Adventures: > Grand Canyon 2003

Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (2 days)

by Peter Holleran


   "Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere,
   and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself."



   Without a doubt Grand Canyon Rim to Rim (R2R) is as good as it gets for the adventure runner. With body parts functioning normally, it would be a tragedy not to go there as soon as possible. Life is short, why wait until you are too feeble to do more than hobble from car to tour bus, joining the throngs of unfortunates who never know the heart and soul of the canyon by entering into its depths? For that is the road less travelled by, which makes all the difference. In late September George Foreman, myself, Pattie and Jean Bielawski and Leslie Dickson from Alaska, and Jim Ottenheimer, Lois Fleming, Diane Repulles, and Mike Lennon from the East Bay went to test ourselves and drench our souls in its scenic wonder. Eight ran North to South, while I, intent on getting my money’s worth, ran both ways. A great time was had by all, but first some background, then the story.

   The South Rim is 6840’ elevation at Bright Angel trailhead and 7200’ at South Kaibab, the two corridor trails to the inner canyon. Bright Angel drops 4400’ in 8 m, while South Kaibab is steeper and drops 4700’ in just 6.4 m. Bright Angel follows the side of a canyon and is shadier, while South Kaibab is more scenic, following a narrow ridge line with no shade. Bright Angel has water, restrooms and phone at 1.5, 3.0, and 4.5 m, while South Kaibab has no water but does have pit toilets at 1.5 m and pit toilet/ phone at 5.0 m. The North Rim (8240’ ), by contrast, has but one corridor trail, the North Kaibab, which descends 14 m and 5800’ to Phantom Ranch, and thus is much longer with 1000+ more vertical feet than either trail to the South Rim. It is comparable to climbing Mt. Whitney, only three miles longer and without the rigors of extreme altitude. At Phantom Ranch there are water, toilets, phone, and food. The next water is Cottonwood Camp (7 m), then Roaring Springs (8.5 m), Supai Tunnel (12 m), and the trailhead (14 m). Water can also be filtered from Bright Angel Creek which follows the trail for the first 7 m. The North Rim opens mid-May and closes mid-October, so those wishing to stay there overnight should plan their trip as close to those dates as possible. It is recommended one not do this in the summer when the AVERAGE daily temperatures in the inner canyon are over 100 degrees.

   The plan I settled on was to fly into Flagstaff (78 m from the South Rim) and run South Kaibab-North Kaibab on Friday (21.2 or 21.7m, depending on the source), then join George and friends who drove from Vegas to the North Rim to run North Kaibab-Bright Angel (23.5 m) on Saturday, for a two-day total of 45 miles. The group would bring clothes for me to change into, thus sparing me extra weight going across. Joni Gardner and George’s wife, Judi, drove from the North Rim to the South Rim to meet us all on the other side.

   I planned a modest pace the first day to guarantee safety and keep energy in reserve for the run back. After parking near Bright Angel trailhead to be close to my car when finishing on Saturday, I took the 5 a.m. Express Bus to the South Kaibab trailhead 3 miles away. At 5:55, with enough daylight to permit safety, I took my first exhilarating steps into the yawning abyss. It was 43 degrees. There was a light haze in the distance from fires burning in the canyon. I smelled smoke but once I dipped below the rim it disappeared. Two backpackers saw me and whispered. “look, he’s going solo!” (I love it). The South Kaibab is steep, but less so than expected, all in all an immensely enjoyable downhill cruise or “pleasant plummet”. At no time did I fear I could fall off anywhere (unlike the middle section of the North Kaibab that is blasted out of the side of a cliff), but caution is always in order. A severely sprained ankle can be a major problem if you are at the bottom of the canyon. It’s not like you can just call a cab. A hefty surcharge on top of the usual $339.50 rate is charged for a mule ride out without reservations, and for helicopter rescues, just forget it. The trail begins with a series of short steep switchbacks followed by a series of more gradual and longer switchbacks to Cedar Ridge, 1.5 m and 1200’ down. I had to walk behind a pack mule train for ten minutes before they could pull over here and allow me to pass. A cardinal rule at the canyon is never pass a mule train until authorized by the lead rider. Pack mules are also not as tame as the passenger mules and are more unpredictable. None have ever fallen over the edge, but people have so it is wise not to push one’s luck.

