Disclaimer: Don't attempt to hike Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. Don’t even attempt a Rim-to-Rim unless you’re an expert hiker or runner. People die every year at the Grand Canyon. It’s a dangerous and unforgiving place. As powerful as this experience was for me, I want to be clear – Do not attempt this.
The roadtrip was winding down. I had been traveling for 50 days since leaving Colorado, already experiencing over 8000 miles of America – parks, monuments, wilderness, ruins. I had spent 25 nights in the woods, hiked a hundred miles, and, most excitedly, seen 8 new National Parks, bringing my total tally to 30 – 30 of the 59 National Parks, crossing the halfway point on my goal to see all 59 by the time I’m 30. The trip had been mildly epic, but it needed a climax.
I like to finish grand trips in grand fashion – I think it’s disrespectful to the Road to finish a big trip on a tame note. Last March, at the end of a 9,000 mile long roadtrip, I made a questionable decision to go night-hike 20 miles through a thunderstorm, at the location where I initially conceived the idea of the roadtrip. It was the only way the trip could finish.
And now, as this trip was wrapping up, I had come up with an idea for its apex – A Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim traverse of the Grand Canyon. A 45-50 mile endeavor with 20,000 feet of elevation change, descending a vertical mile down to the Colorado River, climbing a vertical mile to the other rim, then repeating. The idea was inspired by Brendan Leonard’s book, The New American Roadtrip Mixtape – Leonard, at the end of a great journey, ran across the Grand Canyon (Rim-to-Rim), and it sounded like a pretty transcendental experience. I was immediately intrigued, but my tight budget couldn’t swing the $100 shuttle between rims. And then it hit me – could I possibly hike Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim? I’d done a couple 40+ miles hikes before (see Balance Through Extremes: The 42 Miler), so I figured I may be able to handle 45+. The idea was conceived, and so it was decided.
Written 9 a.m., Saturday June 4, 2016:
Everything hurts. No, hurts is not the right word, nor is aches, because those words don’t do justice. They don’t encapsulate the intensity of pure exhaustion and weariness I feel. It feels like every part of my body got thrown down a flight of stairs repeatedly (which, in a way, it did). I’ve yet to fully assess my damages, but here’s what we’re looking at:
Blistered feet cry with every step, hammered on rocky soils for 21 hours. My ankles wobble in standing, too tired to balance. I flex my foot and find that my lower leg muscles – calves, sides, fronts – tremble and scream, just as emaciated as my quads and hamstrings which throb and twitch violently even now, 10 hours later. It requires a seriously concentrated effort to do anything besides lay down, my legs dead weights hanging from my stiff hips, which are now profusely misaligned. My core is remarkably sore, reminding me with every breath; my lower back a mess as jacked up as my hips. My chest, upper back, and arms hang dead like my legs, turned into weights after 21 hours of pulling my body up steep climbs and bracing myself down jagged descents. My neck aches, partly from having a pack on all day and partly from keeping my head up for 40 sleepless hours. Even my skin aches; I don’t think there’s a spot on me that’s not scorched, scratched, chaffed, chapped, bruised or bloodied.
My head is simply turned off, eyes aglaze, done in from the sleep deprivation and the intensely focused concentration required to keep me alive, hydrated, fueled, and alert. I’m fairly dehydrated now, my first piss today yellow, caused by a decision to not refill water with 2 miles left despite running low – a decision made largely due to the stingingly cold night air. Though sweat still poured out, I simply didn’t want to stop and pack off, soaked and painfully chilled as the powerful winds shook the trees and my confidence. The fact that I was able to stay hydrated on a day with an excessive heat warning, 108 at canyon bottom, whilst hiking for 21.5 hours, is a feat I’m damn proud of. Anyways, all is well now as I have an electrolyte beverage and coffee, and nothing, absolutely nothing, that I have to do today.
It was truly an epic day, one that I’ll never forget, though one I’ll never remember all too clearly. There’s a certain delirium that settles in after 20 or 30 miles. You become focused only on the trail a few feet ahead, all else passing by peripherally in a blur.
