“Every trips holds the potential to be life-changing, the most valuable stuff you can bring back home doesn’t always take up space in your luggage.”
2014 Grand Canyon R2R2R – by Katherine Calder-Becker & Kevin Becker
After two years of careful planning, research and preparation, we were ready to take on our biggest adventure to date – the ‘R2R2R’ – a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon (rim-to-rim-to-rim).
If you think about it in simple terms, the Canyon really only has ‘ two hills’ – so on paper it seems quite manageable. Just run down the South Rim, across the Canyon, then up the North Rim – take a picture – then turn around, go back! Easy, right? Well… not so much.
The run consists of 47 miles (76km’s), depending on the route you take, and covers 22,000ft of elevation change – 11,000ft of vertical ascent. To break it down, the descent down the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail drops 2,997ft in the first 4.8 miles on twisty switchbacks, and then continues down another 1,179ft over 4.7 miles, until you reach the Colorado River. The next 8.6 miles is on an undulating section of the North Kaibab trail, winding up 1,919ft through the canyon to the Pump-house Ranger Station. Once there, you face the final 5.4 mile 3,680ft ascent up the North Rim, over steep and rocky terrain, which completes the first half of the journey! Once you reach the North Rim, it’s time to turn around and run back down, across the valley, and up the South Rim to complete the double-crossing. Of course we chose the longest combination of trails – Bright Angel to North Kaibab and back – since we figured if it was going to be epic, it may as well be – EIPC!
If the distance and elevation aren’t enough of a challenge, you have to factor in the ‘altitude’ on both rims, limited water resources, no cell service and zero support within in the Canyon. Basically, if you go in, you have to get yourself out!
Our journey began when we arrived at the South Rim of the Canyon late in the evening of Wednesday April 16, 2014 – staying in a cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge. We figured if we were right at the trail-head, we could run out the door and over the edge. We had given ourselves a ‘buffer’ day, in case of inclement weather, but with the prime weather day looking like Thurs April 17th, we decided to take the plunge and run it the following morning. We had ‘pre-packed’ our favorite lululemon gear, as well as our tried and tested fuel source of Infinit nutrition. We had prepared everything at home in advance, so it was easy to quickly unpack and lay everything out in a matter of minutes. Since it was late, and the restaurants were closed we settled for snacking on nachos, humus and guacamole that night – not exactly an ideal supper, but at least it was salty carbs.
Before turning in, we figured we’d strap on our headlamps, find the trailhead, and peer over the edge. We quickly found the signage and headed down the first 100ft of the Bright Angel Trail. We stopped, turned off our headlamps and looked out into the darkness. We both experienced a very unfamiliar sensation – you could actually ‘feel’ the vastness. There before us was a black hole – an abyss – with no sound, just a massive deep, dark, vacuous space that ‘felt’ like emptiness. Emotionally, it was very powerful, and we realized the enormity of what lay ahead. Luckily, our headlamps clearly lit the trail, which stood out in contrast to the darkness – we felt confident we could run it – all systems were GO!
We headed back to the cabin, set the alarm for 3am, and went to sleep. We were up before the alarm could even go off, ate breakfast, got dressed, loaded our hydration packs, and headed out the door. It was 4am – here we go!
It was a dark night, with the tail-end of a full moon on the edge of the sky – we were surrounded by a myriad of stars. Temps were cool, but not cold. We set off down the Bright Angel trail and enjoyed the still quiet air – it was a motionless night and we descended into the darkness leaving the South Rim quickly behind – our primary thought – SAFETY FIRST!
As we snaked down the narrow, twisty switchbacks, we could ‘feel’ the wall of rock build up behind us. As we peered into the vast open darkness that lay ahead, we also looked up and back at the lights on the rim.
We continued down for the first 3 miles in darkness, and then as dawn was breaking, we could see Indian Gardens in the distance. By the time we reached the Tonto Plateau, our headlamps were off and we could easily see the trail.
It was striking to look back and up at the South Rim towering over our heads – seeing the terrain rise up behind us as we made our way further down. The color of the changing layers of rock was an indicator of the elevation, and reminded us how far down the millions of years of history in the Canyon we had travelled. We descended Devils Corkscrew, and knew the cheery feeling of light-hearted optimism we were experiencing, would be a distant memory on the return trip through this section.
After running down 5,000ft in 9.5 miles, we reached the Silver Bridge at the Colorado River. The sun was beginning to rise, along with the temperature – so jackets and arm-warmers got packed away. We reached Bright Angel Campground, and Phantom Ranch as the hikers were rising for breakfast. At this point, we re-loaded our hydration packs with water and Infinit, on the first of four planned refill-stops, and began the 14 mile, 6,000ft run up to the North Rim.
