The task at hand… My business partner and I were going to trek from the South Kaibab to the North Rim and then back down the North Rim and up the Bright Angel trail and we would be trekking through the night. Traversing over 42 miles with over 20,000 feet of elevation gains and losses. We would only be taking food and water breaks every 7 minutes for no more than 20 minutes. I was equal parts scared and exhilarated. Could I REALLY do this? As does sometimes happen, that fear starts trickling down into every little nook and cranny and then your inner doubter comes creeping in… whispering all sorts of unproductive thoughts in your head. Reminding you of everything in your past that you may have failed to accomplish. Thankfully, I have a powerful inner circle. I reached out to two of my girlfriends who held up the mirror to me to remind me of who I am and what I am capable of and their love and belief in me filled in all the little nooks and crannies until I could breathe my way back into my own place of self belief.
We headed up to the Grand Canyon by 4:30 am on the 23rd and were on the trail by 9:00 am. Having already attempted this Rim to Rim to Rim trek back in May, I had all the iconic photos of the South Rim so I had no need to stop for pictures. I could simply focus on getting down the trail as fast as possible. We made it down to the river in 2 hours and 15 minutes. It was a pretty good time. Our pace was solid. We crossed the river and headed up the other side towards Phantom Ranch. Once there, we refilled our water and replenished the electrolytes in our camel, mixed our protein shakes and chugged them down. Our strategy was to take a 20 -30 minute food/water break after each 7-mile stretch. In my head, I had broken the trek up into six – 7 mile hikes back to back. Dividing it up like this makes it easier on the brain to think about. The idea of focusing on the fact that we were trekking 42 miles wasn’t smart. It sounds intimidating just hearing. We finished our shakes and I affixed some additional duct tape to my feet where I could feel some hot spots forming and we headed out for our second 7 mile hike to Cottonwood. The sun and the heat were pretty strong, definitely a variable that takes a lot of your energy. I think all the training I did for Rainier with my 42lb and 52lb pack in the 100 degree heat helped me to deal with this. It was hot and draining, but doable.
We got to Cottonwood and started our routine again… replenish our water and electrolytes, mix and drink my protein shake. We found an empty camp site and each grabbed a bench from the picnic table. We lay down for about 15 minutes with our feet up to give them a break. At this point, we had hit the 14-mile mark. It was a beautiful, sunny cloud-filled sky. There was a beautiful cloud formation right over my head. It was so white and billowy it made me wonder what it would feel like to fall through a cloud… what that texture might feel like on my skin.
At the end of our 30-minute break, we threw on our packs and headed up the next 7-mile stretch to the North Rim. This was all new territory for me. On our last attempt, my feet gave out by the time we got to Cottonwood because they were completely cut, swollen, and blistered from my mountaineering boots. The trail, in the beginning, was a bit softer than other parts of the trail. Large sections of dirt instead of the feet crushing rocks we’d been pounding on for 14 miles. We moved up the trail and then made a quick stop at the Pump House Residence to mix and chug our sports drink to help bring oxygen to our muscles as we headed up the steep incline of the North Rim.
As I was sitting on a bench there was a large crow resting on a branch about 3 feet from me. He was beautiful. He was cawing away. I engaged and started mimicking his call. We finished up quickly and headed back up the trail. As we got higher and higher up the trail, it got narrower and narrower. The edge of the cliff that we were climbing on became scarier and scarier. You seriously don’t want to trip on this section. We passed roaring springs and then moved up towards the Supai Tunnel. The light was fading fast and the evening was upon us. As we reach a look out point my partner says, “Stop here for a second. Check this out.” He walks toward the edge. I choose to stay back and sit on a rock as I am very clear that after almost 21 miles, my legs are very shaky and I am not comfortable getting that close to the edge. I settled onto a rock and I looked out. It is dark but there is enough light from the moon to see the outline of the canyon. I am looking straight down the center of the canyon ahead of me and I see a massive mountain. I find it interesting that at the perch of this massive canyon, I can see this mountain in the distance and yet it still seems so massive. “That’s Mt. Humphrey’s” … It takes me a minute to process and then I realize. “Humphrey’s… that’s Humphrey’s… I’ve climbed that.” That realization makes me smile. I’m just minutes from the top of summiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon having trekked 21 miles that day looking out at a 13,000 mountain that I have also summited. It was a nice moment. We got moving again and made it to the top of the North Rim by 7:12 pm. It had taken us 10 hours and 12 minutes to trek from the South Rim to the North Rim. The temperature at the North Rim was cold so we chose not to take our standard 20-30 minute food break instead just opting to put on our headlamps, take a picture of the North Rim sign and head back down. We didn’t want our muscles to cramp in the cold night air. We turned on our headlamps and headed back down.
