light went off and I was jogging along into the heart of the canyon. I crossed the black bridge over the Colorado River and reached Phantom Ranch at 6:30am (7.5miles).

Phantom Ranch dead ahead. The Box canyon. Temples above the North Kaibab trail at sunrise.

6:30am, I filled my water for the long haul to Cottonwood Campground, chatted with a few other R2R2Rers and was son heading off up the North Kaibab trail. From Phantom Ranch the North Kaibab trail is mostly smooth and slowly rolling uphill, all very runnable. With the sun barely touching the upper canyon, the inner canyon was cool, allowing for me to make great time. I passed a few hikers bound for the north rim, but the trail was mostly quiet. One woman, who'd left the north rim early that morning reassured me that all the water was on, some very welcome information. The morning sun was beginning to illuminate the massive pinnacles that towered 1000s of feet above me and the canyon was still quiet and calm. The number of hikers began to pick up as I reached the Rainbow falls trail junction, and I began to wonder how many more I would see. I soon found myself at the Cottonwood Campground, 9:05am (14.7miles).
9:05am, a quick water check showed plenty of water for the next 2mile run up to the Roaring Springs caretaker cabin, so I bid farewell to the few people sitting around Cottonwood and jogged on up the canyon. The brilliant red and white striped walls of the upper canyon were now visible. As I left Cottonwood the onslaught of people had begun, something that would not relent for the rest of the day. As I jogged up to the Caretaker's Cabin I was astounded to find nearly 40 people milling around, 9:25am (16.2mi).

Shelf trail along the upper North Kaibab. Fall colors near the North Rim. Me on the North Rim.

9:25am I quickly filled water again and munched on a snack, looking to quickly leave the masses behind. This is where the true uphill begins, so I settled into a quick hike. The roaring of the river and Roaring Springs and the sheer magnitude of the canyon were a welcome distraction from the constant flow of people who were streaming down the trail. I continued my hike with a few short jogs along the flatter sections of the shelf trail. The trail here is cut into the sheer rock walls with a several hundred foot drop to the river below. Here the rock changes from the tan Navajo sandstone to the red Supai sandstone. Up, up, up, finally I reached the last set of steep switchbacks that leads to the Supai Tunnel. By the time I'd reached the tunnel (18.9mi) the sun was shining in full force and the temperature was rising. I once again filled my water, dunked my head, and continued up the final steep climb to the North Rim. Above the tunnel beings the alpine zone; oaks, maples, and pines cover much of the trail. The upper trail was dotted with golden aspens and brilliant red maples that added a colorful hue to the trail. Just under 5h after starting I reached the North Rim North Kaibab trailhead (10:05am 20.9mi). I sat down briefly to enjoy a snack and the silence of an empty trailhead almost 6000ft above the canyon bottom. As the flies began to swarm I packed up for the long trip down to Phantom Ranch. I was feeling really strong in the cool air of the North Rim, so I hammered downhill. I soon passed Jeff and Jonathan, both feeling good and moving quickly toward the North Rim. I flew past the Supai Tunnel, quickly cooling down again, and off down the steep switchbacks toward the inner canyon. As I neared the bottom of the Supai switchbacks I loked up and was surprised to see Ryan Burch hiking up towards me. We stopped for a brief chat, him and three others from Gunnison were also out for a R2R2R run. I bid him and his friend Doug farewell and headed back down the trail into the warmth of the canyon. As the temperature crept up, thunderclouds began to build, a welcome sight, that brought hope for cooler than expected high temperatures (92F). When I returned to the Caretaker's Cabin this time there were only two other people milling around. The temperatures were nearing 80F, so I drenched my head and continued down to Cottonwood Campground. I ran well down to the CG, though I was teetering on the edge of dehydration (1130am, 27.1mi). Upon reaching the Cottonwood CG I refilled my water, chugged a bunch and once again soaked myself in an effort to stay ahead of the heat.

More fall colors on the North Kaibab. Looking down the long road ahead. Storm clouds building on the North Rim.

