Bradley's View

Bradley's View

Friday, April 5, 2013

Grand Canyon: Renegade R2R2R

             Before I begin, I should probably define a few things: R2R2R= Rim to rim to rim, it refers to a double traverse of the Grand Canyon.  The route we planned on taking would be about 46 miles with about 11,000 ft of vertical gain.  Renegade= one who defies social norms or conventional behavior.  This is not your average trip to the Grand Canyon.
            We left Leadville later than we’d hoped, around 11pm.  We creeped slowly at first due to a snowstorm.  Everyone was weary from their respective days, but a buzz of excitement gave life and energy to the snugly spacious truck.
            We took our turns driving; gripping the wheel, adjusting the a/c, watching for deer, and humming along to music until our eyes gave out.  Then it was on to the next person.  Sleep was hard to come by.  I probably got 3 or 4 hours, at most.  We passed by Durango, the Four Corners, and Everett Ruess’ beloved Kayenta, before the sun rose.  In our insomnia-induced delirium, we laughed and chatted as Jerry Garcia encouraged us to keep “Truckin’” on the final approach to the park.

Ryan, Jamie, and Mike upon arrival at the park.
            A visit to the backcountry office in hopes of obtaining overnight permits bore no fruit, which meant Ryan and I would have to push as deeply into the canyon as we could in the afternoon; far away from the crowds, the laws, and the luxuries.  We were bandits whose cash and jewels were the experience of a lifetime, our horses were our legs, and our guns were nothing more than smiles, positive words, and dastardly good looks.
            Starting after 11am was less than ideal, but our need to cover ground left us with little time to contemplate our circumstances.  On the initial descent of the Bright Angel Trail, we felt like asses.  Really though, we weren’t so different from the burros, who left their corrals on the South Rim just to be herded into the bottleneck of the canyon’s switchbacks.  For the first mile we may have passed a dozen people every switchback.
View from early in the descent of Bright Angel Trail.
            I found it easy, at first, to resent the crowds.  But in the midst of both forlorn faces and confident children, I began to marvel at the situation.  I contemplated the success of this particular National Park; it’s campgrounds are booked nearly all year, to the point that some reservations must be made over a year in advance.  It speaks for the beauty of the place, really, that so many people are willing to push themselves physically and mentally in a way they never have all in pursuit of coming to know the canyon and bearing witness to it’s awe-inspiring form.
Bright Angel Trail
            As we wound down into the ditch, the greens became vibrant, and purple and red flowers projected a new aura of life in the landscape.  Spring was in the air at Indian Gardens Campground.  The sun, however, was ready for summer.  Searing our faces, the sun lashed out it’s warnings.  Nowhere does one feel so safe in the shadows as  in a canyon.
            The descent wore on and the crowds wore thin.  Then, we were greeted by the roar of the mighty Colorado.  The waters were painted brown from hundreds of miles of travel and moved with a graceful maliciousness.
The Colorado River
            We re-upped our water supply at Phantom Ranch and settled, snacking in the shade, to let the worst of the sun’s wrath pass us by before moving on.  In moving beyond the bustling canyon community, we also moved beyond the average soul's threshold for adventure.  The trail was ours alone, though a multitude of lizards scurried about.  They hoped to stake their claim on any sunny section they could find.  Shaded in the Inner Canyon, we moved with ease, never falling more than a step off pace.

Many bridge are used to navigate the canyon without disturbing Bright Angel Creek
            A couple of hours of hugging the creek moved by like a dream; every corner we turned unveiled another distant spire looming up to a mile overhead.  They stood like torches, bright red at the tops in the fading sun.  Our appetites were heavy in tow when we arrived at the Cottonwood Campground.  We refueled, spotted an empty campsite, and kicked our feet up.
            The night was warm and still, and the stars outlined the canyon’s rim.  We had covered 16 miles over the course of about 7 hours, including some substantial breaks.  We were 7 miles and 4,200 ft from the North Rim, and we were tired.  Tired from the drive, the lack of sleep, the sun, and the packs on our backs.  We slept soundly, smiling.   We rose at 5:30, barefoot and shirtless in the cool morning air.  We snacked briefly, laughed about the 30 mile day we were about to begin, filled our water and set off.  A couple of miles later we had some more breakfast in the face of Roaring Falls.  We hiked at a strong clip, giving due time to the snapping of photographs, and the general marveling at scenery that is impossible not to do on that trail.  The Supai Tunnel, 1.7 miles from the top, had collapsed in the past year since I’d been there.  The ecosystem shifted dramatically in the ascent.  The cacti relinquished their reign, giving way to the towering pines and aspens, majestic on the soft forest floor.

