L to R friend, Nada, John, Garry, Gordon, Gordon's son
Normal attrition and scheduling problems reduced our rim-to-rim entourage to a party of four compañeríos: John The Animal, sprinter, skier, trail-runner par excellance); Nada The Sweet, our driver and John’s future wife; Gordon The Alien, stronger than the iron of his western sculptures; and Garry The Slow, sprinter and overreaching trail runner. In the early evening before the run we arrived at Pasto's, an Italian restaurant in downtown Flagstaff. The lively ambience of Pasto’s was perfect for our needs and dinner turned into a splendid affair, full of toasting and boasting, and well wishing. A perfect staging point for the arduous task we had chosen.
The road chosen
Grand Canyon-South Rim to North Rim with a target time around 6 hours. Twenty-one total miles give or take.
Down we go
We slept in individual cabins at the Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim. They slept, I fretted. Up at 5 am. Breakfast at the coffee bar at the Bright Angel Lodge. Well wishes from Nada as she takes off on her five-hour drive around to the North Rim where she would collect us, hopefully close to target time. John, Gordon and Garry head down the South Kaibab Trail in attack mode.
Before the run John had laid out the stages we might pass through on our way to the North Canyon rim. In order of desirability: 1) Run; 2) Power Hike; 3) Hike; 4) Trudge; & 5) Death March
The first stage, the Run, should have been a gimmie. This stage would include 7 miles and change down the South Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch and then another seven miles up the North Kaibab Trail to the Cottonwood Campgrounds.
The next four stages, Power Hike, Hike, and if necessary Trudge & Death March would be reserved for the wild card in this game of chance endurance, the final seven miles from the Cottonwood Campgrounds up to the North Rim, considered an unrunnable stretch for anything other than a mountain quadruped, or maybe Gordon.
Falling Behind Early
John: The South Kaibab was the messiest I had ever seen it. It was cloudy and had rained at lower levels with snow at upper levels.
The result was that the spaces between the wooden cross ties, first part of the trail down, were full of ankle-high water, and I couldn’t decide whether to slosh through the water or test my balance on the outer rails of the trail. I even tried leaping from cross tie to cross tie (when I could see them).
I had thought I would be able to keep up on the downhill part of the run, but trail conditions had a deleterious impact on my pace.
John: You were rather slow. Gordon and I waited near the swinging bridge for thirty-five minutes then we hiked together to Phantom Ranch. That first leg (the 7 ½ miles of the South Kaibab) took us 1 hour & 35 minutes to get to Phantom Ranch.
Guess where the 35 minutes came from. But it wasn’t all bad. About halfway down I spied a horseshoe, thrown and abandoned, sticking prong first out of the mud. I wrenched it out and decided to keep it for good luck. Couldn’t hurt.
Up Is Beautiful
Despite keeping the boys waiting for over an hour, I rather enjoyed the run from Phantom Ranch up to the Cottonwood Campground. The major shift in muscle stress from downhill running to uphill running was refreshing. I became less interested in my footing than in my surroundings, which were spectacular. And the trail, once you escape its precarious attachment to the Colorado River, is open and not particularly steep. This, I thought as I plodded along, was more like running.
When I finally pulled into the Cottonwood Campground, I could tell the boys were glad to see me. John would say later, “We were starting to really get concerned for you, fearing that you might have had an accident or something. But, lo and behold, you showed up!”
I also remember taking some ribbing about my slowness afoot, but unlike my training partners from summer, John and Gordon did not insist on setting off again as soon as I caught up. In fact, I was afforded the luxury of stretching out on a wooden picnic table and catching a nap. When I woke up, John was very encouraging about the next stage. “We’ll just hike the rest of the way.” And though the “rest of the way” was another seven miles, I was encouraged that I was no longer expected to run. “Surely,” I thought, “I can keep up with these guys just hiking.”
We were supposed to leave the Cottonwoods Campgrounds in Power Hike Mode. I soon learned that I didn’t have a power hike in me. Gordon had a different take altogether.
Gordon: John, I can’t take those giant strides you take. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just trot along with you.
So we settled for what at first could have been called a brisk hike. No doubt John could have power hiked the rest of the way with Gordon, like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, bounding along with him. Unfortunately, this cheerful, chatty pair was stuck with their very own Eeyore.
From Cottonwood Campground the trail changes dramatically. Flat stretches with good visibility and occasional upturns give way to short, nearly vertical climbs around the blind edges of gnarly switchbacks. The large leg muscles, the lifters and the pullers are constantly challenged by the need to reach elevated stepping ledges and footholds. I was in a constant anaerobic state, hoping that every switchback would lead to a flat stretch. This so rarely happened that I would often find myself stationary, leaning with my hands on the next stepping-stone, trying to get a quick blow. Despite the efforts of John and Gordon to keep me from slipping from “hike” to “trudge”, I began to feel a great weariness settling on me.
I will never know how far from the top we were when we happened on a park crew doing some heavy-duty maintenance on the trail. I made the classic mistake of asking one of the young workers how far we were from the rim. “Not too far,” he said. “Maybe two, two and a half miles.” In hindsight I’m sure he was being cavalier in his response if not downright tongue-in-cheek. At the time, it was exactly what I wanted to hear. So despite all my heavy lifting, laboured breathing and frequent resting, we had achieved five miles. My heart soared. It wouldn’t be easy but I would make it out on my own steam.
