Our goal was to hike from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the north rim and back again in a single day for a true rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. Using the trails we selected, the round trip distance, according to NPS, is 42.7 miles. Personsally, it felt closer to 43.
For reference, here’s a little background on our climbing party and our level of fitness. There were three of us that went; me, Mike, a 41 year old male - 6’5”, 210lbs - and two 120lbs women, Sarah and Lori, 33 and 44 years old respectively. I’m in pretty good shape, but not even close to elite. I did my first sprint triathlon this year and finished about mid pack. I’ve run Imogene Pass a couple times and run about 12-15 miles a week. My 10k pace is about 8:10. The ladies were in much better shape, competing regularly in Ragnar Relays and can do 10k’s at around 7:00 to 7:30 minute pace. None of us have done a full marathon. We trained quite a bit by hiking Squaw (Piestewa) Peak and Siphon Draw in Phoenix multiple times and were pretty comfortable hiking up 5000ft in a half day. I have over 20 years of back country experience from the military and mountain rescue, while Sarah and Lori were very new to it.
I just attached a handy map that my colleague at work created. I printed it out in about a 2" x 3" size and carried it in my pocket. I also uploaded the original Power Point version. If you click what looks like a missing image and then click it again, it seems to download the file (at least it does for me). Send me a private message if you are unable to download it and I'll email it to you.
The plan was to start early, at around 4am, November 13, 2009 (yes, Friday the 13th), in order to hit Phantom Ranch for breakfast, and again for dinner on the way back. Unfortunately we waited until about a week before our trip to call for reservations and there were not enough slots open for the three of us. So in order to get a little more sleep, we woke at 4am and ended up at the South Kaibab trail head for a start time of 5:45am. I carried about 7000 calories and the women probably had 4000 each. We all bought new Golite Jam ultralight packs which were fantastic. I have several packs and for a pack under two pounds, the Jam was outstanding. We had typical 3 liter camelback bladders and an extra 3 liter Platypus because all the water was supposedly turned off on North Kaibab by the time we went. It turned out there is a somewhat undocumented water source at the pump house residence that was still on. Being from Phoenix, I was monitoring hydration closely and given the temperature, we made the call to fill up at the pump house and not use the extra bladder. Our clothing was basic; lightweight hiking boots with good wool socks (I’ve stopped using liners with high-quality socks), nylon convertible hiking pants, a couple light/mid weight layers of insulation (I just used a t-shirt and single midweight zip-up pullover), shell, hat, and gloves.
The forecast ten days out was 15 degrees at the rim with a 10% chance of precip. This changed to 25 degrees and 60% chance of precip the day before we were to start.
Having stayed the night at the Holiday Inn in Tusayan, we drove to Bright Angel Lodge and parked there. We then took the cab from the lodge to the South Kaibab trail head. We hit the trail at 5:45am. Our vehicle said the temperature was about 45F. There was a slight sleet/drizzle. We soon came to Ooh-Aah Point. It was a little confusing for us to find where the trail left Ooh-Aah Point because it was still dark and there was no signage to direct us to the trail. It turns out that if you keep walking straight from where you enter the area, you will run into the trail again. The drizzle became a light rain for most the way down to Phantom Ranch. We passed a group of four bucks (Mule deer) that were right next to the trail and couldn’t really care less we were there. We hit the bridge at 8:18am. Right before the bridge, a mule train started barreling down on us. I had no idea they were that fast. We picked up the pace and stayed ahead of them the rest of the way to Phantom Ranch which we hit at about 8:35am. We grabbed a bagel and hot chocolate and took in a little of the beautiful scenery.
It stopped raining and we left Phantom at about 9:30am. We hit Rainbow Falls at 11:25am. The sky started clearing and the sun came out, so we stripped down to t-shirts and one of the ladies removed her pant legs. It wasn’t 30 minutes later when dark clouds moved in and a torrential downpour began as we scrambled to get our clothes back on. It then turned to hail and we were pretty soaked and a little cold by the time we made it to the pump house residence at 12:55pm. After filling our bladders, which would need to last up and back down to the pump house residence, we headed off for the north rim which was about 6 miles and 3800 vertical feet away. It was nice for a while and then started a light rain again for most of the way to the summit. Shortly after the Supai Tunnel, it turned to snow for the remaining hike to the north rim. We hit the rim at 4pm and there was about 2 inches of snow.
I was very concerned about the time of day and snow getting lower on the trail where the rock ledges would be very slippery, so after restroom stops and a picture or two, we began our descent. The ladies crush me uphill, but with my long legs I have a strong downhill and flat-ground pace. With the promise of getting hot chocolate before Phantom Ranch closed at 10pm, they agreed to hump it back down. We hustled all the way back to Phantom ranch in 4.5 hours, with the last 3 miles beginning to hurt our feet and knees. It seemed very warm down at Phantom and we stayed until they kicked us out at 10pm. The sky was filled with stars and we thought we would have a nice, dry hike out for the remaining 10 miles up Bright Angel trail. I had a slightly upset stomach for most of the last 12 hours and really had to force food down, which was very little at best.
After the long rest at Phantom Ranch and a call home on the pay phone (we had no cell phone coverage except at the south rim – although at some point we did get a text message), we were finally on the trail home at 10:30pm. We all felt pretty good considering, although still wet to the bone as we have been from the beginning. With the stars out in force, it was again very tempting to shed the shells and try to dry out before the freezing rim, but we weren't going to be suckered again. Sure engough, by Indian Garden it was again pouring. After a couple miles, we finally started going vertical and I really started to feel a little hypoglycemic at that point. At the 3 mile point, I forced myself to eat another 500 calories or so as I could feel myself becoming slightly disoriented. For all of us, the last 3 miles were pure torture. The ladies were really starting to get cold as the snow came again and all the steps had been turned into mud puddles. Suddenly, to our great surprise, we rounded a corner and there was the lodge. A few minutes later my cell phone alarm clock went off which was set to wake us at 4am the previous morning. There was about two inches of snow on our truck and we were all walking like we’d been hit by a truck.
We all felt that Bright Angel trail was not even close to as good as shape as South Kaibab, which big rocks and deep sandy dirt that made trekking on sore feet miserable. I was under the false impression that Bright Angel was an easier ascent because you ascended over a longer distance (9.6 mi versus 7.2 mi on S. Kaibab). In reality, confirmed if you compare the elevation profiles, the grades are almost identical because Bright Angel starts out flat for the first two miles. In addition, South Kaibab is 300 feet lower. If I had it to do over again, I would go up and down South Kaibab which I think is a beautiful trail.
After sleeping for 6 hours or so, we left for our first real meal in 48 hours which was at Denny’s in Williams. I swear it was the best meal I 've ever eaten. We all were walking very slow with noticeable limps. The soles of my feet were still tender and the backs of my knees/top of calves were very sore.