The moment my feet dropped off the rim I was buffeted by gusts roaring up the canyon walls, forcing me to lean forward, against my trekking poles, to avoid being pushed off the narrow trail. A long, dark fall down hundreds, if not thousands, of feet was not how I imagined this day would start. When the wind briefly relented I scurried onward, lumbering under the dim light of my headlamp, anxious to get miles behind me. If I was going to succeed in my first Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim then I couldn't let a little breeze slow me down.
Years ago Chris and I did a classic rim-to-river-to-rim, walking down South Kaibab Trail in the early morning light, crossing the Colorado River to rest at Phantom Ranch, and then slogging up Bright Angel in the afternoon. We hiked 18-odd miles and, ignoring some minor cramping issues, had a great time. However, to do the full "R3", with a total mileage of 45 miles and 11k elevation gain, I had to change a few things, including a ridiculous start time and (literally) a full day worth of gear. Kirsty and I drove up yesterday and got a few hours of sleep before she dropped me off at South Kaibab Trailhead a few minutes after midnight. She headed back to camp to get some more sleep and I started down the trail, hoping to get distance in before sunrise.
South Kaibab Trail passed with vague familiarity. I remembered a few spots, even cloaked in the darkness, like Ooh Aah and Cedar Point, while other sections felt completely new. The wind lessened once I dropped down Skeleton, making the long switchbacks seem even longer in the weirdly quiet air. When I reached the new rest spot at the Tipoff I stopped, both to change out some gear and to gaze at the night sky. It was so deliciously dark above that I felt like I was falling upwards into the Milky Way.
Clad now in shorts and feeling good about my progress I sped down the rest of South Kaibab, plummeting past the Tipoff and zipping back and forth on the inner canyon wall. A blink and I was at Black Bridge, gingerly crossing a dark and noisy river that my light could not reach, then another blink and I was finishing the sandy slog over to Phantom Ranch, hunting for a water spigot outside the Canteen. Rushing a bit, sensitive of time, I downed extra water and refilled, munching on snacks between gulps, and practically hollered when a ranger crunched past me in the darkness. Didn't think I'd see anyone at three in the morning, especially at the Ranch.
This was my first time on North Kaibab Trail, and I really enjoyed the "Box", where Bright Angel Creek winds sharply between tall rock cliffs. The trail was well-built and, with the exception of a few sections of thick reeds, easy to cruise on. A few hours later and the valley opened up, just in time for daylight to filter in and other hikers to join me on the trail. The sporadic company was nice after so many quiet hours in the darkness. Once I reached Cottonwood Camp the day was effectively started, with the sun painting the cliffs high above me and backpackers breaking camp and hitting the trail.
I was starting to tire when I reached Manzanita Rest. It was 6:30 AM, still early for most people, and I had walked 15 miles. Turning around was still an option, and this was a good point for it, as I'd likely be back by noon and could have a normal, relaxing afternoon; if I continued, I had 4000' of climb ahead. I gave myself a long rest, drinking water and pushing some caffeine, and decided to push on.
The trail immediately fought back, with a steep climb to the Roaring Springs spur, and I earned that elevation with sweat, and then things began to click. There was a steady uphill grade and plenty of beautiful vistas for distraction. Even when I crossed the footbridge and dealt with switchbacks, and then the sun crested the walls and bathed me in heat, and then I reached Supai Tunnel and there was no water, even through all that I was able to keep up a steady march with intermittent water breaks. This silly little hike was actually possible. I crested the final piece and reached, for the first time, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
After a brief celebration, complete with sardines and more water, it was time to return. Only half of my adventure was done - still had to go back down and up the ditch. Any morning coolness that held on past the sunrise was gone as I headed down, and, if possible, I sweat more on the descent than I had climbing North Kaibab. By the time I returned to Manzanita for another water refill it was past noon and I was toasty. There was a ranger manning the water now, and he had some warnings for me (and a few others) who were doing the long hike today. I pulled to full capacity, thanked the ranger, soaked my shirt in the creek, popped some earbuds in, and bolted south towards Phantom Ranch, feeling the heat bouncing off the canyon walls and cooking me from all sides.
Six miles between Manzanita Rest and Phantom Ranch, and boy did they drag. There was plenty to see, Cottonwood Camp and Ribbon Falls spur and, eventually, the Box, plus all of the towering cliffs and formations around me, yet it was hot. I had water and stopped for several breaks, and it was still hot. There were few spots for shade and, when a helpful boulder showed up along the trail, with just enough room for me to tuck under and rest, I did so with gusto, but it was still hot. I only saw a handful of others on the trail. Most of the backpackers were probably already napping, and day hikers were smart enough to be done by now. The Box was enjoyable on my return, steep rock walls providing plenty of shade, and I felt better when I rolled into Phantom Ranch.
A small crowd milled around the Canteen, which only offered window service with the current Covid restrictions. I donned my mask and ordered one, then two, then three lemonades, saving the ice between each serving to cool my water. There was some chit-chat, sharing of itineraries, and then I pushed on, eager to finish the last leg of my hike. It was time to climb up Bright Angel and regain the South Rim.
Crossing the river on the Silver Bridge was quick, and following the sandy trail along the river annoying, and then it was time to haul up Devil's Corkscrew. Fueled by sugary lemonade and caffeine I zipped up, passing several other groups along the way. Kirsty, who had slept through the night after dropping me off at midnight, was somewhere on this trail, as she had hiked down Bright Angel Trail to the river this morning and was working her way back up. The plan was to meet her at Indian Garden and hike the last few miles together, though I did bump into her a mile early with my over-eager pace and we caught up on our day's adventures.
Kirsty was exhausted when we reached the Garden and we took a full hour to rest, eating and drinking, letting the sun set and evening coolness settle in around us. This was her longest trek in years and I wasn't in any rush, more than happy with simply finishing a full R3 regardless of time. When we did move on we moved slow, pausing frequently on the trail and stopping at each rest stop, and cresting the Rim after 1AM.
While I didn't technically get the full hike done in 24 hours, the artificial goal that most aim for, I'm still thrilled and surprised that I did finish the full route. For years I've looked at rim-to-rim-to-rim hikes as being an unachievable goal reserved for ultra-runners. Somehow I did the unachievable, though, and both the location and difficulty has opened up all sorts of bad ideas for future adventures.