Rim to Rim to Rim, Grand Canyon, September 26, 2016

I’m not sure how to even begin to tell you about this adventure.  It’s not a race but just a very well known run to do in the ultra running community; unless you are an avid hiker or trail runner the term “Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim” probably means nothing to you. For ultra runners it’s a bucket list item. For me (and my group I went with) it meant going down the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim to the Colorado River, then following the North Kaibab Trail across the base of canyon and up to the North Rim, and then reversing direction all the way back to the South Rim.   The route we went, totaled 48 miles which we would complete in less than a day.

I should probably give you a little back ground here.  I had never been to the Grand Canyon before.  As hard as that might seem to believe, at 52, this was my first trip.  I had seen pictures and we’d been planning this trip for almost a year now.  My friends Carrie and Lisa, who I’ve run many ultra marathons with over the last couple of years, have also enjoyed some other great running adventures together. Carrie had done this trip a couple years ago with friends of hers from Wisconsin (where she grew up) and some of them were planning a trip back to experience it once more.  There would be room for Lisa and I to join them on this return trip to the Canyon.  With their previous experience on this run, we left all the planning and details to them.  A date was picked for late September 2016.

So with our plans all set, Carrie, Lisa and I flew into Phoenix on Saturday, September 24th and drove from there to Flagstaff, Arizona to meet up with the Wisconsin crew and another runner from Georgia. Another local running friend from Georgia, Janet was joining us for our run, but because of her tight schedule she would only be able to run down the Canyon to the River and back up, also called Rim to River.  Later that afternoon we all converged on Flagstaff where we spent the rest of the day and most of the next day, before heading over to the Grand Canyon.

My first look at the Grand Canyon, trying to take in what we are about to  do

Our group met up at 4:00am the next morning in the Bright Angel Lodge for a quick group picture before heading down to the trail.  We all have our headlamps on and know that it will likely be a couple of hours in the dark before the sun comes up.  We carefully travel this first steep downhill section in the dark and hit the Indian Garden camp ground just as the sun rises.  This is my first trip to the canyon and in the canyon, so I’m in awe as I take the whole trip in.  I tried to take a few pictures to capture it all, but later when it seems that my iPhone camera just doesn’t do it all justice, I forgo taking more pictures.  Most of the pictures I’m sharing are from Carrie’s snap on camera she wears on her pack.

Our group at 4am and some early photos on our trip down

Once through the Indian Garden Camp Ground area we head down to the Devils Corkscrew section, taking us further and deeper into the canyon.  Soon after we left Indian Garden area two members of our group from Wisconsin told us to all go ahead and not wait on them.  They were only doing the Rim to Rim and staying overnight on North Rim before taking a shuttle back the next day.  So their pace plan would be much slower, and the rest of our group moved ahead.

From Indian Garden down the Corkscrew to the Colorado River

Typically on a run, I would think the whole way down a big hill how I would have to come up it later, but those thoughts didn’t run through my head.  I was really so busy taking in the moment and knowing it would be so much later and mostly likely dark before I was going up, I didn’t think much about that part.  The Devils Corkscrew sections is 3.2 miles that winds you down to the Colorado River.  Then it’s another 1.5 miles along the beautiful Colorado River to what is called the Silver Bridge where we would cross.  It was at the water stop just after crossing the bridge that Janet, our Georgia friend must turn back.  After a bathroom break and water fill up the rest of us head to Phantom Ranch where we stop again, this time for some famous Lemmy’s Lemonade.

The Colorado River crossing and Lemonade at Phantom Ranch

Once we leave Phantom Ranch it’s 7 miles across the base of the Canyon before we start to climb out the North side.  The temperatures were beginning to rise as we made our way across the canyon floor.  I still found myself in awe with each turn and step as I wanted to take it all in and enjoy the moment I was in.  It did seem to get quit warm before we reach Cottonwood Campground on the other end of the canyon base.  There was shade there along with another water stop and chance to eat some snacks and assess how everyone was feeling.  All was well as we headed out just a few miles to the Pump house Station which is the last water and bathroom before going up the North Rim.

From Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground

Now we reach the first real climbing, 3.7 miles up to the Supai Tunnel. Our group of 5 now begins to really spread out more as we climb and chat a little less during this time. Carrie, Lisa and I climb at a more steady pace up the canyon as the other 2 trail behind. The views from the North trail are incredible and somewhat scary as we climb, with a Canyon wall on one side of us and a drop off just on the other side.  Because I’ve not done this before and have done little to no research, but am following the plan set out before me, I really have no idea where we are with regards to the top of the climb.  I hear talk about the tunnel and then certain miles to the top but all of that means nothing to me.  So we just keep climbing and climbing.  Once we finally reach the bridge and Supai Tunnel it’s still a few miles from the top.  We finally get to jump out of the path of the Mule Train coming down, we had waited all day to hopefully see some mules.  During the last few miles of climbing, I start thinking about the Lodge on the North Rim and how I might run down there (1.7 miles) after getting to the top to bring us all back some cold Coke.  After the afternoon in the heat nothing seemed to sound better, and we knew the others were a little ways behind us and might also enjoy a cold drink.

The views coming up the North Rim were spectacular

Once Carrie, Lisa and I got to the top and took our packs off, I looked around for a ride to the North Rim Lodge in hopes of finding cold drinks.  A very nice guy and his son from Georgia (of all places) gave me a ride there.  I did some quick scouting and found that other than a fountain drink there were not sodas or water sold in cans or bottles.  So off I went, running back, empty handed, to the rim trail entrance to meet up with the others and keep them from waiting too long for me.  The others had just gotten in and were assessing how they all felt.  One girl from our team was not feeling too well due to the heat down in the canyon and was resting hoping to feel better.  We discussed who was headed back and when we might go.  I was feeling really good and ready to head out but no one was ready to commit to going back with me.  Carrie opted to stay with her Wisconsin friends until they figured out if the one would be feeling better and able to go back, and Lisa and I headed back together.  Once we left the North Rim we soon realized we would have no way of knowing for certain if one or all of them were headed back or staying the night on the North Rim.  It would be more than 12 hours before we would find out the answer to that question.

Lisa and I were both feeling really good and ran down the North Rim, being a little more careful on the turns and stopping only briefly to get drinks at the water stops. Within a few miles we come across the other two from our group who are only going to the North Rim and saying the night there.  I’m sure they were happy to see familiar faces as we exchanged some conversation and continued down.  We made it back to Cottonwood Campground in what seemed pretty good time.  We both needed to refill our packs, use the bathroom and eat a snack before heading out from there.  Our next goal would be to keep pushing and get as far as we could in daylight, although we went ahead and got our headlamps out while we were stopped.  Once it got dark we found it getting harder and harder to keep our running pace and began mostly hiking the later section to Phantom Ranch.  We came into the ranch as it was definitely dark and were happy Phantom Ranch store was open and we could get some more Lemonade.  We knew less than a mile from here would start our climb back up the South Rim.  I remember us crossing the Silver Bridge and thinking in the dark just how long it was, during the day it seemed to be much shorter and faster to cross.  The climb out would take Lisa and I several hours and most of it not really knowing exactly where we were in the climb with the exception of major land marks like Indian Garden and water stops along the South Rim.  At one point during our climb Lisa and I stopped, sat back against the Canyon Wall, shut our headlamps off and looked up.  We looked at the dark canyon walls in the night with the sky above filled with bright stars everywhere.  Carrie had told us to do this, and it really was something amazing to take in.

Lisa and I finally reach the top of the Canyon and head back into Bright Angel Lodge to have our photo taken by the same lady who had taken it that morning.  She was amazed at our adventure, while we were too tired at the moment to take in our accomplishment.  In many ways, maybe you can never fully take it in.  Lisa and I head to our hotel room for some cold Chocolate Milk and snacks we had waiting for us, warm showers and a warm bed.  I laid in bed afraid to fall asleep for fear of not hearing Carrie come to the door knocking and needing in after she arrived.  It would be several hours later before she would come knocking and me dozing on and off in wait.

Lisa and I just after we finished, also a picture of a neckless that my work (David Douglas Diamonds and Jewelry) made for me before I left for this trip.  I put it in my pack and carried it with me on my R2R2R adventure.  Once Lisa and I got back to our room, I dug it out and put it on.  I’ve been wearing it every since.

The next morning before leaving we would take another look at the canyon and get a whole new perspective of the adventure we had been on.  Rim2Rim2Rim was an  incredible  journey, but not one to be taken lightly.  Our group all runs long distances and tackles some pretty good elevation change on a regular basis, but it was still a challenge to take on the climbing involved in the mile deep canyon.

We take a look back to see just what we did, or really the beginning, the green section down the middle of the big pictures is Indian Garden which is about 5 miles down.  The enormity of the Canyon is more than I can take it.  I’m sure I’ll go back to explore it again!