Friday, August 8, 2014
Inya'a, Hala, and Aha- A Journey of Rim to Rim to Rim
For nearly a millenium the Havasupai Indians have inhabited and wandered a place of ancient marvels and lore. For much of the world the Grand Canyon only exists as a photograph in a magazine, or as a photo op on along a bustling tourist route. But, long before Europeans stumbled through the great red sandstone rocks, the Havasupai graced a landscape that mirrored the meaning of their very name which is translated as “the people of the blue green-waters”.
For me running and hiking rim to rim to rim was not about conquering a particular distance or terrain in a specific set time frame. In the world of running, we all too often limit our experience through the gripping confines of clocks, splits, placement, and competition. The Grand Canyon, as I perceived it, was far too venerable and noble to reside within the cages of the race environment. And as I would learn, the greatness of the canyon in its own expansive form, does not allow itself to be held on a level so miniscule as to be cluttered with races. The Grand Canyon is above racing, and although the Rob Krars of the world have run it in 6:21, the expanse of the canyon is bigger than any FKT and any one athlete. I believe anyone who has ever completed R2R2R, no matter how fast, how slow, or what utter lack of reverence they began with, ultimately climbs out of the canyon knowing this. The Grand Canyon serves as a warm womb where a metaphorical rebirth tends to occur as people incubate within the living breathing hearth that is the red and verdant canyon walls. While I personally did not experience anything like this, I ascended out of the great canyon knowing that I was tied to a place and experience that few humans on earth would ever know. Part of writing about this is that some people by choice, or by circumstance, will never have the opportunity to see what I have, and reading this is one way I can grant to others some level of empathy of the rare things I have enjoyed.
It is August 4th, 2014. Along the South Kaibab trail a dark glittered night sky turns to navy, and then a spectrum of deep reds and light blues. On this particular dawn, I am going to complete a solo self supported double crossing of the Grand Canyon. Flashes of fiery orange give way to the golden sun and then the light begins to dance around the seemingly endless miles of the canyon walls. Myself and a handful of others, some turning back after just a few brief miles, are just visitors among a primitive world forged from the forces of the earth over the past 40 million years. As I drop lower and lower into the canyon I am simultaneously traveling back in time mimicking the colored transitions and textures in the rock faces. Intense beams of sunlight radiate into the dark confines of the canyon and make the early morning shadows retreat with the evening. I pass through sandstone, limestone, shale, and the myriad of paleozoic elements that remind me just how small of a speck the human life span is on the scale of earth's own creation.
The trail seems to have a rhythm of its own as it snakes around the bends in the rock. It creates an aesthetic pattern of switchbacks down to the river floor and serves as a gateway to the Colorado river. After seeing a few dozen folks near the South rim, there are but only a handful of hikers on the trail scattered once every few miles. After seven miles and 4,800 feet of elevation loss from the South Kaibab's 7,260 foot rim, the river signifies the end of the first, and easiest, leg of R2R2R. After crossing the Colorado river by way of bridge, in its own way symbolizing my crossing of the Grand Canyon, I am welcomed by mules trains en route to nearby Phantom Ranch. It is here I leave the South Kaibab trail for good and unite with the North Kaibab trail that will bring me to the North rim in 14 miles.
I am now at the geographic low point of the day, as in the lowest elevation of the R2R2R route. After Phantom Ranch I enter The Box, which is narrow section of the canyon that follows along the light chocolate colored Bright Angel Creek. It actually reminded me a lot of the chocolate river from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though the last thing you would want to try and drink would be that. For the next five miles the canyon rose straight up thousands of feet to my left and to my right. I was taken off guard by the pleasantly surprising abundance of lush greenery that coated the basin with a quaint floral aroma. In contrast, the steep walls of The Box were an ominous presence as I knew they concealed the enormity of the task at hand. After several small bridge crossings, and just beginning to feel acquainted with my new friend Bright Angel Creek, the trail pops out into an exposed valley of cacti and shrubs. It is here, near Cottonwood Campground, that the identity of the North rim comes into view and you realize just how far a mile of elevation gain looks when you see it from below.
The climb up the North rim keeps you honest. The bright white colored granite near the top of the rim served as a constant reminder how far you still have to go. The trail here could be defined by one word, majestic. Though it starts off rather benign, the North Kaibab trail has been known to make even the heartiest of souls feel a little queasy in their stomachs. At certain junctures the trail is only several feet wide and right along sheer cliff drops, and yet I felt fairly relaxed. My mind was simply more occupied by the beauty of my surroundings, and though I exercised good judgement, my brain had no vacancy for irrational fears. Nearing the North rim, as expected, I began seeing a lot of people, and again it was a great reminder that most people don't get to experience much more than 1-5% of the Grand Canyon. But not me.
