Rim to Rim to Rim: Anticipation to Euphoria to Delirium and back
How do you begin to write up a continuous 18-hour adventure (not counting the long build-up that preceded), one full of the most indescribable highs and lows, the likes of which insist on playing out in your head well after the stimulus to the emotion has gone? It's been three full days since we completed our mammoth journey, and I'm still reliving the experience. My mind has created a cycle of sub-par highs and lows just to keep from losing the cascading details, and to attempt to delay fully adjusting back to workaday reality. Last year sometime, we decided to invite ourselves along on our friend Mike's dream goal to run the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. Over the course of the year, a group list swelled, then whittled itself down, until 5 of us committed: Mike, Dave and myself, Dave S, and Artie. As the big weekend loomed increasingly nearer, "the boys" began to geek out on planning statistics, sharing blog posts, logistical ideas, weather and park sites, maps and the like. Dave S even bought a book devoted to death in the Grand Canyon, bent on learning from mistakes and thus minimizing risk. It turned out to be an interesting read, as macabre as it sounds... we have a copy now, too. Until about a week prior, however, I have to admit that mentally I checked out a little, once again relying on Dave to enable me. I had layered veils of semi-denial hung all around the facts about our undertaking. In my mind, for example, I had this idea we'd run down one rim, and then it would be continuously flat until it was time to climb the next rim, about 20 miles away. When I finally looked at the canyon elevation profile, relentless hills and steep gradients were duly noted, and I started to freak out. I hastily tried to prepare the necessary mental mindset needed to endure the task ahead. I set myself a flimsy goal of not crying, as long as I could help it.
We all shared a campsite at Mather campground the night before, turning in at a dark but early hour, before 9 pm. Alarms buzzed by 2:30 am, and everyone rather soberly set about getting themselves sorted. We had all packed our gear the previous afternoon, laughingly weighing our respective packs and their pounds of product. We had estimated the journey would take around 15-17 hours, planning to cautiously walk the first descent down Bright Angel in order to spare our quads as much as possible for what lay ahead. At dinner, we'd joked that we could probably walk the whole thing and be back in 20 hours. We'd even naively, or maybe a little cockily, tossed around the remote potential we'd crest Bright Angel again in time to make the last open minutes of the ice cream fountain. This wishful thinking was a major source of hilarity (for me, in an extremely fatigued state) many hours later.
Our friend Tressa, Artie's wife, took a group photo of us, the flash lighting up the temperate darkness, and we were off. Even though we took it slow, I had some inner panic as the revelation hit me that I have a lot of work to do to improve my trail running skills if I want to take on adventures like this again. I'm a terrible descender, in general. In the dark, with rocks and a steep, sheer dropoff into oblivion, I'm fairly pathetic. Maybe not compared to a sedentary person, but pretty much compared to anyone else. I worried I was going to fail the group. The trail is well maintained, though, with sweeping sections edged by rocks and log steps (these later proved to be exhausting, like forced plyometrics on the tiring way back up). There are regular water and restroom stops; on the initial descent, one was at the 1.5 mile mark, the other at 3 miles. This first stretch descends close to 2,000 feet. By the time we reached the Indian Gardens campground just shy of 5 miles, we'd descended more than 3,000 vertical feet.
As much as apprehension (about my trail skills, and the grueling length that awaited), there is something very peaceful about running at night against such incredible scenery. You can't see a whole lot, but you're aware that mastery is around you. It's like being cradled precariously in darkness. You're somehow loved and protected, yet completely vulnerable. At Indian Gardens, there was a lushness, vegetation stretching out of blackness, chirping crickets, and flowing water from the creek.
We'd all prepared for a cold descent, knowing the temperature was expected to climb into the 90s by the afternoon. It was surprisingly mild even at the top of the rim, however, and we started off in shorts, shedding long-sleeve tops and windproofs within the first few miles. As we continued to descend, the moist air just got warmer, switchback after switchback. Heading north, we began to hear the rush and groans of the Colorado River. The dawn was beginning to break; then, suddenly, the clear light washed over everything, as if in the blink of an eye. That first view of the majestic river was amazing. It felt like such an accomplishment already. Later, we'd look back and reflect on how little we'd come in relation to how far we'd yet to go.
