RxRxR October 2018
Trekking across the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim had been on my “Yes” list since the minute I stepped off the trail from my previous year’s Rim to Rim adventure. Here it is, just over a year later, and group of us have gathered and collectively committed to the adventure of crisscrossing the Grand Canyon in one GO.
The plan: Trek the South KaibabTrail to North KaibabTrail up to the North Rim, touch and go, and travel back via North Kaibab Trail up Bright Angel Trail to finish on the South Rim. An adventure that would take me over a distance of 48+ miles to complete in 19+ hours with approximately 11,000 feet of elevation gain.
The alarm went off at 2:15 a.m. and the sound of the Jet Boil being ignited soon followed, signaling the beginning of an adventurous day. Coffee and first breakfast down, feet taped, last minute decisions decided (Long pants? No long pants?), bathroom, final food and headlamp and gear checked and…….
It’s GO time……
4 am. We were at the South Kaibab Trailhead for a photo moment and then whoosh off we went. As we started the ”dark of night” descent into the Grand Canyon, my body reminded me almost immediately, that I had run my first 50-miler in Denver only two weeks before. “Shit….what???…. STFU…. Pay attention to where you are putting your feet,” I told myself and my body parts, as I gauged the intensity of the pain and jacked up level of my left leg IT band with each jarring step down the side of the South Rim. We traversed the switchbacks in darkness for hours following the specks of light ahead of us on the trail. Looking behind and back up toward the South Rim, the canyon wall was illuminated with what looked like a continuous string of lights bobbing and moving, each light a person, each on our own adventure, experiencing the pre-dawn Grand Canyon together.
Sunrise came as we descended the final bits of the trail prior to the Black Suspension Bridge spanning the muddy Colorado River.
Our initial group had naturally split up into smaller similar paced/goal-oriented trekkers. After a self-assessment of my body’s current physical limitations and mobility, I knew that I was not going to be able to keep up with the “more motivated paced” groups as we cruised through the “Box” section of the canyon trail from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground/water stop. I felt my comfort zone was to go at my own speed, listen to my body, and not to have to deal with the mental aspect and subsequent feelings of discouragement of not being able to keep up with someone else’s pace.
Plus, the Grand Canyon was stunningly beauuuutiful with lots of green accenting the glorious colors of the rock walls.
For me, I reverently consider the Grand Canyon a “mothership,” one of my soul spaces where I feel at HOME. It felt wonderful to be back. I LOVE this place and wanted to be able to experience the Canyon on my own terms and crossing speed. For most of the day, I pretty much traversed and enjoyed the Canyon as a solo trekker – touching base with others at random photo ops, water refilling, and snack stops. I would forge ahead knowing that soon enough whoever was behind me would catch up , go ahead on the trail, and then I would catch up at the next stopping place. I definitely felt more comfortable knowing that someone was behind me on the trail, just in case I faltered and needed to be swept along. We rabbit hopped our way throughout the day/night along the trail in this way.
The weather was cool enough and kept things interesting. Thankfully, I brought a rain poncho. It kept me dry as random occurrences of rain had me wearing it off and on throughout the crossing. Off and on indeed! It seemed like the minute I would put the poncho on and get it situated over my pack so everything was covered, the rain would taper off and stop. Then the poncho would come OFF as wearing it for prolonged periods of time was very similar to sweating it out in a sauna.
The Manzanita Rest house was the last stop prior to the climb out of the canyon up to the North Rim. I remembered this part of the North Kaibab trail somewhat unlovingly, but with great respect from my crossing last year. On my previous journey, reaching what I call the “bridge of peak expectations,” I was at my DONE point.
Last year, it was hat brim down and absolute focus on getting up the mother f&%$cking trail. This year, I was happily feeling pretty good as I passed over the bridge and started the real climb up to the North Rim. I was even being all touristy and took some pictures while catching my breath enjoying the beautiful landscape of the North Kaibab trail.
