To Hell and Back – Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim


Writing this trip report has been difficult. In an effort to capture the mental processes that went on both before and during the “run”, I’ve included a lot more details than I would otherwise on a public trip report, some of them personal and gory. Consider yourself warned.  If you don’t have stomach or time for this, here’s the short version:

Seven of us embarked on a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Double Crossing of the Grand Canyon via the South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel Trails in an effort to see what exactly we were physically capable of doing. This entails 50 miles of trail with 11,200′ of elevation gain and loss. We started early in the morning to minimize heat, but still miscalculated how hot it would get and exactly what that would do to us. Six of the seven of us reached the North Rim successfully without too much trouble (Kari turned back a few miles from the top).

On the way back down into the unprecedented heat (113o by one measurement), we all began to feel its effects to different degrees and the pace slowed dramatically. I and others got varying degrees of heat exhaustion and we stopped at Phantom Ranch for a few hours to cool off and let the sun go down. The nine miles from river back to the S. rim were a real death march complete with vomiting. I eventually got my core temperature down and started to feel human again, if utterly exhausted.

I set out seeking limits and found them… or at least could see them not too far off.

To Hell and Back

Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim

May 10-13, 2007

“I’m running my first marathon today!” I exclaimed, with excitement and trepidation.

“Yeah,” said Chris, wryly, “and your second marathon too.”

We were jogging through the pre-dawn twilight along the paved South Rim bike path along with five other “special idiots”. Flashlights bobbed and weaved illuminating small patches of the trail ahead and the surrounding scrubby pines, but not the yawning void to our left. It was pleasantly cool with a light breeze, just perfect for t-shirt-and-shorts running. It was also 3:30 in the morning, and we knew the cool temperatures wouldn’t last. A couple of lights ahead marked our immediate goal, the South Kaibab trailhead, the point from which we would step off the South Rim and into the vast wilderness of buttes and canyons that makes up the Grand Canyon. Far to our left were some faint lights marking the lodge on the North Rim, our longer-term destination. It looked like a very long way. It was a very long way. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous.

As with most of these things, it started as a macho dare to myself. “Can you ‘run’ across the Grand Canyon and back in one day?” The distace is 46 miles with 11,000′ of vertical gain and loss. Either the distance or the vertical is a massive challenge in and of itself but I’ve been running a lot lately and am in the best shape of my life. At this point I consider a 15 mile run to be pretty routine and my standard mountain climbing trips usually net 4-5 thousand feet of gain up where the air is thin and elevation gain is relatively harder. Extrapolating to the requirements of the Grand Canyon was a stretch, but it didn’t seem totally unfeasible.

There is also the aspect of finding out exactly what I was mentally and physically capable of. I’ve been reading about the Barkley Marathon lately, a huge masochistic suffer-fest in the wilds of Tennessee (which is and will always be way out of my league). It’s a 100 mile race which, in twenty one years, exactly six people have finished within its 60 hour time limit. Runners realize this fully and yet come to test themselves anyway. To paraphrase one Barkley runner, “I can only know what I’m capable of by failing. If I succeed, I’ll never know where my limit is.” Now, Barkley is full-on crazy, but the Grand Canyon seemed like a good opportunity to test my limits by coming close.

Plus, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon and I hear it’s nice.

This was turning into a big event. Chris originally proposed this trip after his four-person event last November. In the subsequent months, it grew to thirteen people. Some were bound for the full Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim double crossing while others, arguably saner or less masochistic, aimed for a Rim-to-River-to-Rim tour of the south side of the canyon. Amy and I carpooled down with Andy and his dad Jim for a spectacular drive through Moab, Monument Valley, and all sorts of worthwhile places. Chris, Michael, and Todd arived with us on Thursday night while Eric, Kari, Joy, and Chris F. came in on Friday afternoon. We were rounded out by Sarah and Seth who drove all night after graduation in Boulder and arrived at 3am on Saturday.

