Grand Canyon R2R2R via Bright Angel

October 2020 ยท 15 minute read

Intro

The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run of the Grand Canyon has been on my bucket list of crazy ultrarunning adventures for years. In October 2020, I finally ran it via the Bright Angel trail. Compared to the more popular South Kaibab route, the Bright Angel route is logistically easier but longer in distance. In total, I covered ~50 miles with ~10,500’ of elevation gain. Canyon temperatures in the mid-90’s made for dangerously hot conditions, despite the late October date.

Read to the end if you’re looking for a list of Splits or my Gear List

Morning Prep

I wake up at 4am. I haven’t slept much, but that’s ok because I rarely sleep well before a big event. I begin making lukewarm instant coffee with hot water from the bathroom faucet. Sounds awful, I know. In this present COVID-19 era, hotel rooms come sans-coffeemaker. I’m making the best of it. On the plus side, the room is a 6-minute walk from the trailhead. This location, I promise myself, is worth the sub-par coffee experience.

Having prepared my pack the night before, I have just a few things to do before my intended 5am start time: eat something, use the bathroom (running water is a luxury on days like this), and put my gear on. I’m out the door at 4:45.

My headlamp illuminates the way as I shuffle, shivering, to the trailhead. The temperature is in the mid-40s and there are gusts of wind blowing along the rim. I’m only wearing a t-shirt and lightweight arm sleeves, but I know that I’m dressed appropriately for the day. It’s going to get hot down there.

Chris crouches near the Bright Angel Trail trailhead

Here we go! Headed down the Bright Angel trail in the dark

Descending the South Rim

I start my watch at 4:55 and begin running down the canyon. My anxiety about the day is quickly disappearing. I’ve been very nervous up until this point, and for good reasons. This is the longest single-day adventure I’ve ever attempted in a solo, self-supported fashion. This is my longest run in nearly a year and a half. This is my first big push since recovering from a stress fracture and achilles tendinosis over the summer. A last-minute surprise forced me to double-check my preparedness; there is a breakage in the water supply pipe that feeds drinking water locations on the north side. Despite these challenges, I know that I’m ready.

15 minutes into my adventure, my nerves have calmed. They always do. I recite the 7 P’s to myself: proper prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance. That’s a phrase I learned from a mentor/customer of mine in my post-college years, and it stuck. Knowing that I’ve prepared properly, I’m settling into my comfort zone. Trail running, even in the dark, feels familiar no matter the location or circumstances. I float down the switchbacks and focus on my headlamp-guided foot placement. Once in a while I click my headlamp off and look at the stars overhead. I see a pitch-black abyss between the sky and the trail under my feet.

The 7 P’s: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

A deer illuminated by Chris's headlamp

This buck startles me as much as I startle him in the dark morning hours!

Dawn at the Colorado River

I start to see hints of daylight after I pass Indian Garden. I’m feeling good except for a hotspot or two developing on my right toes. It makes sense that I’d be getting hotspots - running straight downhill for 8 miles is not something I’m used to. I’ve dropped over 4,000 vertical feet in the past hour. I ignore the hotspots for now; soon, I’ll be going uphill for an even greater amount of time, and the stress points on my feet will be entirely different. I’m happy that my legs feel conditioned to handle the downhill slaughter.

A picture of Chris alongisde the Colorado River in the early morning light

It's light enough that I no longer need my headlamp at the river

I cross the river and start looking for the drinking-water pump. According to warnings posted at the trailhead, this is my last treated-water source until I get to the North Rim. I also pop into the bathrooms while I’m here, and I’m so excited to learn that the toilets are real, flushing toilets! Such technology. Much relief.

Backpackers cross the bridge over the Colorado River

I socially distance myself as a few backpackers crossed the bridge in front of me

North Rim Ascent

I hit my stride, literally and figuratively, as I start to ascend the North Rim. The trail is cut into canyon walls alongside Bright Angel Creek. The rock formations ascend hundreds of feet on each side of the creek. In the cool morning hours, with the creek flowing by my side, these miles are effortless. I feel great!

