Travel

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim [trip report]

A few months ago, Mike and I started planning this year's brutal wilderness adventure to follow on last year's Point Reyes to San Francisco 50+ mile single-push hike. Early on, we landed on doing Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in under 24 hours. Quick Google searches revealed that this was indeed possible, and that there was a small fraternity of ultra runners and regular crazies like ourselves who had done this before. We put out the message and over 60 of our friends expressed interest in a trip of this variety. For the final count of 38 attendees doing a mix of 24-hour, 2-day, and one-way Rim to Rim [to Rim] trips, we rented 3 black E-350 vans from Bandago and headed out on the morning of May 24th.

On the road

On the road

We headed out from the South Rim campgrounds at about 4:40 AM on the 25th. Temps were cold but manageable, and we didn't need insulating layers except long sleeves and a hat. We blew the parking beta and parked at the Visitor's Center about 2 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead. We quickly made our way along the paved path to the trailhead and started heading down.

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2014-05-26 14.25.54

The South Kaibab trail is steep and switchbacked, and I was glad to have a pair of trekking poles along to ease the stress on my knees. The sun was already lighting up the sky and as it crested the horizon, we stripped off layers as the temperature began rising. The miles passed quickly, and we made good time getting down to the Colorado River.

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2014-05-26 00.47.32-1

I guess it takes a certain type of person to think that hiking/running 45+ miles with 11,000+ feet of elevation gain in a single under-24 hour push is a good idea.

Anyway, before it felt like we had really even gotten started, we were into the flats and making good time across the bottom of the canyon. Sometime after we passed through Phantom Ranch, we met up with my mom, who was on her return leg of a 2-day R2R2R trip of her own. I hope I'm badass enough to be doing that when I'm her age.

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2014-05-25 10.00.45

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2014-05-25 06.40.50

Our morning timing worked as planned and kept us out of the heat of the day, for the most part. We had maybe 5-7 miles of walking in direct sunlight, and we were all pretty happy to have brought along our dork hats to keep the sun off. At each water stop, many of the group drenched their hats.

After our stretch in the sun, we started up the biggest climb of the day to gain the north rim of the canyon. The climb is unrelenting and felt steeper than the south rim, but all things considered, the grade isn't that bad and the trail quality is good except for the occasional lake of donkey piss. Side note: people ride donkeys down to the bottom, and you have to get out of the way when they pass, which slows the pace considerably. Also, the donkeys smell exactly how you think donkeys will smell.

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At the top of the north rim, we stopped and ate lunch, drank lots of water, and elevated our legs. Temps were quite cool, which felt nice after a long and taxing climb. Our total rest time on the north rim was about an hour and a half - longer than we had planned by about half an hour.

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While our moving pace had been good during the first half of the day, we knew the second half was really our chance to make good time. Using our poles to mind the footing and leap over the aforementioned lakes of donkey piss, we jogged and ran at a good pace to the bottom of the canyon, then adopted a walk/jog pace through the bottom of the canyon and through the slot canyon, arriving at Phantom Ranch quite tired but making solid time.

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Phantom Ranch was a much-needed water fill-up and bathroom break. It also marked the end our our running. We clicked on our headlamps shortly after Phantom Ranch, and paused for a minute to turn them off and admire the stars as we crossed the bridge spanning the Colorado River and marking the beginning of our climb out of the canyon along Bright Angel trail.

That's when shit started to get weird. We walked as a group, making good time up the mild but sustained climb. Along the way, a few people bonked to varying degrees and required either rest and nutrition or a helping hand to make sure they didn't pitch off the edge in their stumbly state.

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2014-05-25 13.26.41

But that's relatively normal - what was weird were the other people we encountered along the way. First, we passed a family of 3 or 4 with enormous backpacks and cheap sandals for footwear. One of them had a vintage steel Coleman lantern lashed to the outside of his backpack. Their shuffling, delirious pace *might* have gotten them to the top by sunrise. It couldn't have been more than 1 mile per hour, and that's being generous. After assuring us that they were fine, we had no real option but to continue on our way. As Phantom Ranch was only a couple miles back, and they would have descended Bright Angel to reach wherever they had been camping, it's hard to imagine how they ended up in that predicament.

