Trip Report: The Grand Canyon R2R2R Challenge

Posted by Will on

Day 1 - The Gathering

GQ, Matt, Iru, Upasana, Kingsley, Joe, Mrs. Savage (who wants a new trail name!), and myself set out for Arizona on Wednesday 9/24. Joe is a desert photography addict and volunteered to do some driving support for us. We rallied in Phx and made the requisite stop at REI for fuel and supplies, then scored some burgers at In Ní Out. Then the long 3 hour drive to the South Rim! We establish camped after getting some close-ups with an elk. Upasana got a little too close and was chastised by the park ranger.

We wandered to the lookout at Mathers point to make like tourists. While there, we noticed the many signs warning of the dangers of the canyon and also got lectured by a ranger on the basics of backpacking in the canyon. He made it clear the chances of dying during this trip were highÖAfter all this, we headed to Bright Angel Lodge for dinner. The restaurant was booked so we took over a corner of the bar and enjoyed a plethora of appetizers with music. We turned in early to get as much sleep as possible. Not even building a fire!

Day 2 - Into the Furnace

Up early, we broke camp then drove to the back country info center to stash a van. Then Joe drove us to Yaki point where we had a few moments to get sunrise shots.

We picked up the South Kaibab Trail from here after absorbing the mind blowing views. Then it was time to descend into the furnace. We would have little relief from the Sun's anvil as we made the rapid descent. We rested in the rare shade when we found it, but there would be no break for our knees until the bottom. Joan aggravated her ankle injury, but slugged it out after it was taped up. A grueling 7 miles and many breathtaking vistas later we reached the bridge spanning the Colorado. We had a great overlook of Phantom ranch and the greenery surrounding Bright Angel Creek.

By now it was over 100 degrees, soon hitting 105 at Phantom Ranch. We soaked ourselves in the Bright Angel and enjoyed ice cold beverages and fruit (which Matt declared the best things you could spend money on) with lunch. We made it a long break and rehydrated. GQ inadvertently sacrificed his shades to the Canyon gods. They are probably well on their way to Mexico via the Colorado now.

Eventually time compelled us to get moving, and we endured the unrelenting heat on our 7 mile trek to Cottonwood campground. The trail was easy and climbed slowly. It was inordinately exhausting as we battled the heat. Staying hydrated was just about impossible.

Joan and I took a break to cool down, while 30 feet away around the corner, Matt, Iru, Kingsley, and Upasana were busy saving a woman's life. She was suffering from heat exhaustion, as was her hiking partner. The woman had just given up, and layed down on the trail. They were both out of water - and had no filtration. Inexplicably, they ignored the roaring Bright Angel Creek not more than 20 ft away. Quick reaction from the DCUL'ers saved the day! They recovered and continued on.

We carried on ourselves, some of us stopped at Ribbon Falls. Iru got in a shower! We pressed on as quickly as we could (which wasn't very fast at this point) - daylight was fading.

All of us eventually reached cottonwood, utterly spent from the heat. I had little appetite but choked down some dinner. Jimmy scored some great star shots - the sky was unbelievably clear and the milky way was visible with the naked eye. We also helped out a trail runner that had abandoned his Rim to Rim to Rim run. He was crippled with leg cramps and had decided to spend the night at Cottonwood on a picnic table. We served him some snacks and an extra dinner.

We turned in early to try and recover for the next day's climb.

Mileage 14.2 - Elevation Change 6,380ft

Day 3 - The North Rim

Up and hiking just after 6 am, we continued North hoping to beat some of the heat. The climb began gradually, and we made good time. Water sources were plentiful thankfully so we nevered had to tank up. We watched the sun creeping down the canyon walls with some dread.

Not quite half way up, we were again feeling it's full fury. We grinded on, slowly but surely making our way up. I was amazed by the foot traffic - and by the number of people who absolutely had no business trying to day hike down.

At a couple of glorious shady spots we took long breaks to cool down. The cold rocks were magic. Supai tunnel is another great spot - the perpetual wind in this section is like air conditioning as it whips through the dark passageway.

Exhausted and scorched, we all reached the North Kaibab Trailhead a little after lunchtime. After a long breather, we decided to go luxuriate at the north rims facilities. As luck would have it, the hikers campsite was available. We unanimously agreed to take it easy and camp there instead of our backcountry site ( which would have required more walking and a very long day tomorrow.) After setting up camp, we walked the 1.5 mile Transept trail to the North Rim Lodge.

Our hopes for a nice sit down dinner were dashed by the hostess, who said they had "no reservations". Translated, they didnít want filthy, smelly backpackers dining with their fine clientele. We hit the Deli at the Pines for good crappy food instead, then lounged around the plush furnishings. Joan and I walked Bright Angel Point for a photo op, where we could see the storm raging on the South Rim.

