There are several ways to do Rim-to-Rim (R2R) hikes in the Grand Canyon, but by far the most common appears to the trek from the North Rim to South via the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails. The north rim of the Canyon is closed in the winter, however, so I’ve never been able to do this variant — instead doing routes from South Kaibab to Bright Angel or Hermit to Bright Angel. Somehow, this always feels like cheating even if you cover more miles on the Hermit option.
And it turns out there is one way to do the North Rim to South Rim in the winter as a day hike, and that’s by going Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R). This means hiking from the South Rim to North and back in one day, covering more than 40 miles and climbing up from the Colorado River each way. Sure it’s hard. Maybe it’s a bit silly. But how can that not be fun? At least, those were my thoughts as a I got ready to meet my mom in Vegas for our annual Christmas trek to the Grand Canyon.
Down the South Kaibab (12:50-2:10 am / 1.3 hrs)
The alarm went off at 12 am and my very tolerant and supportive mother lept out of her bed in the cozy warm hotel room to make her son coffee. I had not slept a wink that night, unable to suppress excitement and some anxiety about the hike, so the coffee was greatly appreciated. Thanks Mom!
I stuffed my face, threw on my clothes, hefted up my pack (damn, that’s heavy!), slammed some Gatorade, and headed out the door to a clear night in the mid teens temperature wise. Mom was already in the car, warming it up, and we were off before 12:30 am. The drive to Yaki Point and the somewhat surreptitious trail drop-off took about 20 minutes, and I was on the snow-covered trail just before 1 am — right on time.
There was a bright gibbous moon, so I tried to turn off my headlamp a few times to enjoy the feeling of really being out in the Canyon, but the footing was too icy and variable to be safe that way. So I spotlighted my way down the trail, listening to the crunch-crunch-crunch of my shoes on the dry snow. There wasn’t another sound to be heard. Beautiful.
I didn’t try to take any night-time pics of the trail this time, as I had on an earlier hike down the South Kaibab at night, as I was more focused on time and safety than documentation, but this is a gorgeous trail day or night. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
After 20 min or so I stripped off my outer shell and puffy, jammed them into my pack, and continued down the trail. A while later, just above O’Neill Butte, I ran into two hikers coming the trail. They looked strong and fit, but totally worked. I asked where they had come from, and they said “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim,”, which was great news — now I could get some information about the North Rim. Their news was a bit grim; they had turned around about 2 miles below the Rim after postholing through snow for hours. I was encouraged by the fact that I had snowshoes and they did not, but it meant a harder, slower hike than I had hoped for — especially given the snow that had fallen in the interim.
“It was cold,” one of them said. “Everything that could go wrong weatherwise, did go wrong.” I coiuld tell they were bummed out, but didn’t want to say too much or even think about it. So I just told them they were almost done, and headed off down the trail. In my mind, I wished them better luck next time, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t make it myself; it was just a question of work and time.
The ice and snow were mostly gone by the time I reached the flat shoulder below O’Niell Butte, just above Skeleton Point, and I took off my trekking spikes. Other than that, I wore pretty much the same thing from there until I was at the Pumphouse Residence coming back down the North Kaibab (with added gloves on the higher, snowy bits); the Canyon warms up so fast as you go down that it can be a real challenge to balance warmth at the rims and comfort lower down. My only real goal was to minimize sweat, so I tried to err on the side of being slightly cool at all times.
I skipped past the Tonto Trail junction and was soon at the Tipoff point and the second major descent, taking me from the Tonto Plateau (one of my favorite places) to the Colorado River hiding in the dark canyons below. I caught occasional glimpses of the river in the moonlight — a distant, silvery ribbon on a black background — and even less frequent sounds of distant rapids. Otherwise, it was dark and silent and still a long way until dawn.
Suddenly, a white spot in the darkness ahead of me moved and I heard the characteristic sound of rockfall as white-tailed dear scattered along the side of the trail. A few seconds later, two of them were standing on the trail and looking up at me in what I can only assume was irritation. Then, in a blur, they disappeared over the edge. When I saw them moments later, they were standing at the edge of a black abyss below the trail, staring off into the darkness. Surely they wouldn’t jump to get away from me. But that’s just what they did; bounding off the edge and vanishing into the night. I could hear them scrambling down the slope below, somehow navigating the impossible steeps in the darkness. Amazing.
