As we run through the Cottonwood campground, the bathroom lets off an incredibly pungent aroma. We didn't even bother to stop here and just plowed on through. The deeper into the canyon we got, the closer the canyon walls closed in on us. The trail followed along Roaring Brook and soon, we'd be running right next to the brook on a tight trail carved into the walls of the towering rock. More and more ultra-runners continued to pass us going in the opposite direction, so many so that we could't believe the number of runners in the canyon today. By now, we've seen at least 30 ultra-runners. Then we ran into Adam Gifford, owner of Sedona Running Company, who told us that they spotted a few dozen more runs down below at Phantom Ranch. It was good to see Adam. He used to live in Maine and I used to see him pretty often at East Coast ultras before he made the decision to move out west.
As we enter Phantom Ranch, it's hot all ready. It's around 8:00am and this place is crowded with folks who have strewn themselves and their gear all about. It's in the 80's all ready and people are sucking down cups of iced lemonade. I stood in the long line for the bathroom and later the long line to refill our water. I opted to not refill my hydration bladder but refilled both of my handheld bottles. Jeremy reapplied his lube while AJ was.. well.. waiting for us to be ready to rock and roll.
After our brief stop at the ranch we took off for the Colorado River. About 3/4 mile down trail from Phantom Ranch is the banks of the Colorado. The river is glowing green from the collection of algae and effects from a hot unimpeded sunlight. The water called me. I have a thing about historical rivers and dipping my legs into their storied waters. While I didn't get my legs in the water, I dunked my hat and used it to wash my face and my head. I was instantly cooled off, dunked the hat one more time, and placed it upon my head to allow the chilly waters to drip down the back of my neck.
Here at "the beach" are a few white water rafts who stopped to allow their passengers to visit Phantom Ranch. Two sun at hers are soaking in the early morning rays. I peered up towards the sun and spotted Black Bridge, our crossing point, as we agreed our group would take the shorter steeper route to the top of the South Rim, leaving a long gradual downhill for the way back. The bridge is incredible. It reaches far across the vast expanse of the Colorado River at the very bottom of the canyon. Then it hits me. I'm at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. A deep canyon one cannot truly appreciate from the sheltered rims to the North or South. A canyon much grander then it's name advertises, souvenir stores sell on post cards, or the casual tourist fantasies about. We're here.. the bottom of the big ditch and it's magnificence is breathtaking. I can't believe I'm here and.. I'm left dumbfounded and speechless.
As we start climbing up the South Rim the sun is at our backs and we now know it'll be with us for much of the day. The climb up to the South Rim is long, yet is our shortest climb of the day. Many false summits will tease us and we're always unsure about where the top of the rim actually is. There really isn;t no better idea then to keep your head down and plug away as we try to rise to the top. I take out my hiking poles and use them to help keep me upright and my lungs filled with air. The carrying colors of Canyon sand radiate different temperatures and amounts of heat.
A few hours ago, a young man wearing a North Face backpack and a faux hawk had passed us on his way across the canyon. We've now caught up to him and he stays on our heels for a little bit. I dove right into "The Clown Story," a long unending joke that I learned on a backpacking trip a few years ago. The clown story is the perfect time waster. I'm captivated by telling it and my audience is captivated by listening to it. It is a great way to click some miles off as we continue to climb out of the canyon. We waste no time in gaining elevation. The river looks incredibly far away all ready and we haven't even gone a mile it seems.
Temperatures quickly soar into the 90s and I'm beginning to roast. I made a huge mistake by not refilling my hydration bladder at Phantom Ranch. I can feel that my pack is light and I'm likely almost out of water. As the clown story continues, we lose "North Face"and don't see him again until the first plateau where we all stop to share an orange. The views while ascending the South Rim are mind boggling. Simply spectacular. I'm glad I'm taking my time and soaking all of it in. The rocks, the views, the sun.. everything. This journey is everything I thought it would be and then some.
Even as we leave the plateau, the climb is relentlessly steep. As folks begin to drop down from the rim, the questions start coming out. "You boys come from the river?" "Sorta..." For those who stopped long enough for a brief explanation of where we'd come from and where we're heading, we received a litany of weird looks and warnings to "be safe." We're now the crazy few in the hole making our way up. The higher we get, the warmer the sun gets but the temp starts to drop. The Colorado River is at around 2500' and the South Rim is around 6800'. The various false summits along the way offer us false hope of our climb being done. Yet it seems like around every corner is an expensive panoramic view which displays the true size of this place.
