Monday, May 10, 2010

Grand Canyon : R2R2R

The Grand Canyon is one of those place that resides on everybody's bucket list. And to see it right, perfectly right, you should travel from rim to rim. And to create humility, add the double for R2R2R. Joyce and I checked it off our list on May 1st, 2010. It took is awhile, but we did get it done...


R2R2R (Rim to Rim to Rim)
Grand Canyon, AZ
1 May 2010

The plan to start at 3:30 AM is not my idea. None of it is. All of it is on Fred. He made the plans, booked the hotels, shuttle van, and even did the front work on the airline itinerary. It's hard to pass when somebody else makes all the arrangements, so Joyce and I sign up for all of it, including the 3:30 start. Turns out, there are eight of us are doing the double, with nine others doing some other variation of the canyon. Fly on Friday, Canyon on Saturday, Sedona on Sunday, and Home on Monday. Our hotel, the Maswik, is a sweet deal too: just a short 3/10ths from Bright Angel trailhead. We've been friends with Fred & Paige for a very long time and this is the perfect opportunity to stay connected. R2R2R with good friends is hard to beat. Joyce and I attempted the double crossing years ago on a very hot July day and aborted at Cottonwood, so I have an itch to scratch also.

South Rim to North Rim and back appears to be 48 miles. Add in Maswik and it's dead on. 24 over and 24 back. I've got plenty of time, so its really just about the water. I'm not sure what Fred or the others have in mind, but for the simplicity of it, and being able to use only two water bottles, I've split the route up from water to water. Indian Gardens, the River, and Cottonwood. And just to be safe, I stuff an empty water bladder in the bottom of my pack as well.

The forecast looked pretty cold, so I bring a variety of hats, gloves, jackets, and shirts. But, the expected cold freeze is not as bad as expected, so I scale down on my wardrobe for the day. Still, we are all bundled up pretty good when we slip into the canyon. And it doesn't take long before we peel off and pack it away for later. I usually run very well in the dark and especially love to run downhills, but I'm hanging with the group today, so I settle into a conversational stroll. We pass the 1.5 mile Rest House, and then the 3 mile Rest House in the dark. Everybody's pretty excited with finally getting started, so there's a lot of conversation back and forth as well as with a few other groups who seem to be all starting around the same time. Its still dark when we roll into Indian Gardens, so we try to keep quiet. Some top off their water and others rearrange their gear. For me, its the first of many stop and waits. We're only 4.5 miles into the canyon and have already dropped from 6800 ft to 3800 ft. Its not cold any longer.

This section below Indian Gardens is fun and the gang has picked up the pace, so we're moving much faster now. The rock and wood erosion control breaks on the trail are insane. Some stick out of the ground quite high, the ground is worn down low in-between, and there is no pattern to it, so a running rhythm is impossible. I'm skipping, hopping, and tracking left and right to avoid tripping and also trying not to stop. Its awkward and the thought crosses my mind that it'll be even worse going back up. The weather is perfect, but the half-light just before dawn is the worst visibility. A good time to be careful. Its also the kind of light a photographer might really like: bright edges crossing over dark. Most of us have cameras and they're all out now. Everyone is snapping pictures of each other, the sunlit cliffs, the moon, and whatever else the light catches just right. Something about this time of day seems to amp the energy up. We're all laughing, running, and snapping as we enter the Devil's Corkscrew.

I sprint ahead of Fred and James to get some shots of them coming down behind me. I snap a few, run ahead, stop, snap some more, and start again. I should know better. Like running with scissors, camera in hand, working the buttons, looking for the next best spot, running along a rocky trail littered with rocks, on a cliffs edge. I'm laying in the rocks before I even recognize that I've tripped. The camera in still in hand, but the lens is shattered, and my arm bloody. What a dumb ass. Hurts like hell, but the last thing I'm gonna be on this adventure is a problem for anybody else. I quickly hop up as Fred and James arrive to inspect the damage. A two second inspection: they see that I'm ok, nothing broken, but the camera, so we go on. I put away the busted camera and my cavalier attitude and join the others. The rest of the corkscrew is uneventful, and the next section is docile in comparison. A few creek crossings and then the river.

It's morning, but the direct sunlight won't touch us for awhile. The River Junction Trail climbs the south side wall, well above the river. After a few hours of downhill, my legs are not quite ready for this uphill. Its also as sandy as any beach I've ever been on. My shoes have a mesh top that slowly sifts the sand with each step. I try to shift gears, but the sand handicap and uphill reduces me to a walk. We're now down to 2500 ft.

