Sunday, September 5, 2010

Grand Canyon R2R2R run

The Grand Canyon was slightly out of the way, but considering that we didn't visit it last year when we were exploring the whole rest of the state of Arizona, it seemed like it was "about time" to return to this natural wonder. I suggested heading to the North Rim, which John heartily endorsed. He suggested a "Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim" run (40+ miles), and I agreed that it would be excellent training for our upcoming races and a wonderful way to see parts of the canyon. So it was settled.

We found a beautiful dispersed camping spot just south of Jacob Lake, in the woods to the west of the road. Just far enough off the road that we could barely hear the traffic, but still an easy drive in with Howie. We slept really well there. Of course that might have had something to do with the mileage on our legs the second night!

We decided to start dang early to try to get to the bottom (the first time) by around 7 a.m. This involved waking up dang early and driving a few miles in the dark, again, dang early. Apparently the BUFFALO don't think 3:30 a.m. is "dang early" because they were hanging out on the road! John managed some excellent braking and we were very lucky not to hit any of the big animals. Not even a little baby buffalo (which isn't so little, really). Phew. Enough to wake you up without coffee!

Another group was also at the trailhead, but we passed them as we started our run down the North Kaibab Trail. It was calm and peaceful running with a light. For some reason, I enjoy running in the dark. John moved on ahead to go at his own pace. He had plans to see a few extra miles of trails (Tonto, for one thing) and we planned to meet up on the South Rim for lunch, if everything worked out.

I couldn't see down beside the trail, but I sensed that there was a bit of a drop-off in places. So I took it real easy for the first several miles. No problems down to the creek, past the first campground, and toward the gorge.

Unfortunately, while glancing up to look at the moon making a silhouette of the terrain, I managed to turn my right ankle but good. Usually I come away with a slight temporary hobble from these "ankle strengthening exercises" but this time it seemed worse than that. After walking it off it still hurt a bit. I decided to go to the bottom, try the uphill, and if that hurt then I would turn around and make my way back up North Kaibab since I had plenty of time to get to the truck. Downhill wasn't great, but it was a nice grade and I tried not to stress too much over the ankle issue as I continued through the gorge.

One of the nice bridges over the creek:


It was fun running through Phantom Ranch and seeing the morning activity with hikers and mules milling about.

A view of the bridge on the way to Bright Angel Trail:


It's the Colorado River again! We sure are seeing a lot of it this year, and it looks different every time.


I passed quite a few hikers who were starting their journey back uphill from Phantom Ranch. It was a nice cool morning in the shade. I was liking (at the moment) the strategy of starting the R2R2R challenge from the North Rim.

An interesting snake on the trail:


My ankle felt fine on the uphill, yay! I decided to go ahead and make the climb to the South Rim, assuming I could get down again somehow.

The sun was starting to shine, but I spent much of the climb (until the last 3 miles or so) in the shade. Very nice.


Above Indian Gardens, looking at the big wall that the trail somehow has to get through:


Toward the last water spigot, I noticed a helicopter in the distance. It started coming closer, so I stopped with a few other people to watch.


Then I saw this guy who was obviously waiting for a delivery. Talk about being the right place at the right time to watch this!


I dodged some chopper wind and found a good vantage point for an up-close helicopter experience:


Bye chopper!! That was VERY cool:


The hike up went really well, I made good time, and eventually came through a tunnel near the top:


It was interesting being mostly alone for the first couple hours, then seeing overnight hikers, and then finally mixing in with the tourists coming down from the top of the South Rim. I chased a mule train up from the very bottom, getting closer when they took breaks and getting behind when they were moving. I finally caught them almost at the top - cool!

There was a large bird soaring around near the top of the rim, and I finally realized (with some help from another hiker) that it was a condor. Totally awesome! I watched it for a while and also saw a couple ravens doing acrobatic tricks. Maybe they were competing for attention. One of them *might* have done a barrel roll like we saw a raven do in Moab. Ravens and condors are cool.

John was hanging out on top, also watching the raptors. We were excited about the free shuttle system, and used it to head to a cafeteria for some lunch. We were actually early for lunch (we forgot that Arizona doesn't recognize Daylight Savings Time) so we had breakfast instead. That works.

