Bob Dawson, Keith and Beth Bershader, Steve Billig,
Danielle Jacobs, Marlene Swift
This was just a simple "Hike in the Park" from the Grand Canyon's South Rim (elevation=6860') via the Bright Angel trail to the CO river (elevation 2400'), up the North Kaibab trail to the North Rim (elevation 8250') and BACK. Total distance around 47 miles, around 11,000' of vertical gain. We completed this out-and-back hike in roughly 22.5 hours, well under our 24 hour goal. It has been said that to complete this route in under 24 hours is a "death march". To complete it in over 24 hours is simply "hiking two days in the grand canyon". I liked that quote, and we decided to accept the challange.
For anyone thinking about doing an adventure like this, this one is worth it, and the main purpose of this trip report is to pass along some info on logistics, and some lessons learned.
SO, we completed this "death march", yet lived nontheless. AND, we didn't even feel "close to death" as we might have expected. It was tough, and we felt totally wasted going up those last miles to the South Rim, but we were plesantly surprised how doable it was. All you gotta do to pull this one off, is train like hell, be smart, pace yourself, and figure out how to keep your body fueled and watered the entire hike. More on this below.
We've been training for this one since the new year, and it definitely paid off! We were able to knock this tough and beautiful hike off with no worries other than some sore muscles and feet. We had absolutely ideal weather, and a strong group; basically most of my last-years CMC BMS class (including our esteemed instructor, Steve Billig) plus another friend, Marlene Swift.
Travel to the Canyon:
From Denver, we travelled the 680 miles to the GC via I70 to Utah, through Moab on US191, through Kayenta in Northern AZ and to the Grand Canyon Village in just about 12 hours, at a relaxed pace, with multiple stops. The return trip took the same. A benefit to this route is the gorgeous scenary in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. In particular, the Monument Valley involves one of the most spectacular drives I've been on. Check it out sometime. Another route from Denver to the GC is I25 south into New Mexico, then across I40 to Flagstaff, then north. This route is 150 miles longer, and not nearly as scenic. It MAY be just as fast, however, because it's mostly interstate. The route we took invloves 400 miles of two-lane roads.
Accomodations on the South Rim:
Numerous places are available; we chose the Yavapai Lodge, a very short drive from the Bright Angel trailhead. The Bright Angel lodge, right AT the trailhead would have been a better choice, but was booked solid for Easter weekend. The entire place was really hopping this last weekend! I would hate to fight the crowds here in the summer. One of our party suggested we camp. Yeah, RIGHT! After a 47 mile hike, this old bod wants a shower and a bed. Call me a whimp.
Time of Year:
The advice we had heard is that the spring is the ideal time to do this. Too early, and the snow near the North rim would add much to the effort. Too late (summer), and it's too hot in mid-canyon. According to some who have done this, we did this just slightly too early. A couple of weeks later (early May) would have been slightly better statisically. We lucked out, however, catching a low-snow year on the North Rim. We only had a few patches of ankle-deep snow in the last 1/2 mile or so below the North Rim; not enough to even think about.
Time of Day:
We thought long and hard about this subject, and settled on a 3am start time (3am MST local time, 4am Denver MDT). Actually started walking at 3:20 am. The "bad" news here is that it can be damn cold in April at 7000' at 3am. For our hike, it was not bad at all; maybe 35 degrees. Also, starting at this time means walking down the Bright Angel to the river entirely in the dark. It ALSO means, at the end of 47 miles, walking UP the entire BA trail from the river back to the South rim in the dark (and cold). The good news here is that you get well up the N. Kaibab trail towards the N. Rim well before the heat of the day hits (see time table below). The hottest part of the day is spent on or near the high, cool North rim, and by the time we got back down to the River at 8pm-ish, the day was cooling off nicely.
With the exception of the beginning and the end, it was almost, magically, an "isothermic" (constant temperature) hike for much of the way, simply because the altitude gain/loss going up the North Rim and back cancelled the daytime temperature swings. We also were deep into a box canyon, and hence in the shade during much of the day.
Time & rough distance Table (all +/- .5 miles, 15 minutes or so):
Just to give an idea of our itenerary, here is a rough timetable of our route and pace:
Leave S. Rim 3:20 am
9 mile hike down, Arrive CO river 6:10 am
<1 mile Arrive Phantom Ranch 6:30 am
Leave PR (after nice break) 7:00 am
7 mile hike, Arrive Cottonwood camp 9:45 am
Leave Cottonwood Camp 10:15 am
7 mile hike, Arrive North Rim 1:30 pm
Leave N. Rim 1:50 pm
7 mile hike, arrive Cottonwood camp 5:00 pm
7 mile hike, arrive Phantom Ranch 8:00 pm
Leave Phantom Ranch, start up S. Rim 8:45 pm
4.5 miles, Arrive Indian Gardens 11:00 pm
leave Indian Gardens 11:30 pm
Arrive S. Rim FINISHED! 1:50 am
Obviously, we packed as light as possible. A web site we had found (www.adventurehiking.com) talked about some of their schemes, like cacheing food & gear before the North Rim leg of the hike. I personally think this can be overdone. Perhaps because we were so used to heavy day packs in the CO mountains in the winter, my small day pack in the Canyon was not even noticeable. Obviously, water is the heaviest single item, followed by food (see separate stuff below). The rest of the gear in my pack consisted of: a small 1st aid kit (including lots of ibuprofen), a headlamp, knife, TP, water filter,rain jacket (never used), extra polypro top, wool sweater (used), long johns (ditto), small camera, sunscreen, matches, small (3 oz) stove & cannister for cooking soup and tea (worth the weight, <1 lb including pot). I also helped carry out a 1 lb group video camera. At it's heaviest, I'm guessing my pack weighed less than 15 pounds.