A short while later, I was at the tunnel before the Black Bridge, which always seems nicely piratey to me, and then bounding over the Colorado in a stiff breeze. A little wet shlorking down the muddy trail later, I was past Bright Angel Campground and filling up my water bladder in front of the Phantom Ranch Canteen — the last potable water on the North side of the river. Everything after that would have to be filtered from the Bright Angel Creek, which fortunately ran year-around along the North Kaibab Trail up until the Pumphouse some 9 miles up the canyon.
Time-wise, I was doing okay; a little slower than I would have liked at just over 3mph, but given the heavier pack, within reason. I figured this meant a total time of closer to 15 or 16 hours given six approximately seven-mile sections averaging 2.5 hours per section, so my goal was to do the next seven miles at roughly the same pace as the descent in order to leave time for a slower third-section climb up to the North Rim.
Up the North Kaibab (2:15-10:45 am / 8.5 hrs)
Even in the dark, the North Kaibab is a wonderful trail. It ascends gradually up an amazingly well maintained corridor between tight cliffs, passing over Bright Angel Creek several times on very nice little bridges. Easy walking, even in the consistent, cold breeze that blew down unimpeded from the distant Rim.
After the Box, the narrowest part of the lower canyon, you emerge onto a series of relatively open sections. The gradual climb continues, with occasional minor ups and downs. Turning back, I could sometimes see the lights of Bright Angel lodge hovering in the night sky on the distant south Rim. It was sort of comforting to see some signs of life out there. I had the same feeling on Whitney the first time I climbed it at night and saw other headlights moving up the trail below me. Being alone is a lot easier when you’re at least close to other members of humanity.
At the first turnoff to Ribbon Falls, there is a somewhat unexpected climb and then descent back to creek level (apparently the only way around a bluff that pushes its way into the canyon) where you come across the second junction to the Falls. Someday, I’ll have to take that detour.
I reached the seven-mile mark right on time, and even taking some time to fill my spare water bottle with water and iodine pills. I figured this gave me 2 liters for the rest of the climb and back to the Pumphouse (the nearest stream junction, which was further up the trail), which probably wasn’t enough but seemed like fair trade for the weight.
The temperature started dropping, with noticeable cold spots along the Creek, until the ice returned just after the Pumphouse. Lights were on in the residence, and I could imagine someone inside frying up eggs and bacon. My stomach growled, so I stuffed the final donuts down (yum!) and put my Kahtoolas back on. It was past 6:30am and the sun was nowhere to be seen, but it was time for the climb! I was kind of excited about it.
The trail now diverges from the main canyon and heads south toward the rim, leaving Bright Angel Creek and the old trail behind. As the conditions change from patches of ice to patches of snow to several inches of snow on the trail, I was soon in the very obvious footprints of the two hikers I’d met earlier on the South Kaibab. Their path was filled in with fresh and blown snow, but still very obvious and comforting. They had made it this far, and broken the trail a bit, and it was appreciated.
Light gradually filled the sky around 7:30am as I made what felt like great progress up the trail. Dawn on the fresh snow and Redwall was among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Pictures couldn’t capture it. Memories wouldn’t hold it. But I’ll always be able to recall the feeling of being both utterly alone and totally blessed. Unbelievable beauty.
I was trying to judge how fast the snow depth increased as I rose, and calibrate that with the knee-deep snow the hikers said they had encountered after the Tunnel above. It was no use guessing, really, but my feeling as the sun rose was that this was going to be a walk-up, a cinch, and a little more snow was nothing my borrowed snowshoes couldn’t handle.
When the snow was consistent, I stopped to put the snowshoes on. I figured it would be easier walking even in the mere six inches snow on the trail, even if the hikers’ footprints were still clearly visible, and it was consistent enough that the snowshoes wouldn’t be damaged. Not sure if I should have waited a bit longer, but my pace still seemed reasonable enough and it was easier on the ankles.
When the snow on the trail was still under a foot, maybe eight-to-ten inches on average, I descended to the Redwall Bridge that crosses from the south to north sides of the side canyon, and headed up again. The snow covered bridge offered great views up and down the canyon, but as I looked up I realized I couldn’t really tell where the top was; it just sort of faded back above the Coconino layer and disappeared from sight.
