Grand Canyon R2R2R
Grand Canyon NP, AZ
The Grand Canyon has been run rim-to-rim-to-rim many times by many runners before me — there’s nothing unique about it. Yet despite all the trip reports in existence, not even the most stunning photographs or illustrative storytelling can do this journey justice. Simply put, there are endless reasons why the double-crossing is widely considered a “must-do” or “bucket-list” run, and Saturday I finally got the chance to experience it for myself.
Six great friends of mine carpooled to Durango on Thursday night: Aaron, Brandon, Brenden, Carson, Dakota, and Stephen. After filling up on pancakes Friday morning, we proceeded to canyon country, arriving at the South Rim late in the afternoon. Cold, gusty winds, however, had beat us there, and seemed to warn of the approaching snowstorm forecast overnight. We’d already all taken time from work for this trip, so we were going to go through with it rain, snow, or shine.
We all agreed that getting psyched for an all-day run would be difficult upon shivering through a wintry night outdoors, so we canned our camping plans and opted instead to cram sardine-like into a small rim-side motel. Tired from our travels and anxious for the long (and potentially miserable) day ahead, lights went out by 8pm and I tossed and turned in interrupted sleep while winds howled outside, whipping fresh snow against the motel window.
My alarm sounded at 5am, but I was already wide awake (did I even sleep?). I peeked through the blinds to verify the nasty conditions (yep, it snowed), then proceeded to suit up in several layers, load my pack with food (gels, Clif bars, and Tootsie Rolls), flashlight, several pairs of gloves, then wash down a few PB and Nutella tortillas with warm coffee before stepping out into the fridgid winter scene. The car thermometer read 26 degrees, warmer than the forecast 19, but moot seeing as the wind chill felt much lower.
The twenty minutes we spent waiting for the damn shuttle bus proved to be the coldest, most miserable part of the day. When it finally arrived, we rode it to the South Kaibab trailhead where we disembarked and immediately began to descend the icy trail before us. Dakota was off in a flash, wasting no time in his pursuit of Dave Mackey’s R2R2R record (a stout 6:59), and within minutes he was out of sight altogether. The rest of us stuck together for the 6.5 mile drop to the river and engaged in much whooping, hollering, bursting into song, and simply basked in the incredible natural beauty all around us.
No more than 1500 ft below the rim, conditions improved dramatically. Treacherous ice turned to mud puddles and the biting wind eased. When I stopped to peel off some layers, I no longer concerned myself with the cold, but instead began to realize just how fortunate I was to be amidst such undescribable beauty and amongst such great comraderie. Unsurprisingly, we reached the river in no time and, after a brief respite, split into two smaller groups: Brenden, Carson, and Aaron would stick together while Brandon, Stephen and I pushed for the North Rim.
The three of us proceeded into the meat of the run: a 6000 ft climb to the North Rim over ~14 miles of trail. Much of this section is surprisingly runnable, so the three of us ambled onward yammering on all topics of conversation. Before long, Dakota flew past us in the other direction, still on record-setting pace — I’d nearly forgotten he was out there and shamefully missed the photo op.
About 10 miles from the river we reached Cottonwood campground where the grade steepens dramatically. We caught another trio of runners on their own R2R2R attempt — two women and one guy (Ted Mahon, whom I’ve never before met but seems to be a great guy) — as we once again approached the snow line. The amount of slush through which we trudged seemed to affirm that the North Rim indeed stands a good 1000 ft higher than the South Rim. Despite this, it was surprisingly calm when we reached the trail’s terminus. With half the run now behind us we briefly celebrated, snapped a few photos, chowed down some food, then proceeded back toward the river content in knowing the double-crossing was ours… assuming we could make it back across the canyon once more!
We cruised the lengthy descent all the way back to the river at a rather brisk pace, not because we felt great, but because it would likely be our last opportunity to really “run” — the final climb would undoubtedly be a struggle. As with the first descent, the snow diminished and we found ourselves once again amidst green plants and a warm breeze. At some point I managed to fumble my poor camera, sending it tumbling down the trail before me, thus ending its short (but exciting!) life. Here’s the final snapshot:
When we at last reached the river for the second time, we’d already put 40 tough miles behind us — but one climb yet remained. Needless to say, the three of us felt tired and, in wordless agreement, opted to press forth up the Bright Angel trail at a slower, steadier pace. I figured even at a modest hiking pace we’d still reach the South Rim before sundown.
The sun sank lower as we climbed, soon shading us in shadows cast by massive rock walls. We reapplied our layers as the temperature dropped and the winds picked up. Up and up; one switchback after another — for a time they seemed endless. Will we ever reach the top? Just when I thought we might be out until dark, the final stretch came into view. In just under 10.5 hours we’d crossed the big ditch twice, and returned in one piece — a solid day indeed.
As soon as we reached the rim, we proceeded directly to the rim-side bar to enjoy a few pints of Grand Canyon stout. We reunited with the others and peppered Dakota with questions about his insane run. Somehow he’d managed to hold it together the entire way, and wound up smashing the old FKT record by a solid 5 minutes — what a freaking maniac!
Looking back I want to mention three things. First, Dakota Jones has earned my utmost respect — the dude works hard and his performance shows it. Playing a role in his FKT run was an absolute honor; congrats on the record man! Second, of the six other guys on this trip, Carson is the only one whom I’ve known longer than a year, but already they all feel like lifelong friends to me. I guess when you get a bunch of similarly-aged, like-minded young guys together and set out to do something that most of their peers have no interest in doing (running ultramarathons), they’re bound to get along. Finally, if you run, do this run. The Grand Canyon is an absolute classic and I’d encourage any runner to make the pilgrammage. It’s tough — a post-graduate challenge no doubt — but undeniably worthwhile.
Lastly, I want to thank Brandon for taking so many incredible pictures. Click here to view the full set.