Perhaps the single most important consideration in hiking the GC, water was available to us at the following locations: Tap water at Indian Gardens which is 4.5 miles down the Bright Angel trail, and conveniently and importantly, also at 4.5 miles to go.
Tap water is available at the Bright angel campground/Phantom Ranch, 9 miles into the hike, at the bottom of the canyon.
Stream water (various creeks) available up through Cottonwood camp, 7 miles up from Phantom RanchR, 7 miles below the North rim. We filered water at CC, and had just barely enough to get us up the North rim and back to CC. There IS tap water also available at a house below Roaring Fork Springs, which we used on the way back down to the river. Later in the year, there is also tap water available at Cottonwood Camp, and at two additional stops (1.5 and 3 mile houses) above Indian Gardens on the South Rim leg. Call ahead and ask which taps are on. Going as early as we did required hauling a water filter along for the 28-mile North Rim trail leg.
This is a biggie, as we all found out. Keeping our bodies fueled up was a near-constant effort. Everything we read about this venture stressed this, and I am repeating it. It is so easy to lapse, because the effort of this hike kills the appetite. Best advice, short of making yourself sick, eat early and eat often! That web site I mentioned recommends 4 or 5 thousand calories of stuff. I probably carried less than that though, maybe 3 thousand. It also recommends bringing lots of salty food, chips, nuts, whatever, and I heavily concur. I carried maybe 8 energy bars, 6 double-caffeinated power gels (consumed mostly during the two major climbs), a huge snickers bar (very good), a baggie of chili-cheese Fritos, and a "Cup-O-Noodles" brand soup. The soup REALLY did it for me, and greatly helped out one of our party feeling poorly near the end of the hike. When I was done with using the styrofoam cup, it doubled as my teacup. The hot tea was also wonderful during the last, cold, break (at Indian gardens) near the end.
What really makes a 47 mile hike possible is the fantastic shape of the Bright Angel and N. Kaibab trails. Being used to hiking peaks in Colorado, the trails don't even seem very steep in the steepest parts, and are nice and gentle for much of the way. Being 6000 feet lower in altitude is a nice and welcome bonus! Nice thick air for us altitude snobs.
A headlamp is ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED for the dark portions of the hike, for obvious reasons. I took my 4-LED Petzl and a spare set of batteries, and used them. The web site above talks about the trick of carrying the headlamp in your hand, the better to illuminate the trail immediately in from of you. I really liked and used this tip, as it affords a superior level of light and contrast on the trail. None of carried or used or desired trekking poles, even though a few members of my party regularly use them.
There are a few places on the N. Kaibab trail, well up towards the N. Rim that have SPECTACULAR exposure, maybe a couple thousand feet. Downright Airy! The good news is that the trail itself is 8 feet wide, and perfectly safe, even stumbling around in the dark, half delerious after a 47 miler!
I had been down the Bright Angel trail to the river and back many times, and it's a gorgeous hike. BUT, I have to say, the North Kaibab trail up to the North rim blows away the BA trail in it's shear beauty. The beginning of this section, from Phantom Ranch through cottonwood camp involves a 4-mile long box canyon, pretty to be sure, but it gets old. Above CC, the real beauty of this trail begins, hard to describe. You just have to go see for yourself. If you want to do so "the easy way", the North Rim opens up in May, and a 14 mile hike down to Cottonwood Camp and back up would make a fine outing.
The Bright Angel trail down from the South Rim is VERY popular, and involves those damn Donkey trains, with the mega-amounts of "trail apples" and "pee puddles" and the fine aromas involved. Doing the itenerary we did, one avoids people entirely on the BA trail. we didn't see a soul the entire 18 miles. We saw a few folks on the N. Kaibab trail on the way to the North Rim, mostly people staying at Phantom Ranch and day hiking.
We had a small bonus: sometime in the early morning, we heard music in the distance. We figured it was an easter sunrise service going on. What a wonderful day!
We did run into another RRR'er, a guy training for the Leadville 100. He was trying to break 16 hours for this particular RRR. He had done an 18 hour RRR just a week before. OK! He gave us the encouraging words about the lack of snow on the North Rim above.
we took tons of pics the entire way, and even a solid hour of video, bless Steve's heart. Danielle had the cool idea of taking one picture every hour, at 20 minutes past the hour, no matter where we were. I'm anxious to see her visual chronology, as well as my own shots.
If you are fit, and enjoy challenges, consider this beautiful adventure! Grand Canyon National Park is extremely popular for a reason. Hiking the whole nine yards in this manner allows one to thoroughly experience the place, and even somehow magically avoid the crowds.
I will surely do this one again soon, maybe the next time with a goal, just for fun, of say, 20 hours.