Friday we spent a leisurely day strolling along the south Rim Trail getting psyched out by how big the whole thing looked. It got hot in the afternoon, so we retired to camp for an early dinner and preparation. There was a massive carbo-loading frenzy, then we all hit the hay as early as possible.

In a fit of hubris, we’d decided that if we parked at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, we could run over to the South Kaibab Trail for our descent (shorter, steeper), and then return via Bright Angel. This would make logistics easier since we’d have cars at our end-point and Bright Angel has many water taps (South Kaibab is totally dry). Most importantly, it would add 4 miles to the 46 mile trip for an even and aesthetically appealing 50 miles.

Still, we had weighed the dangers, soberly assessed our abilities, and felt fully prepared. We were well-stocked with high-energy foods, electrolyte capsules and drink mixes, and capacity for carrying several liters of water between water stops. We’d made doubly sure that all water taps were on and we were starting early enough to get most of the trip done with before the heat of the day. The record for the double-crossing is roughly 7.5 hours (incredible!) and I’ve found that I’m usually about double whatever any particular record is. I was aiming conservatively for a sixteen hour day but suspected that I could do it in fourteen barring any catastrophes. That should put us back through the lowest and hottest part of the canyon before the real heat of afternoon set in. But none of us had a problem taking a siesta at Phantom Ranch while the temperature dropped a bit.The double-crossers were seven: Kari, Joy, both Chris’s, Eric, Michael, and myself. Spirits were high and jokes scatalogical as we ran along the easy, dark, paved path to the real start. The smell of mules heralded our arrival at the South Kaibab TH where we paused for a brief stretching break. The Park Service does not expressly forbid this kind of stunt in the Canyon (nor could they realistically), but they are definitely not happy about it. Several large signs noted the foolishness of our endeavor: “Every year 250 people are rescued from the depths of the Grand Canyon,” proclaimed one sign. “Most of them look like this guy.” Next to it was a picture of a rugged-looking mountain-man type who could have been any of us (albeit, after a visit to a salon and designer clothing outlet). Another sign noted “What goes down must go back up,” along with a “special note to the young, strong, and invicible” about how your brain starts to cook at temperatures above 105o F.

The South Kaibab Trail started abruptly at a visible crest where level rim gave way to steady downward grade. We switchbacked sharply down a steep wall before following the most amazing trail bed across the side of sheer cliffs steadily downward. Twilight was starting to paint the cliffs in the distance, but it was still hard to see exactly what was going on. From the back of the pack (a position I fully anticipated holding all day), it was really something to see a line of lights bobbing and weaving down the curves into the blackness below. We ran the easy sections and walked the rough bits. Eventually, it got lighter and the trail leveled out for a while. We went hustling along at a great rate feeling quite good before reaching Skeleton Point and dropping steeply down again through a series of stairs. Below us we saw a Phantom-bound train of mules laden with cargo. After we were all bunched together, we approached and they let us pass. I’d never seen mules up close before and was surprised at how big they are. They really look like sturdy versions of full-sized horses, not cute little donkey variants.

After running across the Tonto Platform 3000′ below the rim, we reached the Tipoff and dropped another 1500′ into the Inner Gorge. The rock here changed dramatically from sedimentary layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone to harder schists and gneisses. The river is generally invisible from the rims, hidden by this inner gorge, but now we could see it way down below wide, green, and smooth. I was reminded of our trip on the Green River two years ago and it was neat to be back, albeit a couple hundred miles downstream. After what can only be described as a screaming descent, we came roaring through a long tunnel and shot out onto the “Black” Kaibab Bridge over the Colorado.

South Kaibab is really steep losing 4800′ of elevation in 6.3 miles so it was a tough transition to the level sandy trail along the river and up to Phantom Ranch, our first water and rest stop. “Weird,” I said, “We’ve just run a half-marathon and it’s only 6:30 in the morning.” Chris pointed out that to get to the north rim and back to Phantom Ranch would require an additional full marathon. Uggg. This was going to hurt. But, for the moment, we were all feeling pretty good. Downhill distance feels sort of like cheating and we were ready for some “legitimate” mileage; the six miles on the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground are only slightly uphill (+1500′) and should be largely runnable in both directions.

