Friday, April 24, 2009

Grand Canyon - The Rest of the Trip!

An earlier post detailed one of the highlights of our recent Grand Canyon vacation (my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim [R2R2R] running adventure), but we actually managed some other fun-filled days in Northern Arizona as well!

After flying into Phoenix on April 5th and driving north to the South Rim, we got to stay in the Bright Angel Lodge right on the canyon edge, a mere 100 feet from the rim. We took it relat
ively easy on the 6th, mostly taking the shuttle bus around the various south rim locations, seeing the multiple visitor centers, gift shops, and spots to view down into the canyon. We even went over to Yaki Point and took this photo just to prove we went on vacation together!
Kirsten and Josh at Yaki Point, Grand Canyon South Rim, 6 Apr 09

Of course, on 7 Apr I did the R2R2R trip, but Kirsten got a great opportunity to hike down the Bright Angel Trail through Indian Gardens and out to Plateau Point.
View of the South Rim from Indian Garden

On Wed, 8 Apr we headed out the eastern entrance of the park and traveled up US-89 for the Page, AZ and the Glen Canyon NRA to take a rafting trip on the Colorado River. Alas, high winds that day forced the guide company to cancel the trip, so we spent some time at the Glen Canyon Dam and Visitor Center, hiked in and around a slot canyon, and made another side trip to the Lee's Ferry portion of the Grand Canyon.

Kirsten climbing down into a slot canyon

Josh soaking his tired and swollen feet in the quite cold Colorado River at Lee's Ferry

Then came the next major highlight of the trip. Kirsten had placed us on the wait-list for Phantom Ranch on Tues afternoon, and by Wed evening we had pretty good odds at scoring an opening. So on Thurs morning Kirsten hopped up at 6am, walked over to the lodging office, and sure enough, we were able to score a cabin with queen bed! After sitting down for a solid breakfast, we made arrangement to check out of our rim lodging a day early, and went about packing our Camelbaks for an overnight hiking trip down to the River and the oasis there. The rest of our gear went into the rental car, which we left parked next to our South Rim cabin.

We caught the shuttle over the South Kaibab Trail head and started the hike down about 11:45. This trail into the Colorado River is known for its stunning mix of pain and pleasure. It provides absolutely stunning views of the Canyon and the River, but it is also unrelenting with probably not 1/10 mile of level hiking. It is a constant, switch-backing descent with hundreds of erosion control logs and stones, but not one piece of shade. So it will eat up your quads and knees on the 7.3mi descent to the Black Bridge over the Colorado River, 0.5 mile beyond which is Phantom Ranch.

Looking west down the Canyon from the South Kaibab Trail

About halfway down the trail

Kirsten, then Josh, on the Black Bridge over the Colorado River

We got into Phantom Ranch in about 3 hours, taking some time to get the obligatory stamp for our National Parks Passport book before checking into our cabin.

At the canteen we grabbed some cold lemonade and then walked over to Bright Angel Creek to soak our feet in the cool waters.

We enjoyed a nice family-style steak dinner at the canteen, meeting a couple from Baltimore at the table with. Afterwards, we wandered up the North Kaibab Trail to see a mile or of The Box and probably one of the nicest pieces of trail you'll ever have the pleasure of hiking or running.

We crashed for the night with the sounds of the creek running nearby. The next morning we had a huge breakfast at the canteen (family-style again), and this time met a great couple from England. The husband was an aerospace engineer and his wife a special education teacher, so we had plenty to talk about. Kirsten and I loaded our Camelbaks up and hit the trail for hike out about 7:45am. This time we crossed over Silver Bridge and made the return up the Bright Angel Trail in just over six hours. Our golden chariot (aka Dodge Charger rental car) was awaiting us about 200' away, so we threw our gear in the trunk and headed out. Next stop was a well-earned treat from Carvel Ice Cream out in Tusayan before we drove to Flagstaff for the night.

Josh and Kirsten at the Bright Angel Trail head, made it all the way out on foot!

After enjoying a hot shower at the hotel in Flagstaff, we wandered over to the Beaver Creek Brewery and proceeded to do some carb replenishment with the local brews and some brick-oven pizza; great place to spend the evening. After sleeping rather soundly that night, we woke up to a snowstorm on Saturday morning. Got out of the Canyon just in the nick of time! Would have hated to hike out in that.

