There are places in this world that you dream about… that make you feel like a kid… that gets your heart pumping every time you think about it… and above all makes you smile. The Grand Canyon has been such a place to me for over 20 years. I have traveled below the Rims 100 times, been to Phantom Ranch around 60 times, and prior to this adventure have completed 32 Rim2Rims. Pulled out of the Canyon in 116 degree debilitating heat, in 14″ of fresh snow and during a 3″ rain storm with numerous flash floods which caused me to wade thigh deep washes. People have died when I’ve been down there and I’ve also had the opportunity to save a friends life… The Canyon runs the gambit of physical endurance and mental fortitude. As a high altitude mountaineer, the Canyon has galvanized itself as my training playground and mental compass.
After completing the most recent Rim2Rim2Rim in October, 2008 at a brisk 15:40. I felt it was time to step up to the plate and hit one out of the park. We have always gone from the South Rim to the North Rim (via Kaibab Trail) in one day, taken a days rest, then completing the adventure by hiking from North to South. We have done this in mid-May and mid-October for many years, some times with as few as three people and other times with over twenty hikers. Over the years I have noticed an explosion of hikers and runners going R2R2R during the prime season – perhaps 10 times as many as 10 years ago! I attribute this to our world-wide addiction to extreme sports along with numerous published articles on this epic adventure. Although the Canyon is a dangerous arena, and must always be treated with caution and respect, I was beginning to feel that our trips were becoming “normal”. I yearned for a new adventure, the ultimate Canyon challenge, hiking from the South Rim to the North Rim and then immediately doubling back and going from the North Rim to the South Rim, a TransCanyon Epic – a 44 mile non-stop adventure to be completed in one day.
My discussions began immediately with my wife, Wendy along with Jeff Akins (Eagar, AZ) and Roy Laos (Greer, AZ) – all three of them have completed Rim2RimRims in the past year. We all train at high altitude above 8000′ in the White Mountains of Arizona. Our typical Sunday hike is an 18-20 miler with 3000’+ vertical. We had heard of a couple of local guys (Hamblin’s) going R2R2R non-stop utilizing the Bright Angel Trail in 24 hours. Although the BA Trail is 4 miles or so longer, we decided to both commence and finish on the South Kaibab Trail… we call it the Phantom Ranch Elevator and have pushed up from Phantom to the South Rim in less than 2 1/2 hours on previous R2R2Rs. We also discussed our starting time at great length – should we start at night and finish during the day or vice-versa. We all agreed that from a psychological standpoint – finishing during daylight would be beneficial.
I have spent a substantial amount of time climbing in the Andes, and prefer to sleep until 11pm and start at midnight. However, Jeff was truly motivated and wanted to eat dinner and hit the trail around 6:30PM. I couldn’t fault Jeff’s enthusiasm, and agreed to the earlier start time. We were also informed by the Back Country Office that all fresh water was turned off from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim – no water at Cottonwood, Roaring Springs or the Supai Tunnel. So, I packed my portable water filter and was ready to re-hydrate along Bright Angel Creek. Finally, we needed a place to “base camp”. My wife Wendy volunteers her time with the Grand Canyon Field Institute and assists with their “Box of Rocks” program that promotes Grand Canyon geology to schools across the country. Wendy made contact with her associates at the GCFI and asked whether they could help with lodging. The gods were truly smiling on us, since we were able to utilize their trailer for the weekend as a base camp.
As we drove up to the Grand Canyon that mid-November afternoon, Wendy confided that she was not going to participate in the full R2R2R. She didn’t feel that she had enough training time to complete the circuit. She would see us off at the trailhead, then hike down the South Kaibab the following morning to meet us somewhere along the trail. She agreed to a two-way radio and would “watch camp”… or sleep, while we worked our way through the Canyon at night.
After delicious steak and vegetable dinner on the South Rim, we did one more gear check and stepped off into the darkness at 6:30pm. Unfortunately, my hydration pack completely leaked out on the short trip to the trail head. Apparently, a pack was set on the “bite tube” and gravity drained my water supply all over the cargo area of my Sequoia. A bummer, but not worth taking the time to go back and re-fill the hydration bladder… after all it was a mid-November night with the temperature hovering around 40 degrees. However, within a quarter mile two hikers were coming up the South Kaibab trail, I relayed my predicament and they generously provided me with the rest of their water – more than enough to get to Phantom Ranch. Hiking the South Kaibab at night is an experience, especially going down the trail. Our headlamps provided a bright white “flat” light, which effected my depth perception.