We rolled out of Phantom Ranch to the tolling of the (extremely loud) breakfast bell. The next several miles were really incredible trail along the Bright Angel Creek through a tall and narrow canyon known as The Box. We crossed the creek four times before emerging into a beautiful but comparatively boring valley on the way to Cottonwood. Cacti were blooming as were the incredibly strange Century Plants; yucca-type plants with 20′ tall flowery stalks waving in the breeze. I was feeling pretty drained after this and arrived at the aptly-named Cottonwood Camp eager for a bit of a rest and a refueling break. It was 8am and the total elapsed distance was 18 miles. My longest run to date is around 19 miles, so I was rapidly approaching virgin territory. Not bad. It was only another 7 miles to the North Rim, though we were looking at the business end of 4500′ of climbing. Still, uphill is my specialty! I don’t anticipate running much of that distance and I can hike till the cows come home. Let’s get it on!

The sun had finally cleared the canyon walls and it was starting to warm up. We took a left into Roaring Spring Canyon and started following a steeply ascending trail. Across the valley the incredible Roaring Springs cascaded down the strata; incongruous in such an arid environment. Chris was feeling a bit sub-par and conservative at this point and he and Kari dropped the pace. Eric, Joy, and Chris F. had, as expected, taken off in the fore and weren’t seen again for several hours. Michael and I were still feeling pretty good, so we set a steady pace up the trail. The next stop was the water spigot at Supai Tunnel. On the map, it was very close, so it didn’t seem like it would be too bad.

The trail soon became extremely interesting, switching back and forth along cliff bands in nooks hollowed out of the rock. Someone went to a lot of effort to build this trail. We began to see quite a few hikers headed down from campsites on the North Rim, many of them laden with monstrous packs. Given the heat, I was glad to be traveling light. Where was that tunnel? Michael ran out of water and I started feeding him some of mine. The trail dropped down and crossed a bridge. I think the tunnel is right after the bridge. Man, this is really steep! Plod, plod, plod. Rest in the shade. Where is that damn tunnel? Are Chris and Kari still back there? I think I see Chris’s green shirt back along the trail.

Finally, we got into a steep valley walled in by red Supai formation sandstone. The tunnel must be in here; there’s no other way out. Then again, I’ve thought that before only to have the trail take an unexpected turn at the last minute. Around three more switchbacks and there it is! Hallelujah! I collapsed in the cool depths. Michael went on another hundred yards and found a rest house with a water spigot under the shade of a large tree. Pure heaven! This climb is a lot tougher than I’d expected.

The stretch up to the Rim was pretty tough. Yes, it was shady and a little cooler and breezier, but it was a long 1.7 miles and still unremittingly steep. Finally there was a long traverse through full-sized pines and I was officially on the North Rim. More than half way done in time, distance, and elevation gain… man that was hard! That’s probably the hardest hike I’ve ever done. But at least the return trip won’t be as bad. It’s taken 8 hours (plus an hour running along the south rim this morning) to get here. We can make good time on the way down and the climb up the other side is a lot shorter. Chris says that the return trip is usually an hour or two shorter (again, not counting the initial, extra five miles). Figure seven hours to get back out… that puts us on the South Rim at 8pm. Showers close at 9pm, so that should be okay. Mmmm, showers!We waited until Kari and Chris showed up, then waited a bit more. It was only 1.7 miles to the summit, err, North Rim from here with a paltry 1400′ of gain. As we’d come up in altitude, it had gotten cooler and cooler. Eric and Joy came jogging back down having “summited” and reported that Chris F. was about 10 minutes behind them. They reported easier trail with more of a cooling breeze and lots of shady trees. “Easier than that last mile, that’s for sure,” they said. Kari still elected to turn around but Michael, Chris, and I decided to push on. I was pretty tired, but having come all this way, I couldn’t turn around now, so close to the end.

