Grand Canyon R2R2R

  • Date: March 26, 2018
  • Start: Pipe Creek Vista
  • Distance: 44-45 miles
  • Duration: 14 hours 51 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 10,780 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Sky Terrain Trail Maps: Grand Canyon National Park

Visions of cheese bagels danced in my delirious head. I searched my pack in vain for something appetizing to eat. Applesauce, Larabar, and Goldfish rations just weren’t cutting it. I regretted not packing at least a second bagel sandwich. It was sometime after 9 pm and we’d just made it to Bright Angel Campground after 15+ hours and 38 miles of combined running, hiking, and resting. A little over seven miles and nearly 5,000 feet of gain stood between us and the cozy sleeping bags in my car. Seven seemingly impossible miles. All I wanted to do was curl up and succumb to my exhaustion and nausea.

Our Grand Canyon adventure began two days earlier following our half day spent in Bryce Canyon. After another long five hours on the road, we arrived at the Grand Canyon south entrance just in time to enjoy a vibrant sunset from the Rim Trail. We finally got some much needed sleep in the car, but managed to get ourselves up and back on the trail to witness an equally, if not more impressive, sunrise the next morning. We spent the rest of the second day “relaxing” (unintentionally hiking about seven miles), eating in the Grand Canyon Village, checking weather reports, researching the most current trail and water source conditions, scouting out our starting point and parking situation for the next day, and getting our fastpacks loaded up. A mix of anxiety and excitement made it difficult to sleep that night.

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Grand Canyon sunset after driving from Bryce Canyon
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Sunrise the next morning

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It was below freezing when we awoke to change into our running attire. After some final packing adjustments, we drove five minutes down the highway and parked at Pipe Creek Vista (since you can’t park at South Kaibab Trailhead). About a mile on the paved Rim Trail brought us to our starting point. Peering out over the edge and seeing the massive descent before us felt like being at the top of a rollercoaster, when time seems to move slowly and stop altogether right before the stomach churning freefall. And with that we took our first steps into the most ambitious single day adventure of our lives.

The trail was fairly empty as we started down the initial switchbacks, making it easy to move fast and light over the somewhat awkward terraced/staircase-like construction. We only needed our headlamps for a brief stretch. First light was upon us within minutes and as we dipped below Cedar Ridge, we were greeted by our third consecutive (but nonetheless magnificent and breathtaking) desert sunrise. The delicate purple and salmon colors of dawn melted away into the blanket of light sweeping over the exposed ridge line.

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Dawn colors
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Tiny Mack (lower left) with the scene-stealing O’Neill Butte (upper right)
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Running on Cedar Ridge, getting closer to O’Neill butte
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Another incredible desert sunrise
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Last one of O’Neill Butte

Just above O’Neill Butte, we finally turned around and noticed a mule train moving awfully fast down the switchbacks we’d just run. Not wanting to have to deal with a potential leap frog situation, we booked it down the trail and I tried to be faster with my picture taking. Of course, it was difficult not to stop and absorb the surroundings of this dramatic descent into the inner gorge. We oftentimes found ourselves caught off guard by how quickly the train was gaining on us! Thankfully, they also took breaks at some of the viewpoints, which provided us opportunities to put space between us.

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Looking back

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Switchbacks from Skeleton Point

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From Skeleton Point we lost elevation quickly. Earlier that morning, the plateau above the inner gorge appeared so far away. Now we were level with it, able to look out across the way and see the grand towers and pinnacles rising from the expansive shelf. The Kaibab Bridge was in sight at this point, too. We continued to drop below the plateau, winding around rock formations and ridge lines, flying down the final set of switchbacks, through the tunnel, and finally onto the bridge, ready to tackle the next part of our journey on the other side of the Colorado River.

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Colorado River!
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Horsepacking group crossing the bridge

Following Kaibab Bridge, we reached Bright Angel Campground shortly after and were greeted by a lush oasis of cottonwood trees and riparian vegetation lining the clear blue waters of Bright Angel Creek (a welcome contrast to the murky green of the Colorado just moments before). The area was bustling with human activity, especially as we neared the quaint cabins and dormitories of Phantom Ranch. It was like passing through a tiny village.

We stopped for some snacks just before entering the narrow corridor known as The Box. My stomach did a back flip when I saw a sign indicating we were still 13+ miles away from the North Rim. Over thirteen miles and so much climbing! My initial thoughts were along the line of, “Okay, time to turn around. There’s no way I’m ready for this,” but the excitement of embracing something so unknown and uncomfortable won out over my fear. We entered The Box, winding our way alongside the creek and shaded by the towering walls of 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist, before popping out into a more open and spacious section of Bright Angel Canyon. Despite starting in below freezing temps, now we were at the mercy of the sun. Although it couldn’t have been more than 70-75 degrees, the lack of shade and moving air, as well as the gradual incline, took its toll on our pace (well…my pace).

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Bright Angel Creek with Kaibab Bridge in the distance
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About to enter The Box
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One of the many bridges we crossed during The Box
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Running through The Box
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No more shade for a little while

We passed the signed turnoff heading to Ribbon Falls, opting to continue to the North Rim since we didn’t know how long the side trip would be. A few minutes later though, a runner (who had passed us earlier in The Box) heading back to Bright Angel or Phantom Ranch mentioned Ribbon Falls was worth the detour and probably wasn’t more than a half mile from where we were. “What the hell,” I thought. “We’re going to be out here all day anyways. What’s another mile?” We crossed the bridge going over the creek and headed toward the hidden side canyon housing the falls.