So I travelled a little slower than during daylight hours and kept on thinking – this is where you need to save your energy – this hike is about going up!!! We arrived at Phantom Ranch in a little under 3 hours and enjoyed a couple cups of coffee to keep us awake. I spoke with a friend of mine (Vicki) at the Ranch and she informed us that the water was indeed shut off on the way to the North Rim. So off we went into the moonless night and into one of the darkest sections of the Grand Canyon known as The Box. Several times along the trail we turned off our headlamps to admire the complete ebony. At one point near Phantom Creek, Roy was standing 2′ away from me and I could not make out that he was there. We decided that without headlamps, we would either have to wait until daylight or crawl.
In less than 2 1/2 hours we had made our way to Cottonwood Campground and true to their words, the water was shut off. We relaxed and had a quick bite and then made the less than two mile hike to the former Roaring Springs Ranger Station (Bruce Aiken’s old digs). This is where we had planned to access Roaring Springs Creek and filter water – to my complete amazement the water was turned on. I have no idea why the Back Country Office would not share this information with hikers – intentionally creating a dangerous environment. I have been to Roaring Springs at least twenty times during the winter months and the water was always on… and apparently still is…
From Roaring Springs to the North Rim is the crux of the hike. It is a very steep trail and thankfully does not have the amount of “mule impact” as the South Kaibab or Bright Angel. Riding mules down into the Canyon is part of the legendary folklore – but they are very, very destructive to the trails. As we began our ascent into Roaring Springs Canyon the temperature began to fall rapidly. We experienced pleasant 55 degree weather across the Canyon floor, but we were going up and elevation and the wind was beginning to blow. Within an hour we had made our way to the walk bridge below the Supai Tunnel. We had planned to stop at the bridge, but the wind was beginning to swirl and we felt it was too cold for a quick rest – we pushed on up the redwall formation. Jeff was setting the pace, with Roy following and I was the caboose. This was by plan, as a mountaineer I’m prone to “summit fever” and have a tendency to push hard to the top of whatever the objective. (I have gone over 20,000′ 15 times in my life with 8 high altitude summits.) Jeff was setting an excellent pace, we did not want to travel too fast, since we would sweat too much and get cold – too slow and you’re immediately cold.
We stopped just before the Supai Tunnel for our final rest stop before slogging up the last two miles to the North Rim. We knew stopping after the Supai Tunnel would be dangerous and very uncomfortable. The geographic feature of the Supai Tunnel is very interesting – no matter the time of year, once you pass through the Tunnel, the temperature normally drops 5 -7 degrees. Again this was certainly the case, the wind had also picked up considerably. Onward we pushed up the 10% + grade above the Tunnel. The trail was in excellent condition and partially frozen – no snow. Finally, we rounded the last switchback at the “specimen box”. I let Jeff and Roy know that we were a thousand foot straight shot to the North Rim. The wind and cold was incredible – blowing 35 mph with our wind chill at zero degrees.
Once on top we quickly removed our packs and put on every stitch of clothing we had available. We were cold to the core and had trouble with normal duties such as pack zippers and buckles. We had gone from the South Rim to the North Rim in 9:15, an excellent night hike time – it was now 3:45AM. In less than 5 minutes we were on our way down the North Rim. I have been seriously cold before and have experienced frost nip on my toes, fingers and face – this was beginning to feel familiar. I had tied a bandanna around my mouth and nose, with the hopes of introducing warmer air to my face and lungs..it helped, but not much. The sliver of the waning moon finally appeared, unfortunately not casting enough shadow to assist with the trail, but we welcomed the change of scenery. Within a 1/4 mile Jeff began to feel dizzy, he had the mumbles and the stumbles and I sensed the beginning stages of hypothermia and hypoglycemia – a potentially lethal combination. We stopped in a sheltered area as Jeff wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, within minutes he was shivering again – a good sign. As we moved down the steep trail for the next hour little was spoken, we were all concentrating on getting down to lower elevations as quickly as possible.
Once past the Supai Tunnel we were beginning to receive the first glimmers of the approaching dawn. I noticed Roy was walking funny in front of me – after following someone for over ten hours you really get to know their gait. Roy admitted that his knees were beginning to give him trouble, not a good sign. Roy was not utilizing trekking poles, the steep descents in the Grand Canyon will play havoc with normal joint functions. I am a single pole user and lent him my pole for the remainder of the descent down to Roaring Springs. Once we reached the former Ranger station the weather was warm again, we topped off our bottles and hydration packs, ate more food and began the long trek across the Canyon floor. Unfortunately, Roy’s condition had taken a turn for the worse. The pain had moved out of his knees and into the flexors of his hips. He was experiencing acute pain, probably caused by aggravating the nerves around his hips. Our pace slowed to a zombie like shuffle, less than 2mph. Roy took some Ibuprofen tablets and we resumed our stoic pace.