Chris and Michael took off down the trail and managed to run a good portion of the way back to Supai. My legs couldn’t quite take the steep descents at this point, but I still managed a pretty speedy hike. I paused at Supai again to change socks and load up on water, calories, and electrolytes. As we dropped, we knew it was going to get hotter and hotter. Stay hydrated! Below Supai, the switchbacks flew past a lot faster than they did on the way up, but it was still a trudge and steep enough (with big drop-offs) that I didn’t feel like running. I was also starting to feel a bit nauseous. Given the unprecedented exertion levels, that wasn’t too surprising. I kept drinking and eating whenever I got the chance.

We anticipated making great time on the moderate downhill run from Cottonwood to the river. The Box would hopefully provide shade as well from the now-brutal sun. Unfortunately, it was just so hot we only ran a mile or two of the trail. We got to the Box and found little shade but strong, hot headwinds. Chris and Michael were feeling more spry, so they continued running while I plodded along lost in my own world. I seemed to remember that the Box was only a mile or so of trail (in fact, it’s about 3). I still felt pretty nauseous though, surprisingly, my legs and feet felt great. I guess the plus side to all the heat was that we were extremely limber.We stopped again at the unnamed water spigot above Cottonwood and reloaded with nice cold water. I was now feeling pretty crappy but Michael and Chris made sure I was drinking and eating. By the time I got to Cottonwood Camp, I was feeling a bit better, but was still definitely pretty worked. “Well,” said Chris, “you’re an ultra-runner now.” We’d been almost 32 miles and the shortest ultramarathon is typically 50k (31 miles). Unfortunately, we still had 18 to go. It seemed like only yesterday when 18 miles seemed like a really long way. Wait, it still felt like a really long way, but I didn’t have much of a choice at this point. It would definitely hurt, but in a good way.

I was starting to get really hot and I noticed I hadn’t peed since sometime this morning. My skin felt dry and dusty. In the clear light of hindsight, I realize that I was and had been for some time ramping up to a good case of heat exaustion. I’d stopped sweating and my core temperature was beginning to rise. I was also purely exhausted. Alarmed by this, I finally scrambled down to the creek and wiped down my limbs, wrapping a wet bandana or two around my neck and soaking my hat. The refreshing effect was startling, but lasted only too briefly.

I was on the lookout for hallucinations and constantly checked my mental processes (if such a thing is possible) by doing integrals in my head. But I didn’t realize how subtle hallucinations could be. Eager to spy other people on the trail, particularly Chris and Michael waiting for me, I kept seeing people down in the creek washing their faces. Since I’d been doing exactly that, it didn’t seem as implausible as seeing purple moose or flying monkeys or something like that. But it was a rock, or a bush, never another person. Whoa!

Finally, I saw Michael far away around a bend. No, really, it was definitely him. He waved. I waved back. He waited. Thank you!!! When I caught up, he said that Chris was similarly sick and was pushing on to Phantom Ranch to cool off. Michael was totally fine, for some reason. Maybe his hot Texan blood or more careful use of nutrients and electrolytes. He took my bandanas and shirt and wet them periodically as he escorted me out. What a great guy!

After what seemed like many hours, we finally reached Phantom Ranch again. I had stashed a Red Bull in the bushes there and drank it with great relish, inexplicably the first thing that had tasted good in many miles. Kari had been having similar problems to Chris and I and was waiting there as well. We decided to wait out the heat of the day before climbing back to the South Rim. Showers could wait; this heat was a killer! We hiked a half mile down to the river and spent a while sitting in the creek. I began to feel substantially better and managed to get down some food and water. We’d radioed the Rim-to-River-to-Rim crew and told them what was going on. “We’ll see you when we see you,” said Andy. Good. At least they wouldn’t call out the rescue if we failed to return by dark.

At seven, we decided it had cooled off enough to start our 9 mile, 4500′ ascent. It was still pretty hot, but at least we were in the shade now and it would only get cooler as night fell and we got to higher elevations. But after half a mile, I was feeling just as crappy as I had before. Chris took charge and enforced a slow pace with plenty of hydration. The dark walls of Vishnu Schist radiated heat which didn’t help. By eight it was fully dark and we were deep into the Pipe Creek canyon in the Lower Gorge. With darkness came out all kinds of frogs and crickets making a surprisingly loud racket in the sweltering dusk.