   The trail then drops on long traverses until it reaches a nearly level ridge or saddle under O’Neill Butte, with views north down to the Tonto Platform on either side. It rounds the east side of the Butte to another saddle, with toilet and emergency phone on the right, followed by steep switchbacks through the Redwall and across the Tonto Platform to the Inner Gorge. Just before crossing the suspension bridge you pass through a short, dark tunnel. At this point you have come 6.4 m and dropped 4780 feet! Very fast runners have made it here in 50 minutes. I took 85, including time stuck behind the mules. It felt strange but exciting being down there. Looking back up at the South Rim I thought, “Oh God, I’ve done it now,” for this was the point of no return! The trail goes west then north along the east bank of Bright Angel Creek to Phantom Ranch. The temperature was pleasant - about 75 - a marked contrast to what it would be in a few short hours. It was 7:35, too early to buy anything at the snack bar, and too soon to be hungry, so I used the spigot to re-fill my water bottles, washed down a Gu and began the long ascent to the North Rim.

   The first few miles of the North Kaibab follow Bright Angel Creek through the “Box”, a narrow gorge with near-vertical walls rising on either side. The trail crosses the creek on bridges several times. At 6.0 m a junction is reached where a detour goes left to Ribbon Falls requiring you to take your shoes off crossing the creek. The falls are a worthy side-trip, with a tall, moss covered facade ending in a small pool with an interesting cave-like opening at the bottom. The overall grade thus far is gradual, climbing 1500’ in 7.0 m, but just before Cottonwood Camp there is a short, steep hill, fully exposed to the sun which at 9 a.m. began to rise over the canyon walls. 1.5 m from Cottonwood Camp is a pumphouse and caretaker cabin that offers water, shade, and occasionally lemonade (no such luck for us). Just beyond is a spur trail descending 0.2 m to the falls of Roaring Springs (5200’), water source for both sides of the canyon and audible up to the North Rim. From here the grade noticeably increases for 1.3 m before reaching the “Cliffs” (6100’), where the trail is blasted out of the side of the canyon to form narrow ledges (although never less than five feet or so). This is the only place that made me nervous. I was reminded of scenes in old Tarzan movies where native porters creep around the edge of a high escarpment and fall one after another to their deaths far below. As I passed hikers I half-jokingly cautioned them, “don’t move!” I would be hesitant to walk this section in the dark, but surprisingly when descending the next morning I had no fear even when running through it. (This was, no doubt, partly due to the fact that when coming down I was on the inside, not the outside, of the canyon wall, but also because I had become more mentally adapted to the sheerness of the terrain). The drop-offs here are definitely impressive. This entire section is also known as the Devil's Backyard. At the top of this section is a towering Limestone spire known as “The Needle”.

   1.2 m from the beginning of the Cliffs the trail drops into a side canyon and crosses a suspension bridge. It then begins climbing very steeply, rising 1000’ in the next mile. At 12.0 m it goes through the Supai Tunnel (6840’), where there are water, restrooms, and shade. From here the trail moderates as it continues towards the Rim, passing the Coconino Overlook, and then rising through well-forested terrain away from the side of the canyon on a final series of switchbacks to the trailhead, where a stone fountain offers the coolest, best tasting water in the Canyon. Running time south to north was 6 hours, with a half-hour of stops. This was not race pace but a good day’s workout and, above all, an outstanding adventure. Any decent runner can do it - and should! Later at Bright Angel Point - a thrilling and drop-dead gorgeous spot - I gazed in awe back at the South Rim and asked myself, “did I REALLY come that far?.. and am I really going back there tomorrow?”

