Kintec Adventures – Grand Canyon 2014
It started out innocently enough. Ryne and I were talking with our run clinic participants last spring and casually threw out a “You could easily run the Grand Canyon if you train properly!” or an “It’s amazing down there; you’ve got to run it one day”.
These were runners training for (most of them) their first half or full marathon. They thought we were nuts. But we had a great group dynamic and ran regularly together even following the end of the clinic.
Race successful, we moved on to trail running and longer adventures in the wilderness. Talk of the Grand Canyon recurred and by the end of last summer we were holding planning meetings, consulting schedules and coming up with training programs.
Fast forward to this past Easter weekend and there we all were, standing at the edge of the “big ditch”. The plan was simple. Ryne and I would lead runners, and now friends, Pat, Sean, Francine, James and Heather from Rim to Rim to Rim. Jen, Jill, Colin, Heidi B, Lauren, Heidi C. and Megan would run to Ribbon Falls and then turn around back to the South Rim.
Jen, Jill, Colin, Heidi B, Lauren, Heidi C. and Megan would run to Ribbon Falls and then turn around back to the South Rim.
After the obligatory photos from the rim, we began our descent down the South Kaibab Trail. I really cannot express how much I love running down this trail. It switchbacks, alternatively gently and steeply, down, down, and still further down towards the Colorado River. From the rim, you have no inkling of where the bottom of the Canyon is, and watching this unfold before you is awesome.
From the rim, you have no inkling of where the bottom of the Canyon is, and watching this unfold before you is awesome.
We enjoyed the path down, especially after the first kilometre and you come around Yaki Point to Ohh-Ahh Point and you can view the eastern portion of the Canyon. We gradually descended to Skeleton Point, where we stopped for more photos, and I reiterated a phrase I’d already repeated a half-dozen times: “Make sure you are drinking water, guys!”
From here we cut east where we could catch our first glimpse of the mighty Colorado and a miniature Phantom Ranch awaiting us on the Canyon floor. The steepest section of South Kaibab trail now begins with a near 22% grade. We wove our way down through multi-coloured layers demarcating the passing of geologic time. The striations were deep, wide and colourful like Crayola crayons, ochre red, desolate gray, and a sun-faded green.
Finally, the river in sight, we made our way down the final and, as I mentioned, steepest section. A short tunnel blasted into the rock is the interchange between trail and canyon floor. You emerge from the sweet coolness of the tunnel directly onto the black suspension bridge that spans the emerald green Colorado river. I made my way across with Francine and together we waiting for the rest of the gang. Single-file they came over the bridge and we carried onwards, stopping only to make way for a upward-bound mule train.
We stopped at Phantom Ranch to take a breather and refill our hydrapacks. It had taken us just over two hours to get down, and with a slightly later start than planned – 6 a.m. – we were cutting it close to make the double crossing. Everyone was enraptured over the views and route and it seemed a shame to break up so friendly a bunch of people. But haste had to be made, so Ryne and I hustled together Pat, Sean, James, Francine, and Heather and we took off towards Cottonwood. The water taps were off there, but a mile further would have water, at the Pumphouse Ranger Station. This was our next target. At that point we had only a vague idea how challenging the day would become.
The heat was making itself known and it was only just past 8 a.m. Ryne and I were worried about the toll the high temperatures would take and urged the group onwards to try and get as much mileage under our belts before the heat of the day peaked. Despite our best efforts, all our legs seemed sluggish and walk breaks became frequent. We stuck together (except for James, who always takes off like the lead horse in the Kentucky Derby) and power-hiked our way through Box Canyon, coming out on a wide plain surrounded by high mesas and buttes.
We saw mule deer, rattlesnakes, and lizards. Most surprising, to me at least, was how lush the Canyon was. It was a far cry from the rainstorm and blizzard Ryne and I had the last time we ran Rim to Rim to Rim. Everything seemed green and fresh; not yet toasted to a crisp by the desert sun. A rainstorm the previous day had all the cactus flowers in bloom: Arizona thistle, Utah agave, grizzly-bear prickly pear (love that name!) and brittle brush. It gave me the sense that the Canyon was alive beneath my feet; a far cry from the typical connotation of the desert being a bland, somewhat dead place. Not so!
