Rim to Rim: A Trail Running Misadventure in The Grand Canyon

I can recall a grey, cold day with questionable precipitation coming down, sometime in January. An uncharacteristic Denver day, absent of sun. I was intermittently glaring out the window, sipping coffee, and procrastinating facing the cold and mud. My mind was drifting, imagining a different reality where there was warmer weather. From an unknown prompt, it hit me.

“Kaitlyn, let’s do Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim.”
“When?”
“I dunno. May? We can probably beat the weather and some of the crowds”
“But I’ve got Boston and Collegiate Peaks right before that, and then Speedgoat.”
“But I’ve got these air miles burning a hole in my pocket, and the Grand Canyon won’t be there forever.”

On those hasty reasonings, and minimal planning, we decided that we would do R2R2R as an easy training run, whatever that means, and figured the third weekend in May would be a reasonable one.

Fast forward four months, and I’m starting to get antsy. The sun is shining bright, the mountains are turning green, and Long’s Peak majestically hangs in the atmosphere in the second quadrant of my desk window, begging me to do something about it. Meanwhile, there is an ad on my browser window that says “today was once a long-distant future”, to which I respond by taking a breath and hoping just a little bit harder for the adventure to get here.

The week prior, Kaitlyn and I packed up our gear. One suitcase for shoes, nutrition, and hardware. One for clothes. One for the tent and sleeping bags, and jetboil. And one empty one, to which I just told her “trust me.” [Shameless plug here to Southwest for the bags fly free thing. You’ll always keep me.]

We grabbed all the suitcases at 2am on May 17th, and headed out to DIA to catch our 5am departure. I was restless, and wound up reading Tommy Caldwell’s The Push for most of the flight, immersing myself in daydreams of Yosemite, port-a-ledging, and life lived fully through minimalistic means.

I periodically tried to glance out the window of the next seat up to catch the sunrise views without much luck- the window seat guy next to me was dozed out, head against the closed window, and mouth breathing with lung volume that could keep up with American Idol’s best.

The plane touched down, rousing Kaitlyn from her slumber. I held up an open palm to her, my face displaying all my excitement. *high five* “We are HERE!” She looked at me with an awkward smile, shaking her head, letting me know I was way too awake at this time of the day. I stashed my book, and we wasted no time getting to baggage claim.

Our bags were among the first onto the carousel, and we caught the first bus out to rental car pickup. I had reserved us the lowest price car I could find online, my frugality showing through strong. I struck up a conversation with the service guy at the car rental counter, putting on my charm. A buddy of mine got comped a sweet ride once just by being nice, and I’ve kept this in mind ever since. In my case though, I quickly realized that car rental guys are trained salesmen too.

“Yeah, we are going to the Grand Canyon. Have you ever been there? What sights should we see?”
“Oh it is amazing!  That will depend on what you are driving. You are in a Kia Soul right now.”

The hamster mobile. The toaster on wheels. A mean 100 horsepower, room for 2 uncomfortably, no cruise control, 20mpg, and the wrong tool to take us up 8,000ft of elevation in the desert.

“But I can upgrade you for $180.”
“I’ll roll the dice. Pass”
“Card?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ve got a Rav 4 or a Fusion Hybrid you can have for $60 more. I’ll cut it down for you. You remind me of me, you’re a likable guy.”

Geez. Lesson learned. I took the Fusion Hybrid, $91 extra bucks after taxes and fees, and we were off. Welcome to being 25 years old. You get to learn how rental car sales work.

We stopped in Tusayan, the nearest town to the Canyon, to pick up some last minute items. This consisted mainly of local beers in anticipation of our post-adventure celebration looming ahead of us the next day, picking out some extra pale ales, IPAs, and a raspberry somethingeranother.

