Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Grand Canyon. What goes down....

Our travel plans to the USA were hatched around the Shabbat table more than a year ago and 6 months later the plans went into effect. The West coast and specifically the Grand Canyon was high on our priority list. We knew we had to book well in advance to get places in the park.
After booking I started researching hikes and trails and by the nature of things also runs in the canyon. Some of the top US mountain and ultra runners attempt what is known as rim to rim runs, traversing  from one side of the canyon down to the Colorado river and then up the other side. That's about 34 kilometers taking the shortest route. Then there are the runners who want more of a challenge and run rim to rim to rim or R2R2R. 68 kms of mostly down and up...Although there are no official races there are records kept for these endevours, known as FKT, ie Fastest Known Time. The FKT for R2R2R was set by Rob Krar in 2013 at 6:21. Read about his run here:
We had booked a cabin on the more popular and accessible South Rim of the canyon, as luck would have it next to the trailhead of the Bright Angel trail. I had determined that while a rim to rim run was logistically too complicated, it was possible to run from the rim down to the Colorado river and back up again. Reading through the various trail and running sites it became apparent that the way to run or hike this is to descend via the South Kaibab trail,  run alongside the river for a few kilometers,  and then ascend the Bright Angel trail. This is for several reasons. The South Kaibab trail is steeper and more difficult,  but has more stunning views of the canyon and especially of the river. There are no rest stops with water on the South Kaibab whereas the Bright Angel has 3 rest stops with water which is critical when you ascend later in the day. The park authorities discourage this hike as a 1 day effort, and have signs warning against attempting it both at the beginning of the trails and at various places as you descend.

There are also experienced hikers who caution against it - especially in the summer, where the temperatures are typically around 40C at the river.
But I had already determined within myself that this was a trail that I wanted to complete, while realising that it also demanded respect and solid preparation.  To that end in the weeks leading up to our departure I tried to run as many of my runs - especially the longer runs - on hotter days and in the early afternoon heat. These runs were usually on the hilly Har Eitan circuit above the Sataf springs. Around 2 weeks prior to leaving I decided to run the very challenging descent from Har Eitan to the springs. It's a particularly steep route which drops about 140 meters in just over a kilometer. I used to run and/or hike this route in both directions as preparation for some of my ultra marathons...After the descent I ran along the wadi for a few minutes and then climbed back up. After this challenge I was extremely sore the next day, and thus decided  that since the descent (and subsequent ascent) at the Grand Canyon were of an order of magnitude greater, I would have to mostly hike rather than run this looming challenge. was not a great confidence booster.
After all our planning and scheduling we flew out of Israel and landed in Phoenix.  Michal and I, together with Elisheva who had just finished her 2 years army service and Noa who had finished her first year of high school. Shira and Yishai would join us a week later in LA after our visit to the Grand Canyon. ..After a relaxing day and a half in sweltering Phoenix (not withstanding a late afternoon monsoon) we packed up the rental minivan and headed towards the Grand Canyon.
We drove through heavy rain and arrived on Tuesday evening at the Bright Angel lodge on the South Rim of the canyon.  Our cabin was very close to the edge of the rim - about a two minute walk! I was very keen to see it, so before unpacking we headed off...The first reaction on seeing the canyon is a jaw-dropping "Wow!!".  Or as Noa spontaneously observed: "מה רבו מעשיך ה"  - "How manifold are your works, oh Lord" (Psalms 104). Noa and I ventured about 750 meters down the Bright Angel trail as the sun set over the canyon - walking back up would be the last part of my trek 2 days later...

