Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grand Challenge - South Rim

Ranger Dave and I left Bryce around 1PM. I punched in the coordinates for the North Rim lodge, our base camp for the expedition, and ETA was going to be 3 hours+ through the deserts of Utah and Arizona.

The route took us south back through Kanab, so we stopped in the downtown area for a great lunch and, of course, some ice cream at Three Bears. It was generic ice cream (Yeah, I'm spoiled) and it didn't sit well with me for the rest of the trip south to the lodge.

The drive to the lodge was generally scenic, and reminded me more of Vermont than the desert scenery that we were so use to up to that point.

The lodge sits at 8000+ ft and about 20 minutes from the edge of the North Rim. We could definitely feel every feet of that climb as we both got pounding headaches the higher we went.

I immediately lost about 3lbs once we got to the lodge's bathroom, mostly the ice cream from Three Bears.

Dane and company were not at the lodge yet, so Dave and I decided to drive the additional 20 minutes to get a sneak peak of the North Rim while it was still light out.

We were like giddy schoolgirls once we entered the park entrance. We also learned that we could access the park at any time, since they were open 24 hours. We were planning to start the run by 4AM the next morning, so this was very good news.

The conditions were perfect to be able to see clear across the canyon.

I remember getting the same chills I got when I entered Yosemite and seeing Half Dome for the first time. Absolutely surreal to see something you've seen so many times in pictures and movies, right in front of you, in all it's beautiful glory.

We went out to Bright Angel Point, thinking that this was the start of the trail head (we were wrong), and were shocked to see the shear drops on both sides. This was going to be nerve-racking at 4AM and in the dark.

Ranger Dave spoke to another ranger (park) to get the lowdown on our planned journey across the canyon.

The ranger said that they don't encourage runners (actually discourage), especially those that try to do the rim-to-rim-to-rim run in one outing. They stopped talking after that.

We also discovered that some "pure" hikers look down on those that do R2R. My thinking is that we're doing the same hike, but only faster, so chill out people.

Some interesting facts about the Canyon:

- It's "only" 10 miles from the North Rim to the South Rim as the crow flies, but 23 miles as the idiots run.

- Our North Rim starting line sits at 8000 ft while the South Rim halfway point is lower at around 6000+ ft. This was probably a slight oversight in Dane's research when he decided on which rim to start out on. Starting out on the North Rim, like we were going to do, would mean that our final rim climb would be 5500+ ft vs 3500+ if we were finishing on the south side. Not something we were looking forward to.

- The Colorado River, which carved out the canyon, sits at 2500ft above sea level, 7 miles from the North Rim, and 16 miles from the South Rim (using the trails).

- At the lowest point on our run, we would have travelled back 2 billion years in geological history! Who needs a time machine?!

- It can get as hot as 106 degrees down on the canyon floor.

Dave and I finally had our fill of the sneak peak and decided to head back to the lodge to look for Dane.

We got back around 7PM, stopping off at the nearby general store for some last minute supplies.

We then heard the unmistakable Boston accent as we entered the lodge lobby.


With Dane was the lovely Vanessa (his niece), and her fiancee, Ryan Dempsey. Ryan was the final member of our four person expedition team. The Fantastic Four was finally united.

This was the first time that I had the chance to meet Ryan.

Ryan and Vanessa both live in San Francisco and are both certifiably nuts when it comes to running. Ryan only started running ultras relatively recently, and Vanessa will enjoy the occasional marathon every few months. Just for fun.

We all went to dinner by 8PM, but Dave and I were still full from our late lunch and settled on just dinner salads.

I was a little worried that we were just eating salads before a grueling 46 mile run, but my stomach was still a little unsettled from earlier.

Rest was probably more important at this point, since we had to get up in 6 hours, so we quickly settled the dinner bill and checked into our quite posh lodge accommodations.

I had the heated room while, Dave opted for the freezer, since he kept telling me that he preferred the cold. Right, Dave?

I stayed up until 10PM finishing up some work for back home, but quickly fell into a deep sleep the moment I finally put my head down for the night.

