I can’t even begin to explain how excited I was as we were preparing in the early morning darkness for what would end up being one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. We were making final adjustments to our gear, getting down some food, and relishing in the anxious energy for what was ahead. We piled into a couple of cars and were off to the Bright Angel Trail head to start or rim to rim to rim traverse of the Grand Canyon!
As an aspiring ultra-runner, I have been looking for ways to push my limits and strengthen my physical capabilities. This was the perfect opportunity. There were seven like minded fools, which should be taken as none other than the highest of compliments, who were on board for the 50+ mile jaunt through some of the most stunningly rugged terrain in the nation, Eric, Chris F., Charles, Kari, Joy, Chris G., and myself.
We had made a spectacular trip through some amazing country, passing through Moab, and Monument Valley. We enjoyed a leisurely drive and arrived at the big hole just as dusk was setting in. We raced to the rim for a first glimpse of the challenge we had all elected to spill in our own laps. I don’t think I have ever been as excited. We then made it to camp and retired to our tent for an early night.
The next day was spent sightseeing. We went for a little hike along the rim, which turned out to be more of a shuttle bus ride than anything. The temps were pretty warm so we headed back to camp for some preparations and some cold beer. We made a huge dinner of pasta and all of the fixin’s and ate until we were very full. Double checking of gear and anxious banter filled the camp until we retired for a few hours of shut-eye before our 2:30 wake up call.
My alarm went off a couple of times before I heard others moving about. I threw on my shirt, put some socks on and hopped out of the tent and into my shoes. I was ready, save a few minutes for a granola bar or two and an Ensure.
Now, back to the Bright Angel trail head. To make this trek an official 50 miler we had to run the Rim Trail over to the South Kaibab Trail, which we would descend to the Colorado River and the North Kaibab Trail which would take us to the lofty reaches of the North Rim. We would return the same way but take to Bright Angel Trail up the South Rim which would spit us out at the bumper of the car. 51 miles and 11,200 feet of elevation gain (and loss) to go. Damn. The butterflies were strong.
We all took off at a leisurely pace for the 5 miles of Rim Trail. It took us a few minutes on the other side of an hour to reach the South Kaibab trail head. After a GU & pee break, we began the descent into the black abyss. The trail dropped in grand style and we were making great time through the darkness of this cool May morning. The switchbacks were many and we were well into the canyon as the first red light kissed the canyon walls above us. How spectacular. I was in awe. There is such a different perspective from inside the canyon. From the rims everything blends together. You can tell there is a huge hole in the ground, but it does well to reveal its true character only to those who venture into its heart.
It was a dusty haul before we came to Skeleton Point, where we dropped steeply toward the Tonto Plateau passing a couple of Mule trains bound for Phantom Ranch. We were soon at the Tipoff and descended the final 1,500 feet to the river below. Crossing on the Black Bridge we could see Phantom Ranch, the first water stop and where we began the 14 mile ascent to the North Rim.
We had all stayed fairly close together until this point, but Eric, Chris F., and Joy took off and pulled away from myself, Kari, Chris G., and Charles. We were content to keep a steady and manageable pace and kept plodding onward. The next 6.3 miles would take us up the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Camp. I felt like Kari and I made good time, running a vast majority of the way. Charles was not far behind, but this is where Chris had his low point of the day. He was in a funk so took his time getting to Cottonwood. As Kari and I pulled in, Chris F., Eric and Joy were heading out. We wished them well as Charles arrived, followed by Chris G. about 5 minutes later.
Soon thereafter Kari headed on up for the final 7ish miles to the North Rim. After another dowsing of cold water form the faucet I too began the climb. This is where the climbing began in earnest, 5,200 feet in the last 7 miles and most of that in the last few. There were two water stops before the Supai Tunnel. One at a beautifully shaded spot and one just beyond at Roaring Springs. I thought we were going to meet at Roaring Springs for the next water stop so I just dunked my head and sipped out of the faucet at the first spot and then went on up the trail toward Roaring Springs a mile beyond.