We trucked onwards through Cottonwood Camp and another 2.5 kilometres to Pumphouse Ranger Station. Ryne and I had brought up with the group that doing the double crossing might no longer be an option, given the heat and the way we were moving. But we were going to reassess at Pumphouse. Well, our decision was made for us. The tap at Pumphouse sucked up air instead of giving forth water. A woman had filled her bottle along with a group of eight others and then it stopped working. We spoke to the ranger who said a pipe had burst.
Apparently, this is not an infrequent occurrence; the pipes in the park are aluminum and the silt in the water gets into the joints and causes the pipes to burst. A $30 million dollar project, it likely isn’t one the park service will undertake soon.
Deflated and defeated, we sat underneath the willow trees and had a snack. There was no option but to turn around. To keep going would have been reckless and bull-headed. It is 5 steep miles of climbing to ascend to the North Rim. The next option for water was a half-mile past the North Rim at the ranger station. With our hydrapacks holding maybe 1.5L of water left, it was not viable.
So we turned around, changed our sights and came up with an alternative that would still cover a lot of distance, but take us all (even Ryne and I) on new trails. We ran the gentle downhill back to the Ribbon Falls turnoff and a quick jaunt inwards took us to an incredible little oasis.
A small alcove in the red rock was bisected by, yes, a ribbon of water. It splashed down onto a tall, hollow, egg-shaped dome, down its mossy blanket and into a shallow pool of water. The air was crisp and fresh and I eagerly took off my shoes and socks and waded right in. Ohh, that was the best ice bath my legs have had. It was pure bliss to step into the cool waters during, what we would later discover, was a 40 degree Celcius day. Pat submerged himself completely and Sean also stuck his feet in. We relished the cold and noted how quickly we air-dried off.
We left Ribbon Falls revived. However, our journey back through the canyon to Phantom Ranch would not be effortless. We alternately ran and walked; it was far too hot to run consistently. Water was guzzled back and snacks were taken in, but no doubt about it, some of our numbers were starting to show signs of heat exhaustion. We death-marched through the canyon. All I wanted to see were the bridges; four narrow bridges spanning Bright Angel Creek as the trail stitched back and forth across the creek. Finally Heather and I spotted the first one. I had thought they were nearer to Phantom Ranch and so they acted more like a mirage than anything else. Closer, but still so far away. By this point, our group had split into two. Pat, James, Sean, Francine and Heather took off at a gentle lope while I hung back with Ryne who was struggling for water. We shared my Hydrapack for a bit before he sent me on ahead to the Phantom Ranch canteen with orders for a lemonade and a coke.
By the time we all got to Phantom Ranch, we were toasted. We made our way straight into the cool of the canteen, ordering lemonade, M&Ms, bagels and other goodies from the cashier. Enviously we eyed the beer some of the overnight campers were enjoying. Sprawled out along the canteen’s benches, we met up with some of the rest of our gang. Heidi C and Megan had turned back from Phantom Ranch and gone straight up South Kaibab again. Heidi B and Colin had turned back 2 km shy of Ribbon Falls and also headed back up to South Rim. Jen, Jill, and Lauren had reached the canteen just before us and it was nice to see friendly faces. We spent a good hour at the canteen, rehydrating and trying to get a grasp on the heat. At one point I felt so dizzy I had to hang onto the counter to steady myself.
We made the decision to take Bright Angel Trail back up to the South Rim. It is longer but has less of a gradient and it has water and shade along the way. It would be Ryne and my first time on Bright Angel and I was looking forward to a change in scenery. We left Phantom Ranch, cut through Bright Angel Campground and crossed the Colorado River on the silver suspension bridge.
From here, the trail hugged alongside the riverbank. We climbed up for a bit, then back down to ‘sea level’, then up again. The ground underfoot was loose sand and Ryne called it right when he said it felt like the Gobi Desert death march. Ryne, Pat and I were not doing very well at this point. Sean was kind enough to hang back with us and eventually, we caught up to the group at a waypoint. We stopped, drank some more water and kept going.