Chris runs across a bridge that spans the Bright Angel Creek

Running over and along the Bright Angel Creek at the beginning of the North Rim ascent

Farther along the trail, the canyon opens up and the climb gets steeper. I’m happy that I started so early - the majority of the trail is still shaded. I’m still jogging, moving smoothly upstream. I see a few runners power-hiking ahead of me, and we make small talk as I jog past. They started a few hours earlier than I did. I do the math and figure they’re going to be finishing in 15+ hours, and maybe significantly more. That’s a long, long day.

A group of runners power-hikes up the trail

Passing by other R2R2R runners on the North Rim Ascent

I run through the Cottonwood campground and I check the water faucet. It works! The trailhead signs said that there was no water here… but I soon figure out why. Just a bit farther up the trail, I’m stopped by a pipeline maintenance crew that is actively working on the water supply pipeline. They’re literally hauling equipment across the creek, using an arrangement of ropes and pulleys. They stop me for about 15 minutes as they haul a bag of tools up from the creek bed. I take the time to re-tie my shoes, in order to alleviate those hotspots from earlier.

The crew sends me on my way. I jog up to the Manzanita station. I check the water spigot here. It’s functional, and I fill an extra soft flask for good measure. The sun just started shining on the trail, and it’s never bad to have extra water in these conditions. With the sun shining on me, I’m quickly reduced to power-hiking the steeper sections of the North Kaibab trail.

A photo of a north canyon wall alongside the North Kaibab trail

The sun is quickly eliminating the pockets of shade along the North Kaibab trail

According to the trail map, I only have a few miles left to go before reaching the north trailhead. However, the miles now are very, very slow-moving. The trail is largely exposed to sunlight, and is very technical at times. An error in foot placement would have catastrophic consequences. I take my sweet time, and I take some sweet photos. It is absolutely mind-blowing. This section ends up being my favorite of the entire journey.

An error in foot placement would have catastrophic consequences. I take my sweet time, and I take some sweet photos.

A view of the trail winding alongside the canyon wall

The North Kaibab trail offers stunning views, but has catastrophic consequences for stepping off-trail

The North Rim

I finally make it to the top of the North Rim. As I approach the trailhead, I’m congratulated by a few folks. A couple asks me if I’ve seen a group, and we chat for a few minutes about the other runners that I’ve passed. They congratulate me and wish me luck for the return journey. I refill my water supply as I chat with another hiker about my day so far.

Chris next to the North Kaibab trailhead

Obligatory shot at the North Rim trailhead

I do a quick inventory and status check. No blisters. No cramps. Eating and drinking without issue. Brain is functioning. All systems go! I send a text message to Katie (my girlfriend) that I expect to be back in 5-6 hours, and I set off down the trail.

North Rim Descent

I’m still running well, and I’m stoked. Approaching the official “ultramarathon” designation point (>26.2 miles) is always a point of pride. I’m proud of the strength I’ve built back since my injury a few months prior. I know at this point that finishing R2R2R is well within reach. I also know that, because of the approaching 95-degree canyon temps and sun exposure, I need to stay focused on the task at hand. I can get myself into trouble very quickly if I fall behind on hydration or fueling.

Chris stands on the edge of the North Kaibab Trail with the canyon behind him

The North Kaibab Trail provided many of my favorite views during the day

I’m being careful as I descend the technical and steep North Kaibab trail. I stay close to the canyon wall in the super-dangerous sections. I’m somewhat regretting wearing road-running shoes at this point, but I chose them for the comfortable knit upper and I tell myself that the tradeoff was worth it. Besides, the lack of super-grippy lugs just forces me to be extra careful about my foot placements.

The sun is out in full force, and I’ve got my sleeves back on for sun protection. I’m still sweating as I run downhill, even with minimal effort. I refill my water at the Manzanita station. There’s a hiker there that starts asking me about my R2R2R attempt. He’s also an ultrarunner, and this is also his first time headed deep into the Grand Canyon. It’s funny - most the people I’ve seen this far into the canyon trails (outside of the campgrounds) have been R2R2R runners, or R2R hikers. It’s a popular endeavor on this particular Monday.