The snow grew deeper, but slowly, and I wasn’t worried. Then I ran out of water just before the Tunnel, but still I wasn’t worried; I felt fine, and a few hours without water was annoying but not dangerous. and then I carefully navigated the short Supai Tunnel through the side of the redwall cliffs, and stopped. The snow was suddenly much deeper. I could see the little circle the other hikers had left as they walked around and tried to judge the snow depth. This was where they turned around. The snow looked to be at least two feet in places, three in others. And the trail? Well…
There is a mule hitching bar and hut of some kind at the Supai Tunnel, so you’d think the trail would be pretty obvious; it’s not like there are that many ways to climb up this steep canyon. But in the snow it still took me a minute and some wandering to realize that the trail was that path of lumpy whiteness between the trees. And even then I wasn’t sure I was on the trail until it took a hard left and the switchback was clearly visible.
The snow was now easily two feet, three in places. My snowshoes sank almost to the stone below; there was no structure to the snow, and breaking trail was going to be hard work. But I figured, to hell with it. I didn’t really care about the time, and I had plenty of buffer, so up I went. Only 1.8 miles to go!
Nearly two hours later, about 10:45 I was tired, thirsty and running way behind. I took out my phone to check my GPS tracking app only to realize it had never picked up a GPS signal in the Canyon and had tracked nothing; not one second of the hike. So I had no distance-traveled to help pinpoint how much further I had to go. I was just at the top of the Coconino, the last yellow-band of cliff before the rim slopes back in trees and snow toward the trailhead.
I took out my map, and guestimating, thought I’d gone about 0.8 miles in the last 1.75 hours. Which meant at least another two hours to the top. And without water, any way to communicate with Mom so she wouldn’t freak out when I was really (really) late, and a dose of caution, I was done; There was no way I had time to break the rest of the trail to the top, especially with the snow getting deeper and deeper. I took a few pics, one across the canyon so I could try to level-set my elevation, and down I went.
Down the North Kaibab (11 am-4:30 pm / 5.5 hrs)
There is something psychologically damaging about return trips. You go from being excited about where you’re going to just wanting to get it over with. You’ve made it and now it’s just time to get back to the starting point. I tried to focus on the fact that I hadn’t seen most of the trail up so the trail down to the River was going to be new and exciting, but it was hard not to feel like the onset of a death march. Twenty-one miles to the South Rim, twenty-one miles to a beer and warm food. It would be great to work on the psychology of this so it’s a more enjoyable process. Getting back is, after all, the mandatory part of any hike.
Einstein talks about time dilation as a relativistic effect that occurs when you approach the speed of light, but in the real world time dilation is proportionate to fatigue — the more tired you are, the longer the trail appears, and the more you’re astounded at how much longer it feels it’s taking on the way down than it did on the way up.
I reached the Supai Tunnel in less than 30 min, close to 1/4th the time it took going up, and then managed to trip and stumble my way through the tunnel on icy rocks. I was fine except for a nicely strained left shin, which I could tell was going to bother me the whole way back. But it wasn’t until after leaving the tunnel and heading back toward the Redwall Bridge that time started to occupy my thoughts. On a normal hike, with a clear trail, you can zone out on your breathing or the pretty trees or how much you like bacon. You get in a rhythm, and time passes in reasonable starts and jumps. With snow and ice on the trail, you’re constantly focused on the next step, and time streeeeeeeeeetches out. Did I really come up this part of the trail? Was there really this much snow before?
At some point on the snowy switchbacks, I came across a young couple heading to the North Rim Yurt. They had heavy packs and no snowshoes, and I didn’t envy them the postholing, especially past the point where I’d broken trail. They seem unphazed by the news of 3+ foot snowdrifts, and off they went. I hope they enjoyed their stay, but it sounded cold to me. There’s nothing homey about the word “yurt,” but I’m sure it’s quite nice.
A few minutes later I came across a kid (twenty-something, maybe younger), in shorts polishing off the last of his water as he headed on his day-hike up the trail from some campground below. We exchanged pleasantries, but he seemed confused about where I had come from and I didn’t want to explain it.
I was incredibly relieved to get the snowshoes off, and later to be done with the walking spikes as well, and be on a clear if muddy trail. I filled my bottle with water, and half-filled my bladder, letting them both steep in iodine before drinking, changed my socks, and contemplated status. I felt okay, overall, if a bit tired. I figured that would change after I had some water and food, which I could ingest in volume on the downhill in preparation for the next climb. My shin was an issue, but I found that if I splayed my food to the left a bit and tried not to flex on the backstep, the pain was minimal and the damage hopefully minor. Uphill should be easier (on the shins, at least).
