Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

The Planning
I hatched the idea for our rim-to-rim-to-rim excursion two years ago when my family visited the Grand Canyon on vacation. I had decided to run down to the bottom the one morning. It turned out to be the best run of my life to that point, even though I bonked a little on the way back up. Afterwards I shared about the experience with my brother Jim and nephew Jason and told them they had to do it. After doing a little research on canyon runs, we decided on doing rim-to-rim-to-rim, recruited a friend, Terry, and set a date. Rather than doing the entire round trip in one day, we decided we didn't want to rush it and would do it in two days.

There are many logistics to consider when running in the Grand Canyon. The first one is the timing of the run. It is recommended that you plan your run in spring or fall, because the floor of the canyon (at 2400 feet) reaches temperatures well over 100 degrees in the summer. We decided to run May 15 and 16, which this year is the earliest that the North Rim lodges are open (they can have snow on the rims into mid-May as the rims are at 6800-8200 feet).

The next consideration is lodging. The south rim has a lot of lodging available but the north rim does not. Both rims fill up quickly, but especially the north. As soon as reservations became available for those dates (13 months ahead of time), I booked rooms on both rims.

A third pre-run consideration is transportation. We decided to fly into Phoenix and rent a car to the canyon, about a four hour drive from there. Las Vegas is also a popular airport to use and the drive is about the same.

The final preparations include which trails to use, what to wear on the run, what to pack, what hydration method to use and what to plan to eat. For trails, we chose to use South Kaibab for our departure from the south rim and then to return on Bright Angel. On the north side of the Colorado River, the only main trail up to the rim is North Kaibab. Clothing is a bit of a trick, as it really depends on the weather you will encounter those days. For us, they were calling for mid-30s in the morning on the south rim, mid-90s on the floor, and mid-60s on the north rim. That is quite a temperature swing. I decided I would be okay in shorts and a t-shirt the whole time. I chose to use a hydration pack that had some pockets so I packed an extra pair of shorts, socks, a t-shirt, a granola bar, a couple gels, a flashlight and multi-tool (you never know), a camera, and my cell phone (little coverage in the canyon but some on the north rim). For lunch, I reserved a couple sack lunches from Phantom Ranch, the main civilized presence on the floor of the canyon.

All that was left was the fun part: months of anticipation, crazy emails flying around amongst the participants, and the run itself. Email subjects included logistics, training, general trash talking, and the dangers of the canyon. As we got closer to the date, Terry struggled with leg injuries, Jim realized he would have to seriously face his fear of heights, and all of us worried about canyon rattlesnakes (including what to do if we got bitten in awkward places), scorpions, mountain lions, dehydration, and squirrels (apparently it is more likely to be bitten by a squirrel than a snake).

Once arriving at the canyon on Saturday evening and looking at the expanse we would be running across, it looked like a formidable task. The scale of the canyon is just incredibly large. With binoculars, we could see the north rim lodge perched on the edge of the rim a long distance away and at an incredible height.

At the South Kaibab Trailhead (thanks for the jackets Todd).

The Run - Day 1
We got up before sunrise on Sunday morning, finished packing, ate breakfast and caught the 6:00am hiker's express shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead. The temperature was in the mid-30s and very windy so I decided to take a jacket. We started down the trail by 6:30am and I quickly realized it was going to be a long day. The trail averages about 6 feet or so across and Jim was having some serious difficulty with the heights from the start. There would not be much running until nearer to the bottom of the canyon, as he stayed on the inside edge and took it cautiously. The trail was great and the views are magnificent. There certainly are sheer drop-offs, sometimes on both sides, and you really don't want to trip. It is a steady and relentless decline down through the different colors of rock of the canyon. South Kaibab is less heavily traveled than Bright Angel trail but we encountered hiker's coming up the trail and a few other runners.
Terry and Jason crossing the Colorado River.

Once we got nearer to the bottom and the drop-offs weren't so steep and deep, we were able to get a nice running pace going. It felt good to move at a running pace and descend towards the river. Soon we were at the river and crossing on a narrow suspension bridge. The sites from the bottom of the canyon are as spectacular as the sites from the rim. The Colorado River cuts a deep canyon within the canyon. About half a mile on the north side of the river (just over 7 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead) we came to Phantom Ranch. We sat for awhile and ate lunch and refilled our hydration packs. The ranch has small cabins that can be reserved for lodging, a campground, and a camp store/restaurant. Everything is supplied by mule trains from the south rim so there isn't an abundance of stuff available. They do, however, have the best lemonade I ever tasted, made all the sweeter by the journey it takes to get it.

After half an hour in the shade of the ranch, we got up and headed out for the remaining 15 miles to the North Kaibab trailhead. While it was all uphill from here, the first 8 miles are so are a relatively gradual incline and we were able to run a lot of it. The North Kaibab trail follows the Bright Angel Creek in the Bright Angel Canyon. The water is rushing and the vegetation is lush, even though you are in a desert environment. The presence of water makes a huge difference in the area. The Bright Angel Canyon is at times very narrow with high rock walls on either side of the creek. The trail is also much narrower than the main trails on the south rim.

Jason on North Kaibab Trail.
After awhile the trail started to get steep. Terry's injured calf was bothering him and Jim was starting to slow again, due to the precarious nature of the trail, so Jason and I decided to run ahead. We ran for awhile until Jason was ready to stick with hiking. For some reason I felt good and wanted to keep running, so I struck out on my own. I was able to keep running until the trail got very steep, and then I reverted to a hike. After awhile the trail got a little less steep but I discovered that I was done running as the altitude was starting to affect my breathing. I was probably somewhere above 6000 feet at that point and I was just not acclimated to the altitude. I soon realized I just needed to put my head down and get it done. There were a few water stops on the way up and I refilled my hydration pack but I didn't linger long. I knew I was getting near the top but the switchbacks seemed to continue forever. Finally I heard clapping and turned a corner and there, 50 yards away, was the blessed trailhead. Some lady was standing there and clapping for people as she saw them finishing. It was about 2:00pm. I got a long drink of water, put my jacket on (it was cold, in fact there were still some piles of snow around), sat down and waited for Jason.

