EPIC HIKES (October 2016) 2, NOT 1, EPIC HIKES
Our "something has changed" epiphany on our way to Phantom Ranch a year ago was the beginning of a new era for us.
Whew! Our first 30 days on the road this fall were fast and furious. Unplanned, we bagged 2 peaks while aiming for the Grand Canyon: the 13,000’ Wheeler Peak within Great Basin National Park, Nevada and 12,660’ Humphrey's Peak near Flagstaff, Arizona. Then there was our longest day hike ever (27 miles) doing the Rim-2-Rim in the Grand Canyon and our highest elevation gain hike ever (10,400’) on the Cactus to Clouds trail from Palm Springs, California. In addition, we slipped in a 20 miler hike and 20 mile bike ride during the 10 days between those 2 epic hikes.
Both the Rim-2-Rim (R2R) and Cactus to Clouds (C2C) were hikes that others had hyped over the years and were hikes we knew we’d never do. There were major logistical issues for both, especially getting to them before snow fell on the trails. In addition, we were certain we didn’t have the ‘right stuff’ for the ordeals.
But back in December 2015 while hiking in the snow to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we kept saying “Something has changed” regarding our athletic capabilities—we hiked with greater ease and recovered more quickly than ever before. We didn’t know what had changed but we loved the obvious new opportunities before us.
A return visit in March anchored that belief when we easily hiked for the first time from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River and back up to the rim in 1 day. We felt so strong that we did that same 20 mile, 5,000’ gain hike a second time 6 days later. That was when my self-perception shifted and I tried on a new label for us: "novice endurance athletes".
After that sterling success and while still in the Grand Canyon in March, hiking the R2R suddenly popped up on Bill's bucket list. Trailhead to trailhead, it’s about 24 miles and 5,000’- 6,000’ gain, which now seemed within our reach. I immediately began tackling the logistical problems to make it happen in October. (Bill does all of the trip planning; I do the ‘event’ planning.) If the roads and services had been open on the North Rim, we might have done it then but it was buried in snow. While working towards solutions, we set an intention to push our weekly big hikes from 15 miles to our new high of 20 miles for the next 7 months.
Thinking Even Bigger
We'd hike down part of the near canyon in the dark, then hang a right before intersecting the main canyon.
We didn’t meet our optimistic goal of doing a 20 miler once a week for 7 months but by the end of Month 5, our much improved recovery time convinced us that our bodies had adapted to most of the new stresses. That transition was presaged in Month 3 when we inadvertently knocked out a 50 mile week followed by a 60 miler that was capped by a 75 mile week. We were indeed entry level, novice endurance athletes.
Lack of altitude acclimation is always a huge energy drain when hiking much over 5,000’, so we started 'sleeping high’ the night we left home in mid-September. With a little intention on Bill’s part, it fell out easily: a few nights at 3,500’; 5 nights at 5,000’, and then over a week at 7,000’ or 8,000’ before doing the R2R that began at 8,200'.
Realizing that that solid base of moderate level altitude acclimation was too precious to squander, Epic Hike #2 was spawned. We decided to dash to Palm Springs to hike the C2C as soon as possible after leaving the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The C2C starts at 400’ and summits at 10,800’ so the partial acclimation to 8,000’ would be a huge help. We hung out at 7,000’ a few extra nights to let the highs in Palm Springs drop from 104 degrees to the mid 90’s before attempting the C2C to the top of San Jacinto Peak.
All Or Nothing Events
In addition to the big stats for distance, gain, and elevation, what was nerve-wracking about both R2R and C2C was the all-or-nothing nature of them. They turned out to be 12+ and 15 hour events for us with little or nothing in the way of bailouts. Bill always assesses bailouts, ways to shortcut if one of us becomes ill or injured, or if we encounter dangerous conditions. In the Alps, he checks for cable car ‘outs’ and both in Europe and the US, nearby roads sometimes offer a way to self-rescue.