6" of snowfall between midnight and noon in Flagstaff, 11 Apr 09

Despite the snow, we still managed to hop multiple national park sites around Flagstaff and Central Arizona, including Sunset Crater, Walnut Canyon, Wupatki, Montezuma Castle, and Tuzigoot. We enjoyed a nice soak in the hotel hot tub in Phoenix, then flew home the next day.

A great vacation and some lifelong memories. Heck, it took us about three more days at home to recover from the vacation! Is it OK not to miss your kids while on vacation?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

R2R2R, Grand Canyon - 7 Apr 09

The National Park Service (NPS) says that 3 million folks visit the Grand Canyon (GC) every year. I figure about 2 million will never leave the South Rim, merely drive up from Flagstaff, look over the edge, and say, “Wow!” NPS further says that only about 10% of GC visitors (300,000) will drive over the North Rim side of the park, a far more remote site about 4+ hour drive away from the South Rim (yet only 10 miles as the crow flies). Perhaps another 500,000 will come to the South Rim and actually hike down into the canyon for a few miles, stopping at the Indian Gardens or other rest spots. Heck, maybe 100,000 souls go elsewhere in the National Park site beside the two main sites (like the Hulapai Nation Skywalk or Desert View). I’ll further posit that 75,000 folks actually make it to the Colorado River via mule ride or on foot, typically staying the night at Phantom Ranch or other nearby campgrounds; good for them, because in most places on the South Rim you can’t even see the River way down in the Inner Gorge of the GC.

But only a precious few will look across that expanse, that “big hole in the ground”, and wonder if they could go by foot to the other side. Even fewer still look across (from the South or North Rim) and ask “I wonder if I could get there and back in just one day?” And that, my friends, is why it feels right and true and good to be an ultrarunner, an adventurer, a wanderer. You are among the ultimate outliers. Remember the words of Tolkien, as printed on t-shirts here and there: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.”

Kirsten and I were very fortunate to line up a vacation to the Grand Canyon this year, taking a week in early April and cashing in a chit with her parents to look after our three boys while we were off wandering. So thanks to Oma and Opa; the boys loved having you there, and we appreciate the heck out of getting a great vacation! In the Fall of 2008, Kirsten and I planned to get out in Spring 2009 and starting looking at places in the SW USA. Well, after I pulled out the National Park map, the Grand Canyon immediately stood out, and subsequently the chance to do the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) presented itself after over a decade of since I heard about it. We spent two prized frequent flier tickets with Southwest, and were able to make reservations at the Bright Angel Lodge right on the South Rim, perhaps 100’ from the Bright Angel Trailhead. Needless to say, we were stoked about the vacation! We flew in on Sunday, April 5th, and I did the R2R2R on April 7th.

Kirsten and I had other cool adventures that week, including Glen Canyon NRA, the Lee’s Ferry portion of GC, hiking down to Phantom Ranch and spending the night, and dodging a snowstorm in Flagstaff! All will be the subject of another post. But first, my R2R2R experience

THE GEAR: Asics trail running shorts (with built-in compression liner, so very little chafing problems all day), Montrail Hardrock shoes with Montrail Endurosoles, injinji socks, HIND cold-weather top, LS t-shirt from Rocket City Marathon, RRS Goretex running jacket, gloves (two layers), skull cap, small flashlight, and Black Diamond headlamp. I had a Camelbak HAWG with 100oz water bladder, with a spare LS tech shirt, some anti-chafe lube, cell phone, and all my calories.
** By the way: if any of my compadres from Fleet Feet Huntsville happen to read this, after this trip to GC I had to put the Hardrock shoes out of their misery. After 650 miles, culminating with my R2R2R and a hike later in the week to Phantom Ranch and back, I just sucked all the useful life out of them! About 25% of the outsole had been ripped away, and you could feel the midsole were just shot. Donated to the garbage in Flagstaff.

THE FUEL: Mostly Hammer Perpetuem in paste form crammed into flasks, a flask of HammerGel, and a few Hammer bars just to eat something different. Also had plenty of Endurolytes. What can I say: I get a 20% discount from Hammer because of my team membership with SmartSport Int’l, and for me their fuels have proven the best available, i.e. the ultrarunning ‘experiment of one, I know from experience and experimentation what works for me, but it may not work for you!

