Adventure at Grand Canyon; Rim to Rim and back Again in a Day - John Petrsoniak

Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to hike with my spouse, Mary Jane, to the bottom of the Grand Canyon along the Bright Angel Trail. A mere trek of some 7 miles. We spent the night at Phantom Ranch and then hiked back the next day. This was the recommended hike by the park rangers who warned that each year over 250 people need emergency assistance when they attempt to do this hike, down and back up, in one day. Unfortunately, among those requiring rescue, some die. A sobering statistic and reminder for the fool-hardy and the naive.

Putting it all in perspective, over 4 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, but less than one percent hike anywhere below the rim. And of those who descend below the rim, many engage the services of a mule to go down and back. These riders, white with fear, look neither left nor right but straight ahead at the nape of their nag, repeating their rosary in the hope that she does not lose her footing and fall over the edge.

The sheer depth and breadth of the Canyon overwhelms the senses. Knees begin to knock, goose bumps permeate the skin, the throat dries up, eyes gloss over and light headedness starts to set in. You momentarily have to look away to avoid being sucked into the void that surrounds you. We are, after all, merely a speck of dust waiting to be blown into oblivion. Our lives are so infinitesimally short compared to her millions of years of existence. The Grand Canyon is irrefutably majestic and spellbinding. You want to experience every part of this natural wonder.

Indeed, from the first time I visited the Grand Canyon, I was hypnotised by her splendour. As I sat at Phantom Ranch, I thought to myself, what a great experience it would be if I were to traverse the Canyon from South Rim to North Rim to immerse myself in all her grandeur and magnificence. It was a fleeting thought, but one that never vanished entirely.

Years went by. I got into other physical distractions; marathons, duatholons, ironman competitions and 24 hour relays. Through these activities, I travelled to many exotic and fascinating destinations throughout the world. But the Grand Canyon kept calling.

One day when I casually mentioned this adventure, Chris Wytyczak said he had done it. He had run and hiked from the South Rim to the North Rim and back. All in one day. And he was interested in paying a return visit to the Grand Lady of all Canyons.
I was hooked. Rim to Rim to Rim. Now that was an adventure that I would love to undertake. A blazing hike of 42 miles, with a total change in elevation of 12,000 vertical feet, to be completed under the relentless baking sun, with nowhere to hide, and then to finish with a climb covering 6000 vertical feet in the stark darkness of the night. Sounded like Heaven to me. But alone- preferably not. For the dangers are so great to slip or fall and disappear from life so quickly. I needed to enlist others. More for moral support than physical assistance. I only needed to find some others who shared my sense of adventure and drama and in whom I could trust if anything were to go wrong.

Two other fellow marathon runners, Stan Sokol and Terry Boese, were also committed, albeit with some degree of apprehension and trepidation. This only went to show that their minds were not completely devoid of all reason. A faculty that could come in handy if we ever got into a trouble spot.

Now to make my dream a reality, some serious planning had to be undertaken, for the risks were many, while the rewards were virtually intangible. First, we each had to convince our spouses or partners that this was neither a death wish, midlife crisis, nor an irresponsible stunt. I read stories from blogs of people who had successfully completed this venture. But then again, of those who failed, nothing had ever been written or recorded. These were statistics that no one publicized. Everyone wants to talk about their accomplishments. No one brags about their failures. Were these blogs attempting to lure me into a trap?

Knowing Chris had previously undertaken this hike successfully was the most reassuring evidence I could provide. He was after all living proof that this could be done, despite all the official warnings that it should never be attempted by anyone sane. Actually Chris had done it with two others…two days after running the Las Vegas Marathon. Now THAT is nuts!

Chris and Terry always seemed to be in great shape. They had run ultra-marathon distances and were also long distance cross-country skiers. Stan was also a skier. Stan and I had run qualifying marathon times in 2007 and ran the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2008. With the poor training conditions in one of the toughest winters in Toronto, my Boston was challenging even if it wasn't as fast as I had originally planned. I was also working through some minor hamstring injuries. Stan was concerned that his Boston time was just about 5 minutes faster than what some bloggers who had completed the double crossing said should be the minimum to attempt this challenging undertaking. Chris and Terry both had a heel/Achilles injury (Haglund's Deformity) and had not done much running in the past six months. Actually, Terry had not run at all. But since he had run as fast as 2:32 in the Boston Marathon he should be fine. Of course that was 12 years ago.

What a bunch of broken down characters. I suppose some would say that we were crazy to try this. I'm not arguing.

A week after the Boston Marathon, Stan and I were recovering but feeling better. I was starting to worry about being able to finish our adventure. We knew there were notices posted at the South Rim warning not to attempt same day double crossings. Actually there was even one warning against going to the river and back. Of course the dire warnings of people dying from heat-related problems (and 250 annual rescues) are what attracted us to the challenge.

Chris' venture in the Grand Canyon in 1997 found him in waist deep snow on the ascent to the North Rim and he turned backed a few hundred feet short of that summit. He wanted to complete this double crossing and was keen to go.

We touched down in the decadent desert City of Las Vegas on Saturday May 3, 2008 on what would be the first stage of our expedition. Stepping out of the airport into the warmth (ok, heat) of this artificial Mecca for gamblers and those getting married, was as relaxing as a gentle massage by a sumo wrestler. Before we could be lured into a gambling den or brothel, we pointed our car in the direction of the Grand Canyon and fled Las Vegas as quickly as a dog on a bone. We were anxiously to get to our ultimate destination, as if somehow it was going to disappear by the next day.