But we knew that there were no "Plan B’s" in the Grand Canyon: the only shortcut is an emergency helicopter rescue, of which there are about 250 per year. The C2C does have a single bailout: the Tram at the halfway point. But after bypassing the Tram on the way to San Jacinto peak, one does have to get back to it before the last run at 9:45 pm to get off the mountain—there is no road, no lodging. We had 2 hours to spare when we completed our descent from the peak to the Tram.
So not only would we be doing our longest hike ever at the Grand Canyon and a record-breaking amount of elevation gain at Palm Springs, we’d be doing so with an unusual amount of ‘all or nothing’ performance pressure. We knew we had to get it right on both hikes.
Unfortunately, those pressures were heightened for me before each event. Final training a week before our R2R hike for a little light jogging on the more gentle parts of the trail backfired: it flared a new, smoldering, muscle problem the length of my right leg that was hobbling 48 hours before the hike. I spent the entire day before the crossing on our trailer floor at the North Rim doing an intense self-therapy program to calm the major irritated muscles that were yanking on my knee.
With Sun on the South Rim after completing the R2R.
Eight days later and 2 days before our C2C hike, I had a weird dizzy/malaise event that flattened me for a day. Bill’s best guess was that some stray virus nailed me. After 1 listless day and 1 day of slow improvement, I felt well enough by bedtime on the eve of the huge hike to do it. I did fine on both hikes but suspect that I would have done even better if I hadn’t had the last minute problems. Such issues are always a worry on any countdown to a special event.Trail Mates
On both big hikes we had the rare occurrence of being selected as trail mates by solo hikers towards the end of our long day. In the Grand Canyon, it was 47 year old Sun from Oklahoma City. He was in a group of 10 doing the R2R but he was alone and frantic when we met him.
Sun hadn’t trained at all and with 5 more miles and about 3,000’ of up ahead of him, he was highly agitated and kept commenting about having a 32 oz steak and hard liquor once he crested the rim. He also vowed to never hike again. Sun fell in behind us and we chatted and quizzed him about his hydration. He started settling down and then repeatedly said “I step where you step and it makes me feel better.”
I’d never seen anything like it before: it was like walking behind us turned the long trudge ahead of Sun from a crisis into a meditation. We were pleased to be of service with little penalty to us. Sun went ahead when we stopped at a pit toilet but it wasn’t long until we saw him again. His agitation level was up and he restated “I step where you step and it makes me feel better.” We escorted him to the top, took his souvenir photo, and guided him to the nearest hotel so he could determine in which hotel he was booked.
On the Cactus to Clouds, 54 year old Teresa from the LA area got in line with us shortly after passing the Tram. She’d taken the Tram up and was doing the 12 mile out-and-back to the peak. An experienced hiker, she wasn’t quite as conditioned as we were but given we’d already been hiking for over 7 hours, our speeds were well matched.
Teresa hadn’t expected to be out so late and had no headlamp so we tucked her in-between us for the last hour of the descent to the Tram in pitch dark. Kindly, she gave us a ride back to our RV park once we all rode the Tram down off the mountain. The ride was the hoped for gift from a stranger rather than taking a taxi back to our RV park like planned.
Recon on the N Kaibab Trail.
Anticipating our epic hike for more than 6 months, and then adding a second one, was delightfully preoccupying. There were the months of fun, nervous excitement from daring to reach beyond our limits. And then there was the knowledge that doing such trophy events would make us members of a virtual club on the trails. Another benefit was that these well known regional hikes would provide us with needed credentials when being screened as worthy of inclusion by fellow hikers or of being viewed as sufficiently competent to proceed by rangers. (Yes, we have experienced both of those screenings). We also enjoyed the problem-solving involved in deciding how to train and how to optimally deal with the logistical issues.
But doing the strenuous hikes was also about buoying our confidence in the face of aging. It was a tantalizing challenge to finesse these withering bodies into significantly out performing themselves at any time in the past. Successfully making the big hikes without injury was also a validation of the power of the huge shifts we’d made the last 7 years from switching to forefoot striking, following a ketogenic diet, and making myofascial release a part of our daily routine. I certainly couldn’t have survived the training without implementing those demanding changes.
