The big ditch

Under no circumstances should you attempt to hike from the rim to the Colorado River and back in one day. – National Park Service

Precisely two weeks ago DeLorme announced to anyone bored enough to be listening that I was at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, for the second time that day. It was raining steadily and a couple dozen hikers were huddled inside and around the store. If I had to venture a guess I’d say they were probably trying to avoid getting wet, which wasn’t an option for me because I’d left my rain jacket back at camp.

“It’s basically a desert down there,” I had told myself that morning. “No way it’s going to rain in a desert on the only weekend of the year I’m actually in one.”

Soaking wet, I went inside the store and emerged with two Luna bars. Then I started running up toward the North Rim. Instead of reading the rest of this why don’t you go for a run?

Down North

On Oct. 8 David, Jerret, and I started R2R2R dark and early in order to get our trips out of the way before daylight fully revealed how far it was possible to fall. Ignorance is always bliss. As we jogged from the North Rim down into a chasm there was a long conga line of headlamps blazing trail below us, and I quickly realized this was not the kind of place where I could expect to go for hours without seeing a soul. I guess there’s a reason they call this the Grand Canyon National Scenic Highway. It’s well-traveled and there are plenty of resources to sustain the masses, including multiple water spigots, poorly defended mule trains, plus that whole Phantom Ranch colony thing near the bottom. Our first time through the ranch we stole coffee and lemonade. Jerret and I sat down on some rocks and David ran off ahead by himself.

Some say the Grand Canyon is like an inverted mountain and I think that’s accurate as far as elevation profiles go. But it’s a totally different world once you cross treeline. Instead of tundra you’re looking at desert. On 14ers you feel like you’re standing on top of the world, here you feel like you’re in a box at the bottom. Standing on the Black Bridge 60ish feet above a surging river massive cliffs slice into water on either side and close you in. You feel small.

Up South

grand canyon from the south rim trail

I took a total of two pictures during our double crossing. Here is a view from the South Kaibab Trail.

The NPS pocket map for North Rim services says you should never hike down to the river and back up in one day, but it doesn’t offer any reasons not to. So I am going to put forward a conspiracy theory. I believe the government is covering up some kind of mutant or horrible human experiment gone wrong who lives in the canyon and attacks people who overextend their visit. It’s like in SkiFree where you’re allowed to have fun but only for a while. Bust a few tricks, burn up a few rainbow jumps, set some trees on fire, and then an abominable snow monster runs you down and eats you to death. Remember you heard it first at RunSlaphappy.

Jerret and I hiked up to the South Rim together.

“That’s probably the top,” I said every time I saw something that looked even remotely toppish. I was hilariously wrong every time except for the last, which just goes to show that if you say something wrong enough times in a row eventually you’ll be right.

I had read a few reports of R2R2R and recalled that this climb was about 4,500 feet. We were up maybe about 1,000 of those feet when we met a group coming down and asked them what the remaining climb was like. This crew of descending responsibles contemplated us with pity in their eyes and with polite rebuke in their voices they told us what terribly long and steep trail we faced. I do believe they thought we two were dead men, but of course they had no way of knowing how experienced we were in adversity. I knew we’d be fine because as Stryper famously sang, Little by little, inch by inch / By the yard it’s hard, by the inch what a cinch! / Never stare up the stairs, just step up the steps / Little by little, inch by inch.

At the top Jerret stopped and said he was going to see about catching the shuttle back to the North Rim. So I left him there and went back down into the ditch. David later told me I should have given Jerret my phone, since he didn’t have his with him. What am I, smart?

Down South and up North

I dropped from rim to river with my legs on madman pace trying to catch up with David. By Phantom Ranch I still hadn’t found him so off I jogged, eating one of my Luna bars, straight into a thunderstorm. About three miles later somewhere in Slot Canyon I finally caught up and we proceeded together in the rain, talking about I can’t remember what. Probably beer, though. If I’d been on top of a mountain in that kind of weather I’d have been worried about hypothermia, but the rain in the canyon was rather warm and pleasant. Besides, I had extra clothes safely stowed in a trash bag. The downpour mostly fizzled out by the time we got to Manzanita so I changed into a dry shirt.

I started feeling a bit loopy hiking up the switchbacks with a good deal of trail remaining, so David gave me some of his Tailwind. I think the name of the flavor was Green Tea Surprise, or something that sounded similarly criminal, and it was the first time Tailwind left a good taste in my mouth. Soon we came to a bridge, and a couple gals taking a break there told us it was three miles to the trailhead.

“No way it’s three miles,” I said, because it was obviously a lot closer than that. I have a pretty good sense of distance.

Three miles later when David and I finally reached the North Rim it was dark, even though we had made a point of starting early to avoid this exact scenario.