The morning came way too fast for my liking, and it was still pitch dark out at 3:15AM when we woke up. The full moon helped, but we were in the middle of nowhere, so pure darkness engulfed everything around us.

I had a feeling that it was probably chilly out, since this was the desert after all and I hadn't seen a cloud in the sky since I landed in Vegas three days prior.

My quick litmus test of stepping outside stark naked proved that theory correct, so I decided to go with the compression socks, arm sleeves, mittens, and undershirt to help withstand the early 50 degree temps.

On top I wore my GLRR cap, Crow singlet, an awesome head lamp borrowed from Dane's friend, Jennifer (thanks!), and my 500+ mile pair of Adidas Adizero Adios. This was going to be it's final journey as they have served me well over the past month. There was no way it was going to survive a 46 mile dust and dirt ridden canyon crossing.

I packed my pink Camelbak with my cell phone, spare battery, a ton of Hammer gels, Nuun tablets, Bonk Breakers, Vaseline, two extra water bottles, painkillers, snake anti-venom, trail mix, organ donor card, and some cash in case I needed to take a taxi back.

Everybody was ready by 3:45AM, but I was still foggy and fumbling with my gear. I'm usually well prepared, but I just couldn't get going this morning. Then it appeared that my Camelbak had sprung a leak, which made me doubt my gear. I had no choice at that point and threw everything I needed into the back of the rental.

It was go time.

I did the driving and drove right past the Kaibab trail head where we were supposed to meet Ryan and Vanessa. Like I said previously, Dave and I were wrong in thinking that the hike was to begin at Bright Angel Point.

The North Rim Kaibab trail is a lot more hiker friendly then the Bright Angel Point that we scouted out yesterday, so this came as a big relief to Dave and Dane who were fretting about falling over the steep edges. I don't blame them.

We finally parked in the Kaibab trail parking lot, and found Ryan and Vanessa. Vanessa was going to start at 6AM and run down to Phantom Ranch and back by herself. That was about a 22-24 mile round trip in and of itself. Vanessa's one tough gal.

We said our goodbyes and good lucks to Vanessa as we headed off into the darkness of the North Rim descent.

The first two miles of the descent were just switchback after switchback after switchback. It didn't strike me then, but this was what we were going to have to ascend in about 14 hours, on very tired legs. My mind couldn't even comprehend that at this point.

I clearly remember that there was a fine dust in the dark air, which our headlamps illuminated. Almost like a light snow fall, but more like ash. We were breathing this stuff in, and I joked about how we were going to die of black lung by the end of this run.

It got warmer and warmer as the we got deeper and deeper into the canyon. The morning light was starting to filter into the canyon, but it was still far off in the distance.

We could only make out the faint noises of the wild life in the canyon, and I was a little surprised that we didn't encounter many other life forms other than a few hikers early on.

Most of the hikers were coming from the South Rim, smartly starting their journey in the cool of the night, or from one of the handful of campsites down on the canyon floor.

We eventually came upon Cottonwood camp about 6 miles into the run, and our spirits were still very high.

We quickly went through Cottonwood without getting any additional water. It was still relatively cool out and we were still carrying everything we had brought with us.

We continued to hustle further down the trail towards the next campsite at Phantom Ranch, five miles away.

And then Ryan took a nasty fall on a fast stretch of trail. I was in the front of the four man Indian run, and all I heard were his footsteps, behind me, coming to a dead silence.

I looked back and saw Ryan crumpled up in a ball of dust.

Dane and Dave quickly came to his aid and asked if he was alright.

Ryan looked OK other than a couple of small cuts on his knee and hands.

He struggled to respond with the wind knocked out of him.

We stayed there for a good five minutes before testing out his legs again.

I once again took the lead as Ryan hung back with Dave and Dane.

A few miles later, we came upon a stream of gushing water on the main trail, but it didn't look natural at all.

The flow of water emanated from the canyon wall and floor, and a few feet above and away from the main stream to our right. We just thought it was odd, and didn't think much of it at the time other than how to get past it without getting wet.