One of my mantras for years has been that “Aging is largely an accumulation disorder.” Our 3 big lifestyle changes literally had been scraping off the accumulations hindering us. We knew that training for these epic hikes would create overuse injuries, or as we now prefer to make the diagnosis, the conditioning stresses would reveal deeper layers of accumulations. Once the next layer of accumulations were outed through overuse, we could employ our new technics to dispatch them. We embraced this slow, circuitous, process of correcting tissue imbalances as an opportunity to make our bodies more durable while they became stronger. As hoped, succeeding on these 2 big hikes was deeply validating of the power of our self care and increased our confidence to keep on pushing.
RIM-2-RIM, GRAND CANYON, AZ (October 8)
The well-positioned North Rim Lodge.
Finally, Under Way
Doing the Rim-2-Rim hike from the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was more delightful than we expected. We’d never been to the North Rim and enjoyed camping there for several days. We were however concerned that the only trail on the North Rim that drops down into the canyon, the North Kaibab, would be harder than its counterpart, the South Kaibab, on the South Rim. But even though it was a 6,000' instead of 5,000’ descent, the N Kaibab was far less treacherous than its counterpart that we knew well—it wasn’t the knee-banger we’d anticipated. Discovering the N Kaibab trail's more uniform surface was a huge relief and calmed our nerves for event day.
We walked to the N Kaibab trailhead from our campground and started down about 5 am on “the” day. Immediately, we were impressed with the heavy foot traffic. We were passed by dozens of people in the dark and only passed a few. It was our first real headlamp hike and we were dazzled by the sight of headlamps making a zig-zag string of lights above and below us on the trail. It was magical watching the dots of light seemingly float down the deep, narrow, side canyon.
At first light, the festive element on the trail receded and we began to see the distinctively different mix of vegetation of the North Rim trail. The overcast skies didn’t do our photos any favors but we enjoyed the sense of discovery with each twist and turn on the unfamiliar trail.
The North Rim trail, the North Kaibab, is in a very deep side canyon.
The throngs of fellow hikers ebbed and flowed while we descended and then we began encountering oncoming traffic. A quick question to each, without slowing them too much, confirmed that they were in a class well above us: they were Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim (R2R2R) hikers. This is an elite crowd that we began encountering during our 3 stays at Phantom Ranch by the Colorado River.
Most first time R2R2R’ers spend a few hours or a night in a hotel room or their tent on the destination rim before hiking back to their starting point on the opposite rim. Once experienced with the 2 big hikes in 2 days, some heighten the challenge by only taking a break before turning around to make the crossing a second time. We spoke with a man on nearby Humphrey’s Peak who was repeating Rim-2-Rim the day after our crossing and he said he’d never do Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim again because of the ‘wear and tear’. Unbeknownst to us at the time, a record for R2R2R of under 6 hours had been set 4 days earlier, shaving 26 minutes off of the 2013 record.
There were hundreds and hundreds of hikers on the North Kaibab trail that day, probably because it was a Saturday on the 2nd to last weekend of the 5 month-long R2R season. The folks we spoke with a few days later who had hiked on the preceding Friday hadn't seen many people on the trail.
I suspect that on our crossing day, many were local hikers who had done the track numerous times. They dressed extremely lightly for the expected valley heat; carried little gear, including water; and walked briskly because of their light packs, familiarity with the trail, and likely complete altitude acclimation. Based on their age, we guessed that a large percentage were from the university at nearby Flagstaff, which is what we’d assumed of the similar conveyor belt of people on Humphrey’s Peak the previous Saturday.
Like on Humphrey’s Peak the week before, the perfect forecast for the day didn’t hold. The all-sunny day for Humphrey’s Peak hike degraded into a significant hail storm moments after we reached the summit and it remained cold and cloudy most of the afternoon. We were reasonably well prepared for the weather shift but the T-shirt and shorts crowd suffered, especially in the accompanying harsh winds.
