It’s 2am when my alarm rings. Even though I’m uncomfortably scooped up under a sleeping bag in the back of my rental car I have little desire to get up. I hit snooze a few times and finally crawl into the driver’s seat at 4am, leaving another two hours until dawn – just enough time to reach the Grand Canyon before sunrise. 100 miles and several coffee pit stops later I’m parked in the El Tovar parking lot, less than a hundred yards from the south rim. Thanks to my extended car nap I’m behind schedule before even starting the run and yet it takes a few minutes of imaginary pep talk for me to gear up and muster the courage to open the car door, for it is bitter cold and windy outside. In the end determination wins out over wimpiness, and I head out into the freezing dawn.
From the parking lot I jog along the rim down towards Bright Angel Trail, past tourists waiting for the sunrise, bundled up in big coats and boots and hats. They glance at me curiously as I run by seemingly underdressed in my tights, thin primaloft and baseball hat, hydration pack on my back. And I feel underdressed – the wind gusts atop the rim are brutally cold – despite gloves, headband, leg warmers and an icebreaker top underneath my jacket. Thankfully the wind-exposed section down to the trailhead is short.
about to head into the canyon’s depths
I drop in at 6:45am. The sun has yet to rise but there already is enough light for my headlamp to be superfluous. As expected I find the top section of Bright Angel Trail covered in snow and ice but I am moving reasonably fast regardless, trusting the profile on my Salomon Fellcross to keep me safe; I only break for some exposed hair pin turns. Now protected from the wind I am warming up quickly, and I feel good about the run right up until I encounter the first stretch of black ice. My shoes are no match for this kind of challenge so I slow down to gingerly dance across the offending trail sections. A French hiker is gaining on me; I step aside to let him pass, then wipe out shortly thereafter. No harm done, but I have no desire to have some preventable injury end my run before it has even truly begun. I curtail my pace even further, crawling past the 1.5 mile and 3 mile rest houses. After the second rest house the trail condition improves, allowing me to start running. I come into Indian Gardens (4.6 miles) at an hour and eleven minutes, thoroughly warmed up and hungry; it is shortly before 8am. To gain the North Rim and return here I’m facing a roundtrip of 40 miles with roughly 19,000ft of elevation change. Up on the rim the sun sets at 6:30pm, meaning I should have some light in the canyon until about 7pm. 11hrs for 40 miles and 19,000ft… it’s a calculated bet, but to minimize weight I decide to stash my headlamp at Indian Gardens along with my base layer, a bottle of Gatorade and an emergency cliff bar. I know that Indian Gardens sees heavy traffic during the day so I am careful to stash everything a bit off from the designated day use area, in a recognizable spot but hidden under rocks, out of sight for strangers.
sunrise on the way to Indian Gardens
After Indian Gardens my next destination is Phantom Ranch via Devil’s Corkscrew. Having been up and down here twice before I feel like I know this section of the trail well, and the conditions are perfect now. I am running in mild temperatures through shady groves, beneath steep rock formations along a deeply in-cut creek, on a gently sloped single track trail that’s technical and exposed enough to keep things interesting but not so technical that it’s back-breaking. I run along lonesome at a fast clip and let out the occasional holler out of pure joy. THIS is why I run.
down towards the inner canyon
Once I get to the top of Devil’s Corkscrew I see hikers coming up far below, no doubt on their way back up after a night at Phantom Ranch. I take a minute to catch my breath and take a few pictures, then head down into the switchbacks. I pass maybe a dozen hikers, and before I know it I’m down by the river. Oncoming traffic is picking up as I make it to Phantom Ranch in only two hours and fifteen minutes. Not too bad for 9.6 miles of technical trails the first third of which was covered in snow and ice.