The following morning Michal and I went for a  run at sunrise along the edge of the rim.  The rim at the top of the canyon is at an elevation of about 2200 meters - that can be an issue for some people because the thinner air means less oxygen is available to breathe. I was fine - but Michal did mention that she felt she was breathing more heavily than usual for the pace we were running...  Later on that day we hired bikes and went for a breathtaking (haha) ride along the edge of the rim from the Grand Canyon visitor's center to Hermit's rest with many stops along the way to catch views of the canyon from various angles - the Colorado river was visible - looking like a thin streak from our vantage point 1500 meters above.  In the evening we went to watch the sunset from another point along the rim and then I was hoping to get to sleep early ahead of the next day's challenge.  I had decided to take the Hiker's express bus at 4am which would deliver me to the South Kaibab trail head at 4:30.  This meant that I would have to daven (morning prayers) after my return but it was essential to get in as much of the trail as possible before the heat intensified...
As usual before a big race I prepared all my gear the night before - tried and tested "race ready" shorts with multiple pockets containing 4 gels, a small bag of pretzels, some spare electrolyte tablets, a "compeed" plaster in case of blisters, and an empty small (200 ml) bottle to be used for taking water at the water stations.  I had my 3 liter capacity hydration backpack which I would fill with cold water to which I would add 2 electrolyte tablets. Club (HaSolelim Jerusalem) short sleeved shirt, Saucony Peregrine trail running shoes, injinji toe socks, running hat were all ready along with sunscreen, vaseline, voltaren and tape.
I woke up after a solid night's sleep feeling the adrenaline and ready to go.  I had made sure to drink steadily and well the day before and took a banana with me to the bus.  Michal was also up early and
walked with me to the bus stop...I was the only one there... The bus left on the stroke of 4 am and at the 2 additional stops another 10 hikers and 1 other runner got on the bus - It was dark outside but this was a night with a full moon so I decided there was no need for a headlamp.  We arrived at the trailhead at 4:30 and the others went off to organise themselves.  I ate my banana and was the first one on the trail...
It felt almost magical as I started down the steep slope - the massive walls of the Canyon in the early morning darkness with the full moon bathing the rocks in a glowing light. I had taken Michal's cellphone to take photos and was carrying it in my hand - taking photos and not bothering to stop my watch as runners are wont to do...the trail was wide but with lots of steps shaped out of wooden pieces at the top of the steps to prevent corrosion and often there was a depression in the actual step -
probably caused by the relentless pounding of the daily mule trains which go up and down the trails.  After about a kilometer I heard what sounded like water and assumed that there was a spring in the area.  But the sound got louder and I couldn't see any signs of running water - peering behind me in the semi darkness I realised that this was the early morning mule train - I had been passing various clumps of dry mule-dung, but I didn't relish the thought of having to negotiate jumping over lots of clumps of fresh - I quickened my pace and started more running down the slope than hiking in an effort to put some space between myself and the mules...But I was still trying to take some photos which demanded stopping and the mules would get closer...after about 1.5 kilometers I reached the appropriately named "Ooh Aah Point."


The whole canyon opens up in front of you - I had to take a few photos here and decided not long after this to step to the side of the trail and let the mules pass me by - a supply train with about a dozen mules and 2 drivers...I had consciously decided beforehand to run less down the trail - so I would just have to dodge the dung as best I could...having let the mules pass I was a lot more relaxed and settled back into a rhythm of good paced hiking (and dung dodging...) I was averaging around 18 minutes per kilometer down the trail including photo stops...This was slower than I had intended but was probably understandable given the moonlit start and taking a lot of photos early on. After Ooh Aah Point I heard some voices behind me and it sounded like a pair of German hikers - I decided to myself that I wasn't going to let them pass me...
I continued along towards Cedar Ridge at about 2.5 kms.  By now the sun had risen over the canyon although I was still progressing mostly in the shade.  I could still hear the hikers behind me, but at about 4kms the trail flattened out and I could start running freely for the first time - what a great feeling that was! I arrived at Skeleton Point at around 5 kilometers feeling good after about 1 hour 17 minutes. Even though it was still early in the morning and I wasn't feeling the heat, I was careful to drink steadily every 10 minutes and took my first gel at this point. Continuing to feel good I was
Down down into the unknown
running more when the trail conditions allowed, but being careful to hike the more challenging sections. From this point on I was starting to get glimpses of the Colorado River - flowing below between the walls of the Canyon. As I approached the river I realised that I had been catching back up to the mule train as I saw them trundling on steadily below.  Seeing the river was uplifting as that was my first main milestone on this adventure. 
Just me and my shadow

 Continuing steadily downward the river appeared larger each time it came into view.  Finally towards the 10 kilometer mark I approached a tunnel which preceded the first river crossing. I watched the mule train steadily advance through the tunnel and the ensuing river crossing.
I crossed the river and came to the end of the descent in exactly 2.5 hours. I had cut my average pace to 13.5 minutes per kilometer and the average grade had been 14%.  
The river looms larger with the bridge crossing

I was crossing the bridge across the river at about 7am.  The minimum temperature that day at the river was 25C and the maximum 41C. I guess it was about 30C when I was there but it was very dry and I had no feeling of discomfort.  I eased across the bridge onto the North side of the canyon - the water looked inviting but I knew it was dangerous to enter those strong currents...
On the bridge

