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PostPosted: Tue Mar 10, 2015 8:13 pm 
Raging Alpoholic
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Joined: Thu Jun 14, 2007 10:15 pm
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Nathan, Jesse and I completed the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Saturday March 7th. The trip involves a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again. We chose the South Kaibab trail as the starting and ending point on the South Rim for a total of 42 miles and 10,700’ of elevation gain. We decided to do it as a “run” and took 16 hrs, 20 minutes to complete the double crossing.

Long version:

Last May, when Jesse was living in Washington for a bit, we met up for a climb of the Ice Cliff Glacier on Stuart. We weren’t sure which route we wanted to do, if we wanted to tag other peaks or how long we wanted to stay out in the Enchantment region, so we packed everything but the kitchen sink. As we lugged these huge packs up the Moutaineers Creek approach, Jesse told me of the wonders of trail running. No boots and you carry like 5 pounds of gear. It sounded awesome. I had been dabbling a bit with trail running at the time and decided to give it some more of my energy and see what would happen. We met up a couple weeks later to run the Tiger Fatass 25k course. I loved how much ground that you could cover by interspersing some running along with hiking uphills. Also, given that I am trying to finish graduate school, I also liked how you could get in a solid mountain workout in about 3 hours. I was hooked.

We discussed trying to do the Wonderland trail in two days, an ambitious goal for any trailrunner especially one as new to the sport as myself. Jesse got a job in southern California before we had a chance to do anything as stupid as attempting this without the proper training and conditioning. Still, the idea of it was firmly planted in my brain. Later that summer another friend, Craig, proposed to hike the Wonderland in 3 days. I average about 2.5 miles/hour on hilly terrain, I figured that it would be a relaxing string of 12-14 hour days and I would scout the route for a future running objective. I did average my usual 2.5 miles/hour and things were going pretty well until mile 60, then I broke. After a night of rest at mile 63, we completed the trail and I felt like I was loosely held together by Ibuprofen and a compression bandage. We both declared that running the Wonderland in 2 days was impossible. Jesse, however, did not get to partake in this reality check. He was still rallying for the Wonderland from the safety of the California coast.

Ok, well then we need a training run. Jesse proposed the Rim to Rim to Rim run on the Grand Canyon. It is 42-46 miles and over 10,000’ of elevation gain (equivalent to day 1 of a two day Wonderland trip). As I began reading more into this route, it morphed into a goal in it’s own right. I found out that the trail is a major destination for pretty much any serious ultra runner and is quite a spectacular run. It begins at the Bright Angel Trailhead or the South Kaibab Trailhead on the South Rim and meets the North Kaibab Trail at the Colorado River and follows it to the top of the North Rim, the South Kaibab starts ~400 higher, the Bright Angel is ~2 miles longer. From the Colorado River at the base of the Canyon, you follow the Bright Angel Creek drainage on the North Kaibab trail. The first 8.5 miles after the Colorado river crossing gains only 2100’ and is easily runnable, this saves you an hour or two and makes the trip quite reasonable in a day. Then it is just 5.5 miles and 3600’ of gain to the North Rim. Now you are half-way there ☺ Reverse the route and haul yourself back up the South Rim, for a solid ass-kicking.

Usually with this route, one should wait until April or May for the snow at the rims to melt, but with the mild winter that Arizona was having, they had no snow on the trails and it was nearly mid-February. Nathan was signed up for the Wenatchee Marathon on April 18th, but if we were to move up the Grand Canyon trip a month to early March, he could go too. We took a gamble and got our plane tickets. It snowed two feet about a week later! I found a web cam from the South Rim and obsessively watched the snow start to melt. Another storm was set to hit a few days before our trip and dump another two-three feet of snow on the rims. It was looking grim. We had a bit of good luck though and at the last minute, the freezing level raised and most of the snow fell just above the height of the south rim. We could at least start the run, but the conditions on the North Rim (1000’ higher) would be in question until we saw it for ourselves.

We arrived March 6th and scouted our south rim trails. We would choose the South Kaibab to start and finish the run because it is more exposed and nearly all of the snow had melted. The Bright Angel still had about 2 miles of compact snow and ice at the top. The North Rim was still a big unknown.