We gather at the metal suspension bridge for a group photo and then run across it. The grate floor and chain-link waist-high walls do nothing to block my view of the fast moving water: the transparent effect creates a feeling there is nothing between me and the Colorado River. All of it overwhelms my senses: the size, the sound, and the power of it is disorienting. The sound of the beast beneath my feet reverberates off the cliff walls, wiping every other thought from my mind. It's wider than I expected, so I hurry to cross.

The trail passes by a mule corral in a shady grove on the way to the water pump and bathroom. This is a key reference point for us: marking the end of south rim section, about 10 miles into the adventure. Its another 8 miles from here to the next water, so we top off, take a short break, then start north. The trail runs alongside Bright Angel Creek, the campgrounds on the other side, then we skim past the edge of Phantom Ranch on our right. I make a note to remember the zig-zag where the burros are tied up. If we miss this turn on the return, we'll go through the middle of the ranch. No big deal probably, but why test it.

Bright Angel Creek and the North Kaibab Trail intertwine as they enter a narrow slot called "The Box". The Box is a unique setting, with solid rock walls shooting strait up for hundreds of feet, and barely enough room for both the creek and the trail between them. The trail itself is curious to me and I pay particular attention to its construction. I can see that quite a bit of work was done to keep the trail in place, from metal and rock underpinnings, to the solid metal and beam bridges bolted into rock with more than just a few bolts. At some of the bends in the creek, rock walls were erected to control the creek's flow, to keep it from washing away the trail. A lot of time was spent to make this trail what it is, and all of it blends naturally with the creek inside the walls of this breathtaking slot canyon.

The walls cut into one wide sweeping turn after another so that none of it is strait. The creek isn't strait and neither is the trail. Even the thin slice of daylight overhead causes unusual angles of light on the black and grey rock walls: a natural art gallery of rock, water, and light. The gentle uphill walkway hugs one wall for awhile and then the other, the overhead lights are soft and subtle, but its the piped in sound of a soothing mountain stream that holds the total effect together. I'd like to run, but walking seems more appropriate and it does provide more time to soak it all in.

We could have run, but we do not, at least, not at first. Past "The Box" and well before Cottonwood, our group decides to split. Before we do, Fred gives me Joyce's camera, which he had been using. Ross, Joyce, and I start to run and manage a good run/walk up until Ribbon Falls. This is where it starts tilting uphill, gradual at first, and then so much more. We reach a creek crossing with a traffic jam: backpacking hikers are lined up, removing shoes and packs, trying to cross a 6 ft wide creek that is not deep, but certainly moving fast. A head high guide rope is tied off for assistance, but this little wrinkle seems to have stymied the hikers. Ross, Joyce, and I each plow in, one at a time, and go around them, wading across, and continue without a hiccup. Cottonwood is just beyond the water crossing and our 2nd key reference point.

We're not sure of of the reports we've heard about water from here on, so we take our time to have a meal and top off our water bottles. I also decide to load my extra water bladder with about 40 oz just in case. Water is heavy and I do not want to overload, but I also do not want to run out. This may be the last water we get until we return to this same place 14 miles later. More importantly, it might have to last 5 hours. I fix a swiss and turkey sandwich on raison bread. Joyce cuts up an avocado to go with the sandwiches and chips. We packed everything we needed to eat, with water being our only need along the way. Its a great meal and when we leave, we're ready for it.

None of us have been this way before, so this next section is new to all of us. According to the map and directions, there are only a few side trails. Everything is so well marked that there is little concern, except for the altitude and the expected snow on top. We leave Cottonwood at 4000 ft with another 4200 ft to climb in the next 7 miles to reach the 8200 ft north rim. Ross hooks on to another guy going past and disappears, so that Joyce and I are now alone for the first time on this trip. And it seems perfect fine. The last time we were here, we stopped at Cottonwood. We are again at Cottonwood to finish what we left unfinished 8 years ago.

The Pump House is a wonderful little shaded area only a mile past Cottonwood. The comfort of the place is enticing and had we not just stopped at Cottonwood for an extended break, then I would surely have liked to sit a while. I need to remember this place for next time. This is the point where the trail turns distinctively upwards. It rises above the canyon floor on switchbacks as it hugs the rock walls. This section is not only the most difficult, it is also the most beautiful and captivating. Sheer cliff walls all around, roaring springs shooting out of a mountain side cliff, trails hanging on the edge of cliffs, water drips icing over rocky ledges, and all of it just gorgeous. Were it not for my difficulties in breathing, I might be taking a lot more pictures. But also, I know I'm coming back this same way, so they can wait. We are moving slow, not labored so much, as methodical. Approaching the split for Roaring Springs, and looking ahead, I cannot tell which way the trail will go. I can't make out any low pass, slots, or anything but sheer walls that reach to the sky. It has the look of a box canyon, and if I didn't know that this trail does climb out, I'd think I was going the wrong way. The trail twists endlessly up and left, finding a slice of rock that is invisible until you get to the next level. Rock formations hide some turns and others are hidden in plain sight by tricks of perspective. Its all very obvious when standing directly in from of it, but not until then.

