It’s been a long time coming but I finally decided to make the trip out to the Grand Canyon. Hiking the Grand Canyon has been on my top 10 list of places to visit for many years. I’ve just never made it a priority , until now. Besides the obvious of it being one of the natural wonders of the world and a must for anyone to experience at least once in their life, I decided to go this year for a couple other reasons. First was for the adventure and second was to test my physical abilities and fitness level associated with running significant distances downhill and uphill.
Recently, I’ve been interested in doing more ultra distance running and even some long distance fastpacking. I have a couple 50k’s under my belt and one unofficial 40 miler. With this in mind, I’ve started looking into long distance races across the country and reading about some of today’s elite runners and what races they do and how they train. One thing I noticed is that many of them have made claim to running across the Grand Canyon from one rim to the other and then back in one stretch or more commonly known as “rim to rim to rim” or R2R2R.
The rim to rim to rim is not an official race but more of a right of passage for many experienced ultra-runners, some even setting ridiculous records in the process. My first thought was “hey if they can do it why couldn’t I”? I mean it’s only a canyon right and a mere 45 miles? So this past winter I asked my son if he wanted to run the canyon, rim to rim to rim. Living at home for 20 or so years and knowing his dad, he humored me and said “sure let’s do it”, at the same time I’m sure he was thinking “he’ll get distracted with some other thing and forget all about it” or ” Yeah right dad you might want to run a flat 50 miler first”. Hey, I’m an optimist and I set my goals high, what can I say :). I was semi-serious about this one.
As I’ve read the many blogs and accounts of the runners that have run the R2R2R, I found times ranging from the current record of under 7 hours (most recent being 6 hours 40-something minutes), to over 18 hours, all being experienced ultra-distance runners with mountain experience. The one common statement that I kept reading was that you should NOT attempt this run if you aren’t experienced in running several if not many ultra-distance races in hilly or mountainous terrain where you cover a lot of elevation gains and losses. One could get themselves in a dangerous situation with dehydration and heat exhaustion if they weren’t careful.
A few people have lost their lives running in the canyon including an elite marathoner, an example that the park service uses. I’m not as young and stupid as I once used to be, so I started to reconsider my goal…at least for this year. I decided I’d still go to the canyon, but instead of attempting to run rim to rim to rim, I’d just go out and explore the canyon and test my abilities. My son started a new job and was a little strapped for the cash so he decided to sit it out this year. I was on my own.
At first I was planning on the end of April but I read that some of the water spots would not be turned on till May 15th, the same time they open up the North Rim Park. I decided on May 15th through the 19th, I bought my ticket. It would be good to get away from the business of work anyway and spend some time exploring and camping. I flew into Phoenix from Grand Rapids, MI. and drove out to the canyon with a rented car. Day one was spent travelling. I arrived at the canyon around 7 p.m Arizona time, where I got in a short hike within the park along the rim, followed by checking into the Ten-x National campground located just 3 miles down the road from the park. My plan was to wake up early and hit the trail.
The campground that I stayed at was a National forest campground “ten-x campground” located just 3 miles outside the park. Aside from temperatures in the 30’s and a large rock underneath my tent, I slept fairly well at night. I was up at 5:15 and excited to get started. I made my coffee and oatmeal to get started for the day and then prepared some peanut butter and jelly burritos for eating out on the trail. I was excited to try out my new Ultimate Direction running pack that my awesome friends from work bought for me to take on the trip. There was only one problem; I couldn’t find my pack that I JUST had the night before. I searched for an hour for that pack before coming to the conclusion that I was either losing my mind or someone came by and took it from my camp. All I could think of was how I’d explain this one to my friends back at work. Fortunately I had my other pack, in which i ended up using my first day.
My first Adventure was going to be heading down the Bright Angel Trail. Bright Angel Trail is more of a ravine trail, as opposed to the South Kaibab, which is considered a ridge trail. The Bright Angel offers water every mile and a half and has more shaded areas to get out of the sun, as well as being a little less steep. Since this was my first visit to the Canyon I thought the Bright Angel would be a good choice to get my feet wet in some Canyon Hiking. My plan was to hike down to Plateau point just out past the Indian Gardens Campground, take some pictures and hike back out. In total it would be approximately 12 miles out and back. I wanted to hike/run to get an idea as to how conditioned I was for canyon running. In the future when I come back I’ll skip the pictures and run the distance.
