[Background: I belong to a relatively small-but-growing group of compulsive, extreme athletes known as ultra trail runners. An ultra is a race of any distance longer than a marathon. Ultras are typically anywhere from 50K (31 miles) to 100 miles in length, usually on mountainous trails, and take hours or even days to complete. The McCall area now boasts at least three ultra-distance races each year. I’ve competed in just under a hundred marathon and ultra races since 1990, but the runs that form my fondest ultra memories are the unofficial adventures such as running the Inca Trail in Peru, or around Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. The most spectacular run of all, for me, is the double crossing of the Grand Canyon, a trek of 42 to 46 miles depending on route, from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again with a total elevation change of 22,000 feet. Not a simple undertaking, given the distance, elevation drops and gains, extreme temperature variance—from snow and freezing temps on the rims to 90F-plus at Phantom Ranch on the river—and lack of easy water sources. Back in the 90s, several ultra runners from around the country would congregate at the South Rim on the first weekend in November for a double crossing when the official tourist season has ended and there are fewer mules (and less mule piss and poop) on the trails. I’ve done the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim—also known as R2R2R or just “The Double”—twice. In 1996 I had an amazing run, finishing in about twelve hours. But in 1997, my run did not go as planned.]
Some days, nothing goes right, and then there are days when everything goes wrong.
My small group of four runners drops off the South Rim and starts running down the South Kaibab trailhead at 6:00 AM on a fine, cold November morning. It’s still dark, so for the first mile or two we use our flashlights to avoid sliding off the icy edge of the steep early section of the trail. Soon we’re rewarded with a spectacular sunrise and fiery light bouncing off the far western canyon walls.
The run starts with 6.5 miles of relentless, steep downhill, dropping 5000 feet to the Colorado River. We’re excited and energized, yet avoid the temptation to race down the hills in order to save our legs for the rest of the day. I stop for a photograph with a bighorn sheep standing just paces away, an exhilarating start to the run.
After crossing the Colorado on a suspension bridge, we pass through Phantom Ranch and start up the North Kaibab trail toward the North Rim. We encounter another runner coming down who informs us that the two usual sources of piped water along the trail are broken. This is unanticipated and very bad news. We now realize we have to carry enough water in our running packs to get us the 14 miles and 6000 feet up to the North Rim and the return trip back down to Phantom Ranch. There will be no water at the North Rim, closed for the season. Using iodine tablets, we top off our pack bladders in a small stream near Cottonwood campground, about halfway between the river and the North Rim.
The run continues to go well and we all spread out to run our own pace. It’s impossible to not be awed by the scenery and the various colors of the rock as you travel through 1.7 billion years of sedimentary layers from river to rim. I reach the North Rim feeling overheated but otherwise good, and turn to head back down with one of my friends. After refilling our water bladders at the Cottonwood stream, he goes on ahead. I enjoy running alone, feeling that the best way to take in the splendor of the Canyon is to move as silently as possible, alone and aware.
Soon, though, my right quadriceps muscle is talking to me. The complaining gets louder as I continue downhill, until eventually I have to listen to the pain and walk—with a limp—rather than run. The cramping is the result of dehydration from too little water during the climb to the North Rim coupled with running too hard on the way back down during the hottest part of the day. The temperature gauge our second time at Cottonwood read 90F. Still, I’m not worried; I’m about two-thirds of the way through the run at this point, and figure I can walk the remaining five miles to Phantom Ranch, then hike up to the South Rim, which is what everyone does anyway as it’s simply too steep a climb for any but the strongest athlete to run at the end of a double crossing. I finished Western States 100-Miler in 1993 in similar dehydrated condition, walking the last 15 miles with nausea, so I know I can do this.
I come upon a father and his two kids sitting by the trail watching some deer. I stop to chat, any excuse to rest my quad. I must look a mess, because the father asks me, “Are you OK?” When I hesitate to answer, he gives me a look of pity and offers me a bunk in the cabin he’s sharing with a bunch of kids at Phantom, “…if you need it.” Telling him I’ll give it serious consideration, I limp on down the trail. Within minutes, he and the kids pass me, which drives home just how slowly I’m moving. The father repeats his offer of a bunk. I again decline. When I finally make it to Phantom, he’s sitting in front of his cabin so I’ll know which one it is. But my running friends will go nuts if I don’t arrive at the South Rim finish point as planned, no matter how late, so I tell the man I’m determined to go on. “But don’t be shocked if I change my mind and turn up later in the night,” I say with a weak laugh as I leave him with a wave.
