Monday, May 28, 2012

The Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim to Rim

Disclaimer:  The National Park Service publicly states that it is forbidden to hike from Rim to river and back in one day.  There are many people who die every year in the Grand Canyon, often due to dehydration.  I do not advocate anyone attempting to replicate our journey.  There are dozens of trail-lovers who complete the Rim to Rim or the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim journey every year.  We undertook this journey expecting to be self-supported the entire 50 miles.  The park rangers are not employed to rescue people who attempt to do things that are beyond their ability.  Yes, we disregarded their warning, but we also were trained and heat acclimated to be successful in our quest. 

It's no secret that the Grand Canyon is my favorite place on earth.  I don't think it's anything that I can explain really, and if I have to explain it to you, you probably wouldn't get it anyway.  Ever since my first trip to the Canyon in 2009, I am either at the Canyon or counting down the days until my next trip.  I've hiked Rim to Rim a total of 3 times.  And I've done some longer hikes over multiple days.  But the Rim to Rim to Rim (R3) has lingered at the edge of my mind as a challenge, though daunting, that I wanted to tackle. 

We had booked our annual trip to the GC a year ago.  We were planning to meet some friends, hike South to North, spend the night at the lodge and then make the return trip the following day.  After taking my mom through the Canyon, and spending a few nights at Phantom Ranch, I had invited my parents back to do some day hiking over the long holiday weekend.  My dad had never hiked in the Canyon and I was so excited for him to experience it and have a small glimpse of what it is that I love so much. 

Somewhere around the beginning of the year, our friends announced that they had to back out of the trip.  Though disappointed that we wouldn't get to share this adventure with them, it opened the door for us to make the R3.  No one else was going with us, no one would be waiting for us or counting on us.  We could approach the trip however we wanted. 

I proposed the idea to my husband.  After the laughter subsided, he realized I was quite serious and just shook his head.  By now he's used to my crazy ideas.  In his mind, this was just one more in a long line.  With a little coaxing, he agreed.  It was on!

We drove up to the South Rim on Friday.  We arrived in time to check in, grab a little bite to eat, and then run over to the Bright Angel Trailhead where we awaited my family's arrival back to the Rim after their long day of hiking.  We spent about an hour at the upper tunnel watching the "touristas" clambering up and down the trail.  (Tourista= hiker in flip-flops or other inappropriate attire, often carrying little or no water, possessing little or no knowledge of hiking, trails, or outdoor activity.  Touristas generally hike about 100 yards down the trail, snap a few photos and turn around, claiming they've now hiked the Grand Canyon.)

We spotted them heading up the last few switchbacks and trotted down the trail to meet them.  I snapped a few photos as they passed through the tunnel.  At the top, they posed for the final shot at the trailhead.  They had hiked down to Indian Gardens, enjoyed lunch, and then hiked back out.  9 miles, 10 hours, and a lifetime of memories.  We shared a celebratory beer and then headed back to the Yavapai Lodge to get our gear ready for the R3. 

As the weekend approached, I had become more and more anxious about what we were setting out to do.  And now, with only hours to spare, I was becoming desperate for a way out.  My husband had been dealing with some stomach issues after a mild bout of food intolerance earlier in the week.  I implored him that if he was too dehydrated, or didn't feel up to the R3, we could just do a hike to the river and back.  He assured me he was fine, and would be up for the journey.  I felt like my world was spinning out of control.  Like a merry-go-round, I had set this thing in motion and now I couldn't jump off. 

The alarm sounded at 1 AM, not that I had slept a wink.  I crawled out of bed, shivering despite the fact that it wasn't cold.  Fear can do that to a person.  I dressed and got my gear together.  I drank a bottle of Ensure.  Not nearly enough calories for a proper breakfast, but it would have to do.  I was so nervous there was no way anything else was staying down. 

At 2:15 AM, we kissed at the Bright Angel Trailhead, started our watches and took off down the trail in the pitch dark.  The first few miles ticked by quickly.  We chatted, breaking up the silence of the journey.  We spotted a few head lamps further down the trail and by about 3 miles we had passed an odd trio of hikers.  We stop a few times and turn off our lights and just stare at the stars.  It's unbelievable.  In the dark, with the lights off and complete silence, the Canyon is very eerie.  I shudder, and quickly turn my lamp back on and keep running. 

We saw herds of deer, their eyes brightly reflecting the beam from our headlamps.  Then I hear, "oh shit" from behind me.  "What?" I want to know.  "Nothing," is the reply.  Before long, he's forced to explain that there are bats diving at our heads, attracted to the light.  "Just don't look up," he tells me. 

No problem.  I'll just keep looking at the trail in front of my ... YYEEEEEKKKK!!!  I scream like a little girl as a bat goes swooping in front of my face.  Shit, shit, shit!  There are bats diving at my head!!  I run faster, carrying my trekking poles like an Olympic torch to ward off any creatures that feel like getting near my head.  I wave them around a little as I run.  Past Indian Gardens, the trail levels out and we enjoy a less taxing run beside the river. 