You don’t have enough reserve energy to think, but occasionally a thought will pop up, usually about food, “I could eat 7 pounds of bacon right now”; though sometimes waxing philosophical, “I wonder how many times Bear Grylls has drank his own piss”; or often a lyric from a song you’ve not heard in 15 years, just a portion of it though, skewed by years unheard, now on repeat in your head: “Baby! Hm say hm say hm say Kiss From a Rose hm say hey”.
You develop a rhythm. Push, push, push; check straps - shoulders, chest, waist belt; push, push; sip of water; push, push; check trekking pole length; adjust left one; push, push; sip of water; push, push; bite of Clifbar; push, push; quick glance up to grunt at the surroundings; push, push; check straps….
The delirium experienced on this trip was far beyond any I’d ever experienced. But out of that delirium arose a stillness and clarity; thought and consciousness stripped away by miles underfoot, allowing a surreal connection with the vast landscape. It was a wild experience.
My alarm was set for midnight, but it didn’t have to ring – anxieties and my racing brain, coupled with a torrential wind storm popping at my tent, kept me up. After an hour and a half of rolling around, I looked at the clock. 11 p.m. Fuck it. Time to hit the trail. Apparently this adventure would be undertaken without sleep.
I broke down camp, rechecked my list, dropped trou to apply sunscreen (quite an odd action) then shook up some cheap instant coffee in my Nalgene as I cranked up the Corolla. My campsite was an hour from the trailhead, and the ride was anxiety-riddled. I worried as I navigated the piss-poor gravel roads in pitch black, my third white-knuckle drive of the day. I worried, since I was permitless, about what to say at the entrance station or if I saw a ranger. I worried about forgetting something critical. I worried about whether I could handle this.
I turned off my music and meditated on the peace of the evening; the midnight sounds and cool air coming through the windows soothed me. Upon reaching better road conditions, feeling more relaxed, I switched on Astral Weeks and housed breakfast - 2 bananas and a Clifbar. The entrance station was rangerless, a relief. The GC requires a permit for overnight hiking – I technically didn’t need one since I wasn’t camping; I was just getting an alpine start. A really early alpine start. Either way, I didn’t want to argue semantics with a ranger.
I cranked up the volume, switching to pump-up jams I’d be fine with having stuck in my head for the next 20 hours. R Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ may or may not have been played.
I arrived at the trailhead, swigged the last of my cold coffee, grimaced, started the GPS, and started hiking into the Grand Canyon. It was 12:56 a.m.
It was remarkably cold at the rim, 41°, a solid 10° colder than my camp, but I heated up quickly. As I dropped into the canyon, temperatures rose – a residual warm air blew, the sun-quenched rocks releasing their daily harvest. I dropped out of longjohns within 3 miles and I was shirtless within 5. I was making decent time, though the darkness of a New Moon wasn’t helping, and, after 5 miles, would trip me up.
“Dammit where is the trail? Ok, left or right? Left is more promising I guess. Oh whoa this leads to a building? Does it go past it? Is this a trail? Shit. OK how about this? Ugh, doesn’t seem like it either. Ok let’s go check the right.“
A missed sign and an hour lost. A mile and a half detour with valuable time wasted looking for a trail where there wasn’t one. I realized it as soon as I compared the map and my GPS. I had taken a wrong turn. Dammit. I turned around and started hiking back up the hill. By 4 a.m. I was 9 miles in, dismayed from the time lost. The next hour, however, completely lifted my spirits.
I began to make out the canyon’s forms as the sun rose beyond the horizon, the light bouncing off the walls, onto my path and into my pace.
As the grand provider rose behind me, a grandiose scene developed; I could finally see the monumental walls, steep and fiery in the morning rays; the canyon floor lit up vibrantly, all vegetation glowing in the morning bliss. I felt my surroundings were as alive as I was; the morning dew on the radiant petals just as vivacious as the sweat dripping from my brow. I felt connected. I broke out into a run.
It was a perfect moment, one of the emotional highs of the trip, really of my life. Flat ground flew beneath my feet as I reverently studied my surroundings. The trail crossed a bridge and continued alongside a bubbling streambed, ‘Streamline Promenade’ as Van Morrison would put it. I passed a human for the first time around 5 and remarked on how beautiful the day already was. “Best part of the day” he agreed. Right he was. Right he was. I was feeling great, damn ready for the challenge, though the notorious heat had yet to arrive. The next 10 hours were about to heat up.