Unimpressive Roaring Springs provides all the water for the park.
We’d been watching the weather at the Grand Canyon like stalkers, holding out for the perfect day, and still got nailed by a thunderstorm the last few hours of our hike. The interval between the lightening and thunder held for too long at 3 seconds, indicating that the action was directly overhead. Our effort on the steep climb with Sun on our heels kept us warm in the drizzle though we were about to dig-out our ponchos when the rain tailed off.
The folks on the route were surprisingly cordial, especially since many were speedy pro’s on their neighborhood trail. Even the highly capable trail runners and Rim2Rim2Rim’ers were friendly and encouraging. A number were in awe that I did most of the hike in my minimalist sandals, wearing shoes in the dark and until we’d completed the major portion of the descent.
We played leap frog with several strong hikers who repeatedly commended us while they waited for their companions to catch-up. At the top, 2 guys we’d seen earlier that were now enjoying hot nachos praised us, especially for looking so fresh after more than 12 hours on the trail. One had earlier shouted in passing “She’ll keep you young.”
I’ve become fairly aggressive about asking the age of fellow hikers on hard trails and we didn’t encounter any through hikers who were our age or older. A couple of Rim2Rim2Rim’ers were in their late 50’s and one enthusiastic 69 year old woman with an impressively small pack was hiking out after 6 nights in the Canyon. Our obvious seniority garnered a lot of respect and I was quick to share our age when people were curious about us. Here like everywhere, our age and extremely sun-sensible attire immediately discredit us as any kind of athlete in the minds of most, which in itself becomes an entree to conversation: “You’re doing what?? Really??"Next Time
We had such a satisfying experience doing R2R that we immediately started booking lodging for a repeat next October. Bill suggested hiking the opposite direction, from the South Rim to the North.
We vowed to do our 2nd R2R on a weekday to improve our speed a bit by not standing in line for the few toilets and water spigots. The crowds were fun but they did bog us down. We’d still be hiking in the dark by headlamp for close to 2 hours and we would be descending on the harder S Kaibab trail, but the direction change would give a freshness to the journey.
The iconic 2 bridges crossing the Colorado (from Bright Angel Trail).
We also cemented our plan to decrease our training to 1 or 2 twenty milers per month to give Bill more latitude in selecting our hikes throughout the year. We clearly had benefited from the soft tissue changes that typically require about 6 months to take hold after a big uptick in activity and hoped we could now slip into a less taxing and less rigid maintenance mode. And even though we were letting our training slacken, we hoped to see even more improvements in the durability of our bodies in a year’s time. CACTUS TO CLOUDS: PALM SPRINGS, CA (October 19)
Similar & Different
Unlike the string of bouncing headlamps above and below us on the N Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon, we were taken by the grid of lights in the pancake-flat valley 2,000’ below us when on the Cactus to Clouds Trail before first light. It took a moment to understand why it looked like Christmas in Palm Springs: it was the rows and rows of red and green signal lights intermixed with a few white lights. Bright and cheery, we enjoyed the silent, miniaturized spectacle.
The pull of the holiday-like traffic lights lessened when the narrow, intense orange-red band on the horizon appeared at sunrise and soon after, our attention turned to the fauna. The industrious ants were the first out, then it was the big, plodding, black beetles that caught our eyes. The sound of a few birds was next, followed by that of a few bees. The last critters to emerge were the lizards, though we only noticed very small ones. In addition to the startle effect of their quick movement, we always jolt a bit at their sight because they and the rattlesnakes become active under similar conditions. Happily, we didn’t see any snakes in pursuit of them.
Cactus to Clouds (C2C) was grueling as expected but quite different than R2R. We also began by headlamp but went steeply up on C2C instead of down. Unlike R2R, we were alone on the trail for almost 7 hours, save the single trail runner that passed us without conversation midway to the Tram at 8,400’.
