The goal was simple: hike the Grand Canyon from the North Rim to the South Rim in a day. I’ve been training for this for months: hiking and trail running. Five thousand feet of gain; no problem. 15K trail runs; no sweat. (Okay, a lot of sweat, but you get the idea.) I felt ready.
Then things started to go downhill, figuratively speaking. Our trip to Lake Tahoe and the Pacific Northwest in September was scrubbed. I needed a root canal, and my wife was diagnosed with diverticulitis. Local hikes and runs took the place of sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail. And Ruth, who was going to drop us off at the North Rim and then drive to the South Rim to meet us, was in no condition to make the trip. My friend Erich and I updated our plans: we would follow the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and return via the Bright Angel Trail. Not as long or as much elevation loss as starting at the North Rim, but still a respectable day.
A week before the start of the trip, I went trail running, and instead of tapering before the big event, I decided to up the mileage and ran over thirteen miles. I had fun, but the downside was a strained IT Band. Then, the day before I left for Arizona, I banged my ankle: hard. The following morning it was bruised, swollen, and sore.
Later in the day, I drove to Williams, Arizona, where I spent the night in a quaint motel. In the morning, I made my way into the park and met with Erich and Luella. The last time we saw each other was the previous year in Park City. On that occasion, I ended up in a hospital in Provo and had my gallbladder removed. But that’s another story.
We were up at midnight. The sky was clear, and a near-full moon was directly overhead. We made our way from Mather Campground to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Before heading down, we tanked up on water and topped off our bottles. The South Kaibab trail is the steepest of the corridor trails. It was slow going; it took us an hour to drop a thousand feet. After a break at Cedar Ridge, we continued our descent.
I favored my sore ankle, which put more strain on the other leg: the one with the irritated IT Band. My right knee was stiffening up, and we were only about 1600′ and two miles below the rim. I stopped and told Erich I was having problems. He asked if I wanted to turn around. Of course, I didn’t want to, but it was the responsible thing to do. The knee and the ankle were only going to get worse, and the worse they got, the harder it would be to get out.
We hung out on the side of the trail, gazing at the stars, fascinated by the grandeur of the landscape at night. I joked that we were “burning moonlight,” and our campsite wasn’t getting any closer with us sitting here; it was time to get moving.
Going up was easier on my joints than going down, and there was less gain than on most of my recent hikes and runs. From an aerobic standpoint, it was an easy ascent.
Dawn was coming as we approached the rim; all the while the canyon became more colorful and vibrant. I stopped often to take photos – the Google Pixel 6 Night Mode is a joy to use. We made it back to the trailhead for a spectacular sunrise.
Not ready to call it a day just yet, we strolled along the Rim Trail to Mather Point in the cool of the morning before making our way back to our camp and a much-needed nap.
My GAIA GPS app said we hiked over 10 miles with 1800 feet of gain. Still, it was not what we had planned: we had failed in our Rim-to-Rim endeavor.
We didn’t achieve our goal, but was the trip a failure? That answer is easy: No, though a younger me might have thought differently. (Who knows, maybe I have gotten a little wiser with age. Maybe.)
Driving home, I remembered a quote from author Rolf Potts: “It is always better to assume you’ve hit the jackpot than to obsess over what might have been.” And hit the jackpot we did. How many people descend as far as we did into the Grand Canyon under the milder effulgence of the moon and view this geological marvel in a silvery light? This experience alone would have made the journey worthwhile. But there was so much more.
We watched not just a sunrise but the entire lead-up to it. The soft, nearly imperceptible glow in the sky that foreshadows the coming of a new day. The colorful rock strata revealed over countless millenniums became more vibrant with each passing minute until Sol itself directly illuminated the canyon walls. We sauntered along the canyon’s edge taking in the glorious panorama as the sun warmed us with its rays.
That afternoon rutting elk grazed near my tent, unfazed by the presence of cars and people. When twilight morphed into night, we tracked a satellite streaking across the sky. The Milky Way was also manifest in the firmament.
Most notable was time spent with friends. How many more opportunities will we have to see one another? We live in different states with over a thousand miles separating us. If I’m honest, it will only be a handful of times. We humans try so hard to ignore our own mortality. But I’ve reached a point in life where funerals outnumber weddings, and without the miracle of modern medicine, I wouldn’t be here to write this story.
Lest I forget, there were numerous outdoor excursions used as training for this Grand Canyon adventure, many deserving a write-up of their own. And finally, as Erich pointed out, this was just a scouting exercise; with the experience we gained, we are even more prepared for our next attempt. Stay tuned.
“Climb up on some hill at sunrise. Everybody needs perspective once in a while, and you’ll find it there.” – Robb Sagendorph