We rolled on up to the gates of the Grand Canyon, fully stoked on life. Windows were down in the 100 degree heat, and we were listening helplessly and loudly to country songs that romanticize the Jack-and-Dianne/Life-is-a-Highway lifestyle. Milennials, I tell you. We waited about 15 minutes as swaths of vehicles passed though the entrance. I opted for an Annual pass, already having RMNP adventures on the calendar a week out. I used my $80 purchase as an excuse to try to get an extra park map to add to our national park maps collection, anticipating the one to not make it through our adventure the next day. I was denied that oh-so colorful foldout keepsake… dangitall, Scott Pruitt.

We found some distant parking at the Bright Angel trail area, and made our approach to lay eyes on the arguably greatest of the natural wonders of the world.

And it delivered.

The Grand Canyon South Rim
The Grand Canyon South Rim

I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon since I was probably 10 years old. My memories of that trip largely escape me, being so young. What is left of them consists of feeding a squirrel, which is now a misdemeanor offense. Kaitlyn had never seen the Canyon. We opened the car doors running, reaching back inside quick to snag some water just in case. We couldn’t believe how deep the canyon was; as we approached, it just got deeper and deeper. Once we were on the edge, we scooped our jaws off the ground and begun to point out the proposed route to each other.

“We will descend this, hit that tunnel, then follow the green valley to the river, then go up that canyon to the top, and back using that trail…” Easy, right?

We walked the canyon rim trail and a bit of the descent of Bright Angel, taking in the full spectrum of color and incomprehensible size of the Canyon.

Bright angel trail rim to rim
Kaitlyn at the Bright Angel tunnel during our quick scout, just beneath the rim.
Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail rim to rim
Bright Angel Trail links to North Kaibab Trail, effectively following straight down the middle of this picture. As the crow flies, this is about 11-ish miles, but don’t quote me too hard.

We found some camping in the national forest just to the south of Tusayan that night. I was slightly bummed to learn that there was a statewide fire ban due to the extreme dryness and consistent wind. Campfires are by far my favorite way to end a day of travel, but it would have to wait. Instead, we fired up the jetboil to make some pasta. Meanwhile, we stuffed our Ultimate Direction vests with the gear we would need for tomorrow.

I packed a variety of foods for about 2,500 calories, 90 oz of water between a bladder and bottles, half a dozen Nuun tabs, Altra Half Zip jacket, gloves, TP, extra headlamp batteries, Black Diamond Z Carbon poles, raw salt, a Lifestraw, sunscreen, a buff, arm sleeves, and our Spot Gen III satellite beacon. (see gear list at the bottom of post) I think that covers it…

We got to bed around 7pm, as the sun was still in the sky. We both underestimated how chilly it would get that night. We had left the rain fly off.  The breeze and night air made us both wake up and layer up around midnight. I didn’t get much sleep after that, laying awake visualizing the run in my mind time and time again. Bright Angel to Phantom to North Kaibab, and back to South Kaibab. Drink water all the time. Eat eat eat.

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Couple-a weirdos in the forest. Shown: Ultimate Direction PB 4.0 Adventure Vest; Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles

The horrifically startling sound of Apple’s standard iPhone alarm woke us at 2:30am, which Kaitlyn turned off within seconds. Crickets and a gentle breeze filled the airwaves instead, which was much more welcomed.

The only thing we folded up was the tent poles. The rest of it all got stuffed intact, in place, into the trunk of the car within moments. We drove down the forest road and into the park, this time having no lines- much better. Born Ready by Steve Moakler played on the aux; lyrically a song about long haul truckers who never back down from taking the hard route, it seemed fitting enough for the journey ahead, sure to be the hard route across the Canyon.

Once parked, I jet boiled us some oatmeal and enough water to choke down some Folger’s Instant Crystals, rubbing my hands over the heat of the flame as the gas burned. Though cold now, I decided to take my extra quarter zip out of my vest, as well as the mylar blanket.

