by Lisa Butler
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Nearly a dozen years ago, I was working as a massage terrorist in a chiropractic office and saw a client with a lower leg and foot problem. He was an ultrarunner recently returned from a double crossing of the Grand Canyon. He regaled me with stories of the trip as I dug my thumbs into his legs with a therapeutic level of discomfort. I’m not sure if the story is imprinted in the cells of my thumbs but I have wanted to make this trip since hearing his stories.
The night before our trip was to begin, I drove to Denver to stay with my friend Theresa (aka T-Bone) and share a pre-canyon meal of drunken noodles at a Thai restaurant. We were still recovering from our earlier canyon adventures at Palo Duro Canyon in Amarillo Texas two weeks before and knew we would need some good fuel for a couple days before our trek. We spent the night loading tunes into our iPods in case there were dark moments in the middle of the canyon that required a pick-me-up. In the morning, we flew to Phoenix to meet our co-Canyoneros.
On the flight, Theresa read a book on the Canyon and the sights we would see. They talked about the dangers of the canyon and how we should not attempt to make it to Phantom Ranch and back in one day (that was less than ½ of our planned trip) because it was too dangerous. There was a section detailing the “warning signs” that we’d encounter on the trail including one that showed a “Wretched Hiker” in the throes of despair. Sure enough, that sign was posted at several points along our route. We decided that the word “wretched” was underused in today’s lexicon and made it the word of the day, complete with Pee Wee Herman antics.
The trek involved six runners and one angel of mercy. Our organizer, Matt Crownover had gathered several of his good friends to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and magic of the Grand Canyon. He brought his incredible wife who planned to enjoy the canyon from above and paint amazing pictures… she also treated us to her phenomenal talents with a crock pot.
The night before our adventure, we finalized plans in our rooms at the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. The Bright Angel trail ends just below the lodge and would be on our return trip. We were hoping for an early-ish arrival but knew that might not be likely. Most of us had run Palo Duro 50K or 50 Mile two weeks before. Brandon had not trained since April due to an injury and a busy schedule but he planned to go only to Phantom Ranch and back. Packs were filled with food, clothing, maps, flashlights, and cameras. We worked out a timing plan for starting our adventure and turned in for what we hoped would be a good night’s sleep.
Theresa and I were so excited and could hardly sleep. We would each think of something exciting we wanted to say and would listen to hear if the other was sleeping. At the slightest sound of awakeness we would tell our little thought. Finally, we did drift off to sleep and got several quality hours of rest. Still, 5 a.m. came quickly and we were up and getting into the gear we’d laid out a few hours before.
Our plan was to start just before twilight with our miles on the road leading to the South Kaibab trail. We hit the top of the trail just as twilight was beginning and just ahead of a mule train. The downward scramble revealed more and more light as we went. Nearly every turn was punctuated by a “wow” or “oh my Gosh!” Barely a mile down the trail we were stopping to shed the extra layers we thought we’d need in the predawn chill. It was probably 40 degrees at the start and as we lost altitude and gained sun, it was warming up quickly. A few more turns down the trail and the sun started peeking around a formation and shedding light on another formation across the canyon. The day was born in the throes of adventure.
Not long after sun up, we were treated to a visit from a small, female bighorn sheep standing beside the trail. She came along on the adventure for nearly a mile until we ran into the aromatic end of a mule train. Oh yeah, everything about mule trains is aromatic. We followed the supply train for about ½ mile and were cautioned by one of the riders to stay back 200 ft. They stopped around the next turn and graciously allowed us to pass while the mules took the opportunity to relieve themselves in a spray nearly as impressive as Niagra Falls and nearly as smelly as the sulfur pits at Yellowstone.
Before we knew it, we were approaching the suspension bridge across the river. The views were spectacular of the café au lait water lazily meandering between the immense rock walls it had carved so many years ago. The tunnel was visible below us with a work crew rebuilding the trail. Apparently we made it through the tunnel just before they closed it for the day. The suspension bridge was impressive and we stopped to take photos that matched the ones in the guidebook. Across the bridge, it was a short jaunt into Phantom Ranch and the bustling activity there.