We cross the bridge heading past Bright Angel Campground and into Phantom Ranch.  The sun is just starting to light the sky as we pass through.  Campers are just beginning to stir at Phantom Ranch, getting ready for the early breakfast call.  We are moving at a pretty good pace, and the Canteen is not open yet, so we just run on by.  As we hit the North Kaibab Trail, we see a posted sign about water sources being unreliable at Cottonwood and Roaring Springs.  My husband asks me if this sign is always up, or if we need to go back and top off before we leave Phantom.  I tell him that I think the sign is always up and we keep going. 

This is a mistake that I will never, ever make again.  We had started the day with 2 liters each and had planned to stop at Cottonwood to fill.  The weather was cool and 3 liters weighs a lot.  Surely, we could get water on the trail.  What we didn't realize was that there had been a break along the water line, and there was no water until the Supai Tunnel, 2 miles from the North Rim.  About half way to Cottonwood, another hiker comes from the other direction.  He looks pretty sad, he had planned to make the trip up to the North Rim, but had turned around because there was no water.  He was heading back to Phantom Ranch. 

We keep going, but now we're taking stock of our supplies.  This is the moment of my first meltdown.  It's amazing to me how a little wrench in my mental game throws me so off.  I know it's something that I need to work on... being able to adapt and change the plan when the situation warrants.  We take a short break, sitting down on some rocks.  We pull out our water, we each have about a liter.  We eat a little food.  We decide that the weather is in our favor (we're still wearing long sleeves and hats at this point).  We keep moving. 

I began to pray.  Please, God, let there be water at Cottonwood.  Please, just give us some water.  As much as I was scared shitless to make the R3, if I was going to fail I didn't want it to be because of a stupid mistake like not carrying enough water.  We arrived at Cottonwood.  There was no one else around and I tip-toed over to the water spout.  I twisted the handle, and a small trickle of water came out.  I put my hydration pack under the spout and filled it completely full.  Then we filled my husband's pack, and his two additional bottles.  By no small miracle, we got 4 liters of water out of that spigot.  When we made the return trip, there was no water at Cottonwood. 

We headed out of Cottonwood for the last stetch before the climb.  My muscles were fatigued and I was ready to start using a different set.  At the bottom of the climb we sat down for a minute and shared a salted, boiled potato.  (Best trail food EVER, by the way.)  I extended my trekking poles in preparation for the climb and we set off.  We hauled ass up to the North Rim.  We didn't stop once.  Not even a pause.  Relentlessly, we moved forward and upward reaching the Rim in 2 hours and 18 minutes, with a total time of 7 hours and 18 minutes for the first half of our journey.  We had covered approximately 25 miles, with 10,000 feet of elevation change. 

It was freezing at the North Rim so we didn't pause long.  Long enough to have this photo taken. 
Tagging the North Rim:  7 hours, 18 minutes.
  We started down and began fighting the wind that had pushed us along all morning.  We stopped to fill our packs at Supai Tunnel and quick-stepped it down the trail.  We were surprised at how few people we saw out on the North Kaibab Trail, but attributed it to the lack of water on the lower sections.  We reached the bottom and began to stretch out our stride over the flatter part of the trail.  I set my watch to beep at me every 15 minutes to remind me to eat and drink.  We were able to run a decent portion of this until.... The Real Meltdown. 

Having been moving at a faster pace for the last 4 hours, I wasn't taking in enough calories and eventually it caught up with me.  In a matter of seconds I went from happily traipsing down the trail, to a mumbling, crying heap.  I begged to stop.  My husband told me to keep moving.  Every muscle in my body ached.  I just wanted to sit down.  On this part of the trail, you wind around canyon wall after canyon wall after canyon wall.  You know, in your mind, that at some point, you'll wind the last bend and Phantom Ranch will pop into view.  But it just wasn't coming quick enough.  If I had to round one more canyon wall I was going to hurl myself into the river.   

Finally, finally!, we see the sign for Phantom Ranch.  We fill our packs with water and head into the Canteen to rest for a few minutes.  I sit numbly at the long wooden table.  We are surrounded by dozens of people who are drinking beer and enjoying the afternoon, knowing they just have to stumble outside to the cabin to rest their head on a soft pillow.  We still had hours ahead of us.  I forced myself to eat some salted potatoes.  (Still the best thing ever, even if I did want to throw them back up.) 