A pair of headlamps danced down the sidewalk, and the dark silhouettes showed, unmistakably, running vests loaded down. “Morning!!” “Hey! You guys going for the double?” “Sure are!” “We will see you out there!” It is always welcomed to meet people who live on the same level of crazy. Little did we know, these strangers would play a notable role in our day.

At 4am we started walking, beneath the half moon and milky way of stars. Arriving at the giant Bright Angel trail marker, we stopped to glance at the massive black void ahead of us, evidenced by a faint rim perimeter shadow that contrasted with a fainter shade of black. I touched my vest, head, and wrists, mentally check listing that I had the necessities, before pausing to soak in the silence.

“…”

“…”

I nodded at Kaitlyn. “You ready?”

“Let’s go.”

“WOOHOO!!!” I yelped as we took off down Bright Angel, into a sea of darkness.

Bright Angel Grand Canyon trailhead
The two of us (can’t you see it?!) at the Bright Angel trailhead, 3:55am.

I looked down off to my left, three feet from my Altra Lone Peaks. 900 lumens of light ceased to return a visual of anything. Ahead, my headlamp lit up dust that swirled around Kaitlyn’s feet with every step. She slipped away into the dark, rounding out a corner. Her headlamp lit up a short tunnel that is about a quarter mile down the trail. Passing through, she stopped. I caught up to her in moments, adjusting my headlamp away from her watering eyes. “Whatsup?” Crying, she hugged me, saying “we really are doing this, aren’t we?” “Yep, we really are.”

After descending for twenty minutes or so, we found ourselves in the early moments of civil twilight. The purple sky met the still-black edges of the canyon. Looking above us, it became evident how far we had descended, though, the descent below remained a mystery. Some attempted pictures of the pre-dawn canyon landscape failed to yield much detail. Kaitlyn pointed out some headlamps far beneath us, which I assumed were the runners from back at the car. Above, we thankfully spotted the mule train, which we planned our start time to avoid.

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Angel fire.

I took a moment to look out at the ever-changing sky, now showing some orange, and devoured my first of many caramel waffles for the day. So delicious.

The sun was just starting to hit the rim of the canyon, some 3,000 feet above us, as we arrived to Indian Garden, about 3.5 miles down Bright Angel. This area was surprisingly green, and we could hear not only flowing water, but crashing water coming from the valley to our left. I spotted a small waterfall, and stepped off the trail to soak my hat, sleeves, and buff in the icy water. Though only 5:30am, we could tell it was quickly getting warmer.

The trail through Indian Gardens was narrower than earlier, and hugged the wall of it’s own canyon, maybe a hundred feet tall. The stream could be heard off to our left, maybe a thirty foot drop down, but hidden by the lush foliage.

Indian Garden Grand Canyon Rim to Rim trail running ultrarunning
Kaitlyn, somewhere near Indian Garden
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Looking back at the South Rim from near Indian Garden

We rounded a corner, sneaking out of the little canyon of Indian Gardens, and got into a more open-air landscape. In front of us were the two runners from the parking lot, who introduced as Chris and Robert. From Las Vegas, the two were also going for their first Grand Canyon adventure. We stopped for a moment at a fork between a game trail and real trail, trying to decide which was which. We followed some footprints that paralleled a stream of water, often stepping in the shallow, chilly flow. They went ahead, and we wished them well, but both parties expected to see the other again soon.

I stepped off the trail onto a rock ledge, overlooking a large valley off to the left, catching a glimpse of a stream. Kaitlyn turned around, thinking I was lost, and yelled “the trail is this way!” I was soaking in the panoramic views of the canyon starting to grow more vibrantly colored with each extra second of sunlight. “I know! I’m just checking it all out!” I hollered back to Kaitlyn, who had since slipped around the corner, out of sight. I thought the view was good here; that’s only because I hadn’t been around the corner yet. The Canyon tends to do this… it never stops getting better.

