Written by Brie Hemingway - http://briehemingway.com
It was less than three months ago but it seems like another lifetime. Did I really do THAT? It feels like a dream … a really, really crazy dream.
On our Thanksgiving weekend (Canadian), I descended into the Grand Canyon with seven friends to traverse approximately 80 km from the south rim to the north rim and back again, known as the “Rim2Rim2Rim.”
We drove down to Bellingham and flew Allegiant to Las Vegas. From there we rented two matching cars and drove to the Grand Canyon village, where we would begin our run early the next day. I don’t do well with lack of sleep (understatement) so I took every opportunity to nap.
I was seated on the plane next to a young guy going on a typical Vegas trip with friends. Every time I woke up he’d laugh and call me a “fly trap” because when I sleep sitting up, my head tilts back and my mouth hangs open. I admit, I’m not the most attractive sleeper. We chatted a bit and he hoped we didn’t die in the canyon.
After we landed in Vegas, we picked up our rental cars, stopped at a grocery store, and loaded up on food. Then we hit the road and I hit the hay again. Kyle amused himself by taking weird photos of me sleeping.
We stopped in Williams, just outside of the Grand Canyon Village for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Honestly, I don’t know if that was the greatest idea before a huge run but at least they had vegetarian options!
That night we checked into our motel rooms, loaded up our hydration packs, and laid out our clothes in nervous excitement. There was a lot of “how much food do we need?” and “is this enough food??” being asked. About half of our group had done the one-way trip across the canyon last year and knew what they were getting into, but I had never even been to the Grand Canyon so I had no idea what to expect … except a lot of down, a lot of up, a lot of down again, and then a lot of up.
Everyone slept surprisingly well that night and woke up bright and early for our 3am alarm. After taking a group selfie (of course), we departed at 4am and ran/walked to the South Kaibob trailhead (where we took another group selfie) and began on dark descent into the canyon. At first it was a little slow going in the dark with the mule trench and the sudden switchbacks in the trail.
That sunrise was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I took a couple photos knowing that it would never do it justice. Everything was beautiful and exciting at that moment which helped ease my anxiousness about how the hell I was ever going to finish the 80 km journey. We took a few group shots knowing that we would not be so smiley on the way back.
At the bottom of the canyon is a river and Phantom Ranch, a popular camping spot with cabins, a dining hall, and best of all, a flush toilet! Such luxury! I was pleasantly surprised at the facilities along the main trails. There were quite a few well-maintained outhouses and water stations.
I was also surprised by how many people were on the trails despite the many signs stating that going down to the river was not a day hike. Most of the people were prepared and fit and seemed to know what they were doing, but we did see some that were under-prepared and struggling. There were people backpacking, people doing the Rim2Rim, and even a few of the crazier types doing the Rim2Rim2Rim like us. We came across people from all over the world with interesting accents and friendly dispositions.
After we stopped to eat one of our PB&Js at Phantom Ranch, we headed towards the north rim. There was a long stretch of very gradual up and then some serious climbing. It was around noon and getting hot at this point. The canyon radiated heat. I found a small piece of shade and held my face and hands against the cool rocks for a moment then carried on. As we continued our ascent, we could see the canyon edge hovering above us at what seems like an impossibly high altitude. Would we ever get there??
We reached at the last water station before the Rim and talked to a nice park ranger who asked if we were doing the Rim2Rim2Rim. We said yes and I had expected him to give us a hard time but he didn’t. I think he could tell we were prepared and we were doing alright. He wished us well and told us it wasn’t much farther now.
Finally I reached the top, where a few speedier friends had been waiting for about 20 minutes. They headed back down while I waited for the rest of our group to catch up. I was pleasantly surprised with how I was feeling at that point. Tired, obviously, but not done. I had been really doubtful about whether I would be able to make the two-way trip and was worried about what my options were if I couldn’t. I had heard there is a bus you can take back to the south rim. It’s expensive and I didn’t know the schedule but there was an out at least. Luckily it wasn’t an issue!
There were another couple groups that were getting ready to go back across and a some other people who had done Rim2Rim and were amazed that anyone would turn around and go back. One guy was dying for a Coke and a random person offered him one of theirs – I was a little jealous.
The other caught up and the five of us descended into the canyon for a second time. The sun had moved enough that most of the trail was in shade, although still pretty warm. I am tentative on downhill by default plus I knew that I had to save my legs for the climb out so I wasn’t exactly sprinting down.
