The Rockhoppers, An extraordinary Journey! Part 3!

The Rockhoppers, An extraordinary Journey! Part 3!

The 3d part of any trilogy is always exciting. I remember standing in line in 1983 to see Return of the Jedi. Who can forget the epic grandeur that was Return of the King? As exciting as those classic part 3s were….the excitement over part 3 of the R2R2R trilogy has built to a fever pitch (well not really….although I did get a text from a Rockhopper asking me if he had somehow missed it).  So sit back, relax and enjoy the triumphant conclusion which I refer to as Return to the South Rim!!! (insert your own favorite epic cinematic musical score).

 

Quick review – Part 2 concluded with us arriving at Phantom Ranch on the return trip back and left the reader with these cliffhanger questions:

 

1. What sign almost caused mutiny against the trail guide (me)?

2. Why the park really needs to change the name of the 3 mile and 1.5 mile rest house?

3.  What unique R2R2R checklist item did only Derek Moore think to bring?

4. The circumstances behind Jason having the longest A/S stop in R2R2R known history?

 

Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens  (5.1miles, 1400 ft gain)

 

– As we prepared to go on the hike up Bright Angel trail, I had mixed feelings about the last remaining 9.9 miles. On the one hand I was excited that in a few more hours I would be able to take a shower but a part of me couldn’t but help have a sense of dread as I remembered my climb out last time I did R2R2R.

– When I did R2R2R in Jun 07 the climb out was a huge struggle and one of the hardest things I have done. The heat in the inner canyon had absolutely cooked me and I didn’t have a lot of energy. My entire body ached. My hiking was very slow and the water was lukewarm and tasted horrible. Plus I was really tired. I remember on one of the upslopes I almost fell backwards because of exhaustion. My dad was waiting for me at the top and said he had never seen me look so bad. It seem to unnerve him quite a bit and he still mentions it. While I was in a lot better physical shape starting the climb out this time around…it was hard not to worry a bit in the back of my mind.

– Furthermore the hike up Bright Angel is a slog. The first half is actually quite scenic. The first 2 miles are along the river and then the next 3 miles to Indian Gardens are a climb out the inner canyon. Much of it is along a creek and can be quite pretty. However, it would be dark when we would be doing this. Once past Indian Gardens the trail becomes an endless series of switchbacks up a side canyon and there really isn’t much to see. So the combination of not much in the way of scenery and being tired can make for a long, slog out. The good news was at least this time I would be hiking out with some good friends.

– We left Phantom Ranch somewhere around 7:35p. Myself, Edward and Jason quickly walked the .3 mile to the Bright Angel trail junction. There we waited and waited and waited for Tanya and Michelle who apparently were on some casual stroll. When they finally arrived I told Edward that it would be more like 5.5 hours to hike out if they kept moving at that pace. Tanya laughed and said she got the hint.

– Shortly we had to use the silver bridge to cross the river. This was my least favorite part of the whole adventure. Unlike the black bridge (we used to cross over from the South Kaibab trail that morning) the silver bridge crosses a wider part of the river and the bottom is thin metal grates that one can see through. Plus it shakes. Doesn’t feel near as sturdy as the black bridge.

– Crossing the silver bridge gave me vertigo and made me feel like I could plunge through the bottom and into the river. The shakiness of it didn’t help. I was clutching the side railing. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to solid land on the other side. I wasn’t the only one. Tanya, in the best line of the day, said, “That made my butt cheeks shake”.

– Ironically, Michelle, who earlier was hugging the North Kaibab cliff walls and wouldn’t run down parts of the trail as a result, was totally fine on the silver bridge, pausing and taking pics in the fading light.

– After crossing the bridge we would walk the next 1.5 miles along the Co River; although, the trail itself would usually range 100 to 200 feet above the river level.

– While the sunset had already passed there was enough fading light that allowed us to walk almost all of the river section without using our headlamp.

– There wasn’t any running going on at this point. One, we were tired. Two, the trail along this section had beach like sand sections.