Who would have thought that this event would play a critical point in our story later on.

We eventually got to Phantom Ranch around mile 13.4 in about 3 hours. We still had less than 3 miles to go before reaching the mighty Colorado River, and 10 miles to the South Rim.

Our Garmins were pretty much useless this deep down in the canyon. I was only getting running time and the occasional elevation readout. I was a little disappointed as I wanted to see the elevation ups and downs on this run, but this was going to be the least of my worries as we continued on.

At the pace that we were going, we were actually afraid that we were going to get to the South Rim before our support crew (Brian Shorey & Family) were planning to be there, which was going to be 11AM.

It was only 7AM, so that gave us 4 hours to cover 10 miles. Even at 4 miles per hour we were on pace to reach the South Rim by 9:30-10.

On that note, I'd like to say that time and distance exists on a whole different realm down in the canyon. One mile can take 7 minutes or it can take an hour. It just all depends on the current conditions.

Once we reached the base of the South Rim, we quickly learned that 2 miles was going to take us a very long time, and we would need every minute of that 4 hours to even hit our goal of 11AM.

Before reaching the South Rim though, we came across some of the more famous attractions in the canyon: The Colorado River and the Silver Bridge, which crosses the river at around mile 16.

We hit the proverbial wall at mile 21 a little after 9AM. There were a lot more day hikers on this side of the canyon, so it made running that more difficult on the narrow sections of the South Rim climb.

I was still with Ryan, with Dave and Dane in tow about 20-30 minutes behind us. Ryan was struggling a bit on the South Rim switchbacks, but I wasn't in much better shape myself.

I had run out of water, and didn't bother to re-fill at the last water station with about a mile to go. I was being foolish thinking that it was only a mile.

The temperature was now easily in the 80's, and we had been in the sun's direct line of sight for the past hour or so.

Every step of the 3500 foot climb became to the top became a chore, especially on the steps with the wide landings built to accommodate the many pack animals that traverse these trails. Of course, they also had the right of way whenever you came up on them.

On a side note, be weary of all the donkey dropping and piss pools throughout the canyon.

Two hours, and a few prayers later, Ryan and I finally reached the summit of the South Rim at around 10:45AM.

It wasn't long after that that I ran into Brian, his lovely wife, and his dad who were hauling around enough food to feed an army!

It was definitely the best PB&J's that I've ever had. This made up for all of the crappy support down below during this race. Who organized this thing?!

I took my time changing my socks, refilled my Camelbak, and took a few extra food supplies from Brian for the return trip. Ryan did the same, and he looked ready to head back down as soon as possible. I've seen and experienced that look before when you reach the halfway point of an ultra run. No matter how shitty you felt 20 minutes early, once you hit the halfway mark, you're a new person.

I did a once over of my feet and everything looked fine. I went ahead and applied another layer of the miracle cream, Vaseline, on them for the return trip. I was completely covered in Vaseline by this, and it would take at least a week's worth of showers to get all of it. Icky is a word that comes to mind.

The only pain I was feeling were on the tips of my toes, which were throbbing from the long and steep descents. It was mainly because of all the sand that was getting into my sneakers and taking up whatever precious space that remained for my swollen feet.

I already knew that I was going to lose more than a few toe nails from this run just from the pain I was feeling, and we still had to cover 23 miles.

Brian gave us a walkie-talkie for the return trip, and it was small enough to carry, so I didn't mind carrying it even though I had doubts that it would even work in the canyon.

We snapped some photos before I told Brian that it would take us about 8 to 9 hours to get back over to the North Rim, since it took us 6.5 hours for the initial crossing, and that was during the "cool" period and on a relatively easy ascent. He should expect us a little before nightfall.

Ryan and I were now ready to head back into the belly of the beast under the full brunt of the afternoon inferno. The North Rim was waiting for us with an evil smile.

Unfortunately, Ryan and I would soon find out that we would be making the final leg of the R2R2R alone, and under some very precarious circumstances.

This is where, as they say, the plot thickens.

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