I stop at Phantom Ranch to refill my hydration pack and handheld, which I’ve been carrying as backup because I know that there’s no water past the Ranch. From here to the North Rim and back it’s about 27 miles with 11,600ft of total elevation change, and it’s uncharted territory for me: I’ve never been beyond Phantom Ranch. In characteristic fashion I’ve also not bothered looking at maps to prepare; I’ve read a trip report or two, and am now simply trusting the trail to be well-marked and unambiguous. Beyond Phantom Ranch the first few miles of the North Kaibab Trail lead along the bottom of Bright Angel Canyon; the trail is fairly flat but follows Bright Angel Creek in a tight, steep, sunless canyon that seems to never end. When I finally emerge on the other end it almost feels as if I’ve entered a different world: I’m still deep inside the Grand Canyon, but now find myself in a wide, open valley that has none of the steepness or feeling of enormousness that the central South Rim brings with it. Yet I know that up ahead is a tough, tough climb up to the North Rim with plenty of steepness. First, though, I stop briefly at Ribbon Falls Trail Junction to stash my handheld so I can use the remainder of it (maybe 250ml) as emergency water supply for the last five miles to Phantom Ranch on the way back. The next several miles go by in an uneventful manner – I come by Cottonwood Campground and Roaring Springs Trail Junction, slower now because I’m going uphill, because it’s warm and because I’m starting to feel that I’ve been on the move for about 5hrs even though I still feel strong overall. At Roaring Springs I see a message board with warnings about ice further up the trail and the recommendation to use cleats. I don’t have any but am not particularly worried – how much worse than the South Rim will it get? If nothing else I can always turn back early…
the message board at Roaring Springs
Then I meet Gerd. Shortly after Roaring Springs I see a hiker coming down the trail, moving fast. He’s wearing braces on both knees and looks like he knows what he’s doing. Given that he’s coming down from the North Rim at 11:15am he must either be doing a staunch day hike from Phantom Ranch to the rim and back, or an R2R2R . As we start chatting it turns out that he’s not only indeed doing a double crossing (starting from the South Rim at 1:30am, when I was blissfully asleep in the back of my car some 2hrs away from the canyon) but that this is, in fact, his 64th R2R2R. And, of course, he’s also German and originally from Wuerzburg, a city about 45 minutes from where I grew up; we bond easily. He warns me about a short but critical icy section further up the trail that may turn around anyone who doesn’t have proper equipment and insists I borrow his cleats, which I finally accept with the promise of returning them at night. I write down his number and am on my way again, newly acquired cleats in hand. The trail is getting steeper. I know I must be about 5 miles from the rim; my progress seems to be slowing steadily. When I finally come across the iced-up section that Gerd described I hesitate – the issue is not so much that there is ice on the trail (there is plenty) but the curtains of icicles that are looming large from an overhang 60ft above the trail. It is those curtains of death that are responsible for the ice on the ground, as water is dripping off their tips straight onto the trail. What’s more, there is a significant amount of ice avalanche debris on the trail and just below it, evidence of the curtains’ instability throughout the last few days of melt weather. As I consider the path forward I realize that I don’t like the risk of an ice avalanche from above, which would not only have the potential of injuring me critically (nobody told me that a winter R2R2R requires a helmet!) but could also easily sweep me off the narrow trail into the abyss below. Assessing likelihood vs consequence I decide that a straight crossing is not an option, and ponder my alternatives – do I need to turn back? In the end I squeeze through a wet but safe tunnel on the inside of the trail right behind a lower set of icicle curtains, guarded from the threat above through some overhanging rock. I don’t even need Gerd’s cleats for this maneuver, and stash them on the other side of the icy patch to not drag unnecessary weight up the final miles to the rim.
the icy patch
By now I can feel the exertion. The final section up to the North Rim is a blur, with the exception of coming across another three R2R2R runners at least one of whom is from Texas – he’s wearing a Rocky Raccoon shirt so I strike up a short conversation with him. The trail is in desperate need of maintenance in a few areas: winter has taken its toll and several sections have suffered from serious rock slides, being close to impassable. Regardless of those obstacles though I progress upwards and soon find myself on the final mile, now pushing on through continuous snow cover. I don’t have to break trail, but even trying to put one foot in front of the other is starting to feel hard. I keep moving and finally top out at the trailhead at 6 hours and 59 minutes. 7 hours was my lose target for the south-north crossing – happiness all around.
final miles to the North Rim trailhead
I spend all but two minutes looking around, take a few pictures and snack on a victory pack of raspberry power drops before heading back down. Thankfully going downhill in continuous snow cover is a lot easier than going uphill, and as the calories are kicking in I’m starting to perk up. I’m moving quickly until the snow turns into slippery mud – this feels just like Tough Guy in real life. I wipe out once more but still make fairly good progress. My main worry at this point is that I can feel myself getting tired; my mental acuity is decreasing (it’s taking me ever longer to think about my splits and pace), and it’s getting harder for me to pick up the pace even on easy, gentle downhill stretches. I know I have the necessary reserves to get back to the South Rim, but I need to concentrate to not forget any of the gear I have stashed along the way – particularly Gerd’s cleats! Most importantly I really want to be back at Indian Gardens before nightfall, since I am not carrying a headlamp. Given my current pace I’ll be cutting it close.