I was still feeling pretty bad so the others made me go lie full-length in a pool along Pipe Creek to try to get my core temperature down. The pool was full of tadpoles and, after lying there for a few minutes, the resident adult frogs added their calls to the deafening chorus. I could see stars overhead and bats swooping around while the others talked quietly a hundred feet away. Despite the misery and nausea, it was one of the most peaceful and surreal experiences I’ve ever had. I dare say it is not the normal tourist experience in the Grand Canyon.

The trail here must be amazing to see, but we were lost in our own dark world. My view consisted of Chris’s feet marching slowly and purposefully up the trail. Kari stayed close behind me while Michael brought up the rear. Occasionally we could make out some bordering cliff, but it was hard to figure out where we were in the general ascent. Indian Gardens arrived at long last after we’d seen all kinds of frogs in the trail, a pair of scorpions (two different kinds), a large centipede, and a small rattlesnake. We re-watered and rested on the benches for a few minutes. But the few minutes turned into about 30, maybe more. I was feeling much better now, but deathly tired and sleepy. All of us could have comfortably fallen asleep here and we seriously considered just waiting until dawn before finishing the hike out. If ultra-running involves being on the go for 18 hours or more, I’m pretty sure I’m not interested. Before we got terminally comfortable, we started the last 10% of our trip.After ten minutes, I was shivering violently and emerged from the pool. I was feeling better and managed to get a good deal of my 2 liters of water down. But part way up the Devil’s Corkscrew a mile later, I threw up quite a lot. This was heralded as a good sign and indeed I did feel a bit better. We continued toward Indian Gardens and the next water stop.

It was pure death-march; worse than the descent from Longs Peak, way harder than the last mountain of the Tenmile Traverse, more mentally exhausting than my hardest caving trip. At least the temperature was a comfortable 70-some degrees now, but my fuel tanks were completely empty and I was afraid that eating anything would bring a sequel to the nausea and vomiting episode that had happened down below. I was a bit low on food but nothing in my pack seemed appetizing anyway. Every step was low-grade torture and it was all I could do not to just fall over at the side of the trail from sheer exhaustion. Finally, with two miles yet to go, I forced down a Hammergel (vanilla) nausea or no nausea. To my surprise, it went down quite easily and I felt the energy boost almost instantly. Wow! We cruised up for another mile as the trail switched back and forth across the cliff face.

All too soon, the energy boost faded and it became a death march again. But we must be almost there. I could see lights occasionally from the Rim. But I could also see the bulky shadow of the cliffs and they were still clearly a ways above. Everyone was feeling it now; keeping moving through sheer solidarity and group will power. On the plus side, we had the famous Bright Angel Trail entirely to ourselves! That doesn’t happen very often.

At long last, we threaded the narrow tunnel below the top switchback, turned right and ascended the last long traverse. Somewhere Chris and Michael found the energy to run it in. I limped on doggedly and nearly tripped over the Rim. Almost immediately, the emotional aspect hit me and I started sobbing uncontrollably. It had been over 20 hours since we departed and we’d covered 51 miles and 11,200 vertical feet both up and down. Numbers aside, I was just so happy to be done and to have survived. Without the heat, it wouldn’t have been quite as hard; Chris confirms that this trip was about twice as hard as the last one when the high temperatures had been in the 70s. Today’s high was, by one account, 113o. We snapped a couple of photos, collapsed in the car, and drove carefully back to camp arriving at 1am.

The showers were closed. No one really cared.

So what happened to the others? The Rim-to-River-to-Rim crew had their own share of suffering and adventure though thankfully not to quite the same degree. Sarah and Seth showed up at 3am just as the R2R2R crew was pulling out. They set up a tent and met up with Todd, Jim, Andy, and Amy when they arose at 4. The six of them walked to the South Kaibab Trailhead from the campground and started down about an hour behind us. They spent three hours on the descent taking photos and poking around. They got to the bridge around 9am and hiked up to Phantom Ranch for lemonade and some relaxation. Todd hiked on into the Box by himself while the rest turned around and headed up the Bright Angel Trail.