A hundred feet up the trail, I wound a hairpin turn on the edge of the Canyon. Devil’s Corkscrew, the section I had just entered, was unmissable. The trail descends 500 feet in half a mile, taking a lightning bolt form. This area contains very dark rock, which is some of the oldest in the Canyon at over 2 billion years old. I was running through millennia with each step… thousands of years, if not millions of years per second.  I’ve been lots of places that make me feel small; this is one of the most notable. Hundreds of feet of valley with a trail that seemed to be placed there by nature itself, within every shade of red and green.

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Kaitlyn near the bottom of Devil’s Corkscrew
The devils corkscrew grand canyon rim to rim best trails
The Devil’s Corkscrew

Once to the base of Devil’s Corkscrew, we passed through a narrow section where the air become cooler, and, dare I say, more humid. Then, it made sense. I could hear it as well as I felt it. Then, I saw it. We had made it. The Colorado River flowed right in front of us. Rapids of crashing white water snaked through the first rays of light on the bottom of the Canyon. Looking up, it was difficult to comprehend the thousand feet of rock above our heads- and knowing that there was almost a mile more rock we couldn’t see from this angle.

I dipped my hand in the water for some kind of sentimental value. A place this big was formed by this river… maybe it had some other secret for me. I gazed up at the sun off to my right, which was just now fully visible over the rim.

We ascended about 100 feet to follow the river on a trail that was seemingly carved into the edge of the canyon walls. About a mile up, we crossed the metal bridge toward the other side. Hanging maybe 70 feet over the rapids of dark blue water made for a crossing that was just slightly nerve wracking. I mean… there is no way to fall off the bridge, but its narrow walkway and see-through metal grate floor makes for a wild perspective, regardless of the fenced edges.

Stepping back on land, we had arrived at Phantom Ranch. There was a sign in the ground shaped like a double-arrow; one side said South Rim, the other one North. We were surrounded by lush green foliage. A few cabins were off in the trees for the rangers who staffed the ranch. We passed by a dozen or so mules, and a ranger greeted us as she fed them the morning grains.

At the main Phantom Ranch building, Kaitlyn and I took our vests off to fill up our water bladders from the well. I took down about 500 calories, and caught a whiff of a hiker’s cup-o-joe as he walked out of the building. Ohhh that was sounding so good. Both Kaitlyn and I detached our poles from our vests at this time, knowing there was a long, rugged climb from this point on. The sound of them snapping together and locking into place always gives me goosebumps; something good is always about to happen from that cue.

We followed the river through yet another narrow part of the Canyon, but this time, it stayed narrow. We crossed a series of bridges over a babbling stream, which was just out of reach from most points of the trail. Though visible, there were very few access points down the 10-15 foot ledge that was either vertical or very loose steep rock. In the back of my mind, this stream was a tease. We were in an area of the Canyon known as The Box. Aptly named for its narrow shape, The Box radiates heat from its darker rock. The narrow floor there is some of the hottest in the Canyon, and that day, estimates of about 110 degrees were being tossed around for the impending afternoon heat. We did find a spot to stop and soak- a welcomed discovery.

20180602_170047
About to get Box’d in.

After a few miles in The Box, the trail opened up again, making the climb up North Kaibab valley more visible. As Kaitlyn and I stopped to lather on some sunscreen, Robert and Chris passed us again (we had passed them at the Colorado River earlier). We wound up joining them for a few minutes before they decided to split to check out Ribbon Falls, a mile or so spur trail. Kaitlyn and I continued on, focusing on the mission ahead.

Time started to get slower, as did the miles. Only a few minutes since I last looked at my watch? Only 2 miles into this 14 mile climb? When was the last time we saw water? In the direct sunlight, priorities began to show. I didn’t ever think that when I learned about Maslow’s Pyramid 10 years ago in school that I’d be taught what it all meant in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Where is the shade? Give me some water to soak in. My body knew what it wanted, but the Canyon wasn’t one for easy delivery.