From Phantom Ranch, the trail took on a somewhat flatter profile for the next 8.6 miles making it easy to get a solid pace going on this section. There is a constant undulation of ups and downs, always gaining in elevation with each mile that passed. We headed into Box Canyon along the North Kaibab trail, and crisscrossed our way up Bright Angel Creek on a series of short foot-bridges. The walls through box Canyon rose up over-head giving us a sense of warmth and protection – like a security blanket, shaded from the sun. The trail then opened up and the air became more desert like heading up towards Cottonwood Camp. This is the hottest section of the trail as the Canyon walls are further back and there is no shelter from the sun. Once this far in, you finally catch a glimpse of the North Rim up and around to your left into Bright Angel Canyon, as you make your way to the Pump House Ranger Station. This was the location of our 2nd scheduled re-fill stop, at 18 miles into the journey. A quick stop and we were set to take on the final 5.4 mile climb up the North Rim.
The terrain heading up to the North Rim is very steep and traverses a series of tight switchbacks. It’s impossible to see the trail up ahead, so looking back down after each mile goes by is the only way to gauge where you’ve been. Again, the multiple rock layers that make up the Canyon reveal clues about distance and altitude. There are also strategically placed geological trail placards along the way, noting the current rock formation you happened to be at. While informative and interesting, these reminders of how little distance you’ve actually gone, become unnerving – especially on the last 3 miles of the climb!
The summit of the North Rim in constantly coming in and out of view as you twist up and around the buttes and switchbacks so it’s impossible to put a visual ‘lock’ on your target. Your only marker of progress is a change in soil and rock colour, and the detailed placards that seem to scream at you as you ascend to yet another level! Finally, you reach the white limestone that indicates the final ascent, but there’s still a mile to go to reach the top, and it’s pretty much straight up once you pass the Coconino outlook. Out of nowhere, the North Rim trailhead sign comes into view quickly, and before you know it, a rush of elation floods in as you realize you’ve made it!
There’s not much waiting there though with the North Rim still closed to visitors until Mid-May, snow still on the ground, and no water resources at the trailhead. The only thing to do is take a picture, check the time, then turn around and head back down the face of the Canyon to the South Rim. From here, you can’t see it, or the valley floor for that matter, but you know exactly where they are – a long way down. At this point, your body is tired and your mind has lost its edge, so the adventure takes on a more serious tone – SURVIVALISM!
We headed back down the steep switchbacks, being extra careful not to roll an ankle, or slip on loose rocks, and after a few hours of descending, we were back at the Pump House – refilling for the 3rd time. Our strategy was to keep moving with minimal breaks in order to keep the blood from pooling in our legs – so off we went as quickly as we could. As we headed back through Cottonwood, the temps were still up in the 90’s so the heat of the sun was still a factor. Kev happened to be leading on this section of the trail, and we suddenly came upon an adult male rattle snake in the middle of the trail – in full strike position! Luckily, Kev’s reaction time is faster than mine and he came to a skidding halt, yelled ‘snake’ and leap backwards! I ran to a halt, right into him! We waited as the snake slowly cleared the path and were back on our way, running at a quick pace down through Box Canyon. At this point, we ran straight into snake encounter number 2 – there he was, right in the middle of the trail – WOAH! Onwards we go.
We reached Phantom Ranch and refuelled for the 4th and final time. At this point, the heat of the day, and the 12 hours of non-stop running was catching up with us. We knew we had to keep moving, so reloaded our packs and got going quickly. The sun was still in the sky as we reached the Silver Bridge, but we knew the climb ahead would be a long one. The first section was runnable undulating terrain, then we started the steep ascent up through Devil’s Corkscrew and into Indian Gardens. We saw several baby scorpions along this section of the trail, and plenty of deer feeding on the trail-side vegetation. We pushed onwards and upwards to the 3 mile and 1.5 mile rest houses on the Bright Angel Trail – encountering a few bats along the way. At this point, my vision was beginning to do some odd things – at one point, I thought the dust from the trail was affecting my sight, but there was no dust. I also thought my sunglasses were still on, but they weren’t. At least we could see the South Rim towering up overhead – like a beacon, calling us home – that, and the cold beer that was waiting at the cabin!
We ascended to the top, utterly in awe of our accomplishment – 47 miles (76km’s) of non-stop running – in just under 15 hours. Looking back down across the Canyon, we could now easily see where we had been and were thrilled that we had actually propelled ourselves down into this massive landscape, across and up the other side, then back!
Looking back on the adventure was a reminder that the Canyon is a very hostile, unforgiving environment, with no room for errors. The sheer magnitude of this undertaking required careful preparation and training on our part. In training, we did several two-run per-day workouts, stair climbs on our beloved Mont Royal, and hours of hill repeats on Camillien-Houde. We ran with our hydration packs and tested our Infinit nutrition, sweat-rates and hydration requirements. We extensively tested our lululemon run gear and experimented with different fabrics and outfit combinations to get the comfort level just right. We also spent a lot of time researching this run prior to going in and had meticulously mapped out our strategy and the trails in order not to fail.
Long before our journey began, we were well aware that this was a self-supported adventure that would require a great depth of mental toughness, as well as physical strength and experience. Even then, we only realized the enormity of it when we stood on the edge, looked out and had no choice but to push all fear aside. From the moment we peered off into the darkness, right up until we had safely made our way up and out of the abyss, we knew that Mother Nature was in charge.
This was a journey that pushed us to the edge of our limits and scraped the bottoms of our souls.
You can view the photo gallery by visiting our website at : http://endurancetriathletes.com/photos.html