Friday, April 1, 2016

Easter weekend - Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim / 50K

My first ever trip to Grand Canyon was in 2007. Spent about an hour wandering around the South Rim looking at jaw dropping views before driving off to Vegas. Second trip in 2012 and this time it was a backpacking trip from North rim to south rim spread over 4 days. During that trip I saw a bunch of runners running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and I convinced myself these are super human nut cases and vowed I'll never attempt running on a brutal terrain like Bright Angel / Kaibab trails. Fast-forward 4 years I've actually made a ton of ultra running friends and a few of them inspire me to go beyond my self imposed barriers. Heard from my ultra machine friend Elaine (Ninja) that she and Tom (Dragon) were planning to run Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (double crossing the river) on Saturday before Easter. This was their crazy way of celebrating Tom's 47th birthday with 47 running miles. Two more friends Sally and Paul were considering Rim-to-Rim (start from South and ending up on North Rim). I reluctantly signed up to join for Rim-to-Rim single crossing with Sally and Paul. As we started to figure out logistics we found out that North rim is closed for winter till May 15th and there really is no way to get back to South Rim upon finishing Rim-to-Rim. So Paul, Sally and I kept an open mind to do Rim-to-River or Rim-to-Box canyon out and back run. Being the most inexperienced and amateur runner in the group, it was very overwhelming to sign up for this "we are gonna have fun" adventure. To add to the confusion I had done no long runs since November and I crammed up few 10-12 trail running miles at Sour land and Tammany and ran Naked Bavarian 20 miler 3 weeks before the trip.

After weeks of planning and exchanging a million Facebook messages we were ready to roll. Sally, Paul and I flew to Phoenix on Thursday Mar 24th evening and stayed overnight near the airport. Tom and Elaine joined us Friday Mar 25th morning and picked us up from our hotel.

Ready to roll
We had made grand plans of reaching Grand Canyon by 4 pm and sleeping early. But a lousy car rental service at Phoenix followed by a flat tire within few miles into the journey threw our plans out the window.
Tom and Paul did all heavy lifting. I'm just pretending to help :P
We reached Grand Canyon just before Sunset. Took a quick few obligatory photos at the south rim and checked into Yavapai Lodge.

Tom & Elaine crashed early as they had to start their R2R2R run next morning at 3 a.m. We made a bold plan that we'll meet Tom & Elaine on their way back from North rim at Ribbon falls so we all could run back together to the south rim. We were super confident that we'll make it back to the lodge by 7 pm and go for the celebratory dinner. Paul volunteered to drive them at ungodly hour to trail-head. As expected Ninja got to post flat runner posts before crashing for the night. Next morning she & Tom were dressed for cold weather and started their adventure run around 3 am.

3 am start for Dragon & Ninja.
The three of us got ready and ate a solid breakfast at Bright Angel Lodge restaurant and began our run around 8 am. Sally did manage to slide & fall over covered ice near BA trail-head and shrugged it off next instant. Trail was super crowded with lots of hikers and backpackers. Weather was bit chilly at the start but we got really warm barely a mile into the run. We were in ridiculously high spirits and stopped at will to take action photos. It truly was a great morning for taking pictures and brought me back all the memories from the backpacking trip.

We made it to the river in about 3.5 hours and it was surreal running on the Silver bridge crossing Colorado river towards Phantom ranch.

Ate a packed lunch at Phantom ranch and relaxed a bit and then started running towards Box canyon on North Kaibab trail. It was very toasty and temperature was probably hitting 80s as we navigated through the narrow trail.

We crossed a series of bridges and then Sally turned around to get a head-start for the return ascent.

Paul and I ran further to Ribbon falls hoping to meet Tom and Elaine on their descent. We were positive that we'll be able to catch up to Sally at Phantom ranch so we could all run back together to South Rim. Upon reaching Ribbon falls we waited for about 45 minutes and there was no sign of Tom & Elaine. Instead we saw a helicopter flying towards north rim and we dreaded hoping that's not a rescue helicopter trying to get Tom and Elaine.

That better not be for Dragon & Ninja
On a positive note we met a runner coming down North Kaibab who had met Tom/Elaine and told us they were in high spirits.

We were worried.. but they were having fun..

