November 7, 2014

Rim-to-Rim-to-Hospital-to-Rim: The Grand Canyon in a Day

By Stephon Boatwright In On the Trail

This is a long post, but it has lots of pix and is worth the read…minus the plethora of grammatical and punctuation errors because I refuse to proofread as an ongoing protest against the needless idiocy of the English language.

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As I may have said in my earlier posts, I feel like the term adventure is overused. Adventure to me necessitates a certain level of isolation and risk. That’s not to say one can’t be adventurous in a controlled environment, (zoom-in on my complete self-butt kicking at the Five Borough Bike Tour) but generally if there’s not the slightest risk of death, it’s just not a good trip. Unfortunately, I came a bit too close to the edge in my most epic and death defying adventure yet.

There’s a series of hikes that are fabled in the outdoors community. Said to be the most difficult day-hike in the North America, the legendary Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike, AKA R2R2R, is a 43 mile trek from the South edge of the Grand Canyon, through its winding and perilous canyons, to the North Rim. This would be foolhardy enough, but turns nearly unfathomable when you turn around to head back again all in the same day. There’s warning all over the place that urging you not to hike the 12 miles to the Colorado River and back in a single day, let alone nearly quadruple that distance. In fact, it’s so common that hikers fall ill, injure themselves or worse, that the first 10 miles of hike is monitored by a special crew of rescuers ready for the ill-fated. Did I mention it was August and 115 degrees? Because it was.
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I made my way to the Canyon the day before I began my hike. After driving for hours from Phoenix I was more than ready to be inspired. What I witnessed at the edge of the Canyon, upon first glance, left my jaw so far hung open that I must have bared resemblance to an anime character. The depth of the valleys, the vastness of the Canyon and the brilliance of the hues of red and orange must truly be one of a kind on Earth.

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After a riveting night of sleeping in my rented Ford Focus, I set off with a headlamp at around 4am. I wasn’t the only one though, as hikers from far below made their way up, also with their headlamps aglow. I felt as if I was descending into a nest of fireflies, or the mines of Moria. I was well physically prepared for this hike. I had been running a round-trip of ten miles a day to the gym where I would lift. I was making such incredible time on my way down that maybe a dozen hikers coming from the opposite direction complimented my tenacity, speed and endurance.
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My first stop of significance was a small ranch called Indian Gardens. I spent no time there, but I did take note of the large thermometer with a plaque hung above it, which read “This is your brain on sun.” It was already in the 80’s and it wasn’t even 7am. I plowed ahead through a bizarre oasis of large trees and brilliant green plants. It was strange indeed, seeing how I was in fact in the middle of the desert. But a small tributary of the Colorado River gave life to thick and heathy tress, whose beauty offered a contrast to the gravel and stones that surrounded me otherwise.

My next stop was the Colorado River itself. Sure, it’s just a river, but it was the river that formed the amazing Canyon over an unimaginable number of millennia. It was also much larger and more ferocious than your typical river. It invoked awe and pride as I knew I was killing the hike. By the time I got to the famous Phantom Ranch, where the equally famous Canyon mules reside, it was hot, blistering hot, sickly hot, dangerously hot. Forget anything you’ve heard about dry heat. 115 degrees is oppressive regardless of the humidity, and since I was at the bottom of the Canyon I had the pleasure of knowing that it was probably only in the 80’s at the top of either rim.

