By Linda Wack
I grew up without the slightest interest in the Grand Canyon. Nice photos. Great scenery - yawn. The parents never dragged me out there. Didn't really know much about the area. Never on my top-ten list of vacation destinations.
Until one day when I was running along the Greenway Trail a couple of years ago, and Russ Evans was telling me about his planned trip out to do a rim-to-rim-to-rim. This got my attention. It sounded very cool. Way fun. Out of my league. I was a relatively new ultrarunner then, and had only a single painful 50 miler under my belt (JFK). I thought, someday.
Fast-forward a year, and Russ's trip had morphed into a carefully planned aid station duet with Gary & co on the South Rim, and Anstr & family on the North Rim. The reports further piqued my interest. Out for a run with Barb Isom one day, we decided we wanted to try it, but we thought it was unlikely we'd find anyone foolish enough to want to drive 200 + miles each way and 10 hours round trip to crew for us at the halfway point. Gary had a bright idea -how about starting from the North Rim, and using the South Rim shuttle to go from the Bright Angel Trail to the South Kaibab Trail and get fueled up at the stores/food outlets along the way?
We were in. As were a bunch of other crazy people, and only Barb had been out to the Canyon before. We arrived a couple of days before our planned start. Sitting on the deck of the North Rim Lodge, drink in hand, watching the sunset over the canyon directly beneath us (a truly spectacular view), I thought "Oh sh*t! What have I gotten us into? This looks scary!". Photos don't prepare you for the canyon in all its glory. Don't take my word for it, go see it for yourself.
We spent the next day running in the lovely golden Quaking Aspen and Ponderosa Pine forests along the North Rim, hiking the first couple of miles of the North Kaibab Trail, and learning about sedimentary layers and plateau pressure in the visitor center. Periodically Sophie would sneak off to the bookstore to read more of the book "Death in the Canyon," with a listing of the gory details of the hundreds of people who have died there.
2:30am, Oct 1. The alarm is accompanied by a burst of adrenalin that made sleeping another minute impossible. We assemble at the North Kaibab trailhead, a couple of miles from our rooms. About 42 degrees, a million stars overhead. Perfect. We are armed with our laminated cards detailing trail mileage/elevation/waterstops, an idea shamelessly stolen from John Dodds. Off we go at 3:15am, with Vicki taking a brisk lead, the spot she mostly keeps until about mile 40 of our 45 mile adventure.
The trail is wide and not too steep, or maybe it seems that way because we are descending. As we continue down, we flash our lights to our right, and capture huge walls of rock in our beams, towering over us. To the left our lights catch - nothing. Too dark to see the scary dropoff, though we know it is there. The trail starts to flatten out a bit, and we hear the sound of Bright Angel Creek just before the first hints of day light the sky. Shortly afterwards we encounter drowsy campers rousing themselves at Cottonwood campground at mile 7. We chat with a couple of them, who think our plans are nuts. We had descended 4000 feet from the North Rim (8000 ft), and as the darkness gives way, the multi-hued rock outcroppings looming above us are spectacular (we'll skip the geology tutorial here because Anstr wrote a nice one last year that you can read). Continuing on into the ever-brightening sky, we stop at sunrise for the first of our approximately 7,234 photo breaks.
We are doubly blessed, because this stretch is also very runnable, dropping a gentle 1500 feet over 7 miles to the Colorado River. Thus commences the photo interval session, as we run 400 yards, gasp at the scenery, regroup for a photo, and repeat ad infinitum. We encounter an increasing number of hikers and a few runners heading for the North Rim, and find out that a few are doing rim-to-rim. About this time Anita astutely notices that these passing groups, mostly guys, are casting jealous glances at Jay. "Hey, one guy with six women. How'd you get so lucky, dude?"
We run four miles through the area known as the Box, with spectacular walls of rock on either side, and bridges criss-crossing the creek. We are in heaven. Rock walls give way to Phantom Ranch and the Silver Bridge over the Colorado River. The photo breaks continue unabated. We decide we are in no hurry and will enjoy the scenery rather than press for a fast run.