I passed several members of our group coming down from their North Rim ascent as I was headed up about 1.5 miles from the top. From previous experience, I remembered that last 1.5 miles as being pretty brutal. I knew I was getting closer to the North Rim as the air temperature cooled considerably. During the North Rim ascent, and quite honestly for pretty much most of the morning, as I crossed the span of Grand Canyon, I had been contemplating my choices. Do I complete and stay committed to my RxRxR goal? Or do I literally cash out and grab a shuttle and ride the long ride back to the South Rim with my unrealized goal but still worthy accomplishment of a single RxR crossing? Overruling divine guidance popped a message into my head. No decisions were to be made in my current “hungry and tired” state of being – I must get to the top and eat first. Sit for a minute, get some food, and then make a decision. I went a few more steps and then all of a “sudden” (23.61 miles. 11,528 f.t elevation gain. 7 hrs. 23 minutes later) the trail touched asphalt and opened up into civilization: cars and vans filling a parking area, bathrooms, water refilling stations, and people wandering about. I casually limped by the sign located at the beginning of North Kaibab trailhead and sat down on the rock wall at the perimeter of the rest area.
I took off my Raidlight pack, pulled the cloth of my wet shirt away from my back, and realized how sweaty and cold I was. I wrapped up in my warm jacket and sat down for a few minutes to eat some food. My Sasquatch Fuel vegan rice and beans had successfully passed a really big trail test. I had poured hot water in the pouch, in the early, early morning (2:30am) and the food was still really warm when I sat down to eat it 9 hours later. Woohoo! Nothing like a warm meal in the tummy to put things in perspective. Celebrating the decision to finish what I came there to do, I shoved some delicious allergen free chocolate chip cookies in my mouth for the additional caloric boost and as the perfect meal chaser. I filled up my water bottles and topped off my electrolytes, and in less than 15 minutes, my refueling pit stop was complete and I was headed back down the North Rim trail toward the South Rim and my goal of completing RxRxR.
I gingerly made my way down the trail and managed to find a rhythm and pace that didn’t jar my left leg/IT band too badly. Making good time, I stopped and fueled up at Cottonwood Campgrounds before crossing back through the notorious "Box" section of the North Kaibab Trail as I headed to Phantom Ranch. My watch battery died around 4:30pm about 9.5 miles into the journey back to the South Rim. The sky was filled with clouds and the temperatures were nice and cool, otherwise there would have been another challenge added to the adventure: dealing with the potential oppressive afternoon heat on the Canyon floor. I was really grateful for the cloud cover but was also warily watching the skies, as they started to get really grey and rainy looking. Hoping that if it was going to rain….. again, then perhaps, it would wait and rain later, when I’m tucked away in my bed enjoying the sound of the raindrops on the rooftop rather than ricocheting off my poncho.
The sound of water was loud as I ran alongside the Bright Angel creek at the bottom of the canyon. This part of the trail felt like it went on forever. The canyon seemingly narrowed its expansiveness as the surrounding walls steepened and amplified the sounds of rushing water from the creek.
The skies continued to darken and then… it started to sprinkle. AGAIN. DAMN IT. I busted out my poncho one more time. I had learned to not to stow the poncho in the back of my pack, but to roll and tuck it in the side pocket/panel for easy access. Completely draped in clearish plastic, I headed down the trail knowing that Phantom Ranch was still a ridiculous distance away. The combination of the sound of the rushing water and the light rain naturally brought thoughts of flashflood to my mind. My “challenged by nature” anxiety level elevated as I considered my options and tried to formulate a plan in case of possible disaster. I came up with 2 “solutions.” Number one, dicey at best, would be to somehow scramble up the side of the canyon, up, up, up the steep wall, placing myself safely out of the way of immediate flashflood danger. I did have some secondary concerns regarding the number of snakes and tarantulas, who would also be trying to flee to safer ground that I may encounter on my scramble up. Number two, was that I was just totally Fu$&@ked and would be washed away.