Joan had decided it would be wise to bow out at this point. She had already accomplished an incredible hike, backpacking rim to rim in the most difficult way possible (and on her 2nd ever backpacking trip, no less!). As they say in the Canyon: down is optional, up is mandatory. Another descent would've further endangered existing injuries. Joe was called in to make the extraction. She was sad to miss the second leg, but it was the smart decision.

While we waited to see what the weather would do, we killed time at the general store eating a lite dinner and chatting away on the porch. The rain held off, and we decided it was time to turn in. The lighting lit up the rims around our campsite with wild yellows, giving us a cool light show. The hiker site easily has the best view of all the campsites on the North Rim - and was removed from the herd of noisy RVís.

That night the wind came in gusts. We were all covered with sand from our tent sites. I'm not sure who designed them, but fine sand was a poor choice for a base along an exposed ridgeline. Plus the pads were too small even for ultralight one man shelters.

Mileage 9.8 - Elevation Change 4,161ft


Will posted on

Day Four - The Jin/Fink Factor

The next morning, we were up and off at 6 am to start retracing our steps. The Bridle Path took us back to the North Kaibab TH. Along the way, we scored some sunrise shots and passed four large bucks grazing amongst the trees.

We hit the trail behind a line of mules, that were happy to deposit fresh gifts for us. Fortunately, that was the only low-light of the morning. We cruised downhill for 7 miles, and for once were very happy for the overhead cloud cover. Even though we were covering the same ground, the morning light gave the views a new look. Also, we could enjoy the scenery more since we weren't sucking wind and dripping with sweat. The North Rim is one of my favorite sections.

We made good time on the descent, but paused often for pictures. Two miles from the bottom, Iru decided I needed more practice taping twisted ankles and took a hard spill. Leukotape to the rescue again! She carried on without complaint. At the pumphouse/ranger station we took a snack and water break. The temperature was climbing, but not bad at all.

We knocked out the 1.5 miles to Cottonwood, where we watered up again. We had about 7 miles to go to the Clear Creek trail. First we decided we would hit Ribbon Falls again since we had plenty of time to enjoy it (so we thought!). At the bridge that crossed over Bright Angel, we encountered 6 women coming from the falls. They had turned back from the shortcut trail that goes directly from Ribbon Falls back the Bright Angel Trail. They told us the path was impassible!

Confused, Jimmy and I asked what they meant. They replied that there was 6 inches of water over the rocks...when we shrugged that off they were completely horrified. We had a good chuckle - they were completely baffled that we didnít care about wet feet!

We had lunch at the falls and more photo ops. Jimmy, due to luck or intuition made a hot Mountain House lunch. Upasana and I climbed to the top for a high pressure cold shower. I glimpsed a 4 foot snake, green and white that I couldn't identify, but it had a couple of hikers terrified. The temps started to drop, and there were a few sprinkles of rain.

After lunch, we negotiated the meandering shortcut back to the main trail and forded the "treacherous" waters of Bright Angel Creek. The next 6 miles were an easy cruise that gently descended. Somewhere along the way, the rain clouds that had been threatening all day finally unleashed their fury with loud claps of thunder. The rain turned heavy just as we reached the junction with Clear Creek at 2:30 pm.

Making the 1000 foot climb to an exposed plateau during a ridiculous lightning storm appealed to no one. So we made the 5 minute walk to Phantom Ranch to kill some time and check the forecast.

Here things got interesting. You may have heard of the Martin Factor (unexpected extra miles) or the Jin Factor (where the trip doesn't go according to plan). GQ declared a Fink Factor - where you get a surprise! - 20 mile day. You just knew with Jimmy and I leading a trip we would find a way to do something utterly stupid.

While walking to Phantom, I half jokingly suggested that, rather than spending an awful night on an exposed ridge during a storm, we could just make the 9 mile walk (with just some minor of elevation gain ;) ) straight out via the South Rim. Turns out, Jimmy was thinking the same thing simultaneously.

At Phantom Ranch, we squeezed into a table at the Canteen while the rain intensified and temperatures dropped further. The suggestion was floated - Kingsley laughed, thinking we couldn't possibly be serious. Oh, but we were!

Alternate campsites really weren't an option giving the nature of backcountry permits. Everyone eventually agreed, giving the bad options in front of us, hiking out was marginally less stupid. We had some snacks, watered up - then left from Bright Angel Campground around 3:30pm.

First step, cross the entirely metal bridge over the raging Colorado during a lightning storm! What could possibly go wrong?

The Colorado was indeed swollen and angry, and had turned a reddish brown from all the runoff. It had a couple of crazy fools mesmerized - they were standing on the bridge taking pictures! We blew by them and onto the Bright Angel Trail, which turned west and followed the river for a mile or so. Lightning flashed often - one so close I was blinded for a moment and stopped to make sure no one had been hit.

Our luck held, and we made it to the relative safety of the tight canyon walls leading us to Indian Gardens. The trail was a mess of running water and puddles, liquified burro shit and urine. The normal small rivulets of water that crossed the trail were now creeks nearly the size of the Bright Angel - all full of brown runoff. The rain stayed heavy as we climbed at a blistering 3 mph despite the elevation gain.

