Sunday, May 12, 2013

Grand Canyon Rim to River to Rim - no DNFs allowed

Well, technically you can DNF, but it's not easy and it will be expensive.

Mrs Notthat and I headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to meet up with a group of Rock Stars that planned to do the Rim to Rim to Rim in one day thing. (Spoiler alert: They succeeded gloriously!). Mrs Notthat and I, joined by the mother of one of the Rock Stars (Hi Eyaf! Not your real name!) were much wiser and went from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and back up to the South Rim.

I don't think I ended up looking this bad (having frogs on your hat can cover a lot of issues), but I sure felt that bad.
There were a lot of signs that told you not to do the Rim to River to Rim in one day. (Weirdly, I saw no signs that said not to do the Rim to Rim to Rim in one day.)

We saw this sign the next day. Other than me not being that fit, sunburned, or having that much hair, that's a dead ringer for me.
We caught the 4:30 AM shuttle bus at the Visitor Center to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Our group had seven people in it, but there were over twenty on the bus, and more already at the trailhead when we got there. And all of us were looking to do things that were highly frowned on.

This is from my GPS watch (I got it started a bit late and it petered out just before I made it to the top). We were doing the classic route by heading out on the shorter but steeper trail to the bottom (South Kaibab has no water available along it) and returning on the longer but less steep Bright Angel trail, which has multiple water stops.

It's about 7.5 miles down and about 9.5 back up.

This elevation profile exaggerates the difference in steepness between the two trails since it is based on time. But it shows how quickly we got to the bottom (and we were taking it pretty easy - real runners got there very quickly).

This one is based on miles, and gives you a better idea of the difference in steepness. (You can ignore the random spikes since they didn't really happen. Probably.)

At 4:42 AM we were headed down the South Kaibab trail. It was pretty cool out (in the 40s) and still very dark. We all had headlamps, but the trail is a bit treacherous since it is maintained with mules in mind with lots of erosion-control logs (also known as "trip factories") placed across it.

Mrs Notthat and I chose to walk during this stretch, which would also give Mama Rock Star a chance to catch up to us (she made a last minute toilet stop and started a bit after us).

It was really cool looking down and seeing the headlamps along the trail.

It's not really as light as this picture makes it look like, but it is finally getting lighter. And the canyon is really showing off its stuff.

This is at the Cedar Ridge bathrooms, about 1.5 miles from the start. There is no water along this trail, but there are a couple of bathrooms. And it's light enough now that we no longer need headlamps.

A bit further down the trail and you can see that the sun is starting to light up the higher walls.

We had been going for a bit over an hour and finally got our first glimpse of the Colorado River. Things looked deceptively close as you went along - we were still a LONG ways away from the bottom.

 LOTS of switchbacks as we headed down (and you can see the logs I was talking about).

Generally, due to the lack of water, few hike up this trail to the rim. These two guys (and a few other people we met later) were doing exactly that though. In their case, they had camped at the bottom and had started out early so they would make this climb while it was still cool and wouldn't need as much water.

The stunning views were relentless.

As were the switchbacks.

Eventually you make it to this tunnel…

… with this on the other side. This is called Black Bridge. I hate walking on suspension bridges, but this one (and the next one you will see) were very stable, probably to keep the mules happy.

Just before we got to the bridge, we had the option of bypassing the river crossings (and Phantom Ranch) and taking a shortcut to the Bright Angel Trail. We were curious about Phantom Ranch though, so we chose to add the bonus distance (probably a mile and a half) and go see the joint.

One reason for heading out early was to avoid the mules that start down shortly after 5 AM. This group passed us as we were heading to the ranch.

Phantom Ranch has cabins and a campground, but they are all pretty much booked up months in advance. The chances of you getting to this point and deciding to stay the night on the spot are not good. (They also serve meals, but you have to book those well in advance too.)

We got to the ranch at about 7:43. We had not seen Mama Rock Star yet, but had talked to others that had passed her and said she was doing fine, loudly singing Italian Rock Star songs as she came down the trail.

She showed up at about the time the store opened.

The store is small. The lemonade is famous (but likely just because you worked so hard to get it) as are the post cards you send from here that are stamped with "Delivered by Mule." There are only two ways to get to Phantom Ranch - you either hike down or show up in a raft coming down the river. So there are very minimal comforts here (and no trash cans - you must carry your trash out with you).

We ended up spending about an hour at the ranch, but eventually we had to head out. We took the Silver Bridge back across the river. The trail doesn't immediately start the long climb back up to the rim; instead you go about a mile or so along the river.

There was a bit of confusion - we thought Mama Rock Star had headed out a bit before us, but it turned out she was actually in the toilets and was behind us (she's on that bridge down there - really).

There are actually several creek crossings you have to navigate. I used these to wet my hat. It had been surprisingly cool at Phantom Ranch, but once we started back up the trail it warmed up quickly.

You would climb and climb and climb and the top never looked any closer. If you turned around though, you could see that you were making great progress.

The first place for water, and the halfway point (mileage-wise), was Indian Gardens. This is considered to be the very farthest it is safe to go if you are coming down the Bright Angel trail, and there were a lot of people here that had done just that. It was a bit before noon at this point and the temperature in the sun was almost 100. (In the shade it was a bit over 80.) At this point we were all feeling pretty good, but I was starting to drag a bit. We've got about 4.6 miles to go, but about 2/3 of the climbing ahead of us.