Adding to the welcome sight of the river was a stunning stretch of runnable miles. It felt incredibly liberating to stretch the legs and stride out. We paused for another group photo at Silver Bridge, then crossed over and headed to alluring Phantom Ranch. This is like a canyon equivalent of an oasis. We could hear the clink of forks on plates and smell wafting odors of eggs and bacon. There was a quiet, humming bustle, out there in the middle of no where. Speaking of which, in spite of becoming suddenly reacquainted with civilization here, we were increasingly appreciative of the reasons for all the severe ranger warnings and park signs urging people against crossing from rim to rim (let alone coming back) in one day. Anything can happen down there, to anyone, and a bad day or bad decision can mean all the difference. Throw caution to the wind, and you can easily end up getting back in a helicopter, or worse, not making it out at all. The further we trekked, the more grateful I became for the solid group dynamic we had, and the supportive lack of ego. Everyone was looking out for one another.
Constant surprises were flecked throughout the morning, little to great: clouds of bats with stretched wings soared over our heads at dawn; river crossings commanded focus and balance so as to preserve dry feet, preferably blister-free; waterfalls ribboned along canyon walls; most memorably, every time we turned around the regal South Rim shone, receding behind us but ever imposing, like a desert cloud in the sky.
From Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground, the terrain continues to be very runnable. I felt like my personal momentum was steadily growing, first serious descent behind me, and the darkness having lifted. It's amazing what being able to see can do for confidence. ; )
After Cottonwood, I started having some fantasies about getting picked up by a mule at some point in the day. We didn't see many of them, but those strong, long-eared mules are adorable! I'm not sure they'd really appreciate that description, but I definitely experienced some pangs of longing for mule cuddling as fatigue began to set in.
We passed Roaring Springs, which is about 5 miles from the North Rim, feeling the heat begin to burn. Dave S, who must have memorized "Death in Grand Canyon" noted the helicopter landing pad, reflecting on the countless canyon rescues and attempted rescues that were part and parcel of the canyon's rich, deep history.
The climb to the north rim became sharply steeper, and our next water destination, Supai Tunnel, was proving painfully elusive. I was having a bitter tirade with Supai in my head, vaguely amusing myself with conversations I found both tormenting and enormously funny. This was to become quite the trend by the time we were finished. "Supai, you've toyed with me too long!" I was railing to myself. "Damn you, Supai! When I find you, I'm going to use you and leave you without even a look back, how do you like that?" The massive sheer walls were humbling and stoic, and it was quickly back to begging and pleading. Oh Supai, please just help me...! About 1.5 vertical miles from Supai, I was out of water. Dave, of course had been staunchly looking out for me from the first step, staying behind me in the dark descent despite the fact that running/hiking as cautiously slowly as I was is cruelly tedious and tiring for him. He gave me little sips from his pack at intervals, though he too was running fearfully low.
We finally arrived at Supai Tunnel, approximately 2 miles from the top of the North Rim, behind our projected schedule. We were taking everything in stride, however. As long as we got to the top before noon, we were in decent shape. We slogged onward on the steep trail, noticing the distinct contrast between the north and south rims. While the south side is more of your quintessential, floating, pastel striped canyon view, the north rim has a quieter, more vegetated grandeur. There, you find coniferous blankets of forest and meadow. Brilliant rust and golden trees were reminiscent of New England in autumn, yet smack in the middle of the Grand Canyon.
We reached the top of the North Rim more or less together as a group, with mixed feelings. Relieved and relishing the accomplishment, yet grounded in the reality that now we needed to turn around and head back again. It was 5 minutes to noon. The park had prematurely turned the water off at 11 am. They had said they'd keep it on until 12. We started to stress: what if the water was off at all the stops heading back? Surely the campgrounds and Phantom Ranch would have water. Retracing our steps took on a slight sense of urgency.