On the 2nd leg of the hike, from the Tram to the peak, we encountered a couple dozen casual hikers but only one other pair of through hikers that were doing the C2C, which were 2 speedy, 30-something, female trail runners who were mostly power walking the steep route. Unlike the half dozen water stops at the Grand Canyon, the only water for the day was at the level of the Tram.
There had always been snow on the upper trail below the tram, like in February of 2015.
We’d done the strenuous trail to the Tram 4 times, so felt like we knew it well. We briefly reminisced about “Here’s where we usually eat lunch on training hikes” and “This is the highest lunch spot we’ve used on the way up.” And of course, we delighted in having absolutely no snow on the trail—a first for us. We’d only done the Tram to the peak once and again, like the trail below the Tram, there had been snow on the trail that day.Smokin’ Hot
It was unfortunately hotter at any given elevation from the valley to the peak than was forecast for the day of our hike. We should have been in the 50’s and 60’s for much of the route but the temperature really only dropped once we were descending after dark.
Starting an hour and half before first light, it was about 70 degrees. The temperature typically drops shortly before sunrise but on this day, it went up. It rose to about 75 degrees early in our hike and we were uncomfortably warm for hours even though we’d gone up over 2,000’ in 90 minutes. Fortunately, we had plenty of water but we’d hoped to be invigorated by being a little bit cold for most of the climb. Hoped to Have Been Faster
We were a little slower on the lowest part of the Tram trail than in the past and hoped it was the heat and not a result of aging. Even so, we made it to the Tram in 6 hours and 40 minutes, record time for us, probably because of the absence of snow higher up. We’d somewhat arbitrarily set a personal best goal of 6 hours. Despite our disappointment, the ranger at that level was impressed with our speed (and informally cleared us to proceed).
A 46 year old trail runner who had previously, in his words, "destroyed himself" doing a personal best to the Tram in 3:19 considered anyone who made it from the valley to the peak where we saw him, a hero. He commented that on one of his hikes, he saw 3 rescues at about the 6,000’ level with the Tram being at 8,400’. It’s nice: we get a lot of kudos from impressive athletes 20 -30 years our junior, ones like him, that are already frustrated with the performance drag of aging.
The much less steep last 2,400’ over 6 miles from the Tram to the 10,800’ San Jacinto Peak was harder than we expected. We guessed/hoped we’d make it up in 3 hours though missed the target by 37 minutes. And our hoped-for 2 hour descent extended to 3 hours though we unexpectedly did a third of it by headlamp. We were tired when we started the leg to the peak but also knew that we could have hiked more miles at the end of that day, if it wasn’t up.
We made it! Eleven hours after starting, we made it to San Jacinto Peak.
Our entire seven hours of hiking above the Tram was done at or above the magic number of 8,250’, which is where the occurrence of acute mountain sickness spikes. Even though Bill felt some altitude drag, we cheered ourselves for doing well above that elevation.
All-in-all, we were out 15 hours on the C2C hike with an hour out for lunch at the Tram level, about 20” on the peak, and about a total of a half an hour chatting with folks on the trail. In the end, it was 22 miles with 10,400’ gain and about a 3,000’ descent. Like the C2C hikers we knew of, we took the Tram down. And “Yes”, we’ll do it again.
Bill was cruising online for new big hikes in the SW when he found a site that rated the Cactus to Clouds hike we’d just done as the most difficult of the 23 most intense day hikes in the US. They went out on a limb by comparing it with climbing from Base Camp to the top of Mt Everest, noting that the elevation gain on Cactus to Clouds is only 800’ less. Of course, that’s where the comparisons end. Everest is more challenging and more difficult in every other way. But C2C is steep, with the first 8,000’ being completed in 9 miles, some of it being straight up the steep fall line. The very steepest part begins in the thinner air around 6,000’, adding a psychological challenge to the physiological stresses. Oops: A Forgotten Hazard
We had driven from the Grand Canyon to Palm Springs in 2 days, spending 1 night in Needles, CA. Our day time highs shot up from the low 70’s into the 90’s and it was then that we realized we’d completely spaced on a Cactus to Clouds hazard: rattlesnakes.
