The Colorado River carving through the Grand canyon as seen from the South Kaibab trail.
“Life comes from water,” my friend Erich explained at the kitchen table over a beer. “Everywhere you look is something” he quipped, describing the lushness that fills the banks and surrounding terraces along the Colorado river as it carves through the Grand Canyon. Although Erich had made a month-long voyage through the canyon by boat before, this conversation was just 22 hours after our visit there. A journey that made an immutable impression on me as I traversed on foot from one side of the canyon to the other and then back — doing something known as a Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim.
To know something, I must dive in, get my hands dirty and commit. This was my first adult trip to the Grand Canyon so I set my bar high. Always an eager ear to listen to my river-loving friends’ tales of the months of their lives spent exploring this place, one of the seven wonders of the world, I came away with a sense that the canyon was quite large and almost guaranteed to free you from the technological and municipal tangles of daily life. It has walls that are five-to-six-thousand feet high, hidden trails that can only be reached by water and tales of explorations in rugged environments as variable as winter and summer in the same day. My friends always echoed that planning is critical to success, keeping it in check is critical to success and luck… well, that would be a part too. I had that this weekend, that was the most critical piece to my success venturing into this stunning terra firma — not for a month, but for a very long day.
At 5:06 AM in sub freezing temps on November 19th, 2013, the three of us, Erich, Heather and I, dropped over the South rim of the Grand Canyon via the South Kaibab trail. A feathery wave of warmer air softly invited us to descend into the chasm, guided by a full moon and anticipation of our long day. The trail was wide and well worn, with each foot strike powdery bursts of red dust erupted and sent a misty cloud into the follower’s headlamp beam. Massive jagged shapes — like those drawn in Dr. Seuss’s books — slowly rose above us as Gotham-esque outlines. In an hour we were warmed up and dropping 4700′ of vertical to the Colorado river minute by minute. Then suddenly it happened…”Ben” Erich exhaled from behind me “I fell.”
I knew how he felt, the day before I had stepped off a snow-covered front porch in Telluride, Co and ate it so hard. I fell directly onto my butt and took a diagonal impact across my entire lower back and sacrum to the point of some immediate swelling, bruising and an occasional pinch since then. Content to carry on and visit the canyon anyway, I iced it in the drivers seat, took some ibuprofen and figured that a six-and- a-half-hour car ride was plenty of time to determine how it would play out.
Erich Owen running through the canyonlands
Unlike my klutzy self, Erich made it to the trail before going down. He caught a foot step in a powdery pocket of dust, hyperextended his right knee and sent his body hurtling forward. Starting from 8 mph and ending at 0 with a white flash and nausea, a crumpled red dust covered being barely set atop a rock is a tough place to be 5.2 miles into a 42.4 mile day. I walked 150′ back up to Erich and helped him assess the situation. His gear lay strewn about the stark landscape like a gypsy yard sale at a Phish show. The impact had been “big” and he sat on a rock, reeling from mild shock.
“Man, what do you think?” I said. “I think I blew my knee and I’m seeing white” he said. Ughhh, I thought, THAT sensation, when you have cratered full-on superman style into a pain cave, disorientation and a sense of despair so low, so ominously coursing through every inch of your body that retching is all that sounds good. Erich was going to need a few minutes to recover, then we would see where he was at. He is a strong dude with a solid chassis.
In a little time, Erich shuffled to his feet and walked 100′ downhill and it was clear that he could move, but rather than take that as a sign to continue, he wisely chose to use his energy to get himself out of the canyon less injured. He was finished. We both knew Heather, tactfully descending somewhere above us, would be a solid back up as she was doing a burly 14 mile day with 9400′ in vertical change, turning around at the bottom of the canyon and heading back up. I cleaned his shades, put his visor back on him and said good bye with his confidence I could still complete the day alone.
Off I went into the dark maw until dawn. I crossed the Colorado river and arrived at my first water break at Phantom Ranch some seven miles, 4700′ of descent and two hours into the day — a slow setup to a long sustained effort. Forty extra minutes of darkness and low temperatures were absorbed in the scenario above and it was important to cruise with a little urgency in the cool morning up a 6200′, 14.2-mile climb to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had time thanks to the early start and I wasn’t bothered at all about being off schedule, just aware that the sun would be up soon. I took off from Phantom Ranch after hastily replacing the half liter of fluids I had consumed and had a nice time running a little harder on the North Kaibab trail’s lower reaches and seeing the life Erich had spoken about, the life that comes from water in the depths of such a stark and craggy stack of monoliths.
As I strode through a broad section of opening valley, a hole burst in my hydration reservoir, right at the bottom of the pack and like that, at mile 13 — I had potentially blown this attempt. I had fumbled around in my pack in the dark and placed a sharp object too close to the durable plastic. When I filled the bladder to capacity at Phantom Ranch it put too much pressure on it. My jacket, gloves and two McDonald’s cheeseburgers were soaked in an orange solution of gatorade and fresh water. I was super pissed, this was my fault and now jeopardized successfully completing the traverse to one rim, making running back to the other nearly impossible. All I had left were two gels, three blocks, one granola bar and 29 miles to stretch it out.