We felt relieved but didn't want to wait forever so started running quickly towards Phantom ranch to catch up to Sally. On the way I saw couple of backpackers heading to Cottonwood camp-ground on north rim and gave them a message for Tom/Elaine. We got to the ranch in under an hour only to see the ranch was closed and Sally had already left towards South rim. Disappointed at missing Sally we crossed the river and continued our ascent towards South rim on Bright Angel trail. By then fatigue was catching up slowly and power hiking made more sense than running the steep climbs. Sun was also going down and a hiker coming in opposite direction told us we were 15 minutes away from Indian garden camp-ground and also confirmed he saw Sally leave Indian Garden towards South rim about 45 minutes ago. We were relieved at the news but at the same time worried that Sally would be climbing alone in the dark. We got to Indian garden camp-ground at 7 pm and it was completely dark by then. We put on extra layers and turned on headlamp and continued our climb towards South rim.

Thats not the lodge.. Its Sally's headlamp !!
We did see couple of moving headlamps higher up on the mountain and wondered if one of that is Sally. We kept looking behind hoping to see headlamps of Tom/Elaine but saw nothing but darkness. We turned off headlamp few times just to catch glimpse of stars on the sky . It was truly mind-blowing. It took us close to an hour to climb 1.5 miles to 3 mile rest-house and another hour to get to 1.5 mile rest-house. I was beyond exhausted and developed a bad cough trying hard to breathe with my heart-rate going to ridiculous levels. My hips were ready to give up and I was wobbling like a drunkard. Awesome Paul was right behind me the whole time. He gave me one of his hiking poles to ensure I don't loose balance & fall of cliff. We were getting closer and closer to the headlamp that was ahead of us and we finally caught up to the headlamp about a mile to go. It was indeed Sally and I was beyond thrilled at finding her in darkness. She was exhausted and had trouble breathing but kept moving on. I developed an immense amount of respect for the toughness and bad-assery she showed by climbing alone like that on a dark remote trail.

Super proud of my friends.
I knew we were less than a mile to the finish and goal was to cross the two arches we had passed earlier in the morning. We were hitting our lows but had no choice but to move along. Paul was fantastic help and he stuck with Sally the whole time. Took a long brutal hike to get to the finish around 10:45 pm. We were physically and mentally beaten up to have any sense of accomplishment. Paul showed his wicked sense of humor suggesting we should do this again next day.
Paul said he might have seen some headlamps down in the trail and dropped the two of us at the lodge and headed back to trail-head to wait for Tom/Elaine. By the time we cleaned up and searching for food in our room, Paul had miraculously received a text message saying Tom/Elaine were about 4 miles away. I woke up to some noise in our room at around 3:30 am and saw Elaine sitting and chatting with Sally. I immediately jumped up with joy and was thrilled to hear Tom/Elaine finished around 3:15 am. Holy smokes !!. Thats close to 24 hours to do this 47 miles of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim adventure.
Finished at 3:15 am !! and still smiling.
It was hilarious to watch this outside our room.
No explanation needed.
Apparently keys to Tom/Elaine's room wasn't working and Tom was too exhausted to care about that.. We quickly fixed the issue and got Tom and Elaine back to their room before crashing for the night.

We celebrated the following Easter Sunday morning with giant breakfast at Bright Angel lodge, took few more photos at the rim and headed towards Flagstaff.

Picked up another car rental drove to beautiful Sedona. Ate pizza for lunch and waved goodbye to Tom/Elaine who were flying back home that night. Sally, Paul & I spent another day exploring Sedona before heading home.

Parking lot pic @ Sedona
It still amuses me that our estimates were off by many many hours. Kind of funny we thought it would be piece of cake to get back to lodge to eat dinner by 7 pm. I'm still awestruck at witnessing so much bad-assery from these friends during the trip. It was an epic adventure for Tom and Elaine running 47 miles on a merciless trail close to 24 hours. Sally was ridiculously tough in climbing Bright Angel trail in pitch darkness. Paul gets all round gratitude for his selfless help to everyone throughout the trip. I'm truly lucky to have these seasoned ultra runners as my friends who would go above and beyond to help. I can only hope to be in their sweaty shoes some day. Remarkable weekend journey filled with epic highs and lows came to an end. I can't wait to enjoy a similar journey with these friends at another place & time..

Here is a link to pictures that were taken during the trip.

Photo Album