I spent the first few miles of the descent attending to wardrobe malfunctions, removing excess clothing, etc. Chris and Dave continued on while I paused at various points to absorb the views of the outer reaches of the canyon. I was also not as adept at navigating the downhills as my counterparts, and took the opportunity to set a more comfortable pace. The cliffs were blanketed by a full moon, and I instinctively doused my headlamp when conditions allowed. I’ve run many trails in complete darkness, trusting that each footprint would be laid upon stable ground. However, a single misstep on this choppy route would have sent me tumbling into the canyon, and I chose my darkness wisely. An hour and a half later we reached the footbridge crossing the Colorado River. I stopped to take photos, but none would capture the quiet fury of the Colorado, nor the temporary ownership we had gained of this (imaginary) space. My heart raced not to the pace of the run, but to the sheer elation of reaching this point, exposed to some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Dave unloaded a portion of food for the return trip near the water stop on the north side of the river. I had planned to do the same, but once there I felt I could carry the full load up the other side and back. I made a concerted effort to drink as often as possible, after suffering through several heat stroke episodes over the past few years. Fortunately, my saving grace was traveling with a group who were like-minded and equally concerned about staying hydrated.
Our uphill leg kicked off in earnest, with Chris taking the reins, and me bringing up the rear. After many hikes or runs with my wife and friends, I’ve always been more comfortable moving at someone else’s speed, rather than dictating it. I rarely lead unless asked, and this removes the pressure of guessing on a suitable pace. At the time, Chris’ tempo was perfect for the conditions at hand, and we proceeded toward Phantom Ranch in agreeable silence. Once at the ranch, the trail began to braid through the underbrush. Several times we dead-ended at Bright Angel Creek, or the route simply disappeared. I’ve been in a few trail races where I’m with a small group, and we suddenly realize we’re off track. I can imagine a spectator watching a bunch of goobs jogging around in circles like mice trapped in a maze, desperately searching an exit as precious seconds tick off the timer. Somehow, it feels unnatural at this point to simply stop and assess one’s predicament. Our private goat rodeo was further exacerbated by the delightful fragrances emanating from the mule guides’ kitchen, and we groaned in unison when comparing the notion of a sit-down cowboy breakfast to the lifeless, inorganic task of ingesting another gel. Reluctantly fleeing this siren’s odor, we quickly pointed our nostrils in the general direction of the North Rim, and I substituted an appetite for those greasy victuals with that of some uphill running. The first several miles comprised the gentlest grade of the stretch, and I spent the remainder of the North Kaibab leg on my own, hoping to achieve my goal of running at least the first R2. I was wearing a wrist GPS, but the satellites couldn’t keep me on track, so I used the unit to monitor my heart rate instead. The initial five or six miles were fairly effortless, and the quiet was so deep that I swear I could hear the moonlight. The din was briefly interrupted by critters moving about, probably confused by this biped ambling through their backyards. I squelched the headlamp on several more occasions when the trail peeked out into the reflected light from under the sheer cliffs. The purity of this moment was almost too overwhelming to grasp, and I found myself at times in peaceful synchronicity with my surroundings. The synch would not last, however, as I plunged that first step into a small marshy area about five miles into the ascent. My unplanned arrival sparked the dispersal of a couple resident mammals attending to a small spring-fed pond. One scurried off into the cattails and the other made what I can only describe as a ‘submerging sound’. The time was around 4 AM, and I’m sure they weren’t expecting a human to interrupt their nocturnal forays. Once reaching dry ground, I took account of my shoes in the soulless glow of my headlamp. Not only were they soaked to the core with swamp water, but I had also accumulated some sort of residue on my skin from mid-calf south. I wisely chose not to remove it with bare hands and went on my way in mild disgust. Soon the trail began to rise in the direction of up, starting with an abrupt climb to Ribbon Falls on what is called Heartbreak Hill. It was here I made the first of several judgment errors that would cut short my intended route. I assumed that if I maintained a steady, comfortable pace, I could manage running the entire first 21+ miles of the R3. Up to this point I was feeling exceptionally strong. The temps were such that my liquid intake may well have been adequate, for a change. Why not just hammer through this section? The answer to this naïve supposition was to be revealed about 2.5 miles from the North Rim, to be illustrated later.
Reaching the crest of this unforgiving mound I turned to survey the canyon below. Immediately, I recognized Chris’ headlamp signaling me from a distance. I flashed in return and continued on my way, enjoying a brief decent in this relentless climb. Recalling this moment, I wonder if the unassuming left fork at the base of Heartbreak Hill would have skirted this feature altogether. Regardless, the die had been cast, and my determination to reach the rim at a conversational pace became all-consuming. Beyond Ribbon Falls, the trail returned to a more manageable grade. I stopped briefly at Wall Creek to drink deeply from its waters and refill my handheld. Despite warnings by all, I’ve drunk from many streams and puddles much more questionable than this, with no ill effects. Today was no exception. Ambling on, I arrived at Cottonwood Camp, still optimistic. As expected, the water tap at this location had been turned off for the season. I wasn’t greatly concerned as I had just tanked up at Wall Creek. A few campers had already begun their preparations for the day, and I greeted them warmly after talking to myself for the better part of two hours. Beyond the camp, the grade increased, as did my heart rate and general anxiety. Still, I pushed on to the Ranger House, which accommodated a tap reportedly disconnected but operational upon my arrival. The water quickly filled my handheld, and I casually splashed the remaining trickles onto my face. By now, the subtle hints of daybreak began to emerge from within the greater canyon. I was six miles from the rim, ready to greet the sun like a long-lost friend.
Coming up: The Supai Deathmarch. Work is Work. Rangers, Then Cops!