The runner was right. The falls were worth the additional distance and time. We probably spent a half hour or more here enjoying the 100-foot falls cascading down onto the emerald green moss coating its rocky base, climbing up and around to the back of the falls to look out on Bright Angel Canyon from behind the water, and soaking in the coolness of the area before venturing back out into the unforgiving sun.

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Ribbon Falls
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View from behind the falls

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We pushed onward after Ribbon Falls, sucking down almost all of our water to avoid baking in the hot sun. At Manzanita Rest Area we refilled our hydration bladders and soft flasks to prepare for the final 5.4 mile ascent (with 3,600 feet of gain more or less) to the North Rim. Despite the constant grueling uphill, this section was probably my favorite of the entire rim-to-rim. After making it above Roaring Springs, the path became more interesting as we made our way through “half tunnels” that had been blasted directly into the Redwall Limestone cliff sides by trail builders in the 1920s.

Just under three miles in we crossed a bridge high above the creek and began the series of seemingly endless switchbacks (nearly 2.7 miles worth) up to our turnaround point: North Kaibab Trailhead. Looking back at our route, snaking up and along the stunning red cliffs with the towering walls of Bright Angel Canyon in the distance, is the image I picture whenever I think about our adventure. Once we hit Supai Tunnel, it was less than two miles to the top! Both of us were pretty fatigued (more mentally than physically) on this last stretch, especially since it was just switchback after switchback. We stopped briefly at Coconino Overlook and enjoyed a beautiful view of Roaring Springs Canyon and the trail down below. Our halfway point was near now, and within another 15 or 20 minutes (more or less, I can’t entirely remember) we were breaking out of the forest and standing at the empty, snow-covered trailhead. Our time at the top was short lived though. It was already around 3 pm (blame my need to take pictures of everything) and we still had another 22+ miles to go…

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Surrounded by Redwall Limestone
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Running on a trail blasted directly into the cliff
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Looking down into Roaring Springs Canyon
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Supai Tunnel
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Made it to the North Rim!

It had started to snow as we neared the top earlier. Now, heading back down, it was falling harder and visibility was practically non-existent save for a few yards in front of our faces. We stopped at the Coconino Overlook again, as I’d hoped to take a self portrait of us here, but the only thing visible now were the outlines of the canyon walls and the trees dotting the slopes. Things began to clear a little bit by the time we reached Supai Tunnel, and shortly before the bridge crossing it was like the snowy episode had never even happened. We still managed a lovely self portrait (see below), then continued non-stop to Manzanita, where we replenished our water.

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View from Coconino Overlook
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Burrito break while waiting out the snow
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My favorite photo from our adventure (and probably the best self portrait I’ve ever managed)

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Our final couple of hours before sunset were some of the most beautiful on the trail. Golden hour in Bright Angel Canyon, with its looming red, black, and sandstone-colored walls and slopes covered in desert shrubs, wildflowers, and trees all bathed in soft sunlight is something to behold. Of course, once the sun went down we’d barely reached The Box. We were thrown into complete darkness soon after. Our pace slowed down considerably to compensate for the lack of visibility (even though we had headlamps). Mack getting dive bombed by a bat multiple times didn’t help things either.

My body began to revolt in the final mile or two before Bright Angel Campground. Lack of calories and proper nutrition, as well as lack of sleep, was finally taking its toll. We stumbled into Bright Angel Campground and collapsed at the kiosk. I practically begged Mack to consider staying here to bivy for a short while just so I could close my eyes. I could barely keep them open, and I thought maybe even a little bit of shut-eye would help calm my nausea. To my dismay, he insisted we keep going, although I could tell he was struggling too. (When I asked him about this the next day, he told me that he’d seen a half eaten deer carcass just off the trail near the kiosk–when we’d run by in the daylight–and didn’t feel it would’ve been safe for us to sleep there with a potential cougar lurking around) I reluctantly strapped my fastpack back on and followed Mack over the Kaibab Bridge.

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Golden hour

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The final seven miles were some of the slowest I’ve ever hiked (seeing as we were barely able to put one foot in front of the other at this point). I went back and forth between being completely lucid (mainly due to my paranoia that we were going to get jumped by a cougar) and very out-of-it, like I was sleep walking. We stopped numerous times to keep from burning out completely. I spent most of these breaks on my hands and knees dry heaving because of my worsening nausea or curled up on rock, attempting to fit in 5-10 minute power naps.

I will say that the one upside to climbing up South Kaibab Trail in the dark is you can’t see how steep it is or how much further you have to go. When we finally reached Ooh Ahh Point, I felt a slight surge of energy pulse through me. This was it. The final switchbacks to the trailhead. We even started to jog a little faster! We dragged our lifeless bodies up the final switchback and plopped down at the sign. Completely out of character, Mack insisted we pull out the camera for one final picture to document our achievement (see below). The giddiness and excitement that comes with the successful completion of any masochistic adventure propelled us the final mile back to the car. Mack cracked open a beer once we were back in the visitor center parking lot and I fell asleep embracing a bag of cheese bagels. A perfect end to a perfect (albeit ridiculously challenging) adventure run.

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Back at the South Kaibab Trailhead 20+ hours later…
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