Crossing the Grand Canyon in 93,458 Easy Steps
What's it like to hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim?
The Grand Canyon, as you’re probably aware, is fairly large.
The Colorado River is the chief engineer behind the Grand Canyon project, and it has built a canyon 277 miles long and over a mile deep. Of course, it took 5 or 6 million years to do it. What a wonderfully lazy way to dig a giant hole.
In the Spring of 2012 I naively accepted the invitation to join a group who was attempting the infamous R2R2R hike that Fall. We would begin at the South Rim of the canyon, hike down South Kaibab Trail to the river, cross the canyon, and then take North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim.
Then we’d turn right around and go all the way back. We were going to hike 42 miles in one very long, very uncomfortable day.
Why do this? Why hike R2R2R?
What draws a person to something like this? Hiking up and down the Grand Canyon for hours on end? A challenge that is going to hurt and, most likely, be awful in the undertaking?
You would think that I would know. I don’t!
One theory: When humans don’t have real challenges they invent their own. We’ve got it good, and good is boring. Gotta keep things interesting.
That’s certainly true for me. I type words for clients who aren’t quite sure what to say, share the files, and then trade their payments for single origin, pour over coffees. There’s a lot of comfort (and privilege) in this position, but little triumph. Not much in the way of blood, sweat, or tears.
It’s a funny thing about us fancy apes. We work so hard to set up a system that provides wide-spread comfort, and to find our own comfy spot within it. But the satisfaction of comfort is fleeting and contentment refuses to last. No matter how good we have it, we grow restless.
And so I find myself looking out into the darkness from the top of the South Rim.
It’s 2am. Cold.
Curse the gods for filling us with restless desire.
Our group of 5 gets ready to take the first step over the edge. I’m carrying a small day pack with a 3 liter bladder and enough energy bars and (disgusting) gels to ingest something every 30 minutes.
That’s the plan. Half a bar on the hour, gel on the half-hour, all the way through. At that tempo, my rations should last me 18 hours. I’m shooting for 16.
The Grand Canyon is conveniently located next to absolutely nothing, and the darkness there is (as of this writing) the darkness of the untamed wilds. If you’re lucky and get a clear night with no moon you can see every star that can be seen.
Nice for viewing the Milky Way, but it’s hard to see where you’re stepping in that kind of darkness, so we turn on our headlamps as we begin our descent.
In the tunnel vision of the lamp, all I see is the off-white dust of the trail, the Canyon wall beside us, and the occasional mule turd. The North Rim and the canyon below are invisible.
We’re feeling optimistic and excited about our adventure, trading jokes as we follow the slope of the trail down, down, down—switchback after switchback.
South Kaibab trail descends 4860 ft over 6.3 miles until it reaches the Colorado. At that point, we pass through a tunnel blasted through a stoney bluff and step out onto the black bridge that spans the river.
It’s well before dawn and I have no notion of the absolute grandeur that surrounds me. My light is weak enough that I can’t even see the river below.
Soon we’re passing through Phantom Ranch, our first rest stop on the way through the Canyon. The little store is closed, the tiny cabins dark. I top up my water at a spigot outside and make use of the facilities.
I’m sure you don’t want to know this, but I’m already feeling some chafing down in my crotchal region so I apply some Aquaphor to the area. It’s always nice to have a sink and some soap after that sort of procedure, and now is my chance. Phantom Ranch is the only stop with real bathrooms.
Access is a Cursed Good.
Have you ever thought about what this world would be like if we could all just teleport wherever we wanted? I’m convinced it would be awful. Access drives demand, and every special place would be overrun and ruined.
Fortunately we can’t teleport and there are still a few places, like the bottom of the Grand Canyon, that are so inconveniently located that no dickhead civil engineers have managed to make them accessible by car (the next worst thing to teleporters).
The only way down here is to walk on your own two feet or ride one of the Park Service’s mules. Technically there’s helicopter access too, but that’s reserved for official work (mostly emergency rescues or airlifting barrels of shit from the latrines).
It’s unfortunate that not everyone can visit places like this, but restriction preserves the character of the wilderness. I don’t think there’s much way around it. Catch 22.
Dawning revelation: This place is amazing.
I’ve been hiking alongside my friend Sean for a while now. The other members of our group are somewhere up ahead. We’ve agreed to an every-man-for-himself plan. Just don’t get stranded and make the rest of us look bad.
As we move through the central corridor towards Cottonwood Campground, the first light of morning finally filters into the Canyon and I start to realize just what sort of place I am in.
I’d seen the Grand Canyon from above once, as a kid. It’s the sort of thing you look at in mild amazement. “Wow,” I probably said. “That’s really big!”
From the top you look out across weathered bluffs, solemn buttes, and those multi-colored sandstone cliffs that the Southwest is famous for. It is grand, like they say. But it is distant.
It’s different when you’re in it.
That’s when the grandeur and the massive scale of the place really hits you. You are tiny, and the canyon’s immense beauty surrounds you on all sides. It’s a pleasant distraction from all the walking.
We make it to the Manzanita water station at the foot of the North Rim, take a short break, top up our water. Then we start the climb.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is, technically speaking, infinite. The trail just keeps going forever.
The only way to get to the top is to keep climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing until your body transcends time and space and you’re able to step between the planes of mortal existence. The trailhead is there, shimmering like aspen leaves in the wind.
Eventually, I arrive.
At this point, I’ve hiked 21 miles, climbing 5,781 feet from the river. I’m happy with my pace (8 hours in) but my body feels like I just did something really hard. Like maybe I should be done now.
I take a photo of the trailhead sign, curse God and my own stupidity, and turn around.