I had broken The Clown Story into two parts. It's been well over an hour since the story began but I finally get to the punch line "_____ ___ Clown!" echoes down the canyon walls. The boys chuckle but are equally as unimpressed by the time waster that was The Clown Story. Epic. We continue to climb and the sun continues to beat down. We finally come across a tree that offers little shade. I stop under it's branches, take my hydration tube in hand, and suck on.. nothing. I'm empty. Not filling up at Phantom has finally caught up to me. I can't see the top of the rim yet, but I know I have at least an hour of heat to go. Jeremy sits down and fills my handheld with water from his pack and we continue on.
I feel so stupid. I'm the veteran here and I made a major mistake. I can't harp on it but I feel terrible as we continue to climb. With each agonizing step I can feel the wind coming out of my sails. Jeremy and AJ hike ahead. They've got the gas and the fuel to soldier on. I hang back a bit and just take my time. I feel like a slow ass sloth yet I'm moving forward. It was hard to be angry in such a gorgeous place. Then, up ahead I see it. A hill which resembles a scene from the video gas Donkey Kong. All that is needed is a gorilla at the top to throw barrels down. Before we get to it though, we need to pass the mule train and all the piss and crap they can dish out at us.
Jeremy had the quote of the day near the top of the rim. With the three of us back together, he looks back at the canyon, turns to us and says, "That's a BIG F$%^&* DITCH!" We couldn't stop laughing, in fact.. I pulled a muscle in my side that needed stretching out from laughing. After we pass the mules, and zig zag our way up to the top of the South Rim, I am met with a sense of relief. The first thing I see at the top, besides tourists, is the water spigots. We head over and sit down next to the water and spend a good 10 minutes refilling our bottles and hydration bladders. I'm starving, and need some hot water to put into my pouch of instant mashed potatoes and bacon bits. So I ask around. I look into a crowd of people and say "Does anyone know where there's a cafeteria on this rim or anything." No response. And then I realize... no one speaks english. 'Aint that America? The free par bus comes and picks up about 100 people.. then whisks them away. After looking at a map, we know that there's other things up here on the rim, and we still have 5 miles before we reach Bright Angel Trailhead. Meanwhile, "North Face" arrives at the top and he walks up to his. Bent over which his hands on his knees, he comes back up and says, "Hey... how did the clown story end? All I heard was ____ ___ Clown echo through the canyon.. " This was incredibly hilarious. We said our goodbye to him though.. and continue on along the South Rim.
Five miles along the top of the South Rim and it wasn't anything like what we expected. The "trail" between South Kaibab and Bright Angel Point is not only paved, and hot, but littered with tourists. Many of whom never run, so are entirely uncertain what to do when a runner comes up behind them. This got rather frustrating real quick. The saving grace on the South Rim, are the views. I've now been to all 3 rims one can visit of the Canyon (West, North and South) and can attest to you that I feel the view from the South Rim is the very best. It's awe inspiring how huge the canyon actually is. We can actually see where we came from and what's left to do. I began to wonder.. how the hell did we run this far and how the hell are we going to get back. Meanwhile, Jeremy gets me out on a cliff's edge for a pic. Out on a rocky ledge and in the photo.. you can see the canyon we ran down from the North. Incredible.
As we continued across the rim, I was bonking really hard. I could tell the boys wanted to run but I just didn't have it in me. I was down to the run walk routine, from tree to tree. I was incredibly embarrassed, yet I was out of gas. I needed to eat and soon. The South Rim run took far longer then we expected. Upon arriving at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center at the South Rim, I ran from building to building looking for hot water or a canteen of sorts. I didn't find one, which was incredibly shocking to me. The three of us ended up sitting down next to a soda and snack machine. I poured cold water into my potatoes, mixed them up and threw some bacon in there. I didn't care if it was hot or not.. I just needed to eat.
AJ bought me a Sierra Mist, which I'd carry with me for hours to come. I only slugged down a tiny sip before throwing it into my pack and we carried on down the trail. The Rim Trail takes visitors on a journey through time. The trail is lined with an example of every single rock found in the canyon and how many millions of years ago the rock would have been exposed. It was too much to soak in at this point. A marathon in to our Grand Canyon Adventure, having run for nearly 8 hours.. my brain could not compute or fathom the sheer magnitude of the history found within this place.
