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A bucket list run in the Grand Canyon
Our Grand Canyon adventure got rolling on Thursday, October 11, 2012, when we converged in Phoenix. The first order of business was introductions. I’ve known Tom for a while, but I had never met two of our team (Shannon, a dentist and retired Army Ranger Colonel from New Orleans, and Tim, a law-school professor from Atlanta). The fit seemed good, with each man bringing the right perspective, level of experience, sense of humor and commitment.
The next order of business was to eat, and stock up on provisions for the big day. Four men wandering around the grocery store is something that everyone needs to see. We know where the beer is, maybe the chips, and are lost after that. We bought oatmeal and bananas for breakfast, beer and ice for the road, and then some things that, for me, were unexpected : garbage bags, for staying warm and dry; Pringles, for salty snacks; and razors, for (in Shannon’s words) cutting limbs, in case we need to carry out a man.
The tone was set.
We dined on Pappa John’s pizza in a local park, and took away some additional slices for trail food .
Properly fueled, we settled in while Tom drove us north.
We pulled into Grand Canyon National Park around 6 p.m., and were delighted to get free admission, a federal gesture to Colonel Shannon and his service to our country. Before checking into the hotel, we visited the South Kaibab trailhead, to get our bearings and view our starting line in the dwindling daylight.
From there, we claimed our rooms and grabbed dinner.
Given the miserable weather forecast and Tom’s unrelenting optimism, we opted to push back our start time from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., reasoning that the rain would pass through and we’d have idyllic skies. While the idyllic skies never came, I’m happy to report that, despite everything that would occur that weekend, Tom’s unrelenting optimism remains intact.
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.
I think I was about two miles from the top when the thunder started. Well, I thought it was thunder. But it kept getting louder, and lasted longer. By chance, I was next to a hiker when it started. He pointed up and then I saw it: an avalanche. Rocks tumbling down a canyon within the canyon. Only later would I learn that Shannon—still ahead of all of us—had been caught directly under the fall line. To survive, he had clung to the underside as scree flew by him.
I was safe, and pushed on. I soon encountered a ranger, who briefed me on the avalanche and warned me that things might still be unstable. So on I went. Now autumn colors gave way to pines. And the trail was a slippery, muddy mess. The Supai Tunnel—billed as a good destination for North Rim day hikers because it is only two miles from the trailhead—was my next landmark. Then, a mile from the top, I met a group of women hiking. I looked ridiculous, but I must also have looked cold, because one offered me her poncho.
Soon I hit Coconino Overlook where a group of hikers was, well, looking out . . . at what, I don’t know. Clouds and snowfall had wrecked visibility. I asked my new favorite question: “How much farther?” “It’s right around the corner,” they replied, “Six tenths of a mile.” Less than a mile? OK, gotta go.”
6:10 after we had left the South Rim, I reached the North Rim.
The North Kaibab trailhead arrives quickly, without a lot of suspense. One minute you’re locked into the relentless upward march, the next you’re in a park with a bench and a drinking fountain. And an inch of snow. And Shannon.
He’d been up there about five minutes, he said, and looked great. I had a quick snack, refilled my reservoir, snapped a few pictures and we were away. It was too cold to sit around enjoying the moment.
It felt amazing to be going downhill. And to be running, or something that resembled running. Shannon was a lot better at this than me, and he set the pace. With snow, mud, rocks and pitch, the first few miles of descent were more about tap dancing than running. But The Colonel was a natural, skipping down the trail with grace and purpose. I couldn’t hang, sure I’d break an ankle or plunge over the edge.
About a mile down, we met up with Tom and Tim. So that’s how I looked on the way up. No wonder people were so concerned. They were 15 minutes away, but we told them they only had five to go. Later, Tom would acknowledge that meeting us was like “seeing angels.”
By three miles down, it was still cold and windy, but the snow began to let up. Shannon let me lead. I started to figure out the footing and get a little more oxygen. As the grade became more favorable, I began to take advantage and make some good time. Climbing the North Rim was harder than I had anticipated, but descending was easier. I was really in a good zone.
But, damn, I was hungry. I hated to think about stopping, but after running a full marathon, and with 20 miles to go, I needed calories.
At around 7:30 into the run, I coasted in to Cottonwood Campground to enjoy the pizza I had stashed in my pack. Lots of envious hikers suddenly wanted to be my friends. I could have sold pizza for $100 a slice. But it was worth more than that to me. I gulped three pieces in less than 10 minutes, saving the last piece for “just in case” (and, later, “just in case” would arrive). Man, it tasted good, and recharged me. I pounded the fluids too, as my last “check” indicated that I was running on the edge of dehydration.
Halfway through lunch, Shannon pulled in. He still looked great. He planned to grab a meal then make his way down to Phantom Ranch, where he’d reunite with Tom and Tim. I ran on.
The stretch from Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch offers a nice downhill grade for running, and I did my best to make time. Here, for the first time all day, I saw the sun and, for a moment, it actually felt warm. The warm-up reminded me to keep pounding the fluids and salt tablets, just to be sure.
I hit Phantom Ranch at 9:05.
As I ran into the “village,” an older man on the trail was shooting pictures … pictures of me. And, as I ran past, he started running after me:
You look great. Are you running the rim-to-rim?
