... seeking simple answers to complex problems, and in the process, disrupting the status quo in technology, art and neuroscience.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Grand Canyon - Rim to Rim

(first posted to Sudden Lifestyle 10-21-06)

01 Path to the Other Side

Each year I set out to do some type of extreme hike or climb. Several have failed because of weather or other reasons. Here's what happened this year.

The plan for this hike began with a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in May of 2005. I happen to buy a "Rim to Rim" tee-shirt but didn't feel right wearing it until I'd actually walked it.

The standard approach for a Rim to Rim hike is to take two or three days, but that requires a campsite - 30,000 apply each year, only 10,000 win the lottery. The odds didn't seem good. But that's just an excuse. If you've read about any of my other hikes, you'll remember I like to travel light and fast, so that was the plan. My objective would be to do the whole thing in one day. After reading other day crosser experiences, it seemed like a reasonable challenge.

My first plan was to drive to the North Rim (the highest side), hike the North Kaibab Trail south to Phantom Ranch then take the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim for a total of 24 miles. After spending the night in a hotel, I would take the shuttle ($70) back to the North Rim and drive home.

Now 24 miles is not an extreme hike, but rough ground and a steep hike still made it a challenge, sort of an upside-down mountain climb. It should make for a fun and certainly beautiful power hike.

When I told An about it, she wanted to hike it too. So I reserved shuttle tickets for two and a Holiday Express room through Orbitz on the web. About two hours later I discovered the gate to the North Rim didn't open until the day AFTER I'd planned to hike, and more importantly the day AFTER my hotel reservation.

When I called Orbitz they explained they had a minimum one night cancellation fee so would offer no refund. Then I learned An couldn't extend her days off past that weekend and no other weekends worked until way into June when it would be too hot for a power hike. At least for me doing my first time across. Also I wanted to avoid the mule trains which can only be done at the very beginning or very end of the season.

Fortunately, Holiday Express allowed me to reschedule for October 15th, 2006. With a long lead time, the schedule worked out. Then Dave Orel offered to drive the car around to the South Rim for us. This allowed us to take the South Kaibab Trail instead of Bright Angel. It was steeper, but also shorter which seemed like a good idea.

02 Peter Grub Hut

We did several practice hikes in the Reno area to get in shape. One was up past Peter Grub Hut north of Donner Pass. Another was to the top of Carson Ridge at Thomas Creek. This second hike was nearly as long and had the same altitude gain as our objective. We were ready.

03 Snow-proof Potty

Getting There

When October 12th rolled around, we got packed and headed out. Grand Canyon is a long drive from Reno. To break it up we planned a couple of stops. We saw strange things along the highway which were a good excuse to strech our legs.

04 Shoe Tree

05 Shoe Tree Closeup

06 Horny Gate

Out first campsite was Spencer Hot Springs which is east of Austin, Nevada. Our bad luck started two miles off the highway when we got a flat tire. We still made it to the springs but only just before dark - still, no major harm done.

We surveyed the hot tubs with a short walk. One was WAY too hot and the other was WAY too cold. Valves had been turned up too long or down too long. Unlike Goldilocks, there was no happy medium, so we went to bed early.

We woke up before dawn and found then the cold tub was back to "just right". We enjoyed the sunrise in hot water. Hot springs are a nice way to camp.

After breakfast we stopped in Ely to replace the spare and have lunch. Next we headed to Bryce Canyon for our planned second night. We didn't get settled in camp until after dark and didn't get to see the canyon that night.

This was unfortunate. We never did get to see Bryce Canyon even though it was only two miles away. Bad luck, part two. It began to rain. And rain. And rain. It rained all night. By morning we had lots of wet sleeping bags and spent the next couple of hours at a laundromat drying out.

By the time we were done it was raining hard again. When we stopped at the visitor center, we got soaked just getting across the parking lot and into the building. After checking the weather we decided to head south and try to get out of the storm. Things weren't looking good for the Grand Canyon hike.

It rained hard all the way to the town of Kaibab. We decided to head east, again trying to get out of the storm. It rain all the way to Glen Canyon Dam. We headed south again - yep, trying to get out of the rain. Finally, the rain let up just enough at our stop at Horseshoe Bend to get a walk in. And then the sun came out. Was it over at last?