So after arriving early evening on 5 Apr and generally just taking it easy on the South on 6 Apr, the day of the R2R2R has arrived. I woke at 0315, restless from the coming epic. Actually, I never slept all that well during the week, which I chalk up to the altitude (7100’) and the dryness (woke up thirsty and dry mouth 3-4 times a night). I got the last remnants of my Camelbak ready, put some tape on my feet, Brave Soldier lube in the right places, and had a little something to eat. Then I kissed my slumbering wife and headed out the door of our cabin. Because of the awesome lodging arrangements, I walked 100’ to the Bright Angel Trailhead and over the edge 0400.

The first hour was relatively uneventful as I headed down the steep trail into the dark. Getting a rhythm over the erosion control logs took some time, but all part of the journey. However, I ended up having to make four pit stops between wake-up and 3mi resthouse to get my pipes all cleaned out! That likely cost me 15-20min on the descent. I went through Indian Garden in the dark, and then the trail dropped into this righteous little canyon, where I could hear the washing rushing thru the small flumes in the dark.

Figure 1. The Colorado River as seen from Plateau Point. Kirsten took this photo while I was on the R2R2R. She had a solid day of hiking herself!

Now I’m about halfway to the river crossing, and the trail begins the nasty, twisting descent into the Inner Gorge of the GC. This portion is known as the Devils’ Corkscrew. With the first light of day now getting into the canyon, and temperature starting to pick up, the view of this piece of trail is downright exciting as it winds down, down, down. About halfway down the Corkscrew, I stopped at a creek crossing to strip off the hat, gloves, and jacket, packing them away and continued to head down to the Colorado River. It will be one of the lessons learned for others to consider, but I ended up carrying a lot of extra weight. Not just the weight of water, for I can handle that, but all the extra gear filling up my Camelbak. I carried a lot of extra gear, likely unnecessary stuff all the way up the North Rim and back. I had the option of caching my jacket, gloves, headlamp, etc, but I opted to hang on to it to hedge against unforeseen events on the trail. Maybe I would twist and ankle and need to jacket, extra clothes, and lights to deal with the night? I carried that weight and volume out of risk mitigation more than anything, but likely could have gotten away without it.

I got to the Colorado River 0615, made a right turn to head up the River Trail. Though it just follows the river, half of the trail is loose sand, so the going can be slow and you slog through it. Two miles later the lovely Silver Bridge across the river came into sight, and its companion Black Bridge another ½ mile beyond that. The oasis at Phantom Ranch is across; I took an enjoyable stroll over the footbridge. At Phantom Ranch I re-loaded water in my Camelbak and called Kirsten with a status report about 0645 from the pay phone there (cell phone completely useless down here).

Figure 2. Silver Bridge and the Colorado River. Photo was taken with a disposable camera at about 0630, so not a lot of sunlight yet.

Figure 3. My big forehead, messed up hair, and you can just see the Silver Bridge.

As the sun continued to rise, I passed through Phantom Ranch, the slumbering campers, and the few gawkers that were leaving breakfast at the canteen. The North Kaibab Trail waited. The first 2-3 miles venture into a section known as The Box. Perhaps one of the best trails I have ever run, simply unforgettable. Bright Angel Creek is rushing down a very narrow canyon that is feeding the Colorado River and the trails winds up the creek back and forth over several bridges. Just a great piece of running up very shallow but steady climb through the tight canyon before it opened up and continued the climb up Bright Angel Canyon.

Figure 4. Trail sign heading out of Phantom Ranch up the North Kaibab Trail. Just a half-marathon to the top, right? Never mind the 6000' net elevation gain! I actually took this photo two days later when Kirsten and I stayed the night at Phantom Ranch.

The Box eventually opens up into Bright Angel Canyon and the shallow climb continues up the creek past Ribbon Falls and into the Cottonwood campground. The sun was now overhead, so I pulled out a ballcap, sunglasses, and put on some sunscreen. I passed through Cottonwood and got some strange looks from the few campers and NPS crews doing trail maintenance; you’d think they’d never heard of someone pulling the R2R2R stunt before. The climb gradient increased a bit on the way up to the house below Roaring Spring. There I made the mistake of passing up the year-round water source in favor of heading further up to the Suppai Tunnel; more on this in a bit.

Figure 5. Bridge over Bright Angel Creek that will take you to Ribbon Falls.