The guys who run Phantom Ranch are quite nice and accommodating. Turns out they had a few friends in common with Brandon. They agreed to let us stash a few things behind the counter for pickup on our return trip, so we all offloaded our extra clothing and made room for extra water. All the maps showed that the water was turned off all the way (14 miles) to the North rim, fortunately, everything was incorrect and the water was on at all locations.
From Phantom Ranch the trail is fairly runable and flat-ish though it trends uphill. I took the lead and Buddy said something to the effect of “get us up that hill” so I took off. We’d picked up another runner in Phantom Ranch who was doing a double crossing instead of abusing himself at the Javelina Jundred for the weekend (though he planned on another double crossing the next day). He’d planned on a 12 hour crossing but I doubt he made that exactly since we were nearly to the top of the North rim when we saw him again. His name was Gene but for some reason we couldn’t all keep that straight and we decided to call him Earl. The next day, as we hobbled around, we all would wonder if Earl was out there finishing another crossing with his Washington friends.
We got near a turnoff for Ribbon Falls. Buddy wanted to go see the falls but Brandon and I knew we didn’t have any extra mileage in us. Theresa was already ½ – 1 mile ahead of us along the trail. Matt2 decided to go with Buddy for a dip in the falls. I gave them the camera though Matt B had one and takes much better photos than I do. Brandon and I hustled ahead to catch T-Bone and kept trucking on up the trail. Somewhere along the way, we found a very smelly marsh and crossed it. I was in the lead again and skirted the edges until Brandon pushed me into the foul water. Grrrrrr. My shoes dried with that smelly crust but the odor was still less than the mules so we were all ok. We hit a steeper ascent and were plowing our way up the trail when eventually the’falls crew’ found us. They had missed the last water station and went back to refill, then stopping at Roaring Springs. We had appreciated the beauty of Roaring Springs on the fly-by but they stopped for some exceptional photos.
We kept climbing past the rock ledges of the North Rim, passing the occasional down hiker going a short distance. Brandon and I made the top with immense grins on our faces and settled in for a sandwich and tortilla with pimento cheese. Shortly everyone joined us on the warm rocks with the chilly breeze and quickly voted for a trek back down out of the wind. We headed down to Coconino Point for a much deserved rest break and munchies.
Theresa and I were getting chilly and were ready to keep moving so we headed on down before the rest of the pack was ready. We were about 1/3 of the way down the steep section when the rest caught us. The pack rejoined and then split again, leaving Matt B and I to take photos along the way. The changing light made for some incredible photos. After we passed the bridge, a little while before Cottonwood where the trail turned West out of Bright Angel Canyon, we split up again. Matt C and Buddy were feeling like a faster run and the rest of us were doing what we could. We kept the fastest pace possible trying to make the smelly marsh before sunset. We were blazing (seemingly) along the trail when Theresa caught a toe on a rock and went down with a THUD. She skinned both palms (tore one right through the lifeline – for you palm readers) and got a knee pretty well too. We later took photos of her “stigmata” with a blissful (comatose) smile on her face.
The sun was just setting and we were forced to slow down quite a bit. We hit the marsh sometime after dark as the water was rising and somehow took a wrong turn. We crossed a small piece of the river and though I knew it couldn’t be right, we tried to push on. Only a short ways down river we turned back and re-found trail through the smelly marsh. Whew, that was rank! Once on the other side, we headed down to the river to rinse our already wet shoes. Good thing, it would be hours until we’d step in Mule Piss again.
In our delirium, Theresa and I plotted a business venture brewing some kind of lovely amber beer to sell to Phantom Ranch under the name of Mule Piss. Perhaps our advertising campaign will be “can you lick it?” Whatever gets you through the darkness! We arrived at the Ranch with Matt and Buddy ready to head back out. The rest of us needed a few moments, a clothing change for the nighttime air, and some food. Brandon needed to address the “mule carried” postcard for his family. So we enjoyed the amenities of the Ranch for a little while before heading back out. It was time well spent and we were all refreshed.