This is when the heat really began to crank up. The trail began to steepen and became more exposed as the sun rose high above the canyon walls. At some point I had passed Kari and knew I was in between the three speed demons and the 3 behind me. I didn’t like the idea of being alone so I was going to just wait at Roaring Springs for Kari, Chris and Charles. I was rising high above the floor of Roaring Springs Canyon when I noticed the Roaring Springs camp far below. I started to get very concerned because I was almost out of water (I had been rationing, planning to refill at Roaring Springs) and I had no idea how to get down there. I finally found a trail and went down it about 10 minutes. It didn’t feel right so I made a decision to turn back and head to the shady water spicket a mile below. If I didn’t see the rest of the crew I would just head back to Phantom Ranch. Luckily, after climbing back out of the spur trail and a bit down the North Kaibab I ran into Kari, Chris and Charles. Whew. I was very relieved not to be alone. So onward we went.
Charles was feeling great so I followed him as he led up the endless switchbacks setting a blistering pace. He gave me some of his water and doused my neck a time or two to cool me off. This was my low point of the day. The next hour and a half was horrid for me. I got very nauseated and I could tell my core temp was rising pretty rapidly. We came to a bridge spanning the upper reaches up the spur canyon we were climbing and knew the tunnel, and life giving water, was only a mile away. This was the longest mile I have ever hiked in my life. I was so hot, the heat was radiating off of the red rock and dirt and I was out of water. The endless switchbacks didn’t help. Up and up and up. I thought we had gone far more than a mile. I had to stop and let my stomach settle or I was going to lose what little fluids still sat tight. Just when we thought there had to be a tunnel above the next switchback, a few more would magically pop out of the landscape. Finally I hear Charles let out a sigh of relief as we turned corner and the dark coolness of the tunnel greeted us. Charles sat tight in the tunnel as I made a dash for the grace of the water spicket. It was amazing to put my head under the running water and drink to let its coolness do its work on the inside.
The nausea didn’t go away and I strongly considered turning back. Chris and Kari soon arrived and Kari had decided she had had enough. She was heading down. After kicking the idea around I figured at best, heading up will keep me in relatively cooler temps (80’s) for longer, possibly letting my body regulate itself.
So 1.7 miles to go and a meager 1,400 feet of gain! I took off up the trail at a slow pace with Charles, and Chris was only a few seconds behind. I began to feel a bit better so picked up the pace and made it to the North Rim in about 45 minutes, which I was very pleased with. But right when I sat down, the nausea came back in full force. I almost lost my lunch (which was half of a peanut butter and honey sandwich) a few times. Chris and Charles were soon with me and we were whining about having to do this all over again, right now. Charles began to feel pretty bad at this point saying that he should have turned back at Cottonwood. Nothing for it now though, there’s only one acceptable way out of this canyon.
In fear that I would vomit in front of some back-packers I stood up and began the descent. Once moving again I began to feel better and was soon running down the trail. Chris must have been feeling better as he caught me very quickly and we made quick work of the trail back to Supai Tunnel. It took us 30 minutes and we sat in the shade drinking until Charles arrived. We all began the descent back to the shady water spicket, running a vast majority of the way. The heat was really coming on strong now and Charles was beginning to feel the effects pretty drastically. We refilled and took a break at the water stop and decided to bypass Cottonwood and head on to Phantom Ranch to meet back up with Kari for the climb up the South Rim.
All was going well. We were all jogging down the trail and making good time. The heat was getting a bit worse so we decided to walk until we reached the box, which we were hoping would provide some relief from the heat (stupid thought). We were jog/hiking down the trail and had gone a considerable distance without speaking, kind of in our own worlds I guess. I would look back every so often and see Charles a few hundred yards behind us. But on one particularly long stretch I looked back and he was nowhere. This was a bit concerning because I could see over a half mile. I sat on a rock and waited for him and Chris, feeling nauseous, had to keep moving. So I told him we’d meet at Phantom Ranch and regroup there.
