My Hardest Hike Ever – Grand Canyon R2R2R

I’ll toot my horn a bit, but know that I am not the first on this board to consider a Grand Canyon R2R2R dayhike (and definitely not the first to finish) and so I thought I’d share my experience for any whack enough (I mean like minded folk) to entertain such an experience.

8 of us started, hiking down the S Kaibab, at 2:30am Saturday morning April 24th.  The weather was breezy and in the upper 30’s at the rim.  Travel by headlamp was slow, each of the erosion prevention steps held puddles of "mule water" and that we worked to avoid.  It took us about 3 hours to reach Phantom Ranch.  

At that point we were all in good spirits.  We chowed, drank and did some minor foot management.  3 guys running R2R2R stopped in and set out before us (in all I estimate >30 people were attempting R2R2R, most of them running).  After 30 minutes we started up the N Kaibab along a very fast stretch of trail along Bright Angel Creek.  The cool morning temps and the nearly flat trail were a welcome change from the S Kaibab downhill and it is always nice not to expend too much energy before the climb to the north rim.

My food plan was to eat one probar and drink 1/2 liter of water about every hour, and then add to this one caffinated Gu gel and an extra 1/2 liter+ of water about every 7 miles or major stop (Phantom, Cottonwood, N Rim, etc.).  When we reached Cottonwood (~mile 14) this seemed to be serving me well.  

About one mile south of Cottonwood was a shoes off creek crossing.  I’ve been this route 4 times now and this was a first.  We spent about 30 minutes getting everyone across and shoes back on.  20 minutes later, at 9:30 seven of us arrived at Cottonwood.  15 minutes later our last crew member arrived and told us he would not be continuing due to his knee.  Several of us left gear and food in the rangers storage box – no need to haul it to the rim and back.  All told we were stopped at Cottonwood for 45 minutes.  Six more runners passed through Cottonwood as we rested, these had secured sponsors in a fund raising effort for Haitian earthquake relief.  

At last we moved on and started the climb toward the north rim.  I set a goal of arriving by noon.  The trail leaves Cottonwood with a gentle grade, then a mile later starts climbing steeply.  At this point a 2nd bailed – feet.

Our group held pretty close together until Roaring Spring.  I was feeling pretty good and started to pull away.  I had a strong climb up to the Supai Tunnel, beyond which I started bonking.  I stopped and contemplated starting back but after 10 minutes and  Gu gel helped enough that I continued on though I struggled all the way up to the rim.  I arrived at 12:20pm.  I attributed some of my weakness to altitude and so started back down immediately.  The trail from the tunnel to the north rim had short patches of slushy snow.

About 20 minutes down from the rim I crossed paths with the rest of the gang.  Another few minutes I was back at the Supai Tunnel where I stopped for a long (30 minute) rest.  After eating and drinking and resting I started to feel much better.  The gang didn’t show (turns out they rested at the rim for awhile) so I moved on.

I had no particular problems all the way back to Phantom Ranch.  I didn’t stop at Cottonwood, rather I took my next long break at the shoes off creek crossing using the time to patch a blister on my big toe and tape hot spots on the balls of both feet.  (plus more food and water).  No crew, but time to move on.  It was 3:30 when I left the creek and I set a goal of Phantom by 5:30.

I had hoped that by taking this stretch not too fast that I’d have plenty of juice left for the climb out.  It was about 80 degrees, but the sun radiating off the canyon walls felt warmer, and the trail seemed to go forever.  I finally reached Phantom Ranch at 5:40 not too bad on time, but I was much more tired than I wanted to be.

I rested again for a half hour, ate, and watered up.  At 6:10 I thought about waiting for the rest of the gang, but decided that further rest and tightening muscles would be detrimental to the 7 mile climb.  I estimated 3-4 hours for the climb up.  3 would prove overly optimistic.

The climb up to the Tonto trail crossing was not too bad.  I rested for 10m, ate again, and checked my pulse…120bpm.  Everything in control.  I pressed on at 7:30.  The moon shone brightly enough that I didn’t need the head lamp.

The climb from the Tonto to Skeleton is killer steep.  About 15m into it I started feeling horribly weird.  Light headed, totally out of gas.  I have never experienced such fatigue before; the mother of all bonks!  I forced myself to continue, thinking thoughts that "I’ll never do this again".  

I met a fellow R2R2R hiker at Skelton, disappointed that he turned back before reaching the north rim.  I understand that disappointment, but still, a 37 mile dayhike is nothing to be ashamed of!

I didn’t feel like eating, but did down a final Gu gel and some water.  I felt a little better, but still really struggled all the way to Cedar Ridge.  Here I took another 10 minute break and drank some more.  My feeling of total waste passed, and I finished the final 1.5 miles in reasonable shape topping out at 10:10, just less than 20 hours.  The rest of our group finished over the next 4 hours.

Recovery from this experience is not too bad.  I was ready for bed at 3pm yesterday, but doing fine today though my shins and calves are a bit stiff.

I’ll probably do this again and test the theory that my blood sugar dropped low on both ascents and that was the reason for my difficulties.  I had plenty of calories, but much of it was complex carbs.  Ahead of and during the climbs I probably needed more sugar.  Next time I’ll eat 1/2 of a probar each hour, and also eat a Gu gel.  The simpler sugars of the Gu should help with the bonking…I think.  I’ll test the food theory (somewhat) on my long Sierra hike this summer and see how I fare on the longer days.

Other points of note:
* the late April weather was perfect; not too cold at the rims, not too hot at bottom.  I’ve hiked R2R in October when the north rim was below freezing at 5am and the it was 100 degrees at Phantom at noon.  
* everyone in the group has to hike their own hike.  we finished roughly as three mini-groups.  The S Kaibab climb took us variably ~4, ~5, and ~6 hours.
* it pays to start rested.  Our slowest finishers run marathons, but had only 2 hours sleep before starting the hike.  That, general hike fatigue and the downhill from the north rim beat up their knees.  Several years ago I did a Tanner-Hance Escalante trip, hiking down the Tanner and over to Cardenas Creek on only 3 hours sleep.  I struggled to finish and it took about 4 months before I could run my knees hurt so bad.

In sum, this was my hardest hike ever.  I feel good about the accomplishment, but can’t say yet that it was an enjoyable experience.

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