As I thoughtfully obsessed over potential future flashflood doom, I kept a motivated pace on the trail, attempting to get to Phantom Ranch before dark. I like to call this pace my “Mongolia marching pace” matching it with the mantra that was repeating in my head, “Get/Getting it done.” Constantly peripherally vigilant for potential safety routes up the canyon walls, the miles started to click off. Sort of. At least I relaxed. I went loooooong stretches of not seeing anyone else on the trail, so I filled the time and miles with a lot of solo trail karaoke. I chilled out and got my singing thing on with Sade. Just about dusk, I grooved my way into Phantom Ranch.
I put down my poles, yanked my poncho off, dumped my pack, and sat down on a bench. Glancing about, I noticed people milling around, chitchatting like it was happy hour or something. I looked for cocktail beverages in their hands but really couldn’t see anything as it was getting darker, and I was tired and without my eyeglasses. I imaged how great a beer would have tasted. Right then. That it would have been amazingly delicious and frosty and gluten free. Focused back on my current reality, I unzipped my pack and dug out my headlamp and baggie full of food options. Dinner was what remained of the rice and beans. At this point, 15 hours into the trek, time had had its way with the contents of the pouch and my taste buds. Cold and starting to get mushy, I ate some and then called it a day on the rice and beans. So grateful for the energy and the warmth of this meal throughout my trek!
As I sorted, repacked, and made snack options accessible for the rest of the long haul (I’m guessing 9ish miles of nothing but UP, UP, and UP), I started to tune into the conversations swirling around me. My attention was instantly grabbed by a dialog taking place behind me. A man was sharing stories of his recent trip to Colorado, naming and recommending places such as Estes Park, the Stanley Hotel, Ft. Collins, Boulder, the Flatirons, places in Denver, etc. Funny thing is he was describing an extremely similar version of a road trip, complete with the same scenic stops and points of interest, as the trip I had made to Colorado only two weeks before. Weird. As I wrestled with putting my backpack on and made adjustments to my headlamp, he continues on and starts talking about, “…oh those people who do Rim to Rim to Rim. It’s dark and some of them are still out there. Yep. I’ve seen them come through the campgrounds headed to Bright Angel. Yeah. All in one day. Hours in the darkness with that big climb out of the Canyon. Yeah, Bright Angel is a longer trail but not as steep as South Kaibab. Yeah. They are crazy.”
All I could think of at that point was “Dude – get out of my head!”
The chow bell was rung, loudly echoing the announcement of dinner throughout the campground. The Phantom Ranch guests all lined up and entered the warmly lit and inviting restaurant. I took a few steps, adjusted my pack and poncho, sucked it up, and headed solo into the darkness. I passed through the campground to the River trail and Bright Angel Trail head. Yeah. I am one of those Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim people still out on the trail about to spend many hours of “quality” time in the pitch black dark of night. Not for the first time and certainly not the last, I asked myself how my idea of a vacation had changed its trajectory so radically. What happened to cocktails on the beach? Fluffy pillows? Hot meal in a warm and inviting Canyon restaurant? Zero suffering? WTF am I doing this? And then, also not for the first time that day, it started to rain. Are you f&%$cking kidding me? Slogging, suffer fest for miles in the rain? I had a flashback of the never-ending sloggy, soggy, long march night time miles in Mongolia. And so I trekked on…..but OOOOhhhhhh…… fluffy….. pillows….they sounded soooo lovely.
About a quarter-mile away from the Bright Angel Campground, I came across a mama deer and her fawn on the path. The light from my headlamp was reflected back by the sheen of their eyes. Equally startled, I think we three took a collective breath and then moved along in our separate directions. As I continued down the trail to the Colorado River, I looked around and noticed that off to the sides of the trail, there were all sorts and sizes of reflective critter eyes. I may have been trekking solo, but I certainly was not alone. Gulp.