When we arrived to the next stream, which seemed to come from out of no where, I laid down in it, in the shade, and was so satisfied with that cold water. Out of the water, I was right back in the full sun, and dry again within minutes.

As we climbed up North Kaibab, I noticed the changes in scenery compared to the South Rim. The rocks here seemed to be darker. There was more green to be found, and the walls of the canyon weren’t as continually precipitous- though still amazingly tall. The heat was definitely getting to us. We didn’t talk as much, the mood was a bit more somber, and I could tell the focus was to just get to the top.

I asked another runner how far it was to the top as he passed. “Ohh… i dont know. 5 miles, maybe a bit more?” I thought FIVE MILES? Where can this trail possibly go?! The top is right there!? Where can the trail go? Everywhere. Up. Switchback. Down. Switchback. Switchback. Switchback. Kaitlyn stopped in a narrow spot of shade, now a godsend, rare resource. She slowly took down a waffle, staring at the ground, speechless, and lacking emotion. It was clear that something was going on. I asked her what was up, and she cited some stomach sloshiness… and “lets keep moving.”

I did my best to keep my eyes on the trail as a waterfall shot out of the canyon across from us. A lack of attention here would often result in hundred(s) of feet of air into a messy death below. Beauty and feet-from-death are two features that aren’t found in most scenarios, but this place was certainly one of them. As we climbed, Kaitlyn stopped and bent over her hiking poles. I grabbed her by the waist as she begun to dry heave. I wished with all my might that she not lose her stomach; recovering from that is a feat of its own, and much another in this kind of heat. After thirty seconds or so, her body’s attempts of ejection ceased, stomach in tact. “I don’t know if I will make it back.” “We have to get to the top in order to start back. That is our goal right now, and we will think it all over when we get there.” I knew we would make it up there, and I knew that each of us had the fitness and willpower to make it back. The sun in a wild thing on the mind, and I wouldn’t let a decision to be made while baking in it.

We started to see more and more hikers and less and less backpacks, signifying that we were getting close. We arrived at one last well, and did the usual soak-and-fill, gaining a mental lift.

Just above us was Coconino Overlook- a spot that offers panoramic views of the trail that is practically carved into the edge of the canyon, and all the colors that can be seen for miles. We arrived there within minutes, and didn’t stop or say a word.

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Coconino Overlook, just off the North Rim

The North Rim is far less commercialized than the South Rim. The Rim is surrounded by forest instead of desert. If you were an unknowing person walking through the woods, you’d be surprised to all of a sudden find yourself on the edge of the earth. If you’re looking for the Rim, you won’t find it until you’re descending it in some places. Kaitlyn was heads-down and hiking slow. I hiked up next to her. “Hey. Give me your hand. Look up.” Her eyes landed at the same spot as mine.

The sign said it simply. NORTH KAIBAB TRAIL. Just behind it was a map display with a roof over it, and a water well attached. Tears lined Kaitlyn’s eyes, and my smile blubbered around a bit. My mind tried to think back on the past 8 hours, all of it seeming to be a time warp. “we maaade it” Kaitlyn whispered, barely audible.

We made it.

Sitting under the map/roof, we both took our vests and hats off and relaxed in silence. I took down a bottle of water, and filled up another from the well and offered it to Kaitlyn. She was caked in salt and sweat. We both took down some salt tabs, and again, lots of calories. I took inventory of my calories, and had about 600 left. I’d gone through about 2,000 so far. This meant I’d have to stock back up at Phantom Ranch, which I had brought cash and a card for just in case.

“What do you think? We have about 8 hours to sunset, 4 less miles on the way back, and a little less climbing up the South.” While all true, we both understood the implications. The route back, South Kaibab Trail, offered zero shade and zero water once past Phantom Ranch, so, maybe three hours in the dead of afternoon heat without some critical factors… once we get to that trail, which was after the full descent back to the river.