My right achilles had been feeling stiff for a week, and starting the descent back down the north rim, it started to really tighten. It didn't help that I was mentally rebuking myself for my poor descending skills. I was afraid I was going to hold the crew back to a ridiculous degree, on a section they would otherwise enjoy with abandon. What was worse, though, was actually a major chafing issue...in, let's say, an unmentionable spot. I had been wavering as to what pair of shorts to wear, vascillating between two pairs that had served me well in marathons. I didn't think about the fact that 26. 2 miles in three and a quarter hours is unfathomably different to 50 miles and, oh, 3 + 15 hours of relentless and difficult terrain. I had a wardrobe malfunction. As we headed back towards Supai tunnel, I told Dave I had to stop for a minute. Then again. And again. I was experiencing fiery crotch burn, and it was like nothing else I've ever felt running. It was like a thousand yeast infections in one. I'm sorry for the unsettling, coarse description. It was terrible. If possible, I recommend anyone who can pack in an extra pair of shorts for occasions like these, or at least make sure your chosen shorts are well vetted for a big day.
At Supai, we regrouped and Dave and I told Artie, Mike, and Dave S to head to Phantom Ranch without us. Hopefully we'd meet at Phantom Ranch again, and they'd have a chance to refuel in the meantime, but no worries if not. Poor Dave. Honestly, I'm much more built for endurance than he is. It's not the miles that kill him, or the difficulty of the landscape, it's purely the time on the feet, and his massive need to constantly refuel. He was an absolute rock, and I spent the miles between Supai and Cottonwood apologizing. Even though we were accomplishing something absolutely momentous, I felt at the moment like I was failing everyone. At intervals, I stopped to reapply stinging chamois butter. I tried to ease the chafing torment with inane tactics, like stuffing my gloves and hat down my shorts to no avail. Go figure.
At Cottonwood, we were sure there was no way we'd catch up to the rest of the group, and prepared for a long, slow slog together in the waning light. Assuming we'd lost the others for good, we took our time at the campground. I took some ibuprofen, which eventually seemed to help the stinging issue to the point of becoming bearable again. We ran into another group making the trip; one of their team had an acute case of nausea, and they were having to walk the majority of the way back. Throughout the day, we came across numerous folks whose groups didn't make it, at least not completely, constant reminders of the scale of the journey, and how lucky we were.
It felt quiet and lonely as we made our way with awkward strides to Phantom Ranch. Our poles had turned out to be a phenomenal purchase, sparing our knees, and aiding in countless ways throughout the day, but they were taxing, too. I felt my core working, and I was sure a callus was forming on my inner left thumb. Dave tried valiantly to be calm and steady, which is the way he pretty much is, but I could tell he was getting discouraged and downcast by our trudging progress. "I wonder when we'll see the Ranch?" he commented casually in a soft voice. I had been successfully holding my resolve not to cry today, but I almost cracked then, feeling responsible for any fatigue Dave may have had, and for the possibility that the others wouldn't make it back when they hoped. If it hadn't been for me and my tentative downhill blundering, Dave could have bounded down the north rim and made it to Phantom Ranch before the snack bar closed.
When we rounded the corner at Phantom finally, it was like an ocean of bubbles surged into my brain, and I was heady with giddiness. The guys were there, waiting for us! I immediately launched into a string of apologies (we'd been sure they'd move on), but Dave S reassured us that he'd only arrived 15 minutes before us. It turned out he'd had a major bonk in that last section, too. Artie and Mike, who are distant descendants of mountain goats, had been waiting for 45 minutes, but both were convincingly calm. They'd missed the snack bar, too. We decided to try to stick it out together again from there.
