Thursday, December 22, 2016

Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim to Rim

There are about a dozen guys in Athens that I run with fairly regularly, and I'm not exaggerating when I say they're like family. We even have our own Christmas get together.

Anyway, one day a couple of years ago, maybe in November or December, I was running with Chris, and he said, "I've been thinking about running across the Grand Canyon. What do you think?" The rest of the run, we were talking about how and when. We talked to Lanier about it and floated out some possible dates, thinking late April or early November. We opted for early November. I sent a Facebook message out to the guys saying, "Grand Canyon, rim to rim to rim, November 2016. Who's in?" Mind you, this was June of 2015.

Then next thing I knew, the Facebook inbox was dinging with "In." "In." "In."

So, that's how this crazy idea was born.

After months of planning and training and anticipation, the day to fly finally arrived. 

We divided into two groups. Chris and his wife, Lindsey, and my wife and I all flew into Las Vegas. That was fun and we did take the time to see Hoover Dam, etc., but that's not what this blog is about.
Lanier, Danny, Lance, Max, Jordan, and Mark all flew into Phoenix on Thursday. We all met at the Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon on Friday. (BTW, I highly recommend that hotel. It was very nice, cozy, comfortable, friendly, and affordable.) After a mediocre and overpriced dinner, we retired to our rooms early for the obscenely early start to the Rim to Rim to Rim adventure.

Lanier, Jordan, Mark, Chris, and I planned to do the full R2R2R while Max, Lance, and Danny planned to do Rim to River to Rim. They were going to see the sights and enjoy the canyon before making the trek up Bright Angel and out. They did see some cool sights that we did not, including Plateau Point.

We had no plans of going fast. We just wanted to enjoy the experience. So, in order to finish at any reasonable time of day, we had to start by 4:00 AM. We decided to all start together and the Rim to River folks would just finish sooner and enjoy the South Rim.

The plan was to take South Kaibab to North Kaibab back to Bright Angel and out. It turns out that there was no parking at South Kaibab, so my wife graciously volunteered to shuttle the drivers from the Bright Angel parking lot over to the South Kaibab trail head at 4:00 AM. I'm a lucky man to have such a wonderful wife! 

South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch

One of the things that stands out in my mind as we waited to begin our journey is the sheer number of stars that were visible. I've never seen that many stars before. Everywhere I've been, there is just too much light. It was truly amazing and I didn't mind the extra 30 minutes waiting on the drivers to get shuttled back to begin our journey.
Car headlight photo just before we begin at 4:30 AM
After a photo, we took off on our journey, headlamps lighting the way. We took it very, very slow on the way down. We had no idea what to expect. We really couldn't see anything other than just the few feet in front of us. None of us wanted to fall a few thousand feet to our deaths, and we knew that the trail we were on looked something like the photo below in the daylight.
South Kaibab in the daylight. Not that we saw it in the daylight...
Another thing I remember fairly distinctly is the unique experience of shining a headlamp toward the inside of the canyon and it hitting absolutely nothing. It seems obvious, but it still felt very eerie to experience it. If your headlamp is pointed straight ahead, you see the ground and/or the person in front of you. Turn to one side and you see the rock wall of the canyon. Turn to the other side, and the light doesn't reflect off of anything. There's just abyss. That was very cool.

Even though we were going at a very slow pace, the time passed quickly to sunrise. We stopped for a quick snack and we were just a mile or so from the Kaibab Suspension Bridge over the Colorado River.

We continued on North Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch and arrived just as they were opening up for early breakfast at 7:00 AM. We stopped just long enough to fill our bottles and took off. The rim to river crew continued with us for a short way and then turned around and waited for the store to open for the day. We said our good-byes and continued on North Kaibab Trail. 

On to Cottonwood Campground

As we left Phantom Ranch, the 5 R2R2R guys were all in pretty good spirits. We were moving along pretty well as the trail hugs Bright Angel Creek and is a gradual uphill. I remember commenting that this would be some good running on the way back. Just a nice gradual downhill along the creek. We were still taking it pretty easy through here. We still have lots of miles and we haven't even really begun to climb yet.