To cross the Colorado River you trek across the Silver Bridge, which was actually pretty cool to cross in the dark of night with just the light from my headlamp. Okay, so the open grate flooring over the rushing river was a little disconcerting. And this turned out to be a really looooooong bridge with a span that seemed to never have an ending point. Draped in my poncho, from a distance, I imagined that I must have looked like a ghostly apparition floating across the pale colored bridge.
Back on solid footing, I headed up the River Trail and discovered the ground to be interspersed with puddles throughout the heavy and wet sandy parts of the trail. There were stream and water runoff crossings bisecting the trail here and there. It was at one of those points I stopped. The trail was a bit washed out and I was unclear as to which way to go. So I waited. I had seen headlamps in the darkness on the trail behind me. Perfectly timed, the headlamps happened to belong to the couple from our group. A very happy “Hello” was expressed to Sandi and Greg as we reconnected. Sandi had hiked this trail before so was somewhat familiar with the surroundings and the direction to go. She confidently took the lead as we went forward as a trio (buddy system) to tackle the beast of the trail (9ish miles with an elevation gain of over 4,400 feet) that was in looming front of us.
I hucked up and tucked the front bottom edge of my poncho into the waistband of my Raidlight backpack. The poncho was REI’s $5.99 version of the 99-cent poncho I had used in Mongolia. “One size fits all” means that it was way too long for me. The last thing I wanted to do was to faceplant into any part of the Grand Canyon or trip over the side and free-fall (I am sure with some bouncing involved) into the dark abyss. I imagined I looked like a giant plastic mullet; a visual far from the earlier-in-the-day comparison to an “angel in white” crossing the canyon. And that’s okay, because it was business time.
The start of the steep part of Bright Angel trail really begins at the River Rest House. From there it was a steady uphill climb, multiple creek and runoff crossings, and through a section that is known as the Devil’s Corkscrew, a steep switchback-filled ascent. Woohoo! Apparently, this is a beautiful trail full of amazing views, stunning rock formations, pictographs, tunnels and waterfalls. My night trekking sensory experience was a bit different: utter darkness filled with critter sounds and eyeballs, rushing water, second guessing the pictures/faces of animals I think I saw on the rocks, some choice swear words, and a lot of huffing and puffing. I definitely want to re-visit the Bright Angel trail during daylight hours and enjoy the scenery!
We made it to Indian Gardens. Finally. F%ck! I had no idea what time it was. Although it stopped raining, I still had my poncho on. I was nice and sweaty and warm under the poncho. I sat down hard on the bench at the rest stop and realized how DONE I really felt. This resting spot literally became the “benchmark” and was duly noted as “I am now ready for this peak experience to be OVER.” I looked over at my trail mate, Greg, and saw in him a kindred spirit sharing the same lack of enthusiasm for any additional physical movement anywhere, let alone up the rest of the trail to the top. F%ck!
Greg had me beat on the complete look of death.warmed.over. He blankly grasped an unopened, full food bag of what at some other point would have been deemed delicious: a high caloric snack of Chex mix, candy, and nuts. I was guessing, but I figured if opened, the smell of the baggie’s content might have put him over the nausea stage and into the vomit zone. So it was probably best the bag stayed closed. For everybody’s sake.
Meanwhile, trying to stay on top of my “nutrition,” I stuffed allergen-free chocolate chip cookie crumbs into my mouth. NomNomNomNom. While loving every morsel of cookie, I contemplated my emergency gear situation, just in case, no kidding, I couldn’t get off that bench and get going again. Plan B was to wrap myself up in my foil emergency blanket and call it day/night/DONE. Fantasy, once again was tossed aside as I finished off the remainder of the cookie crumbs, and evaluated and sorted through the rest of my snacks in preparation for the last stretch of the “journey.” I cherry picked my favorites out of what was left from the day’s food supply. Tired of hassling with my poncho vs. snack pockets, I shoved the selected treats up my arm sleeves for easy snacking access later on. I had to laugh, as my arm sleeves resembled bumpy chipmunk cheeks filled with food. I still had at least a liter of water left in my hydration pack, so I wasn’t going to refill and get more. My pack was already starting to feel ridiculously heavy so I passed on the extra water weight. Good thing, too. The distance from “the Bench” was ONLY 4.5 miles filled with more switchbacks, more GIANT steps, more puddles, and a mere 3,000-foot gain in elevation to get to the top in pitch darkness. F%ck!
