This 4 part series has taken almost a year to write. Not that it was complicated but because I kept getting pulled away and also completed another adventure in the mean time. I appreciate those of you who have followed along from the beginning as well as those who may find this story later on. Thank you. I hope that you find your bucket list adventure(s) and don't leave them for "someday". Make them happen. (safely!)
I arrived at the South Rim at 4am. My sights are set on a sub 20 hour time for this 45mi journey and have my ruck pack coming in at 35% body weight (60lbs). Time to embrace the suck.
My start down the South Kaibab trail felt like it was out of a movie. Millions of stars dotted across the clear sky above while below there was nothing but darkness. Within the scope of my headlamp I can see canyon walls to my right and a light consuming void to my left. It was a captivating moment that set the tone for the next few hours. Amazement and wonder mixed with humility and gratitude.
About a mile in you arrive at Ooh Ahh Point. I’ve been here a few times now. It was here
years earlier where I was watching a hand full of people turn the corner and continue to descend while the rest of us tourist stopped, took pictures and turned back for our cars. That was enough to spark the curiosity that inspired this whole thing. it was a familiar sight to contrast the disorienting darkness. A brief moment to snap a picture and I was off into the unknown.
After about 6 mi and 4800ft of descent you get to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge over the Colorado River. and this begins your more horizontal trek across the canyon floor. At this point for me I was still just waiting for some daylight so I could appreciate my surroundings and I told myself I’d be back at the river early evening and actually get to see it.
Your next major checkpoint comes fairly quickly with Phantom Ranch. There is fresh water available here and it’s actually a pretty cool little set up. I came across some mule deer that didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence but I didn’t stick around to make friends. I quietly stayed on the outer trail to not disturb anyone sleeping in the cabins.
Once you continue on from here on your only signs of life are the other travelers you may come across, some vegetation, critters and yourself. Pure isolation.
Once the sun light broke into the canyon I finally got a sense of the magnitude of this place. Endless corridors of red rock. Portions of the trail practically encased in stone while others feel like valleys in a mountain range. The landscape is breathtaking.. which I’m glad is only a metaphor because this wasn’t even the halfway point and I had a few major elevation changes still to come.
After about 9 or 10 miles of canyon floor you start the climb up to the North Rim. Similar
to your decent from in the south, winding mule trails that carve up over 14 miles of cliffs and ledges to make the North Kaibab Trail’s 6,000ft of elevation manageable for mortals. You do have another seasonal watering hole just after you cross over Bright Angel Creek. It's before you start your ascent and it was a nice place to reorganize the pack and prepare for the climb ahead.
Once I was up a bit higher I did notice more sheer drop off on this side, but maybe that’s because I could actually see. By this time I’m about 8 hours in and the pounding my knees took from coming down the south rim had cause some significant swelling and it was hot and getting noticeably hotter while the trail was getting steeper and steeper.
The Northern side comes with much more vegetation and if it wasn’t for he red rock cliffs and the pain you’d think you weren’t even at the Grand Canyon anymore. Speaking of pain, this part of the ruck is where I started to lose ground. The climb took a lot more time and even more energy. I was feeling every ounce of my 60lb pack. Taking refuge in the small pockets of shade I could find for short breathers while refocusing my mind on taking one step at a time.
Finally near the top almost 4 hours later I snap a quick picture at the Coconino Overlook and found a spot to regroup a mile or so up at the North Kaibab Trailhead. Made it to the
North Rim. This was my first big break after nearly 12 hours of continuous rucking with nothing more than a couple minute pauses here and there to move gear around. I was exhausted and I would be lying if I didn’t have a few weak moments wondering what the chances were of catching an Uber. But I guess that’s the good thing about the North Rim, its facilities are seasonal and even at that the resources are scarce compared to the South Rim. If you do this off season like me, there’s nothing to meet you at the North Rim except trees. Honestly the solitude of this whole thing was an experience of its own and it left me with zero options but to head back. So I took inventory, changed socks, applied mole skin, ate some snacks and after a quick call home began my journey back to the South Rim.
It was about 5pm at this point but I was still optimistic about getting to the Colorado River in the daylight thinking that my pace down and across could make up some time.
