Grand Canyon R2R2R: Uphill, Both Ways, Through the Snow
About a year ago, I laced up my hiking boots and set foot on the South Kaibab Trail for the first time. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to go that day. I figured I’d at least make it down to the Colorado River, and back up the Bright Angel Trail. However, by the time I got to Phantom Ranch, I was feeling pretty good. I decided to make the further trek to Ribbon Falls, most of the way to where you start climbing back out of the North Rim. I ended up hiking about 30 miles that day, and surprised myself a bit.
That hike ignited something in me. I had been running on and off for a few years — having participated in Ragnar, some mud runs, and even a half marathon — but that hike allowed me to prove to myself that I was capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for.
I vowed to return to the Grand Canyon one day and complete the full double traversal — also known as ‘Rim to Rim to Rim’ or #R2R2R. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours running across the mountains of Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve completed a marathon. I’ve even managed to get a 50K in (57K, actually) just a couple of weeks before this year’s R2R2R attempt. It’s been a heck of a journey, as I’ve lost weight (an unintentional but welcomed side effect) and met wonderful people along the way (shout out to the fine folks at Aravaipa).
After consulting with people on Facebook who’ve spent many hours on these trails, I determined that I should schedule my return visit for October or May — not too cold at the top, and not too hot at the bottom. Technically, people go at all times of the year — but you have to be ready to face the elements. Originally, we did plan a trip last October. But then I had a slight tear in my plantar plate after some ill advised Spartan Race training, and needed some time to rest my feet. So we set our sights on April of this year, and I figured it’d be a nice way to celebrate my birthday.
I figured our plans would be tentative, depending on how the weather forecast looked. But as the date drew closer and friends started making plans to come in from out of state — we figured we’d make it work one way or another, even as rain seemed likely.
My friend Beck and I arrived at 4am on Saturday morning at the South Kaibab trailhead to get started in the dark before the mule trains hit the trail. Side note — thank you to Christine and Kimmy for agreeing to wake up so early for us! It was a pretty easy going descent, though there were certainly moments where you could feel it in your knees. There was one guy doing the full R2R2R solo with trekking poles whom we started leap frogging from the start — I never did catch his name, but he had a blue parka on — so he’s Blue Parka Guy to me. Blue Parka Guy made quite a few appearances throughout my day.
As we made our way down, I made mention of ‘Baby Goat Moments’ — to me, those are the moments where you find your bliss on the trail, and you feel like you’re just effortlessly gliding across the dirt, over the rocks, to and fro. Those moments were short on our descent, as you didn’t want to get too crazy with the steep drop offs, and besides — there was a long way to go.
The first moment you see the Colorado River is a magical one. You still have a couple miles before you get to Phantom Ranch, but it’s a great sight to see as the sun begins to come up and add light to the Canyon.
After crossing the bridge and making our way to Phantom Ranch, Beck and I parted ways. That was as far as he had planned to go. He had thoughts of making it a little further down the trail just as I did the previous year, but I didn’t encourage those thoughts. A few hours later as he was drinking beers at the top, I think he came to feel no regret over the decision. I had more than a few hours left before I’d experience that same luxury. Onwards and upwards!
After a few nice miles of gradual incline, I came upon the turnoff for the Ribbon Falls detour. I still haven’t visited them, as it hasn’t seemed worth the side trip in the midst of these long excursions, but I’d like to stay at the bottom and make a day trip out of it eventually. Regardless, there was already a sense of accomplishment to meet the same distance I did a year ago.
By the time I started climbing the north wall’s trails (with thoughts of Game of Thrones bouncing around in my head), it had started to rain. Wonderful. But then again, I had to be thankful that it had taken that long to start. Through the mist, occasional downpours, mud, and puddles — I made my way. Eventually, my pace came to a crawl, as it had clearly been raining heavier towards the top and the mud became so thick it was hard to get through. I learned that if there was water running down the trail to step directly in it, as it finds the path of least resistance (in other words, the path with the least thick mud).
Soon enough, the rain started to turn to sleet, and even snow. What a sight, to be honest! I took my phone out to take some pictures. What if it melted by the time I got back down? Oh, what a foolish thought. I had no idea what was coming..
It snowed more. And I got cold. I think I actually had my rain jacket tied around my waist up to this point — it felt nice and cooled my body down as I exerted effort to make it up the side of the Canyon. But now? Gloves on. Jacket on. Hood up. Let’s keep moving before I freeze to death, okay?
