R2R2R – Double crossing of the Grand Canyon
October 10, 2016 marked our 2nd time taking on this EPIC trail run – EPIC is the one word that can best describe an adventure of this magnitude. The Grand Canyon is one of those places that pictures don’t do it justice. You need to be present to understand the sheer magnitude of this landscape as it welcomes you to leap out and explore it’s vast beauty.
We knew there would be challenges given the terrain, self-supported nature of the run, distance and elevation profile, but we were ready. R2R2R is an extremely difficult task, with 22,000ft of elevation change – 11,000ft up vertically – but if you think about it as ‘only two hills’, it looks pretty simple on paper. Run down the South Rim, across the Canyon, then up the North Rim – take a picture – then turn around and go back. Easy enough, right? Well, not so much.
The descent down the South Rim drops 5,000ft in the first 8km’s (5 miles) to the Colorado River, the next 17km’s (10.6 miles) takes you across the canyon over undulating hills, with the 8.6km (5.4 mile) ascent to the North Rim climbing 6,000ft up – and that is less than half the total run. Add to that the altitude on both rims, combined limited water resources, no cell service, and zero support makes for a dangerous adventure.
We arrived in Vegas late on Saturday Oct 8th, and after a short sleep, we were venturing down the highway towards the Grand Canyon National Park. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, and knew the moment we pulled up to the edge of the South Rim why we had to come back for another double crossing – the Grand Canyon was begging us to venture out and remind us of it’s power.
Once settled in at the Maswik Lodge, we were joined by our Ultra Ohana family of Dave Ahrens and Amanda Weil who wanted to come along and see the canyon for themselves, and partake in some of the run. Dave was also accompanied by his partner Kirk Beckwith, so we had a new member to introduce to our world of ultra-crazy.
A plan was quickly hatched for Kev & I to depart the by 4:30am from the South Kaibab Trailhead, and have Dave and Amanda run down to meet us at the Colorado River on our ascent back up to the South Rim on the return trip.
On this crossing, we would head down South Kaibab (in the dark), then cross the Colorado over Black Bridge, continue past Bright Angel Campground, through Phantom Ranch, Box Canyon, Cottonwood, and up the North Kaibab trail to the top of the North Rim, after which, we would head back down the North Kaibab trail and retrace our path where we would meet up with Dave and Amanda, and take the Bright Angel trail up and out to the South Rim.
This was Dave & Amanda’s first run into the canyon, so they were excited to make it down to the Colorado river, and cross over Silver Bridge to meet us as we were coming back up. They would be our support crew – think ‘personal entertainment system’ – to help us on the final ascent up the South Rim. Their run would cover 27.6km’s (17 miles) with 10,000 feet of elevation change, 5,000 ft of which would be straight uphill for the last 5 miles!
Final Prep & Gear Choice
The Maswik is located at the top of the Bright Angel trail, so located near our final exit point of the canyon. After a lovely dinner at the Bright Angel dining room, we headed to the lodge and did our final gear prep before turning in for the night. For shoes, we chose to go with our Skechers GOTrail Ultras for this run adventure, since they offered excellent traction, and the additional support needed given the terrain and distance. We had tested with these at the various Wanderlust hikes we lead in Tremblant this year, and they performed beautifully in all conditions so they were the obvious choice. For clothing, it was our tried and true lululemon run commute gear we had worn over several weeks of build. Kev’s loves his 5′ Surge Shorts and Mental Vent Tank, and for Kat it was the Run Times Shorts and Swiftly Tech T paired with the Energy Bra. For nutrition, we had our custom Infinit formulas measured out and pre-packed, ready to add into our hydration packs at the planned water stops.
With the gear set, we were ready to GO. What would the next 24 hours hold for us?
We were awake by 2:58am and began our nutrition intake and final gear cross-check. Amanda was our designated driver to the drop-point about 5 miles from the village, and brought us out to the South Kaibab trailhead by 4:30am as planned.