We had been forced to abandon certain goals throughout the day, little by little...though my impressive goal of not crying still remained intact. First, we missed the snack bar at Phantom. At that point, we acknowledged we'd missed the showers, and the main dining hall dinner hours. Next goal was to re-emerge from the canyon depths before 11 pm, when the pizza place closed. As Dave S said, at this point, even that was "not a slam dunk". We'd been on the go for closing in on 14 hours now. While this fact was painful, I also had reached a point where I found it hilarious. From then on, everything made me hurt and laugh hysterically at the same time. Ahead of me, Dave S was performing this wobbly bow-legged run that looked clownishly funny. He paused for a picture, and I ran ahead. I read in his blog post later that he was noticing how funny our runs looked. We were starting to shut down, stomachs no longer wanting to stomach anything. Our minds flit between optimism at the comparatively few miles remaining, to the thudding knowledge that they were vertical miles, and would take hours. The light was waning rapidly, until it disappeared.
Mike felt the best of all of us, and we encouraged him to forge on ahead. At Indian Gardens, Dave was in the early stages of what was to be no less than a 4-hour bonk. I was actually feeling pretty strong physically, but I was losing it mentally. Dave S was a trooper, passing my Dave heavenly glucose tablets regularly. Artie and I slogged it out a little ahead, but we all met up at the 3 mile and then 1.5 miles to go rest areas. At three miles to go, I could not stop laughing. I felt a little like a hyena. It cracked me up to wonder if Mike was questioning his decision of letting us clowns in on his adventure; it sent me nearly hurling in giggling fits thinking that maybe if we all just sat at the rest station, on the cold rocks where we were perched in the dark, the sun would rise, and we'd indeed make it back in time for the ice cream shop.
The stretch from the 1.5 mile rest area to the Bright Angel trailhead was even steeper, but the light was at the end of the tunnel.We could see two golden orbs gleaming from the area of the Bright Angel Lodge. Dave and Dave met a guy on the way up whose companion, a seasoned ultra runner, hadn't made it. He'd had to stay at the north rim and catch a shuttle back. At this point, knowledge that we were somehow going to make it back started to release last ditch momentum, and all feelings of having fallen short of initial goals ebbed away.
For hours in this epic adventure, I repeatedly told myself that this had to be the hardest thing I'd ever done. Harder than an ironman, definitely. Towards the very end, Artie and I noticed our legs no longer felt shaky, just dead. For a second, nearly there, I thought I saw some kind of kachina doll apparition hovering at the edge. "I've got to get back as soon as possible," I told Artie. "I think I just saw a kachina doll." "Oh, I saw it, too," Artie responded to my huge astonishment. "What?! You mean like a spirit?" I asked. It turned out Artie thought I said I saw a pika, or something like that. Neither of us were fully coherent anyway.
Somewhere around 18 hours and 45 minutes after we first set out, we arrived back at the trailhead. Mike had arrived in exactly 18 hours. Tressa, bless her, had warm boxes of food from the lodge waiting for us: salmon, red pepper soup (the best!), and cornbread. We devoured it when we got back to the campsite, bruised, covered with grit and dust from the hot, sandy winds, blistered, and achy. We were literally putrifying the air, but it didn't matter. Against greater odds than we'd really realized, all five of us finished, smiling and injury free. That night, I crashed like a rock in the tent. I woke up on occasion to a pang of aches, or the burn of swollen feet, but I fell right back to a blacked out sleep. We were too dehydrated to have to get up for the bathroom.
The next morning, we all enjoyed delicious, heaping breakfasts at El Tovar after the most luscious showers. After that, we headed on our separate travels home, euphoria creeping in like sly little elves. Within 10 minutes into the drive, I was already reliving the thing I'd pledged for hours never to repeat, only a sugar-coated version.
There's a very good chance ultras won't play heavily in my future, if at all. I think the marathon is just right, and quite enough. But, a few days later, I won't rule anything out. I'm so grateful we all got to experience it together. There was a group chemistry and camaraderie that was key to the successful completion. I know now with an absolute clarity how important, and probably rare, that is for something like this. This journey has got to be memorably one of the most excruciating, but likely the most magnificent thing we've ever done, or may ever do.