07 Lee's Ferry

Lee's Ferry

Coming down the hill into Lee's Ferry, a rock half the size of a car had fallen into the middle of the highway. There are often rock falls with heavy rain. The cops were just pulling up. We drove around before they could close the highway and continued to the camp-ground where the sun finally came out.

We learned from the Lee's Ferry rangers, flooding had washed out the water supply for both Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon. We would have to carry enough water for the complete hike IF the trail was still open. They didn't know.

The past twenty four hours had produced 1.3 inches of rain which was quite rare for this desert. The good news was, the worst of the weather was over. Or so they said. We had hope for a dry night, but we set up camp under one of the campground's metal shelters just in case.

It turned out to be a good call. About mid-night a huge thunderstorm hit with lightning, heavy rain and wind. Doesn't bad luck come in threes?

The rain encouraged us to get up early. Well before dawn, we just wrapped up the wet stuff in plastic and headed for the North Rim. If we had to cancel, I wanted to make the decision at the trail head.

The final drive was dark, wet and the road was muddy. The rain continued. So much for breaking weather. At one point a flash-flood had washed across the road. Off to the side were blinking lights.

A car with five teenagers had slid off the road and high-centered on a berm. We stopped to check, but no one was hurt. Since neither car had a rope and we were in a small Subaru, I suggested they wait for a larger pick-up to stop by. The right truck with a chain would have them on their way in a couple of minutes. Two more cars were stopping as we left. It was a minor problem but just one more side-effect of this nasty storm.

The rain turned to fog as we got higher. The temperature dropped below freezing. At the summit it began to snow. Even worse, the snow began to stick. The probability of this hike happening was dropping by the minute.

Fortunately, the snow only lasted a few miles and the clouds began to lift. Or we began to drop. The result was the same. As we drove on, the road dropped below the snow line. The sky got lighter.

08 Starting Out

Hiking At Last

At the gate we were told there were some washouts but the whole trail was open and the weather improving. They also said water was back on, but in a limited fashion.

Farther on at the trail head we saw just a bit of sunshine through low clouds. It was enough. No matter how it turned out, I was happy to get started on the hike, instead of doing a long drive for nothing. An and I packed our gear and headed out. It was 7:35 AM. We were finally on the trail.

I have a problem with the beginning of any hike. I'm always way too hyped up and often take off too fast. Later I pay for burning my energy too early. In this case there was the added factor of a long down hill, but the mud puddles kept me from breaking into a run. Our pace was fast, but consistent and safe. The trail is mostly sandy or rocky, with no clay.

The temperature warmed fast as we dropped into the canyon. We were in shirt-sleeves but had a back up layer of clothing as well as extra food and lots of water. Even with the extra weight, it was a quick descent. I was concerned that it might be too quick. We passed at least 20 other hikers in that first third of the hike, most of which were crossing the canyon too.

I quickly noticed signs of other hiker's objective. I began asking questions just to verify my observations. Those with heavy packs were headed for one of the camp-grounds or on their way out. They would be doing less than 7 miles for the day, but coming out they would be working VERY hard with all that weight.

The ones with small packs would either be staying in a cabin at Phantom Ranch, dipping below the rim and returning, or day crossing like we were. You could tell the day crossers by how fast they were moving. Rim dippers went slower. Three that day were actually running. They were the only ones who passed us during the decent.

There was good water at Supai Tunnel but at only a mile in, it doesn't matter much. Well, unless you're dry coming out for some reason. The next water was at Roaring Springs which was about 5 miles in. This is actually the source of water for both Cottonwood and Phantom Ranches. A water main runs 8 miles along the trail from there. You can see the access valves every few hundred

09 Mile Three

10 Mile Four

11 Pack Adjustment

Roaring Springs certainly earned it name this morning. Maybe it should have been name Thunder Creek. We still had plenty of water so didn't bother to stop. Not long after this we met a "Volunteer Ranger". She asked our objective as we went by. We were about to find out why.

Sucker Hole

If you read the Grand Canyon sites, you'll find lots of warnings about descending into the canyon without being prepared and supplied. The warning should be taken seriously.