Amy got sick on the ascent just as I did (though she didn’t spend any time in the frog pond). The others took turns carrying her pack and supplying her with wet bandanas. But they took their time and arrived safely back on the rim at 6:30, sadly half an hour after the ice cream shop had closed. Despite these setbacks, all of them had a splendid time and a mighty, 20 mile hike with nearly 5000′ of elevation gain.

tontoplateaupanAfter setting an impressive pace, Eric and Chris F. had their own share of problems. Despite a substantial lead on us at the Supai Tunnel, they suffered from heat exhaustion, cramping, and so forth on the way back, arriving less than an hour before we did. Joy was apparently totally unphased by the heat: after making sure Eric was okay at Phantom Ranch, she flew up the Bright Angel Trail and arrived back at camp at about 7pm shortly after the River Crew. Very impressive!

It’s hard to sum things up without sounding cliched and corny, so please humor me for a moment or two. Among other things, I went out there to find my limits. While I didn’t find them in the pure Barkley Marathon sense by going until total physical and mental collapse, I came pretty close–close enough that I don’t want to voluntarily get any closer.

Were we smart to go down there after all the warnings and the forecast for unseasonable temparatures at the bottom? Maybe not. The trail miles and elevation changes were all within our physical abilities. The one thing we underestimated was the power of extreme heat and I really should have spent some time studying these effects before going out there. Had the creeks been dry or the water taps turned off, it would have been a serious problem (and we would not have attempted it). We checked with the rangers about water status beforehand. We were fully aware of the dangers and brought plenty of calories, electrolytes, and water capacity. Yes, the system could be tuned (I needed more and different calories), but we weren’t woefully underprepared as was the case in some of the accident stories. Waiting until dark to ascend rather than bulling on through the hottest part of the day was definitely the right choice. As soon as it was clear what was going on, all time-tables went out the window. No one was trying to set any personal records and we generally stayed together. I brought a radio which turned out to be a very good thing. Andy and the River Crew (who were in a better position to call out a rescue) knew what was going on and vice-versa. We got ourselves out with no damage and without help. In the climbing world, this is called “in good style”.

The power of teamwork and group support can’t be emphasized enough and doing this alone would have been much harder; maybe impossible, certainly more dangerous than I’m comfortable with. All of us were feeling pretty bad at one time or another, but we got through it as a team. My deepest thanks go out to Kari, Chris, and Michael for getting me out in one piece. I know you guys were far more worried about me than you let on, and I heard some of those whispered conversations you were having behind my back about hyponatremia and other dire conditions. I know you guys were no less mentally and physically exhausted than I was on the way out, yet you never complained. Thank you. May we all live to return the favor some day.

None-the-less, it was a wild and amazing trip. Yes, it was a suffer-fest unlike any I’ve seen before or hope to see again. Parts of the trip were pure Type-II Fun. But other parts were simply amazing. In particular, running down the South Kaibab in the early morning light was really wonderful. The scenery in The Box and Roaring Fork Canyon is astonishing and even the less fun scenic parts were still gorgeous. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the Bright Angel in the daylight, but we got a chance to see (or hear at least) the desert at night; beautiful in it’s own unique way. Look beyond the pain and suffering and it was a most extraordinary trip.

That said, I’m going to take a week or two off now.

Trail Running


Charles Danforth / Last modified: Thu Apr 10 09:40:33 MDT 2008

This entry was posted in classics, running and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to To Hell and Back – Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim

  1. Pingback: Dashing Through the Snow | The Outer Sanctum

  2. Just found your blog (and older website). Fascinating tales! I have done some of the White Mtn trails in NH and enjoyed your stories. Also enjoyed Mt. Neva having done this in 1990. Here’s a link to our walk (not run) of the R2R2R several years ago:

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