As we reach Bright Angel Trailhead, the crowd here is huge. People are everywhere. This is where the canteen and restaurants were. Cultural shows. The 39th Annual Rim to Rim crew had come down from the North Rim and climbed the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. This was their finish line and their numbers were still out cheering each other one. The people we saw earlier in the day.. many of them you would say, "No Way" if they told you they were doing a R2R.. inspirational, amazing, humbling.. are just a few words to describe them. We fill up our water once again and begin, take one last look around.. and then begin to run back down towards the bottom of the hole.
HOT HOT HOT
We started to head down off the South Rim and would't ya know it.. all those folks we ran around in the morning, 4 or 5 times mind you, were having to get out of our way again. Only this time, they were rising to the top of the rim and finishing their own adventures. It was hard to not feel bad having to ask these folks, one last time, in their final moments of exertion, to get out of our way. Meh.. I got over it. The further down the trail we went the hotter it got. It was like running straight into a hair dryer. With each step you could feel the temperature rise. It was a comfy 75-80 degrees on the South Rim. You could tell it was hot down below because the R2Rers were looking toasted. These folks looked bewildered at us as we ran back down into the hole. They could't believe these nutty runners heading back in for more. Truth is, I couldn't believe it either.
The further in we get the more we started to see hikers sitting in what tiny pockets of shade existed in the canyon. It was as if the shaded spots offered moments of tiny oasis for resting heat stricken bones. At leads folks were being smart. The downhill was brutal though. Trail builders had put many wooden logs in the trail to serve as steps and they wrecked havoc on our knees. It was incredibly difficult to get into a cadence. This was the last quad pounding downhill we had to endure and it was shaking the crap out of us. Our group was splitting up a bit, running at our own pace and methodically taking on the hill. The day had been like an all day stairs work out. Either you're going downhill or uphill.. that's it. All Day.
Just before we get to Indian Hot springs I sprung a leak. My nose started to bleed and it was bad. The dry dusty air had dried up the inside of my left nostril. I stopped to shove as much toilet paper up into my nose as I could in the hopes of stopping the bleeding. "Stop the bleeding! Please stop!" Ok.. it wasn't that dramatic.. but thats how I felt running downhill. As we approached Indian Springs, we stopped to refill our water again. I washed my face and head again with my HeadSweats hat and got some footage of the thermometer down there that read 108 degrees. Yeah... it was incredibly hot. New Englanders will tell you it's a dry heat.. but let me tell you something.. hot is freakin hot.
After leaving Indian Springs we were approached by a frantic female runner who was running uphill. She was looking for a ranger. She was panicky and told us of a runner being "down" up ahead. We ran our fastest 2 miles of our entire trip to run ahead and try to assist the runner given the fact that I am a Wilderness First Responder. When we arrived at the runner he looked like a walking Margarita. He was dry as a bone (no sweat) and covered from head to toe in salt. I looked at his Garmin and noticed he was at mile 40. I asked if he had ever run an ultra-marathon before to which he responded with assertion, "No, But I've run over 50 marathons." Well.. aint that cute?! I tried to explain to this gentleman that the R2R2R is a graduate run for Ultra-Runners. Meaning, you need to be a pretty damn experienced ultra-runner and on top of your game to safely and comfortably complete the journey. Marathon training, in most cases, just won't cut it. I was honestly quite insulted that this gentleman thought that he was well prepared for an adventure of this caliper and then, he refused most of our assistance. I even had a moment of lapsed judgment when I commented to him, "Sounds like you need to do more research on the chemistry of this kind of distance running." It wasn't until I explained to him that I was a WFR and a seasoned ultra vet that he decided to receive our help. Poor guy had 6+ miles, UPHILL, left to his adventure. After trying our best to assist the gentleman, "marathon man" decided to keep moving. Before he left, we gave some of the runners who were with him some ginger chews, a pepsi, some salt tablets, and some around advice form our group of ultra veterans in the hopes that we'll be able to help after he's gone.
Take me to the river
As we reached the Colorado River for a second time, a young boy aged 11 years, was excited to see us. He was hiking with his parents heading to Phantom Ranch for the night. As we passed him by, he latched on to us and began to run with us stride for stride and step for step. The things this kid talked about were out of this world. For 11 years old, he had a fantastic sense of humor and personality and wasn't so ugh in awe of what we were doing as much as he was intrigued and vocal about the "extreme" things he'd like to do in his day like cliff jumping into a river.
As we ran the few miles along the rivers edge towards Silver Bridge, we hit a long patch of "beach sand." Our legs were mush from the long run downhill and the beach sand wasn't agreeing with any of us. We made do though, and soon, we were crossing over the green waters of the Colorado. I bent over at one point and picked up a piece of pink granite what had snaking layers of quartz melted into it from the fires of hell some 300 million years ago. My nephew collects rocks and I felt that he'd love having one from down here. I put the rock in my bag and carried on. As we entered the Phantom Ranch area, We spotted a deer right on the trail. A lizard in a tree (we'd been seeing these all day), but it was a cool remind roy how thriving life actually is down here in the frying pan.
