By Michael Lanza
At 5:30 in the morning in early April, the bone-chilling wind cascading off the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at 7,200 feet slices through my few thin layers of clothing. Four of us are following our headlamp beams in the dark down the South Kaibab Trail. We’re just minutes into a day that will also end by headlamp light late tonight—but only after we’ve hiked farther than any of us has ever ambulated in a single day.
That’s assuming we make it. We feel sufficiently uncertain of that outcome that we’re all carrying paper-thin, four-ounce bivy sacks, just in case we have to lie down on the ground somewhere to pass out for a few hours.
My friends Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, and Carl Schueler and I have embarked on a trek that the National Park Service would definitely not approve of. Rangers and officials at Grand Canyon National Park caution people against attempting to hike from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up again in a day. We’re setting out to cover more than twice that hike’s cumulative elevation and more than three times its distance.
We plan to walk from the South Rim to the river, across the canyon to the North Rim, and back again: 42 miles with about 22,000 cumulative feet of up and down. All before the hour hand makes one complete revolution.
I’m not sure how auspicious it is that, at the outset of this epic day, I’m shivering so violently that my teeth are clacking together like the tracks beneath a passing train. And I’m wearing every stitch of clothing I brought—which is obviously not enough.
But when you are compressing one of America’s most sought-after, five- to six-day backpacking trips down to the length of a double work shift, the crazed calculus goes something like this: superfluous ounces multiplied by mileage times elevation equals added suffering. So it is deemed better to shiver for a little while than to carry clothing you won’t need for the rest of the day.
And sure enough, about 30 minutes after setting out, we’ve warmed up. As we breeze down the narrow crest of the South Kaibab Trail, the first light of day floats down like a light snowfall onto the Grand Canyon. Below us sprawls one of the planet’s most magnificent and unfathomable landscapes, a chasm a mile deep and 277 miles long, with an infinite complex of twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers each standing thousands of feet tall inside this big hole. We walk swiftly but in silence, gaping.
Across the canyon, dark, gray clouds embrace the North Rim. It looks very, very far away.
I glance at my GPS: mile two. Only 40 miles to go.
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‘The Height of Absurdity’
In one sense, this hike embodies the height of absurdity. To place the distance and vertical gain and loss in some perspective, compare it to climbing the Lower 48’s highest peak, California’s Mt. Whitney. That 21.6-mile, 6,000-foot slog is usually done over a weekend—partly to acclimatize to the high elevation, but also because spreading it over a couple of days is a more realistic objective for most hikers.
We are basically attempting the equivalent of climbing Whitney twice in one day.
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And yet, for hikers and trail runners who have really planned, prepared, and trained for it (see the Make It Happen section below and my tips on training for mega-dayhikes elsewhere at this blog), it constitutes arguably the most amazing single huge day of hiking you can do in the country. We will see the Big Ditch from top to bottom and north to south—and we’ll see it twice, walking across and back, at very different times of day. As anyone who’s hiked or rafted the canyon understands, the play of light across this landscape of such depth and vastness ranges widely over the course of the day. Every corner of it, every view morphs from hour to hour.
Seeing all of this in a crazy-long day adds a major physical challenge. For persons of a certain mindset, that element of uncertainty enhances the experience, giving it another dimension that makes it irresistible.
Rather than the height of absurdity, I like to think of our plan as an ultimate expression of optimism.
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There’s no way to even estimate how many people attempt or complete a one-day, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike or run. Such an extreme undertaking would obviously not even pop up on the mental radar of most hikers or trail runners.
But start searching the Web for trip reports and asking around and you discover the tiny yet passionate sub-culture of avid ultra-distance runners and hikers who have done what many refer to as the “r2r2r.” It feels like stumbling upon a little pub in a back alley of London or Edinburgh where everyone’s a diehard fan of the same soccer team.
I have friends who’ve made it an almost annual tradition for several years, finishing the r2r2r in a very impressive 12 hours. Through forwarded e-mails, I connected with an Arizonan trail runner who’s done it seven times. He wrote back with reams of helpful advice. His e-mail suggested that there are more zealots out there pulling this off than one would expect.
If you feel compelled to try to hike or run more than 40 miles through wilderness in a day, few footpaths are as amenable to it as the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails that we’re linking up today. (Other r2r2r hikers and runners use the Bright Angel Trail; see the Make It Happen section below for more details.) Managed by the park as “corridor” trails, the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel are all very well constructed. While there are steep stretches, the footing is mostly good enough to run—though most runners will walk sections of it.
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Definitely Not Recommended
At 7:55 a.m., Mark and I pause in warm sunshine on the suspension bridge spanning the Colorado River, at 2,480 feet. Carl waits on the other side; Todd’s just a couple of minutes behind us. Two hours and 20 minutes after we started out in a numbing wind chill, the temperature has leapt into the 50s. Because it is early spring and we’ll pass through the canyon bottom in early morning and late afternoon, we won’t experience temperatures warmer than around a very pleasant 60° F—avoiding the big nemesis of Grand Canyon hikers, the brutal heat. Swapping that for a couple miles of walking in packed snow on the North Rim seems like a smart trade-off.
“I can already tell what the hardest part of this hike is going to be,” I say to Mark. He nods and laughs because we are thinking the same thing. After the pounding, 5,000-foot descent off the South Rim, we are both dreading coming down off the North Rim—a thousand feet higher and double the distance of what we just did. And we’ll start that descent 21 miles into this day.
As if on cue, Todd walks up to us at that moment and says, “Well, I can feel what’s going to hurt the most.”
Mile seven. 35 to go.