Observations on The Rockhoppers R2R2R Experience – May 15, 2014

Observations on The Rockhoppers R2R2R Experience – May 15, 2014

Grand Canyon 060

I know there has been more attention paid lately to the impact of R2R2R runners at the Grand Canyon. I was originally going to include our observations in my trip report but I decided that it warranted a post on its own. If I have overlooked anything then feel to weigh in.
Given some of the recent publicity about R2R2R traffic at the Canyon I was interested to observe things firsthand and to see how much things I had change since my R2R2R adventure in late June 2007. In 2007 I didn’t knowingly see any R2R2R runners. If I did….they weren’t running and there wasn’t a lot of trail traffic. I’m sure the time of year I went was a contributing factor as well. However it is very evident things have changed since then.
On our way down South Kaibab we didn’t encounter many other R2R2R runners. There were some people on the trail but few of them appeared to be runners. There were a few people coming up but it wasn’t evident they were runners. Regardless the traffic didn’t seem above normal; plus, most would have been coming up Bright Angel which had water. Once we got to the Box section between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood (hours between 7-9a) that quickly changed. We noticed a few runners going in same direction as us but there were a lot coming our way. Some looked really fresh and others looked beat. I am assuming the fresh ones started at North Rim early that morning may have only been doing R2R. Hard to say. I am assuming the tired looking ones started from South Rim the prior evening and were on their way back. Now it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to do most of it in the dark when one can’t see much but it was a full moon. When I say “a lot” I would estimate close to 30 which seemed like fairly heavy traffic for that stretch. From Cottonwood to North Rim during the late morning hours we came across a small handful (near the top of North Kaibab)making their return trip. On the North Rim it seem like there were around 25 – 30 runners trying to get motivated to return.
On the way back during the afternoon hours I don’t recall seeing any other runners (some of them may have been trekking the way up but it is hard to distinguish between them and day hikers) outside of our group. Traffic didn’t seem overly high and during the Box section Michelle made a comment that it seemed like we were only ones out here. It stayed pretty much that way all the way to 1.5 mile rest house. We came across very, very few people in the stretch from Phantom to 1.5 mile rest house (about an 8 mile stretch). However that changed as we hiked up the last 1.5 miles between 11:30p and 12:15a. We were bombarded by runners coming down (this made little sense to me because they would end up going through the Box and climbing Bright Angel in heat of day on the return trip…not fun). The group containing Jean, Rich, Jessica, Rick, Louie, Moore’s which finished a little after 3a, were bombarded by runners the entire way up Bright Angel (the runners were coming down).
Some of the runners were very friendly and almost encouraging as if it was a race saying “looking good” and “good job”. Other runners were locked into their music and had their PR faces on and didn’t say a word. One sore point for me is very few runners were yielding to uphill hikers (I guess they thought it was a trail race where downhill has right of way). Even so I wasn’t moving aside for them. They had to negotiate around my 6’8″ body. Fortunately Bright Angel is a fairly wide trail so it wasn’t a huge issue. Would have been a different issue on the narrower North Kaibab. I was proud of the courtesy and friendliness of our group. From what I heard and personally observed, folks were very good about yielding to uphill hikers. I even had one haggard backpacker going up North Kaibab say, “Thank you so much. Bless you” as I moved aside for her. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn but I thought it was indicative that not many downhill folks were yielding. When going uphill the last thing you want to do is to have to yield and lose your momentum (especially when carrying a 50lb backpack).
There is a 2d part to this story. There was a ranger on the upper part of North Kaibab who was very diligent about monitoring R2R2R runners. She had conversations with several of us and tried to encourage several folks to cut it to R2R and take a shuttle back. She eased a bit once she realized (thanks to Jason and Derek) that most of us had ultra experience (Jason was really good about spouting off his resume and Derek gave her everyone’s resume) and I think the easing temps due to cloud cover helped as well. I got the impression many people attempting R2R2R did not have a lot of ultra experience. The Moore’s in particular had a very long conversation with her. Some of the pertinent tidbits we picked up from her were:
– With the popularity of trail running they have seen a big surge in R2R2R runners over the last 2 years.