We came across a couple hiking up the north rim and the guy asked us how far it was to the top. We told him an approximate distance and time it would take and looking very concerned he pointed way up and asked if THAT was the top. We told him yes, much to his disappointment. He still had a LOT of climbing to go. They lady assured us that they would be fine and that they had food and water.
The return trip felt even longer despite being mostly downhill. Once the route had flattened out a bit. I kept thinking Phantom Ranch would be around the next corner … wait no, it must be the next one … nope! It was dark by the time we finally got there. And I felt like my heart was pounding – I may have drank too much caffeinated eBoost. We sat down for 10-15 minutes and Courtney and I shared my last PB&J sandwich. Despite being super smushed and having been warmed by the hot sun earlier, it was a lifesaver!
A couple hikers we had passed caught up during our break and told us they coincidentally had five extra permits to camp for the night and that the five of us were welcome to have them. It was pretty tempting but we didn’t have tents or sleeping bags – just a flimsy emergency blanket. We declined his generous offer and plodded on, knowing that the hardest was yet to come … the climb out of the canyon.
Despite the south rim being lower in elevation that the north rim, the climb out TOOK FOREVER. I had my lowest low of ultrarunning ever, and basically the only one of note so far. How were we EVER going to make it OUT of here!? But I kept going, and maybe half an hour later I looked at my watch and saw the distance progress we had made. My brain rallied and I knew I had to just keep moving.
I pulled a bit ahead of the others and Courtney later caught up to me. We took short breaks here and there but I knew if I stayed still too long I wouldn’t be able to get going again. It felt like we were doing a never-ending Grouse Grind. I could see two lights up high and I wondered for a long time whether that was the end.
In the light of my headlamp I saw a tarantula on the ground up ahead. It seemed rather still and there was enough room to go around but Courtney wouldn’t pass. I threw a couple rocks towards it to scare it off the trail. At this time a random guy who was doing the Rim2Rim2Rim by himself came up the trail to us. Courtney asked if she could use him as a human shield as she passed by the tarantula, and he agreed. I was dying laughing. We talked to him a bit and he had hiked in the Grand Canyon before. I asked him about the lights and he said that they were in fact the top. Yay!
Meanwhile, slightly farther behind, Kyle was ready to lay down on the trail and wait for daylight. Dayna had the fun job of keeping him moving. At some point Chris realized that he had Courtney’s jacket and caught up to us because it was getting cold.
When we were finally getting close to the top, we heard yelling. Chris, Courtney and I were concerned that Dayna and Kyle were having problems behind us. They weren’t far behind but we didn’t exactly want to lose altitude to go down and see if they were okay. At this point we had some cell coverage and I managed to call Kyle. They were fine and it wasn’t them that yelled. He seemed to be in weirdly good spirits.
After what felt like forever I reached the top with Courtney and Chris slightly behind me, and Kyle and Dayna just behind them. We did it! At some point we had got in touch with the other three faster members of our group who finished a few hours before us. Hailey was waiting at the top with a car stocked with snacks and beer! Thank goodness because it was about 12:30am by this point and really cold up there!
Apparently when Hailey, Alley, and Devin finished they had just missed the bus that would take them close to Yavapai Lodge and it would be another half an hour before the next one. It was so cold and everything was closed by then so they hitchhiked realizing that they couldn’t remember what cabin we were in (there are a lot of them). They got out of the car and walked around trying to figure it out when another person offered to drive them around the grounds. Eventually they found the building with our cars parked outside!
Needless to say, we all went to sleep quickly upon arriving back at the lodge at around 1am. The weird thing is, we all woke up early! We were starving so we went to the nearby restaurant for breakfast and ate a TON of food. We then showered and went back to the south rim to take some photos and see the Grand Canyon from above in daylight. It was breathtaking.
Courtney gave us all custom medals she had made for us! Chris surprised us (especially me) by pulling out custom Rim2Rim2Rim Grand Canyon 2015 patches that Jesse had made for all of us and sneakily given to Chris for the trip. Did I mention that Jesse is the best!?!? These were such an awesome mementos to have of an amazing, surreal accomplishment. I was so nervous about going on this trip but I’m so glad I did (after much reassurance from Dayna). It was truly life changing.
We drove back to Vegas that day and stayed the night at the New York, New York hotel. We went for dinner, a couple drinks, and then hit the hay – not your typical wild and crazy Vegas trip. The next morning we flew home. Despite it being a wonderful trip, I was so excited to get home and give Jesse and Hadley a big hug!