Then we got another shuttle over to the top of the South Kaibab Trail. That made it really easy to go up one trail and down another - thank you for the free shuttle rides, NPS!

One of the solar installations at the Visitor's Center:


We started off down the South Kaibab Trail, with John pausing for a pose:


And he's off! (and already hard to see in this photo)


A really neat viewpoint for photos:


Looking down toward a fun little ridge:


Incredible scenery everywhere (but of course you knew that already):


Switchbacks down through the Redwall Formation - it's a huge layer of limestone that is responsible for some of the highest, steepest cliffs in the canyon. The worst of the North Kaibab Trail is also through the Redwall. Needless to say, I paid attention to it. The trail was relatively easy through the Redwall on the south side:


A fun section of trail:


It was starting to heat up, which was expected. I had almost no shade going down South Kaibab, but when I did have shade I made sure to stop for a moment to take advantage of it. Oh, and my ankle was doing great. Apparently the long uphill had done the trick, and it mostly didn't bother me coming back down. Sigh of relief there.

There's the river! The downhill was pretty quick, and soon it was broiling hot:


The neat tunnel to the black bridge:


Rafts on an expedition journey through the canyon. John's hoping to win a lottery slot so we can do this someday!


Surprise! John waited for me at the bottom to make sure my ankle was OK. Hi honey!


Phantom Ranch thermometer. Phew.


The creek is really pretty through the campground:


A tree growing out of the rocks:


John lost the bite valve from his Camelbak hose, but he was making do (and hadn't lost any water, thank goodness):


Don't take the schist for granite (yeah, it's weak, but this is the only photo of me for the day, so you'll have to put up with it):


And he's off again! Bye John!


As quick as the descent had been, the climb out to the north was exponentially slower. It being hot and all, I took it easy through the gorge. That part was actually fine because there were plenty of shadows from curve to curve. The trail doesn't really start climbing for quite a ways, so the temps were still very high. But the shade made things better, and I took it slow.

However, once the trail came out in the open, it was pretty miserable. At the final shady spot in the gorge I took a deep breath and started out into the sun. This part lasted way too long, and I suffered from the heat. In retrospect, I should have jumped into the creek at least twice along the way when I had a chance! Trying to get heat acclimated is one thing, taking forever to finish a workout is quite another.

My second snake sighting - this one a rattler (!) that lazily left the trail when it saw me coming. The safer end of the snake is sticking out from beneath the bush:


Ah, a pretty waterfall! I got my hat and head wet here:


I made a stop at Cottonwood Campground to refill water and sit and eat a little. I wasn't too interested in food, but at least I got something down. The break helped, and then I was finally back at creek level where the shade was coming back in a narrower section. Ahhh...

Sunset colors - so pretty:


I also got water at the ranger house at the canyon intersection. I really should have tried to eat more starting at that point. At least I was doing OK with the water, and I felt better being out of the sun. I'm not sure I was going very fast, but it felt like a good pace at least.

There was still enough light to get photos of the upper section - yikes! Maybe it would have been better in the dark again :)


Who looks at this and says, "Sure, we can put a trail right through there"?


After crossing the final bridge, I started slowing down for real. I could tell the final couple miles were going to take a while. Mostly I was low on energy but still really didn't want to eat. I blame it on the book I was listening to - Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma - for making me feel guilty about the poptarts I was carrying...

The steps up to the last tunnel:


From there it got dark. I was actually not the last one out that day - I passed an old lady and her daughter, working their way up even slower than I was. Wow, that's amazing. I had seen them starting out from Phantom Ranch that morning, so they were not going quickly. She seemed in good spirits and felt she could make it. Wow.

I was so happy to have my trekking poles. I leaned on them a lot. For a while I used them to feel for rocks ahead of my feet, but finally broke down and got out my light. It was a slow, tortuous finish to the climb, but I finally made it! John was napping in the truck. What a patient sweetheart.

15 hours and 20 minutes (not including lunch and the shuttles), phew.

Yay for the incredible Grand Canyon! And yay for sleep :)
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