By Ed Cacciapaglia
On Friday morning at 3:30 a.m., we started down the South Kaibab Trail. 6 Virginia Happy Trails runners, Gary Knipling, Keith Knipling, Ken Hubbard, John Dodds, Ryan Henry and I were off into the great unknown. We had plenty of water, electrolyte tablets, and some snacks. The information we read before the run indicated we had a 7 mile run to the Colorado River Bridge, the first leg of the journey. Thanks to John Dodds, we had laminated “cheat sheets” the distances to various break points and spots where we could obtain water to refill our bottles and Camelbaks. There would never be more than 7 miles between water stops, assuming none of the water stops had busted pipes. We were disregarding the warning signs: “Do not attempt to hike from the canyon rim to river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.” But we weren’t going from rim to river, we were going from rim to river to rim to river to rim.
It was a clear, starlit night, a perfect start to a long trek. The temperature at the start was around 50 degrees and I knew we were in for some heat later in the day. Going down into the Canyon, we took turns leading, the way lit only by our flashlights and headlamps. The trail was generally 4 or 5 feet wide with lots of dirt, some rocks, ruts and occasional mule droppings. Occasionally we would shine our lights down the canyon, knowing we didn’t want to take a fall close to the edge. In many places the drop off was several hundred feet or more with nothing to stop a fall.
Halfway into the canyon, we came to a flat area and took a break to look at the sky. We could see the Milky Way, the Big and Little Dipper and many constellations in the otherwise darkened sky. After running further along a ridgeline, we saw some lights, probably from campers who were up late or up early. After descending some more the terrain flattened out some and we crossed the Tonto Trail. From there we could hear the Colorado River roaring in the distance. Winding our way down, the roar disappeared and then came back, sounding louder than before. We were getting close to the river. The sky was beginning to show signs of first light.
Around 5:30 a.m. we came through a short tunnel then came to a suspension bridge which crossed the Colorado River. We stopped and the runners with cameras took pictures. The bridge was maybe 100 feet long at this point. We put away our headlamps and flashlights. We saw our first group of hikers in the early morning. Many more would follow as we ran along the river. After a short distance, we found the first water stop and I was delighted to find actual flushing toilets as I did not relish the prospect of taking a hike off the trail and burying what a wild bear does in the woods. After cleaning up, I filled my Camelbak with water and mixed some Gatorade in my 20 ounce handheld bottle and off I went. Ken Hubbard had stayed behind with me as the rest of the group had moved ahead towards the Phantom Ranch.
There was lots of activity in this area as the daylight had come and the temperature was still mild, probably in the low 70s. In a few minutes Ken and I caught up with the rest of the group. We were now on the North Kaibab Trail which went along Bright Angel Creek going almost straight, gently ascending a side canyon for the next 8 miles. The trail went through a meadow at first, but soon we were in the Box Canyon and the trail went along the canyon wall. At one point the trail crossed the creek and we were running on the left side. Then we crossed over again and were back on the right side of the creek. The sun was shining on some of the rocks up high so it was time for more pictures. The trail was relatively flat at this point, going up only 1,500 feet in the 7 miles between the river and the Cottonwood Campground.
After 3 or 4 miles of the Box Canyon we came to area where the trail winds through a slightly marshy area, thick with tall bamboo-like grasses and other lush growth, a little jungle in the desert canyon. The trail was now in a more open area. There was a split in the trail, the left way going towards Ribbon Falls and the more traveled right way going away from the creek and up a hill. Having a sense of adventure, I wanted to explore the left way, so Gary Knipling and John Dodds went along. The 3 of us followed the trail along the creek. Eventually the trail crossed the creek so we decided to get our feet wet. Ah, the water was refreshing! We could not find a real trail at this point so we decide to follow the creek. We crossed the creek 3 more times during this jaunt, figuring we would eventually come back to a “real” trail. After a few minutes, we saw the rest of the group ahead and above us on the main trail. We climbed out of the river and reunited with the rest of the group. They told us we had missed an excellent view of the falls from the high ground on the main trail. Yes, but we had some nice, cool water running over our feet.