Random Acts of Kindness
Hope may spring eternal, but it can also evaporate, sometimes like a slow leak in a car tire. I realized the slow leak the first time John reached back to help me over a patch of sheer rock with no footholds. For a brief moment, I considered waving him off. I had never needed that kind of help before. Then I latched on to his arm knowing full well that hope had run thin and I was in danger of slipping from “trudge” to “death march”.
In fact, it was about then that we started our death march conversations, not because we suffered the abuse and deprivations of historical death march victims such as the American POW’s from World War 11 or the American Indians on the Trail of Tears. We weren’t being starved or beaten. We were, however, in a situation that could deplete our energy sources, and we did have reason to believe that our bodies could simply shut down, leaving us helpless on the side of the trail. Should this occur, we would be looking at a $2,000 helicopter rescue bill.
For John and Gordon, these possibilities were merely fodder for conversation. For me the analogies rang true. I had all but lost hope that I could make it out on my own two feet. The thrill of running the Canyon was gone, and I didn’t have enough energy to even fantasize my deliverance from its grip.
Between quips about death marches my mind drifted to extreme challenges I had overcome in the past. As I dredged them up I began to rank them in order of their physical and psychological assaults on my system. Oddly, the ranking observed a chronological pattern.
Challenge #1 High school. It was the beginning of football season and a buddy and I, two scrawny sophomore running backs, had been invited to work out with the varsity team. To the coaches we were “cannon fodder”; to the players we were “fresh meat”. We were required to participate in two-a-day practices in the late August heat of Appanoose County, Iowa. The pummelling we got from the “big boys” was nothing compared to the gut-wrench of endless wind sprints in full pads. Picture my buddy and I, in between practices, sitting in the shallow end of the municipal swimming pool hoping that the cool water would ease the pain of our tired and bruised bodies. We vowed each time to quit this madness and play with boys our own age. We never did. Our mothers wouldn’t allow us to.
- Challenge #2 The “Race Marshall from Hell” marathon I completed in my mid- forties.
- Challenge #3 I had dedicated my only marathon to my mother, and upon crossing the finish line declared it “the hardest thing I had ever done, and the most rewarding”. As I slowly dipped into despair, this Canyon run, dedicated to nothing more than my own ego, moved into first place as the “the hardest”. “Rewarding” remained” to be seen.
Our once merry band had fallen into silence when I discovered yet another event misfortune. My outcry broke the silence, “My shoe! My lucky shoe! I lost my lucky horse shoe!”
John would say later that he didn’t recall the horseshoe incident, and Gordon may be too modest to remember any chance heroics, but I will never forget what happened next.
Gordon: Where do you think you lost it?
Garry: I’m not sure. I think I had it when we ran into the trail workers.
Gordon: Well, why don’t I just go find it for you?
Garry: How could you find it when I don’t know where I lost it?
Gordon: You found it didn’t you? I’ll find it the same way you found it.
To me repeating even a small chunk of this hike was unthinkable. But Gordon was non-plussed: Well I’m going back to take a look. I’ll catch up with you guys.
As John and I made our way forward I thought, “Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut? Haven’t I been enough of a burden?” I’m afraid Eeyore felt as sad as he looked. Before long however, Gordon trotted back to us brandishing my lucky horseshoe.
“My God, where did you find it?” I exclaimed.
“On a ledge you were probably resting on,” he answered cheerfully.
I can’t say that I was energized by this gesture, but it warmed my heart few things have in my life. After that John and Gordon took turns pushing and pulling me along until finally I heard the words I had literally been dying to hear.
John: I think we’re getting close boys. I recognize this stretch. If you see daylight between the trees at the top of a steep rise, that’s probably the North Rim.
A couple more twists and one of us exclaimed, “I see it. It’s right up there between those snow covered branches.” We were maybe fifty meters from the top. And then we stopped. Despite how much toll any of us had paid, it was as John had said. “…Doing the canyon was no small thing!
Our thoughts were on two things, how to celebrate what we had accomplished and how to impress Nada.
We quickly settled on a plan that would achieve both. The trail was wide enough at that point for us to go three abreast. We would sprint to the top and burst onto the wide-open rim with a victory Whoop. We deserved it and it was only fitting to show off for Nada who had already waited hours beyond our projected ETA. And sprint we did, giving a marvellous shout to go along with our upraised arms.
Alas, only part of our celebration was to be realized. Within moments of bursting through the trees it hit us. No Nada. We looked around and finally spotted our vehicle several hundred yards from the trailhead. When we walked up to her, Nada was reading a book, oblivious to our victory charge.
Nada: You guys have been out there a long time. I was thinking about calling the state police.
So much for glory. Slowly we tugged off our hiking gear and crawled into warm clothing. Then Nada drove us to a well-earned dinner at the Cafe in the Marble Canyon Lodge. Even though I felt like I had been through a meat grinder, I also felt a sense of pride creeping over me.
“Hell,” I thought. “There’s nothing wrong with me that a good steak won’t cure.”