Off we went, climbing up the trail, 44 miles into an on-going odyssey that would quickly devolve into a twilight zone mind melting and challenging physical adventure for the next several hours and miles.
Step by fugly step, we were getting it done. Sandi was a like a Kali goddess mom machine in overdrive. She was patient and at the same time necessarily pushy. The woman was on a mission. Greg and I followed her silently and obediently up the trail. He stepped where she stepped, and I stepped where he stepped, as we navigated our way through puddles and over and up ridiculously high Jacob’s Ladder steps. We continued up the trail with Sandi’s sweet fierceness encouraging and energetically connecting us together. Our progress was only interrupted by the incessant distraction and need to seek a resting spot and the comfort of “just leaning on that rock over there….just a couple of minutes.” Seemed like a good idea but it was a real motivation buzz kill to keep moving once stopped, as we found that it was getting harder and harder to peal ourselves off the rock and get going again. Sandi’s energy levels were starting to tap out by this point and she still needed to get her man out of the canyon. I was having a hard time keeping up with them, so I cut my energetic caboose loose. Sandi’s final words of “encouragement” as they pulled away “Don’t pay attention to the lights on the trail, it is deceiving. The trail isn’t straight up – its switchbacks.” The lights, she referenced, were coming from the other late night trekkers and created what looked like a steep line of ascent up the side of the canyon. Actually, it was a vertical climb consisting of series of switchbacks with 2000 feet of elevation climb.
My mind flashed to a scene from the movie Titantic......Rose prying off cold, death grip fingers…cutting him loose….the parting shot of Jack slowly sinking in the frigid Atlantic. At that point, I felt like I could totally relate with frozen, dead Jack, as my eyes fastened on the reflective strip on the back heel of Greg’s shoes disappearing up the trail.
I was thankful for my perseverance during my training, all those days/months filled with miles and miles of trail time with a bunch of elevation gain thrown into the mix. It helped me put myself on physical and navigational auto-pilot as I plugged into a jagged, rhythmic pace and lurched myself up the trail. By this time, hour “I don’t know what” into the adventure, I was listing (conservatively estimated at 15 degrees) physically to my right (starboard side). I was having a hard time disassociating my thoughts from the doomed passengers trying to survive the Titantic sinking. My adaptive body posture was the compounding result of hours of physical right-side overcompensation for my jacked up left IT band and the constant heavy weight upon my shoulders from my pack. A trail brochure that I read prior to this trip mentions, “If you are wearing a backpack, the trail at this point will feel extremely steep.“ No kidding. As I ping-ponged from side to side on the trail, I made sure to correct my line of forward trajectory when I got too close to the shin-high rock barrier separating me and my new center of gravity from the edge of the Canyon and a potential tumble below.
Outside the range of my headlamp, I couldn’t see a thing. Exhaustion and lack of stimulating landscape visuals led to some mental challenges. My brain was planning the “I don’t want to” revolt, which led to unspoken deal making between me, myself, and I. Just get to the next switchback turn. Stop. Brain be quiet; here, eat something. Hmmmm what’s next from the snack sleeves? Single-word positive reinforcement. Food. Good. Drink some water. Good. Breathe. Good. Swear more. Good. Get moving again and repeat at the next switchback.
