The day we tried to double-cross the Grand Canyon. We discovered you can cross it twice, but you cannot double-cross The Canyon. It provides you of its largesse -- in beauty and splendor, in heat and winds, in majesty and intricacy, in hills and valleys, in deceptive turns and grand spectacles. It demands its toll in blood and salt, in water and energy, in flesh and sinew. You have to pay and weaken yourself to conquer it. In the bargain, you have to feel a mortal, a survivor, not a conqueror. It was a humbling experience. It was a Grand experience. The day we tried to double-cross the Grand Canyon.
We were six, the usual four - Ganesh, Gaurav, Santhosh, and self, Padma - from California, and Arun - from Austin. The long journey began with goodies from Ashwini bakery as we drove up from Phoenix airport to our hotel in Williams. Santhosh was already in Williams. We stopped briefly at Flagstaff and bought essential supplies like grapes, avocados, Ensure, and Boost. In our original plan, we were to get to Williams, sleep a bit, and start the drive to Grand Canyon around 2-ish so that we could start our run around 3:30am. We figured that would enable us to return around 10pm.
Somewhere in between Flagstaff and Williams, I gently suggested that we get dinner and drive immediately over to the canyon and start our race at 1am. This was to help us in two ways -- one, we would be running without having slept at all, plus running in the night, so a good training for what might come in Cactus Rose; and two, we could come back sooner than the expected 10pm return. The crazy folks that are part of this group, all immediately jumped at the suggestion and soon it was decided that, that is what we would do.
And so we started at 1:30am. The plan was simple. We run down the Bright Angel trail since we can park at the trailhead. We cross the river, and break at Phantom Ranch. Then up the North Kaibab trail to the North rim. Then the return journey on the exact same route to return to our car. This would cover about 47miles in distance and over 10000 ft in elevation gain. After some initial hiccups, we stuck to this plan and went down Bright Angel. It was a glorious night, the moon was shining so bright, that we practically did not need our lamps. As we danced down by the light of the moon, across the Silver bridge on the Colorado, and waltzed into Phantom Ranch it was nearing 5am.
We had a long break at Phantom Ranch. Padma could hardly keep stuff in her stomach at this stage. We created a drop-bag and stashed all our warm clothes and extra food for the return journey, keeping with us what we thought would be sufficient to go the 28miles up the North rim and back.
The next phase was from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground. The day was beginning to break as we left Phantom Ranch. Slowly, as the sun rose, the canyon walls turned golden starting from the top, even as the moon continued to shine relentlessly (see above).
The moon was shining on the canyon,
Shining with all her might:
She did her very best to make
The ridges smooth and straight--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of a morning bright.
The sun was shining sulkily,
Because he thought the moon
Had got no business to be there
After the night was done--
"It's very rude of her," he said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"
[Adapted that one from Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter. ]
We covered the 7 miles and reached Cottonwood around 7:45am and were promptly subject to an interrogation by the park ranger there. Turned out he was something of a runner in the past, and had a lot of knowledge (not sure about the experience) about running clothes, shoes, camelbaks, gels etc. We regrouped at Cottonwood and left for the North rim at 8:15am. This stretch was relentless uphill and quite technical in large parts. There were a couple of water spots at Roaring Springs and Supai Tunnel. The last two miles were particularly grueling as we made our way to the top by 11:10am.
The North rim was very chilly and we were also over shooting our estimated time. So we figured we need to get more calories, and we hitched a ride to the restaurant. Got some hot pizza slices, a few sandwiches for later, and some hot chocolate over there, an hitched another ride back to the trailhead. Padma and Ganesh had made it to the top by the time we got there. Arun had (prudently) decided to turn around 2 miles after Cottonwood. Gave them pizza and we immediately started heading down.
The return to Cottonwood was steep downhill and we were mostly conserving our quads and not hammering down. In between, Santhosh gave in to temptation and took off, while Gaurav and myself stuck to what we were doing -- except for the last 2 miles, which we decided to run hard. and got to Cottonwood in 2 hours after leaving the North rim. We met Arun at Cottonwood who had spent many hours there socializing with all who were passing through the campground.
Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch was a nice runnable stretch. We left Cottonwood at 3:45pm and covered the 7miles to Phantom Ranch in a little under an hour and a half, just under 13 minute miles. At Phantom Ranch we met this girl who wanted company to hike back to Cottonwood. Having delicately refused ('no luck for her' as she chose to put it), we had our sandwiches, called spouses and parents to inform the delayed return, and started our journey back.
The last stretch lasted for ever. I was sweeping and coming behind the last runner, although I am now not sure why. At that point of time, it seemed like an important thing to do. Strange how the mind works when you havent slept and are tired. Slowly we marched up the South rim and time seemed to have come to a standstill. With about a mile to go, I decided to power it up and drive the car over to the trailhead from the parking lot (it was a little away). That was a good decision since it woke me up and got me warm and going.
Then came the hardest part of the entire journey. The hour and half long drive back to Williams with 5 folks sleeping in the car. Many times I thought I will have to pull out and sleep a bit on the side of the road. Then found some Boost and that woke me up enough to feel confident about driving back safely. I thought of it then and I agree even now, I would easily trade those 1.5 hours of driving to having to climb North rim for 3+ hours even at that stage.
Here endeth the double-crossing. It had taken nearly a full day (23 hours, 23 minutes). It was the longest any of us had gone (except Padma). What with the breaks in between and such, there are no sore muscles. Only recovery needed was from the lack of sleep. Crossing the canyon is quite an adventure, and crossing it twice is a fantastic experience.