Story and photos By Amelia Bethke
6 a.m., November 18
South Kaibab Trailhead, 7,260 feet
From the dark, a frigid wind clawed at my legs, my spandex leggings seemingly disintegrated, and I am totally exposed on the edge of a vast unknown. I wandered close to a corral where some large, furry creatures moved about. A Grand Canyon pack mule sauntered over, its eyes glistening in the light of my headlamp. The wind whistled through the pines around us and the mule blew puffs of warm breath against my face. This sturdy creature knows the trail in and out of the canyon as well as the whiskers on its nose. Mules have been delivering people, gear, mail and various supplies in the Grand Canyon since the 1920s. I think to myself, I will channel the trail sense and sure-footedness of the mule.
We are engulfed by darkness as we descend. Cold wind rips up from the labyrinth of rock that winds some 5,000 vertical feet down to the Colorado River. The journey ahead is intimidating: over 45 miles on foot, and more than 10,000 feet of elevation gained and lost over the course of the day. The goal is to make it across the Grand Canyon and back, a monumental undertaking for us.
All three of us were rookies to the distance we were about to undertake, and our nervous uncertainty hung in the air. This was my first visit to the canyon, and my first attempt to run over 25 miles. People perish in the canyon every season for various reasons – heat exhaustion, hypothermia, falling and other causes stemming from a failure to respect the hazards of traveling through an unpredictable and extreme landscape.
We are just three gals who love to run. Lauren and I grew up together in the Northwest. We share a deep love and devotion to the outdoors that continues to bring us together even though she moved away years ago. Lauren was living and working in Jackson, Wyoming up until two days prior to our adventure. Having just finished her seasonal job, she packed up her life and drove to the Las Vegas airport, picking Simone and me up on the morning of November 17.
Lauren and Simone met on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago. They did an 18-mile out-and-back run of the Bright Angel Trail together, starting and finishing at the canyon floor where their rafts were beached on a sand bar of the Colorado River. The Bright Angel Trail is one of two popular southern routes out of the canyon. That run sparked the idea of running the entire width of the Grand Canyon and back in a day. Park regulations prevent organized races through the canyon but people have been completing the “rim-to-rim-to-rim” (R2R2R) challenge as an unofficial, bucket-list ultra run for years. Google it.
After hearing about their scheme I weaseled in, and benefited from their careful planning and preparation. Like any good student, I did my homework before the run. This entailed many miles of preparation in the Chuckanuts. In fact, all of my training took place in the uniquely accessible and extensive trail systems in and around Bellingham. I biked to trailheads or ran right from home. If you live in Bellingham, chances are you have passed me riding my bike en route to, or on, a trail somewhere.
Bellingham is one of those exceptional places where you can train for a run like the R2R2R without ever getting in your car to drive to a trailhead. Hidden beneath the layers of fog, rain, and dripping cedar boughs are endless opportunities for exploration. Though the landscape of the Pacific Northwest is entirely different from the Grand Canyon, there is a quiet beauty amongst the moss and ferns, and a ruggedness to the coastal foothills that endow those who scale them with the strength to tackle serious feats of endurance.
The maze materialized ahead of us as dawn crept over the edge of the canyon. The colors of the rock were gently illuminated; deep reds and oranges, purples and greens. We paused frequently to gaze at the scene emerging with the rising sun.
Time in the Grand Canyon seemed to take on a different pace. Whether it was due to the fact that we were in perpetual motion or it was a dynamic of the place, hours passed imperceptibly. We travelled not only over land but also through an immense span of geologic time, traversing in one day the layers of a landscape that had formed over the course of six million years and exposed some of the deepest, oldest structures of the North American continent.
9 a.m., Phantom Ranch, 2,480 feet
Phantom Ranch, an oasis of green on the canyon floor, was our first real break complete with water, bathrooms, snacks and electrolyte consumption. The lush green of Phantom Ranch provided sharp contrast to the beautiful but barren landscape through which we had descended from the South Rim, almost 5,000 feet above.
The time between water filling stations was all movement, soaking up as much beauty as we could at our slow but constant saunter. We absorbed and were continually awed by the varied personas of the canyon. Each bend in the trail offered a new twist to the story that spread before us. Just when the landscape seemed to be approaching a state of continuity, a transition would reawaken our wonder, as narrow canyon walls opened abruptly into a wide desert scape of red sandy rock and spiny, contorted vegetation beneath a crystalline blue sky. The canyon is a natural master of illusion and surprise, holding endless secrets within its branching and twisting folds.
From Phantom Ranch, we had to go up. As the trail ascends the North Rim, the canyon walls stretch skyward. We wound along ledges with thousands of feet of near-vertical drop above and below, moving through the rocky alcoves of an earthly cathedral. As someone who has devoted numerous summer seasons to trail work, I can empathize with the hardworking souls who forged a moderate grade through such treacherous terrain. Built by the National Park Service in the 1920s, the North Kaibab Trail required dynamite, drills and jackhammers, all packed in by mules.