Hiking up from Roaring Falls

Ryan, arriving at the North Rim's trailhead
It was so still.  It was just as I’d left it a year before.  The same sounds predominated the plateau; the needles of the ponderosas chattered in the gentle breeze, the endemic Kaibab squirrels scurried and soared between tree branches providing the erratic percussive rhythm, which called to mind reminders of spring despite the presence of the snow.  The forest road that connects the North Rim to the rest of the world is closed in April.  The solitude is an incredible contrast to the hustle and bustle of the South Rim and it’s trails.   7 miles were done for the day and 23 remained.
We took our shirts off, kicked our feet up, and enjoyed snacks for a half hour or more.  A man from Lake Tahoe paused his run at the trailhead as well, we shared chit-chat, uncovered a couple of mutual friends, and said our farewells.  Though we had a long way to go, we were in incredibly high spirits.  You find it is hard not to be when surrounded by such otherwise unfathomable grandeur.  A little ways up from the Supai Tunnel, Mike and Jamie made their appearance.  The wear of the sun had started to show a little bit on their skin, but their smiles shined brighter still.  Over the next couple of miles, we passed three other folks out for R2R2Rs, two of whom were sure to have a very long day. 
N. Kaibab Trail
Redwall Bridge, N. Kaibab Trail
Ryan and I had a great time coming down, speculating on the engineering feats involved in the construction of the North Kaibab Trail back in the 1920s.  The trail is nothing but switchbacks, short and long, built into the walls of Roaring Spring Canyon, and one picturesque bridge leaping the depths of the gorge.

Ryan (lower left) on the N. Kaibab Trail

Tunnels of Juniper and Pines welcomed us back to Roaring Falls, which plummets dramatically out of the wall of the canyon into the junction with Bright Angel Creek.  We were moving well when we reached the campsite we’d left nearly six hours prior.  We loaded the tent and our sleeping bags we had stowed away back into the packs and settled in for another round of snacking, you can never do too much snacking if you’re hiking for the long-haul.
At 12:10 we donned the packs again and got our feet moving.  We looked over our shoulders all the while for Jamie and Mike to come bounding down the trail.  The heat was heavy.  It neared 95, I’m sure, but the breeze helped ease the pain.  When you’re running long and hard a little too much heat at the long time can really put a stick in your spokes.  The walls of the canyons rose higher and closed in tighter.  The shade was prolonged when it came, and it graced us with its presence more frequently.  The refreshment of the wind in our faces motivated us forward more effectively than if it had been in our backs.  We began to see day hikers by the dozen, Phantom Ranch was approaching.  In the heat of the day, the place was silent; I thought it a quintessential scene of the wild west: the bully comes to town, people run indoors seeking cover, peering out from their shades desperately wanting to witness the spectacle while keeping their safe distance.  Only in this case, it wasn’t some bad man with a caravan of robbers, it was Mother Nature.
Ryan, canyon creeping

