Rim to Rim to Rim

A dozen people were prepping to backpack across the Grand Canyon when Matthew and I arrived at the North Kaibab Trailhead just before 4 in the morning on June 11th. They were up an hour before sunrise to beat the heat—most would call it a day at Cottonwood Campground, 6.3 miles away. Signs warned people not to hike down to the Colorado River and back again in a single day. Precisely what we were attempting to do—twice.

The idea blossomed after we returned from the John Muir Trail last summer, averaging 20 miles/day, 11 days in a row, covering elevation changes as grand as the Grand Canyon and in some cases grander. We had no doubt that we could tackle a 23-mile rim-to-rim dayhike, unburdened by 30-pound packs. But could we turn around and head back, re-crossing the canyon, for a total of 46 miles? This was uncharted territory for the both of us. Before logging 48 miles during the 4MPH Challenge last March (my proving ground for the Grand Canyon), the longest I’d hiked in a day was just shy of 30 miles on the Ohlone Trail. Matthew had run 25 miles at the San Antonio Marathon—before collapsing from dehydration a mile before the finish line!

North Rim to Colorado River

Our target pace was 2.875mph, or 46 miles divided by 16 hours—roughly the daylight we had available. We were dead-on all the way to Cottonwood Campground—disconcerting because we had hoped to move faster on the downhill. It seemed unlikely that we’d be able to maintain the same pace heading up to the South Rim. I discovered midway that my cyborg elbow had started swelling—a bout of bursitis that cropped up a week earlier—in the middle of my final training hike on Mt. Diablo. My intensive use of hiking poles seemed to trigger the condition, so I packed up my left hiking pole—a disappointing setback. On the long, gradual stretch to Bright Angel Campground, we gravity-jogged occasionally and banked half-an-hour—of which we used 20 minutes at Phantom Ranch to refuel and change socks (both my big toes had poked through!). While there, I was able to make a $25 collect call so I could leave Stephanie a voicemail indicating our progress.

North Kaibab Trail between Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground
The North Kaibab trail near Phantom Ranch

Colorado River to South Rim

The sun was intense at 8:30am when we departed Phantom Ranch and crossed the Colorado. We maintained our pace up to Indian Garden—18.5 miles into the hike. And that’s when the climb really began, fully exposed, with the sun bearing down. At the 3-Mile Resthouse (3 miles from the South Rim) we were 20 minutes behind pace. At the 1.5-Mile Resthouse we were 30 minutes behind pace. When I struggled up some of the steeper inclines, Matthew innocently asked what was wrong. I snapped at him: “This is fucking hard and I’m fucking hot.” I was depleted. We had promised our family that we’d turn around at noon (our halfway time) but we were so close, we decided to push on. There was no time to celebrate when we finally reached the South Rim, 50 minutes off our pace. We needed to rehydrate and refuel—which I found especially difficult having lost my appetite to the exertion. I texted Stephanie to let everyone know we were running behind schedule, but still “running”.

Matthew and Justin at the South Rim
At the South Rim, halfway, before heading back

South Rim to Colorado River

My mood improved markedly on the downhill. We crossed paths with and surprised a number of people we had passed on the way up. When we got back to the 3-Mile Resthouse (26 miles into the hike), I congratulated Matthew on completing his first marathon and beginning his first ultra. A thermometer at Indian Garden registered 100°F. We were an hour and 20 minutes behind schedule.

We made it back to Phantom Ranch at 5pm, just as their famous steak dinners were being served for the assembled guests (not us). I made another $25 collect call and left Stephanie another voicemail—we had assumed but not really confirmed that they planned to meet us at the end. This was our last chance to communicate our ETA. It wasn’t until I did the math out loud that I realized what we were confronting:

“Hey Steph, we’re at Phantom Ranch. It’s 5 now, we’re doing well, we’ll probably get going by 5:30, which means we’re about 2 hours behind schedule. We’ve got 13.5 miles left, but we’re going uphill so assuming our pace slows to 2 miles-per-hour, that would take us 6 and a half hours. Adding that to 5:30 is…[doing the math in my head]…midnight. So, umm, [it starts to hit me] at the very earliest, we’ll get there at 10 instead of 8pm [still optimistic about only being 2 hours behind schedule], but it could be as late as 11 or midnight.”

What was more disturbing than simply running late: sunset was at 7:45pm with last light at 8:15—if we finished at midnight, that meant we would have been hiking for 4 hours in the dark. With 3 hours yet to go before sunset, I pushed the idea out of my mind, and tried to choke down a few calories. We had no option besides continuing on.

View of the Grand Canyon from the Bright Angel Trail
The Bright Angel Trail on the way down

Colorado River to North Rim

Somewhere along the 7-mile, gradual uphill stretch between Bright Angel and Cottonwood, I started to feel a little nauseous. Matthew and I were talking about books we’d read recently (me: Sapiens, him: Smarter Faster Better), and I found that I had to stop talking to hold myself together. This worried me because I was loosely aware that nausea and vomiting are symptoms of heat stroke. I knew I had the physical and mental will to climb out of the canyon, however slowly, but heat stroke could rob me of that (not to mention being being fatal if left untreated). We stopped to rest a few times, and I rehydrated with electrolyte tablets. We reached Cottonwood just as the sun set, 2 hours and 20 minutes behind schedule. Our headlamps would remain on for the duration.

Hiking in the dark was surreal. We could hear the wind blowing and Bright Angel Creek rushing over rocks, but all that we could see were a few square feet of illuminated gravel in front of us. On the plus side, we were blissfully ignorant of the switchbacks ahead or the steep drop-offs alongside the trail. We could only put one foot in front of the other. I felt the need to take breaks often, and Matthew stuck with me every step of the way, and never complained. As we climbed, I think I started to feel the elevation (on top my exhaustion). At Redwall Bridge we lay down and stared at the stars. We were 3 and a half hours behind schedule. The next section was incredibly steep, and I felt the nausea come back. So we took it easy and paused frequently while Matthew told me stories.

After Supai Tunnel I got a second wind, and we motored through the last, dusty 2 miles. We reached the trailhead at 12:43am—almost 5 hours behind schedule, and nearly 21 hours after we set out. Dad was there, very concerned—he was worried we were hypothermic. We were fine—hiking out of the Grand Canyon generates a significant amount of body heat. We were happy, elated, relieved to be done. We laughed and tried to calm him down so we could take a few photos in our hiking garb before changing into some clean, dry, warm clothes. We learned that Stephanie, Mom, and Katie had left only minutes before to check for messages at the lodge (where there was a weak cell phone signal) on the off-chance that we had returned to Phantom Ranch and left another message. When they returned to the trailhead, they were relieved to see 3 headlamps bobbing in the darkness.

Justin and Matthew after hiking 46 miles across the Grand Canyon and back again
The brothers Watt at the end

Afterword

Though the hike was a significant physical and mental ordeal for the both of us, we learned only later that we had unintentionally (and unexpectedly) caused significant distress for our family, given our late arrival—compounded by lack of communication. We are deeply sorry for causing them to worry unnecessarily. Though it’s hard to rule out another uber-hike completely, after pushing so hard for two years in a row, it would be nice to take more time moving through the landscape in the future.

1 Comment

Wow! Congrats on the amazing accomplishment. And here I’m happy doing 3 miles with a 4 year old… haha. :)

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