 Having crossed the bridge I took out my packet of pretzels which tasted like the best I'd ever eaten even if they were slightly stale...I made my way along the riverbank trail towards the Bright Angel trail which would take me back up the canyon.  I knew there was a water tap nearby and took a slight unintentional detour towards the campground until realising that I was going the wrong way...Turning back I cooled off by splashing myself with water from the Bright Angel creek.  I found the tap at the start of the trailhead and drank a few more small bottles of water and poured more water over myself - very refreshing and I felt that I had enough water left in my backpack until the next water station at Indian Gardens which was about 5 kilometers away. I soon crossed back across the river on another bridge.  On my way down I had only met 1 couple of hikers making their way up the South Kaibab trail, but as I started up I was passing quite a few groups of hikers.  The trail from the bottom to Indian Gardens is significantly less steep and after negotiating some sandier soil I started running up at a steady pace.  In fact the next few kilometers were my fastest of the day as I developed a steady rhythm on a more runnable trail.  I was steadily passing hikers and that probably gave me added motivation.  The battery on Michal's phone had almost run out so I wasn't stopping much for photos either. I was running almost exclusively in the sun now and drinking steadily - even though I was climbing the temperature was going up - as I approached Indian Gardens the trail got steeper and there was more greenery from the springs - I was mixing running and hiking according to the difficulty of the climb. I was keenly waiting for Indian Gardens and the water stop there, but the trail seemed to go on and on...finally I saw the sign and then the much appreciated water.
I sat down near the tap and drank a good few bottles of water and drenched myself with many more.  I also took the opportunity to refill my backpack with another liter or so of water to which I added another electrolyte tablet.  I felt really refreshed and was enjoying the shade of this trail oasis.  
As I headed out I knew there was less than 8 kilometers to go - but these would be the hardest of the day - exposed to the sun with the temperature climbing and the trail becoming steeper.  The next stop would be the "3 mile rest stop" - i.e. about 5 kilometers from the finish.  Every time I entered a little scrap of shade I made a little blessing - I was drinking steadily - but feeling the heat.  At some stage here I had to step to the side of the trail to give way to a descending mule train which was carrying a group of campers down to the river. The further I climbed up the trail - the more people I saw coming down - Indian Gardens is usually the furthest hikers venture down before making the return climb - and more hikers make the shorter return hikes to both the 3 mile and 1.5 mile rest stops.  It was still relatively early in the morning, but when I reached the 3 mile rest stop there was quite a gathering around the lone water tap.  Somewhat foolishly I only took 1 small bottle to drink and 1 more over my head - and headed back up the trail - saying to myself that there was only 5km to go and yet another rest stop a further 2.5 kilometers away.  It was during this section that I had my only real crisis...By this stage I was exclusively hiking on the steep trail and the heat felt relentless....I started feeling a little unsteady - nothing critical - but at the next sliver of shade I sat down on a rock - took out a gel and had a long drink... I only stayed there about a minute - but felt better and headed back up.  I made it to the next rest stop and the tap there had a problem that it couldn't be closed - that was OK for me as here there was no pressure from other hikers and I took my time to drink a lot and probably more importantly cool myself off by pouring lots of water over my head and all over my body.
Now there were only 2.5 kilometers to go!  The home stretch.  I knew I was going to finish and feeling OK I continued upwards - with just over a kilometer to go I heard the unmistakable call from far above...."ABBA" - Michal, Elisheva and Noa had come down from the end of the trail  and seeing my blue gear thought it was me - Elisheva used the zoom on her camera to confirm it and I peered upwards to see them waving from afar.

This gave me a tremendous bolt of adrenaline as Noa came running down to greet me and Elisheva took some more photos.  We all completed the last 700-800 meters together as I recounted some of the highlights of the day.

This was clearly one of my all time great adventures - certainly rivalling the best of my ultra marathons.  While not that far in actual distance - the total was a tad over 27 kilometers - there was by the nature of the trails a lot of climbing both down and up on challenging terrain in difficult conditions.  I finished in an overall time of 5 hours 51 minutes and my Garmin (watch) statistics told me that my stops for photos and water were about 30 minutes which sounds right.  The full Garmin stats should be available here:

I have to thank Michal, Elisheva and Noa for their enthusiastic support and for agreeing to let me fulfill my crazy challenge even though it affected our available time at what is truly one of the wonders of the world.