Any trail runner that has stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and looked across has felt the same inexplicable pull. The thought that one could descend to the river, cross, and head up the other side is undeniable in its effect to motivate and captivate. For me the seed was planted seven years ago, before I was even trail running, on a camping trip with our then infant son. We hiked down from the North Rim to just below the Supai Tunnel, carrying the lad on our backs and stopping often for snacks and even to nurse. Our jaunt under the lip was the perfect appetizer, and as soon as I realized that some people run across the Canyon in a single day I filed it away in the back of my mind.
Enter April of 2019. I had a week off from work for my Spring Break, separate from my kids at their school and separate from my wife who had to keep working. Spring Break is always a nice chance for a Peak Week heading into the Canyons 100k race at the end of the month, and this year I was actually not-injured and fit (unlike last year where I backpacked across Joshua Tree while nursing an IT band issue). The initial plan was to run locally, maybe do Diablo – and then I looked at the weather forecast and saw rain, mud, and more rain and mud. I was a bit sick of it and also jonesing for some adventure.
What about running across the Grand Canyon? Oh, the North Rim’s not open yet? Perfect! I’ll have to run back as well.
I frantically texted all of my friends crazy enough to join me, with the only qualification requirement being their ability to say “Yes”. I got close with somebody from LA, but he had to unfortunately bail at the end when he couldn’t get off work. I hastily threw together gear, trail descriptions, water locations, and even grabbed a campsite before hoping into a cheap rental car (I see you Chevy Malibu) on Wednesday morning and blasting into the desert Southwest.
I got to the Canyon on Thursday afternoon and immediately went to check out the trail-head I would be descending. When I got my first glimpse through the trees and over the open rim my jaw literally fell open – despite having seen the Canyon multiple times before, there is no preparing for its immense scale and magnitude. It is bigger than anything I have ever seen before in my life. It dwarfs El Cap and makes Mont Blanc look like a little training hill. Mountains have defined edges, places where they begin and end. But the Grand Canyon, like the ocean, seems to go on for as far as the eyes can see.
I fit in a quick shakeout run and headed back to the campsite to try to organize my gear. The challenge was going to be finding the appropriate clothes. It was getting cold already, and would be at about freezing in the morning when I dropped in. At the river during the afternoon it would be over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, I was well aware that I was traveling into unknown territory solo and had a family at home that depended upon my safe return. I ended up bringing enough clothes and layers that would allow me to spend the night if things were to go sideways, including a pair of wool tights and my Arc’teryx shell. In my mind this was also serving as training for the Gran Trail Courmeyer in July, where these items are part of the required kit. For food I figured on one gel an hour with a small variety of bars to sprinkle in as I got hungry.
I got a bit of interrupted sleep that night but found myself fairly awake at 2 AM, excited for the big day ahead. I forced myself to relax and meditate until 4 AM when I woke up, broke down the tent, and headed over to the trailhead. I had to park about a mile away from the start so a small warm-up jog brought me over to the South Kaibab trail, where I made good use of the bathrooms, filled up my water, and got ready to drop in.
I gathered my thoughts for a second and said a quick prayer to the Guardians of the Canyon, asking for safe passage for the journey that lay ahead of me. And then, I started running. It’s committing to drop into the Canyon and the darkness adds a certain mystical tinge to the experience. You can’t really see what’s ahead of you, and South Kaibab is steeeeeep! I tried to start slow but the adrenaline was racing through my body and the stoke level was the highest it had been all week. My heart rate finally started settling down and as I looked around the sun was starting to rise and light up the Canyon walls. The temperature went up 20 degrees as soon as I dropped under the lip and already my gloves, hat, and jacket seemed excessive.
South Rim to the River (Miles 0 – 7)
There’s absolutely no way to prepare for the initial descent to the river unless you live on top of a mountain and the start of every training run is a 5000 foot descent. The trail is an engineering masterpiece, but it’s really a huge section of 1-2 foot steps, spaced just close enough together to never really allow you to get into a nice rhythm of running. Your quads immediately take a beating, and I was surprised at how thrashed my calves felt from the get-go. There’s something about the steps and the incline that was literally shaking the whole lower half of my body with every switchback. And yet, the sun is rising in the Canyon. The land is silent at this point without the roar of the river to fill the air. The birds are chirping and you are literally watching the entire world wake up before you. The magic in front of you more than makes up for the pain below.
I gave thanks for the few runnable stretches and soaked in the magnificent vistas that lay in every direction as I worked my way down to the river. It’s exhilarating when you finally see the water and begin to hear the rush below you. Pretty soon I was headed over the suspension bridge to the North Side of the Canyon, where I would begin the 14 mile climb to the other side.
The River to Cottonwood Campground (Miles 7-14)
Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch were just beginning to wake up, and I filled up water, changed into my shorts and a light long sleeve, and kept on moving. I really enjoyed the stretch right after Phantom Ranch on my way out (it would be one of the hardest parts for me on the way back). The Canyon tightened up and the smooth, well groomed trail hugged the Northern wall and gently swept you a bit higher up in elevation with every turn. It felt flat at this point, which I know was just an illusion as I was steadily gaining vert. My legs were finally starting to feel good again after the descent as I mentally told my calves that they had to get their stuff back together and stop feeling sorry for themselves.
I got slightly off course right before Cottonwood as I became confused about the signed turnoff to Ribbon Falls and the washed-out bridge. A backpacker coming the other direction told me that I would need to cross “the river” to continue on with the trail and that I should have my trekking poles ready. I ended up on a small use-trail that took me down to the larger Bright Angel Creek, where I crossed with the water already up to my thighs. It was no big deal at the time but I did think that it would be problematic crossing again later in the afternoon. Thankfully I was the one that was turned around, and after sneaking a peak at Ribbon Falls I crossed the creek again and got back on the correct path. The “river” that the hiker had been talking about was a very small tributary about ankle deep – I easily walked cross and continued heading up Canyon beginning my ascent to the North Rim.
What a Spiritual Experience. I am humbly beginning to phantom why you have embraced your Ultra Life!
Steep and steppy indeed! New format looks sharp.