We continued along the trail and bantered around the question of when we would meet the “Davidson crew”: Anstr, Lucia, and Tom. They were running Rim to Rim from the North Rim to the South Rim, with a return trip planned on the next day. Soon we were at the Cottonwood Ranger Station. We stopped and refilled our water containers and ate some trail mix and other snacks. Gary pointed out the Cottonwood trees that adorned the camping area. Nancy, the ranger, came out and greeted us. We told her what we were up to. At first I think she seemed slightly taken aback, but when she saw how much water we were carrying and the shape of our legs, she expressed confidence that we would have no real problems. We asked how steep the trail ahead would be. Nancy said it would be a lot like the South Kaibab Trail, perhaps not as steep, but in parts narrower. Gary then presented Nancy with a strand of his famous Mardi Gras beads. Gary took bets on when we would see Anstr and his group. Someone said 35 minutes, I said 15, and Keith said 7 minutes. I drank some more water and mixed some more Gatorade as the rest of the group started going again.
I took off after the group and in 4 minutes caught up with them. We then saw Anstr and his group coming towards us. Keith was the “winner”. It was shortly after 8 a.m., so we had been out 4½ hours. Anstr gave Gary the key to his rental car, parked up on the North Rim trailhead. We had goodies awaiting us at the car. Anstr took a picture of the group, with Gary holding the key to the bounty. We wished each other luck. Anstr said we had a long way up to go. His words would prove to be right. We had less than 7 miles to go, but 4,200 feet to climb.
In a few hundred yards, we came to nice clearing with a house which we later found out belongs to an artist who lives part of the time in the canyon. The house has a nice view, overlooking Bright Angel Creek. Leaving area of the house the trail got steeper and wound up a ridge then descended slightly, before turning to the left and heading up along Roaring Springs Creek Canyon. We saw a couple of hikers in this area. The sun was getting higher in the sky and temperature, while comfortable, seemed to be getting warmer. I asked John to get me an electrolyte tablet from my pack. John looked around but couldn’t find any, so he offered me one of his. Around this time someone said a wallet was found further back on the trail by a ranger. None of us was carrying a wallet, so we assumed it was not any of us. All I was carrying was my drivers license and $50 in a zip locked baggy.
The trail went along a ledge. The view was spectacular and the drop-off was steep and certain death to anyone who dared too close to the edge and fell the wrong way. I stayed close to the inner wall, away from the edge. The original trail builders must have had quite a challenge with this part of the trail. By this point, Ken and Ryan were running ahead. I was behind them, in front of John Dodds and Gary & Keith Knipling. Keith was trailing behind, evidently taking lots of pictures. A couple miles further up this trail, we found ourselves heading downhill before a bridge took us across the creek and we traversed up the other side. Eventually John Dodds caught up with me and moved ahead.
We were up above 6,000 feet and the trail had a lot of switch backs. We came to another water stop just before the Supai Tunnel. By this time Ryan, Ken, and John had already moved on. Gary and Keith caught up. Gary and I took a long break before continuing the climb. Gary was laboring, but I was laboring more and soon fell behind. I think I was having some difficulty with the elevation and was short on “fuel”. But it was less 2 miles to go to the top, where our lunch was waiting. The trail was more wooded and the temperature was beginning to cool and an occasional breeze would whisp through the trees. Aspen trees, giving the first hint of turning colors provided nice shade. Slowly I pressed on, taking a couple of rest stops. Gary moved ahead of me. Still, I passed several groups of hikers. Briefly, I considered the idea of catching a ride back to the South Rim, but given the distance by road (217 miles) and the fact that I didn’t want to fail, quickly ditched that idea.
