Scattered over the last 25 years, I’d done a dozen great day hikes in the Grand Canyon, the hardest being the 24-mile Boucher-Tonto-Hermit loop, and many equally strenuous hikes in the mountains around Tucson where my wife Willa’s parents live. Shortly after turning 60 in September 2011 and hiking the South Kaibab-Bright Angel loop with my younger sister Brenda, I got the itch to try the longest day hike of my life, Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, round trip across the Big Ditch.
Could I, almost old enough to qualify for Social Security, really day hike 45 miles with over 11,000 feet of elevation gain? Both the mileage and the climbing would be 40-50% more than I’d ever done before -- and that was 15 years ago when I was a juvenile 45. Most R2R2R trip reports are written by much younger ultra-runners -- mostly 20’s and 30’s, a few in their 40’s, a couple in their early 50’s. Not a whole lot in their 60’s -- matter of fact, I didn’t find any, though I’m sure that people older than I have done R2R2R’s. Was this dream of mine the logical culmination of a lifetime of long day hikes -- or the first manifestation of dementia?
If I could do it, how long would it take? Six years earlier I day hiked the South Kaibab/Bright Angel, with the short side trip to Phantom Ranch, in 6:35, walking briskly, with a half hour break at Phantom Ranch, pushing fairly hard from Indian Gardens to the rim. Extrapolating that pace would mean 16 hours for 45 miles. Add a couple hours to allow for a slower pace over that distance, and a couple more for extended breaks, and I was looking at 20 hours.
What time of year would be best? For runners, October and November’s cooler temps are ideal for an R2R2R, but I’d be slower, walking all 100,000 steps -- many of them, inevitably, in the dark. May or June would mean more daylight, and after May 15 all the water taps would be on, so the longest stretch between tap water would be the seven miles from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp. But the scary downside of early summer was the possibility of dangerously high temperatures.
Though I was definitely a little intimidated, I knew I’d always regret not trying this, so
I talked my wife Willa and our 24-year-old son Nick into driving from Michigan to Albuquerque to watch the annular eclipse on 05/20/12 from her uncle’s house, then driving to the Canyon the next day with her parents so I could do my hike on 05/22. Nick decided to repeat the South Kaibab-Bright Angel loop that he and I did a few years ago, timing it to meet me at Phantom Ranch on my way back from the North Rim.
Hiking with my sister, I realized that all my hiking gear was 30 years out of date, so I made a couple of trips to REI for a Camelbak RimRunner hydration pack and Merrill Moab Ventilator hiking shoes. I think I got a half size too small, and they never felt perfect on my training walks, giving me major blisters at mile 32 of a 35-miler eight days before my hike. Right until the last minute I agonized over whether to use them or my old, slightly heavier, tried-and-true Timberland hiking boots, even though the Corridor trails are so well maintained that sturdy boots really aren’t needed. After researching blister prevention, I went with the better-ventilated shoes, but I still wonder if the boots might have worked better.
Six years ago a minor hip problem ended my years of road running, but I can still jog up and down steps and bleachers, so for a few years my standard workout, several days a week, has been 150 “laps” up and down the local high school football bleachers, 10 feet high, for 1500 feet of elevation gain. In the couple of months before my hike, I stepped this up to as many as 600 laps, which took around 2.5 hours. To keep from losing my mind, I would translate my tally counter reading to the equivalent miles on The Big Hike – “Now I’m at Cottonwood Campground and the sun is coming up”, “Now I’m just starting down from the North Rim”. I mixed the bleacher jogging with several long walks of 20-35 miles, mostly to toughen my feet and break in my new Merrills. The priorities
1) Making it out alive
2) … under my own power, not in a Park Service chopper
3) … and enjoying at least most of the 45 miles
1) My feet would end up a blistered, bloody, agonizing mess
2) My 60-year-old joints would give me excruciating pain
3) I’d run out of gas at around 30 miles and take forever to plod out
4) I would get heat stroke and need to be rescued
5) Near the end I’d be so tired from lack of sleep that I’d walk off a cliff
Let’s do this!