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Kaitlyn, exhausted.
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Mustering up some glad but tired smiles

We tossed around some ideas and situations. We decided to rest on the grass and recoup, eat, and see if a positive mindset might come up. Kaitlyn began to shake hard, getting cold. I unpacked my jacket and spare layer and covered her up, adding to her own jacket, which she was wearing.

This solidified it for me. We were not going back today. Anybody who is shivering in 80 degree heat has something going on, and I wasn’t about to make both of us push it. Kaitlyn had just completed the Boston Marathon and PR’d at Collegiate Peaks 25 Mile in the past month. I knew as well as she did that that is seriously amazing, and the fatigue was catching up, and the body’s systems saying they just weren’t ready yet.

And that was okay.

“You can go back if you want. I’ll take a shuttle.” She said. I declined the offer, opting to stick around. “This won’t be our last time. I can wait ’til next.”

I walked out to the road, which was plenty busy with tourist traffic and stuck out my thumb. I was consistently and frequently having cars stop, rolling down their windows.

“Where you goin’?”
“South Rim.”
“Like, to the other side, South Rim?”
“Yeah.”
*Laughter* “Sorry, can’t do”.

Pretty much every time. Deciding that it was time to get serious or miss our chance, I found a guy who had a business card for the shuttle service. I gave them a call, and reserved our spot for the last trip of the day.

As we waited for the shuttle, which was still an hour out, Chris came into view on the approach to the top of the rim. We were glad to see him, and he us. We talked about the his trip to Ribbon Falls and how much green moss was there contrasting the desert. “Where is Robert?” I asked. Chris mentioned how Robert was fighting heat fatigue as well, stopping often for breaks, and that they had split some time ago.

After 20 minutes or so, I grabbed a bottle from our bags and headed back into the canyon. I was feeling good, if not great, and was hoping to find Robert. Luckily, I found him about 5 minutes down the trail. He was hiking steady and in good spirits, and glad to see me. I offered him the water and hiked the rest of the way up with him, easing his mind by letting him know it’s just a few minutes to the top.

Robert decided to take the shuttle as well, and called to reserve his seat just in time. Chris decided to go on foot back across. I gave him one of my bottles for backup, knowing it was going to be a hot day out there. 

We all piled our stuff into the shuttle, which I expected to be a tour bus. It was, in fact, a 15 passenger Chevy van that had only 7 of us it. Even better. Our driver doubled as a tour guide, essentially. He had been working as a driver of that route for something like 17 years, and in/around the canyon for all of his life. He knew everything about the area and could tell a story effortlessly. He named the giant mesas that we passed, and talked the history of the Indian reservations that we passed through. Robert, Kaitlyn and I swapped stories about running, races, and the day that was behind us.

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Shuttle van POV, Robert on the right.

I was glad to be on that van. It gave me a time to compartmentalize everything that had happened on that day, and reflect. Miles are important, and can be amazing. But so can people. The stories people tell, experiences that are shared, and the friendships that result are the purpose for the sport. The lifestyle of miles and miles doesn’t make sense to lots of society, but the miles are rarely the lasting focus. We all dug deep into ourselves that day. We saw things that can’t be replicated on an LCD. We took a risk, learned lessons, probably made some mistakes, and developed a greater respect for the unknown. We helped each other, and in return, grew as people.

That is the adventure. The destination is just a bonus.

——

[Kaitlyn and I caught the sunset back at Bright Angel trailhead, having a new perspective of what the landscape holds. We promptly packed up our gear into the car in search of food. We found a Mexican restaurant in Tusayan and filled our stomachs on burritos and absurd amounts of free chips and salsa. We searched for a shower, and though we found one, didn’t have 8 quarters handy to get it turned on.

Somehow still awake, I drove us back to Flagstaff that night, and we camped in the national forest just outside of town. Of course, over the Jetboil flame of a bedtime snack, we were already planning our return…]

See the route and GPX file: http://www.movescount.com/moves/move219036393

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