“Holy shit, we’ve got a long way to go”
We had been running about an hour and the sun was starting to peak over the side of the rim of the Grand Canyon, showing off the postcard-worthy vistas we were going to spend the better part of the next 12 hours running. Karen had stopped to point out the north rim of the Canyon, just becoming visible and now looming in the distance.
We had just finished our first descent of Bright Angel Trail, one of two trails on the south rim that leads down to Phantom Ranch and a popular destination point for day hikers and campers. My calves, rather than quads, were already cramping, something I wasn’t quite expecting from the downhill. To be fair, I’d never run straight down for over an hour before.
Admittedly, the details of how this adventure came about are foggy, but I’m sure it has something to do with hearing tales from Karen’s R2R2R 30th birthday adventure last year- her 2nd completion of this epic run. I may have casually mentioned to her late last summer that I had never been to the Canyon and had my sights set on it. Soon enough we were googling flights and comparing schedules and campervan rentals. Once booked, I looked up the elevation profile (approx. 11,000 ft and not the order of operations I’d suggest). It became apparent that this was going to be quite the challenge, and I needed to get my ass on the stair climber. Immediately.
The weekend of our run, we flew in and arrived late in Vegas on the Friday night. We stayed at a semi-dumpy massive hotel, which was surely a classy place in the 70’s, being the last time it had a face lift. The next morning, we did a 10k shakeout run down The Strip, before picking up our campervan, a million dollar’s worth of groceries from Trader Joe’s, and hitting the road.
It’s about a 5 hour drive from Vegas to Grand Canyon National Park. After a few pit stops, including dinner on the side of the road in some godforsaken corner of the desert (at which point we realized we would be wildly underprepared for any attack by scorpions or hillbillies) we arrived at the park ranger office well after it had closed. Luckily, they had left a note with a list of the available sites, and we drove off to find one in the dark. The perks of vanlife v. camping were quickly apparent, as once we threw our van into ‘Park’, we were able to focus on making a tea and getting our packs ready for our early start the next morning. We packed about 2500 calories worth of Endurance Tap gels, bars in all the flavours you can’t find in Canada, extra salty chips, ginger chews and a monstrous banana leather (not quite as sexy as it sounds) and then hit the hay. I don’t think the magnitude of what we were doing the next day had quite hit me yet, and I fell asleep in a happy state of blissful ignorance.
The next morning we set off around 5:30 a.m. and the temperature was hovering around the freezing mark. After driving over to the trail head, we fumbled around in the dark for a bit until we found it, took the obligatory photo, pre-start pee and set off. There are two trails down into the Canyon: Bright Angel and South Kaibob. It’s common (I’m told) to take one down and the other up, and catch the bus back to your starting point. Given the cold temps and lack of long pants, we were concerned about the frequency of the bus late in the day and made the decision to start and finish at the same spot. This turned out to be the best idea, since it was cold AF by the time we returned (spoiler alert: we made it!).
After about an hour and a half of switchbacks down the side of the south rim, the bottom portion of Bright Angel levels off where it crosses the Colorado River. When we reached Phantom Ranch, we were greeted by sleepy campers just waking up and making their breakfasts, and who seemed a little shocked to see the two of us, in matching outfits (hot pink shorts which were not planned, I swear) hurriedly refilling our water and getting on our way.
The next few hours were spent gossiping and solving all of life’s quandaries (as always happens on the trail) along the very runnable base of the Canyon. We followed the river over rolling hills, between rocks walls and looking onto gorgeous views which were together a great distraction and sober reminder of the distance we still had yet to cover. We did lose some time going off trail, following a sign telling us the bridge ahead was closed and impassable. Pay no heed! We found ourselves bushwhacking and bouldering until it just seemed ridiculous, and we saw a group of hikers coming the other way, who said the bridge in question wasn’t even part of the trail anyway. Thank god, as we had both now just received matching scratches on our knees (in keeping with our matching outfits) and had just passed the creepiest lone boot with sock still in it, as if the foot had been severed at the ankle. Not in the mood to play detective, on we ran. A little further along, we shared a magical moment with a family of elk who were enjoying a late lunch along the side of the trail: a huge male with full set of antlers, two does and two speckled fawns who were scampering about and enjoying the late fall sun. As we got closer and closer to the North Rim, the sun was high, and we enjoyed basking in it while refilling our water again before starting our 1st of 2 ascents up the rim.
The ‘why’ of this adventure, may have also involved me mentioning to Karen once over a tea that I had come to the point in my running journey that I wanted to experience the “pain cave.” For those who aren’t familiar, the pain cave is sometimes known as “the wall” or basically any point when your mind wants to give up after pain and/or exhaustion has set in, and you need to rely on grit and determination, and trust your body can just keep going. Never one to pass up on an opportunity, I’m sure she knew this adventure would do the trick.
Our ascent up the North Rim was stunning and offered our best views of the day and also my first visit to The Pain Cave – about 2/3’s of the way up the 8200’ climb. The altitude hit me like a ton of bricks, and zapped my energy instantly. Thank god for Karen, who I’m convinced is superhuman, and kept a brisk’ish pace. My goal was just to keep her within yelling distance, with about one switchback between us until we reached the top.
On and on, switchback after switchback, we made it to the top! We took a quick snack break, congratulated ourselves for making it half way and set off back down the trail. The views down seemed oh so much sweeter, and it felt good(ish) to get my legs moving again.
By the time we traversed the bottom, reached the bridge and crossed into Phantom Ranch again, we knew we wouldn’t be beating the quickly setting sun out as we still had about a 3 hour climb ahead of us. We refuelled, before heading back up Bright Angel, now with the mighty Colorado River at our back.
Once the sun set, the cold and dark came on quickly, as did Pain Cave #2. Out came the headlamps, and we trudged up the switchbacks, only being able to see about 6 feet clearly ahead, and only having the slowly dimming lights coming from Phantom Ranch to judge how far we had gone, and still had left to go. Our entire hike up the South Rim was completely silent (the Canyon, not us – still solving life’s great mysteries) and dark, being the night of a new moon, and the stars were spectacular with nothing to dim their light. At some point, I took a short break to regroup, choke back a cherry flavoured Lara Bar and listen to one of Karen’s well-timed pep talks. We couldn’t stop long however, as we were starting to get chilled and exhaustion was setting in.
Switchback after switchback, we hiked in the dark, with Karen giving me estimated distance-to-go updates, until finally, she yelled “I hear CARS!!!” My god, we had made it! We had arrived at the top of the South Rim, 84 kms and 11.5 hours later– no finish line, cheers, cow bells, bananas or even a selfie, just the overwhelming sense of accomplishment between two friends humbled by one of the most spectacular trails in the world.