The problem was time; it was now around 1:45pm and I was (around) 8.5 miles from Bright Angel Campground and 17.5 miles from the South Rim. If I hoofed it back toward Phantom Ranch, I should be able to be at the the river before 5pm, eat (hopefully including hot chocolate at Phantom Ranch), get more water, and start heading up before sunset. That would get me to phone reception at Indian Gardens around 7:30pm at any reasonable pace, so I could keep my Mom from worrying too much. After that, it was just time and work, trail and walking, so no matter. I just wanted to get to the Gardens before 8pm.
So off I went, hobbling quickly down the North Kaibab, a trail I’d never seen before except in the dark, trying to take in the beauty without slowing down too much. This is an amazing trail. Great fractured cliffs of redwall have sent hotel-sized blocks of stone down the flanks surrounding the trail. You can feel the ancient, weathered soul of the canyon here; sense the ages in your bones. It’s worth every second of the hike, tired or not.
After a long slog broken by moments of stunning beauty, several bridge crossings and occasional human encounters, I arrived at Phantom Ranch. It was 4:15pm, and it was closed for a special Christmas dinner. There were literally macarons and pastries in the window. The smell of gravy and stuffing filled the air. I looked in and felt like Tiny Tim, just wanting a little more. Hell, I’d beg for a cookie; no problem.
A woman came up from her cabin, looked at me, looked at the politely worded stay-the-hell-out-you-stinky-hiker sign on the door, then back at me. “I have some bars if you’re hungry,” she said. I laughed. Bars I’ve got. Hot chocolate, not so much. But it was a kind gesture. I ate a cold chicken salad sandwich (surprisingly good), got my water, and was back on the trail before 5pm. The light was fading fast.
Up Bright Angel (5-10:10 pm / 5.1 hrs)
Bright Angel Trail crosses a second bridge over the Colorado, south of the Black Bridge on the South Kaibab, then traces a sandy path alongside the river for more than a mile before turning heading up to the rim. The walk along the river is beautiful and mellow at any time, and lit up in the crepuscular orange light of the fleeting sun, it was stunning. I took one last picture of a mass of tormented shist- – which makes up the lower Canyon walls — and trudged on.
The sun vanished as I followed the trail up the lower side canyon, which meanders up toward the lower cliff walls in an altogether pleasant manner. Then you’re at Devils Corkscrew, a series of switchbacks that rise toward the Tonto Plateau, and even that is not that hard; every time I’ve done it the time seems to fly. The cold descended and the hat and gloves came out, but none of that mattered; I was walking along corrugated cliffs through verdant little oases in the lower canyon, and the bright moon was lighting it up in gray and silver. Hard to worry about much in a place like that.
Just below Indian Gardens, I came out of the lower canyon and turned on my cell phone. A second passed, then in came the beeps and trills of emails and texts and voicemails I called my mom, and after a brief, static-filled attempt at a call, I texted her that I was find and on the way up. It was just after 7pm, and I was right on time (on my return schedule), so I could relax and just finish the hike.
At Indian Gardens, the temperature suddenly plummeted. I put on my softshell and warmer gloves, got more water and tried to eat a bit, but my stomach was not liking the food. No worries; just 4.5 miles and 3,000′ feet to go.
From Indian Gardens, the trail meanders up between broad red canyon walls toward the steeper aspect of the climb; the cliffs below Bright Angel lodge and the South Rim village. You can see the beckoning lights above, but it seems like a very long way off in the moonlight. Comforting, but also humbling. Then you start the switchbacks of the climb and the lights are gone until near the top. The only other light I saw was another headlight about halfway up the switchbacks, miles ahead of me. Hi there.
With about 3.5 miles to go, my stomach did its usual screw-you-I’m-done nausea thing and my pace fell off a bit. I was just happy to have made it 38 miles or whatever without a problem, so I didn’t really care. At the 3 Mile Resthouse, the puffy and shell came out. My breath was crystallizing in pretty sparkles as I exhaled, and I was soaked from sweat (as usual), so I had to keep moving to stay warm. And moving was getting hard. Damn. I had to admit that I was tired. Damn tired.