After an hour I’m back at the icy patch. I retrieve Gerd’s cleats, squeeze through the same protected tunnel that I chose on the way up, and am on my way. I have to ration my water now as I still have a long way to go to Phantom Ranch, but fuel up on cliff bars to restore my energy. The plan works out as intended: I soon find myself running again through the valley leading up to Ribbon Falls, overtaking the Rocky Raccoon runner as I go. The terrain is easing up, the weather is perfect, I managed the North Rim in 7 hours… my spirits are lifting. The only downside is my limited water supply: I’m out of water right as I come up on the stashed handheld, but even the emergency backup is barely enough to get me through to Phantom Ranch. I slow down and ration my sips over the next hour and a half, looking forward to reaching the ranch.
When I get to Phantom Ranch 10.5 hours into my run I find out that I managed to hit the dinner window, the one time when the ranch canteen is closed to non-guests. Earlier dreams of splurging on a coke or Fanta disintegrate, but just being able to refill on water and drink to my heart’s content is quite something. A few ranch guests who saw me run by earlier in the day come up to ask about what I’m doing (or rather why I’m doing it), but I cut the conversation short to make it back to Indian Gardens before dark.
back at the river shortly before sunset
I hike along the river as the sun is setting, and get up Devil’s Corkscrew feeling surprisingly strong. The light is fading now. I’ve got about a mile left to Indian Gardens, and even though I have a flashlight function on my iPhone I don’t really want to use it unless absolutely necessary. I hike through the last bits of light and reach Indian Gardens just as it is getting too dark to see the trail. Relieved about the timing and looking forward to some electrolytes (stashed Gatorade!) I walk up to the spot where I hid my headlamp and the bottle of Gatorade and find… nothing. I’m startled, not quite trusting my sense of orientation given that I’ve been on the move for over twelve hours now. I get my iPhone flashlight and carefully look around for the cues that I memorized earlier in the day to ensure I wouldn’t miss my stash. Sure enough – I’m looking in the right place and remember exactly where my headlamp should be, but there’s nothing. I search for about ten minutes until I reluctantly admit to myself that my stash is gone – Gatorade, cliff bar, icebreaker top and, most importantly, my headlamp. Probably $200 all in all, but the worst part is that I now don’t have a light to hike out with; my iPhone battery will only support the flashlight app for 30-40 minutes. I am baffled at who in their right mind would steal or move an obvious runner’s stash with critical supplies, but now see myself faced with a big decision: bivvy at Indian Gardens (I am carrying a windbreaker, an emergency blanket and a bivvy bag), or hike out without a light. In the end my decision-making process is cut short as I see a number of headlamps moving out on the trail. It seems like they may be on their way back up; maybe I can catch up and tag along. So I get going, only to realize soon that the headlamps didn’t belong to hikers but to campers who are staying in Indian Gardens. Regardless – at this point I’m committed to making it back out; after all I’ve got only 4.6 miles to go and Gerd’s cleats for the dicey black ice sections further up.
To preserve my phone battery I hike in the dark. It takes time for my eyes to adjust, but in the end I manage to hike almost solidly at a slow pace while the trail is reasonably flat, losing my footing only a few times. The moon won’t rise until past midnight but the sky is cloudless; at least the stars are providing a bare minimum of light. As the trail becomes steeper and more technical it gets harder to hike in the pitch black, but I know I still don’t have enough battery power to tide me over to the rim. I slow down even more, gingerly stepping across obstacles I barely recognize in the dark. I lose the trail a few times but finally make it to the 3 miles rest house. If I was fresh I know I could force the upcoming steep three miles in about 40 minutes, but I feel the opposite of fresh. So instead of switching on the flashlight I put on Gerd’s cleats, and keep hiking slowly and gingerly in the dark. Another hour or so later I come up on the 1.5 miles rest house, where I finally get to use the flashlight. Even though I now can see where I am stepping I am still moving slow, feeling physically and emotionally drained. The reassuring crunch-crunch-crunch of Gerd’s cleats in the snow and ice paces my breathing. I’m trying to keep my mind empty, especially since the other alternative is my silent (or not-so-silent) cursing whoever took my stash at Indian Gardens. My Suunto has died by now; other than my exhaustion-distorted feeling I don’t have any conception of how fast I’m moving or how far I have to go. And then, about half an hour later, I take a turn and suddenly see the bright lights of the South Rim lodges only 100ft above me. Relieved, exhausted and happy I reach the trailhead at Kolb Studio at 14 hours and 58 minutes, about an hour slower than the time I was tracking towards before the headlamp debacle. Close to 50 miles and 21,300ft of elevation change; conditions running the full gamut with snow, ice, heat, dehydration and two hours of hiking in the pitch black. What an adventure!
15hrs after I set out, a tired blur. home safe!