We favor locations in the SW that have lower temperatures both for our comfort and because it drives the snakes into near hibernation. Walking to the shower house in our Needles RV park on the too warm evening reminded us that we’d need to be on alert for snakes on our epic hike whether the sun was out or we were using headlamps. These elevated day and night temperatures made it high season for rattlesnakes. Snakes are always on our radar when in the SW but by design, we'd had zero practice with scanning for snakes on trails after dark. Lucky for us, we had no encounters during our 8 days in the hot zone.WHAT’S NEXT?
Good question, we don’t know what is next. Fully focused on doing our 2 epic hikes as soon as possible after returning from the Alps, we’d planned to answer that question once they were behind us. We only had 2 more planned stops on our 2016/17 itinerary: a 2 month stay in Palm Springs in December and January and a month’s stay in Albuquerque in April.
It was way too hot for us in Palm Springs, hitting 101 degrees the day after our big hike, so getting out of the heat was our top priority. Bill found an almost half price deal at a fancy RV resort (think lawns, trees, swimming pools) around the corner from Palm Springs at cooler Hemet, making it easy to decide to spend a week exploring the hiking in the mountains from there. We also needed to literally park ourselves to receive our forwarded ballots, so it was a perfect fit. That would also give us another week to craft a weather-driven itinerary.
As far as our next epic hike, Mt Whitney is the only known option but for next year, at best. Given the requirement of securing a hard-to-obtain permit, the even higher elevation of 14,500’, and snow and ice issues, it has only slightly moved from the “Never” to “Maybe” column. It was speaking with an extremely capable female hiker our age on Wheeler Peak in Great Basin NP that budged Whitney off of “Never”. Colleen had done Whitney as the typical overnighter earlier in the year and gave us tips for doing it as an extremely long day hike instead. That’s what she would do if she repeated the hike and she had compelling arguments for the strategy.
Amazingly, after having a month-long, low-grade, struggle with the lateral muscles the full length of my right leg that affected my knee and Bill having bouts of pain and irritation with his vulnerable low back, the day after our C2C hike, we both were more comfortable in our bodies than than we’d been in months. Go figure. But the really good news was that there were no injuries from pushing for the last 7 months to do our epic hikes that would be limiting our yet-to-be-known itinerary.
PROPELLER-HEAD CORNERRim-2-Rim Stats 10/8/16
Total Distance: 27 miles (including to TH on N Rim & to hotel on the S Rim; usually quoted as 22-24 miles)
Total Time: 12 hours 20 minutes (TH-TH, excluding to/from rim edges)
Moving Time: 10 hours 10 minutes (excluding 1:10 lunch & water refill at Phantom Ranch, 30” break at Indian Garden for rest & refilling water bags, estimated 30” for pit stops & conversations)
Elevation Gain: 5,000'
Elevation Loss: 6,180'
Starting Elevation: 8,200’
Lowest Point: 2400’
Ending Elevation: 6800’
Temperature Variation: 40 degreesCactus to Clouds Stats 10/19/16
Total Distance: 22 miles
Total Time from TH: 14:40 (+ 23” to TH)
Moving Time: 12:40
...Time from Valley TH to Tram Plateau: 6:38
...Time to Rangers Station: 10"
...Time from Ranger's to San Jacinto Peak: 3:37
...Time Descending from Peak to Tram: 3:00 (about 1/3 by headlamp)
Elevation Gain: 10,400'
Elevation Loss: 2,760'
Starting Elevation: 400’
Elevation at Tram: 8,400’
Maximum Elevation: 10,800’
Tram: last ride at 9:45 pm; $12 one way for seniors
Note: Cell phones DO NOT WORK, info desk at upper Tram station will let you call a taxi for a ride from the lower Tram stationRim-2-Rim Logistics
Check-out "Rim-2-Rim Logistics” Under “Fitness Destinations” for details on setting up lodging, shuttle rides, and timing issues for planning your crossing.