It’s odd, I think, the way we’ve turned everything imaginable into a competition.
Sports and games, of course, and every conceivable type of performance. But also things that maybe shouldn’t be competitive, like dogs, kids, vegetables, and the way our bodies look. And walking through nature.
I can’t resist that impulse though. I am very aware that I’ve pulled ahead of Sean on the climb. But there are still three guys ahead of me. I start jogging down the trail—maybe I can pick up one more.
My little jog ends shortly after I start, with a twisted ankle. I go back to my normal hiking pace, now featuring ankle pain.
I’ve still got to hike 20 miles.
However, the way back across the Canyon is revelatory. Now that I’m looking out, instead of up, the views heading down the North Rim are incredible. As I descend, pine forest gives way to chaparral, and chaparral to the prickly desert flora that fills the floor of the Canyon.
And as I retrace my steps I start to see what I missed in the dark. Everything is incredible, and I’m continually amazed.
I’m hiking alone now, mile after mile, in a trance.
A few hours later and I’m back at Phantom Ranch, the little stamp of civilization at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s the last water stop before the final climb out, so I use the facilities, fill up on water, and talk to Richard.
Richard was ahead of me until this point I think, but now the bottom of both of his feet are blisters. As in, the whole sole of each foot is a blister. So Richard is field dressing his feet at a picnic table by the store. Another hiker gives him some extra socks.
There’s not much I can do to help at this point, so I wish him the best of luck and get ready to head out. He says one of the other guys left not too long before, maybe I can catch him. I’m doubtful about that, but I gotta try.
A pair of women my age leave when I do and take the same trail up, so I try to keep up with them. I must admit that yes, they are hot and yes, that is helping my motivation. However, they’re in better shape than I am, and after a couple miles playing catch up, I lose sight of them completely1.
But I do catch up with Danny, shortly thereafter. He is sitting on a rock on the side of the trail. This guy was keeping a stellar pace on the way out, and I had assumed that there was no way I would catch him. However, he admits to making a tactical mistake: He had a beer at Phantom Ranch.
Now he is feeling like shit.
Well, well, well. Pride cometh before the fall, I think to myself like a competitive asshole. Out loud I commiserate, but tell him that I have to keep going. What I actually say is that if I stop to wait with you, I don’t think I’ll be able to start again.
And that was literally true. Because I am also feeling like shit.
We’re well into the afternoon, I’m closing in on 40 miles, and I have already pushed myself past all the limits I ever thought I had.
I am exhausted, my legs hurt, my mouth is dry and I can barely choke down my food. My twisted ankle is killing me and my other foot feels like there is something broken inside of it. The soles of my feet, though blister-free, feel like someone has been hitting them with a jackhammer.
I shouldn’t tell you this, because of how stupid it makes me look, but up until this point, the longest hike I’ve ever done was about 14 miles.
I’d never run a marathon, or even a half. I ran Cross Country, and I had done a fair amount of training for this, but at this point I felt very much that I had not done enough.
I stop briefly to ask someone how far I have left. Unfortunately, the guy I run into doesn’t speak much english. He’s one of those adventurous tourists from Germany. I want to know how far it is to the top, and motion up the trail. He thinks I’m pointing at a little storage shack in the distance and tells me I’ve got about a mile to go.
I’m overjoyed at the news. Just a mile to go! I’m so close!
But eventually the miscommunication becomes clear, and I feel deeply demoralized. I’ve definitely gone a mile, but I am definitely NOT DONE.
There is still more trail. Who knows how much. Fuck.
Evening is approaching, and with it, my target finishing time: 6pm. Long shadows are creeping out from the cliff walls while acrobatic swifts soar and dive through the twilight sky, hunting evening insects2.
I am absolutely unwilling to quit. I deploy a 2x caffeinated gel, choking it down with sips from my bladder. To my surprise, the caffeine seems to take the edge off my ankle pain almost immediately. I have to keep moving.
It’s funny, because in so many other areas of my life, I am more than willing to quit. My life is basically a huge pile of half-finished projects. Funny domains I registered and never used. Business ideas I carefully planned out (and even started!) and then abandoned.
Why am I insanely dedicated to tasks like walking up giant hills, but so incredibly not at all dedicated to things like responding to client emails? Or finishing that blog post? Or editing that homepage copy?
If anyone’s hiring an “Aggressive Mountain Walker” let me know.
I finished the hike.
Half an hour behind my goal, but I did it. 42 miles in 16 and a half hours. Steve, the most experienced hiker in our group, was waiting in the car. He’d finished an hour and a half before.
I joined him and sat. By the time the next guy came out, about an hour or so later, I couldn’t stand up anymore. I had to lift myself with my arms on the car door to greet him.
Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim was, frankly, a very bad idea. It was terrible. I felt like death.
It took a week before I could walk right. It was by far the worst thing I’d ever done, and I told myself over and over that I shouldn’t forget how I felt by the end.
But at the same time, it was phenomenal. Sublime.
In being the worst and the hardest thing I’d ever done, it felt like a huge accomplishment.
Beyond that, when I stepped back into the South Rim parking lot I was forced to accept that I had systematically underestimated my own capability. It forever changed my self-conception.
I am planning to do it again. Hopefully faster.
Have you ever done something that changed the way you saw yourself? I’d love to hear about it! Reply to this email or leave a comment.
Do I harbor some bitterness that those ladies smoked me on the hike? Yes I do. In my defense, I harbor some bitterness about anyone beating me at anything if I think I have a chance at winning.
If I die and get reincarnated I will be FUCKING PISSED if I come back as anything besides a swift in the Grand Canyon.