As we reach the main canteen at Phantom Ranch we notice it's closed. It's dinner time in the hole and we still have a long way to go. I knew I wasn't going to be back by 9pm so I needed to call Sarah to let her know. I made my way to the pay phone and placed a collect call. When it asked for my name I said, "John - Phantom Ranch- OK." I knew a collect call from the ranch would be expensive, but relaying my message in my name would simply inform Sarah of what she needs to know. I heard the operator talking to Sarah on the other end "you have a collect call from... John, Phantom Ranch, Ok" and then the price "this call will cost $8.99" I knew the message was received and so I hung up.
I drank the last of that soda I bought on the South Rim and refilled all of my hand helds' and bladders. By the end of this adventure, I had drank over 500oz. of water. That's 4 gallons... think about that! Then I passed around some more of the bacon I had left in my bag which ended up being a huge hit. The fat in the bacon was an instant pick-me-up and got everyone moving. Jeremy was rinsing his socks and preparing for what looking like a bath. We knew he'd spend a bit more time at the Ranch. He was the only one with a head lamp. AJ and I knew we had to get going.. so we took off without him. Before leaving, I grabbed the rope that rings the dinner bell at the ranch and pulled down on it. "CLANG!" As soon as I did it I started off for the trail again, felt like a bit of a rebel.
Right as we were leaving Phantom Ranch, another trekker told us he had been waiting for his friend Nate to appear from the North Rim. If we see him out there, let him know they were waiting for him. We never saw a Nate on our way out of the canyon.. I still wonder what happened to him and his buddies who were waiting for him.
For the next few hours, AJ and I would put the pedal down. The first 9 miles from Phantom Ranch to Roaring Springs is all uphill, but most of it has an easy enough grade that you can run it. There are some flat sections and small downhills thrown in the mix. We knew we had 2 hours until it got dark in the canyon.. without a headlamp, we wanted to get as close to the top.. if not at the top, before it happened. I wasn't worried.. I'm not afraid of the dark. But I did want to get out at a reasonable time. The average time it takes a mid-pack runner to complete a R2R2R is 14-16 hours... for the traditional 42-46 mile route. We were taking on a 53 mile journey that was much tougher then we anticipated. Needless to say, there was little talking.. and just a lot of working.
The sun continued to set, yet it stayed in the 80's down here in the canyon. The array of colors the setting sun displayed against the canyon walls was incredible. I felt like I was beneath the fires of hell, looking up for escape. The shadows in the canyon grew longer and the winds began to pick up ever so slightly. At one point, a guy walking down towards Phantom stopped us and asked us if we had headlamps. When we said no, he was appalled and was ready to scold us. I didn't have time to talk and debate with him though, so we took off. Jeremy eventually caught up shortly after and we all took a short break as we stared in at Ribbon Falls.
After our break we pushed on, making quick time back to Cottonwood Campground with the nasty smelling bathroom. As we pushed passed the campground, a camper noticed us. He smiled, waved and then said, "Keep pushing.. only 7 miles to go." It was kind of discouraging to hear the mileage. I had talked myself into believing that we had less then that.. even though the facts say different. We decided to take a break to share Jeremy's final orange. He took it out and brandished a knife. He cut the orange into halves. Then cut one half into quarters, giving AJ and I the pieces. We all sucked down the orange and decided to just keep moving. AJ and I led the way into Roaring Springs.
Upon arriving at Roaring Springs, we saw a heavier gentleman sitting on a bench next to the spigots. We stopped to top off our water bottles while I engaged the man in Conversation. He asked, "Where you boys heading?"
"My name is Sam, do you mind giving my wife a message for me?"
"Sure Sam.. what's her name and the message."
"My wife's name is Liz and she'll be waiting for me. Just tell her that I decided to stay the night down here."
We then started asking Sam questions about his decision which we all knew wasn't the best. He was tired, attempting his 16th R2R adventure. Yet, he is admittedly out of shape but had run out of gas. Thing is.. Sam was still talking fine and full of good humor. We knew he had energy left. We asked what he had for the night, "I have a space blanket and a few long sleeve shirts." We knew the night time temperature was going to drop into the 30's here, and that if had stayed the night, Sam would likely freeze to death or run into troubles with Hypothermia after a day in the heat.