So I waited, and waited, and waited. I began to get very concerned. I figured one of two things. Either he was stopped talking to the rim to river to rim crew on the radio(which was unlikely) or that he had stopped to get in the river. As time went on the unthinkable kept crossing my mind, that he had fainted from the heat. Just as I began to head back up the trail he turned a corner. I waved. He waived back. I gave an “okay” sign. He made a big “X” with his arms. I ran up the trail to him and he was in pretty bad shape. He had stopped to cool himself off, but said he was hallucinating, nauseous, and completely void of energy. At one point he pointed out people washing their hair in the river, but there was no one. I assured him that we were in no hurry and we would just take our time to get to a safe spot to rest.
We’d stop so he could get in Bright Angel Creek, I doused his bandanas a couple of times and we’d take the necessary dry heave break as needed. The going was slow, but he was staying steady, which was a huge relief to me. This section, know as “the box” was unrelenting. It’s made up of black shiest and radiates heat very well. It was scorching. According to Eric, it was 113 as he was at Phantom Ranch just an hour before. There was a breeze, but it did nothing but to dry the sweat from your body as it was a hot breeze at best.
Once we were close to Phantom Ranch I ran on ahead to inform Chris (and hopefully Kari) what the situation was. They were there and in great spirits feeling better. We decided that we should get Charles in the river, get a lot of water down him, get him to eat and then wait until dusk before attempting to make the climb up the South Rim.
Before too long, Charles arrived and we took a couple of hours to just chill out. We soaked our feet in the creek and drank a lot of water. Soon enough, Charles was shouldering his pack. We all looked at each other knowing what faced us and plodded towards the Colorado River.
We crossed the Silver Bridge and made our way along a sandy Bright Angel Trail to begin our ascent. It was getting darker, but not much cooler. We worked our way up the Garden Creek drainage at a leisurely pace. Chris was in the lead making sure the pace stayed manageable for everyone. Charles followed, and Kari was in front of me as I took up the rear.
This was the first time in many hours that I was enjoying the day. I knew Charles would be okay. Chris and I had been getting stronger as the day went on and Kari had mobbed past her funk. Charles was in capable hands and seemed to be staying steady, if not getting stronger. The desert came alive with the arrival of nightfall. The frogs along the creek sung their song in honor of our passing, bats began their quest of fighting off the bugs that would surly have attacked, and the scorpions cleared the trail of harmful villains. We even had a rattlesnake bid us safe passage as we climbed toward the huge shadow of a wall in front of us. As you can tell, I was in high spirits and kept myself busy thinking of the desert creatures as various fictional personalities. Okay, so maybe a little loopy, but I had just traveled 40+ miles through the Grand Canyon in 110+ degree heat. I had earned a little “loopy.”
However my mind wondered, I kept a close eye on those in my party. We were doing great considering. We stopped to let Charles soak in the creek again, which I think was probably his favorite moment of the entire trip. I encourage you to read his wonderful report of the days events, including this particular creek soak here.
We stopped for a water refill and a rest on some very comfortable benches at Indian Gardens. We were all commenting on how we could easily sleep right there and hike out the following morning. How good it would feel to just stop moving for the night! I think it was here that Charles got down a GU and drank a lot of water. He felt the effects too. He was doing much better and his stomach seemed to handle it pretty well.
We continued up with only 4.5 miles to go. It was a disheartening feeling being able to see the silhouette of the canyon rim in the stars. I knew we didn’t have far to go but the top was so far above us. It was going to be a hard earned escape.
I think it was after the 3 mile hut that Charles went downhill again. We were all hurting at this point, pretty badly. But Charles pulled over and lost all of the water that he had downed just a bit before. He spent a few minutes vomiting as we looked on feeling so bad for him. But after this he felt a lot better and the pace picked up a bit. It was here that I had one final bonk. I got very cold and began sweating profusely. I began to see red and blue spots and had some pretty serious dizzy spells (and this was not the place to be feeling dizzy, as the drops off the trail were significant). I remembered that Kari had a bottle of Gatorade in her pack. Water didn’t taste good to me anymore and I wanted a little sugar kick. It was like gold! I sat down for a minute, slammed the Gatorade and a GU and within a minute or two was as good as, well, as good as I could expect being in my 48 th mile of the day!