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I blasted out of Phantom Ranch and headed toward my next destination, Cottonwood Ranch. The hike from that point was in completely open exposure; no tress, no rock walls, no life….except the Diamond Back Rattlesnake in the middle of the trail that I gladly let pass after it shook its deadly behind at me. I had my first thoughts of turning around about here. I was miserable, too miserable to inspired by the scenery or the strength of my own determination. I wanted out in a major way. When I got to Cottonwood I was nearly trembling from the heat. I guzzled 3/4 of a gallon of water at the empty ranch, which ended up being my undoing, but more on that later. I trekked on, this time up the North Rim. With my quads bursting, sweat pouring, lungs gasping, head pounding and my shirt turned white from the amount if salt pouring out of my pores, I made it. I made it, but if didn’t care. It felt good to sit, to see people again, to get some Gatorade and take my boots off, but I knew I had to go back. I didn’t even care enough to snap too many pictures.
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The hike back was alright until returning to Cottonwood. It was about there I starting thinking I wasn’t going to make it. With the barren exposed portion of the trail ahead of me, I was feeling pretty depleted. I got back to Phantom Ranch after having wonderful conversations with momentary friends I made on the trail, but once there I knew I was going down. I slept for an hour on a bench in the shade, then woke up and was ready to devour my highest protein and calorie dense energy bar. I took one bite and became instantly horrified. Peanuts. I’m allergic to peanuts. Since I hiked a few miles outside of Phantom, it was too late to grab food there. My options were to eat the bar and risk vomiting, a sure way to guarantee a $10,000 helicopter ride out of the Canyon, or not eat and risk passing out, not being found and risking death on the trail. I took the first option.

I sat down by the Colorado river, and every 2,500 feet after that. Then every 2,000 feet, then 1,000. Soon I could stumble no more than 500 feet after every 5 minutes of rest. I was in trouble. Hikers were asking if I needed help, and after splitting off from a group of slow moving Korean hikers who were nice enough to leave me with a couple hot dogs, I decided I would ask the next hiker for help. He was a tall, blonde young man from Switzerland. He was more than happy to take my bag and let me walk uninhibited by its weight. This only got me another 1,000 feet until I collapsed again. He decided he would alert the Park Ranger and come back with help. I kept stammering along for another two hours and no one ever came….then it began to rain. My luck seemed almost out. At the rate I was going, I was two hours from Indian Gardens, had no cell reception and it was getting dark. It was about this time my leg muscles began involuntarily contracting so hard I found myself literally screaming from the pain. I decided to lay down on a clear slab of rock, nurse the gallon of water I had left and wait it out until morning, hoping nothing catastrophic was going to happen overnight. About then a crew of Minnesota hikers, all young and remarkably friendly stumbled upon me. They sent three of their friends to alert the Park Ranger and two stayed back with me.

By the time the Ranger got to me, the true gravity of my situation came to light. I was suffering from dehydration, but more seriously I was suffering from an electrolyte imbalance: my body had expelled practically all its sodium. A part of hiking in the desert that I was woefully unaware of was the need to enrich your water with salt, or run the risk of having the water you’re drinking wash all the sodium out of your system. The Ranger tried to be comforting, but he later confessed he thought I was going to have to be evacuated via helicopter. He started his treatment by putting a pill on my tongue to keep me from vomiting. Next, he gave me something approximating Pedialyte and salt water. It tasted oddly comforting, but I could only sip on it. Between the five or six people present they were able to carry me back into the Ranger station. I’ve never been so grateful for the selfless kindness of strangers.

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Back at the Ranger station I was fed every salty dish available, primarily a giant bowl of life-affirming Ramen noodles; it was the best bowl of artificially chicken flavored noodles in my life. I slept the night in the station, was given Sprite in large quantities (it helps for a reason I can’t recall) then I woke up feeling like nothing had ever happened and was mildly pissed I couldn’t do R2R2R in a single day….next time! My name is Stephon and I’m addicted to hiking. I made the last six miles back with a pretty large crowd of hikers, including some tour guides that pointed out ancient painting on the rock wall.  I also ran into the mule train and the terrified riders who straddled their backs. I got to end the hike on a good note by finishing with a mother and her two young girls who only hiked a couple miles in and were on their way back. After telling them abut my night, the mother called me Superman, which her little girls gleefully referred to me as for the rest of the hike.
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I didn’t quite feel like Superman when I finally crested the South Rim, but I felt battled hardened with a touch of stupidity. Alls well that ends well though, and you hike, you learn. I would like to try the hike again, but maybe in January next time. You’ll have to excuse me though, I have some Ramen to cook.

1 Comment
  1. Jake Dean November 11, 2014

    That's nuts! (uh… no pun intended, there.) Next time maybe fill a CamelBak with ramen broth and you should have plenty electrolytes to last you the hike. In all seriousness though, glad you made it out o.k.!

    Reply

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