It was a bit after two, later in the day than we had hoped to cross the river, but we were there.  There were others, too, far less prepared, who were yet to begin their late afternoon hike and were destined for the darkness. 
Mike and Jamie arrived shortly after us.  The heat had been unkind, and the experience unforgettable.  Mike took off up the trail, while Jamie elected to stay in our company for the ascent of the Bright Angel Trail.
We crossed the bridge and headed west along the Colorado for a taxing couple of miles.  I played a game on the dusty track; I followed Mike’s fresh and distinctive footprints in a light gait, attempting to emulate his every maneuver over rocks and around bends.  It kept me thoroughly entertained for about ten minutes as I marveled in how similarly Mike and I approached the dance of trailrunning.
A gentleman, maybe in his 70s, was walking east to the Bright Angel Campground.  The sun and sand had taken their toll, we wanted to keep moving, but couldn’t resist a cordial ‘hello’ in what may have been the least amicable exchange I engaged in all trip.
“Great day to be out here, isn’t it!”, I said
“Oh, absolutely.  Did you guys take a swim in the river?”, he replied.  We grunted a collective ‘no’.  None of the four of us broke stride for more than a second.
Another ten minutes passed and we looked at each other, discussed briefly, and decided that the man we’d all but ignored was really on to something.  Into the river we went, walking on the softest sand, as deep as we each dared to go.  I looked up at the canyon walls.  I imagined myself as a speck on a map of great scale, a little dot in the middle of an unparalleled geological phenomena.  I thought of the impossibility of it all.  I laughed and grinned with enough force to nearly split my sunworn lips right down the middle.
We slipped our feet, which had been dried quickly by the sun, back into our shoes and our backs back into our packs.  We passed many people, who, judging by their pace, would likely be spending a couple of hours hiking by starlight before it was all said and done.  We made it to the Indian Garden Campground, another water stop, 4.6 miles and 3,000 ft to the summit from there.  I felt like I had a score to settle with the sun; after it’s incessant torment the past two days in the canyon corridors, it was trying to escape at the time that I most desired it.  I hiked hard. I wanted to catch the sun, look at it as it disappeared, and plea to receive it’s respect. 
I bid adieu to Jamie and Ryan at the watering hole and began the final push up to the top.  I was in the zone, really.  I did the four-legged dance, each stroke and setting of my trekking poles was deliberate and efficient.  My legs churned and burned.  My heartrate elevated and settled to the pulse I was familiar with from the 100,000 feet worth of 14ers I’d ascended in the past year.  It is a very happy place for me, an intense kinetic meditation that drains me and fills me unlike anything else.
I reached the 3 mile marker and set a goal: 1 hour to the top. All the while, I knew if I could do it in 54 minutes, I would have completed my 30 mile day in under 12 hours, which would be gratifying, though fleeting in the big scheme of things.
When it came time to pass people, I lowered my heartrate to an effective level for conversing, and attempted to engage briefly with everyone.  In between passerbys, I moved up the canyon walls like a four-legged spider hoping to weave a web between these people, binding them by their common experiences in this place of bewildering beauty.
I got to the top.  I cried at the splendor of my circumstances and that place; to be so humbled and made to feel so small can be as painful as it is special.  But sometimes, in those moments, you feel like you’re just small enough to fit in somewhere in this wild world.
I checked the clock, it was 6:10. I glanced at the sun, maybe it acknowledged me.  Mike and Little Debbie met me (yes, the snacks).  We exchanged stories of our final hours in the canyon since we’d last seen each other, and sought out a perch by the rim.  Several switchbacks below we saw Ryan and Jamie, like heroes to us in the setting sun.  Ryan came at the canyon with only trivial training in the preceding months, but brought enough enthusiasm for the endeavor to fuel his mind and spirit if his body were to fail.  Jamie completed her longest run to date- nearly doubled it, on grueling terrain.  She felt a low she’d never felt and overcame it gracefully.  Mike did what Mike does; the dude is tough, but not calloused.  I have a lot of respect for these people and delight in their friendship.
Mike sits trying to take it all in after a successful R2R2R run
A meal at the resort’s lodge brought us back to the harsh realities of the National Park System.  People buzzed about the rim’s hive of life, most seemed cranky either because they were tired of being with their families, tired of hiking, or both.  The food was far better in our mind’s eye.
We began driving around 10:00 PM.  11 hours later, and a few states away, another renegade run was completed.

The Grand Canyon is, to me, the most magnificent place in the world.  Perhaps there will be another that moves me in that way, maybe not; but I intend to find out.  Whenever I find myself in a place of astounding beauty, my mind always wanders to thoughts of my family and friends that I love most and how badly I wish to experience with them. 


  1. Jon, this is a well-written recap of awesome adventure. Thanks for sharing. Also, I like your CAT route (which sorta resembles a treble clef on the NC map inside my head). Let me know when you'll be rolling thru Brevard. Happy and safe travels east. Cheers

  2. Awesome write up Jon, I would love to do the R2R2R one day.

  3. beautiful piece of work jon. can't wait for you to get out here and do another r2r2r, but in a slightly less deep ditch.