We actually made quick work of the rest of the trail, and grew ever more excited as the lights on the canyon rim grew closer and brighter. I will never forget the sounds of Kari’s cheers of joy, “yes, YES, we’re here!!” and of Charles’ sobbing as we topped out of the Grand Canyon! We had done it! What started out as an Ultra-running event had turned into an epic death march of 51 miles and over 11,000 feet of elevation gain that took 21 hours and 15 minutes.
We took some hero shots and gingerly drove back to the campsite where we were soon off our feet thanking God that things had turned out as good as they did.
Joy did amazingly well! She crossed in roughly 15:30. An amazing effort in my opinion due to the heat. She has an impressive resume of Ultra's (7 Leadville finishes, I believe, and running Western States this Summer).
Eric and Chris F. ran into similar troubles. They were among the strongest of the 7 that were running and made great time. However, the heat caught up to them as they were heading into Phantom Ranch and both got very ill. Joy stayed with Eric until Chris arrived and both Eric and Chris spent quite a bit of time cooling off in the river, alternating vomiting episodes. They managed to muster up the courage to ascend the South Rim and both had a rough go. Night time was a welcome relief but still, at 9:00 pm it was 87 degrees at Indian Gardens. They finished with a time of 20:40.
The rim to river to rim crew had troubles of their own. They descended as we did via South Kaibab and went all the way to Phantom Ranch. Here they took a break, assume they had some of the famous lemonade and began the ascent. The rim to river to rimers included Andy, hid dad Jim, Amy (Charles' wife), Seth, Sarah and Todd, who ventured up toward Cottonwood Camp hoping to meet us coming down. He made it just beyond the box and turned back due to the heat. We never saw him. Amy had some trouble, as did everyone else. They all took turns carrying her pack and making sure she was hydrated and her clothes were wet. They maintained a steady pace and made the round trip in about 13:30 . Todd caught back up to them just below the rim and all were back safe and sound.
We were joking before about the signs at all of the trail heads preaching the dangers of crossing the canyon, telling of the 250+ rescues that happen each year, and explaining what happens to your brain at 105 degrees. They all talked of the “young and invincible” and how they get into trouble. The pictures were of cheesy scenes with strapping young lads tumbling off a cliff, or laying unconscious with a woman pleading hopelessly for help. Those signs are no joke.
In my opinion we lucked out having grossly underestimated the effects the heat would have on us. Luckily we were all strong enough to pull through and make it out alive or at best without having to get rescued. Solid teamwork, steady minds and good character all played a role in getting through this.
My writing fails to even come close to the magnitude of how I truly see what transpired. I was honestly scared for Charles’ life at a few points throughout the day. And after meeting back up with Kari at Phantom, also felt we dodged a cannon ball in her case. It seems like Eric and Chris ahd luck on their side as well.
As others have said, I wish we had done some more research on how to handle heat exhaustion. I think we all handled it well, but it was stupid not to be well versed in prevention and treatment.
The variance in temperature is extreme. We knew it would be hot, but had no idea we would see temps in the 110’s. If we knew it was going to be that hot, I’d like to think that we would have called it off. I’m glad that I have this experience, but it could have been had at a great cost. Definitely not worth it.
With that said, I am extremely proud to have this kind of adventure under my belt, and especially proud to have shared it with such fine people. While I didn’t know everyone too well I knew enough that I felt safe traveling with any and all of them through such a harsh environment. They all proved their worth 51 times over and I would feel confident suffering in their presence at anytime.
Please do not throw dog food at Condors or any other endangered species (silly man in jorts). Thanks.
I strongly encourage you to read the other's trip reports and browse their photos. Click on their names to read what they had to say about this unforgettable day.
You can see more of my sub-par photos HERE.
|until next time...|
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