Back in the early days of aviation there was something called a "sucker hole". It's where the sky is overcast except for one patch of blue sky. For visual pilots (no instrument training) these holes look like a good way to get above the layer so you can get to your destination. The problem occurs when the hole closes up while you're on top and you have no easy way of getting down. Lots of pilots died this way before modern avionics.

The Grand Canyon can be thought of as a gigantic sucker hole in the ground. With a mountain, you work the hardest on the outbound leg. Coming back is easy since it's all down hill. The Canyon is just the opposite. It's so easy going down hill, if you don't save some energy, you might not get back out or at the least be hiking in the dark. Either way, it can spell trouble.

Just before we got to Cottonwood Ranch we found the perfect example of what I'm describing. This first "ranch" (ranger station) is about five miles in and 4000 feet below the North Rim. A hundred yards before we got there we noticed this older gentleman moving quite slowly. He had a younger guy with him so I didn't think anything about it - maybe just on a walk from the Ranch.

12 Cottonwood Ranch

13 First Break

When we got to the ranch and took a snack break, two younger guys asked if we'd seen this old man. I'd already forgotten about him, but An described him perfectly. They were concerned since they'd been waiting a long time for the other two to "catch up". The four of them were on a day crossing like us. Oops - "catching up" in the first third of the hike should have been a warning bell.

Just then the other two came around the corner. Someone offered the old guy a stump to sit on, but he refused heading for a patch of grass instead. At this point his stride was down to about 8 inches on level ground. I don't think he could go uphill at all. He just laid down on the grass and said his legs were too weak to get up.

That's when the Ranger lady came out and chastised these younger guys for bringing him this far down into the canyon. Apparently the Volunteer Ranger we met had advised them to turn back. But they pushed on instead. Did they think it would get easier?

The old man had been swallowed by that big sucker hole in the ground. His young friend has lead him into it. Even a return to the North Rim would take him until WAY after dark. And that was only IF he got his energy back - which wasn't likely.

I talked to this old guy for a minute. He looked to be about 80, but maybe that's just how he felt at that point. He said he had been "working out" several times a week and didn't understand why he felt so weak. I'm not sure what his "work out" was like, but if he hadn't climbed Whitney and back in a single day or something equivalent, he didn't belong this far down in the canyon.

MOST of the people we met on the trail looked like they were prepared. I've done 35 miles of rough ground in a single day. On another extreme hike I did 51 miles of mostly road in just over 16 hours. Last summer, An climbed BOTH Whitney AND Shasta in the SAME week. I had confidence we could make it. But what were THESE guys thinking?

There wasn't anything we could do, so we left it to the Ranger and the old guy's friends. We got back on the trail. About fifteen minutes later we saw a helicopter coming up the canyon about a hundred feet off the ground. Ten minutes later they flew over again heading for the South Rim. Another Ranger rescue complete. I wonder what it cost the old guy. The rumor is, it's a couple of thousand dollars - one expensive lesson.

Bright Angel Canyon

After Cottonwood the trail got more gentle and we slowed down some. Next was 7 miles of Bright Angel Canyon which is one of the larger side canyons leading to the Colorado River.

14 Still Feeling Good

About this time we noticed someone lost their lunch. No, not like that. I mean literally. First was a sandwich in a Ziploc. Then some trail mix followed by a banana and other Ziplocked food. Occasionally, people dump stuff along the trail just to make their pack lighter; but we guessed in this case a zipper slipped open.

Normally when you find stuff along the trail it's best to put it in some obvious place so the owner can come back and pick it up when they discover it's missing. But not in the Grand Canyon. When it happens here, they are not likely to return any time soon. You just don't know how far back it fell out. It's rare anyone hikes this far into the canyon twice in the same week. It's also likely they had someone who would share lunch. So we picked everything up in the interest of Leave No Trace. Besides, it looked yummy.

15 Bright Angel Narrows

The narrows literally go on for about seven miles with some wonderful views. There were also some side trips but we stayed on the objective - maybe next time. Most of the trail was good, but with puddles from yesterday's rain. You could also see where Bright Angel Creek has been much higher the day before.

We passed more day crossers going our way but then it changed. First we passed fewer people. Then we started encountering day crossers coming from the OTHER way. We had definitely made the halfway point.