– Additionally, the heat of the day was now radiating off the inner canyon walls and it even felt a little humid. We were going through our water a bit faster than expected.

– One of the cool things about this section of trail was we saw some river rafters camping across the river on a beach. Looked like they were having fun and we wished we could have joined them. Definitely want to do a rafting trip someday.

– Along this trail I heard a noise. I turned on my light and saw a really big deer on a nearby slope. However, in hindsight that deer looked like some elk (without the rack) that I saw on the South Rim the next day. Still I didn’t think elk would be down in the inner canyon.

– After hiking west along the river we then headed south into an inner side canyon that we would climb out of. The humidity definitely picked up in this area. The heat was still radiating along the walls but there was more vegetation due to a nearby creek and zero air circulation. Definitely started to sweat more.

– This trail featured quite a few short, shallow water crossings. However, I did find myself thinking, “Boy I hope Tanya doesn’t get her socks wet again”.

– Because of the water and vegetation down here there was quite the symphony of frogs (which I would not have expected).

– After a bit the trail started to climb steeply upward a series of switchbacks called Devil’s Corkscrew. The section of trail would take us out of the inner canyon.

– This was the first real climb we had done since leaving the North Rim about 17 miles ago. Took a little while to get the climbing rhythm going again.

– Poor Jason was at the back of our train and we were kicking up a lot of dust. He later said this was the worse section of the hike for him. It was warm, humid and he was choking on dust.

– Frogs weren’t the only wildlife out there. Michelle spotted a baby rattler on this section of trail. Jean later said their group came across 6 snakes including 2 rattlers. Larry K. saw a mountain lion.

– After climbing Devil’s Corckscrew the trail flattens out (but still steadily up) until Indian Gardens. Edward was low on calories so we stopped to rest a bit. I was also getting peppered with questions on how much farther it was to Indian Gardens. One reason people were concerned was I told folks back at Phantom Ranch that it was 4.5 miles to Indian Gardens. Turns out it was around 5. Combine that with heat, humidity and the climbing caused folks to start getting low on water.

– Normally once I climb Devil’s Corckscrew I always think that I am almost to Indian Gardens and that it is just “around the corner”. In reality we still had at least another 1.5 miles but I told folks, “Not that much further, should be around the corner”. Famous last words.

– Well we hiked around the corner, still no sign of Indian Gardens and we hiked and hiked and hiked (around several more corners). I could hear Garden Creek raging pretty good on my right and by this time everyone is out of water. Edward said something about wanting to plunge down into the creek.

– I kept thinking to myself, “I don’t remember Indian Gardens being this far”, I kept looking for the Tonto Trail junction sign that I knew we would hit shortly before Indian Gardens. I could sense everyone’s frustration that we hadn’t gotten there yet and that as de facto trail guide that frustration was being quietly directed toward me (lesson learned: never underestimate the distance as trail guide).

– Finally we come to the Tonto Trail junction sign. I said, “ok we are really almost there”. Michelle, who is behind me looks at the sign and says, “Indian Gardens 3 miles!” I hadn’t paid that close attention to the sign but I knew it couldn’t be  3 miles so I blurted out, “that has to be .3 miles”. Immediately Edward, Michelle, and Spleens all shine their lights on the sign. I hear someone say, “Yep it’s .3”. Whew!! If that had really been 3 miles there may have been a new murder story to add to the Death in the Grand Canyon book.

 

Indian Gardens to South Rim (4.8 miles 3000 ft gain)

 

– After narrowly avoiding being another Death in the Grand Canyon statistic, I was very relieved when we soon arrived at Indian Gardens. We ran into Larry K and Elizabeth! Julie and Chris C had gone on ahead so Larry and Elizabeth were hiking out together. They were leaving just as soon as we arrived.

– We took our time refueling at Indian Gardens. We were feeling pretty tired and the lights at the top of the South Rim looked so far away. I knew from previous experiences that the lights at South Rim never really seem to get closer until you are almost there. So I resolved not to look up at them anymore during the hike out.