It was at one of those rest stops that I looked up to see the night sky filled with stars. Absolutely Amazing. I only wished that I could have enjoyed the vast expanse of the universe more. I wasn’t feeling it. Visually scanning the sky, I spied as I rubbed my tired little eyes, a lantern with its soft white steady glow, waaaaaay up high, at what I could only guess was the Museum shop located near the top of the Bright Angel trailhead. I thought of the green lantern across the water referenced in the Great Gatsby, that “….must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” Yeah, I could totally relate. I tried to recall my high school English class and the symbolic meaning of that light. In a split second, my brain also jumped in with thoughts of “who played Gatsby better? Robert Redford or Leonardo?” I had no chance to debate their performances, as in the following split second, a notification from the control center of my brain alerted me to the fact that the light from my headlamp was noticeably dim. My headlamp was dying. DAMN IT. And this was my backup. My primary lamp, a nice higher-end model, failed me earlier in the day at our crack-of-dawn descent of South Kaibab. New batteries couldn’t get it to work. My trusty back up, a hard-shining without-fail cheapo headlamp, had been guiding me from the beginning of this trip and throughout the night. We were both running out of juice and I was starting to hear voices.
WTH? The voices were coming from me. Was I mumbling out loud and no longer recognizing my own verbal communications? No. The sound of voices seemed to be coming from somewhere deep under the layers of my poncho and gear. Intent on staying focused and aware of my surroundings, I had paused and stowed the music miles back, when I had noticed all the critter eyes off the sides of the trail. I fished out my ipod, which somehow had been jostled to PLAY, from the cleavage of my running bra. I heard John Hiatt’s muffled voice singing “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
When the road gets
And you can no longer see
Let my love throw a spark
And have a little faith in me
And have a little
faith in me
And have a little faith in me
And have a little faith in me
And have a little faith in me
When the road gets
And you can no longer see….
I laughed and felt this was truly a ridiculous and very welcomed fun sign from my trail guardian angels. Buoyed with renewed motivation, I sang along with John Hiatt and prayed for continued illumination as I slogged on. My mantra became Please.light.Please….. I just need to make it to the top…I was willing my headlamp to stay lit.
I passed the 1.5 mile rest house offering water, a restroom, and an emergency phone. I thought it was very ironic that the emergency phone seemed to be located at the top of a very steep set of stairs. It would have to be a true emergency situation to be motivated to get up those stairs and make that call. The light of my headlamp also glared off a sign, warning about heat exhaustion and graphically illustrating the point with a person vomiting. Wow. That was a way less encouraging sign. It was a reminder to me that the situation could have been much worse. Thankfully, I was not dealing with any type of stomach distress.
With the path ahead of me so dimly lit, I was watching the ground and placement of my feet, when I was caught by surprise by two man-made tunnels carved in the Kaibab limestone, and ended up sideswiping my way through them. Brushing myself off, I recovered and pushed on. Seriously, the end couldn’t be much further. And it seriously wasn’t much further. Very anti-climatically, I recognized the rail of scenic outlook located at the top of the trail head. As I took my last step off the trail and towards Sandi, who was waiting, the light of my headlamp flickered out. We made it! RxRxR Complete. DONE.
Starting to process the whole experience, upon falling back into on my bed at the lodge, I had a number of initial thoughts. First and foremost, I completely felt ALIVE and grateful for my body and my willingness and ability to experience successfully criss-crossing the Grand Canyon. By far, trekking RxRxR was the hardest outdoor adventure I have ever done (to date. Heehee.) My brain was way more pragmatic, as I verbalized my emotions by saying, “Check the box. I NEVER F%cking have to do that again.”
Who is kidding who? Given the chance to do it again…of course I would.
more information check out these resources:
Grand Canyon National Park - National Park Service Website
For more information on the 800 miles of national scenic trails across Arizona from Mexico to Utah ~ Arizona Trail Association
Sasquatch Fuel for amazing tasty trail food
Rim2Rim2Rim - connect with any number of groups on social media or the internet
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – to-morrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther…."
Interested in reading more about ultra running, trekking on the trails, rock hounding adventures, crystal digging and travel experiences, please check out some of my other blog postings