Shortly before the big hike, it became clear that we’d be seeing slightly higher than normal temps, over 100, at the bottom (fear #4), so I decided to leave at midnight, hoping to meet Nick around noon at Phantom Ranch and start up the Bright Angel before the worst of the afternoon heat. I really wanted a couple hour nap, but was totally wired and just lay there in the darkness staring at the ceiling (fear #5), so before midnight I drove from our Maswik cabin to the parking area 0.8 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead.
After months of eagerly anticipating this moment, I started having second thoughts, walking along the rim from the parking area to the trailhead in the pitch dark with strong, gusty south winds trying to blow me over the edge, and the temperature around 60, well above normal, warning of brutal temps later today. With no sleep, would I feel half-dead all day? Maybe I could take brief naps on the trail – but wait, didn’t I read trip reports of mountain lions menacing hikers? I really didn’t want to end up as a big cat’s breakfast. How would Nick and I handle the heat this afternoon? This is nuts! I almost felt like heading back to the car.
Heading down in the dark
Instead, I left the South Kaibab trailhead at 12:26 a.m. and started dropping down the steep switchbacks. I had never hiked in the dark before, and I don’t care for it. Nothing looked the same. Flat areas like Cedar Ridge and the Tip Off, visible goals below you in daylight, suddenly appear right in front of you in the dark. Though my Black Diamond headlamp worked fine, dimly lighting a 20-foot diameter circle in front of me on its lower setting, I would have liked a little more light. It instantly attracted a cloud of gnats, and birds or bats, I never figured out which, that kept darting at my head and swerving at the last second. Several pairs of glowing eyes all turned out to be deer. Other “headlamps” coming toward me turned out to be reflections off signs.
The wind weakened a bit as I descended, and my mood lifted. I quickly peeled off my sweatshirt and then sweatpants, hiking the rest of the day in a short-sleeve technical tee and nylon running shorts. Other than a million stars (best view I’ve ever had of the Milky Way), the only visible light was from the lodge on the North Rim. Almost down to the Tip Off, I abruptly came up to a guy sitting in the dark beside the trail. Maybe I woke him, I don’t know. He wasn’t too friendly, just muttered “this morning” when I asked what time he had started, so I moved on. Below the Tip Off, I regretted that I was missing the great views of the Colorado River below me.
By the time I crossed the suspension bridge in 2.5 hours, it was clear that my pace was a little behind what I was hoping for. I should have known by now that for me, it’s pretty hard to maintain above a 2.5 m.p.h. pace in terrain like this when you include all the brief breaks for water, food, photos, getting stuff from your pack, quick conversations with other hikers, etc. In addition, hiking in the dark, not seeing perfectly where I was putting my feet, slowed me down a little.
I hit Phantom Ranch around 3:15, temperature 78 degrees, with a few people stirring. In the dim exterior light of the Canteen, I refilled my water, ate a bit, applied Body Glide between the toes on one foot, and then headed up the next three miles of narrow, winding, steep-walled canyon. In this area, the trail runs 10-20 feet above the roaring Bright Angel Creek, making it hard to get down to the water. Four bridges cross the creek. One scared deer kept running ahead of me, trying to escape the light that was chasing it.
I saw the first hint of brightening sky around 4:15, and turned off my headlamp where the canyon widens out, 3-4 miles before Cottonwood Camp. At Ribbon Falls I made the mistake of staying to the right, up and over a hill, rather than the easier route through the bottom of the canyon (I think a new bridge has been added since some older trip reports that mention wading through this area). I was startled when my cell phone beeped to announce a voice mail -- my dad calling to let me know that his brother Raymond had passed away, leaving him with just one surviving sibling out of the original ten. I got spotty reception with Verizon much of the day, in spots where the South Rim was visible.
