A Day in the Canyon
Rim to Rim to Rim, 2003

May, 2003

Ahhh... rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon! Its difficult to imagine a finer way to spend the day! On May 9, 2003, I spent such a day travelling from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again. This was the most recent of many such adventures and was intended to be done with the company of Doug Minderlen, my long time friend and frequent hiking companion. Doug and I had done several Rim to Rim's together, but he was still recovering from a recent injury and was not yet up to par for this lengthy of a journey. Consequently, I would be doing this trip alone.

I started down the South Kaibab Trail by flashlight at 4:45am on a cold, blustery morning. The temperature at the rim was 43 degrees but felt colder, due to the wind. Running at kind of a slow trot, I quickly warmed to a point where I could at least remove my windbreaker. My plan was to run down to the river and then walk the rest of the way. A few switchbacks below Cedar Ridge, 1.5 miles down, I stopped to cache a quart of water and to stash my flashlight in my pack. The day lightened to reveal about 80% clouds, but nothing that looked immediately threatening.

Early Light
Early Morning Light
Skeleton Point
Skeleton Point
Lower Kaibab
Lower Kaibab Trail

By the time I reached the river, the sun was out but the wind was still cool. After a quick phone call to Cindy and a stop for water, I was on my way again, pushing through Bright Angel Gorge. The gorge is always a mixed bag. It is intensely beautiful, but after 4 miles of it I was ready for it to end. Finally the gorge widened out and turned into "middle canyon" terrain, i.e., more open and expansive. The one little obstacle through this section is the short climb over Ribbon Falls Hill. It is steep enough to remind one that they have been on the trail for 13 miles and are tired, but the climb is over quickly enough. Shortly beyond Ribbon Falls lies Cottonwood Campground and a source of readily available water. I topped up here, not knowing if the upper water sources would be turned on or off. This early in the season, it could be either way.

Arrival at the River
Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch
Ribbon Falls Hill
Ribbon Falls Hill

Another 1.5 miles brought me to the private residence of artist and pumphouse caretaker Bruce Aiken, the inner-Canyon's only permanent resident. This spot marks the beginning of the majority of the climb to the North Rim... 5.4 miles of nearly continuous uphill and 3700' of elevation gain. This piece of trail is challenging, but dotted with familiar landmarks along the way by which one can gauge progress. A typical climb (for me) goes like this.... 1:00 hour to the bridge, 25 minutes to the tunnel and 45 minutes to the rim for a total of 2:00 hours on a good day, or 2:30 hours on a bad day.

When I arrived at the bridge in Roaring Springs Canyon, I encountered a small mule train consisting of 4 pack mules and 2 wranglers. One of the mules was spooked by the loud noise of its hooves on the bridge and did not want to cross. One of the wranglers had to dismount and sweet talk "Jenny" across. Shortly beyond, a trail maintenance crew was preparing to blast. I waited for a few minutes for the charge to go off, grateful for the rest, and then passed by safely. The cold wind felt colder as I climbed higher, but the work involved kept me comfortably warm. At 11:37am, I arrived at the North Rim, struggling, feeling spent, and wondering how I would be able to muster enough energy and strength to walk the 20.6 miles back to the South Rim. I wasn't overly worried though. This wasn't the first time that I had felt that way and I had always made it back before.

Roaring Springs
Roaring Springs
Eye of the Needle
Eye of the Needle
Coconino Overlook
Coconino Overlook

The North Rim was cold and blustery with a temperature probably somewhere in the mid-40's. I bundled up with all I had, but it still wasn't enough. By the time I was ready to head back, 25 minutes later, my fingertips were starting to feel numb. Just walking down the trail for a few minutes was all it took to warm back up, thanks to the increased motion and the lesser wind below the rim. In 5 minutes, I met another rim to rimmer, climbing surprisingly strongly. After a minute of chat, he continued up to the rim and I continued on my way down the trail.