The day of the run we caught a shuttle bus shortly after 5am to the trailhead (only accessible by shuttle bus which you park for about two miles away from the TH) and began our descent at 5:25 am. We moved slowly and carefully here, avoiding any early falls on the icy trail in the dark. A few sections on the South Kaibab trail are less steep and would be quite runnable (in retrospect we should have run more here to make better time), but unsure of how we would feel the rest of the day, we spared our knees and walked the steep trail down to the Colorado river.

You can use a spigot year round to refill water bottles at Phantom Ranch, shortly after crossing the river. We refilled here. There are many opportunities to get water from Bright Angel creek on the north side with a filter too, but no other water stations are open this time of year. Phantom ranch is an interesting spot and was quite built up. The creek is lined with cabins that park visitors can access by hiking or by mule rides. There was also a restaurant that appears to serve beer and wine with dinner. There is a wide range of activities to do down there for sure.

The next section of the trail was very enjoyable running through a shady narrow canyon that eventually opens up and we finally got a view on the snow covered north rim. We started talking to hikers that had stayed at some of the higher camps. The word was that many had tried, but nobody had made it to the North Rim the previous day. There was still up to 3 feet of fresh snow on the ground up there. A bit of encouraging news though: there was one other pair of runners ahead of us. I figured that they were likely to be just as motivated as I to tag that rim. Great running terrain brought us all the way to the pumphouse ranger station (5.5 miles from the rim). From here the terrain steepens a little more and we were tired, so hiking became a more efficient mode of travel. Another two runners from Seattle caught us at a break at Roaring Springs (now just 4.8 miles from the north rim). We pressed on another couple of miles and found our first lingering ice patch. It was at this point that Nathan became discouraged by the snow/ice and decided to head back and wait for Jesse and I to press on toward the rim. Soon after, we met up with the lead group of runners on their way down. They had postholed 1.7 miles and made it to the rim! We were stoked! I high-fived both of them and thanked them for their hard work. We would have a much easier time now with steps already kicked. Jesse and I caught up with the Seattle group at the top, snapped a quick photo and started our descent, we were halfway now. We passed a group of two runners from Portland too on our way down, go PNW!

Running downhill was easy at first and then became more challenging (we were 14 miles from the Colorado River). Our progress slowed and we began to look forward to heading back uphill where we would have a solid excuse to start walking again. We found Nathan near Phantom Ranch, (he had been doing laps in the canyon waiting for our return). Jesse was pretty wrecked by now. It would be a slow trip back out. Sunset came and went, we watched the near full moon rise again and trudged onward. We had left the sunny 70 degree temps in the bottom and were now quickly diving into the 20’s as we approached the south rim. We finished at 9:45pm, definitely not the 12 hour time that I had hoped for, but a good trip none-the-less. Prior to the trip, I was talking with an REI employee while picking out my trail shoes, she told me that this was a long-time goal for her that has not worked out yet. When I told her that I wasn’t planning on getting an amazing time (I’m not a real ultra runner), she said that it is not about the time you get, its just about completing the route. I’m stoked to have completed this trip. It is such an iconic location and is pretty mind-blowing to stand on the south rim the next morning and look off into the distance as far as you can and still not quite see all the way to where you had hiked to and back from in just one day.

The Wonderland in two days is still beyond my reach, I woke up the next day fairly stiff and contemplated how somebody could basically repeat that same distance and elevation gain two days in a row. Jesse’s answer, “just don’t stop”. Perhaps we will found out some day.

First arriving at the Grand Canyon

Our route goes down to the river, then up the valley just right of center and cuts in left to the North Rim (beyond what you can see here).

Excited to run! We are wearing all of the clothes that we brought now (it is 24 degrees). This kind of packing is against everything that I learned as a Mountaineer, but it feels great on your back.

Moon setting on the south rim

Sun rise on the south rim

Approaching the Colorado River

Running along Bright Angel Creek up to the North Rim



Nearing the top of the snowy north rim

We made it!!

And now, we go back down and all the way back out.


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