I saw a few more people at Cottonwood Camp at 6:00, 14 miles into my hike, but continued another 1.4 miles to the pumphouse residence, a nice place for a break, where I filled up with water. Several hikers were heading up to the rim, mostly from Cottonwood Camp. I left a message for Willa and Nick, probably still asleep, that I was averaging a little slower than expected, and wouldn’t be to Phantom Ranch before 1:00.
After a couple more miles of moderate climbing up Bright Angel Canyon, the trail makes a big turn to the left and climbs more steeply to the northwest up Roaring Springs Canyon through the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen in the Grand Canyon, or maybe anywhere. In many places the trail is blasted out of the side of a sheer cliff, and looking up ahead, you can’t imagine how you’ll get up there. I didn’t take the side trail to Roaring Springs, so I missed the water stop there, but I could see the torrent of water pouring out of the opposite (north) cliff and tumbling down the cliff to feed Bright Angel Creek, providing the water supply for the South Rim via pipeline. At that point I’d have been really short of water if the Supai Tunnel tap was off, but another hiker told me it was on.
The 4.7 miles and 3000 feet of climbing from Roaring Springs to the North Rim trailhead, in the bright morning sun and temps in the low 70’s, were the best hiking of the day, worth the whole trip. I like going uphill much better than down, and this stretch sure had plenty of uphill, though it’s never as steep as many of the trails that I’m used to in the Santa Catalinas. I ran into more hikers than I expected in this area on a Tuesday, some of them close to my age. At one point I stretched out on a flat rock for a few minutes, something I intended to do every hour or so but never got around to. A bit paranoid about blisters, I tried to remember to switch sock liners every hour or so to dry them out.
I got more water at the Supai Tunnel at 8:10, and marched the remaining 1.7 miles to the trailhead, feeling great 21 miles into the hike, with no hint that I had missed a night’s sleep. On this hike, for the first time, I took ibuprofen every four hours, and was amazed at how much difference it made, pretty much eliminating the normal ache in my legs after 15 miles or so. I had a 5-hour energy drink along, but never used it, so my only caffeine was a few chocolate covered coffee beans, bought by my father-in-law Ted the day before, plus 16 ounces of Starbucks cold bottled coffee drink to wash down my snack food.
Someone coming down told me that I was the first one heading up to the rim this morning. The trail between the tunnel and the rim goes through pretty spruce woods but is rather chewed up by mule hooves, with plenty of fragrant evidence of their passing, bringing back fond associations from 45 years ago for this farm boy. I ran into just one train of 10 mules with riders heading down.
Heading back down
There’s no water or phone right at the trailhead, so I just got someone to take a “proof” photo of me at the sign, and left at 9:09. 24 miles to go! It was already 69 degrees at the rim at 8200 feet, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I opened the Go Lite reflective umbrella that I got for this trip. I highly recommend it for the desert summer -- instant shade, weighs just 8 ounces, and seemed indestructible, though a few times during the day I lowered it because of the wind. When I ran into the same mule train on their way back up to the rim, the lead rider immediately asked me to close the shiny umbrella to not scare the mules.
Into the furnace
The temp rose rapidly as I descended, and at the pumphouse residence I went down to the creek and poured cold water over my head and soaked my shirt. I had brought a cotton T-shirt for this stretch of the trail, under the theory that it would hold more creek water than a technical tee, but the tech tee did fine and I never got out the cotton tee. I repeated the head and shirt dunking a few times until the creek became hard to get down to, three miles short of Phantom Ranch. Somewhere around here, around 11:30, I managed to get through on my cell to Willa, having a nice early lunch with her parents in El Tovar after seeing Nick off at the South Kaibab trailhead at 9:15. To me it already seemed like 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon.
The temp hit 100 around Cottonwood Camp, 28 miles into the hike. I started worrying about how Nick was holding out with less experience hiking in heat, on the shadeless South Kaibab trail with no way of getting water, and maybe too much wind in that exposed area to use the identical Go Lite umbrella that we picked up for him at their store in Denver when we heard the weather forecast. The way I was going through water, without anything coming out the other end, I wondered if his three liters of water and Gatorade would be enough to get him to Phantom Ranch.
