Sunday, December 11, 2011

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike

I completed the Rim to Rim back in October with two buddies, and figured it was about time to do a write up on it.  While words (or even pictures) can't do the Grand Canyon any justice, I want to capture some of the adventure while it's still somewhat fresh in my mind.  This will certainly be a long post, as this was an epic trip.

The idea to try for a Rim to Rim started all the way back in may during the Badlands adventure in South Dakota.  The Red Fox and I talked about it, decided we wanted to go for it.  The fall of 2011 was the chosen as the target, because it typically provides the best hiking weather.  Planning in earnest started in July.  We decided on doing the hike in 3 sections, spending two nights in the Canyon.  You can apply for the permits starting 4 months out, which we did, and still the first one was shot down.  Luckily the second application was successful, and with our 3 person backcountry permit in hand we were able to finalize the travel plans.  My friend Josh locked in the third spot, and so the expedition was officially formed.

The challenge in doing a Rim to Rim is of course, getting transportation around the Canyon.  Belatedly we decided next time we would just do the Rim to Rim to Rim and avoid the problem altogether!  But in the end, we just forked over $80 dollars a head for the Trans-Canyon shuttle, which also required advanced registration since regular shuttle service stops after Oct. 15.  Likewise, reservations for a campsite on the South Rim, and a lodge for the final day were made.  Even four months out, choices were slim.  But luckily we obtained an open campsite at the Mather campground, and one night as the Maswick lodge for the end of the trip.

Sunday Oct 16
We boarded a Southwest flight from BWI to Phoenix (surprisingly there aren't that many airports near the canyon, unless you want to pay big bucks).  We got our rental SUV and bombed north, arriving at the South Rim after a 4 hour drive.

We played tourist for a little while, checked out some overlooks and generally got the lay of the land.  We located our campsite at the Mather Campground, then loaded up on some food to cook over the campfire.  We spend that night out under the stars.

Monday Oct 17
I didn't get much sleep that night, and climbed out of my sleeping bag about about an hour before dawn.  Soon everyone was up, and we loaded up our packs for the short drive over to the Backcountry visitor center.  We left our car there, and walked a half mile to the Bright Angel Lodge where the shuttle would pick as up.  We got one more look from the overlook at steep climb we would be making in just a few days.

After a short wait, the shuttle arrived.  We loaded up our packs, a couple bags of food, and two bundles of firewood we planned on using up that night (the North Rim in about 1000 feet higher in elevation, and much colder).  The drive around the canyon to the North Rim took just under 5 hours with a couple of stops for fuel, including one at a bridge over the Colorado.

We stopped for some quick pictures in the blinding sun, then back in the shuttle we went for the last leg.  The scenery changed steadily, and we marveled at Arizona's awesome landscapes.  It was somehow different from all the other adventures we had been on, even the relatively close Utah.  Eventually the desert gave way to forest as we closed in on the North Rim.  We entered the park, and were dropped off at the abandoned check-in center.  We quickly gathered up our gear and heading into the campground.

After staking a claim at a campsite (all facilities were shutdown for the winter, so it was first come first serve), we had a quick snack then began exploring the rim while walking towards Bright Angel Point.  There we spent a while chatting with an off duty park guide and a gentleman who seemed for all intents and purposes to be a professional hiker.  He proved a wealth of information about the canyon, and also offered up some other lesser known hikes to check out for future adventures.

On hiking back to our site, we found our food stores had been raided by marauding ravens!  We lost a total of about 7 or 8 mountain house dinners.  Luckily I had stashed my share of the food supplies in Jake's tent before heading off.  The other guys had a few snacks left.  We had just enough food for that night, and the next night.  At this point, there was nothing to be done, there was quite literally only one way out and back to civilization, and that was down through the Canyon.  We enjoyed a fire using the wood we had brought and some leftover from departed campers.  Ate a hot dinner and then hunkered down for the night, anxious to began our journey in the morning.  The remote and empty North Rim gave an even more spectacular view of the starry sky then had the South Rim.  This night I opted to sleep under my tarp since the wind was picking up.

Tuesday Oct 18th

The night was pretty chilly, but clear and dry.  As usual I tossed and turned, never quite able to get comfortable with just my thin sleeping pad, but I stayed plenty warm.  We awoke just before dawn for a bite of breakfast, then quickly broke camp and began hiking north towards the North Kaibab Trail Head.  The weather couldn't have been better, with just a hint of chill in the air and clear sunshine overhead.  We saw just a few other campers beginning to stir as we left the North Rim Campground behind.

Arriving the the North Kaibab TH, we took a moment to check out what we were in for, but didn't tarry long.  The beginning of ~7 mile hike down was mostly in the shade as we worked our way through the switchbacks.  Breaks in the foliage came often, giving us awesome views of the Canyon and the lower points of the trails.

The trail was fairly wide and sandy, with occasional rocky bits.  I was using hiking poles for the first time, which at first seemed like a cop-out, but as we cruised down the switchbacks the poles took the brunt of the impact instead of my knees.

We passed several groups of hikers as we made our descent, and made a detour to Roaring Springs for a break and some lunch of snack bars and apples.  Climbing down further off trail we explored some pools and streams, cooling our heals for a few minutes in the frigid water.

At this point the trail was primarily desert, very canyon-y.  We encounter some small wildlife, many lizards, a snake, and squirrels.  The temperature climbed as we descended, and the blazing sun ensured we sweated constantly.  But it was never miserable, and we encountered constant bits of shade.  I can only image making this hike in the summer months, it truly would be an oven as I had seen described on the park website.