– Indian Gardens has several long benches and Tanya wasted no time stretching all the way out and resting her eyelids.

– After my “miscalculation” on the distance from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens (thus causing some people to run out of water). Jason quizzed me extensively about distances to the water stops up to the South Rim. This resulted in an Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first” routine between Jason and I as I tried to explain it was 1.5 miles to the 3 mile rest house and 3 miles to the 1.5 mile rest house.  Clear as mud.

– Turns out that wasn’t the only confusion the 3 mile resthouse caused. First a bit of background. The 3 mile resthouse is on a 50 yard side trail. There is a sign at the junction that says “Water. 3 mile Rest House”. Later in the night when Rich’s group came to that sign, someone said, “hey look…we can get some water”. Rich emphatically replied, “I am not going 3 miles to get water!”

– The water at Indian Gardens actually tasted quite good. My experience has been the water at the 3 and 1.5 mile rest house can be rather lukewarm and stale tasting so I encouraged folks to go ahead and fill up on water at Indian Gardens.

– After finally getting ourselves psyched up we began the long 4.5 mile, 3000 foot climb to the South Rim. To me this is one of the things that makes R2R2R a unique challenge. Most ultras finish the last few miles on flat or a downhill (especially mountain ultras); however, R2R2R finishes with almost a 5000 foot climb from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim. Aside from Badwater I can’t think of another ultra that does that.

– There really isn’t a lot to say about the hike out. It was steady forward progress with switchback after switchback. No one really felt like talking. The 3 mile rest house seem to come relatively quickly. However, the stretch from the 3 mile rest house and 1.5 mile rest house seem to drag a bit longer.

– At the 1.5 mile rest house my blood sugar plummeted and I quickly fell well behind the others. I had made the same mistake I made going up North Kaibab and hadn’t taken in enough calories. I had taken in calories at Indian Gardens but hadn’t taken much since then (close to 1.5 hours) and it caught up to me.

– Edward noticed I had fallen behind, waited for me and offered a cookie. I had taken a couple of gels but they hadn’t kicked in yet and that cookie looked good so I took him up on it.

– The cookie hit the spot and in a few minutes I started to feel much better and was hiking at a more normal pace.

– It was during this part of the trail that we came across quite a few R2R2R runners starting down the Bright Angel trail (Close to midnight). As I mentioned before…this didn’t make a lot of sense to me since they would miss seeing the dramatic descent in the dark. Plus they would be coming back up Bright Angel in the heat of the day.

– Many of them were flying down and they weren’t doing much yielding to the uphill hikers. I sure wasn’t moving aside (I was too tired to anyway) so they were forced to go around me.

– A couple of them had an external speaker blaring music. I thought this was a little much in a place like the Grand Canyon.

– Before we knew it Edward and I were on the final switchback…Michelle and the Spleens were up ahead finishing. When we crossed under the tunnel I heard Elizabeth up ahead yell out, “Chris is this the right way?”. Turns out we had caught up to her and Larry. At first it confused me that she would ask if she was going the right way? There were no major trails that connected to Bright Angel up here. Then I remember that about 40 yards from the trailhead is a side path on the left that leads up to some of the Grand Canyon stores but it really isn’t considered to be part of the Bright Angel trail. Anyway I could see that Elizabeth was heading straight up Bright Angel and didn’t make the turn to the left and yelled out to here that she was going the right way. Little did I realize the immense controversy this side path would cause later.

– Edward and I soon made it to the top and there we celebrated with Michelle, Spleens, Elizabeth, and Larry. Julie and Chris C. were there as well (they had finished a long time ago). Everyone felt really happy and satisfied with the accomplishment. It really is something that should be on every runner’s bucket list.

– We finished around 1215-1220a so it did take us around 4.5 hours to climb out from Phantom Ranch.

 

Aftermath

 

– The next day (Saturday) ended up being fairly eventful so thought I would share a few highlights from that day and share some of the stories that I heard from others about their R2R2R adventures.