We discussed our options.  We could take the Bright Angel Trail, which was longer by 2.5 miles but significantly less steep and had 3 water stops.  Or we could take the South Kaibab Trail, shorter but lacking water and lung-searingly steep.  If the weather had been hot, I would have chosen the Bright Angel, with it's water stops.  But having been cold all day, I knew that 3 liters would be more than enough to get me to the top.  At this point, I could not wrap my head around another 10 miles.  It seemed completely overwhelming.  On top of that, the first few miles are flat along the river.  I wanted to be climbing out.  I needed to feel like I was making upward progress.

We chose South Kaibab.  Before we stood up from the Canteen, I asked my husband if we could do this.  "We'll be OK, won't we?" I asked, recovered, but still a little weepy after my hypoglycemic episode.  "Of course we will," he said.  We stood up, extended our trekking poles again for the final climb, and started down the trail. 

If we thought we were alone on the North Kaibab Trail, we were completely isolated on the South Kaibab.  In 3 1/2 hours, we encountered 4 people.  Four.  As in 2 couples.  Considering the hundreds of people we had seen the afternoon before on Bright Angel while waiting on my parents, we were completely alone.  As we started the climb, I turned my cell phone on, assuming that at some point we'd have reception and we'd be able to arrange a ride from the trailhead. 

We hiked, and hiked, and hiked, and when we hit the most brutal set of switchbacks there was a sign alerting us to the fact that we were only half way up.  We stopped frequently, for a minute or two.  Just long enough to swallow a bite of food.  At some point, my phone beeped and we picked up a few text messages that my uncle and my dad had sent earlier in the day.  I sent a quick reply to my uncle, notifying him of our location, ETA, and that we would need a lift.  Then my phone lost service again.

My husband kept saying that all he wanted was a ride waiting for us at the top.  He kept asking me what exactly I said in my text, did I tell them where, and what time.  I assured him that my uncle was an experienced hiker and mountain climber, he would get it and he wouldn't let us down. 

We rested at Skeleton Point and took in some more calories.  I forced myself to eat a Bonk Breaker bar because it was calorically dense.  For about 20 minutes I wanted to vomit, but I kept it down and began to feel much better.  I couldn't stop to look around because my legs were shaky with fatigue.  I was afraid I'd tumble off the side of the cliff.  We just kept climbing.  We passed Cedar Point, and finally Ooh Ahh Point.  We had less than a mile to go.

We could see the final set of switchbacks and where we had to go.  Within a few minutes we heard shouting from the Rim and we saw my uncle and my dad waving down at us.  We let out whoops of joy!  We were going to make it.  My uncle hiked down the trail a few hundred yards and brought us some cola.  He congratulated us on our journey.  At the top, my dad took our picture as we emerged on the trail. 

We had done it.  Rim to Rim to Rim.  16 hours and 9 minutes.  48 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation change. 

Tagging the South Kaibab Trailhead after 16:09.  Tired, but happy.

We showered and shared a pizza and beer with the family before falling into bed for the night.  On Sunday we drove back to the Valley, still processing all that we had been through physically and emotionally. 

Two days later, my muscles are still sore.  I couldn't put my heels on the ground when I got out of bed this morning because my calves were so tight.  I feel like sleeping all the time.  Even after a 2 hour nap yesterday, and 12 hours of sleep last night.  And I have to eat small meals because my stomach isn't ready for a normal meal yet.  Will I do it again?  Yesterday, I would have said no.  But today I know that we could.  I can.  It hurt.  It was challenging.  But if you don't have a dream, how can you have a dream come true? 

This was my dream.  I am so thankful to have a partner in life who is willing to adventure with me.  There is no one I would have rather accomplished this journey with.  No one who would have been able to encourage me the way that he did.  No one that would have tolerated my mood swings the way that he did.  No one that would have celebrated our accomplishment the way that he did. 

I promised him I wouldn't have any more great ideas for a while.  (At least until July.  That gives him a good 4 weeks to recover.)  We're already talking about other trails we'd like to explore in the Canyon.  The possibilities are endless.  Just like our sense of adventure. 


MITriGirl said...

Great job you two! So proud of you! Sounds like a great adventure.

Christi said...

Wow, what a great experience. Congrats on your adventure. I can't wait to read about the next one.!

DRJ said...

AWESOME JOB to both of you
Jeff Cottingham DC

Kelsey said...

I WANT TO DO THIS!! It sounds so ridiculously awesome!! You guys are so tough.

Kata Ann said...

Nice work! loved hearing the story!

Lindy said...

ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!! I love reading your adventures- especially the adventures you and Dan take on together! What an amazing couple!!!

Crystal and Kekoa said...

Loved reading about your R2R2R. I will be running this in 2 weeks. I am very excited and nervous all at the same time. I am grateful for your blog. I have some kind of idea as to how to prepare.

Anonymous said...

Did this in the 80s...two singles and a double in 12:30 mostly all by my lonesome as my running buddy turned around half way down Kaibab. But it was all for the best. I preferred the solitude and it is still fresh in my memory to this day! Cheryl @