Other than minor chafing on one foot, which I procrastinated attending to, I was still feeling amazingly good 35 miles into this as I neared Phantom Ranch with my thermometer reading 107. I felt like I could have hiked comfortably in these conditions pretty much indefinitely--I love hiking in heat--but I could certainly see how runners, generating a lot more internal heat than I was, could get in trouble here.
A break at Phantom Ranch
I finally walked into the air-conditioned canteen at Phantom Ranch at 2:30, and was very relieved to see Nick downing his second glass of lemonade. Though it just comes from a pop dispenser, it sure tastes good--$2.50 for the first glass, $1.00 for a refill. He had been there an hour, taking around 4 hours to descend the SK, and because of the heat, wasn’t feeling real great. There were 15-20 other hikers lounging around.
We left after a half hour and I sat on a bench to attend to my feet -- poked a blister, put on more moleskin, put on clean liners and socks. No cell signal, so I used the pay phone to update Willa on our progress. It doesn’t accept money, so you need some kind of calling card or credit card that lets you make calls -- my AT&T Universal Card worked.
Now the long climb out
We crossed the green Colorado River on the silver suspension bridge, and trudged the 1.5 miles west on the sandy River Trail to where it turns away from the Colorado to follow Garden Creek. Right below the trail, a geyser of water was shooting 100 feet into the air -- I’m guessing a pipeline was broken or being intentionally blown out.
My thermometer read 110 degrees as we headed up Garden Creek around 4:30, meeting a few hikers still heading for Bright Angel Campground. By the time we got to Devil’s Corkscrew, the long series of switchbacks that account for much of the elevation gain between the river and Indian Gardens, Nick was really dragging, with no energy, unusual for this former cross-country runner who has stayed in good shape. We weren’t sure if it was lack of water or electrolytes, so he started forcing down both. We passed four kids resting, one of whom appeared to be really hurting. Nick was feeling quite a bit better by the time we neared Indian Gardens, where I got a cell signal and called Willa to tell her we’d be out well after dark.
There are great benches in the shade at Indian Gardens, but I had forgotten how fly-infested the area is, so we didn’t stay long. A thermometer in the shade read 92 degrees at 6:15.
Just under five hard miles to go, with 3000 feet to climb. Shortly past Indian Gardens we caught up to a guy my age, moving pretty slowly, who didn’t appear to be in the kind of shape to be down here. He was unlikely to make it to the rim before midnight, and had no flashlight, so we gave him one of ours -- and then found that a third spare flashlight had gotten turned on accidentally and drained the batteries, so Nick and I would have to share my headlamp later. In our minds, we saved the guy’s life -- though maybe not, since he said his wife was going to kill him when he got to the rim. A while later we ran into the parents of some of the four kids, wondering where they were. They were able to reach them on my cell phone -- they all had hiked from the North Rim today.
On the homestretch
The sun set at 7:30 as we passed 3-mile resthouse, and I turned on my headlamp not long before 1.5 mile resthouse. The trail is smooth and wide from here to the rim. In the pitch dark, we saw other headlamps below us and above us. I have to admit that on the last mile, I was ready for this to be over. A dozen times we thought we were almost there -- and then I made the mistake of looking up, and my headlamp caught the dark bulk of the rim looming well above us yet. But we finally stumbled onto the rim right at 9:30 and -- oh, this is embarrassing -- took a shuttle bus the 300 yards to Maswik.
In our cabin’s bathroom, I dozed off sitting on the toilet, and was startled awake when I started falling off. But after a shower, I had enough energy left to hobble the 100 yards to the cafeteria for a couple slices of pizza for Nick and me. Way back when, my schedule for this hike was based on finishing in time to pig out at the cafeteria before it closed at 10:00, but in reality neither of us was very hungry. However, if Coca-Cola would like me to do a commercial for them, I could honestly say that after 45 miles and 11,000 vertical feet of hiking, COKE TASTES GREAT!