Now the climbing is just beginning to get tough. Out of Roaring Springs the trail leaves Bright Angel Creek/Canyon and starts the climb up to the North Rim. The trail is about 3-4’ wide in most places, with rock wall on your left shoulder but a 1000’ dropoff off your right shoulder! I was doing more power walking than running now, too steep and the altitude preventing a quick ascent. But the view of Roaring Spring pouring out of the rock face is just amazing, as I wind around the canyon walls and through many switchbacks going up, up, up.

Figure 6. Roaring Springs pouring out of the rim wall. Below it forms Bright Angel Creek/Canyon and is the source of the Transcanyon Water Pipeline that brings all the fresh water to the South Rim.

I got to the Suppai Tunnel around 1030, but discover the water there is turned off, and my camelback bladder is now dry. So after letting out a loud F-bomb to no one in particular, I slip back on the camelback and press on; there is supposed to be water at the north rim trailhead. There is still plenty of snow right off the trail on the way up, so I take some and throw it in my cap to cool my head off, and another handful of snow to eat! I ran into two hikers heading down from the rim to cottonwood, and they slip me about 25oz of water. Probably could have gotten away without it, but helped make things a little easier later on.

Figure 7. Approaching the Suppai Tunnel

I reached the North Rim about 1145, sitting at about 8400’ elevation (vs. 2400’ at the river). The final three miles is just a brutal climb, up and up and up. I hardly ran at all, just tried to put one foot in front of the other and not let heart and breathing rate get out of control. At last, I begin to see blue sky through the trees and know the top is near. As with so many ultrarunning, hiking, bicycling, or even unicycling adventures, I just fixed in my mind that the top is near and kept pushing to the top. But with a mindfulness to not ‘pop’ on the way up, for that is only the halfway point!

At the trailhead I took a 10-15min break. There were two other hikers up there that were up there sunning themselves and taking a break (one from Birmingham of all places). I changed shirts, took some photos (got to have proof!), scooped up a few handfuls of snow and shoved into the hydration bladder. Here the water the dudes below gave me came in handy because it helped melt the snow easier.

Figure 8. North Kaibab Trailhead at the North Rim. Yes by golly, there is still plenty of snow hanging around!

Figure 9. Just to prove I didn't steal the last photo from a website or something....

Having made it the North Rim, there is only one way back, and that’s 23.9 miles across the Grand Canyon! No sweat, right! So I headed back down the trail around noon. Lo and behold, I enjoyed somewhat steady running most of the way down. But even then the long, grinding descent, the constant switchbacks and erosion controls made the running tough as you changed directions and speed constantly to take it easier on the legs that are just taking a beating.

Figure 10. View down into Bright Angel Canyon from below the Suppai Tunnel. It is still about 4 miles and 2500’ net elevation gain to the North Rim.

I cruised through the Suppai Tunnel and down, down, down to Roaring Springs. I met up with the two hikers that passed me some water and thanked them for ‘paying it forward’ and promised lunch on me should we link up at the South Rim. Those guys were great, showing the spirit and friendliness that makes meeting folks in the backcountry a lot of fun. We must have jawboned for 15min before I got going again. At Roaring Springs I pulled off the Camelbak, dumped out the unmelted snow and completely filled it with clear, fresh water. Dunked my head, cooled most of the body off. Probably around 80deg now, so not really hot, but all that cold alpine water felt nice anyway.

Continued the descent as it leveled out some and the trail met back up with the Bright Angel Creek. Now the running is really good, a shallow descent with few erosion controls or switchbacks. Down I went back into The Box with probably the nicest piece of running in the entire trip; the sun overhead, a smooth trail (even a little very shallow descent), canyon walls around me, a rushing creek filling my ears. Even after nearly 12 hours on the move, this section felt great. With enough fuel/water/salt, I wished this could go on for hours. The Box and the entire Grand Canyon is truly one of His greatest creations

I ran back through Phantom Ranch 1530-1545, now getting dozens of stupid looks from the folks that had likely taken the mule train down, but smiles from the obvious hikers. I stopped 1545 to refill my camelbak bladder and pour a bunch of water over me. I consider taking a dunk in the Colorado River, but I knew I did not have a ton of daylight to spend. But I did have to wait about 15min for the lone payphone down there to free up (cell phones worthless here and North Rim) to call Kirsten and let her I know where I was.