I’m running the rim-to-rim-to-rim. Have you ever done it?
I wrote the book.
Well, that certainly got my attention. I didn’t know that there was a book.
Now that is something that I’d like to hear more about.
Do you mind if I ask you some questions? I don’t want to hold you up, so I’m happy to talk as you run.
I’m going to fill my water at Phantom Ranch. I can give you a few minutes there.
Around the water station at Phantom Ranch, he revealed that he is still writing the book, and was in the canyon interviewing runners, asking questions about training, motivation, etc. He took my e-mail address and promised to follow-up with pictures and more questions. Tom and Tim also met the guy, so maybe, someday, we’ll be featured on the cover.
I was familiar with the way from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim via Bright Angel, having hiked it last summer. I knew it represented the end of downhills, and the beginning of the climb out. What I didn’t remember, was how many miles remained. I guessed 10 … and hoped it was fewer (Note: Actual distance is 9.3 miles).
The final leg of my journey began, symbolically, on the “silver” bridge—the one with see-through grates, allowing you to view the river 60 feet below. The one that bounces with each step. The bridge that the guy with acrophobia hates, which was motivation to get across it quickly.
Once on the other side, I met two nice ladies posing for pictures. I offered to take one of them together, and they happily agreed. Thirty seconds later I was on my way, thankful that I had invested in some good karma.
The first couple miles along the river are runable, so I did my best to keep a slow jog. I soon encountered that nasty stretch of sand. But—unlike last summer when this area bogged us down—the day of heavy rain had packed it down nicely.
The first major pull up the South Rim is a nasty switchback known as The Devil’s Corkscrew. It was brutal, and power hiking, rather than running, was the only way to tackle it. But up I went, 1000 feet over 1.5 miles. When it got tough, I reminded myself that nine-year-old Kendall had done this, and in 95-degree heat.
My next bogey was Indian Garden. And, between here and there was an opportunity to do a little more jogging. But, damn, I was getting tired. And, damn, the miles were getting longer.
I passed the cove and waterfall that make up the north end of the Indian Garden and soon arrived at the campground. I made my way to the common area, the trail intersection where travelers rest and meet. For the first time all day, I took a seat. I drank. I snacked. I contemplated staying there for the rest of my life.
A few hikers recognized me from earlier in the day, on the North Rim. They congratulated me on completing my R2R2R crossing. While I appreciated their confidence, I reminded them that I had not yet finished. I still had over four (nearly straight up) miles to the finish.
I mustered a little bit of running out of Indian Garden, but not much. The legs were shot and the spirit was weakening. My lower back—tired of hauling around 10 extra pounds—was screaming and tight. How the hell was I going to climb 4000 feet over four miles in this condition?
But climb I did. And as I did, the sky became darker and the air became colder. Time to put the trash bag back on and pin the ears back. I said a little prayer, thanking God for getting me this far, then thanking Him again for delivering more cold and wet for the hardest part of the day. He acknowledged with a rainbow that was even better than the one from The Wizard of Oz.
I considered leaving my pack behind, but that felt like cheating, and definitely would have been littering. So, instead, I opted to wear it on my chest. I found that, if I did that and walked backwards, it took away the pressure. Unfortunately, this strategy really slowed me down, and was quite dangerous. After 20 minutes, I abandoned this approach, resolving to just deal with the pain.
At last I came upon my next bogey, the three-mile water house. This was an important milestone, as the three-mile waterhouse is actually visible from the South Rim. In reverse, that meant that I could finally see the top, my final destination. And, wow, was it still a long way up there.
Relentless forward progress. Remember, Kendall did this, and she had to take three steps for every one that you take.
I came upon a mother deer and fawn. They were confused, but not scared of me. I’m sure they, like the rainbow, were some sort of sign or metaphor. But, I was done with that stuff. Just get me to the damn rim.
At the 1.5-mile waterhouse, I sat again. I drank and ate that fourth piece of pizza, the last solid food item in my pack. To save my back, I wanted to dump the two liters of water from my Camelbak. But—forever paranoid of dehydration—I wouldn’t do that unless I could fill up my handheld. Well, in the day’s final insult, I didn’t have the strength to open the spigot at the water fountain. Nor did I consider that I could have dumped the Camelbak into the handeld to get around this issue.
I eventually came through the first tunnel, marking .75 mile from the summit. That was when I knew I had it in the bag. Soon I could see the second tunnel and, determined to finish strong, started jogging again. Past the studio. One more turn. … Now I could hear the announcer. And I saw the marching band. The confetti was falling. And, just like that, the beautiful lady put the medal around my neck.
In reality, I quietly crossed the “finish line” with a random Japanese couple, out for an evening stroll. They knew something was up, because I was running around with my arms in the air. Twelve hours and 35 minutes after we had first jumped off of the South Rim it was accomplished. Years of dreaming, 14-months of training, one near-death experience, and I had done it.
Now all I had to do was walk the half mile back to Maswick Lodge, with a preliminary stop at the front desk. I had brought my room key, but didn’t remember my room number. The people in the lodge looked at me a little suspiciously, but were generally cooperative. They told me my room number and even gave me map to help me navigate.
The rest of our crews emerged from the canyon around 6:30 p.m. and the drinks, food and stories flowed long, long into the night.