Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fall in the Grand Canyon

My dad and I have created a tradition around hiking across the Grand Canyon in one day during the second weekend in October. Our first trip together was in 2004, with a group of my dad's friends. Back then, rim-to-rim was a daunting prospect — 25 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing under possibly intense heat. I trained specifically for the outing, mostly by hiking to peaks in the Stansbury Mountains and riding my touring bike up a canyon in the Oquirrhs (I lived in Tooele, Utah, at the time.) The night before, in our hotel room on the North Rim, I was so anxious I hardly slept. We started more than an hour before sunrise. It was a hot day, unseasonably so. A few people in our group showed early signs of heat exhaustion near the Colorado River. A thermometer at Indian Gardens read 105 degrees. But by the time we emerged, I was sore, fatigued, and wholly absorbed by the beauty and vastness of the Grand Canyon. We've made a solid effort to go back nearly every year since.

The great thing about traditions is that you can return to them with expectations unchanged, even as every other aspect of life shifts and evolves. After seven years, 25 miles isn't such a daunting distance anymore. The other R2R hikers in the original group have mostly dispersed. My dad and I have experienced absolutely perfect weather, torrential rain and even minor flash flooding in the Grand Canyon. Much has changed, but I still love going back and making the annual crossing with my dad. It's my favorite tradition.

And the great thing about our Grand Canyon tradition is that no two crossings are ever the same. You never know what the Grand Canyon will dish out during the second weekend in October. During our first hike, we experienced triple digits. This year, there was snow.

The massive cold front that rolled over the West last week dropped a couple of inches of powder on the North Rim above 8,000 feet. I prepared for winter conditions, even nearly packing my microspikes before I decided that amounted to excessive preparation. On Thursday, we left Salt Lake City and drove through several wet blizzards and icy conditions across central Utah. But by the time we hit Jacob Lake, the clouds were beginning to clear, and the emerging sunlight revealed golden aspen leaves and pine needles dusted with snow.

That evening, we watched the sunset from Imperial Point, where I slipped on a patch of ice and nearly fell into oblivion while walking along the rim to take photographs.

Temperatures were in the mid-20s when we started our hike from the North Rim on Friday morning. I love that I'm wearing all my high-tech winter stuff — Patagonia micro puff jacket, Goretex shell and windstopper gloves, and my dad is wearing work gloves and a cotton sweatshirt that I brought home from girls' camp in 1992. That white towel is his sweat rag. He never had to use it.

It was such a gorgeous morning. I've walked down the Grand Canyon five times now, and it never ceases to stun me.

The North Kaibab Trail. Dad and I had to cancel our trip last year after my grandfather died, so this year was my first trip down the Grand Canyon with any experience as a trail runner. I can understand why the rim-to-rim-to-rim run is such a popular thing in ultrarunning circles. Beyond the stunning scenery, the trails themselves are well-built, wide and runnable, almost to a fault. I'd love to try a R2R2R run someday but I have a lot of work to do before my feet are in that kind of shape.

Ribbon Falls. This little spur trail ends at a sparkling, mossy waterfall and is entirely worth the side trip, although in the past we've had a tough time convincing our hiking companions of this. We actually timed the hike this year. Six minutes off the main trail.

This was actually the first year that my dad and I hiked rim-to-rim alone, just the two of us. My dad is a no-nonsense hiker. He likes to stay in motion, and because of this we covered ground quickly. I tend to take more breaks, even when I'm racing, but I enjoy keeping up with my dad's steady motion and solid pace. He can out-hike me any day, and it's always been this way, no matter how much I improve my fitness or how much closer to 60 he gets. (He's 58 years old, and in incredible shape.)

At Phantom Ranch we filled up on water — all 20 ounces or so that I had consumed so far — and enjoyed our annual "lemmy," which is what they call lemonade at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There's a whole resort-style compound down there, with cabins and a dining hall and indoor plumbing. I used to think that kind of thing had to be an anomaly in such a remote setting, but now that I've been to the Alps I no longer think of it as strange.

We marched up the Bright Angel Trail under mostly clear, cool skies. The thermometer at Indian Gardens read 60 degrees, if even that high. I was pleased that for my first time in five Grand Canyon crossings, my feet actually didn't hurt on the final switchbacking ascent. My mom waited for us at the top, where we emerged just before 4 p.m., for a total time of nine and a half hours and a moving time of 8:05. Not bad.

That night, my dad debated hiking back down the canyon to the North Rim the following day. He wanted to wait and see how he felt after the first rim-to-rim crossing before deciding. I would have loved to join him but I had already made prior commitments to pace my friend Danni at the Slickrock 100 on Saturday night, and I needed the day to travel to Moab. (Plus, rim-to-rim-to-rim followed immediately by 43 miles of an ultra-race is just craaaazy.) He wanted to try it but was struggling with very sore feet. During long runs, I often experience agonizing foot pain that goes away completely after just a few hours off my feet, so I speculated that he would feel better in the morning. Sure enough, he got up early Saturday, felt fine, and headed down the South Kaibab Trail. He wrapped it up feeling even better than he had at the end of the day before. It was my dad's first (intentional) dabbling with a kind of "ultra" experience. I wish I could have been there to experience it with him, but he had a great time going solo. Instead my mom and I woke up early and headed back around to Jacob Lake, where I began my drive north into the long night ahead.

A great tradition. It requires early commitment and a lot of planning and arrangement on my parents' part, so I'm not sure if we'll plan a trip for next year or not. But I have no doubt we'll be back again, someday.