Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Grand Canyon 2011 : R2R2R
R2R2R (Rim to Rim to Rim) Grand Canyon, AZ 7 May 2011 joe prusaitis
The Canyon, like my life, is full of interesting characters, has plenty of ups ands downs, and the longer I'm in it, the slower I get. Without difficulties, you learn nothing, so I came back to the canyon for the 3rd time to grow and evolve. I need something challenging in my life to make me feel alive. It's not just about the accomplishment... but more about the journey. The jigsaw puzzle of my mind and body is a problem looking for a solution. What to do when my body begins to fail, or my emotions start to flake. The canyon is one of those places so big that it changes my focus... visually and spiritually. Like most desert places, the landscape is deceptive and hides the beauty in plain sight. Each bend in the trail hides the next bend, and the next... each false summit hides another, and another... The endless expectation beats you into a numb state of C' est la vie.
Because of the long uphills and downhills, one direction is not equal to the other. I know what to expect, but distance and time are distorted. My perception of the time it takes is way off the mark. The only thing I know for certain is... the canyon is big and I am small. I have already run this route twice: a permanent memory etched into my brain. But, the devil is in the details... and what I don't know is... all the small details: how my stomach and feet will feel after 48 miles of desert heat, altitude, warm water, hot food, biting horseflies, swarming mosquitos, sand in my shoes, and endless drainage bars. With all the difficulties that lie ahead, I plan what I can to make the trip as enjoyable as possible. I pack as light as possible: an empty water bladder, one empty water bottle, one full one, food for two light meals, apple, avocado, a dozen gels, gloves, and super-lightweight rain jacket. The pack is light for now, but it'll be much heavier after Cottonwood, where I plan to load up on water.
There are 49 of us (mostly from Texas), with 30 going for the R2R2R, and the rest have various other destinations: Indian Gardens, the River, Phantom Ranch, and Cottonwood. We're scattered across the South Rim in whatever we can find and afford. From our room, it's a 5 minute walk and a 3:30am start. Some start down South Kaibab, but most take Bright Angel, and all leave between 3am and 5am. Some are buddied up and some go solo, but once it starts, there's a long string of lights that I can see from rim to miles down. They all know the route and the logistics, but I can only hope they all make smart choices when it comes time to make them. This is a run you can't quit without some cost. The sign of the day that says it clearly... 'Going Down is Optional - Going up is Mandatory'
The only plans Joyce and I have are to do what we can. We expect to do the whole thing, but will cut it short if we must. It's a warm morning, so we start in shorts and T-shirts. We drop in and go down fast. Its pitch black and I can only see a few yards ahead in the direction I point my light. I wear it on my head, but its difficult to see well until I take it off and hold it down low in my hand. We swap places with Wade, JoAnna, and Les now and again as we each stop for various reasons. I take a look behind us during one stop to see dozens of lights spread across the night like fireflies.
From the top of the rim to Indian Gardens, the cross-trail drainage bars keep our feet from getting lazy. We skim the 1.5mi and 3mi rest houses, dropping 3000 ft like a rock, to Indian Gardens where we top off quickly and continue. We lose the drainage bars in exchange for rocks and more rocks. Being somewhat blind and running without glasses, you might think I should be nervous about running downhill in the dark... but it aint so. I love to run at night, and especially downhill, so we pick up speed and let it roll. The whole idea of running into the Grand Canyon seduces me to run faster. Out of the lower Indian Garden greenbelt and onto the Devil's Corkscrew, my aggressive downhill glide seems to instill confidence in Joyce too, as she doesn't miss a beat. A bat begins diving through my headlamp beam and then goes to play with Joyce.
The sun's ambient light reaches down to us deep in the canyon for the first time today, and we are close to the river, but we're still a long way from being touched by the direct light. We test our balance, hopping the uneven stepping stones across Garden Creek on multiple occasions. The sights and sounds of the cascading creek alongside the trail is soul soothing... an exquisite rock and water garden in the desert... an oasis.
We pass a group of boy scouts heading up, each wearing a pack bigger than they are. A few minutes later, we pass a sleeping bag in the middle of the trail, dropped by one of the scouts, no doubt. We reach the river at 5:30 AM, stop for a few, and continue with Les, who arrives as we start again. The trail traversing the south face is full of deep beach-like sand, and it's slow going til we reach the suspension bridge, but we are done with the long downhill anyway. I suspect we wont get anywhere near that speed again on this trip.
