Despite being active in the outdoors for the past couple of years here in Las Vegas, I had not yet been to the Grand Canyon. This was pretty ridiculous because this great natural wonder of the world is only a five hour drive away.
On Friday afternoon my friend Brett and I set out for my biggest single day adventure yet. Before I go any further let me give a little background first. Last December my friend Ron told me that Brett and a guy named Jim made a double crossing of the Grand Canyon in one day. I was flabbergasted when I learned that this involved 11,000ft of elevation gain and loss over 42 miles and it took the duo 14hr 30min. I barely believed this was possible except for the fact that both Brett and Jim are very stand up guys and would never lie about such a feat. Despite my disbelief let’s just say the seed was planted. This completely changed my view of what a person could accomplish. In many ways this led to me doing the ultra-marathon last may which was 33miles and 5000ft of elevation gain. I was in such agony after the race that I wrote off the idea of the Grand Canyon double crossing. Over the summer I did many adventures and I felt myself getting stronger especially going downhill which contrary to popular opinion is not the easy part. Going downhill is much more strenuous on your joints than going uphill, however, one does expend much more energy going uphill. We have been training for a hike up Telescope Peak in Death Valley (next weekend) which goes from Badwater (Below Sealevel) to Telescope Peak (about 11,000ft). Brett has been planning a repeat of his double crossing and asked if I was interested a few weeks ago. Like I said I didn’t think I could do it but I’ve felt so strong hiking lately I agreed telling him “what the hell, let’s do it”. So back to the story.
As I was saying we left Las Vegas Friday afternoon and drove to Williams, Arizona about four hours away and an hour from the Grand Canyon. We sorted our gear in the hotel my gear included: trail running shoes, sock liners, socks, running shorts, technical shirt, lightweight coat, fanny pack, two 1/2 liter bottles, four Clif Bars, two gel shots, a headlamp, and some Gatorade powder. We woke up Saturday morning at 4am and were on the road by 4:15. I felt the nervous excitement one feels before a big adventure driving out in the darkness. An hour later we entered the park and Brett told me to pull over and cut the lights in this pullout. This was the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. Although it was still dark I could see the silhouette of the canyon in the moonlight. My first impression was that this place is larger and more magical than I imagined. Across the canyon on the North Rim we saw fires that we learned were prescribed fires set by the Park Service. We parked and soon jogged a half mile to the South Kaibab trail head by headlamp.
At 5:35am we dropped into the canyon at a slow jog (only 42 miles to go). The South Kaibab trail is pretty beat up in places from mule traffic and the going was rather treacherous by headlamp. After about a half hour we were treated to a serene sunrise. The sky was blood red in the early dawn light from the smoke of the fires. With the faint early morning light and the moonlight we no longer needed our headlamps and soon thereafter the sky brightened. We warmed up quickly and I ditched my jacket behind some rocks so I didn’t have to carry it the whole day because the key to completing the adventure was traveling light. Brett and I joked around that we were heading to Modor and he was Frodo and I was Samwise (Lord of the Rings reference to those who live under a rock). Brett who was a tour guide to the Grand Canyon in a former life filled me with historical and geological information on the canyon which passed time merrily. We cruised at a fairly slow pace so save ourselves for the rest of the day but we still made it across the Colorado River to Phantom Ranch in 1hr 45 min, about seven miles (only 35 to go).