There was mud across the trail in a few places but most of the trail was good. One exception was a swampy detour by a spring where the creek had totally washed out the trail, water main and all. I think this part had already been fixed but we saw three guys working on the water pipe a little farther down the trail. There were also water tanks for the mules but they were already locked for the season.

It felt like we should be getting to Phantom Ranch soon, but no. These narrows canyon walls went on and on and on and on and on. Well, you get the idea. These things are subjective. Maybe I was just ready for lunch.

Phantom Ranch

When we did get to Phantom Ranch it was a surprise. I had always thought the ranch was on more open ground so I kept waiting for the canyon to open up. But the ranch is near the edge of the narrows so you come on it fast.

The "Ranch" is really just a restaurant, a bathroom and some cabins with picnic tables. It's all set under some cottonwood trees. There were about 25 people here with more showing up behind us as we had lunch.

The weather was now beautiful with only a few clouds here and there. We found an empty table, got comfortable and had lunch.

We had come 14 miles in 4:40 for a speed of 3 MPH which isn't bad on rough ground. So far only the three runners were faster. But we took a full hour for lunch and may have gotten passed in the process.

16 Dressed to Climb

As we left the Ranch we noticed people were starting to put out tents for the night. It was 1:15. We still had plenty of time.

17 South Kaibab Bridge

At the river, boats were loading for rafting trips. Their approach looked like more fun that the cliffs we were facing. But we had eaten and rested. We were ready for a climb. We had also topped off the water bottles since the rest of the trip was dry going up South Kaibab.

18 The OTHER Way Out

The Hard Part

In any case we were in good shape for the hard climb so we hit it hard - maybe too hard. It's my same old problem. I bolt out of the gate. We zoomed up the steps. An did an amazing job keeping up. In retrospect, she should have held me back some. I kept trying to get her to lead and set the pace but she liked being in back.

19 Gaining Ground

It was quite steep and mostly stairs. Some of it was in the sun so we did a lot of sweating, which was to be expected. What wasn't expected was how fast we were climbing. We were still passing people. And these weren't day crossers. Most had just dipped below the rim or were doing the Bright Angel - Kaibab loop. Still, I was feeling good. And An was keeping up. At least for a while.

20 Bright Angel Bridge

About a third the way up we both began to run out of energy. That's when I started a little game of push hard in the sun and take it easy in the shade. It broke things up nicely.

At halfway on South Kaibab (three miles) we had definitely slowed down. Looking back, it took only 1:15 to get this far - WAY too fast for this type of climb. I didn't even realize it at the time I just typed the numbers into my Treo and kept pushing ahead. Adrenalin can be a dangerous thing.

Soon we were both feeling the "wall" which is similar to what happens in a marathon - but not as dramatic. We stopped and had a snack in the shade. It helped. But we never got our pace back. It now became a grind where you check each switch-back to see how many more there were to go.

And just like climbing a mountain, the top seems to slip ever upwards away from you. But unlike a mountain, when we got to the top of this trail, we would be done. We continued to grind.

20 Bright Angel Bridge

I started noting the color of the layers. I knew there was a final white cap of about 300 feet at the top. We could now see it just above us.

During this time we got passed by about five hikers but passed very few ourselves. One guy passed me and I went into race mode just to see if I could. I passed him again and cleared about a hundred yards before I stopped and waited for An. I'm sure she thought I was crazy. We took another snack break.

21 Down River

22 Down Canyon

23 Starting Point in the far distance (click to enlarge)

24 Up Canyon

End Game

25 Almost Done

Finally we were into the white layer and even though we had slowed dramatically, we steadily gained ground and then passed one more couple who had only come halfway down from the South Rim. They knew where the top was and pointed it out. I think this helped An's attitude. I know it helped mine. It's nice to actually see the goal.

As we approached the top we kept looking for Dave but didn't spot him. I got ahead of An and tried to call him on my phone. I wanted him to drape toilet paper across the trail for An to break through. You know, like at the end of a race. It seemed appropriate after this much work. But he didn't answer. I was sure hoping he hadn't gotten lost. I didn't want to walk an extra three miles to the hotel.

I held back for An and we topped out together with a cheer. And there was Dave with the car right were we planned. No walking to the hotel. We actually had energy left, but you don't realize it until you know you've got it done. An even RAN to the dumpster to throw away some garbage AFTER she'd gotten to the car.