As I reached the North rim, there was no celebration, but rather a brief moment of pause to rest and have a quick lunch. Though 22.8 miles were completed, more than half of the adventure still lay ahead. The trip down North Kaibab was energizing as I passed many of the hikers I had seen in the previous hour. I passed through the narrow ledges, down the mule worn rutted steps, and as time seemed to float by I was already back at Cottonwood campground. Once again I refilled my pack with the most vital nutrient I could have on this long journey, and that was water. Though only 54 degrees at sunrise and high 70's at the North rim, the temperatures of the canyon floor had gradually risen to 110 degrees. The "dry heat" is deceptive, and I knew it. It can lull people into a false sense of comfort, they push hard, and then before they realize it they are broken down. The heat is why over 200 people are rescued in the canyon every year, why even elite runners have died there, and why many choose the early spring to attempt R2R, nor less R2R2R. Though water was available roughly every 7 miles, I still chose to fill my 3L hydration pack to full capacity. My logic was simple. I'd rather carry more weight and move slower, 16 lbs total, than not enough and end up in deep deep crap.
From here, I retraced my way back through The Box, which I could have then aptly been named The Oven. The red rock acted like a heat conductor and even in the shade it radiated the absorbed warmth from the intense afternoon sun. Fatigue is starting to set in, as expected after nearly 6,000 feet of quad jarring descent wearing 10x more weight than I would normally carry during a race. But, again, this was no race, and I had to remind myself that in this place, where you are now is just as important as where you will end up. The time it took was not a relevant matter in this excursion, and in a world fixated on speed and instant gratification, I wanted to savor this. With a few hours of sunlight left I arrived back at Phantom Ranch and now made a right hand turn back over the Colorado river, but now on the Bright Angel Trail. For the first few miles the trail falsely climbed a few hundred feet, only to drop back to the river. This was a bit unsettling since I knew I would soon be making up all the elevation gain at some point. On paper, the climb to the North rim is said to be steeper, but in reality the net gain from the base of the South rim climb is actually more. Eventually the climb in earnest began and the miles got slower and slower. 20 minute miles gave way to 30 minute miles, and 30 second rest stops become several minutes. But again, time need not exist in this place, or at this moment for it held no value amongst the composition to earthen hues.
In the reverse order as they had appeared in the morning, the bright blue sky became yellow, then amber to rose to blush. Night had fallen on the great Grand Canyon. Now instead of being able to see for endless miles, my world had shrunk down to the 50 feet illuminated ahead of me by my headlamp. The South rim, which had seemed unreachably far like the unreachable star was now shrouded in black. I was Don Quixote slaying windmill giants, but now the giant existed on as the small lights of grand canyon village in the distance. The trail continued into the night, one turn followed by another, then another, and another. This continued for hours and then I could hear the faint chatter of tourists and the clamouring of cars and children. Out of the dark a single bobbing headlamp arose from the mighty canyon and back into a modern world of gift shops, restaurants, post cards, and hi speed wi-fi.
I was done. Rim to Rim to Rim. Solo.
As I reflected on the day's events it reminded me how small of an expense humans choose to live in comparison the large literal expanses like the Grand Canyon. Part of me knows the Grand Canyon, among many other places, are the physical and geographic representation of what some like myself embody in personality. It's why we are drawn not necessarily to the challenge, but also in knowing that we are seeing the natural world not just from a lens, but from a more complete perspective. My relationship with the Grand Canyon will always be shaped after events like my R2R2R experience, and I hope to continue this paradigm shift in a culture increasingly diluted with "technologies" that suffocate the human experience. Though somewhat curious, I don't think I would ever want to see how fast I could run R2R2R, as I believe it would negate the value of such a magnificent place. I wouldn't sprint by Michelangelo's David, the Pieta, or the Mona Lisa with just a quick glance would I, so why do the same with nature's most impressive art?
One of the great ironies is that during the hottest and toughest parts of my R2R2R all I could think about were luxuries like having an ice cold drink, being back in my air conditioned apartment, and having a cool comfortable place to sleep. In the ensuing days, once I was back at my apartment with the amenities I had day dreamed about, all I could think of was being back in that beautiful hot abyss of the Grand Canyon. But, as I sifted through my dirty laundry from the trip, I could still smell the canyon as I shook the red dust from my clothes. As much as the bright red dirt had encrusted my shoes and clothing, I realized that the Grand Canyon as a whole had soaked into myself just as much. Even 1,800 miles away, I had brought the canyon back home with me.