Man, that one hurt. Do not underestimate the canyon. The traditional rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R) trail consists of 44 miles and 11,000 ft of vertical gain/loss (equates to a little over 900 flights of stairs) South Kaibab → North Rim → South Kaibab.
Leaving South Rim around 5am, the sheer force of the initial descent into the canyon tore down my legs far faster than I was hoping or anticipating. Shuffling through Phantom Ranch (7mile mark) a shade before 6:30am as the sun began to creep over the canyon walls, I was thankful for what little pieces of shade I knew were soon to disappear. Hitting the half marathon mark as temperatures increased dramatically and my pace slowed with each minute that passed, I had a feeling I might be for a long day, having yet to start the hike out of North Rim.
Upon arriving at North Rim five hours after departure, I was faced with the question of “Do I wave the white flag and take the 4.5hr/250mi bus ride back around the canyon to South Rim, or see if I can suffer my way back through the canyon?” After a brief break and sharing my attempt with fellow hikers at the trailhead, I was instilled with a false sense of confidence that I would be able to make my way back down to the base and out of South Rim prior to nightfall.
The forecasted temperature for the day was around 90° and little was I expecting when I dropped back down into the canyon from North Rim around 12pm that air temperature would exceed 105° and the dirt temp would touch 130°, making every step something of a nightmare. It’s quite easy to lose track of fluid/electrolyte intake on any run, and particularly in arid climates where your sweat evaporates in an instant, leading to dehydration and cramps at an unbearable magnitude.
The 7 mile stretch between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch in “the box” depleted my muscles to a state of refusal as I stumbled my way into Phantom around 2:30 pm having drug myself through the last couple of hours with an insufficient 2L of water. With my sense of hearing and vision skewed from any sense of normalcy, I’m forever grateful for the kindness and hospitality of employees, park rangers, and complete strangers who were quick to offer their assistance (food, supplies, etc.) and companionship to an individual they knew had misjudged what a R2R2R effort would require at this time of year.
After a few hours of rest, buckets of ice water, lemonade, and salty snacks, I slowly began to feel myself again. However, the relentless cramping that ensued for the entire night and guidance from nearly everyone at camp, I came to the realization that any attempt to hike out that night would be an impossibility — leading to an overnight stay at the ranch with a sleeping bag and mat provided by the rangers. Just as many say it’s impossible to take a photo or tell a story that justifies the full scope and size of the canyon, laying down that night I felt a similar feeling looking up and seeing every bit of the sky illuminated by a number of stars that is still difficult to comprehend.
Around 3:00am, my alarm rang and it was time to begin the hike out, avoiding the relentless heat that was certain to come once the sun arose again. The hike out proved to be the most painstaking 3.5 hours of the double-crossing, climbing from ~2,000ft of elevation to ~7,000ft in just under 7 miles, finding solace in counting my steps to 100 and back down, hundreds of times — eventually arriving back at the South Rim where the attempt began roughly 26 hours before.
If you’re willing to listen, the canyon is full of lessons. “What can I do differently next time, what would have happened if, would I have been able to”. While I never expected things to perfectly according to plan, the foresight to see a setback such as this was never in consideration. The beauty of trails is that there is always room for improvement and I can’t wait to get back to test myself in the canyon again.