26 Excess Energy

It definitely wasn't as bad as a marathon, but it was close. For power hikes it was my forth most difficult. And that was mostly because of the climb.

In miles it was about 21, in hours it was exactly 9 (plus one for lunch) for and an average speed of 2.3 MPH. But that last three miles had taken over three hours. I should have paced it better. Over all, it was a great hike that almost didn't happen. I think we were both please with the outcome.

I got stiff waiting in line to check in at the hotel. It happens fast when you stop moving. We then got dinner before cleaning up and getting into the hot tub. You don't want to get dressed again to go out once you start relaxing.

27 Tame Elk

The next morning we were a little stiff but otherwise feeling great. As we were leaving, An spotted an elk behind the hotel. I got a picture. It was sun-shining again. But don't worry. Our luck hadn't changed completely. We got rained out one more night on the way back home. It also happened at three o'clock in the morning. So again we got up and took turns driving home.

The camping was wet, but the hike went well. That's what counts. If you plan to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim in a single day, be prepared. There's no van to pick you up if you crap out, and only an expensive helicopter which can only land at two points along the way.

Enjoy the hike.

And leave me a comment below.


  1. Great hike, Rod!
    I was down there last fall... thought about a hike. Hear there are Indian Ghosts down there tho... Dave Cline.

  2. Rod: Wonderful reading about your hike. Did rim to rim a few years ago with my wife and another couple, north to south during the summer. Not a good idea. The other gal got sick and had to be helicoptered out as soon as we got to Phantom Ranch. My wife and I spent the night at the ranch and struck out for the south rim via Bright Angel at 3:00 a.m. to see how our friend was doing. She turned out just fine so all turned out ok.
    We look back on the hike as one of our great adventures. Wouldn't trade it for anything, but I don't think I'd do rim to rim again.
    Rick Oppman

  3. Rick,

    Thanks for the feedback. It's nice to know these posts get read.

    And yes, timing is everything when the desert is involved. I used to live in Tucson so I know how hot it can get. It's good to know everything turned out well and you still enjoyed the experience. For me it's about having a good time and the canyon is a one of a kind hike.

    I'm about to post about another hike that didn't turn out so well. Email me at rodzq@yahoo.com and I'll let you know when it's done.

  4. Good write up on a good hike. Some friends & I hiked down to Phantom Ranch from the south rim and returned the next day. I had done a lot of hiking as a kid, but not so much as an adult. I'm short & overweight and pack as I did in Scouts (Be prepared & all that stuff). Too much weight on the body & on the back. Within an hour of hiking down the Kaibob trail's steps, my legs were getting shaky. Not good. Like the old man that you passed & was air lifted out, I was running out of energy. But, I made it to PR. They have a great nature program down there. The hike out was grueling. But, I made that too. My stride was about 6 to 8 inches at the end. Would I go back? Yes, after I lose a few pounds and get in better condition. BTW, I did New Zealand a year later. Awesome place. A hikers Nirvana.


  5. Dutchboy,

    > Good write up on a good hike.

    Thanks. I wrote it up because I looked for just such a story when I planned the hike and didn't find what I wanted. It's good to know what you're getting into when you drop into a 5000 foot hole.

    > my legs were getting shaky.

    It's best not to try anything more than twice of what you're used to.

    > Too much weight on the body &
    > on the back.

    I discuss this in the Tahoe Rim Post...


    > Would I go back? Yes

    Me too. Fun stuff.

    > did New Zealand a year later.
    > Awesome place. A hikers Nirvana.

    Thanks for the tip.

    And the feedback.

    Sudden Disruption

  6. Thanks for the link to this post, Rod! I am again a novice hiker, after over a decade of a mostly sedentary lifestyle. I've only been back here a week and I'm pleased with my progress so far. My goal is to do a rim-to-rim near the end of the season. I've done four easy hikes and I think that in the next few weeks I'm going to start on the Kaibab...I'm taking it slow, because I know that drinking really messed my heart up, as well as my other organs...but I'm determined to at least get into much better shape and do the best that I can. In any case, reading others' accounts of their experiences is a great help, so thank you again!