Written by Brian Burnham of Cirque Productions, Creators of TREK – A Journey on the Appalachian Trail
The alarm went off way before the sun or warmth was in the picture. We knew we’d be head lamping at the end of the day, so to minimize that a bit, we started under the glow of some Petzl Tikkas. Our morning routine is pretty simple after a few months on the Appalachian Trail. Wake up, put sleeping bag in pack, eat a few granola bars. This put us on trail in just a few minutes and we began making our way down. We hoped to have the 6600 feet of decent done pretty early in the morning so that we’d have plenty of time to rest up for our final climb. The terrain was still fresh in our minds from the climb the day before, so we made quick work of the narrow winding switchbacks, and again found ourselves in the deserted cottonwood campground for a nice brunch. I could still feel the 20-mile hike the day before in my legs and over 6000 feet of descending didn’t do much to help my knees either. But overall we felt good and ready for the remainder of our day.
The rolling terrain along the river was again leisurely and allowed us to admire the rainbow of colors and shades in the canyon walls that reached both towards the sky and to the horizon in front of us and behind us. Desert sage and shrubs dominated our surroundings, so we could see the massive cottonwoods of Phantom ranch long before we took shelter in their shade. In the still deserted camp, we rested as much as possible and downed some granola bars and water to keep the energy level high for the evening climb. The South Rim seemed impossibly out of reach at this point, but we knew the only way up the 6,600 foot climb was to get rolling and take it slow, plus the sun was dipping down quickly and the legs tightened up only moments after grabbing a seat at the picnic table.
The first couple thousand feet of the climb went just fine, and the abrupt drops into the Colorado off to our right kept us on our toes. At about 5000 ft from the top some fatigue started to set in, and thoughts turned to meal possibilities on our way back to Tucson. At this point the switchbacks seemed to be endless, the top never any closer, and the short breaks we took along the way didn’t really refresh me that much. I would have easily dozed off for a nice nap at our Indian Garden rest stop, but the chilling temps combined with my low energy didn’t allow it, so onward and upward again. Between short breaths brought on by some elevation that my North Carolina blood isn’t used to, Max and I chatted about why we always try stupid stuff that ends up being so painful instead of just going to the beach and drinking beer. He reminded me that its fun afterwards and it leads to good stories, so I stuffed the Rim-to-Rim idea in that category in my brain and kept switching back.
At 3000 feet from the top it was completely dark so we broke out the headlamps and fleece, and at 1500 feet from the top our hike took a turn for the interesting. Cranking hard up the dusty trail to keep the evening chill off, Max and I rounded yet another switchback and found an older man and woman sitting on the side of the trail. It didn’t look like they were just hanging out enjoying some Chex mix, so we asked them how they were doing. She said she couldn’t move anymore and was so exhausted she could barely stand. Max and I weighed our options of leaving them with some food, water, and down jackets while we went to get rangers to come pull them out. Option 1 seemed like it could take hours, so carrying her out looked to be our best course of action. So 22.5 miles into a rim-to-rim hike, still donning full packs, we stashed our hiking poles and picked up our stranded friend under the arm and started to knock out the last little bit of hiking to the top. Turns out, that last little bit turns into a lot more when you’re carrying someone, especially on the narrow trail carved with only one person in mind. Despite the physical challenge the hike up with Delilah was very nice as we chatted about grand kids, other hikes in Arizona, and her place back in Big Sky Montana. Step by step the lights of the lodge on the South Rim got ever closer until the signs warning us not to hike to the river and back in a day started becoming more frequent, and without any tapering off what so ever, we were out on flat land with only a few hundred yard of parking lot to go to drop off our exhausted hiking companion.
Max and I temporarily forgot our exhaustion while helping Delilah and her husband out of the ever-chilling canyon, but tossing on a clean cotton shirt and eating a big meal quickly reminded me that our 5-hour drive back to Tucson would test my ability to not pass out. Coffee was definitely in order for that challenge.
On the ride back I realized that Max was right. Now that the Rim-to-Rim was done and my hiking shoes were in the bed of the pick up and not strapped to my feet, it was actually a lot of fun. Not only does the Grand Canyon fully live up to its name as an all time epic hike and mind blowing geographical feature, but adding a seemingly stupid physical challenge to it really seems to compound the fun and experience. Max didn’t quite come to this realization as quickly as I did since he had to work a 24-hour shift at the fire station the next morning, but after he got that out of the way, he shared in my sentiment that hiking the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim in a day is both pretty dumb and quite painful….but man is it fun, and we can’t wait for the next hair brained idea to roll thru our heads and get back out on the trail, the road, or the open water.