This is a mandatory image for all rim-cubed blog postings.
The trip includes 14 guys that will split into two groups. I’ll be in the first group with 7 other guys who will begin our trek at 4:30 AM. The second group will start an hour later and probably catch us near the North Rim. As we check into the lodge they tell us Friday’s forecast calls for 33 degrees in the morning on the South Rim with highs in the canyon around 90.
Thursday evening before our journey.
At 4:31 we fired up our headlamps and begin heading down the South Kaibab Trail. Not concerned with my time, I don’t start my stopwatch. Instead I set the Timer to go off every 15 minutes, which will remind me to eat and/or drink throughout the day. Within minutes we all realize it never got down to 33 degrees. Temps are probably 10 degrees warmer and we soon stop to shed our long sleeves.
It’s a little weird heading into the canyon in the dark, but it’s also really cool. Within 30 minutes the sun begins creeping up over the horizon. While it’s not as spectacular as what you’d see in a book, seeing it first-hand makes up for it. With the added sunlight a few of us take out our cameras and begin taking pictures. Unfortunately, every time we stop the main pack pulls away. Early on it’s easy to catch up, but that doesn’t last long.
Fairly early on we pass a hiker coming up the canyon and all he says to me is “You signed up for this?” My only response is “ask me again in 10 hours.”
After about 1:40 of constant downhill running we reach Phantom Ranch in the base of the canyon. Here we stop to fill up our water bottles, eat some calories and point out the way to Bright Angel Trail, which we’ll take on our return trip. For some reason things feel rushed – at least more rushed than I thought they’d be. I think maybe it’s just due to the gnats and flies swarming all over us.
We head out of Phantom Ranch on the North Kaibab Trail. The trail gradually begins to rise and our next stop, Cottonwood, is roughly 6 miles away. It doesn’t take long before I begin to fall off the back. Although it’s probably important to stick together, I figure it’s equally important to stay within myself. Beside, I know the second group will be coming along soon – in fact, sooner than I thought. As I pull into Cottonwood, the first group is about to leave. I tell them I’m fine and am just going at my own pace. Five minutes later the second group arrives – and leaves within minutes. I head out with them, but that companionship is short lived and I’m soon alone again.
Roaring Springs is only about 2 miles away and the stretch goes by quickly. This is the last water stop before the North Rim. With 5 miles still to go to the North Rim, that means this water will need to last a total of 10 miles. And I’m not talking about the 10 miles you cover during a normal day. I’m talking a 10-mile stretch that probably includes 4,000 feet of climbing and descending. To make matters worse, things are heating up quickly and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I filled up my 50 oz. Camelbak, along with a 20 oz. bottle in my waist pack and set off up the trail. As I forge on, I think about what the veterans have said; monitor your body, eat, drink, CFM (constant forward motion) and, most importantly, before you commit to the top, be sure of yourself because at the point you’re “all in”.
I’ve already walked quite a bit so far, but now all I’m doing is walking. For the first time I break out my iPod thinking somehow it will magically propel me to the top. It doesn’t propel me at all. I’m probably about 2 miles beyond Roaring Springs and when I find one of the few shaded areas, I decide to take a break and refuel. I shut my iPod off and the silence is refreshing. It’s time to reassess the situation.
My main concern is that I’m already in “last place”. Being last doesn’t bother me, but if I continue my way to the top, the others will soon be making their way back down. Not having anyone from my party around for the return trip would definitely be concerning and probably a huge mistake. If I turn back now I’ll have the advantage of being caught and at least being able to check in with the group. Heck, we may even be able to “run” up the South Rim together. I’m nearly 5 hours into the trip and the decision to turn back is made. I take one last photo from my northern most point, pack things up, and head back towards the South Rim.
This is as close as I got.
Obviously, the return trip to Roaring Springs is downhill and it goes by in 30 minutes. To my surprise, just before I arrive, I find myself sucking air out of my Camelbak. With only 10 ounces left in my bottle, there’s no way I could have made it to the North Rim and back without running out of fluids. Later I find out a bunch of guys did in fact run out of water during this stretch.
By now I’ve gone from walking any uphill to also walking all of the rocky sections. The last thing I want is to fall down out here by myself. The stretch to Cottonwood is a relatively quick 2 miles. After a quick break I’m looking forward to the smoother, more gradual, trail leading back to Phantom Ranch. There’s not much traffic on the North Kaibab Trail and I try to calculate when I’ll start seeing the other guys. I figure I’ll see them at Phantom Ranch where I plan on taking a longer break before heading back out of the canyon.
I seem to be making good progress along this stretch, but all of the sudden, I’m sucking air out of my pack again. Shit! I only have about 6-8 ounces of fluid left. I’m pretty sure I left Cottonwood about an hour ago. Since it’s only about a 6-mile stretch, I figure I must be getting close to Phantom Ranch. I finish off my bottle and decide to walk it the rest of the way to the ranch. It’s frustrating because I’m on some of the most runnable trail all day and I’m reduced to walking. However, it’s brutally hot and sunny and I’m all alone. I make sure to do a quick assessment. I feel fine and mentally aware of what’s going on. I’m confident I can make it to water without much difficulty.