For me, that was the end of my low-point. Once we started climbing back up I began to feel better step by step. Bright Angel Trail proved to be quite the change from South Kaibab. Where South Kaibab is exposed to the desert sun and has expansive views, Bright Angel Trail follows alongside the creek, meandering within a lush little gorge that keeps your body cool and your spirits up. Heather, Jen and I took the lead, stopping only at creek crossings to soak our hats in the water before donning them again. We climbed gentle switchbacks and passed a few groups of hikers now and again. Lauren caught up to us and her and I hiked together for a while, chatting to while away the time. Ryne was just behind us. And so made our way to the verdant cool of Indian Garden campground to regroup.
At Indian Garden Jen, Heather, Lauren, Ryne, and I sat around a water tap underneath the willow trees and just soaked in the shade. I’d doused my hat several times in the creek as we zig-zagged across it, but was still hot. We refilled our packs, had some snacks and waited for the other half of our clan. After a brief wait, Sean, Pat, James and Jill staggered in. I say staggered because Pat was really not doing well at this point. Jill had pumped him full of Tums and Advil but he was still struggling. Sitting in the shade we made a plan to split into two groups: Jen, Heather, Ryne, Lauren and I would keep power-hiking on upwards, trying to make it out before dark and capitalizing on the energy we had.
In this way, we could also shuttle back to our cars at South Kaibab trailhead and have food and vehicles ready for the second group when they arrived. Sean, James, and Jill would stay back with Pat, slowly making their way to South Rim preparing to make use of their headlamps if need be. It sounds simple enough, but little did we know. We took off at a decent clip. Heather, Jen and I led the way, chatting comfortably and looking forward to “only” having one last 5 mile stretch of steep climb left. Out of lush valley of Indian Gardens and onto some pretty steep switchbacks we climbed. I was amazed at the engineering of the trail; you look up and see only steep cliffs, it’s near-impossible to imagine yourself climbing up and out without the need for ropes and ladders. But climb we did, snaking back and forth along the cliff side.
We could look down and see our gang slowly following in our footsteps. There was Ryne’s blue shirt, he’d dropped back a fair bit. There was Lauren, power-hiking for all she had. At some point, Heather said, “Where’s Pat?” Pat had a red bandana on his head, a pretty easy target to spot, but at this point nowhere to be seen. We assumed he was behind us and we simply couldn’t see him around a corner or something. Shouting up and down the trail ensued only for us to hear that he was up ahead. Up ahead? There’s no way, Jen and I said, he certainly didn’t pass us! But another group on te trail was insistent; they’d talked to him and gave us details that only could have come from Pat sharing his life story to a group of strangers. Humm…okay. Jen and I sped up to see what we could see farther up the trail.
I put my head down and up we went. After scrutinizing the trail before me I said, “Jen, he’s in front of us!” “What? How do you know?” came the response. “Well, Pat is the only person in here wearing road runners. Everyone else is in hikers. He’s wearing a Saucony Triumph and I can tell by the tread patterns and size of the footsteps in front of me that he has gone before us.” Sure enough, we looked up and saw Pat’s berry-red head bouncing along up the trail; at least a kilometer ahead of us. I felt like Mantracker.
“Pat!” we waved our arms. He waved back but didn’t stop; he was a man on a mission. Cheers went all up and down the trail, as word spread that we’d “found him”. Now Jen and I had a target. We huffed and puffed and finally, just at the top of the trail had him in crosshairs. Through the Bright Angel Tunnel and then finally, thankfully, back on the South Rim. We had made it. Pat collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. Jen and I looked at our watches and ran (okay, maybe more like hobbled) to the shuttle. It was the last one and it was the only way back to our cars at the South Kaibab trailhead. We instructed Pat to stay where he was and set off on a confusingly roundabout bus ride around the park that lasted 45 minutes until we reached our cars. By the time we got back to Bright Angel trailhead it was pitch black and nobody was in sight.
Confusion ensued, but finally, we found everyone. All safe and sound, after an epic day in the Grand Canyon. I know I speak for both Ryne and myself when I say how proud I am of everyone. It is so incredible to see people accomplish goals they would have never thought possible.
With steadfast training and mental toughness, we all made it through the Canyon safe and sound. Even if the route didn’t go as planned, the group took things in stride and adapted. Despite the sore legs and heat exhaustion, everyone is thrilled. There were hugs all around and even some tears. And already, talk of returning next year.
Kristin Ohm-Pedersen, Kintec Ambassador