We're surprised by Fred and James coming up from behind. They've left Paige at Cottonwood where she waits for them to pick her up on the return. And soon after, we're met by Patrick and Paul coming back from the rim. Patrick informs us we still have an hour and a half to the top. As Patrick and Paul head down, Fred and James go up. We watch both groups turn to specs as then move quickly away from us.

Supai Tunnel is a welcome sight: our landmark for 2 miles out. There's a water pump, but it's turned off. A loud rumble rolling down from above concerns me until we get nearer and see that the park service is removing some unstable rock. Past them, we cross an icy ledge and then we're into the snow. A little at first and then more as go higher. We pass a crew of two working a jackhammer to bust rocks in another slot. We can hear them singing a Joe Cocker tune "With A Little Help From My Friends". They seem to be making the best of their hard labor and the song brings a smile to us as well. 30 minutes later, we find Ross sitting on the side of the trail. He says, the top is only ten minutes away and he's waiting for Fred and James to run down with him. Ten minutes later, we see the boys coming back, and a few minutes later, we too are there.

The North Rim is beautiful and serene covered in snow. Two hikers are taking their lunch when we arrive, and we ask them take our picture. The right thing to do now would be to top off and eat, but it's too cold and we were after all, only half way.

It's slow at first due to the snow and the mud from the snow melt. Some of the ledges are icy too, but mostly we're just sightseeing. The view going down is awesome. We can see 12600 ft Mount Humphreys 75 miles away in Flagstaff. We can also see all the trails from above that we couldn't see from below. I take the camera out and stop a lot to take picture after picture. The jackhammer guys are gone, but the other crew is still there. Others are still hiking up as we head down. Even with all the picture taking stops, the descent is pretty quick. For the first time today, both my water bottles are empty and I start using the water bladder in my pack. We stop at Supai Tunnel for a bathroom break and I check the water pump again just to make sure it still doesn't work.

All the ledges and steep drops make for some dynamic pictures. Especially with the trail clinging to the wall and the Agave and Prickly Pear hanging over the edges. The thought crosses my mind to speed up so we can hook back up with Fred & Paige. But then the entire flow of this journey would change: from relaxed and easy, to something more focused and stressful. I let it go. We run a bit, then stop for pictures and repeat. We stutter run down the mountain, keeping the camera handy until Roaring Falls. From there to the Pump House, I put it up and run. It feels good to stretch out and go. We stop at the Pump House to top off one bottle.

When we crossed paths with Fred back at the North Rim, he said he'd wait for us at Cottonwood for 30 minutes, but I figured him to hammer down to where he left Paige. When we arrive at Cottonwood, I'm not surprised to see they're already gone. It was too cold for us to stop and eat on the rim, so we have gone longer than we should have without refueling. We take the time now, fixing sandwiches with avocado and chips. We clean up a bit under the cold water pump and top off the bottles. I also take the time to empty the water bladder from my pack. I wont need that much water and certainly don't need the extra weight.

This time, when we leave, heading downhill, we giddy-up and go. We find the water crossing soon enough and once again there is a traffic jam. This time, there are six hikers with packs in various states of putting on or taking off packs and boots. Same as last time, we rush right past them and keep running. The area around Ribbon Falls is wide and more open than most of this canyon. It has a few uphills, and flowering cactus everywhere. The most startling are the bright purple roses on the devilishly thorny cholla less than a foot off the ground. The thorns must be three inches in length and look real nasty: Mother Nature's most obvious "Do Not Disturb" sign. The next unique area we go through is thick with eight feet tall reeds and low bridges running over a swamp. The bridges appear to be simple sidewalks, but for the sound of water running underneath.

Now we're back in "The Box". The same narrow slot that we came up this morning. Its hotter now, but the sun is rarely on us, depending on the turn in the deep canyon walls, as well as the clouds. Its fun running from bright sunlight to deep shadow, from hot to cool, for mile after mile. The wind is gusting now, so I have to snug down my hat. We pick up speed through here, having fun with it, running with the sun, wind, and water. Damn but its good to be alive. This is WHY we do this, WHY we keep going back, looking for more adventures. These are the moments that make it all so perfect.

When everything is PERFECT, time seems to go so ridiculously fast. About the same time I pick out the mountain top I suspect is on the river, Joyce sees the sign, "Phantom Ranch - 0.3 miles". We push on to the bathroom and water pump, where we top off our water, then move on. We cross the river, walking! The sand on the other side again fills my shoes. We take our time along the river trail, walking and talking, enjoying the feel of the wind and the look of the light on the river.