The sun was now warming our faces as we entered The Box, shortly passed Phantom Creek my wife Wendy rounded the corner to meet us. We were well past our scheduled meeting time at Phantom Ranch. After 5 murderous hours we made our way into the Ranch – a hubub of hiker activity. It was awesome to see people again, there was not a soul on the trail all night long. We were all a little slap-happy from sleep deprivation. We ate and drank and tended to our needs. We decided to form a plan to get Roy up and out of the Canyon. Roy is a tough person, and we all knew that he was facing the biggest physical challenge of his life. We began to form a plan, Roy would ascend the steep South Kaibab Trail rather than Bright Angel. The Kaibab is steeper, but two miles shorter – after all, canyon miles are canyon miles. Jeff would assist Roy up the trail, Wendy and I would move ahead and make preparations on top for their arrival. We would stay in close radio communication.
Ascending the South Kaibab Trail is my favorite part of the R2R2R hike. It offers fantastic views and is an awesome uphill 7.5 mile gut check. The first three miles of the trail are the toughest, once you reach Skeleton Point the hike up is more than half over, and in my mind at least is easier. So I set a strong pace and we quickly caught up with Roy and Jeff. I was feeling great, with boundless energy – cranking Linkin Park in my iPod. I chuckled a few times, I like to hike, bike or ski with hard driving rock and roll -the beat is everything to me. Jeff on the other hand hikes with the Eagles, “Taking it Easy” on the trail would probably put me to sleep! As we moved up across the base of O’Neill Butte I was beginning to feel the effects of close to 40 miles of non-stop hiking. Wendy was right behind me and staying in routine radio contact with Roy and Jeff. I began wondering if we could actually make it out of the Canyon in less than 20 hours, my original schedule called for 18 hours. At the top of O’Neill Butte and just below Cedar Ridge – I hit the wall. I had approximately 2 miles to go and knew that I could normally make the South Rim in around 45 minutes. This would put me right at 20 hours. My hopes began to fade as I sat down, drank some Emergen-C and ate a couple of Zone bars. I let Wendy know that I was going to enjoy the Canyon for a few minutes as we perched on the edge of the Butte – gawd it felt great. Roy and Jeff were now entering an area we call “The Ladders”. A grueling 10 switch-back 800′ jump in elevation culminating at a cave. Roy had now taken 2 Morphine tablets to ease the pain, but was moving steadily.
As Wendy and I reached the South Rim, we passed our last set of female hikers. They asked where we had come from, since I obviously looked like hell in a handbag. I smiled and let them know that we had come from the South Rim 20 and a half hours ago. The Rim always feels great after a long hike and this time was no different – level ground, warm sunshine and a cooler of Budweiser. Roy and Jeff were now at the base of O’Neill Butte and making progress after another round of Morphine. We hopped into the Sequioa and made our way back to the base camp trailer. I drank three beers along the way and was looking forward to a long warm shower. We joked a little about having me turn around and doing it again… not this time, the temptation to sleep was amazing. Once we cleaned up and headed back to the South Rim we had a 10 minute wait before we could see Roy and Jeff moving up the trail. Ingenuously, Jeff had his trekking pole trailing behind him with Roy holding on. Jeff was pulling Roy up and over the steep mules steps littered along the South Kaibab. As Roy took the final steps onto the South Rim, I could tell the incredible amount of relief in his eyes. He had made it, beaten the odds in an unbelievable show of strength and character. We handed him a beer and gently moved him into the front seat of the Sequoia. Everyone was relieved and smiling.
Back at the base camp trailer we sat Roy down on the couch with the cooler as his footrest. He was incredibly funny, 4 hits of Morphine, a couple of beers and endorphins dancing through his system made for very entertaining conversation. We discussed our trip and outlined a new plan for next years’ TransCanyon Epic. We had been awake for over 38 hours – way too long. We decided that descending both Rims at nighttime sounded great, but did us little good. We will start at 5AM in the morning and utilize 12 hours of daylight rather than 12 hours of darkness. We like the mid-November venue, heat was not an issue, but cold weather most likely caused Roy’s pinched nerves in his hips. We would carry slightly larger packs with additional clothing. We had experienced a 70 degree temperature swing during our time in the Canyon. I only wore two layers and then an Ibex vest on top, a light shell jacket would have been awesome.
Roy worked the following day and went on a long hike with us the following Sunday. He has experienced no ill side effects from his adventure. We’ve even planned a 24 mile Hermit Loop hike in December, Roy was the first to agree to go back to the Canyon! If you’re thinking about making a TransCanyon Epic R2R2R non-stop hike please feel free to contact me via email. Training 50 miles a week and cross training on a mountain bike will be extremely helpful.