The visual look and feel of crossing the Colorado River on this suspension bridge is disorienting. You can see right through the metal grate floor and walls. Nothing blocks your view of raging river 100 feet below, the massive canyon walls, or the wind. The wind gusts are loud. You can hear them as they come at you, and they appear in sync with the rushing water of the river underneath. The sensation is of me being carried away by the waves. Its almost an out of body feeling, knowing damn well that I am well above the water and feeling like I am right on top of it. I try to quit looking at the water, focus on the hand rails that lead to the other side instead... and start running. I don't realize til I get to the other side, Joyce & Les are right behind me, having followed my lead. Minutes later, we're at the bathroom and pump on the north side, near Phantom Ranch, roughly 10 miles in. We top off again and load the 2nd water bottle too. Jon & Dawn come in as we finish up and head out.
At the intersection of the North Kaibab, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails, we make a left to start up the north side. The trail runs parallel Bright Angel Creek, with the campgrounds on the opposite side. We take the path that avoids Phantom Ranch, and are past it quickly. Inside 'The Box', walls rise strait up for as far as I can see. The rock walls are long sweeping turns that redirect the creek from side to side. We run on the east side for a few turns, cross a metal bridge to the west side for a few turns, and back again on another bridge. The water is moving very fast and dangerous, which explains the large retaining walls on some of the turns. As loud as the rushing water is, I can clearly hear a bullfrog's throaty croak echoing off the walls from one of the backwater swamp areas. I don't know where 'the Box' ends, as the high walls continue for a miles and only gradually begin to open up as we approach Ribbon Falls and the Cottonwood area. The whole time we have been gradually climbing up as the sun-line on the canyon walls has been dropping down, and I have been dreading what it will bring when we intersect. Minutes before we reach the comfort of the shade trees, it finally happens... and then we are at the oasis called Cottonwood.
David & Lino are sitting there when we arrive, so we sit with them to eat. I pull everything out of my pack, so I can load the 100oz water bladder and Two water bottles. The sunglasses come out as well as a sandwich and an apple. Quite a few others roll in and out during the 20 minutes we are here, but this is not a race... and we do get to visit with quite a few of our friends. The next part of our adventure... from Cottonwood to the North Rim and back is expected to be the most difficult for a couple of different reasons. ONE: The only water available for the next 12 miles is the Pump House just one mile in (possibly 5 hours). TWO: there remains 4000 ft of climb between here at the North Rim. THREE: The sun is bringing the heat. FOUR: The higher we climb, the worse the deer flies and mosquitos swarm. This, I wasn't expecting.
The Pump House is immediately after another of the metal & wood bridges that looks like a superstructure. These bridges were built to stand just about anything Mother Nature sends. I suppose they've had to rebuild these bridges so many times, they decided to build something semi-permanent. This is also where the switchbacks begin. We are now in granny gear. The already dynamic scenery suddenly gets even better in magnified close-up. A 360 panoramic captures perfect views at the same time Steven, Pete, Robert, & Megan come by us. They had started on the South Kaibab two hours after us, and are obviously much faster than us. Our uphill momentum is very slow and methodical compared to the speedy foursome.
The altitude, the heat, and the flies gang up to slow our march, and that's what it is now... a march. Joyce trails behind as we close on David, and then Troy & Kelli pass by. The higher we get, the slower we go, and the more beautiful the scenery. This has to be one of my favorite places on this planet. I can feel the energy... from the rock walls (sheer & tall), the crooked sliver of trail (bending upwards), the river of water (gushing out of the mountain side), the wind gusts (pushing me around), and the history (hundreds of years of explorers using this same path).
They're on us quickly, the little bastards... hundreds of deer flies and mosquitos. Maybe it's our sweat soaked clothes, the salt from our pores, the stink from all of it... or its just the right altitude for the blood sucking bastards... and we are barely moving (which implies we are nearly dead)... but they are here to stay. I can't shoo them away or wave them off. I have to smash them dead to get them off. They all bite and they all hurt. With so little energy to waste, arm waving and cussing is the final insult.
Past Roaring Springs, our trail swings left and right endlessly up, along many ledges and unparalleled beauty. Occasionally, we spot some of our friends in places where I'd never guess a trail existed. A bridge crosses a deep slot in the middle of nowhere... a landmark to remember... close to Supai Tunnel. This is where we start to see quite a few people coming down. I would rather be invisible at times like this... where they look so fresh and happy floating downhill, while I look and feel so rough dragging my body up. What a surprise to see an old friend (Bridget) we haven't seen in 8 years. She's almost as surprised as we are, except she's been running with friends of ours since this morning, so she's had some warning we were here. She's leading a pack of women when we see her. Hugs and memories take a long time... so we make it short and agree to reconnect when we're done. She needs to chase her friends and we're far from done.