As I left Cottonwood I was starting to feel a little off for the first time all day. My abs were cramping so I took more electrolytes and walked the flat terrain for a bit. I was soon running again straight into "The Box". This is where it all fell apart for me last time, so I was very vigilant on my physical status. As I entered the upper portion of this narrow canyon the cramps came back and the gel shot I took made me nauseous. So I walked the normally fast section of trail along the gurgling Bright Angel creek. Finally the 10oz of water, salt cap and gel settled and I was able to run the last few miles into Phantom Ranch (1250p, 34.3mi). Last time the radiative heat of the canyon walls sent the air temperatures sky rocketing to 113F. This fall the cooler temps and the late morning clouds, which were now gone, kept temps in the mid 80s, very pleasant.

The Box canyon, nice and warm. The crowds at Phantom Ranch. The Black Bridge and the Colorado River.

1:00pm After bumming a cup of ice off the nice people at Phantom Ranch, drinking 1/2L of water, I took off jogging to the black bridge and the long ascent up the South Kaibab trail. As I crossed the black bridge and looked up, the daunting task of climbing all the way to the South Rim, 6miles of steep uphill, lay ahead. The afternoon was warm, but there was a pleasant breeze that made the trudge much nicer. The muscles were fatiguing, but I was still maintaining a decent pace through "The Tipoff". As I began the steep switchbacks to Skull Point the earlier dehydration and general fatigue were slowing me down, but I kept on trudging. At Skull Point I retrieved my stashed water and wind breaker, still cool from its hiding spot. As I ascended past Skull Point my focus became putting one foot in front of the other and doing my best to push through the fatigue. Soon after I stopped for a rest break, as I looked back into the canyon the sheer size of everything hit me. I watched the ants (people) make there way up the trail with the massive rock monuments tower overhead. As the shadows slowly drifted across the ridges and temples of the canyon I realized that inspite of the recent fatigue it had been a spectacular run. I hadn't worried about any of the troubles of the past months, all the stress of the "real world" had not even crossed my mind. My legs didn't feel any better, but when I stood back up, mentally I was alert and completely at ease. For the first time on the climb I was able to simply enjoy the trail and the massive cathedral in which I'd spent the day. All the events of the past several years, good and bad, had enabled this journey to occur. As I approached the South Kaibab TH I felt great. Yes my legs were tired, yes I hadn't reached my ultimate goal of 10 hours, but I had pushed myself, and had taken the time to soak in the vastness, and beauty of the canyon and all it had to offer. I couldn't think of another way I would have liked to spend the weekend. After arriving at the South Kaibab TH (2:53p, 41.8mi) I was unexpectedly greeted by Megan Burch and Amy Callahan, both of whom were out hiking and supporting their husbands on their R2R2R quest. It was nice to be able to decompress in the company of friends. A little stretching and lots of food and water capped off a beautiful day at the big ditch.

High on the South Kaibab trail, oh do I feel small. Views of the canyon. Sunset from the South Rim, South Kaibab TH.

The main difference, besides the temp, was my approach to the canyon. On the previous trip in 2007 I came to the canyon an enthusiastic, but naive young ultra runner. I thought that I was strong enough to conquer the canyon with little respect for how tough the route is and how much the heat could hurt me. What I have learned in the past several years is that the ability to run these amazing routes does not entitle one to do so. We are no more than guests in an environment, where nature will run its course, regardless of our presence. So until your respect the magnitude of such an undertaking as the R2R2R, you won't get the full experience. The massiveness of the canyon walls, the peace of running down a quiet canyon trail at dawn, the enormity of passing through millions of years of geological history. All of these observations and feelings served to shape my experience this time around. We are merely a guest in nature's massive temple, a small speck in the timeline, and the worries and fears of daily life are inconsequential when you're running 42miles through the heart of one of America's greatest wonders.
Special thanks to Jonathan Z for setting this trip up, and to Louisa for letting me borrow her camera as mine died days before the trip.

Panorama of the Grand Ditch, one big hole in the ground.