Simply put, I was wrong. The swelling in my knees ended up restricting my range of motion to the point where I could barley bend them and stiff legs don’t do much to absorb the downhill impact. And the more dangerous part, the heat. It was later in the day but the bottom of the canyon was still in direct sunlight and held the heat like an oven. I had to take several breaks to cool off, dissipating heat as best I could through my hands and feet. It was helping to keep me going but there was no denying that I was only managing because I was on the bottom. Though hotter, the canyon floor was flat and I wasn’t exerting nearly much effort as I would be as soon as I hit the south rim climb. I spent the next 5 or 6 miles taking time to manage my body temp as efficiently as possible.
Once the sun went down I was optimistic that it would cool off but I was wrong again. The ambient heat of the canyon may have gone down slightly but it wasn’t enough to help my body temperature. Unfortunately my desire to keep a pace meant sacrificing the amount of boots off cool downs I did. Heat exhaustion was setting in and I needed to be careful with how I proceeded.
When I arrived at Fantom Ranch I decided to hang out for a bit and get a game plan. I relaxed for about an hour and after slight improvement I decided to keep going since the further up I got the cooler it would get but I would forget about a pace, I would take my time, rest often and if I needed to crash on the trail side I would. I stayed for a bit longer then packed up to continue on.
When I started to head out I crossed paths with a park ranger. It was well into the night at this point she asked where I was headed. We talked for a bit, told her where I had been and my plan of continuing on. I knew rim to rim activities aren't exactly endorsed by the NPS and I half expected a lecture. But she applauded me on the journey so far. She said people in a pinch crash on the side of the trail all the time (subject to a fine I believe) but since I didn’t have a sleeping pad said it would probably be pretty rough propping myself up somewhere against a rock. She offered me a foam pad to nap there on the grounds of Phantom Ranch instead of on the trail. I knew this gesture was not as much kindness as it was her responsibility as the canyon is dangerous, especially for exhausted hikers.
I was conflicted. I knew taking a nap would put my completion time further out but I also knew giving my current condition, my climb back up was going to do that anyway. I took her up on the offer and got the unique opportunity to nap under the stars at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Which was pretty cool I have to admit.
It was about 4am when I got going again. Running into her was like a gift from the rucking gods and I’m extremely grateful, but man I am a bit upset that I didn’t set an alarm. I know I needed to cool off, but it wouldn’t have taken that long to do it. That extended time laying down also gave time for my joints to stiffen up even more. But at least I didn’t have to worry about getting dizzy and falling off the side of a canyon.
The climb back up was an absolute grind. My bag never felt so heavy and my knees were checked out completely. I took it one zig and one zag at a time looking ahead at a rock or a corner and saying, "ok just make it to that one." over and over and over on the way up the 6mi, 4800ft climb. I stayed on South Kaibab which is a little shorter but steeper than the bright angel trail. I don’t know what the views would have been from the bright angel but oh man. Sunrise inside of the canyon is one of those things where pictures will never do it justice.
Eventually along the seemingly endless climb up you reach a sign saying 3.5mi to the top, a welcome sight. Then when I hit the corner of Ooh Ahh Point I knew I was in the home stretch. Which didn’t help like it would in some cases, I was pretty maxed out, but I did get a bit excited knowing I was close to the finish and it was fun watching the looks on peoples faces when I responded to them asking where I was coming from. “From here”, I’d say before explaining away their confusion.
I arrived back and the North Kaibab Trailhead about 28 hours later. Which is way more than I wanted but getting it done in itself was a win in my book. Being able to say I’ve rucked the Grand Canyon R2R2R with a pack at 35% body weight is something I’m proud of.
Not to hype up my accomplishment or to psych out anyone from trying it but going deep into the canyon is dangerous. At the time of me writing this a man died while attempting to do a rim to rim hike. He wasn’t the first and unfortunately he likely won’t be the last. While hundreds if not thousands of people have successfully completed this trip you can’t take the risks lightly. As someone who makes it their business to push physical limits there is a base level of preparedness that I needed to establish before embarking on something like this. I spent months training and even that couldn’t save me from mild heat exhaustion and a little altitude sickness. Common sense and basic survival skills can be the difference between a proud memory or a nightmare.