I ended up hiking for around 21 hours, a little longer than I expected. However, by myself I’d have probably cut off a couple of hours, given that Nick was dragging for a while and naturally walks a little slower anyway. So I ended up taking about the time that I expected.
What went right
Physically, I was about as well prepared for this hike as you can be at 60, and that made it very enjoyable, with amazingly little pain. The bleacher jogging, that I was forced into six years ago as a replacement for running on level ground, was the perfect training for an R2R2R. I think I trained about the right amount, stepping up the bleacher jogging big time and doing 4-5 walks between 20 and 35 miles in the months before the hike. Even the week of inactivity driving from Michigan to Arizona was probably ideal for a body as old as mine.
Consequently, the entire day I felt like I was brimming with health and vitality, beyond my wildest expectations, really a great feeling that I feel so fortunate to still have at this age. Before the hike, I assumed the final 10 miles from Phantom Ranch to the rim would be a real sufferfest, but it wasn’t at all, and except for some foot discomfort, I could have handled a few more miles. Contrary to my original expectation that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I’d be up for a repeat -- anyone interested?
Despite my concerns about how I would handle 100+ degrees, late May was the perfect time of year for me, though it sure wouldn’t be for everyone. Though I must have been somewhat dehydrated, judging from ZERO bathroom stops after 7:00 a.m. or so, apparently I handle heat well, because I just loved how 100-110 degrees and low humidity felt.
In the sun and heat, the $20 Go Lite reflective umbrella really helped, even considering the windy conditions that day.
Though it seemed like cheating, taking ibuprofen every four hours made a huge difference in how my legs felt compared to previous hike -- I highly recommend it!
Given that my hiking shoes weren’t perfect for me, at least my several long training walks got my feet toughened up and somewhat used to them, so I wasn’t in the kind of agony that was my biggest fear.
Looking over my gear checklist, there’s not much I’d leave out next time, especially because I never felt burdened by my pack, which weighed around 10 pounds without water and food. Some minimalist hikers would carry less, but I still feel that most of the items I never used are advisable to have along, like toilet paper, an emergency blanket, knee compression bandage, whistle, and duct tape.
What I’d change next time
If I ever hike in heat like this again, I’ll take more salty and less sweet food. By the middle of the day, potato chips or pretzels would have been more appealing than some of the chocolaty stuff I had along.
Even with some mango-flavored Endurolytes Fizz tablets added, the tepid water from my 3-liter Camelbak bladder wasn’t very appealing, and I didn’t drink as much as I should have, so next time I’ll look for something to make the water more appetizing (Kool-Aid mix, using my sugar allotment here instead of in food?)
Much of the time I carried more water then necessary, even when I knew that a good water stop was coming up, or I was next to a creek where I could have purified water in an emergency.
In addition to my Camelbak RimRunner hydration pack, I carried a cheap fanny pack in front of my waist, and might look for a larger one, with more compartments, next time. I seemed to waste a lot of time removing my pack and undoing straps and zippers to search for poorly organized stuff. I procrastinated attending to foot problems because my moleskin, scissors, and Body Glide were buried deep in my pack; I should have had them easily accessible. I found that after a few miles, anything that takes even minimal effort tends to get put off.
The walkie-talkies we got for this hike went almost unused. Cell phone reception, though spotty, was better than I expected, and I probably wouldn’t take walkie-talkies again.
If you’re contemplating doing a major Grand Canyon hike or run for the first time, do yourself, your family, and the park rangers a favor and first complete a hike/run with at least half, and preferably 2/3, of the proposed mileage and elevation gain, preferably in weather conditions similar to when you’ll be doing the Big Ditch. Don’t have blind faith in your sheer determination and will power to get you out of the Canyon.