– I found out the that Rich, Rick, Jean, Jessica, Louie and Moores all finished together sometime after 3a. Derek and Louie kept everyone awake with their conversation.

– The Moores were very entertaining with their stories. The best one was when they got to the top of the North Rim they had a conversation that went something like this:

 

Derek: “I can’t find my beanie”

Jennifer: “Big deal. We will buy you another one”

Derek: “No. You don’t understand. I think I left my bribe money in there”

Jennifer: “Bribe money?”

Derek: “Yes. Bribe money. I had brought (insert large figure) in bribe money. Just in case I get stuck down there and need to get a helicopter or mule ride out or pay someone to let me crash in their place at Phantom Ranch or pay someone to give me a ride from North Rim to South Rim etc”

 

– Anyway their conversation was a lot more substantial than that but you get the idea. Fortunately Derek did find his bribe money and he never had to use it. Still you have to commend him for being prepared. I guess I should adjust my checklist to say: “Food, Water, First Aid, jacket, bribe money etc.

– The Moores also met a couple of interesting guys at Phantom Ranch. Apparently they were ultra runners themselves but they seems a little bit on the “high” side if you know what I mean. They said after the Grand Canyon they were going to go to Sedona, score some peyote and hang out in the energy vortexes.

– We did spend Saturday going on the West Rim Shuttle tour. The trailview stop was really cool because it gave a great bird’s eye view of the Bright Angel trail. It was all laid out before us. Since it was night time when we climbed it, we hadn’t really been able to see it. It was quite impressive getting to look at in the day time and hard to imagine we had climbed up it the previous night. It looked very imposing.

– One of the things that stoop out on the West Rim tour was how hot it was!! There was zero cloud cover and the sun was intense!!! We lucked out doing it the day before.

– Saturday night we had dinner at El Tovar which had a great atmosphere. Rick had made R2R2R medals for us which they gave out. But this would lead to a great controversy.

– One of the details that had emerged from the previous night was Jason had decided to take the side path (that Elizabeth had asked me about) to the rim rather than the last 40 yards on the official Bright Angel trail.

– I correctly pointed out to Jason that he shouldn’t take credit for an official R2R2R since he didn’t finish it on the official agreed upon route. Jason, tried to counter that with the weak argument that he did the same distance if not more. I brilliantly made the point that in all of Joe’s races you have to do it on the official course. If you go 5 miles off course, you still have to go back and do the part of the trail you missed.

– Despite my superior arguments and suggestions that Jason go back and do the 40 yards he missed…he stubbornly refused to cave in.

– I also found out during the day that Rick and Jean had also started up the side path on their climb out but once they realized that they were no longer on the Bright Angel trail they turned around, rejoined  the trail and finished up on the official Bright Angel trail

– So when Rick and Rich were passing out the finisher medals I decided to Jason a favor. I knew he would regret it for the rest of his life if he didn’t properly finish R2R2R and that it would haunt him forever. Because I care about Jason I took his medal from him and refused to give it back to him until he finished the last 40 yards. I could see his gratitude written all over his face.

– At this point Jason had no choice but to go back and do it properly. We gathered everyone together at the Bright Angel trailhead so we could cheer Jason on as he ran down the side path and then went up the Bright Angel trail.

– Jason started running on my signal and he was flying! He flew down the side path and then sprinted up Bright Angel to a big crowd of cheering Rockhoppers (and some very confused onlookers). What a finish! I proudly put the medal over Jason’s head and he raised in arms in triumph. Thus after a 19 hour Aid Station stop of shower, sleeping, breakfast, west rim tour, nap, and dinner Jason officially finished his R2R2R adventure in 38 hours and 19 min.

 

Final thoughts:

– Last time I did R2R2R solo. This time I did it with a great group and travelled the whole way with my terrific friends….Michelle, Edward, and the Spleens. They made it so much more fun than when I did it solo and it was great to share it with them. Afterwards I immediately thought I will never do another R2R2R again. But after a few weeks have gone by I know I’ll be back.

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