It goes on and on for days, huge craggy spines and monolithic structures a scale unlike any I’d ever seen!
I have not had an episode like this in a while, where a total meltdown could be so imminent, with nearly no solid food and no water or way to carry water. I was in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, six miles from people in one direction and going to have to pull off 22 more miles with what I had with only two chances for mere sips of water in between. This was a moment for contemplation as a bright wave of sunlight slowly pushed silhouttes of the enveloping 5000′ canyon walls down into the valley and soaked into my bare shoulders for the first time. I made my decision and went for it; I like to finish things, and figured that if had to hike out to conserve energy — I would, I could — even if it meant going into darkness.
This was my sixth “ultra marathon” distance run. I went into it expecting to just cruise it, albeit with a partner, food and water. I had strategically wanted to run hard from miles 21.2 to 35.4 for training, but other than that, I had no real goals other than finishing before dark and having a nice day on the trail with some friends. This was not a race, it was a day out. I had never set foot on a trail in the Grand Canyon so it felt like I should allow time for photos as well, you know, like a tourist. But now this, a chance for an epic draw on my deepest reserves instead became part of the experience. I hadn’t explored that kind of distance totally alone before and this was my last run before a mandatory prolonged break for a few weeks in between seasons.
The trail leading toward the North rim of the Grand Canyon
Without belaboring the point or disrespecting the canyon, I will say the eight miles and 6200′ of uphill in the sun were hard with no water! As I neared the top and mile 21.2, I felt the pangs of desperation uncoiling from within and sequestering my brain to intervene and stop this messy attempt if I saw anyone at the parking lot. When I arrived, there in the frost-covered shade of a stone-planted National Park sign were three spigots of water I had planned on seeing. I strolled up, tried all three and not a trickle flowed. “Shit, no water, oh man, it’s over,” I thought! I sat down, it was cold, my clothing was soaked in my pack and I sort of zoned out and was trembling from the still, cool air in the shade. Moments later, a trio of climbers I passed on the way up appeared and I asked them if they had any disposable water bottles. They gave me a fresh 24 oz. water bottle that I opened and chugged. Damn I was lucky. Flat out, that gesture took this from being the longest day ever to the longest day on empty.
I crammed the awkwurd bottle in my pack and had revitalized my hydration to a manageable point that could be recovered. Cramping in my side due to dehydration and the fall off the porch from the day before inspired me to jog down the trail a little easier until it abated and soon the trail was flowing singletrack and a river ran nearby. I was never afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it and even got to push the 14 mile section I wanted to, not a ton, but enough to feel like I really “ran” the rim to rim to rim.
By mile 35 I had been through everything, I had lost my partner, my water, my solid food– but I gained the confidence I needed to carry forward and I took a chance that paid off because of luck. As I sat at Phantom Ranch the second time passing through, seven miles and 4700′ below the South Rim in post lunchtime sun, I wiped my salt covered face off with a wet handkerchief. Autumn’s golden foliage flowed from side to side and I sat undisturbed at a drinking water spigot outside the ranch’s canteen for nearly a half hour. Wow, I thought, it’s nice to sit down for a moment and reflect at the actual lowpoint of this trip. I had almost totally crossed this huge feature on foot with the bare minimum and couldn’t really complain about anything. It was all working out, just with some readjusted expectations. I was fast enough to get it done and slow enough to see it for an experience and not just an achievement, it was real and not just a blur.
Boaters portaging at Bright Angel landing below the suspension bridge at the base of the South Kaibab trail.
With this in mind, I departed down trail to the Colorado River and stopped to observe portaging boats as they made their way to and through the beach at Bright Angel campground in the midst of their own three-week journeys through this magnificent feature — the same journey my river-loving friends were always bating me with. I thought about how still and tranquil it must have felt for them at times and how glad I was at the time to know my compressed journey was almost done and it was long before sunset. I was ready to head back to the world to friends and family.
Ascending out of the valley and up the South Kaibab’s 4700′ trail winding through dreamscape and postcard views, I soaked up the last of my water, an 80 calorie espresso flavored gel and just plodded along on empty. In perfect light above wild steppes and crumbling mountainsides carved out of a vastness so immense, I could understand now that which can only be understood after 42.4 miles and 22,000′ of elevation change in a place. My expectations were totally vanquished, I couldn’t help but revel in the sheer magnificence of this iconic National Park and at the same time still obsessively eyeball every 10th of a mile on my GPS watch until the end — about 54 in a row on the grueling return uphill. There is no way to come here and say it should be called, “pretty big canyon” or “yeah that’s a nice canyon.” This thing is the definition of Grand to the core. The running part, totally secondary.
The final four-tenths of a mile at the top were steep but Heather and Erich were there cheering as I approached the end of my first journey through the Grand Canyon. With sunken eyes and waning energy I was thankful for hearing their voices, the jug of water they handed me… and sitting down. Life comes from water, sharing a few sips and scanning the horizon for the last rays of the sun dappling the many features of the sterile and parched upper canyon, life indeed was coming back.
Some of the steps in the final miles of the Rim to Rim to Rim crossing.
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