To make things more frustrating, every turn looks like the previous one. I constantly think the ranch is around the next corner, but it never seems to materialize. Finally, I see a hiker and he says I’m about a mile out. Sure enough, a few minutes later I see a ¾ mile sign. By the time I reach Phantom Ranch my timer has gone off twice and I’ve been without nutrition or liquids for close to 45 minutes. Not good!
I monitor myself again and seem fine – despite my mistake. I find it hard to believe I blew through 70 oz. during that stretch. I can only guess that I must not have filled my pack all the way up to the top. I guzzle half a bottle of water before refilling it with 20 oz of Gatorade. I vow to suck down the entire bottle and consume a 300-calorie “brownie” before I leave. Luckily, the gnats and flies that were driving us crazy five hours earlier have disappeared and I’m able to eat my “lunch” in peace. I take my time knowing that it’s all up hill from here – plus I’m half hoping I’ll see someone I know. I wait until 1 PM, but no one arrives. I decide to start the 9.7-mile ascent up Bright Angel Trail by myself.
I see more hikers during the first 15 minutes on Bright Angel than I saw during 5 hours on North Kaibab – or at least it seems that way. Maybe I’m craving social interaction because I try to make friendly banter with everyone I see. I even ran into a group from Minnesota. One of the guys was “nice” enough to tell me that I had a long way to go. He spent the last 7 hours coming down the trail. That’s not what I wanted to hear at this point.
I have no idea where the water stops are on this trail. Not wanting to run out again, I begin asking the hikers coming down how far away the next water stop is. They’re all concerned that I’ve run out, but I tell them I just want to ration my supplies accordingly. Before I know it I’m at Indian Garden. A map tells me I’m now only 4.7 miles from the top and a thermometer tells me it’s 90 degrees in the shade. Later it was reported to be 105 degrees in the canyon – a far cry from what I’ve been training in back home.
After another 15-minute break I decided to push on. I try to write “Chad 2:50” in the dirt with a rock – a message to my friends representing the time I took off - but it’s unreadable. I put my iPod on for the second time today and head up the trail. For some reason I take one last look back and I happen to see Joe and Brian coming into Indian Garden. It’s great to finally see some familiar faces and get some details on what’s happening with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, it sounded like things weren’t going very smoothly – more on that in another post.
The three of us leave Indian Garden together. With my own interest in mind, I’m happy to find out that they’re only able to power hike. I’m able to stick with them for about a mile and am awed by these tremendous athletes. To be able to watch them in action at this point of their “race” is one of my highlights from the trip. With 4 miles to go Brian is trying to convince Joe that they can get under his time from two years about if they “just” maintain 20-minute miles. Joe’s not buying Brian’s motivational tactics today.
By the time we reach the 3 Mile Rest House, those guys have begun to pull away. I stop for water and find four hikers that have been struggling in the heat. I’m able to share some salt capsules and my final Nuun electrolyte tablet. For some reason I forget to offer some of the energy bars or Shot Bloks that I still have in my pack. They’re grateful anyway and I press on.
I throw my iPod on again and this time Disturbed hits the spot, especially songs like Divide and Indestructible.
The stretch to the 1.5 Mile Rest House takes a long time, but it’s relatively uneventful. As I near the top, the trail is becoming more and more crowded – both with people making there way out as well as those coming down to see the canyon in the few remaining hours of sunlight. At one point I cross paths with some teenage boys that are actually sprinting down the trail at full speed. I can only picture them clipping a rock and sailing through the air, head first. I never heard any screaming behind me, so apparently that didn’t happen.
I think to myself that I have to be getting close to the top. As a hiker approaches, I make the mistake of saying something like “I must be getting close” only to hear “You still have a ways to go” in return. Damn it! I continue to trudge on but have reached the point where I don’t want to eat anything else. I continue drinking, but that’s about all I can manage. Finally, I crossed the “finish line” around 5:15 PM – 12:45 after setting off on this crazy adventure.
Overall, I believe I covered about 38 miles. I’m guessing only half of those were done while running. Although I was probably only 3 miles from the North Rim, I later found out that that stretch included another 3,000 feet of climbing. Thinking back to how I felt during that last mile, I’m so glad I turned back early. Maybe some will consider that a DNF, but given the circumstances, I'm fine with my decision. Of course, I would have loved making it to the North Rim, but I’ll just have to save that for another day.
There are so many other aspects of this trip that I want to write about and photos that I want to post, but I’ll wrap this up now and save those for another day. There are also a bunch of quotes that could be used to wrap up this post. I happened to come across this one on the plane ride home that seems to some things up.
Quote of the day;
“We swung north to the Arizona mountains, Flagstaff, clifftowns. I had a book with me… but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along. Every bump, rise, and stretch in it mystified my longing.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road