I slogged onward, just trying to get to the rim by around 9:45pm, which is what I’d texted to Mom as she waited in the Bright Angel bar. I hated making her sit there longer than necessary. It got colder, and I seemed to get slower and a bit sleepy and generally fatigued. I thought about what my friend Andre had said once, about how fatigue was largely in the head, so I tried to just pretend I felt better and oddly it worked; my pace picked up and I felt better. Then I didn’t. Then I did. It was odd; energy came and went in waves, and sometimes I’d just have to stop and stand there, not out of breath, just out of juice. I wonder every second on Everest feels 10x worse than this. Probably. Fun.
Just after the 1.5 mile resthouse I caught up to the other hiker I’d seen earlier. I’d seen his light off and on as I’d climbed, and he seemed to stop a lot, look around, perhaps enjoying the evening. As I came up behind him, I noticed a shambling, unsteady sort of gate and wondered if he was an older man. But when I came up to him and said hello, he turned in surprise, and I could see he was in his thirties. Well, maybe, honestly, it was dark and he was Asian so who the heck knows, but old he was not.
“You’re much faster than I am,” he said. I laughed. “I’m just hungrier. Where are you coming from?” He mumbled something in a thick accent, and I asked him to repeat it. “South Kaibab,” he said, so he’d either done the 12+ mile traverse on the Tonto or the 16+ mile R2R via Phantom Ranch. Both great hikes I’d done before. Cool. I asked how he was doing, thinking about how slow he was going, and he said he was fine. Then he asked, “Many hours more to the top?” and I shook my head; no, much less than that, though at his pace, it was hard to tell.
I bid him farewell and started off again before I got any colder. I was starting to feel the cold in my feet and hands, and didn’t want to lose any more heat chatting. He kept up with me for a while, then slowly dropped back. After that, I saw his headlight behind him on the switchbacks, further and further back, but moving along steadily.
With less than a mile to go, I started feeling a bit wobbly; just slightly light headed, as if I were hyperventilating. I had been trying to breath more deeply for energy, and even pressure breath a bit, but perhaps I was overdoing it. But the feeling lingered and I felt oddly sleepy (okay, not that odd since I hadn’t slept at all the night before, but it was still annoying). I knew my discomfort was minor, but your mind wanders a bit at times like that. What would it be like at high altitude? What did you do to feel better if you were like this at 24,000′ or higher? Did I ever really want to climb a major mountain. Random thoughts.
But with these random thoughts came a sudden realization. If you read enough mountaineering books and tragic climbing stories, certain patterns are obvious. Communication issues at altitude. Missed clues. Simple mistakes that cost lives. Assumptions that people are okay when are clearly not, perhaps made in self interest. I thought about the Asian man behind me, slowly shambling up the path. Was his slurred pronunciation of South Kaibab caused by fatigue or hypothermia rather than an accent? Was his shambling walk an indication of more than tired legs? We were absurdly close to the lodge, but people had died closer to help than this. Much closer.
I stopped to look back, and easily saw his light below me. Still moving. Still slow. I watched him for a few minutes and nothing changed. He was fine. Which perhaps meant I didn’t want to freeze my ass off waiting for him, but I’m not sure. I know I wouldn’t have wanted a stranger waiting for me, but perhaps he would have liked the company? I’m not sure. I just hope he had someone waiting for him up top.
The last few hundred yards went faster. The Kolb Studio came into view, and my pace picked up. I was nearly there. Then I was on the rim, and inside the lodge. And at the bar. Several total strangers crowded around and said congratulations, offerings shots and beer, and I was baffled until I saw my mother walking over; apparently, she had some company during the wait. Good for her. I didn’t have the heart to tell her new friends I hadn’t quite made it, and honestly the fanfare was nice. Almost as good as the hot food and beer…
I’ve been thinking a lot about several things. First, the Asian guy I passed on the way up the Bright Angel Trail, and about doing these hikes and adventures alone in general. Then there’s the stomach issues, as usual, and finally my state of mind the last few miles of the hike. What was the ethical thing to do for a hiker who was clearly tired, but close to home and not in distress? Wouldn’t all this be better if done with a partner? I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything longer alone; it just gets old after a while. As for the stomach issues and fatigue, those are just things to learn more about. Can’t wait to see the Canyon again next year, though hopefully more of it in the daylight.
Google Photos Album
To my Mom for putting up with me and the support; to Andre for the last-minute snowshoe loan; to the CCC for building such awesome trails, and the Park Service for maintaining them; and to time and the forces of nature that have conspired to create such awesome beauty. Oh, and to the makers of donuts. Delicious donuts. Mmmm…