Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Still an incredible ditch

It's my favorite tradition — and a strong indicator of where my priorities fall. I've failed to go home for Christmas for six of the past seven years, but I never miss the annual autumn Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike with my dad. 

This year was my seventh trip into the "big ditch," as my friend Dave calls the Colorado River gorge. My first rim-to-rim hike, back in October 2004, was such a daunting prospect that I was awake all night before the hike, nervous that I wouldn't find the strength to climb all the way out of the canyon. I'd done 6,000-foot climbs before that, but never at the end of a long day. My dad and I joined a large group at North Kaibab trailhead in predawn darkness. I remember thinking it was such an incredibly long way down; after fifteen miles, my legs were aching and we were still at the bottom of the canyon. Temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees as we plodded up the Bright Angel Trail. Some of our companions developed bloody nipples and heat exhaustion, and had to submerge themselves in tiny trickles of streams. When we finally reached the South Rim, I plopped down with a Pepsi my mom brought for me, convinced I couldn't possibly take another step. Now, eight years later, a rim-to-rim hike has become something I've convinced myself I can squeeze in less than a week after a hundred-mile mountain run. Even my dad has started talking about doing a double-crossing next year, calling it "the new rim-to-rim." But where some of the challenge has faded, the unbelievable beauty and quality time with my dad has remained. 

 This year we started on the South Rim and worked our way to the north. We were joined by my dad's friends Chad and Ophie, who recently moved from San Francisco to Utah. Chad is a fun guy to spend time with. He and my dad were hiking companions in the 1990s, before Chad moved from Salt Lake City to the Bay Area. Chad was a 2:48 marathoner and a mountaineer aspiring toward Mount Everest (the tragic death of his climbing partner on Mount Whitney put this dream on hold indefinitely.) But Chad is an obvious bad-ass who recently had knee surgery and gained a little weight, so his self-depreciating humor is a continuous source of entertainment. Chad is looking to get into trail running and was actually asking me for advice about training for ultras. Coming from a 2:48 marathoner, I have to say, the notion that I had anything useful to offer was pretty hilarious. But he is a great guy. His wife, Ophie, was quiet but steady. She was nervous about the scope of a rim-to-rim, too, but only seemed to gain strength as she climbed.

 I still had a few lingering physical issues after the Bear 100, including tired climbing legs, extremely sore pinkie toes and a few open blisters. On Thursday night, I spent an hour giving myself a specialized pedicure, filing down my more problematic calluses, moisturizing, and carefully taping my blisters and four toes. This seemed to help a lot. My feet had been my largest concern for getting through the canyon, but they proved to be a minor inconvenience — if you count excruciating pinkie toe pressure pain as a minor inconvenience. I guess I really am developing an ultrarunner mentality.

 We started down the South Kaibab Trail just minutes before the first wave of shuttle bus hikers and runners (we actually saw the bus pull into the parking lot.) Even still, we managed to stay ahead of all but a handful of runners, so we largely had the canyon to ourselves in the morning.

 Although I've considered taking on the popular runner tradition of running across the canyon and back in one day, I'm torn about the notion of a R2R2R. Honestly, I think it would be a fun challenge, but the Grand Canyon is really the type of place where it's even better to take it slow.

 There were, of course, many picture stops along the way.

 Friday was a hot day in the canyon — barely cool before sunrise on the South Rim, and well into the 90s at the river. Having lost all of my heat acclimation since I haven't been in real heat since August, the early afternoon climb in the box canyon was a tough grind for me. Ophie, who is Filipino, continued to wear long pants and long sleeves all day long.

 The bridge across the river.

 The "Black Bridge" was constructed in the 1920s for mule traffic, and remains one of only two bridges across the Colorado River in the entire Grand Canyon. The other is the Silver Bridge, on the Bright Angel Trail less than a mile away. Both are foot- and mule-access only, so shuttle drivers for any rim-to-rim crossing still have to drive more than two hundred miles around the big ditch.

 Climbing out of Bright Angel Canyon. It was really hot here.

So I was stoked to arrive at this place for lunch — Ribbon Falls, my favorite spot on the North Kaibab Trail. (Actually about a half mile off the main trail. So you even get a bonus mile.)

 I spent as much time as I could lingering near this misty alcove. But not too close, unwilling to get my taped-up feet even remotely wet.

 Yay Ribbon Falls

 This was the first time I carried a GPS on a south-to-north crossing, so I never before realized that despite the long, hot grind out of the box canyon, the North Kaibab Trail actually only gains about 2,000 feet total in the first ten miles after Phantom Ranch. The Artist's House below Roaring Springs sits at about 4,500 feet altitude, and from there it's a big grunt to gain another 4,000 feet in five miles. I knew those last five miles were mean! It's not just tired legs that make it seem so.

 We really motored up those last five miles. I was struggling enough to keep the pace that I didn't even stop to take many pictures, for fear my weak legs wouldn't muster the oomph to catch back up to my dad, who can hike really fast. (He may be nearing 60, but I still have to jog sometimes to keep his pace.) We were about a half mile from the top when my dad and I finally stopped at the Coconino Overlook. Chad joined us about three minutes later and staged a comic meltdown, staggering about and dramatically declaring "I got nothing left. I'm seeing stars, cherubs, there's a monkey on a pogo stick!" A lady sitting nearby turned around with a horrified look on her face, believing that Chad was serious. "You're almost there," she sputtered. "Really, you only have about twenty more minutes." Chad's a funny guy.

My mom, our ever-gracious shuttle driver, was waiting for us at the North Kaibab Trailhead. This is such a great tradition and I hope it continues, even if most of my family would probably prefer I come home for Christmas. Thanks, Mom and Dad.