We passed several day hikers that were also striving for the South Rim, and reached Indian Gardens - the halfway point at 4.5 miles up - just after 5. We had a fast snack then pressed on before hypothermia could set in. Matt pointed out the irony of the safety bulletin here - which implored we "cool off" by splashing in the creek!

From here the elevation became even steeper, and we started to spread out. Jimmy, Iru and I managed to maintain a 3 mph pace up to the 3 mile rest house, with the others just behind on the switchbacks below.

Just after that, we broke out of the storm, and behind us appeared an awesome view of the canyon, complete with a double rainbow! We paused our assault of the South Rim just long enough for some photos - then it was back to business. We were all soaked, and the temperature was dropping as the wind picked up.

GQ and I surged ahead, passing no less than 14 day hikers who couldn't believe we were carrying full backpacks. Daylight was nearly gone at this point, headlamps started to pop on. Half a mile from the top, I paid the price for not eating or drinking enough and my energy tanked. GQ took the lead as I stumbled the rest of the way to the top. A greeting party had formed for a group of trail runners that were finishing their rim to rim to rim run, they cheered everyone on to the finish whether they knew them or not! Iru finished a short time later, then Matt, Upasana and Kingsley as a group.

We had had completed the Rim to Rim in 12.5 hours - without planning to. No one backpacks this hike in one day! This was a group of absolute beasts, who toughed out terrible conditions to bang out a 25 mile day.

We were a total mess at this point, and freezing to death. Joan and Joe came to our rescue, having secured a room at the Maswick Lodge. We piled into the room, showered, then destroyed 4 pizzas and beer. Every corner of the room was littered with wet and smelly gear We were incredibly glad to pass out for the night, dry and warm.

Mileage 25 - Elevation Change 10,141ft.


Will posted on

Day 4 - Tourists!

We passed the day gathering more photos, relaxing, and eating. We got our celebratory shot at the Bright Angel Trailhead, and had lunch at the lodge. We visited the Desert View Watchtower which had an impressive and different view of the canyon. After getting our fill of breathtaking photos, we headed south to Williams for the night. This was a pretty cool two street town, with the main street lit up with neon lights. Dinner at the Red Raven was superb!

The next day, we made a very fast drive back to Phoenix, bringing an end to the adventure.

The company could not have been better, you guys made this mad adventure truly memorable! Kudos for overcoming brutal conditions, injuries, hyperthermia, hypothermia, and heat exhaustion to complete such an epic hike. You can now enjoy your elite status as Rim to Rim backpackers!


Dave MacLuskie posted on

What a trip! Great write up. I can't wait to see the photos.

I was going to ask what Joan thought of the bonus 25 mile day but she lucked out of that part.

Given all the ill prepared folks you saw I can't blame the rangers for the harsh lecture about the challenge. I can't imagine how many folks they meet that think a quick jaunt down the canyon will be easy.


Jimmy posted on

To add in some of my thoughts:

This was one of the more memorable and most beautiful backpacking experience I've ever had! Reflecting back on this, we really were lucky as we saw the canyon in many different lights for the time we were there. Ranging from clear blue skies to black thunder clouds, and the intense desert heat to cold windy conditions, our adversities to these conditions were really tested!

I also really enjoyed the geographic history of the place as it was really cool hiking through the many different layers of the canyon. It was neat know how high or low in the canyon I was just by looking at the rocks around you.

All and all, I had a really great time. Will thanks for putting this together and working out all the logistics. It was really a pleasure leading this with you. Joan, Kingsley, Iru, Matt, and Upasana, you guys are pretty tough and I loved your companies. Joe, thanks for all the support and it was great talking photography with ya!

PS- I think its gonna take me a year to develop all these photos I took... :-)


Jimmy posted on

@Dave: I was really amazed as to how many people we saw hiking down in Jeans (while it was raining), hiking with just a 16 oz bottle of water, or asking ridiculous questions to me like "its not that far to the bottom right" (as we are about a couple hundred yards from the rim). I now understand why the rangers all acted the way they were, the many signage of danger, and the many different helipads we saw in the canyon.

Its a beautiful place, but very unforgiving!


Will posted on

It really was a wide array of experiences! The danger really can't be understated - and so many people go in not prepared. I forgot to add in the report - someone died just a couple days before we went in from the heat, presumably. You have to be prepared, and well as tough to tackle that place.

Couldn't have done this one without you Jimmy! Thanks for taking point so much so that I could sweep - it kept my mind at ease that no one was left behind to die of heat stroke.


Hua Davis posted on

WOW!!! What a incredible survival adventrue. I am soooo proud of you guys for completing the Rim to Rim Backpack with a unforgiveable wild conditions. Happy for everyone a SAFE retrun. Pics..Pics...Pics..!!!!![:D]