“You know it’s a good day when you start in the dark and finish in the dark,” David said. This is a common euphemism among ultrarunners for “I will crucify the first person who suggests doing something like that again.”

“Let us never do anything like that again,” I said.

We drove Jerret’s car back from the trailhead directly to the general store at the North Rim campground because we needed to eat all of their potato chips. It was approaching 8pm.

“Where do you think Jerret is right now?” I asked.

“Best-case scenario he’s at Bright Angel and he’ll show up back here at 11.”

“And worst-case scenario he’s freezing at the bus shelter on the South Rim?”

“Well he could be lost and freezing in the canyon. Or eaten to death by the Grand Cannibal.”

“That would be worse.”

We thought maybe he got a hotel and was able to contact us via email, so we hopped on WiFi but there was no email. So there we sat with tired faces and crazy hair surrounded by various clean and decent people shopping for souvenirs and sipping hot cocoa. I had an empty plastic bottle in my hands that had been full of chocolate milk not three seconds ago. We finally decided not to worry about Jerret, he was most likely okay and he’d probably just show up on the morning shuttle from the South Rim.

But no, instead of staying at the South Rim as we’d imagined, he’d actually been making his way back across the canyon even as we were busy justifying his disappearance to ourselves over beer and veggie sausages and peanut butter quinoa. He hitched a ride from the trailhead and stepped out of a car by our campground at around 10:30pm.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, which by the way is a common euphemism among ultrarunners for “I will crucify the first person who suggests doing something like that again.”

“Let us never do anything like that again,” David and I said.


Sunday morning I really wanted to be clean so I walked over to the campground showers at 7:45am, which was 15 minutes too early because for some reason they lock the showers overnight as if there isn’t still a whole conga line of people hiking back up out of the canyon in the dark. I was the first one there so I leaned annoyed against a tree and waited, trading tough guy stares with the ravens and Kaibab squirrels who were clearly thinking about beating me up for my quarters for slots. Just before 8am another guy arrived.

“Looks like you’re even more desperate for a shower than I am,” he joked. I don’t like jokes in the morning. Or anything else, except for coffee.

“Actually I just didn’t know the showers were still closed.”

“Well you still look more desperate than me.”

I turned to the ravens and squirrels.

“This one is weak and sick,” I said.

I forgot my soap so even after my shower I wasn’t really clean. I could have bought soap at the store the night before but I didn’t think of it because I’m an idiot.

EpilogueSpeaking of idiocy, the Grand Canyon Escalade. Now I’m all for building a nice resort on 420 acres, but this is the Grand Canyon we’re talking about. Instead of letting this modern world wonder go to pot I think we should save it for now and let some future generation of idiots ruin it instead.

If I’d been alive in 1928 when the Black Bridge was completed I would have hated it. An easy connection between rims South and North? No way, we’ve already got David Rust’s crazy insane cableway and by God that’s good enough. But the Black Bridge is history and I wasn’t alive in 1928. I’m alive right now, and right now I’m against building this resort and tramway to hell.

Go verb yourself, Confluence Partners LLC, not only for your destructive greed and bad intentions but also for having the balls to actually name your company after the sacred site you intend to defile. The day after I covered 42 miles in the canyon with my friends, Hopi and Tewa runners covered 78 in a relay effort to protest the escalade and protect their heritage. But you wouldn’t understand something like heritage, would you?

Take your idiotic escalade somewhere else. I suggest Detroit. Buy up a bunch of cheap real estate, dig a big hole in some godforsaken empty lot, and then build your dumb resort. The local economy will boom and you’ll make millions. Remember you heard it first at RunSlaphappy.

Sign the petition – Keep the Canyon Grand


5 comments to The big ditch

  • David

    Haha, good times Brandt. You could have cruised the Ditch and easily finished in the light; thanks for hanging back with Slow & Slower. And that Tailwind flavor is Green Tea Buzz 🙂

  • Brandt

    Well I didn’t want to risk meeting the Grand Cannibal alone. Thanks for the Green Tea Buzz!

  • Congratulations! What a great accomplishment and one I may never be able to duplicate. I struggle to imagine how deep you had to dig to actually work a Stryper lyric reference into a R2R2R post. And this is coming from someone who once owned a 1995 Firebird with a Winger CD stuck in the player for the entire time I owned the car. I can only hope my day will one day come when I find some Seventeen mile race to run and am compelled to blog about it.

    Completing the route is also a pretty cool accomplishment! Way to go gents!

  • Brandt

    Thanks John! Can’t Get Enuff of these musical references. I will have to slip a Winger lyric into whatever I write next.

    You mean you don’t currently own a 1995 Firebird?

    • Don’t go there. It was painful Z’Nuff to get rid of The Bird, let alone the mullet when I left the East Coast.
      You have plenty of material to pick from and likely no one would mind if you snuck in some classic Warrant in place of Winger.

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