I rest at Phantom for a few more minutes, eating a bagel with peanut butter for energy. I leave at 4:45 PM, ten hours and 45 minutes after I started this journey, way behind schedule. All of my runner friends have already passed me. To their credit, they all asked if I needed anything and offered to stay with me, but I assured them I was fine. In truth, I’m pissed at myself for getting dehydrated and don’t want to ruin their run just to baby-sit me. Besides, the only alternative to using your own power to hike out is to get a very expensive helicopter ride.
I can’t remember what time to expect sundown, but I do remember that the previous year it took me three hours to climb out the shorter, 6.5 mile South Kaibab trail. This year the group agreed to go up the nine mile Bright Angel Trail, longer but less steep as it gains 5000 feet to the rim. It’s going to take me a long time, finishing well after dark. My tired brain isn’t up to calculating just how long, but I’m confident I’ll be fine because I have my flashlight with me. Also, I know that Bright Angel Trail has a campground half way up, with water available. And people. Onward.
As the day finally cools and with some food in my stomach, I leave Phantom, crossing the Colorado on the smaller hiker’s bridge, following the trail along the river. Suddenly, I start belching, and that peanut butter bagel comes back up. Clearly I’m more dehydrated than I thought. At least I’m able to steadily sip water. Still, I know my situation is grim with many tough miles ahead.
After walking a mile along the river, the trail turns upward and becomes more difficult. By now my right leg is very painful because of the cramping and strained quad, especially when stepping uphill onto the many annoying water bars set into the trail. I need a walking stick, but can’t find anything in this arid, desolate landscape devoid of trees. I finally break a branch off of some low-growing shrub; it makes a crude bent walking stick, with thorns, but allows me to keep moving without too much stress on my quad.
I try to calculate my miles-per-hour pace, but there are no mile markers on these trails. I figure I’m making one or two miles per hour – painfully slow. Admitting to myself it’s going to be a long night, I panic a bit remembering that my flashlight batteries at best only last four hours and I had already used them for about 30 minutes at the start of the run. Last year I didn’t need a flashlight on the way out, finishing before dark. This time, I still have over seven miles to go with darkness falling.
I know the campground is 4.5 miles up from the river; that becomes my immediate goal. I go as long as I can without using my flashlight, but there’s only a new moon for light and eventually it’s truly dark. After tripping several times, I have to use my flashlight, and in doing so I actually pick up the pace significantly.
When I finally arrive at the campground, I accost the first person I see in my flashlight beam and ask for any spare AA batteries. The woman takes me to her campsite and her boyfriend gives me some of his batteries, but warns he doesn’t know how much power they have left. I gratefully accept his batteries while declining the couple’s offer to let me stay there overnight.
As the woman escorts me back to the trail, she happens to mention that there are two emergency shelters between the campground and the rim – one three miles below the rim, and the other 1.5 miles – and they both have emergency phones. This is excellent news. My new goal is to continue upward as long as I have flashlight power, stopping at one of the shelters if I have to. It’s getting late enough that I know my running friends will start to wonder what has happened to me, and before long they’ll send their own search party down the trail. The higher I get, the less distance they’ll have to come down to find me; they’ve already done their own 44 mile run that day. The absolute last thing I want is for the park service to mount a search.
I flounder on up the trail. About a half mile after leaving the campground, my original flashlight batteries go dead; I instantly go from light to no light without warning. Sitting in the middle of the trail, I change batteries in total darkness. The four AA batteries have to go into the small diver’s light just so; I get it right on the second try. That task accomplished, I feel a sense of calm. It’s an incredibly beautiful night, with clear skies and more stars than I’ve ever seen. I soak up the view, the quiet and solitude. It’s a cool night, but not cold. And despite feeling nauseous and unable to eat, my attitude is good and I have plenty of energy for this slow hiking, which I attribute to being in such a special, spiritual place, experiencing the Canyon in ways I never anticipated.
Eventually I stand up and continue up the trail, using the “new” batteries that I realize can die on me at any time, adding another element of the unknown to this nighttime hike. Worrying about my friends being worried about me, I keep limping upward at a slow but steady pace.
Eventually I reach the emergency shelter three miles from the rim, located a short distance off the trail. I pass it by, but after some muddled thought, I acknowledge that I’m relying on dicey batteries and am now high enough in the canyon that the drops off the side of the trail are steep and long, something I’m glad I can’t actually see in the dark. I’m acutely aware just how dangerous a misstep can be; I don’t want to even think about negotiating this portion of trail without a working flashlight. Nor do I want to have to sit in the middle of the trail for several hours, awaiting daylight; there are scorpions here. I turn back down the trail and make my way to the shelter.