During this section, we got passed a couple of times by others who were also out doing R2R2R.

It was also during this section that I figure the guys got tired of hearing me. I kept saying stuff like... "It's so beautiful out here!" "I can't believe we're actually doing this." "Look at the different layers of rock! Wow! That's so cool!" "How do you suppose this canyon happened? I mean, there are lots of other rivers that don't cut canyons so it couldn't be just that the river eroded it over time. Something else had to make this happen." "I can't believe we're doing this!" "Wow. It sure is beautiful out here." "Are you guys soaking this in?" Over and over. I'm sure I annoyed them.

We came to a fork in the trail that went down to Ribbon Falls. We were a little unsure about what to do, but we didn't follow the sign for Ribbon Falls and stayed on what seemed like the straight trail. We never really figured out this trail.

As we began passing more and more people, we knew we were getting close to Cottonwood campground. We stopped here for a bit, ate, refilled all our water. and then got ready for the first real climb.

Up to the North Rim

After we left Cottonwood, the climb became less gradual. We continued to press on and we all continued to be in awe of the place. As we passed roaring springs, there was a sign that said "No Water at Supai Tunnel". Well, for whatever reason I thought we were at Supai Tunnel, so I didn't try to get water there. That was a mistake.

The trip up to the North Rim is nothing short of breathtaking. Words and pictures cannot adequately describe this place. It must be experienced. I'm out of superlatives to describe the run. There were views of the trail ahead climbing and hugging the wall of the canyon. There were views of the wall across the vastness. There were views of the wilderness beneath us. Pictures don't come close, but the one below is a good one.

As we came into Supai Tunnel, we tested the water faucet, even though we knew it was not on. We decided that would be a good time to stop for a quick break to eat. We all had enough water, but it was a little too close for comfort. We left there, not knowing exactly how far to the North Rim. I had forgotten my GPS charger and everyone else's GPS was showing obviously wrong mileage. We just didn't know.

On we climbed. We were all getting tired and so we slowed down considerably. You're battling both the climb itself and the altitude on this journey. This section just seemed to go on forever. For ever. After a while, we saw some hikers, and that let us know that we were getting closer. We thought we were getting really close. Like less than a mile close. So, I made the mistake of asking a couple of hikers about how far to the top. "Oh, about an hour and a half. Maybe more." WHAT!?!?!?! I agree with what my friend Mark said... "It felt like I just got kicked in the nuts and a little girl is pointing and laughing at me."

Ugh. We pressed on. We met up with a group from San Diego on the climb. It was good to chat with others doing the R3. One of the ladies was an LSU graduate which was interesting because Alabama and LSU were playing that evening. We talked a little trash which helped pass the time and misery for the rest of the climb. I think Chris said something about smelling a corn dog or something.

Anyway, when we got to the north rim, we stopped for a bit, but not long. Just a photo or two, a bladder and bottle refill, and then turn around. The water at the North Rim was cold and so very tasty. I may have overindulged in the water just a bit. It was windy and cool, and we were all drenched from sweating the climb. See, we were there.

One interesting thing about the North Rim was the trees. Trees are sparse and short on the South Rim and through the Canyon. As we got closer to the North Rim, there were more large trees. It wasn't a thick Appalachian forest, but it was thicker than I expected. From the North Rim, we had no views because of the trees. It wasn't good or bad, just interesting and not what I expected. 

The Return

Given how much of a struggle the North Rim climb was, I expected the return to be complete misery. It really wasn't. The gravity assisted descent from the North Rim was just the burst of energy we needed. We ran relatively quickly and had a lot of fun on the descent. We passed lots of hikers. We had lots of conversation. I may or may not have passed gas so bad that some folks a couple hundred yards behind me started yelling, "Eric! Do you need a wet wipe?"  Fun times. You'd never know that we had more than a marathon on our legs from this picture.

We stopped at roaring springs on the way back down. We had some food and a long restroom and water refill break. I was surprised by how quickly that time passed. We pressed on to Cottonwood Campground for another quick rest and refill. As we neared Ribbon Falls, we saw a trail that went to the right. We took it briefly, thinking that it would meet back up with North Kaibab trail, but decided to stay on the known trail. We thought it may be the end of the trail that we had seen on the way out, but we just weren't sure. While we still felt good, the last thing we wanted to do was to add unnecessary mileage.