I got closer to the top, and the trail was literally covered in snow. I met fellow R2R2R runners on their way back down, each of whom shared words of encouragement: “Almost there!” “There’s water at the top!”
Oh, there was water at the top, all right. Also, a lot more snow! I guess I was decently prepared for this, as I wore leggings under my shorts. I saw several others who had shorts and no sleeves, and they somehow managed. Regardless, it was a quick stop to fill my water and turn around to head back down where it’d eventually be… well, not warm… but less cold. Taking my phone out to snap a few shots up here was something I didn’t want to do as it required removal of my gloves and at least another minute or two at the top — but I HAD to do it. Worth it, I guess.
If I thought heading uphill through the snow and mud was rough, downhill wasn’t much easier. My pace was turtle-like, as I did everything I could to not slip and fall. I only fell on my butt once on an icy patch. Overall, not bad. Things could be worse. I met a guy who had lost his contact lenses. I couldn’t imagine. I mean, I guess I could, as I was prepeared for such a situation with spares in my pack — but I wasn’t about to brag about my preparation to that poor soul.
Eventually, the trail started to appear less muddy. My shoes started to dry out a little bit. Wait, is that the sun?
SUNLIGHT! DRY TRAILS! Baby Goat Moment engaged! At this point, I noticed a couple of guys catching up to me on the downhill. Not today, Junior! I got to open up the throttle and fly down the hill for a few miles before getting to the next water stop. IT. WAS. AWESOME.
At that point, I changed out my socks to some dry ones I had in a Ziplock. My feet have looked worse, but it was nice to dry them off a bit. What a time to be alive.
Fifteen minutes later, though, the sky would start dumping rain down the Canyon again, and I once again became soaked from head to toe, slogging my way through the mud and puddles.
At this point, it was somewhat miserable. The majesty of the Grand Canyon had been lost on me — I just wanted to finish the journey. After a brief pitstop at Phantom Ranch, another hiker asked if I was headed all the way back up. I responded with a question of my own — “That’s the only way to the top, right?”
After leap frogging each other all day long, Blue Parka Guy passed me one last time as he headed up Bright Angel Trail, and I continued on back the way I came at South Kaibab. On the way up, I met a nice young couple who seemed to share the experience I was going through. They were just heading down to camp, but were friendly and wanted to make sure I was well equipped to finish the journey. Headlamp? Check. Snacks? Check. Water? Check. Will and determination? CHECK.
As I got nearer to the top, the sun was setting. No matter how tough things got, this moment stopped me in my tracks. I’ve seen some great sunsets in Arizona, but this one was unique. I spent the entire day in the Grand Canyon, and by the time I got back to the top the sun will have called it quits before me. I came across a couple of guys from USC and took their picture in front of it. I didn’t think I was going to pass anyone on my way out, but the desire for a supreme pizza from Pizza Hut and an IPA started fueling my pace. I bid them adieu and pressed on.
At this point, I think I was going a little crazy. I couldn’t get Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City” out of my head. I don’t know where it even came from, but it wouldn’t go away. Just a few miles left. There could be worse things to be singing on a loop. I wonder if anyone heard me…
After 16.5 hours, a little after 8:30pm, I called Beck to come get me. I was shivering and wanted nothing more than to get a warm shower and put dry clothes on (and eat pizza and drink beer, of course).
I got back to the hotel, did all of that stuff, and fell asleep with a slice of pizza in my hand while texting my girlfriend about the day’s events. Yeah, I guess I earned those Z’s…
The recovery process from such a thing has taken a couple of days, but I think it’s gone about as well as I’d hoped it would. My knees were a wreck that night, but by the next afternoon I was sitting and standing without a ridiculous amount of effort. My feet started to swell up and become even more sore than they initially were. I don’t know much about how the body works, but I’d guess the initial focus was to fix my knees and then send help to my feet. As of Tuesday, my feet are MUCH improved, and I’m looking forward to going on a light recovery run soon.
We saw this book in a cafe before we left town. It’s probably good that I didn’t read it before this effort, but I’m glad I won’t be in a future edition.
Will I be back to do this run again? Yeah, probably. I’d love to see how much time I could shave off with better weather and trail conditions. But ultimately, I’d love to spend a little more time in one of the most beautiful and wondrous places in the world.
Strava GPS Info: (and yes, I maintained satellite connectivity for just about the entire trek!)
Originally published at schlagging.com.