After 25 minutes, Jason emerged, and then Jim and Terry finished half an hour after that. The harsh reality now set in that it was 1.7 miles uphill from the trailhead to our final destination at the lodge and there was no shuttle bus. Our legs were pretty cooked so we started to trudge up the road. I volunteered to run ahead and get checked in and Jim wanted me to try to secure a ride for him and Terry for the next day on the shuttle bus that makes the 4 hour drive from the north to south rim every day. I "ran" ahead and checked in and got the shuttle information. There was a little deli there so I also got two pieces of pizza, a large Coke, and a large dish of ice cream to go and tried to balance this in my hands while eating the ice cream and walking down the road to meet the rest of the group. Fortunately I only had to go about a quarter of a mile before I met them. I handed out the grub and we walked to our cabin. As we walked through the cabins my brother mentioned that he sure hoped we didn't have a rim side cabin, at which point I smacked my forehead. In my infinite wisdom, 13 months ago, upon realizing that a rim-side cabin was only $10 more than a regular cabin and thinking that it would be cool to have a canyon view, I booked the rim-side cabin. Fortunately there were curtains on the rim-side windows.

Room with a view (and curtains, fortunately for Jim).
We showered and changed and relaxed, as I had dinner reservations in the lodge for 5:30pm. The north rim has a different atmosphere than the south. There are fewer people and it is a little more rugged but the main lodge itself is very nice. Most of the accommodations are in little cabins. Ours had two rooms and had a queen bed, a queen futon, and a set of bunk beds. As we were waiting for supper, Terry emptied the contents of his stomach (probably a result of exertion and altitude, as he felt okay afterwards) and decided not to join us. After a nice meal for the rest of us we headed back to the cabin and turned in. Terry and Jim did decide to make the return trip via bus rather than by foot. Jim was mentally exhausted from confronting his demons all day and Terry's injuries and resulting lack of training made the return trip by foot unwise.

The Run - Day 2
Jason and I got up before sunrise, ate some cereal, and were out the door by 6:00am. It was another cool, brisk morning. We ran the 1.7 miles to the trailhead and plunged down it. It was a good morning to run. I like the North Kaibab Trail better than the other trails. It has more variety. It is heavily wooded at the top, with huge Ponderosa Pines, and follows a rushing stream, complete with waterfalls, most of the way. This morning we got lucky and met a young Desert Bighorn Sheep on the trail. It took one look at us and scrambled up a sheer rock face with ease. We made pretty good time and got to Phantom Ranch by 9:30am (about the same time as yesterday, even though it was 17 miles instead of 7). We ate lunch/second breakfast, tanked up on 40 ounces of lemonade each, and headed back out.
Me taking pictures near the top of North Kaibab Trail.

Leaving Phantom Ranch, you pick up River Trail, which follows the river for a ways before becoming Bright Angel Trail. This is a rolling, sandy, mostly runnable, section of trail with nice river views. As soon as you get on Bright Angel it starts climbing away from the river and is fairly steep in sections. After a few miles of this we arrived at Indian Gardens, a campground near the base of the south rim's canyon walls, where we filled up with water. As we left Indian Gardens, there is a short stretch that isn't too steep before the assault on the canyon wall begins. Once the switchbacks started, the running was basically over for the day. It was hot and windy and relentlessly up. After one more stop for water, we finally neared the top. A little more than a half mile from the top, there was Terry running down to meet us. I phoned my brother and told him I would love to have a large Coke waiting for us at the top. With a quarter mile to go, we broke into a run again and exited the canyon to end the journey. Ice cold Cokes were waiting for us.

It is a long, gorgeous trek. Jason on Bright Angel Trail.
Each of us had a different experience in the canyon. Making the crossing once is an amazing accomplishment. I thought it would be a lot tougher the second day but it actually wasn't. Perhaps the slower pace the first day saved my quads for the second day. As far as effort and time on the feet go, it is definitely more difficult than running a road marathon. The actual mileage for us was about 24 miles on day one and 26 miles on day 2 (Bright Angel Trail is about 2 miles longer than South Kaibab). You could do it without ever having run a marathon. You would just need to be in good hiking shape and have worked on verticals. I did enjoy staying a night on the north rim, but I'm not against going back and doing R2R2R in one day the next time. There are people who do R2R2R in one day without running any of it. It takes persistence and good hydration and nutrition management.

Of all the running that I have done, this is definitely the highlight. I would encourage anyone who loves to run trails to go do it. Do make sure that you take it seriously and have trained and prepared properly. This run contained the best of all of the things that have caused me to fall in love with trail running: the feel of the earth under my feet, incredible scenery, wildlife sightings, good company on the trail, and the experience of getting completely caught up in the experience of the run. Who has an idea for the next epic adventure?

I put together a video of the run at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDUV7mF27U0.

Phantom Ranch.

Tunnel on South Kaibab.

North Kaibab, up Bright Angel Canyon.

Jim and Terry on North Kaibab.
I think this was Jim's favorite part.

Jim and Terry finishing day 1 at North Kaibab Trailhead.

At Indian Gardens on Bright Angel Trail. I was very thirsty
at this point but not quite ready for toilet water.