As we neared the top of the North Rim, the canyon walls began to slope outward and tall, fragrant Ponderosa pines cast massive shadows across the trail. A fine, sparkling sand took the place of the rocky trail tread thousands of feet below.
12:30 p.m., North Rim, 8,241 feet
Our persistent pace paid off and we arrived at the North Rim within minutes of one another. The same bone-chilling cold that we had felt six hours ago and 21 miles away on the South Rim was there to greet us.
We savored our halfway victory until the cold began seeping through our layers, and then started back into the canyon after no more than 20 minutes, with fingers and toes feeling slightly numb. Descending the North Rim, miles ticked by in a blur of constant conversation, snacking, electrolyte guzzling and the sheer joy of being alive. At one point we realized we had run more than 30 miles and we were astonished at how good we felt. I think ibuprofen, caffeine and endorphins may have played a role in our enthusiastic conviction of near invincibility.
We spread out and ran in silence through the bottom of the canyon. Here I began to feel my own deep rhythm. I feel intrinsically connected to the landscape when I am running, letting everything soak in as I move through space with no disturbance other than the sound of my feet hitting the trail. Breath flows in and out of my lungs, and I feel my muscles firing powerfully in perfect balance. I floated along through what is referred to as “The Box,” where steep, narrow rock walls line the trail along Bright Angel Creek. There is a deep purple hue to the rock here, and it’s smooth to the touch.
The rock in the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon is some of the continent’s deepest foundational structure. Geologists have dated rocks in this so-called “basement” region of the canyon to more than 1.8 billion years old, well before the formation of life on Earth. Running through this segment and experiencing a cross-sectional view into the Earth’s earliest geologic history was humbling and provocative. Our day in the canyon, like our whole lives and all of human history, was nothing more than a flash, far less than a nano-fraction of a tick in the time clock of the Earth.
4 p.m., Phantom Ranch, 2,480 feet
We returned to Phantom Ranch for a final gathering, nearly 8 hours after our first stop. With 9 miles left, I was beginning to feel the urge to push. We took the Bright Angel Trail out of the canyon, whereas we had come down the South Kaibab trail at the beginning of the day. The Bright Angel trail is slightly longer, but less steep. I hugged Simone and Lauren and we agreed that we were all in a good state mentally and physically and fully capable of covering these last miles up and out of the canyon.
I took off alone, munching chocolate covered dried banana. I had about 4-and-a-half miles to go when the last bit of sunlight receded behind the walls of rock. Darkness fell, and the switch-backing trail was lit only by tiny, flickering headlamps as the last trail users made their way out of the canyon. I began to feel the effects of the miles on my legs and as the trail steepened, my stride became a jolting alternation between hobbling and hiking. Cramps seized my muscles when I tried to launch into a full jog, but stopping wasn’t an option either as my legs seemed to transform into concrete stumps upon cessation of movement.
The darkness took on a surreal nature, my perception limited to the tunnel of light from my headlamp. Glimmering eyes stared at me from the side of the trail and I started, only to realize that a fox was crossing in front of me, following the hillside up across the switch-backing trail. I watched it as far as my headlamp’s beam would reach. The fox moved effortlessly through this terrain, at home amongst the spiny underbrush and steep, loose rock.
Though the mule had been my steadfast, dependable trail spirit through the day, it was time to emulate a creature that navigated the canyon by night. “I will channel the grace of the fox in darkness,” I thought to myself as I summoned my body into a slow, deliberate jog for the last of the incline through the night.
6:30 p.m., Bright Angel Trailhead, 6,860 feet
Emerging at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, after 12-and-a-half hours in the canyon, was anticlimactic. I hobbled around in the cold night, past cars and the bright lights of cabins and park facilities. I was profoundly moved by the insignificance of my journey, my moment of triumph, through a landscape whose geological scope went so far beyond the scale of humanity and the human-centered victory of running the Grand Canyon in a day. After a little bewildered wandering I found my way to the Bright Angel Lodge where I waited for Lauren and Simone. I was unable to sit for some time but gradually my muscles relaxed and I melted into a heap of warmth next to the massive fireplace.
Lauren and Simone emerged from the darkness not long after, marking the end of an incredible adventure. Our time on the trail was more than six hours behind the men’s FKT (fastest known time) set just a month before by Jim Walmsley, and over four hours behind Bethany Lewis’ 8-hour, 15-minute women’s FKT in 2011. What we lacked in speed, we gained in the overall experience of being in the Grand Canyon for a full day – observing nuances of the region that would have undoubtedly been overlooked at a record-setting pace.
Amelia Bethke is a local trail worker and outdoor enthusiast who spends much of her time constructing, maintaining and running the trails of Whatcom County.