It didn’t take long to realize my headlamp sucked and was about as valuable as taping a Bic lighter to your forehead. One of those lessons you learn by being in the trenches. Given my headlamp was so useless I had to rely on my climbing partner’s light. We took turns having him in front and then in the back of me depending upon the terrain. Trekking in the dark offers some of the same challenges as driving in the dark. You find it is a strain on your eyes. You go slower, much slower than you want. When we got out into the open space of the canyon I actually turned off my headlamp completely and simply trekked by the moonlight. The light was strong enough to give me decent coverage to walk. As we descended down the Rim and into the Canyon where it was blocked it became hard to see and I had to put my headlamp back on. We were moving along at a decent pace when I screamed as my foot slammed into a rock I hadn’t seen. I swore I had broken 4 of my toes. I pushed the pain out of my head and just kept moving. We made it back to the Pump House and that is where we grabbed our next 30-minute food break. We each grabbed a bench and put our feet up to help with the swelling and rested for about 20 minutes. Then we took the next ten minutes to mix another protein shake and pull off our boots and reapply any necessary duct tape to any new hot spots and/or to fortify existing ones. We pulled our boots back on, threw on our packs and headed back down the trail. The section from the Pump House to the Phantom Ranch seemed endless. Other than a few more foot slams into unseen rocks and an encounter with a tarantula and a baby owl this section was really quite uneventful. The most eventful part of it was my anger that kept bubbling to the surface when we were going through the inner canyon. Every time I thought we were almost through I would see another whole section.
We reached Phantom Ranch by 3am. We’d been trekking for 18 hours and schlepped over 34 miles. As we pulled off our packs I looked at my partner and said, “I need more than 30 minutes. We have to head up the Bright Angel next and 30 minutes isn’t going to do it for me. My feet are killing me and I’m exhausted. Can we take an hour and rest on the picnic tables?” Knowing what was ahead we mixed our protein shake and downed it quickly and then each grabbed a bench and rested for an hour and then got up and headed out of Phantom Ranch to go tackle the Bright Angel, the last leg of our trek. I divided this last section up in my head. A mile from the Colorado River to the River Rest house and then 4 more 1 and half mile sections up to the top of the Bright Angel Trail. We trekked for the first hour in the dark and then the sun came up around 5:30 am enough to not have to worry about my crappy headlamp any more.
I was exhausted beyond belief and every step was pure pain. The swelling, cuts and blisters were taking their toll. We stopped at Indian Garden. We had just completed the first of the 4 – one and a half mile sections left to finish the trek. Time check revealed that that one and a half mile section took me two hours to complete. My fatigue was showing. As we thought through the timing at that pace it would take six more hours to get out of the canyon. When the realization hit that it would be six more hours my entire body freaked. I KNEW I didn’t have six more hours in me. I HAD to figure out a way to cut that time in HALF. I knew I could handle 3 more hours but that was about it. I stood up and realized that I had allowed my focus on the previous mile and half to be on how much pain I was in and how tired I was. I would NOT make the same mistake on this next section. I stood up and it took me about six to ten steps to get my footing. My legs were very, very shaky. I then started to chant in my head with tremendous intensity… “strength and speed and strength and speed and hinge, hinge, hinge…. strength and speed and strength and speed, hinge, hinge, hinge”
The hinge is a reminder to me to do the rest step which is a technique in trekking where you purposely step with your heel and toe and lock back your knee. The idea is that you use your body’s skeletal system (the hinge of the knee) to lift you up the mountain for your step instead of using your muscles. Using your muscles requires much greater energy and accelerates fatigue. I refused to allow my mind to think about anything other than this mantra. I repeated it over and over and over as I made my way through this next mile and a half.
When I made it to the 3 mile rest house the time check revealed that I had increased my pace enough to complete that mile and half section in one hour instead of two. I had cut my time in HALF by using that mantra. Ahhhh…. The most important life lesson of the trip… FOCUS ON THE MOST EMPOWERING THOUGHT TO GET WHAT YOU WANT. By focusing on my pain and fatigue for the first mile and half it took me two hours to get up that section. And, I TRULY believed that that was the fastest I could go. It WAS when I held that thought… when I changed my thoughts and focus, my body was able to deliver even more. I continued that same mantra through the next two sections and was able to climb out of the Bright Angel trail at 11:15 rather than 2:15. That is the power of focus.
Trekking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim was the hardest thing that I have ever done. And, I am so thankful I did it because it proved to me that I am capable of more than I think I am. And, I am looking forward to figuring out my next physical challenge/adventure that will push me out of my comfort zone and keep me moving forward on my journey. I completed the trek in 26 hours and 15 minutes.