We turn onto Bright Angel Trail and take our time walking to the first water crossing, where we stop and sit. I've been thinking about it for awhile and this is the place. I remove my shoes and socks and stick my feet in the cold water. It feels so good. We empty the sand from our shoes, wash off our feet, and put on clean socks. Soon after, we start up the Devil's Corkscrew. As steep and nasty as it is, we seem to be doing just fine. Must be the clean socks. Again, its time to pull the camera and start snapping away. I look for the exact location where I busted my ass this morning, but it all looks the same. Past the worst (or best) of it, we find Fred and Paige with a bonked out James. They look great but are concerned about James. We offer up some avocado, turkey, swiss, papaya, ginger, and advice, but its pretty obvious he wants none of it. Fred's concern is that he's either going to sit down and quit, or wander off a cliff.

The four of us take turns, herding James forward, upward, and away from the edge. We're beyond the Corkscrew now and the trail is beautiful. I go ahead and start taking pictures of this area just under Indian Gardens. Coming down in the dark, we missed all of this, but it really is such a pretty area. Its a large drainage filled with big cottonwood trees and the trail is solid rock. Because we're strolling along slowly, I have time to look around and study the area. We top off our water at Indian Gardens as the light begins to fade.

Fred and I go ahead and start up the first of the switchbacks leading up to the South Rim. We wait for the others to get to us, and then Joyce & I go ahead with James. The next major landmark is the 3 mile Rest House, and we're all anxious to know where it is. Its getting dark, so James puts his headlamp on, but neither of us do. I ask Joyce to go ahead to look for the rest house, but she can't. Her stomach is upside down and she has no energy left. When Fred gets next to us again, he asks me what I think about towing James. I think its a great idea, so he starts putting together articles of clothing to create a tow rope. We reach the 3 mile Rest House before Fred ties off to James and starts towing him. Fred, James, and Paige pull ahead up the mountain switchbacks quickly now. We can see their lights above us, moving much faster than we are.

Joyce is wiped out, stumbling about, falling backwards. I put my hand on her back and push her forward every now and again, especially on the drainage bar steps. She wants to sit down and puke, but I tell her to puke while she's moving. The higher we get, the cooler it gets, and its too cold for her to stop. We move slowly up the mountain at a snail's pace and it takes a while to register that we still do not have our lights on. We stop to put them on, and it helps a little, but our progress remains just as slow. I can see where a group of lights have gathered ahead of us and suspect that's where the 1.5 mile Rest House is. Fred must have stopped for a bit, but it takes us a long time to get to the same place. They're gone by the time we get there, but we stop for a short break also.

The steps made by the drainage bars are tough to navigate in our current state. Joyce struggles over some of them and falls backwards a few times. A red light approaches from above: a park medical person. We ask how far and he responds by asking how we are. We ask again how far and he says we are close enough for emergency rescue. We ask once more how far, and he says close to 2 miles. Knowing that we left the 1.5 mile Rest House awhile ago and knowing Joyce is not doing well, I quickly tell her its got to be much closer to 1 mile by now, so we keep moving up while he continues down. He's looking for people in trouble and we must have passed, but just barely.

When we finally reach the tunnel, Joyce says there are two tunnels, but I only remember one. Knowing she is delirious, I assume she is wrong and we're very close to being done. But the trail keeps going, and so do the lights above us. Ok, so there are TWO tunnels and we still have a bit to do. When I see the light from a window, then I know we're almost done. The window is part of the shop just below the rim. We make a right turn at the building, and finally arrive at where we started, back at the South Rim. The first indication is a very stiff cold wind. Our journey's end is bittersweet in the bitter cold. We might have stopped for a moment to revel in what we've done, but freeze the thought and keep walking: down to the road and up the sidewalk towards our hotel. Going past James room, the door is cracked, a thin line of light leaks out. We turn to it, thinking maybe Fred and gang stopped here. We knock and walk in to warmth and smiles. Everyone is here. Only then do we realize we are done and sink to the floor.

Were I to track my splits, I'd find large holes where I was standing still. But, I didn't care to track the time or distance. I wore a watch, but chose to ignore it, and my GPS devices were left behind. I was around many other people at various places all day, so I got the gist of how we were doing, but tried to avoid any discussion about - how long this would take. We started around 3:40. I know that we reached the river in 3 hours, the North Rim around noon, back to the river around 4:30, and back to the South Rim before 10. We left in the dark and returned in the dark, so we used the entire day to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the Canyon. It truly was glorious.

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