The shelter is a three-sided structure with floor and roof, and benches built into walls that go roughly halfway from floor to ceiling, the rest open to the elements. It takes me a couple of minutes to find the shelter’s emergency phone, which is attached at the ceiling in a back corner, eight feet off the ground. I painfully scramble onto a bench, reach up and lift the phone off its cradle, connecting directly to the ranger station at the South Rim. I tell the answering ranger that I’m fine and ask her to please let my friends know where I am and that I could use some fresh batteries. I hang up so she can try to reach them at the motel. The ranger calls back a few minutes later, saying no one answered at the room. She then tells me about a cache box hidden behind the shelter and gives me the combination (3333, for future reference), suggesting I take the flashlight stored there. I find the box, open it and find the flashlight, but ironically its batteries are dead. I find one spare battery (D cell) in the box and swap it for one of two in the shelter flashlight, but no luck. I call the ranger back. I mention the dead batteries. I tell her that I’ve found a comfy sleeping bag as well as some crackers and fruit juice in the cache box, I’m quite snug and happy, and will wait out the night in the shelter, hiking out in daylight. She doesn’t like this idea and says she’ll keep trying to call my friends.
I sit on the shelter’s bench, wrapped in the sleeping bag, nibbling on crackers and waiting for daylight. It’s nearly 11:00 PM. I listen to the night sounds – mostly crickets – feeling safe and peaceful, until I hear something scuffling just beyond the shelter wall. I grab my flashlight and aim it toward the sound. The beam hits the face of what appears to be a cross between a fox and a raccoon, its eyes glowing as it sits on the “window” ledge of the opposite wall. Staring back at me, unalarmed, the creature – whose big fluffy tail has rings around it – jumps down and moves around the shelter’s exterior, giving me one last casual look before moseying off. I begin to think about the other nocturnal creatures that inhabit the canyon, including cougars, and listen intently but still somehow briefly fall asleep. A few minutes later I jolt awake, chastising myself for dozing because I’d be unable to hear my friends coming down the trail looking for me. What if they walked right past the shelter? I work hard at staying awake, despite my exhaustion.
Fifteen minutes later, I do hear voices from up the trail. After wondering if I’m hallucinating, I recognize them – three of my friends coming to find me, chatting quite happily with each other. I’m rescued! I call out to them, and they follow my flashlight beam to the shelter. We hug and laugh. With my bit of rest, food and fluids in the shelter, I actually feel pretty good. After returning the sleeping bag to the cache box, we head up the trail. I’m surprised at how well I’m able to hike the remaining three miles to the rim, no limp, no walking stick required. Making good time, we top out at ten minutes after midnight. I’ve been out a total of 18 hours, finishing six hours behind schedule.
The ranger never did reach my friends at the motel; they knew something was wrong and came looking for me on their own. I knew I could rely on my ultra running tribe to come to my aid – it’s one of the things I love about the sport and the people who participate in it: we look out for and take care of each other. They even had pizza waiting for me back at the motel.
While this was not the run I had in mind when I started out the previous morning, I must say that if one has to get into trouble on a trail, the Grand Canyon is a great place to do it. I wasn’t worried about getting lost. I always had water and food in my pack, and spare clothing for warmth. My friends knew my route and when I was overdue. At the emergency shelter, I was completely safe and comfortable and could easily have spent the night there. (I sent the rangers a thank you note with some cash to replace the dead batteries and snacks in the cache box.) Many small things went wrong that day, including lack of water on the North Rim section, but the biggest error was simple and entirely my own: not having backup batteries for my flashlight.
I learned that the creature I had in my flashlight beam at the shelter was a ring-tailed cat – apparently quite a rare thing to see.
I finished the adventure with a story to tell, a new appreciation for my own limitations, and a hard-earned lesson to never assume that one success ensures a repeat. I also learned how spectacular it is to be in the Grand Canyon, alone, with a clear night sky full of stars.
I returned to run the Canyon again in 1998, but opted for an abbreviated route with a friend, turning back at Cottonwood, certain we would finish before dark. Even so, I carried two flashlights as well as spare batteries. I knew better than to underestimate the Grand Canyon again.[An excellent YouTube video of a more typical R2R2R run by Jeff Pelletier and friends from 2013 can be found here.]