Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

R2R2R of the Grand Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 17, 2009


R2R2R of the Grand Canyon
47 miles, 11,000 feet elevation gain
Grand Canyon National Park

It is not the world’s deepest canyon, but there are no others on this planet that match it’s sheer enormity. 47 miles, 10,500 feet elevation gain. In one day crossing this grand chasm from rim to rim, turning around and retracing your steps to begin where you started. It is the rim to rim-to-rim challenge or R2R2R, as many know it.

With the moon hidden behind the horizon I began descending the Bright Angel Trail at 4 am with almost no natural light. The spotlight of my LED headlamp illuminated the trail as I weaved around iced over puddles and a few patches of snow. Finding my jogging pace I could see my breath in the 20-degree weather as I made my way down the switchbacks. Light began to fill the sky around the same time that I could begin to hear the roar of the Colorado River. As day began to take over night I realized my first blunder was forgetting to apply or pack any sun block. Such a minor mistake could be both detrimental to the success of the challenge and to my safety on such an extreme physical adventure. Fortunately just before I reached the bridge spanning the Colorado River I ran into a German backpacker who gave me a healthy portion of sun block.

9.6 miles and 2.5 hours into my journey I took a quick break near Phantom Ranch and continued jogging up the North Kaibab trail. As the trail began to climb out of the bottom of the canyon my mostly jogging some walking combination began to pendulum.

After reaching the Roaring Springs Trail junction I broke out my iPod; which supplied much needed mental energy for the tough switchback climbing ahead. To the sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium I found a powerful walking stride. The jogging had ended long ago but I found my rhythm and was making good time. I spotted a group of backpackers 3 or 4 switchbacks above me and played a mind game to catch them as quickly as possible. Blowing past them, I continued power walking under the Supai Tunnel through patches of snow until I reached the North Rim at 7 hours elapsed time. I took a quick break on the rim that was covered in deep snow and then began heading back down the canyon.

My plan was find a slow and steady jog all the way to the Colorado, but after about a mile I realized that was not going to happen. My legs and feet just didn’t feel like they had it in them so I resorted to walking. The further down I got the more my feet and lower legs became a bother. I took about ten minutes soaking my lower extremities in the icy cold waters of Bright Angel Creek, which was a tremendous help. Reaching Phantom Ranch at 12 hours elapsed time I was exhausted. My feet though not blistered felt like hamburger. My legs were weak and my stomach was beginning to ache. I knew the climb up the south rim was going to be the hardest physical thing I had ever done.

I felt like I was crawling even though I was walking. With constipation cramps from too many energy bars my stomach got worse. Before I reached the Indian Gardens Camp it got dark. The final three miles were excruciating. With no moon I was unable to monitor my progress as the canyon walls, the rim and the dark sky blended into a plain of blackness. Dust mixed with tiny particles of dried mule manure filled the air and coated my nasal passages and the back of my throat. I just kept on taking another step.

After 17 hours I reached the South Rim and my car in the parking lot. A short drive took me to my hotel room in Tusayan. When I placed my key card in the door a red light blinked before me. I tried several times to no avail. My room could not have been any further from the lobby in this large hotel. I remember the slow excruciating hobble to the lobby and back to my room as the hardest part of the journey. It would be another four days till my walking completely returned to normal.

I am not sure that I would call this challenge fun and I probably would only do it again with a partner, but it was without question the most testing physical exercise I have ever performed. It took Mother Nature six millions years to create a feature who’s size and scope can not be appreciated through words or images; how could crossing it and back in one day not be worth it!

I did not bring a camera on this hike. The lead image of this post from a previous visit to the Grand Canyon.


3 Responses

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  1. sanderling said, on July 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    I’ve read your blog entry on your rim to rim to rim hike several times now, and I keep coming back to the rhetorical question with which you ended it, and the note beneath that question. How could crossing the Grand Canyon and back in one day not be worth it, you ask? By failing to stop and appreciate the grandeur, the beauty, the immensity, and the rest of the Canyon’s truly awesome nature.

    When I was preparing for my own rim to rim to rim hike, I was guided to an considerable extent by one piece of advice on pacing: if I was just about the slowest person on the trail, I had probably adopted the ideal pace. I did take a camera on this hike; I walked with it in my hand the entire way, and took over 1,500 photos. I also stopped in my tracks time after time after time … turning around, looking up, looking down, opening my eyes in wonder, to drink in as much of the Canyon’s splendor as I could. Thus conditioned, I could appreciate down within the Vishnu schist the transitory flicker of light we humans are in the stretch of our own planet’s time; I could stare into the distance on the Tonto plateau and understand how small each of us is within this universe. I was also able to detour on side hikes to see Ribbon Falls and and the incredible views of Plateau Point, to take a wander down the Tonto for a ways. I’m 60, and I’ll admit that your trek — although a very impressive feat — holds no interest for me. That said, I would advise you to try another, much slower and contemplative rim to rim to rim; I suspect that you’ll find that in testing your body this one time, you denied your spirit of the state of awe and humility the Canyon can open for us.

    • GC Crazy said, on August 18, 2009 at 6:11 am

      Sanderling, your comment is resonant of the response R2R and R2R2R hikers get on another Grand Canyon blog I actively participate on. I can only assume you and the others imagine that the particular hike described is the person’s one and only experience of the Canyon. I have hiked the entire river from Nankoweap to Kanab and nearly all the named trails on the TI map. I have also done four R2R dayhikes. I don’t see what the problem is to take on the different sort of challenge once in a while. I am backcountry hiking and camping in the Grand Canyon between 30 and 40 nights a year. That gives me plenty of time to appreciate its grandeur, beauty, and spiritual majesty. A rim to rim dayhike is just a different kind of thing.

  2. canyoneering said, on July 24, 2009 at 12:30 am

    To your point “I would advise you to try another, much slower and contemplative rim to rim to rim; I suspect that you’ll find that in testing your body this one time, you denied your spirit of the state of awe and humility the Canyon can open for us.”

    Nothing you say is untrue, however I advise you to open your mind on different ways to experience the grandeur of the wilderness. Sometimes testing your body in such an awesome, immense and beautiful place as the Grand Canyon is a deeply spiritual experience in its own right. Believe me when I tell you I experienced awe and humility for the canyon during my rim to rim to rim experience.

    The truth is normally I do take things slow and take lots of pictures. Fortunately for me I live in Arizona and get out nearly every weekend in the wilderness. It is good to mix up different activities in the wilderness, i.e., hiking, canyoneering, backpacking, rock climbing, rafting etc. and different ways to approach those activities. Please look at many of the other posts on our blog where we took things slower. You may be particularly interested in the post “The subterranean world of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River” and “The magic of Havasupai”.


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