On the way we gazed at the engineering marvels of the Hoover Dam and the new bridge being raised to cross over the Colorado River. One shocking realization was that the water level of Lake Mead has plummeted some 200 feet since I first saw the place. It should be very worrisome to anyone living close to that area. The betting odds at Las Vegas are 3 to 1 that it may disappear entirely within the next 30 years. This will give new meaning to someone in a local bar ordering a "dry meadini" instead of a "dry martini".

We arrived at Grand Canyon in the early evening and the views took my breath away as it had done each time I had seen this big hole in the ground. Stan and Terry were mesmerized as they looked over and into the gorge for the first time. We just stood there soaking it all in. I looked across to the north side and had reality set in. It was a long way to go way over to the other side and back. Serious doubts started creeping in again. I gave my head a shake and convinced myself this could be done. It WOULD be done. I continued to be in total awe observing one of the natural wonders of the world. Time to get some sleep and start the trek the following morning.

We woke up at 4 am. We knew we would need enough food (a few sandwiches, energy bars and gels would do the trick) and lots of water. There would be water available at the bottom of the canyon in two places, but the North Rim was still closed and had no services. Including no water.

We drove to the closest parking spot for the South Kaibab Trail and began our trek at 5 am. It was just above freezing and it was still dark. Down we went with our headlights on. The adventure was on.

After not too many minutes the sun started coming up and we were making good time. The descent was along a trail used by mules to take tourists in and out of the canyon as they had for a hundred years. The mule droppings on the trail are one of the hazards one doesn't normally think of but anyone could easily slip on the dung. The steps we had to manoeuvre down the trail quickly put a strain on our quads. We had hardly started and I could feel it already. By the time we hit the second plateau on the way down the sun was up and it got warm. In a hurry. I was wearing my altimeter watch and it included a thermometer. With the sun now beating on us the temperature climbed from 31 degrees F to 99 degrees F. It didn't feel that hot. Maybe because it was bone dry. We did remember to hydrate. But we realized that all the warnings about extreme heat were serious.

As I looked around at what some might think was a hostile desert environment I saw the most beautiful flowers. It was spring and this was the only time of year they would be out. They were really beautiful when one took the time to look around. I also realized that those few plants were the only living things in the area. Well that and a few very hardy lizards. At least we were still moving. But then we had a long way to go.

We got to the bottom in reasonable time and took a break at Phantom Ranch. This was a group of older buildings that only had a mutual washroom for the whole group. The sleeping quarters were separate men's and women's dorms. Very quaint and very rustic.

We now had to climb up to the North Rim. It was 13.6 miles in each direction. That was a full marathon while going up and down over 6,000 feet. At least the temperature was more reasonable in the mid-70s to mid-80s. We made sure our water supplies were replenished and on we went.

The North Kaibab Trail initially had a long gradual ascent through a side canyon that would get us to the north side. At every turn of the trail we continued to be witness to incredibly eye-popping scenery. The Grand Canyon is made up of thousands of side canyons all with creeks and rivers flowing into the Colorado River. Since it was springtime, we also saw a few spectacular waterfalls. We were tiring but carried on. We had set a deadline of reaching the North Rim of somewhere between noon and 1 pm. We finally made it at 1:30 pm. There were still patches of snow and definitely no water. A quick lunch break and we had to start back. But not before we met a nice couple who had just moved to the area recently. They had just finished a local hike of their own and after listening to what we were up to gave us the balance of their water and two apples. Those simple things were very much appreciated and provided the little extra we needed.

They also commented on the fact that we were smiling and joking. What was not to smile about? Here were four good friends who had logged many miles together and had experienced numerous trips. All were good times. We got along easily. And we were halfway through yet another adventure in one of the most beautiful and amazing places in the world. Smiling was the only thing to do.

Of course we realized we were behind our original schedule but we were going to get this done together or not at all. Just like the Three Musketeers (and D'Artagnon), it was one for all and all for one.

I almost forgot to mention one other person we met at about that time. His name was Rob. He was from New Mexico. He was hiking alone and he was in the middle of completing his 130th single day double crossing! We were in awe of that accomplishment. The discussion later turned to what kind of demons the guy must have.

We made our way back to Phantom Ranch. We pushed the speed a bit in the second half of that descent but it quickly became apparent we were going to finish the south side ascent in the dark. At least it stayed in the mid-70s and did not get hotter again. Now the concern was that it might get cold. It didn't.

One funny incident happened at a short break we took on that north side. I ate half a chocolate Power Bar when I took a few minutes to take some pictures of the various flowers and cacti, I returned to find my bar missing. Chris was sitting at the table and told me a squirrel had taken it. I thought he had either hidden it or eaten it. Blame a squirrel. Really! But the he pointed out the rodent not too far away. He said he heard some rustling as he sat there, but by the time he realized what was happening he was too tired to get up and shoo the squirrel away. I hope the little rodent enjoyed my bar. I'm sure she did.

After a dinner break at Phantom ranch we continued our methodical trek back to the start.

Terry's heel was causing incredible pain and it slowed him down. He toughed it out mile after excruciating mile. Chris must have also been in pain with the same problem but also soldiered on. We were tired but as the darkness set in we witnessed the incredible beauty of a clear sky with millions of stars. It is impossible to see the stars like this anywhere in a built-up area due to light pollution. It was yet another element of the awesome grandeur of the Grand Canyon. All the weariness and pain did not detract from all that beauty.

We crested the South Rim after midnight. Finally done. All within a day. We were suitably humbled by the size, heat and distance of the Grand Canyon. But we were still smiling. Tired but thrilled. Now it was time to get some rest. Lots of rest.

As we recovered the next day, while touring the South Rim, Chris asked if I would do it again in a few years.

I didn’t have to think about it. Absolutely!

John Petrosoniak and Stan Sokol
May 2008