The South Kaibab trail is quite steep, so the descent in the dark was rather tricky as we carefully descended past Ooh-Aah and Skeleton Point, not wanting to make any early mistakes. The first few hours were spent traversing the tight switchbacks winding down to the river. Daylight was on the horizon as we reached Black Bridge, and we made our first fuel stop to reload at Bright Angel Campground, 11.2km (7 miles) into the run.
Onward through Box Canyon and out into the heat and sunshine through Cottonwood. Our next pitstop would be at 25km (15.5 miles) into the run as we reached the Pump House. Once reloaded and refreshed, we began the winding 8.6km (5.4 miles) ascent up towards the North rim, past Ribbon Falls, through the Supai tunnel and up past the Coconino Overlook. As we climbed up and out to the North Rim, we were reminded of the altitude and thinner air that 7000ft brings, 33.6km (21 miles) into the run.
Once at the top, we reloaded our packs, and with the luck of a weak cell signal, were able to send off a message to our support crew that we had indeed made it to the North Rim. At this point, we were running an hour or so behind schedule as it was 12:10pm. We received an incoming message that Dave & Amanda still planned to meet us at the Colorado, so we had a great reason to start the descent ahead of the mule train, and make our way back across to the South Rim.
Given our updated status, Dave and Amanda set out at 1:45pm and flew down the Bright Angel trail and made it to the Colorado in 1h45 minutes! They continued on through the Bright Angel Campground and onwards to Phantom Ranch where they were able to get some well eared lemonade. They continued running into Box Canyon just as we were running through at 4:30pm. Cheers of joy and excitement greeted us as we saw each other!
At this point, we were 56km’s (34.8 miles) into our journey with another 17.2km’s (10.7 miles) to go, so began our way back through Phantom Ranch making another fuel stop before heading back across the Colorado, stopping to savour a bit of the view of this mighty-majestic river on our return.
The sun had set as the view of the South Rim appeared in the far distance. By the time we reached the beginning of the climb up the Devil’s Corkscrew, nightfall was upon us, so out came the headlamps, as did the ‘bats’! Dave’s screams could be heard echoing through the canyon walls as we ran through the darkness up towards Indian Gardens. Heavy rains the week prior to our arrival had lead to some areas of the trail being washed out, so we proceeded with caution over the various water crossings. At this point, things were getting a bit tough for all of us, so we worked to motivate and encourage each other as we made our way up and onto the last section of the Bright Angel trail. Up past 3mile rest house, 1.5 miles rest house, then up and out of the deep abyss. Kirk was waiting with 1/4 mile left to go on the trail, and his reassurance that we were near the top elevated our spirits. We emerged from the Bright Angel Trailhead together in darkness, utterly in awe of our accomplishment – 73.2km (45.5miles) and 17 hours of non-stop running.
Back at the hotel, caked in 2 millions of years of red trail dust, celebratory beers and several pizzas were in order. This was significant, not only to mark the completion of our adventure, but to give thanks for the bonds of family, friendship and accomplishment – it was Thanksgiving after all!
No matter how prepared you are for something of this magnitude, you can never be sure of how things will play out, or what Mother Nature may have in store for you on the given day. Luckily we had great conditions and fabulous support, which made it not only a comforting and safe double crossing, but a very enjoyable one as well. We learned so much on this double-crossing and have a greater understanding of the canyon as a whole, as well as our abilities.
Taking It In
The next day as we picnicked rim side, we were awestruck at the beauty of the canyon, and knew we would never see it the same way again. Having flung ourselves over the edge, bravely forging ahead to challenge the impossible, there we stood, shining bright in awe of our accomplishments. To finish off our experience, we dined together at the El Tovar Lodge to complete the ohana family gathering.
Sharing something like this with others only strengthens the bonds of family friendship which will undoubtedly leave a lasting memory to share for years to come. We all were on our own personal quest, and will carry back great memories in our minds from this shared experience.
When you truly test your mental and physical abilities and push yourself beyond anything you think is possible, it scrapes the bottom of your soul and becomes a part of you.
They say : “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” – and in this case, it definitely applies.
We left the canyon richer than when we arrived, knowing the limits in life are only those we set upon ourselves, with a promise to return. While we may have little control over the length of our lives, we certainly have control over the depth of it. Until next time.