I did OK for about a mile and then started falling apart miserably. We took frequent rest breaks wherever we could find shade (most shady spots had lots of people already there, so this was harder than it sounded).

It took 70 minutes to go about a mile and a half to the Three Mile Resthouse (and its water). Note that as a cruel prank, these resthouses always had a set of stairs to climb to get up to them.

I tried to talk Mrs Notthat and Mama Rock Star into going on ahead while I took a nice long rest, but they were stubborn. And it's not like the views were awful. It was a bit before the Mile and a Half Resthouse that I first started to have serious nausea issues and began to look like that sunburned guy.

We finally made it to the Mile and a Half Resthouse nearly two and a half hours later. Two and a half hours to go one and a half miles. And there is still one and a half miles to go. And as with the previous miles, it's all uphill and mostly all in the sun.

It was at this point I found a nice shady spot to lie in and Mrs and Mama finally agreed to go on without me. I really wanted a nice long rest. After about 20 minutes, I ended up reprising my role in that above picture, and as I was gathering myself this guy went by. This is the equivalent of an ambulance. My first thought was that Mrs Notthat had sent him after me, but it turned out he was destined for someone in worse shape.

Shortly after him came a ranger that Mrs had talked to, and we talked for a bit. I convinced her I was fine, and weirdly, I really was - the rest had done wonders. I managed to cover the next mile or so with no stopping.

That included going through this first arch.

Once I did pause, the ambulance came back by. I feel a bit bad, but look at that guy - WAY fitter looking and younger than me. I was going to get out of this on my own power, and seeing him made me feel a lot better about the day. (Sorry for that, anonymous guy who, for all I know, had a broken leg or something else seriously wrong.)

I had one more episode of adding to the color of the trail, then made it to the second arch.

There was still about a quarter mile to go, but I was close now.

And eventually I made it. That last mile and a half took me about another two and a half hours. So from Indian Garden to the top (4.6 miles) took me a bit over six hours. YIKES! (On their own, Mrs Nothat and Mama Rock Star would have made it much faster, likely under four hours.)

This was amazingly hard. I think there were three main issues I faced: a lack of training (although I had just done a trail Half Marathon with about half as much climbing two weeks before), a lack of eating proper foods (I had a peanut butter sandwich at the ranch, but should have had another at Indian Garden), and the elevation. We are from the coast, and while the elevation at the rim is not extreme (around 7000 feet), it is much higher than I am acclimated to. I didn't really have any pain (a minor blister on my foot was about it) - I just felt thoroughly exhausted for that last three miles. And the stomach issues REALLY didn't help.

I really don't do well in heat. (Fun fact; another group of people we knew camped out near the ranch and did this hike the next day. It was thirty degrees cooler and cloudy. We had nicer views but they had a WAY nicer hike.)

The next day I felt amazingly recovered with only a little soreness.

Oh, and about the Rock Stars; after a shower and a slice of pizza I headed back to the trailhead to greet them. Last year they had done this same trail (it's about 50 miles to go from Rim to Rim to Rim) and finished after 11 PM. This year they were done by a bit after 9 PM. And still managing to smile.

That's just not right.

This is an amazing hike. You can do it but be sure to get some training in and it wouldn't hurt to spend a couple of days getting acclimated to the elevation. Take WAY more water than you think you will need (you won't need much getting down to the river and can fill up at the ranch). I filled my bladder at the ranch and at Indian Garden. I also had a bonus bottle that I carried to dump water on my head to keep cool. That turned out to be a lifesaver since I was convinced that my bladder was about half full at the last place for water (Mile and a Half Resthouse) and didn't bother to top it off. A bit later and it was dry (the bottle was nearly full though, so water was not an issue).

Eat lots of real food even though you won't feel like it. (This is easy to say and very hard to do.)

Take your time. It's not a race and the views are spectacular. If you need to sit for thirty minutes, do it.

But mostly, be aware that there is no shortcut or way to raise your hand and say uncle and get picked up. I know of one person that had to be helicoptered out, and of course there was Fit Guy on the mule. At 9 PM you could still see a lot of headlamps down below. When one of the Rock Stars came out, there were two guys behind him that had headed down on a lark and had not bothered to take more than a small water bottle - they had no idea they would be finishing in the dark, and I'm sure they were far from alone in thinking that.

It really is dangerous if you are not prepared, but thinking ahead a bit makes this very doable. And it can be fun too - absurdly challenging fun, but still fun.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see a LOT of my pictures of the hike down here, the hike up here, and the drive home here.

PPS: A HUGE thanks to Rock Stars Eyaf and Kcirtap (not their real names) for inviting us along on this adventure! You guys are amazing!


DAK said...

Wow, what a tale. I really felt for you on the way back up. I can see myself just falling down on the trail and having people walk over my ashes. You and Diane looked so happy on the way down. I was thinking that is something I would love to do. But I wasn't thinking about the way back up. Congratulations. You're a star. Both of you.

mary ann said...

I am really impressed - these are such beautiful photos and I enjoyed your report thoroughly.

Ann said...

Wow - what a fantastic adventure. You've inspired me!

Beth said...

These pictures are amazing! It looks like such a great adventure. Knowing that I am such a delicate flower in the heat, ahem....I will settle for admiring this adventure through your pictures : ) Way to keep going and get it done!