Vicki and Laura take off running up the Bright Angel Trail. The bottom is not too steep, but we have nine miles to get to the South Rim, so the rest of us mostly conserve our energy. We pull aside several times to allow mule trains to kick dust in our faces as they carry their riders downhill.
We have been lucky to have a fair amount of shade on the climb. As the trail gets steeper, and the switchbacks get tighter, everyone is walking. We break into the A Team (Vicki, Laura, Sophie) and the B Team (Anita, Jay, Barb, Linda). Past Indian Gardens, Vicki is pushing briskly up the trail in the lead. After chatting along the way, the B Team is getting quiet. It's because we are so busy admiring the scenery, not because we are feeling short of breath. Really. The climb up to the South Rim is almost 5000 feet, 1000 feet less than the climb up to the North Rim, but the last couple of miles are feeling freakin' steep to me. It gets hot, and we pass lots of people. Finally, as I'm ready to scream if I see another switchback, Barb spots the trailhead a half-mile ahead. A few minutes later we pass a lady on a cellphone, bragging to someone that she is in the Grand Canyon. Welcome to civilization.
Tired and hungry, we bypass snacks at a deli and settle on real food at the Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant. It is an excellent idea, and our best bet for avoiding a bonk on the way back. Refueled and refreshed, we take the shuttle to the South Kaibab Trail, about 5 miles down the road. Sophie strikes up conversation with a group of New Englanders getting ready to cycle to Mexico the next day. They beat us 300 yards down the trail while we are taking photos, but as we set off joyously down the trail, they serenade us with tasteful horn selections from Bach and Aaron Copland. We all feel great, the scenery is fantastic, the music surreal.
One of the reasons we wanted to start at the North Rim, was that the best views are from the South Rim and we did not want to miss them by doing this section in the dark. The South Kaibab views more than live up to their reputation, from Ooh Ah point down to the Colorado River. It is a swift 6 mile drop to the river, punctuated by many photo breaks. We realize that we are expending valuable daylight hours on the wrong side of the Colorado River, but we don't care. One bonus is that by crossing the canyon floor in the early morning and early evening, we miss the hottest part of the day.
Crossing the Black Bridge we wind our way to the Colorado River "beach." There we discover our Cottonwood Campground acquaintances from sunrise, trade adventures of the day, and take more photos. But it is getting close to sunset, so we push on to Phantom Ranch to refuel for that last push out of the Canyon.
It gets dark quickly as we leave Phantom. Vicki and Laura take off running, while the rest of us regroup and try to digest. I had fallen hard at the bottom of the South Kaibab Trail, and was having trouble stepping far up or forward with my left foot, not an optimal situation with 14 miles to go and a 6000ft climb out of the canyon ahead. Vicki and Laura are out of sight, and the rest of us are content to run occasionally alternating with a brisk hiking pace.
Soon enough we see them coming back to us on the trail. Seems they had tried to blaze their own trail off the beaten path. They charge off again, but two more times we reel them in as they go off-course. Finally we hear Roaring Springs, and the last big climb is ahead, 3700 ft in 4.7 miles. The first part is the hardest for me, and my heart is thumping madly as I proceed at a snail's pace. Sophie has dealt with her sleep demons with the proper caffeine antidote, and is now channeling the Energizer Bunny. Laura remains amazing, effortlessly pushing up the trail even with a bum knee. They move on ahead, and Anita takes charge of us stragglers, upbeat and steady.
We finally reach the Supai Tunnel, indicating less than 2 miles to go. I am feeling much better, and know that the last 1500 ft. climb will be OK. I stick with Anita. We burst out gratefully into the parking lot, 10 minutes after Sophie and five after Laura.
Fabulous experience! Even though nearly all rim-to-rim-to-rim runners start from the South Rim, we all loved the North Rim (less developed!) and it turned out to be a great idea to start there. A most excellent adventure with great friends.