Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Big Ditch - An R2R2R Adventure At The Grand Canyon

When you look at a picture or a photograph of the Grand Canyon, no justice is done to the incredible awesomeness that makes this place one of the wonders of the world. Even standing on the edge, one may think they can understand the awesomeness, but until you are deep into the canyon, you simply cannot.

Truthfully, when Mike Bogan, my friend of over twenty years suggested that we do the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) run, I don’t think I fully grasped the challenge that lay ahead. Nothing new there. Mike’s friends SJ and Brandt would round out our group.

R2R2R means travelling from the South Rim to the North Rim and then back again. The South Rim is at 6,000 feet above sea level, the North Rim is at 8,000. As a crow flies, they are approximately 12 miles apart. By trail, they are 23 miles apart. That makes for 22,000 feet of elevation change over a 47 mile round trip through a desert environment. From the Colorado River to the North Rim it is an 18 mile uphill trek, with the last 5 miles being a serious climb.

We assembled in Las Vegas; Brandt and I flying in from Maryland, SJ and Mike driving from San Diego. We arrive at the canyon in late afternoon and were greeted by some elk on the way into the park (they are really, really big animals). After checking in we headed over to the Backcountry Information Center to get some intel on trail conditions. In the office there is a poster map detailing where and when people have died in the canyon. Although most had occurred during hotter times of the year, it was still rather surreal. They told us that there have been some rock slides on the north side so some scrambling would be in order, and that there was still snow up there as well. Next, over to the edge for our first look at the country’s largest drainage ditch.

 Holy crap. That was our cumulative thought. That is one deep whole. The cool thing is that as you approach the canyon, it is just a sudden drop off. No warning, just down, down, down. We tried to follow the trail we would be taking with our eyes but it simply disappeared into the abyss. I was now stoked.

We packed our provisions (about 4,000 calories of food, headlamps, yak traks for ice, spare batteries, sun block, body glide, etc), filled our camelbacks with water and electrolytes, ate dinner and off to bed early for a 3:30 am start.

I think we were all up and ready well before the alarms. The forecast was for 19 degrees on the rim but it felt more like 30 which was welcome. It was dark, very dark, as we hit the trail. The trail up and down the rims is a series (a very big series) of switchbacks going back and forth up and down the face. The drop off on the outside of the trail is thousands of feet down. The trail is rough with loose rock everywhere. It is not comfortable to run these in the dark.

 Within three minutes our day came to a perilously close end. Mike and I hit a patch of ice and went down fast and hard. I was ok but, granted, a little freaked out. Mike got up sore but ok. A few feet in another direction, they would be looking for bodies. We shook it off, and headed out again, albeit a little more aware.
Light was just starting to show in the east as we crossed the Colorado River and arrived at Phantom Ranch. A little food and refilling of the camelbacks and off we went. I had been running well but something was not feeling right. My legs felt tight and compressed. I ran/walked the next couple of miles but they were just not loosening up. In fact they were getting painful.  Brandt and SJ hung with me while Mike went ahead. He was running great, he and SJ had put in the training that was necessary. I did what I could but did not get the mileage I would have liked. Brandt seemed ok with this pace so we sent SJ ahead as well. I was grateful to have Brandt with me. Before too long, we were on a trek rather than a run. Some quick math assured me that we would still be able to finish, just later than we had originally thought.

We were now in the midst of an 18 mile climb. The surroundings were stunningly beautiful. The desert was just starting to bloom. It was weird to think that in about a month, all of this would be fairly barren and arid. But for now, it was breathtaking.

There was one disturbing thought that did occur to me about now. I had looked up what kind of animals we could possibly run into out there (I always like to know what could eat me). One of those animals is a Mountain Lion. I brought the subject up with Brandt and we decided that the traditional strategy of yelling, waving our arms like maniacs and throwing rocks would probably suffice. I had privately decided that I did not need to out run a Mountain Lion, I only needed to out run Brandt, so I felt pretty good about my chances (sorry Brandt).

About now the climb to the North Rim got serious. There had been some collapses along the way so we had rocks to scramble over every now and then. The climb was getting harder, the elevation was affecting our breathing and now we were encountering patches of snow and ice. I’ll be honest, it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Finally, we met up with SJ and Mike on their way down. Turns out we were only twenty minutes from the top. Eehaw! New energy and we were there. We rested a little, ate, hydrated and headed south again.

It was like a new hike. We were able to fast pace the hike and made great time. Brandt and I were now old friends. Before long, we were back at Phantom Ranch re-crossing the Colorado and heading 8 miles up to the South Rim. The sun was going down so out came the headlamps again. Even though we were now somewhat familiar with the terrain, the fatigue, the dark, the time on our feet, it all still made the climb extremely exhausting.

There was a gibbon moon shining over the canyon. It created really cool shadows. Every now and then I would look up at the South Rim and see someone flashing a light at us. I would flash mine back. It was nice to know there some humans around, even if they were miles away. We were easy to spot as we were the only people in the canyon. That was an overwhelming thought. There is a ranger building with a yellow light at the top of the trail. It is visible for miles. It had been playing all sorts of mental games with our brain; always there but never any closer. The night air temperature was dropping fast.    Finally. Finally. The yellow light was right there in front of us. We had made it. Nineteen hours and six minutes. R2R2R. Done.

Back at the lodge (which we had to walk to), Mike and SJ had a pizza waiting for us. They thought we may have actually bedded down somewhere in the canyon for the night. I wasn’t sure if I was more insulted that they thought we would not finish or that they weren’t worried enough to be looking out for us! Never the less, I was very thankful for the pizza and for their camaraderie. A few laughs, stories shared, and this adventure was in the books.