   That evening my legs were a little sore, in spite of the moderate pace (after all, this IS the Grand Canyon), so I preemptively took some Advil and Aleve, needing all the help I could get. Starting next morning from the North Rim at 6:15 it was only 34 degrees. Most of us (except the Alaskans who apparently weren’t used to anything but cold and dressed to the hilt) wore only shorts and t-shirts. As expected, a few minutes below the rim it quickly warmed to about 60, and upon reaching Phantom Ranch it was 101 (where the Alaskans began to fade). The long descent was a bit jarring, but not too bad thanks to the miracles of modern chemistry. About 10 a.m. we passed a group of ladies from Mill Valley coming the other way, doing the Bright Angel-North Kaibab route. The idea of my two-day Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) strategy intrigued them. They informed me, however, that fellow Tamalpan Mike Soltesz had already done it in ONE day, so I guess now I’ll have to do that, too. (What I did was actually a “gentleman’s” version of R2R2R. The real deal is doing it in one day, not two (although whether or not that is more fun is debatable). An excellent R2R2R, minus breaks, is under 12 hours, and under 10 terrific. The record using the Kaibab trails is a phenomenal 6:59:56 by Dave Mackey in 2007, in spite of 10-15 minutes getting stuck behind pack-mule trains [uh oh, update 2013: 6:21 by Rob Krar! This essentially means extremely fast and death-defying technical downhill running]. 44 year-old Allyn Cureton ran R2R in 3:06:47 in 1981 (Keep in mind that most hikers do this in 2-3 days!). In 1987 Wally Shiel did a “Quad” (R2R2R2R2R) in 24:45).

   After a half-hour iced-tea-bagel-and-cream-cheese break at Phantom Ranch I bid adieu to George and the others, who continued at a more leisurely pace, and headed towards the South Rim, which I had to make in three hours or less in order to catch my plane. It was slow going at first, overcoming the enertia created by the long break and dealing with the sun and heat, but the air was dry and there were light breezes, and it was easier than I thought it would be. From Phantom Ranch it is 0.2 m to Bright Angel Camp where the trail goes right leading to the Silver Suspension Bridge. The floor of this bridge has a metal grating through which you can see the river below, for which reason the mules are afraid to use it. All mule trains cross on the other bridge upstream by the South Kaibab trail. Looking back across the gorge stupendous tiered buttes and ridges with exotic oriental names soar in the distance. After crossing the bridge you turn right on the River Trail for 1.5 sandy miles to the start of the Bright Angel trail which begins its ascent of the canyon alongside Pipe Creek. The 4400’ to the South Rim looked imposing, but having recently done the spectacular Cactus to Clouds trail on Mt. San Jacinto (~11000’ vertical) for me it became just a moderate climb! I felt sorry for the overburdened hikers, though, many who looked like they had had it. This section has a fair amount of shade and soaking hat and shirt in the creek helped greatly in keeping cool. There were no mules, so it was smooth sailing and I was able to make “good” time here (meaning 18 minutes a mile). After a while one ascends a series of steep switchbacks called Devil’s Corkscrew before climbing through the Tapeat Narrows to Indian Gardens (4.0m) (3760’), where weary hikers rest under a small pavillion. I stopped only briefly, however, took some water and moved on, feeling pretty good.

   From Indian Gardens the trail can be broken into three 1.5 m sections: to Three Mile Rest House (4760’), to Mile and a Half Rest House (5720’), and then through the switchbacks known as Jacob's Ladder to the South Rim (6840’). I remained on pace, 30 minutes for each, and reached the rim at 2:05, just over 3 hours from Phantom Ranch. Surprisingly I gained strength on the last half of the climb and was able to jog vigorously past tourists who came a little too far down from the rim, including one tired specimen who looked at me and exclaimed, “now that’s depressing” (made me feel great, though). George confided to me that he also takes perverse pleasure in moments like these and considers them high points on his trips to the canyon, to which I concur. As they say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” My time north to south was 6:30, plus 1:15 for breaks and a trip to Ribbon Falls. Before leaving I sat down for a few minutes to admire the view, grateful for doing what relatively few have ever done, or ever will do, or can do. I realized once again the great gift that running can be. A woman next to me asked, “how far down did you go?” I took a deep breath and replied, “see that RIM over there?!”