The sun really starts to take it’s toll as the trail crosses the Bright Angel Creek. I can see glimpses of the South Rim far, far in the distance. I slow my jog and do my best to keep up with as much food and hydration as I can manage. The problem with running in extreme heat is that the body can only do so much at once. Fueling and moving becomes a delicate balance.

The problem with running in extreme heat is that the body can only do so much at once. Fueling and moving becomes a delicate balance.

As an ultrarunner, optimal fueling means maintaining an intake of 300-400 calories per hour (mostly carbs), plus up to 1.3L of fluids per hour with 500-800 mg/L of sodium. In 95-degree heat, that 1.3L per hour becomes very important. However, accomplishing this is quite difficult unless you regularly train to force-feed yourself liters of fluids and food on long runs in the heat. As a San Francisco resident, I train in mild temperatures. It shows.

The sun shines on the North Kaibab Trail as it winds along the Bright Angel Creek

The sun came out in full force, with canyon temperatures in the 90's

Needless to say, by the time I’ve reached Phantom Ranch, I’m behind on my hydration and calories for the past 2 hours. I commit myself to slowing my effort up the South Rim until I can eat and drink the optimal amounts again. I have nothing to gain by pushing myself into heat-induced vomiting and delirium. The competitive runner inside me wants to push for an arbitrary time goal, but today, that voice gets silenced in favor of a voice of reason. My recent re-reading (for the 4th time) of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is certainly influencing my use of the “voice of reason” term. Today has been full of quality.

burros at the Phantom Ranch

It's that press-your-forehead-into-the-rocks kind of heat. Yes indeed.

South Rim Ascent

When I reach the river for the 2nd time today, I feel both relieved and terrified. On the plus side, I only have 9 miles left. Unfortunately, those 9 miles climb over 4,000 feet. It’s 95 degrees, and I’m unable to eat or drink as much as I should. I draw a tiny bit of comfort from my preparation notes - the reason I chose to come back up the Bright Angel trail is because I’ve read that it is more shaded than South Kaibab. It also has extra water refilling locations (the South Kaibab trail has none). The extreme heat that I’m dealing with now should be slightly mitigated during my South Rim ascent, according to my research, because of ample shade.

A view of the Colorado River in midday

One last shot of the river in the midday sun

My reasoning, while sound in principle, turns out to be founded on a base of bullshit. While there may be more “opportunities for shade” on the Bright Angel trail, I would wager that in the midday hours, the absolute distance of sun exposure on both trails is equal. There was not as much shade on Bright Angel as I was led to believe, period. If I run R2R2R again, I’ll do it via the South Kaibab route. It’s the more popular choice for R2R2R attempts for good reason.

If I run R2R2R again, I’ll do it via the South Kaibab route. It’s the more popular choice for R2R2R attempts for good reason.

I quickly realize that I will not be running, at all, on this South Rim ascent. I’m going to be spending a huge portion of the climb in direct sunlight, in 90+ degree heat. This is fine - I’m not in a dangerous place, but I’m disappointed that the remaining hours will be a slow, sweaty crawl. I am prepared for the day to take me past dusk. I’ll still be done before then. It’s just going to suck for a while.

The first real, sustained shade on this ascent comes when I’m climbing the switchbacks to the Tonto Plateau. As soon as I emerge from the steep canyonside, the sun is on me. I know it’s just a little ways further to Indian Garden. I need a break. I stop at a stream crossing and sit in the water. It’s cold, and it feels wonderful. I take off my hat, my buff, and my arm sleeves, and I lay down in the cold stream. My right hamstring spasms for a bit. I soak the clothing items I just removed, and replace them on my body. Having spent less than 3 minutes at the creek, I’m back on the trail.

I take off my hat, my buff, and my arm sleeves, and I lay down in the cold stream. My right hamstring spasms for a bit.

Chris has an exasperated expression with switchbacks in the background

The shaded switchbacks were still in 90-degree heat; the shade was nice, I guess?