Around 11:30 a.m., I reached the top and Gary gave me a Yoohoo, which I poured down my throat. I told the group, I needed a nap, but was told napping was not an option. So I ate the ham and cheese Subway sub and drank some coke. I took off my shoes and cleaned out my socks before putting them back on. Thick red dust covered my feet and shoes. I was glad to clean them off and shake them out. I was feeling better, having some food and drink and knowing that the next 14 miles was 98% downhill. The rest of the group was in a hurry to get going, but I needed to refill my water pack and Gatorade bottle, so Gary and Keith waited for me.
We started running down the trail, retracing the trail we had come up earlier. The trip down was so much easier than the trip up. I was able to run at a relaxed pace. Keith and Gary were running slightly faster. But Gary was desperate for a pit stop, which we made at the Supai Tunnel. Between the time of our ascent and the trip back down, the water had been turned off, due to a broken pipe. Apparently, the bathroom facilities were functional. Keith went ahead, but I waited for Gary. Soon, Ryan came out, as he, too needed a pit stop. He took off, while I waited for Gary. I was ready to continue and Gary said to go ahead while he filled his water bottles. We retraced our earlier trail, crossing the bridge over Roaring Springs Canyon going up for a few hundred feet, then back around the face of the cliff. The temperature was rising and we knew it would be hot for the rest of the trip down.
I told Gary that I need to check on my electrolyte capsules and make sure I still had them, as I realized that maybe I had dropped them at Cottonwood when I was eating my trail mix. Sure enough, the electrolyte tablets, my driver’s license and the $50 were missing. Gary and I figured Ranger Nancy had picked it up, so we planned to stop at the Cottonwood Ranger Station. We stopped at the artist’s house and knocked on the door, but no one was home. But there was water from out door spigot, so we refilled. By this time it was getting pretty damned hot. Another half mile and we stopped at Cottonwood.
Ranger Nancy was waiting for us and had my zip lock baggy with the electrolyte capsules, the driver’s license and $50. I thanked her and Gary and I talked with her for a few minutes. As well as being an air traffic controller, Nancy is an emergency medical technician and no doubt has helped in many rescues in the canyon. She is a volunteer ranger who spends 3 weeks each summer in the Inner Canyon. She asked about the Electrolyte capsules and I told her about them and how to order “Succeed” on-line. We asked Nancy how hot it was there and she said it was around 95. She told us it would be 10 degrees hotter in the lower canyon and at the Phantom Ranch and she was right. Nancy told us the other 4 runners had been through around 20 minutes earlier.
Soon we were on our way, Gary running ahead and I was running slower through the meadows in the open area above the Box Canyon. It was PDH: pretty damned hot. I was drinking water and my Gatorade mix, but as we came into the Box Canyon, I had depleted my water supply. I told Gary I needed to move slower to conserve energy and not get overly dehydrated. I still had a little Gatorade and I tried to drink it slowly. Gary still had some water and he shared it with me. Fortunately, it was after 3 P.M. and there were shady places within the canyon, so we were able to keep from getting too overheated, while alternating slow running and walking. Still, I wanted to take a dip in the water. With a ways to go to the Phantom Ranch, we depleted our water and Gatorade supply, but we knew we were getting closer to the Phantom Ranch.
Around 3:40 we arrived at the Ranch. Ken and John had arrived maybe 10 minutes ahead of us. Ken was making a phone call at a phone outside the rest rooms. Ryan had already left, wanting to get up the Bright Angel Trail while he still had daylight. Keith was ready to move on, but he waited. I needed some food and recovery time. Besides, I had ordered 6 bag lunches to be waiting for us at the Phantom Ranch and I intended to eat at least some of that food. John Dodds was already sipping on an ice tea when I went into the Phantom Ranch Canteen to retrieve the bag lunches. I was thirsty for something sweet and all they had was lemonade and ice tea, so I sipped on an ice tea.
At 4 P.M. they kicked everyone out of the canteen because they had to get ready for the 5 P.M. dinner serving. So we moved to a picnic table outside where I slowly ate my pretzels and a bagel and cream cheese with some jelly mixed in. I wasn’t hungry for the apples and cookies they included in the box lunch. John Dodds offered me some peanut butter cracker which I devoured. I drank a bunch of water and mixed the last of my Gatorade. (Sidenote: I’m astounded that the Phantom Ranch doesn’t serve Gatorade or some other electrolyte balancing drink given the nature of the weather in the inner canyon.) Gary and Keith were getting antsy to take their dip in the Colorado-also not recommended the Rangers. I told them to go on over to the river and I would catch up with them when I was finished.