It was around 9 o’clock by the time I actually started down the trail, being 3 hours later than planned. I figured I could still make it out to the Plateau and back before sundown and if I didn’t I had my headlamp. Typically the temperatures in the canyon in mid May are around 85 deg F, although at the backcountry office, it had posted the day’s temperatures to be in the low 90’s. I had plenty of supplies and the heat normally doesn’t bother me so I wasn’t too concerned. I headed down at a good walking pace, even running for 10 minutes at a time. I made it to the first water station and rest stop a mile and half down in around 55 minutes. Not too bad considering that I was stopping to snap 50 pictures or so. The Canyon is Amazing and every direction that I looked I felt was worthy of a photo. In the back of my mind I knew that a lot of them would all look the same, but hey that’s the beauty of digital photography, I can always delete them later.
I did stop for a few minutes to replace the water that I drank up to that point and then I headed out to the 3 mile water station. It took me closer to an hour to get to the next stop, again snapping 50 more pictures. I refilled with water and kept moving this time as I was feeling good. I started to pick up the pace a bit to make up some time. I don’t have an iPhone or any way to measure the temperature, but it was starting to feel like more than 90 degrees. I started wetting my hat and scarf with water to help keep my head and neck cool.
I was a little more than 4 miles down the canyon when I saw a gentleman leaning against the rock wall underneath an overhang in a small patch of shade. I could overhear him talking to a park ranger on his phone and he was asking to be helped out of the canyon. My first reaction was “damn is there cell reception down here?” I thought for certain there’d be no reception and I didn’t even bother bringing my phone down. The man wasn’t looking too good, so I decided that I’d stop and see if I could offer any assistance. He remained on the phone and I could hear the conversation with the Ranger. He commenced to tell the ranger that he was borderline diabetic, and his heart was not in the best shape, not to mention that felt like he was going to pass out any second and they really needed to get him out of the canyon. The rangers reply was “sir, there’s only one way for you to get out of the canyon and that’s the same way you got down..by walking” Although they weren’t jumping to run down and carry him out, they were nice enough about the whole matter and told him to hydrate and stay in the shade till he felt better, then they instructed him to head down to the campground where he could find a cool stream to lay in and some shade to relax. They told him to wait until it started to cool down and then a ranger would come by to assist. They had a ranger on the trail but she was assisting two other individuals further down the canyon. I can see how people get themselves in trouble by overestimating their abilities to hike back out of the canyon, especially when the temperature exceeds 85 or so. I was told that the temperature at that point was 104 deg F which is about what It felt like.
After the man got off the phone I told him I would help him out the best I could. After all I read about the dangers of the canyon, I was more than prepared and stocked with enough water, electrolytes, salty snacks, gu packets and enough other food for 3 people, not to mention a small medical kit. I In fact I was more than happy to unload some of my weight that I was carrying and starting to feel on the shoulders. I made up a full bottle of NUUN electrolyte drink and gave him a gu pack for some energy. I also had a couple SaltStick tablets, some salty nuts and an aspirin for his heart. After almost an hour I could actually see him come back to life as his energy levels came back. I wet my scarf and put it under his hat to keep his head cool and asked if he was ready to head out. The ranger really wanted him to walk back down to the campground where they could better assist him, but he felt good enough to start heading up out of the canyon. In the end it was a good decision. I told him we would break the trek down into manageable steps of 20 minutes hiking, then we’d take a break in the shade, followed by another 20 minutes. We headed up, but the 20 minutes were more like 10 or even 5 starting out but we were making progress.
After about an hour we arrived at the 3 mile water stop and shelter, where we hung out and rested for an hour. I made up another bottle of the Nuun for my new friend and ate some food. After an hour we hit the trail again. It was another 2 hours to the next water stop where again we rested, but only for 30 minutes. We had 1.5 miles to go to the rim and my friend was getting motivated. The last stretch we pushed a little harder and we hiked for at least 20 minutes at a time until we could see the lodge at the top of the trailhead. At this point we were home free.
In total I was in the canyon for almost 10 hours, much of it resting and helping my new friend hike out. I didn’t get out to the Plateau or run any distances but it did give me a feel for what the canyon had to offer and it was one awesome adventure!! The man bought me dinner to show his appreciation for helping him hike out of the canyon and sharing my nutrition, which at the end of the day, definitely hit the spot. After my first day out on the trail, I felt pretty confident I could handle some distances on the trail. I headed back to the campground to prepare for the next day’s adventure!!