I crossed back over the river on the Silver Bridge (saving the Black Bridge and South Kaibab Trail for later in the week) about 1605-1610 and traversed the River Trail. Then began the climb back up into Devil’s Corkscrew and Pipe Creek. As I crossed through the creek 2-3 times, I soaked my feet in the cool water creek to give my feet some minimal cooling; felt nice and dried out quickly in the Arizona desert. Then up I climbed through the multiple switchbacks as I headed up to Indian Gardens. This time I got to see the wonderful mini-canyon in the daylight, that water rushing through a very narrow slot, maybe 1-2 feet wide, winding downhill towards the main river. Drank a dozen mouthfuls of water at Indian Garden. I didn’t need to touch my Camelbak, and didn’t want the extra or unnecessary water on the last push out of the canyon. I had carried enough extra weight all day, and knew I needed enough water and fuel to last me about two hours to the top.

It was at Indian Gardens I saw this sign that I missed in the dark on the way down. Whoops!

Figure 11. Sign at Indian Gardens. Thanks to Sandiway Fong at Univ Arizona for posting it to his website so I could borrow it. My shot was grainy and in poor light.

As it passed 1800 and I climbed out of Indian Gardens, the realization of what I was about to do was starting to sink just a little bit. I could see the flagpole of the Kolb Studio on the South Rim, and my cell phone chirped as I came into range of the towers up there. Thus I called Kirsten to make dinner reservations for later in the evening!

So up I climbed, back into the innumerable switchbacks, grinding away back and forth, running as able, but mostly walking as the pitch of the trail and altitude increased, and the erosion control made it difficult to get any sort of stride going. The last rays of light were starting to wane as I passed the 1.5mi rest house. Now I was starting to get stoked, the adrenaline flowing from the knowledge that it is almost done. I pulled out my mp3 player and turned on some sweet tunes to accompany the climb, a smile on my face despite the efforts of the past days and the growing darkness.

Right about 1920 or so the last of the sunlight fell away, but the timing was almost perfect, as just then a near-full moon rose over the canyon rim and gave me beautiful moonlight up the trail and reflected across the canyon walls. Just a wonderful sight, I wish I had a camera that was capable of capturing it. I even managed to getting a running pace growing again as the trail shallowed out just a bit in the final ½ mile and I pressed for the end, arriving about 1945.

Twelve years I had been waiting for this day’s journey, ever since I got into ultrarunning and heard about the R2R2R adventure. The first time I read about it, I knew I had to do that someday. As I’ve talked about with my wife and several good friends, the idea of doing it simply resonated with me, deep in my guts. And now I am here, the trailhead in sight, my lovely wife waiting there to greet me with a wry smile and beaming eyes, a smile on my face from now knowing what I just pulled off, and IT IS DONE.

We took some photos at the Bright Angel trailhead, and then headed back to our cabin just a bit away. I stripped off all the gear and took a heavenly shower, though had to be careful as a few choice locations in my legs threatened to cramp up.

To cap off a great day, we meandered about 400 meters up the rim the famous El Tovar Hotel. Enjoyed a beer and appetizer in the lounge, then had a late dinner at the El Tovar Restaurant, celebrating the day’s journey in fine style. This was a really great piece of the day, talking with Kirsten and sharing both of our experiences that day; she herself hiked down the Indian Gardens and Plateau Point and got some views even I would never see. After I finished the Pinhoti 100, the time after the race was really anti-climactic as I drove home then was back at work the next day as if one of the biggest events in my life had never happened. It was a month later we got to celebrate the Pinhoti when Rob and Kathy Youngren hosted a great party at their place on Monte Sano. So after the R2R2R, tired or not, by gosh I was going to have a nice dinner with my wonderful wife and do a little celebrating. It was great, and I am so glad she was there; a perfect way to end the day. Of course, I wasn’t worth a s*** in the sack later on, but oh well! We got back to the cabin, both of us starting to get really feel the effects of the day, and crashed out around 2245.

Why do we do it? One possible answer is that adventures like the R2R2R (or any 100miler, the JMT, Long Trail, A.T., PCT, etc.) confirm in us the need, the drive to be an outlier, to be in a very small group of wanderers way outside the ‘average’ human being. Our day-to-day existence as professionals, as husbands/wives, father/mothers, and more, while wonderful and important and rewarding, does not quite meet our deep longing to be fulfilled in ways like these adventures. To prove to ourselves that it can be done once you commit your mind and body to it. And when completed, that deep-down knowing that you have done it…and knowing you could do it again despite the difficulty.