North Kaibab Trailhead
North Kaibab Trailhead
Flower Lined Trail
Flower Lined Trail
View from Tunnel
View from the Tunnel

After an hour of descending, the other rim to rimmer caught up with me from behind and we walked together for the next 2 hours. This was Dave Olson from Bakersfield and he was doing his 9th Rim to Rim to Rim. He appeared very strong, very energetic, and very capable. Through idle chat, we both realized that we had crossed paths 2 years earlier while here on the same day doing this same thing. He had even walked part way through the middle Canyon with one of the guys I was with that year, Gary Warnica. I confirmed with Gary later that yes, it was indeed Dave Olson that he had walked with. Dave and I chatted amiably while taking short breaks at the private residence and again at Cottonwood, then once past Ribbon Falls Hill we said our goodbyes and he took off running toward Phantom Ranch while I continued walking.

Dave O.
Dave O. from Bakersfield
Dave W.
Dave W. from Phoenix
Bright Angel Gorge
Bright Angel Gorge

Beyond the middle Canyon, I entered the oh-so-beautiful but way-too-long Bright Angel Gorge and found some of Dave's exhuberance rubbing off. Trotting half way back to Phantom Ranch, I arrived there at 4:40pm and paused for a short break and to top up on water. The next part of the journey would be the most challenging. After having already travelled 34 miles, I was now faced with the 4800' cimb up the formidable South Kaibab Trail. The South Kaibab has a bit of a reputation, possibly somewhat undeserved in my opinion, as being an excruciatingly tough climb. Yes, it climbs more, 4800' over 6.7 miles vs. 4400' over 9.7 miles on the Bright Angel Trail, but the beauty of the South Kaibab is that it is 3 miles shorter than the Bright Angel Trail! Three miles! And it is much less travelled and far more scenic, in my opinion. The South Kaibab Trail is arguably the prettiest trail in the Grand Canyon and is usually my choice for climbing out. The caveat is that it has little shade and no water, so it should be avoided in hot weather. The South Kaibab was my choice for this day. I left the river at 5:18pm, feeling pretty good, and looking forward to the climb. The climbing, although strenous, is the meat of the journey in my opinion. The rest of the trip is just travel to get to the climb.

Phantom Ranch
Back to Phantom Ranch
Black Bridge
Black Bridge
3600 Vertical Feet
3600 Vertical Feet To Go

The Grand Canyon is possibly at its most beautiful in the evening light. The setting sun adds color to the rock and the shadows are constantly changing. Today was no different. I climbed in awe, trying to soak in the ever-changing scene. I had enough energy to keep going, but not really enough energy to charge. Feeling undertrained and past my prime, I climbed with increasing fatigue, loving every minute of it. Its difficult to describe the pleasure that one feels with such exertion. Some people despise the pain, others embrace it, even love it. The simple fact is, climbing out from the bottom of the Grand Canyon is one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences that I can imagine. It is miserable and it is ecstatic, both at the same time.

I arrived at the rim by flashlight at 8:31pm, less than 16 hours after starting that same morning. It was dark, the wind was strong, and the temperature was in the 30's. I walked the 3/4 mile back to my car, bundled up against the cold wind, happy that another Rim to Rim to Rim was complete. Dawn to dusk in the Grand Canyon... I could not imagine a better way to spend the day.

Kaibab Switchbacks
The Kaibab Switchbacks
Kaibab Evening
A Kaibab Evening
Last Light
Last Light

Rim to Rim to Rim is obviously a two stage affair since after walking 20+ miles to get to the North Rim, you have to turn around and do it all over again to get back to the South Rim. For me, its push, push, push to reach the North Rim as quickly as I can, then try to recuperate on the way back. The return trip is usually less hurried and allows more time for physical recovery, enjoyment of the scenery and for thinking. I spent much of the way back appreciating my surroundings and reminiscing about previous trips. Having hiked the corridor trails on 10 or 11 separate occasions in the last 3 years and more than 25 times overall, my mind was filled with mental visions and memories of places and events from other hikes. It seemed as though every mile of trail held a special memory or image of some kind from an earlier time.