Not long after this, I was running along with Chris and he tripped and fell. You know, sometimes a fall on the trail is slow. You see the trip. Then you see the stumble. Then you see the futile attempt to regain balance. Then  you may see a hand hit the ground. Some falls seem to last for seconds. This fall was the complete opposite of that. It happened so fast! I saw him kick a rock, and before I blinked, he was on his side on the ground. It was a hard fall. I came over to him to check on him and help out. As I'm standing over him, he says, "My phone! Get off my phone! You're standing on my phone!" I knew then that he would be okay. :) But it was a very hard fall and we took a couple of minutes to shake it off. 

The trip from Cottonwood campground to Phantom Ranch did seem very long on the way back. It was afternoon, and the temps were the warmest. It wasn't hot at all, maybe 75F, but it was the warmest. Remember how we mentioned that this would be easy running on the way back? Well, it wasn't exactly easy because our legs were tired. But it was some very nice running. I led and I really pushed the pace some on this section. I was running out of water because of the warmth, and I was ready to get some of the famous lemonade and to refill my water. It seemed to go on for ever. Not quite like the climb to the North Rim, but longer than expected. A lady on the trail accused us of leaving "human waste" on the trail. Um, no, it wasn't us. We packed everything out that we brought in and we only used the plentiful restrooms. I didn't appreciate it. I let her know it wasn't us, that we hadn't been on that part of the trail for hours. Oh well. 

As we got to Phantom Ranch, it was a glorious thing to get some lemonade. The stories are true. It's the best lemonade in the world. Don't miss it. I also bought a pack of oreos and devoured them. That was a mistake. Later, I would have the inevitable sugar crash and my stomach did not appreciate the sugar overload and let me know about it with a spell of nausea. 

We probably stayed a bit too long at Phantom Ranch, but on we went to climb out via Bright Angel Trail. Again, this is simply a beautiful run!

As we started the climb, we came across a very large boulder that was about to fall over. I'm so glad Mark was there to push it back up off the trial. 

Continuing on, I expected it to be uphill the whole way. But it wasn't. It was uphill, then downhill for a bit. That just felt wrong. I said that it was like taxes. We earn some elevation by climbing, then the trail just takes it back by making us go downhill. We pressed on, upward and onward. Dark settled in and we had to get out our headlamps again. We were at Indian Garden before I could eat again. The oreos had just done me wrong. Still, though, I think it was worth it! :)

The climb just kept getting harder and harder. It was dark. Everyone just wanted to be done. But the climb just kept going and going. It does seem like forever. This photo captures pretty much how it felt. 

On the way up, about a mile from the top, we passed a trio of hikers. One of them was in pretty bad shape. He was battling nausea and he said that his "knees wouldn't work any more". It turns out that he had just bitten off more than he could chew. He had attempted the Rim to River and back in a day and just wasn't quite up to the task. It was getting pretty cold, probably upper 30s, and he was shivering a bit. We stayed with him for a few minutes trying to see if we could help. Basically, he needed to be carried out of there. Chris gave him a pair of gloves. We stayed while they called 911, but then we had to continue on. There was really nothing we could do. We were going to do well to just get ourselves out of there and carrying another person just wasn't something we could do during mile 46 of a 46 mile run. The 911 operator told them pretty much that he had to get himself out of there. There are no rescue teams. There are multiple signs that say, "Down is optional. Up is mandatory." This is very, very true.

We hated to leave him behind and I did call the next day to check on him. Fortunately, he was okay. It was just a miserable night. Glad to know it worked out for him.

As we neared the top, we had no idea how close we were. We were talking about what runners sometimes talk about. Then, we heard Chris's wife joining in the conversation nonchalantly. Wow! We're here! We're done! We couldn't believe it!

Fifteen and a half hours. Eight of the best friends a guy could ever have. Memories that will last a life time. Yeah. I'd do it again.

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