Without question, Jeremy stepped up and handed AJ and I his headlamp. Sam had some extras in his pack, and then.. Jeremy convinced Sam that he would lead him to the top of the rim. "What are you.. some kind of salesman?!" I guess Jeremy kind of is. Before you know it.. AJ and I had a headlamp to share and Jeremy had stayed behind to walk Sam out of the hole. In all honesty.. there is no question that Jeremy saved this mans life.
Heaven or Hell?
AJ and I continued to push hard up the final climb out of the Grand Canyon. 4.7 Miles from Roaring Springs. 4,000+ Feet of climb to go at nearly a 12.5% grade, with switchbacks, the entire time. This is why most folks start and end this adventure on the South Rim. But that's the easy way out. We took on the challenge of this place. 53 Miles instead of 42, and finishing on the North instead of the South. The higher we climbed the darker it got. I pushed as far as my night eyes would allow me. It was almost ruined by other hikers who shined a bright spotlight into my eyes and forced me to cover my eyes and look away. I still had it though.. and we pushed on until AJ could't see anymore. It was well passed sunset at this point and I was surprised we'd made it this far. I stopped and took out the headlamp and handed it to AJ. He put it on, turned it on, and illuminated the trail for both of us.
For the next 3 miles, I tried my best to figure out the movements of AJ behind me so that I could dodge the light so he could illuminate the trail just for a second for me. Otherwise, I was looking at my shadow and seeing nothing. Whenever I could get a glimpse of what was ahead, I'd take a mental picture of it and go. This worked rather well for the rest of our climb but it was incredibly exhausting. The winds blowing down from the 8000' rim's edge were bone chilling. The temps were dropping like a rock. 2 Hours ago it was 80 degrees, I'd say it's not in the 50's and approaching the 40s fast. The temperature swings of the day wreaked havoc on my body. Things were not happy.
I continued to slow down. I was falling asleep on my feet from exhaustion. I made a critical mistake. In smelling the barn and the top of the canyon.. I stopped eating and drinking some time ago. Nothing tasted good anymore anyway. But the mistake has cost me a lot of energy. I push my body further until I am forced to take breaks and lean in on my poles. 2 Miles from the top, I finally look at AJ and admit to him that, "I'm wrecked." I'm not sure, even today, that AJ understand how wrecked this cat needs to be to admit that. So I told him, "I've done some difficult things in my day. Pushed myself to my limits and then some multiple times. This is by far one of the hardest things I've ever done."
I pushed forward, counting paces. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.. then take two steps and count again. It was all I could do to trick my body into moving forward and pushing through the fatigue. I wasn't in pain, or hurting or any of the like.. I was just exhausted. At one point I sat down on a rock and asked AJ to turn the headlamp off. We saw how dark the canyon truly is in the night. I've never seen a dark so dark even with the stars out. We were glad to have one headlamp because without it.. we would't be moving at all. And yet at this moment.. I wanted to just sleep here. I was done.. convinced I couldn't go any further. So I stood up, turned up trail.. and walked some more.
At Cocochino Point, I knew the top was a mere half mile from here. I tried to kick it into full gear yet at to stop still to catch my breath. The winds were so cold, I had to throw my long sleeve shirt back on. I think AJ was shivering, and then we began to think and worry about Jeremy and Sam. Just then, we saw the sign at the Trailhead.. we'd done it. "Sam?!" A voice came down from above.. "No.. but I know where he is. I'll tell you if you give us a ride to our campsite!" And just like that.. it was done. We were in a pick-up truck with the heat on high. Explaining to Sam's wife and father where he was and who was with him. I could barely get the words out, but I managed. We poured out of the truck at our campsite. Where AJ and I rinsed in the camps sinks. I made Egg McMuffins again, and AJ cooked some fatty steaks on an open fire. I fell asleep in my camp chair almost instantly, waking up only long enough to eat the delicious meat. I ate half of it, and put the rest on Jeremy's driver seat in his car for when he returned... 2 whole hours after us.. with Sam in tow.
This was by far one of the toughest, yet most rewarding/incredible, journeys I've ever embarked on. It was worth every minute. 4 Gallons of fluid, 108 degrees temps, bitter cold winds, countless other trekkers. The canyon, the Colorado River.. indescribable. I'll return to take on this adventure again. I'll be as trained if not trained more for it.. as it is more difficult an adventure then most think. And yet.. the magic that lies within the canyon is life altering. We're all better for having been "out there", daring to journey within.