We made good time in reaching Cottonwood Campground, our first 'backcountry' camp site.  Services are minimal at Cottonwood, but it has water and pit toilets.  We spent a few minutes carefully selecting a campsite with some shade, as at this time the sun was fully overhead and beating down on us.  We were probably the first or second campers to arrive, but others quickly flowed into the site.  We explored the nearby Bright Angel Creek, and did some fishing.  Though we saw several Rainbow Trout, we only managed to entice one with out bait.  But it made dragging the cheap Chinese made fishing rod with me worth it!

As usual, the other hikers proved a wealth of information.  After talking about our incident with the Ravens, one hiker told us if we hurried to Phantom Ranch (our next campsite) we could put in our reservations for steak dinners.  Another pair of girls we met had actually run out of food, and Jake kindly gave up some of our meager remaining supplies.  We ate what we had left for dinner that night, and then all three slept out under the stars once again.  The stars and moon were so bright it almost kept us up all night, but it was a gorgeous view.

Wednesday October 19th
The night was mild, almost warm.  Though we didn't sleep a lot once again we were up before the dawn for some breakfast.  We hit the trail before the sun ever reached us, and as it turned out we would spend most of the day in the shade as we descended even lower into the canyon.  Trees were few and far between except right around Bright Angel Creek, but Cacti abounded - and a misplaced foot sent me sprawling into one.  I got to take home a number of souvenirs in my left hand arm, but other than some mild irritation no damage was done.

We passed just a few hikers coming from the south, but none the the Cottonwood caught up to us as we were making a good clip to ensure we had steak for dinner instead of empty bellies.  We still took our time however to enjoy the sights, making a lengthy detour to Ribbon Falls, which from a distance appeared to be a tiny trickle.

Getting closer, it was much bigger then we thought, cutting through the canyon wall, creating a very lush and wet micro-climate.  We spent some time climbing up, around, and behind the falls.  It was amazing to see water oozing out of the rock all around in this tiny canyon, all flowing to the east to join the Bright Angel.  Still having my pack with me, I made a cross country bee-line for the Kaibab trail, while Josh and Jake back-tracked to wear they had stashed their packs.  After fording the Bright Angel creek we met up again and continued our fast walk south.

The trail leveled out while gradually descending, the canyon walls getting closer and higher.  At the lowest elevations the trail was cut right out of the side of the canyon, with the Bright Angel running just next to it.  Large sections of the pathway were covered with rock piles, and the air was quite cool here - the sun never quite touching the canyon floor.


At last we arrived at Phantom ranch, exhausted and sore from the last few miles of hot marching.  Walking into Phantom Ranch was almost like going back in time, and stumbling into a western frontier town.  We dropped our packs in front of the Cantina/General Store.  As luck would have it, they had exactly three steaks left!  We got in our reservations, picked up some snacks and cold beverages to refill our tanks in the meantime.

We wearily shouldered our packs once again, marched south a little less than a mile and picked out a campsite for the night.  Just as we made ourselves comfortable, a train of a dozen mules bearing riders from the North Rim passed by on the other side of the Bright Angel.  More hikers trickled in from both directions, and the site quickly filled up.

Wildlife through the canyon had been abundant, even here mule deer wandered right through camp.  We explored the nearby raft landing beach on the Colorado, encountering more mule deer.  From there we had a good look at the ascent - 9 miles which seemed to go straight up.  Back at camp, we took a quick siesta, and then left plenty early for the walk back to the cantina.  Dinner was served family style, and we hungrily devoured our steaks and all the sides we could get our hands on.  Nothing went to waste!  During dinner, an older woman who had just come down the trail had a feinting spell.  She was alright after a minute, and the proprietor said this was a fairly common occurrence, even in the mild fall months.  Another reminder to rest often and always hydrate!

Laying under the stars once again that night, sleep was elusive.  The moon was as bright as ever, and our neighbors took awhile to quiet down.  Several of the less considerate campers had a bad habit of shining their headlamps with reckless abandon, usually directly in our faces as they stumbled around looking for their campsite.  But after a few hours of shut eye, we were up again just as the sky began to lighten.

Thursday Oct 20th

Tightening down our packs for the last time, we took a few minutes to gather ourselves - then off we went.  The next 9 miles would be a grueling endurance battle.  We crossed the bridge over the Colorado, and quickly reached the switchbacks that would take us up the approximately 6000 foot elevation gain.

Despite the brutal incline we passed many groups of travelers, keeping a good pace until we reached Indian Gardens.  This would be the half way point, a good spot for camping if you want to break the climb in two.  This wasn't in the cards for us however, we merely took a 15 minute break for some snacks and to fill our water bottles.  We chatted up other hikers taking a similar break, some headed up, some down - then to keep from freezing in the chill morning air and shade we got on the move again.

Soon we found the sunlight again, and began the slow steady slog uphill.  We broke the remaining 4.5 miles into thirds, as there was a rest stop every 1.5 miles.  Jake would invariably beat us to each stop, with Josh just a few minutes behind me.  We would regroup, refresh for a few minutes and then begin again.

This climb truly tested my endurance, and I found myself wishing I had spent more time on cardio training.  The closet thing I have to compare it to is the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, which I thought was actually easier, but the descent there left me a total wreck.  The hiking poles had saved me from serious muscle damage on the North Rim Descent, but the relentless uphill struggle of the South Rim was truly exhausting.  Every step was a test to keep moving.  But we did, all three reuniting at the top for much deserved congratulations.