Supai Tunnel comes at the top of a flight of rocky stairs... and I'm surprised how much it lifts me up, knowing how much closer we are to being at the top. We're still two miles from the North Rim, but it's a long two miles... and no easier. I heard that the pump here was off before I started, but I check it anyway. If it were on, I'd be able to unload a lot of this water weight on my back. I thought it was off, out of concern for snow and frozen pipes, but now I think maybe its just off til they open the north rim next week.
We dial in a slow steady cadence that inches us upwards, while our friends are coming down fast. More typically, I can gear up my mojo from the energy of knowing how close I am... but it aint happening today. Steven, Pete, Robert, and Megan yell us onward, then Jonathan, Troy, Kelli, and Joe. There is no easy section until we're on top, but it does eventually come to us. I remember the North Rim as being beautiful and serene... but it is none of that today. We can't see anything but the swarm of biting flies. We want so badly to take a break, to revel in our accomplishment, maybe lay down and close our eyes for a few shakes... but there is no time for any of that. We get our picture taken and get the hell out. David comes with us.
About a mile down, we sit in a shady area with some wind that helps to keep the bugs down while we eat. It's not the break we wanted, but enough maybe to sustain us til we get back to Cottonwood. The others are coming up in droves: Wade, JoAnna, Les, Pam, Guy, Charlene, John, Naresh, Bob, Roger, Tom, Brian, Darren, Fred, Jennifer, and Marlee. We move slowly at first... walking...which turns to waddling... and running. I can't seem to get it going. Mine is an awkward stumbling gait with a hitch in it. I might have the look of somebody running in cowboy boots with a pistol strapped to one leg. Sad looking for sure... so I leave my camera in the saddle bag.
The sun and the flies are not nearly so bad heading down. We're moving faster... so maybe they don't mistake us for being dead now. The wind has also picked way up... gusting very hard... tugging our hats off... and shoving us around. A few thousand feet down, we collect a few more friends, and a few group photos with Wade, JoAnna, Pam, Guy, and Charlene. Joyce, David, and I surge ahead and get to the Pump House first, where we stop to top one bottle and dunk our heads under the pump. That out and back was a beast! Always was... always will be. Feels great to finally be done with it. But we're still... very far from being done.
The trip to Cottonwood seems so long in comparison to the way out. Its possible maybe... we're going a bit slower now. Cottonwood seems to be our gathering spot for this day. As happened earlier today, once again, quite a few people roll in right on our heels. While we top off and get a bite to eat, at least 10 other people roll in behind us. A small party happens spontaneously, with bodies laying in every spot of shade. Putting away the water bladders to reduce weight, we're back down to using two water bottles again. Joyce & I head out with David in tow, but Joyce puts on the jets, and I try to stay with her, but we lose David soon after the humpback hill at Ribbon Falls.
The seven miles back to Phantom Ranch are relatively easy from recall, but nothing seems very easy any longer... and again it feels like it goes on forever. The sun is still cooking, so the cactus flourish, while we languish. It is interesting to note all the bright purple roses open to the sun that weren't open earlier today. By the time we're back in 'the Box', Joyce's stomach has gone sour. The tall canyon walls and the angle of the sun's rays on the sweeping turns have us alternating between sunlight and shade. At each turn, we look ahead at the high walls in hope of seeing anything that indicates an end to 'the Box', but each turn simply leads to another.
I had been told that you could buy a cold drink at the Phantom Ranch store, and this thought starts a craving that grows... but we arrive at 4:20 PM to find the store closed at 4 PM. I top off our water bottles at the pump in front of the store, while Joyce goes looking for some ice. It surprises me when she comes back with a small bag of ice in hand. She's not doing well, so the ice chips are critical to cool her down. She starts sucking on some ice while I load up our water bottles with ice and water. There is little else we can do... but keep going.
