3.20 am May 5, I stood in the cold at the top of the North Rim. Alone, nauseous and scared (of cougars) in the desolate car park, I high-tailed it out of there. But I’d made it – half way. With the North Rim closed until May 15, I was committed to returning the way I’d come and completing my journey back and forth across the Grand Canyon.
While the Nancy’s and Mindy discussed their game plan – where and when to start, I was clear. I would take the same route both ways – the steeper South Kaibab trail. My limited training made for steeps. “I’m special needs you guys. Drop me off at 7 pm and I’ll go on my own. We’ll meet up somewhere below the North Rim when you catch me.”
6.15pm Friday night. I hop off the shuttle bus, feeling a tad self-conscious in my running shorts and runner’s pack. 6.20pm, no excuses – I amble down the trail. We’d driven in a few hours earlier and I got my first ever glimpse of the Grand Canyon. Buttes and buttresses plunging down to a shadowy and unseen Colorado River. A massive schism in the Earth’s crust. Now, faced with it, I’m excited to go to see what it’s like and spend a night out by myself, immersed in one of the seven wonders of our planet.
A full moon rises as the sun sets. Alpenglow envelops the buttes and walls, gold then magenta. Camera in hand, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here. The river becomes visible far below, fading into dusk. 4800 feet and seven miles below the South Rim, I trot into Phantom ranch, dazzled by torch light and swarms of people who have hiked down to stay there. Stopping only to get water at “the Canteen”, I amble on. The longer North Kaibab trail follows Bright Angel River up a tight box canyon. The creek roars as the canyon twists and turns. Occasional moonlight gives tantalizing peeps at soaring canyon walls. I stash some food and a can of Red Bull under a rock for my return. Zipping across the trail, a scorpian holds it’s tail haughtily above it’s back.
The box canyon eventually opens into a meadow of moonlight. Relieved at being able to see, I promise myself that I’ll stop at the Cottonwood campground at mile 14. I figure that I’ve started too early and am going faster than I anticipated. I decide to wait and let the others catch up some. The water tap hisses and nearby campers snore as I don my extra layers (a light jacket, buff and long johns). I settle in on a park bench for a quick bivouac. Irritated by a mouse snuffling around my pack, I rest uneasily. Midnight passes, I’m shivering and have to move. At least Nancy, Nancy and Mindy will be on the trail. 14 more miles, 5800 feet of up and 5800 of down, and I’ll be back here.
I feel surprisingly good and move quickly. Small clouds of dust swirl from my feet. It’s strange to be down here alone. Intense in a way that I’ve not experienced in a long time. I love it, even if I am slightly obsessed by the thought of cougars. I come across some trail crew folks out for a headlamp-less hike in the moonlight and acting a little weird. It’s fun to see them and they urge me on. Three times I run into groups descending who, like us, have chosen to trek in the cool of evening. I ask them to look out for my friends: “Tell them you saw me and to hurry”.
A thundering waterfall and I pass (the apparently) spectacular Roaring Springs. The trail starts to climb in earnest. Leaving the soothing moonlight, I feel rather than see, the abyss. Aiming my head lamp over the edge is nerve-wracking. The trail is hewn from rock, zigging and zagging up impossible cliff faces. Every now and then I see headlamp glimmers far, far above. I cross a bridge and peer over the side. Nasty. Hemmed in by cliffs, the familiar sound of crickets mollify my night imaginings.
Nearing the North Rim, queasy and cold, I sip constantly from my water bladder and munch on electrolyte gummies. My teeth feel disgusting. I wish I’d cleaned them before I left. Supai tunnel is spooky and deserted. Emerging into forest, I know I am close but it’s prime cougar territory now. Grabbing a big stick, I forge on. I’m carrying my ipod but I need my senses working. I’ll save music for the hot hike out later.
On the North Rim at 8250 feet, I stare briefly at the sign describing the men who realized this route in the 1920’s. With winter rapidly approaching, they had to find a route to the Colorado river and South Rim. It’s not nice up here in the cold, deserted car park and I descend. Immediately feeling better, I jog down the trail. Within a few miles, I see headlamps way below and know it’s my friends. I ditch the stick. The uber ladies are moving well and don’t want to stop. Mindy is ahead, sunny and happy as usual. Nancy F is warm and friendly in her “don’t mess-with-me, I’m focused”style. I want to sit and chat but they are not having it so I press on.
Dawn breaks, pale and insipid and my legs hurt from the pounding. The unlikely Roaring Springs surge from their source on a cliff face and spill, like a towel hung from a window. Like a roaring ribbon. I stop, amazed. And press on. I’m being chased now and those girls will eventually leave me behind and despondent. Running is upsetting my stomach so I walk quickly. Cottonwood camp comes and goes and suddenly there are swarms of runners heading up the trail. They are clean and bright and keen. I had no idea that this route was so popular with ultra-runners but I guess the season is limited. Like Mt Everest summitters, we are all here together.
Near the Phantom ranch, I glance back and spot Mindy, running smoothly, elegant in her little black skirt. I feel like a lummox but it’s nice to see her. Phantom Ranch appears cool and shaded by cottonwood trees. I share my can of Red Bull with Mindy and she races off in pursuit of a sub-12 hour time. She’s so sweet, I’m proud to see her so confident and fast.
I wander beside the river, taking pictures of the bridge and wondering at the immensity of the walls and this mighty river – so beloved in the American psyche, yet ultimately restricted from running it’s full course into the Pacific ocean. It occurs to me that I feel fine. With the last big climb ahead (I like the up hill), I could book and not be too far behind Mindy. The initial trail is shady and comfortable. Heaps of people traipse down the trail, their feet disturbing clouds of red dust. Trying to nose breathe, I push down on my thighs and wind up my pace. Mules whinny up ahead. They must leave early, it’s not even 8 am. People keep wishing me good morning. It feels bizarre when you’ve been up all night.
A guy from Salt Lake asks me if I am one of the Salt Lake lady runners and tells me that I am half way and that Mindy is not far above. Emerging from the shady cliffs, the sun beams down yet a breeze stirs and the heat is manageable. At the half way I see that I’m actually 3/5 of the way in elevation gain. Teenage feet stir the dust most so I take a deep breath when I see them descend sloppily towards me. The vista opens up. I sip water and chew on electrolyte lollies every 10-15 minutes. The fingers of exhaustion materialize in my periphery but I don’t stop.
Rounding the butte approaching Ooh Ah point, I am definitely hurting but it’s good and I embrace it. I grab the wall with my right hand and gasp a little but I think I can make the top by 11 am. Bigger people in jeans, carrying 350ml bottles of Mountain dew demonstrate the Rim’s proximity. I finally jog – the final few switch backs feel fantastic and I arrive at the top…. to crowds of people I don’t know and who don’t care that I just hiked 42 miles with 10600 feet of both gain and loss, all night. 16 hours 40 minutes, with only one significant stop (caused mainly by my fear of cougars) between 10.30pm and 12.30am. Hooray!
Eight days of actual running/hiking training. Bronchitis. Borrowed shoes. I tell my body good job for remembering endurance. Back at camp, Mindy feels terrific and made the run in 11 hours 20. Nancy Russell (mother of four – her youngest being one) makes it right on 12 hours and Nancy Feagin, mother, accountant, climber extraordinaire and woman with motivation problem (over-motivation), comes in in the proud time of 12.20. We compare calories and wrappers. Tiny Mindy eats the most, Nancy Russell and I eat the least. We hobble around laughing at our adventure and comparing hurts. Nancy F’s calf muscles, Nancy R’s tummy, my glutes (and CAT phobias). And Mindy? Well, she wasn’t really sore.