Out of Phantom Ranch in the darkness we headed back toward the river and another bridge. The moon was nearly full and, except for the shadows, we didn’t need flashlights. Buddy had a fire in his arse and was cruising ahead of us by a good margin. We followed the river for some distance before heading up the South side of the canyon. By the time we caught Buddy, he was toast. We all stopped for some nourishment and that revived Buddy but he stuck with the pack (somewhat) after that. We were trying to keep together because I had a bug up my butt that no one should be alone in the dark trying to climb out. I suggested that we stay in pairs, at least, and that turned out to be a decent suggestion. Buddy and Theresa took the lead, Matt B and I were in the middle and Brandon was with Matt C who seemed to need to water the canyon (any excuse for guys to pee off a cliff).
By the time we reached Indian Garden, I looked like a something out of “Day of the Living Dead” minus the shopping maul. I could barely bend my arms and held my flashlight dangling at the end of my useless arms. My leg, which had been hurting since mile 2 was keeping me going but I couldn’t raise my toes up over the steps ahead. I was smoked! I met up with Theresa and Buddy and tried to keep up. At one point, I stepped in a huge puddle as I mounted a stair… as the fluid splattered my other leg I thought “I sure hope that’s water!” No odor greeted me so I was relieved. I was not so lucky on the next puddle of reddish, green fluid a la Mule! Phew! We slogged up the switchbacks, lights on in the darkness, lights off in the moonlight. We grew more tired with each step upward but our goal was a light on the top of the canyon and it called us.
At some point, Brandon the untrained caught us and passed Theresa and I. By then, I was leaving my light on rather than waste energy on the tiny little off-button. Brandon asked why I used my flash and seemed to accept the answer that I was too tired to turn it off. Theresa and I threaded the keyhole and were elated that we were nearing the top, but the top didn’t arrive. We realized that there were two tunnels on this ascent up Bright Angel. We climbed and climbed. We rested and encouraged each other. We could see the lodge at the top and hear the hot showers calling our names. Finally we saw Buddy and Brandon make the final turn toward home and we were encouraged to push toward it. We rounded the turn just as they hit the top. We went through the final keyhole and found a little more strength. I said to Theresa “T-Bone, it’s Ski Season!!” We both cheered and took the final steps to the top of the trail.
As we stumbled past the Kolb Studio toward the lodge, a solitary figure was wandering down toward us. It was Juliana the Angel of Mercy heading down to greet Matt C. We gave her a hug and hurried toward Buddy’s room where Juliana had left a pot of simmering, HOT, taco soup. We loaded bowls with the hot nectar and plowed into it like we hadn’t seen decent food in 18 hours. It was fabulous! We shared stories and laughs and then headed off to hot showers (with our mule smelling clothes on) and bed once we were clean and warm.
We slept fitfully after the exertion and with the pain and thrill of the trek. I woke early and went to call my Mother to let her know I was safe. The pain was a lovely reminder of what we had accomplished and I’m not sure I was quite lucid when we talked. The day was filled with eating Juliana’s cooking, the wares of the cafeteria near the lodge, and seeing the trail from above. When I sat, my quads and calves tightened to the point of agony. When I walked, my right shin screamed louder with each step. I couldn’t win but I welcomed the sensation because I knew I’d earned my age for the year. Besides, Brandon was much worse off than I and I had a camera with video feature to capture the proof 😉
The people in the room next to Theresa and I complained to the cleaning crew and expressed their hope that we’d be quiet that night since we got in so late the night before. They were, no doubt, relieved that they were correct. After a few giggle fits caused by exhaustion and the inability to move like normal bi-peds, we crashed (literally) very early and slept like the dead until the sun was well up. Ambulation was even more of a challenge and the giggle fits continued though now more at each other’s expense than at the tiredness we could not avoid.
It was a weekend well spent with moments that will leave an indelible mark on my life. Friendships were strengthened and forged in the unconformities of the Canyon. I fulfilled a 12 year quest… and I will return to do it again. Perhaps the route will have to be a bit longer because I will be a bit older and will need to earn my age again.
Since the trip, I’ve seen my Physical Terrorist with a lower leg problem. As he has dug his thumbs into my leg with a therapeutic level of discomfort, I have regaled him with tales of my adventures. He has yet to be bitten by the bug.