– That day they had seen at least 100 people doing R2R or R2R2R and it wasn’t even noon yet. They are worried about increased congestion on the trails (impacts solitude) as well as resources to help increased number of people requiring assistance.
– One reason congestion/solitude is an issue is the impact on the campers at Bright Angel/Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood campgrounds. With runners coming through in middle of night (as evidenced by the number of runners coming down Bright angel at all hours of night) it deteriorates from the camping experience if the runners are noisy (or have voices that carry like mine:-) during sleeping hours (although we personally didn’t hit any campsites in middle of night).
– The runners are leaving a lot of trash (primarily gel and snack wrappers). Jennifer said she picked up a lot of gel wrappers on hike up Bright Angel.
– The ranger confirmed that runners are taking a dump right on the trail. And leaving their toilet paper right there with it. I’m at a loss for words.
– The ranger asked Tanya if we were eating solid and real food. She said a lot of runners were assuming they could do R2R2R on gels and liquid calories and many of them can’t and find themselves sick from the gels or bonking hard.
– She quizzed Derek pretty good about our group and whether Rich was charging us dollars for his organizing efforts. They have seen “unpermitted” guides charge folks up to $500 for R2R2R.
– They feel like they need to get a handle on the R2R2R explosion because it is overwhelming them but aren’t really sure how. They have talked about a permit process for R2R2R runners but how does one enforce it?
My personal takeaway is I definitely have more sympathy for the park in dealing with R2R2R runners. By nature I prefer  “less regulation” to “more regulation” but it is evident things are getting close to a tipping point and they do need to figure out a way to get a handle on it. There were times when I definitely thought it would be nice to have more solitude and less congestion. However, would I feel the same way if I’m the one that gets cut out of doing R2R2R so someone else can have the solitude? The irony about all this is if one diverts onto Tonto trail or Clear Creek trail (that connect to the “corridor” trails) they would have all the solitude they could ever want in about 1/8 mile. Chris C. recently did a 25 mile (Hermit Trail to Tonto to Bright Angel) trek and he hardly saw anyone. But if one wants to check off R2R2R they really have no choice but to stick to corridor trails.
—Chris R.
Derek and I saw traffic pick up after we left Phantom Ranch. It felt like it was a combination of local runners, day hikers and I’m sure R2R/R2R2Rs.  Some we’re running so well, it did feel like there was a race going on but we attributed the traffic to the 1st weekend with all water stops available.
What was interesting was that some of the R2R and R2R2Rs groups were wearing shirts that said what they were doing so they could identify their group. Derek and I also ran into guys wearing white shirts with the backcountry goat during our decent on North Kaibab and they did tell us they were running R2R2R they started on the north side.
We really enjoyed talking to the ranger but Chris is right….she did her best to try to discourage us from completing R2R2R. She made the pizza, beer and views at the North Rim Lodge sound amazing!  We spoke to quite a few hikers that we’re going to spend the night there and head back south in the morning.  I do sympathize with the park because on our way back down North Kaibab, we came across everyone that was trying to make out of the canyon for day. We could tell that many were just folks who decided to hike down and really didn’t realize what they were getting into.  Many were not carrying water, some only had a plastic water bottle and others were struggling with the climb to make it out.  Now I know why airvac is used so frequently in the canyon.
Almost everyone we encountered was very courteous on the trails.  It wasn’t until we got to the last 3.5 miles up Bright Angel when we started to bump into runners barreling down the trail. They were going down so fast they missed the trail and Jessica was nice enough to point them in the right direction. Some were cordial and some were not but none of them gave us the right of way and this is where I saw  the most trash on trails. I have to say, despite the amount of traffic in the canyon, there was no trash to be seen thr ough the day.  Everyone takes “packing it out” very seriously so seeing 2 to 3 gels packs felt like a lot. This is also why we were shocked to hear the rangers story about folks pooping on the trails, especially given the incredible bathroom facilities the park provides at many of the water stops.
Oh, one last thing…. I think I need to reach out to Hoka for some swag/compensation cause I know I sold at least 5 pairs of Hokas while I was out there. One pair was to our park ranger!
-Jennifer Moore

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