We drank some water and headed up the North Kaibab trail which follows Bright Angel Creek for several miles. This was one of my favorite parts of the day. The trail sloped up gently enough to keep a good jogging pace and it isn’t often you get to follow a river hiking in the desert. This section is also quite narrow so the canyon walls rose straight up hundreds of feet. We bypassed stopping for water at Cottonwood Camp (Please Note) and jogged another mile to the Artist’s Camp (only 28miles to go) to refuel at 10:05 am. By chance when we were getting water our friend Bruce met up with us (Bruce was doing the double crossing in two days and planned to stay with us Saturday night). From here we the trail got steeper and we jogged when we could and walked the steeper parts. I kept focusing on keeping a steady pace and the scenery rather than how far we had to go to prevent going into depression or madness. We saw several other crazy people (ultra-runners doing the double crossing like us) on the way to the North Rim which by some miracle we finally reached at 12:15 (only 21 miles to go). Bruce left us a stash of Gatorade and Clif bars in his truck so we could travel lighter. Even though we had gone 21 miles and gained 6000′ and descended 5000′ I felt pretty good. I could feel my muscles getting tired but not too painful. Additionally, reaching the North Rim marked a huge mental milestone; from here on out each step brought us closer to finishing rather than further away. We kept a pretty slow pace down the trail to avoid killing our joints and making the rest of the hike unbearable. We reached the Artist’s house in a respectable 1hr 20min (only 14 miles to go). We took a quick drink but didn’t fill our bottles because we expected to stop for water at Cottonwood Camp only 1 mile away. However, it wasn’t until we turned the spigot at Cottonwood Camp that we learned water at the camp was off. We had no water and had six miles to Phantom Ranch during the hottest part of the day. Luckily we met this incredibly generous man that took pity on our plight and gave us a liter of water. We were only filling our bottles half full each at each station for a total of 1/2 liter between stops so this worked out perfectly. We thanked the man profusely and continued on. The same section I thought was so magically serene a few hours before I despised on the way down. These six miles seemed to go on forever and I hurt more with nearly every step and it took all my will to stay right behind Brett who was setting the pace at the time. We both were tired but kept up our banter although more infrequent. I remember breaking the silence of a long silence stretch by saying “it’s a long way Mr. Frodo but I won’t leave you, never”. (yes another dorky Lord of the Rings reference and yes I know the quote may not be 100″)
At last we reached Phantom Ranch at 4:o5 pm (Only 7 miles to go). Even though we were tiring quickly we made the 14 mile from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch in a respectable 3.5 hours. We chugged water and at Clif Bars before the final ascent to the South Rim, the crux of the whole day. I was so sore from running that I was looking forward to walking despite it being uphill. We filled our bottles and crossed the bridge back across the Colorado River for our slow ascent, the key word being slow. It was 4:35 and we had 3 hours to reach our tentative goal of 14 hours total. I kept the same strategy on focusing on just keeping moving rather than our progress, or lack of it, as I did on the North Rim. Mentally I was okay, however our joking and banter nearly stopped except for the occasional feign of humor at our plight. I was wearing down and my legs got a little wobbly. I had the feeling of being a little drunk where your mental capacity is fine but your body won’t quite do as it is told without total concentration. This is how the next couple hours passed. Around 6:30 we had to put our headlamps back on. I had no idea how far we had left and I tried not to think about it in fear by my already waining spirit being crushed. I retrieved my jacket I stashed and I new we were relatively close. We passed some people who descended canyon part way for the sunset which we saw and was beautiful but we couldn’t really savor. Depth perception is greatly diminished when traveling by headlamp so I was pretty much concentrating on my footsteps. Occasionally I’d stumble a little and have to stop and steady myself. I kept checking my watch wondering if we’d equal our 14hour time frame which would have been 7:35pm. I knew we were close as I checked; 7:17, 7:23, 7:28, 7:35 (damn we missed it) 7:41, 7:44. About 30 seconds after this last check a sweet sound pierced the silence. It was “hey is that you guys”, it was Bruce waiting for us. Seconds later I crested the rim at 7:45 with Bruce greeting me with a handshake and congratulations. We missed our goal but I was pretty excited about 14hrs 10min because this beat Brett’s two previous double crossings beating his best time by 20 minutes. I’m not saying I wasn’t hurting but I felt better than I expected and much better than after my ultra-marathon a few months back. We checked in and went to eat.
We got back and after a hot shower I crawled into bed. We all talked for a bit but the other guys were quickly out like a light. I was still wired from the day and thoughts raced through my head. I got up and grabbed a beer and laid in bed drinking it quietly in the darkness. This was when I finally relaxed a little and everything hit me. As I sipped my beer I was thinking of how I couldn’t believe I actually did it, how proud I was of myself.
The next morning I drove Bruce back to the trail head for his return trip across the canyon and when I got back to the hotel neither Brett or I felt like going back to sleep. We chilled in the room for a while talking then caught the hotel breakfast and heading home for Las Vegas arriving home around 11:30. Dropping Brett off we proved our insanity agreeing to make this an annual event.