I took a good 25 more minutes or so to finish the food and water and head out around 4:30. But I was feeling a lot better and was running again. Soon I was on the trail alongside the Colorado River. I saw Gary and Keith in the water. John and Ken had already left the river and were crossing the river on a different, much longer suspension bridge. The Colorado was easily 100 yards wide at this crossing on the Bright Angel Trail. The bridge was probably 30 feet above the water. I ran across the river on the bridge and soon came to where Ken was resting on a rock. He had taken off his shoes to clean out the dirt. John was walking and had just caught up with Ken. I took off my shoes and saw a layer of red dust on both my shoes and socks. John and Ken took off walking. After putting my shoes back on I started running on the trail which followed alongside the river. Soon I passed Ken and John. I could see Gary and Keith back in the distance now running across the bridge. The trail soon turned into a sandy beach type of surface for a few hundred yards. The later afternoon soon made for some interesting colors in the rock formations in the canyon. I continued to run along the trail which would go up a ways then back down to near river level. After a couple of miles the Bright Angel Trail went away from the river and turned up a canyon by a small creek.
I was a bit ahead of the rest of the crew, but soon Gary came running up the canyon and I slowed so he could catch up. The trail was beginning its 7 mile long ascent back to the top of the South Rim. The side canyon was already out of the sunlight as the shadows were getting long. We crossed the creek a couple of times as we moved away from the Colorado River. Every few minutes I would turn around to admire the awesome beauty of the myriad rock formations on the north side of the canyon. At times my calves would start to cramp, but I took 2 more Succeed capsules and would walk instead of running to stave off the cramping. After a while the cramping disappeared as the Succeed capsules kicked in and I would alternate between walking and running. Gary moved ahead of me when I walked, but I passed him when I ran. When we looked behind we could see Keith, Ken and John a few hundred feet below us. We climbed up to around 4,000 feet and around 6:30 p.m. came into the Indian Gardens camping area where we stopped and refilled our water containers. Soon Keith, Ken and John made it up to the stop. We sat and looked out at the Canyon and saw a couple of mule deer. I ate some trail mix, drank a bunch of water and had 2 more Succeed capsules. A thermometer hanging on a post read 84 degrees with sun already down. Still, we knew the heat of the day was done.
Soon I was off running ahead again. Ken was following close behind with Gary, Keith and John moving more slowly up the trail. The light was fading away and I figured I would need my flashlight by the next way station, 3 miles from the top. We were making good progress and I figured we would up at the rim before 9 p.m. Shortly after 7 we made it to the 3 mile station. I waited for the other 4 runners and took out my flashlight. Soon we were lighting up the trail ahead of us. The climb was steep, going up 700-800 feet per mile. My energy was enough to keep moving ahead. Keith took the lead for awhile, then I took it again. Shortly after the 1 ½ mile rest station, I started to fall back, so Keith and Gary took the lead. Our progress slowed, but we could see the lights at the South Rim getting closer. Someone was shining a light towards us. As we reached the top, we met my wife, Helen, the Bright Angel of the Canyon, who was flashing the light towards us. She presented us with our “finisher awards”, Mardi Gras beads with a key ring attached containing a picture of the Grand Canyon.
Afterwards, I washed off a thick layer of red canyon dirt and took a warm bath, basking in the knowledge that despite heat and substantial altitude changes, the group of 6 from Virginia (well Keith Knipling lives in Chicago these days) had accomplished what we set out to do 17 hours earlier, run from the South Rim to the North Rim and back in one day without serious harm. This is not something I would advise anyone who has not completed a run of over 50 miles with significant elevation change. But the reward of the views and satisfaction of completion made this my “run of the year” for 2004.