I have cell reception at Indian Garden. I text Katie that I’ll be later than I had previously updated when I was at the North Rim. I reassure her that I’m fine, just moving slow. Then I move along. I’m fortunate to have finished both Angeles Crest and Western States, because it gives me confidence that I can manage myself in this kind of heat. I’ll get out of here just fine.

Shortly after Indian Garden, a miracle occurs. The sun disappears beyond the South Rim. This covers the trail in shade for the last 4 miles of my day - a true blessing! I’ve never been so happy to see the sun disappear in my life. I’m so excited that I start to jog for short spurts.

The sun disappears beyond the rim, leaving the trail shaded

The sun disappears, leaving a beautiful, shaded trail in front of me

There isn’t much else to say for the rest of my journey up the South Rim. It’s slow and steady, and I get it done without issue. As with the North Rim final push, there are tons of hikers that congratulate me for my obvious achievement. Ultrarunning is an entertaining spectator sport, I’m sure.

Chris smiles with the canyon in the background

Almost to the top!

Less than a mile from the top, Katie meets me on the trail. We’re both so happy that I’m done with this crazy adventure. We hike the last bit of trail to the top and I stumble to the trailhead sign and sit down. I’m flooded with felief, pride, exhaustion… you name it. All the feels. I can cross this one off the bucket list!

Chris sits next to the Bright Angel trailhead sign, exhausted after finishing.

Done. Exhausted. Content.

Splits

I’ve posted “splits” here according to locations where there is (theoretically) drinking-water availability, but the water isn’t always available. GPS data was wonky in the canyon, so the splits aren’t even for out vs. back. Check the park website backcountry updates page for current status, or (even better) speak with a park ranger when you arrive to the Grand Canyon if you’re planning to do R2R or R2R2R.

Here’s the activity on Strava.

Distance Name Time Elapsed Comments
0.0 Bright Angel TH 00:00:00 START! 4:55am
1.5 1.5 Mi Rest House 00:17:09 Descending, No Stop
2.9 3 Mi Rest House 00:34:17 Descending, No Stop
4.6 Indian Garden 00:52:29 Descending, No Stop
9.1 Colorado River (N Side) 1:41:07 Bathroom & Refill Break
9.8 Phantom Ranch 2:00:37 No Stop
17.6 Cottonwood 3:22:08 Climbing, No Stop
19.1 Manzanita 3:48:54 Climbing. Refilled Water. Start of Sun Exposure
23.3 Supai Tunnel 4:55:28 Climbing. Sun-exposed. No Stop. Water was unavailable
25.1 North Rim 5:32:09 Turnaround. Took a break. Refilled Water. Hot in the sun, cool in the shade
26.9 Supai Tunnel 6:07:12 Descending. No Stop. Water was off. Sun-exposed
30.8 Manzanita 6:45:58 Descending. Refilled Water. Getting Hot
32.3 Cottonwood 7:04:21 Descending. No Stop. Getting Hotter
40.0 Phantom Ranch 8:20:12 Took a break. Scorching. 94 degrees. Stomach becoming upset. Hikers are talking about their options because they think leaving Phantom Ranch is too dangerous. Refilled Water
40.5 Colorado River (N Side) 8:29:30 No Stop. Scorching. Exposed. 94 degrees
45.2 Indian Garden 10:04:26 Took a Break. Scorching. Still 90+ degrees. Refilled Water
47.1 3 Mi rest House 10:46:14 No Stop. Finally back in the shade. Troubles eating/drinking
48.4 1.5 Mi Rest House 11:18:19 No Stop. Still having trouble eating/drinking, but feeling better
50.0 Bright Angel TH 11:54:07 FINISH! 4:49pm

Gear List

Except for the Rabbit link (disclaimer, I’m on the rabbitELITEtrail team), the links here are Amazon affiliate links that give me a kickback when you click and buy. I recommend you buy any gear/supplies from your local running store before buying from Amazon. If you’re in the Bay Area, hit up SFRC!

Clothing

Food/Nutrition Items

Other

Summary

The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim lives up to all it’s hype. It deserves it’s place on all-time greatest ultra-distance runs and hikes. I’m very happy to say that I’m among the privileged few that have finished this crazy adventure!

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