Rim to Rim to Rim - Page 2
The author at the North Rim.
I quickly discovered that ours was not a crew that struggles to get out of bed in the morning, so, by 4:30, every man was up, fed, packed, "evacuated" and ready to roll.
We piled into the car, making the dark journey to the South Kaibab trailhead. Of course, we became lost on the way, missing a turn. But this was a smart group, so we only went a few minutes out of our way before we corrected.
At the trailhead, we were greeted with cold, wind and precipitation, which was more like mini hail. Some opted for layers, until running and lower altitude would bring warmth. I was the lone fool that went with short pants and short sleeves, augmented by the classic LDR black garbage bag. I looked ridiculous, but would be thankful for my wardrobe choice at many points during the day.
At 5:05 a.m., we snapped a few pictures, then approached the trail. Someone turned our walk into a jog and our odyssey had begun.
Descending into the depths of the canyon before sun-up is a magical experience. What you miss in scenery is made up for with mystery and tranquility. If you're lucky, it is punctuated by stars and moonlight (we got a small peek). But, at the very least, you're treated to chains of "fireflies," the headlamps of your fellow man, above and below, weaving their way down the trail. That is soon replaced by the glow of the sunrise, which changes the colors of the wall each minute.
Somehow I found myself at the front of our group, by silent vote given the responsibility to: a) set a reasonable pace, and b) call out the obstacles and hazards that were invisible to our headlamps, but likely to inflict the most damage. We kept the pace even and comfortable, running within ourselves.
While the cold and the rain and the wind kept coming, our spirits remained high. Even though I was trying to take it easy, my quads were already lighting up—such is the pitch on South Kaibab.
As the sun came up, the river came into view, and before our trip was even two hours old, we had crossed to the other side and were making our way toward Phantom Ranch.
We were concerned that, with the late start, we may encounter mule trains on South Kaibab, but the only mule train we saw that day was just pulling out of Phantom Ranch as we arrived.
The departure from Phantom Ranch represents the ceremonial ascent to the North Rim. But for the first seven miles, the trail grade is slight and manageable. We settled into a relaxed pace, picking up some altitude without much of a struggle. This portion of the trail follows a creek, making for impressive scenery augmented by a natural soundtrack. Along the way, there is a short detour to Ribbon Falls, which we could see from the trail. The signage around the falls led to some confusion about the correct route, and even a little doubling back, but we eventually solved it and hit our next bogey, Cottonwood Campground, at about four hours into the run.
At Cottonwood, we took a short break to snack, refill water and mentally re-set. The biggest pull of the day would unfold over the next seven miles, so everyone needed to take a deep breath.
Shannon, ready to push on, finished his business, and hit the trail a few minutes in front of us. Tom, Tim and I soon followed.
During this stretch, we encountered one of the day’s stranger sites: a women crossing north to south who was wearing no shoes. No shoes! Through the rock, mud, snow and other shrapnel. We paused to photograph her and kept moving.
Eventually, the flow was such that, around Roaring Springs, I was moving a little faster than Tom and Tim, and, with their encouragement, decided to push on solo. It was here, about four miles from the rim, where things began to get real.
First came the wind, strong and biting. Then came the rain, fat and sideways. I stopped to retrieve my gloves and to slip on my black garbage bag. Back to looking ridiculous.
There was some runable terrain here, so I took advantage. But shortly after passing across the bridge, the rain changed to slush, and then to snow. Against the backdrop of the peak-fall-colors trees, it was epic, although I didn't get the panoramas I was hoping for.
And maybe the limited visibility was a good thing, because I was now in a box canyon on a narrow, slippery trail. Hugging the upper edges of these cliffs was enough to set off my vertigo.