Fred and his crew come in as we head out for the final 10 miles... across the river and up the 5000 ft climb to the South Rim. I promise Joyce that we're done running... that we can walk it in from here. We stop at the last pump this side of the river and then cross the bridge. It's mostly sand, so we go slow and easy. By the time we reach the bathroom at Garden Creek, Les has again caught back up... and this time he keeps on going. We begin the climb, but Joyce is having a rough time, so we stop for another break, and I remove my shoes to soak my feet in the cold stream. Guy, Pam, and Charlene roll by us, and then Fred and his crew hook up with us. Moving again, we wind up through the Devil's Corkscrew. It's a beast of a climb, but we seem to do well with it. Joyce gets some of her mojo back and is moving much better. Not that she feels any better, but she is moving well again. So, we spend an hour or more with Fred & Char as we slowly make our way up the canyon.
David, Wade, and JoAnna connect with us before we reach Indian Gardens, but then we scatter at the benches near the pump. I load our water bottles and then lay down for a moment while Joyce does the same on a different bench. Only three minutes, then we're up and going out just as we lose the light. Its pretty dark at 8 PM, but we go 15 minutes without lights. Its comfortable until we start tripping on rocks, then we both switch on our lights... only to realize the trail dust is everywhere. We couldn't see it in the dark, but our headlamps highlight the dusty mist that completely surrounds us. It was the same way coming down, but I forgot about it until just now. Fred & crew are back with us again, but only in passing. They are moving quicker than us and keep on going. We can see their lights as they climb the switchbacks, and every now and then, I can still pick out Fred's headlamp more than 6 ft off the trail.
Alone in the dark, we climb the same trail we descended earlier today. Neither of us has the energy to speak, so we don't. Joyce is in front and keeps up a good constant stride, while I hang 3 yards back, content to match her pace. Every 3 feet - another drainage bar, so there's no possibility of a constant even stride. Each bar is high enough we have to climb over it, and some are easier to go around. An endless game of looking for the best place to put the lead foot so that we can get the trailing foot over. Done correctly, we manage a hundred yards without mishap... but of course there are mishaps. Joyce slips once, both feet fly out in front of her, and she drops onto her butt. A moment to repair, then up and many more to go. I lose my balance and my leg swings wide, aiming me towards the cliff... so I stop and back up, and try it again. Now and again, I catch my toe and trip, which typically leads to a second trip, and readjust to try again. It takes 40 minutes to reach the 3 mile rest house, which means we are walking 40 minutes per mile and a half. Three more miles to go and that means, another hour and a half... if we stick to this pace.
Of course, we don't stick to this pace... we stop a few times. We get fresh water at the 3 mile rest house and start again. A hiker closes in on us and as we stop to let him go by, he stops too, and asks if we mind that he hang with us. He's been out here all day alone and wants some company. He doesn't want to talk... he just wants to be with us. When we get up to go again, he does too, tucking in behind us and matching our pace. I can hear the clickity-clack of trekking poles scuttling right behind me. It's a bit unnerving at first and then I finally quit thinking about it and start thinking about the time instead. 40 minutes after the 3 mile rest, we reach the 1.5 mile rest house... and now we are within reason of reaching the top.
We don't find any magic in the nearness of knowing... we simply keep going the same. Joyce up front, with me in the middle, and clickity-clack behind me. We can see the lights of the buildings on the rim now. The first tunnel brings a subdued excitement just for the landmark being reached and knowing we are closing in. It's a long way from tunnel one to tunnel two, and that is all I can think of now. We stop again... we're at 7000 ft and 47 miles into a 48 mile run, and all that we want is to be done. We get up and continue as before, constant, stumbling at times, but slowly going up. We pass two guys sitting on trail side, one is blind, and the other has a phone... telling somebody they're heading back up soon. As we pass, they get up and pass us. A few minutes later, we catch and pass them again. We have to be close. How far could these guys have gone down? I begin to wonder what the Grand Canyon must have felt like to the blind guy. Could he feel the majesty of such a place... the immense-ness of it. In the darkness... there was little difference between what he and I saw and felt.
Our 40 minute pace holds true, as we reach the 2nd tunnel on que, and now we know for sure... we are done. We stop to take our own picture... and a few minutes later, we top out and are done. The hiker bids us goodbye and we walk to our room. We're cold... for the first time since we started. Five minutes later, we're in our room, wake Erica & Sean, shower, then make my way through no less than four ice cold root beers strait out of the frig. Steve, Megan, Rob, Jeff, Doise, and a few others are there to swap a few tales, but everyone is punchy as hell, so we each drift back to our own rooms and our own beds... for a very good night's sleep. Tomorrow... we head to Sedona in search of a brew pub to celebrate what we have done... all of us.