As I descended the North Kaibab Trail high up above the tunnel, in my mind's eye I saw Cindy bravely struggling up the grade wondering if we were ever going to get to the North Rim. Further down the trail at the Roaring Springs trail junction, I walked by my mom and dad sitting at a switchback discussing how beautiful Roaring Springs was and how amazing it was to be there. When I arrived at Cottonwood, I saw Cindy and myself sitting at a picnic table happily sharing a diet Coke that we had brought along with us, secretly gloating that we had a soda and no one else did. My hiking buddy Doug Minderlen was there too and he and I were topping up our water bottles in the middle of the night, preparing for a moonlit climb to the North Rim, a third of the way through Rim to Rim #5.

I meandered down the trail lost in thought. Shortly after I entered Bright Angel Gorge I saw my mom and dad again, standing on bridge #3 and making loud tapping noises with their hiking sticks on the bridge. Further down the trail, the Wyant family was sitting on a rock wall eating lunch, laughing and reveling in the inner Canyon beauty, having just walked 1-1/2 miles from Phantom Ranch to view "the Phantom". When I finally arrived at Phantom Ranch, the Wyant family was gathered around one of the picnic tables in front of the dormitories eating a snack and Sara was madly shooing away gnats. My mom and dad stood in the doorway of cabin #11 enjoying their first trip to the bottom and my mom was waving a cheery hello to a nearby mule. Outside the Canteen, Cindy was sitting at a picnic table awaiting my return from Rim to Rim #10, smiling happily because I was a half hour early. The Wyant family was perched on the Canteen steps, grinning into a camera that was sitting by itself on a tripod.

Along the way to the Black Bridge, I met Cindy on the trail walking out from Phantom Ranch in the dark to meet the last of the Wyant stragglers who were coming into Phantom Ranch late, so that we could find our way to our assigned dormitories. I continued on across the bridge and began climbing the steep grade, remembering each familiar step. A dozen switchbacks up, I saw my mom and dad sitting alongside the trail, tired and wondering if they would get down to Phantom Ranch before dark. At Panorama Point, there was Cindy again, sitting with her boots off and patiently waiting for me to return from Rim to Rim #12 so she could climb out the rest of the way with me. When I reached the Tonto Trail junction, Doug and I were standing in the dark under the shelter of the restroom, seeking refuge from an evening downpour in the early stages of Rim to Rim #11. After laboring up the Kaibab Switchbacks, I saw the Wyant family one more time sitting on a ledge at Skeleton Point, laughing and clowning around during a lunch break. At the base of O'Neill Butte, Cindy was lying down 100 yards off the trail and I was massaging her sore leg muscles so that she could continue up the trail for awhile longer and complete her first Rim to Rim to Rim.

My father-in-law, Payson Kenyon, was resting on a rock at Cedar Ridge and thoroughly enjoying his first Grand Canyon hike in 10 years. Kay and Lyle Clark were there too, huddled underneath an overhang by the restroom with Cindy and my mom and dad, seeking shelter from a cold drizzling rain. Farther up the trail, my brother Steve was sitting in the wind at Ooh Ahh Point, somewhat in awe of his first trip into the Canyon, making jokes about how this might be his new home. Just below the "chimney", there was Payson again, sitting on a rock and talking into a video camera to his daughter Debbie, reminiscing about past trips that he and she had taken together. I saw myself lying flat on my back, wishing a trip was over and that the nausea would go away. Up ahead, Doug was climbing the chimney with flashlight bobbing along in the dark, finishing up a Rim to Rim from 10 years ago. I was hurrying along behind trying to catch him, but was too tired to gain any ground. Two switchbacks from the top, Cindy had her arm around me and I was helping her limp to the finish after she had strained a muscle. At the trailhead itself, all sorts of family members were gathered by the split rail fence, patiently waiting for me to snap a group photo.

It was a bit strange to see all of those familiar places, so alive with memories from past times, yet now empty and kind of sad without the people who once occupied them and filled them with life. The Grand Canyon is a huge, vast place and it seemed especially lonely to me on this particular day. Yet it was comforting as well, like an old familiar friend, and it helped to know that this was a place that had brought so much happiness to so many people. The Grand Canyon has been a wonderful source of happy times for myself and Cindy, for our families and our friends. I hoped that many more were yet to come.

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