That wasn't even the weirdest. That prize goes to the 65+ year old father and 30+ year old daughter pair whom we met with a few miles to go. The father was struggling seriously, and we were worried whether he'd be able to finish at all. His daughter insisted they were fine, and they would rest as needed but continue plodding toward the top. Again, lacking any real recourse to help them in a meaningful way, we continued to the top. Mike led the group and I took the rear to make sure we were all together and keep an eye on everyone

As he retrieved the van from the campsite, the last of our core group topped out, and I ran into the daughter of the struggling senior citizen as she topped out - without her dad. Concerned, I asked her where he was, and she indicated that he was seeking shelter from the dropping temperatures in a tiny emergency shed we had passed alongside the trail, and that he would top out by himself in the morning.

What?? How is that even remotely acceptable behavior for not just an adventure partner, but someone's own daughter? I was floored and tried to convince her to go back down to be with him, and nearly went myself. It was really only when she told me that they had been in touch with NPS rangers that I let her find her way back to her hotel room.

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After a needless-to-say-great night's sleep, we returned to welcome our 2-day R2R2R hikers up the Bright Angel trail. They had an arguably harder hike, since they had to hike the whole climb in the 90+ degree heat and full sun exposure. All around, it as an awesome trip.

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For those planning their own R2R2R

Here are a few stream-of-consciousness tips from our experience:

  • Make sure you go after they turn the North Rim water pump on, usually around the weekend before we went. It's the last water fill-up before the north rim climb, and it's pretty critical to doing a single day R2R2R.
  • Hiking poles really help take stress off the knees during the long downhills, and they speed your pace on the uphill. Not a must-have, but we were really happy to have them. Anecdotally, they seem to have reduced next-day soreness quite a bit.
  • Hiking boots are definitely not required. You'll move much faster in trail runners. Wear an ankle brace if you have bad ankles.
  • Headlamps are a must-carry item.
  • No need for any water purification - there are plenty of fill-up points along the way.
  • You can park right at the South Kaibab trailhead - don't do what we did and park at the visitor's center then walk an extra ~2 miles.
  • An early start really helps. Getting on the trail by 4:30 or 5:00 AM would be ideal
  • Big, dorky hats are great. Wear one and love it.
  • Probably you won't need any warm gear beyond a thin long-sleeve shirt like a Patagonia Capilene 1. As long as you're moving, temps didn't get cold for any of us to want more than that. Of course, weather varies every year, so make prudent decisions for your forecast.
  • Campground reservations at the canyon fill up fast, so get them early. There are also some doable options outside the park by a few miles.
  • The drive from San Francisco is doable, but definitely not the most scenic. If you're crunched for time, consider flying to Vegas and driving from there.
  • It should go without saying, but carry very little. Nobody in our group had a pack larger than about 16L, and most people carried 2-3L of water at a time.

Venice Carnevale

Venice waterfront at sunsetIt's been some time since I traveled solely for the purpose of seeing a new place. Over the past few years, nearly all of my non-work trips have been to play in ultimate frisbee tournaments in admittedly spectacular places like Waimanalo, Sarasota, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

My trip to Venice was something else entirely - travel for the sake of having the privilege of simply being in a new place for a while and seeing the best it has to offer. I wasn't supposed to spend a whole 11 days there, but sometimes you book your return flight for the wrong Monday and find yourself scrambling to find accommodation just a week before departure. Luckily, my college roommate Chris was on spring break the same week and decided to join me.

Venetian sunsetI touched down Euro-less at Venice Marco Polo airport and after wrangling some cash from an ATM that spoke only Italian, made my way to the boat stop. This trudging vessel took its time getting there, but after a little more than an hour, I disembarked at the San Zaccaria stop and attempted to make my way to the hostel where I was staying until Chris arrived. Stepping into a strange place is becoming one of my favorite feelings. It's like taking an evolutionary step backwards, where you run mostly on instincts and senses that modern life too often dulls. This displacement can be mildly terrifying, but it's a jolt we all need more often than we realize.

Venice in the winter is surprisingly cold, and I ended many days with clumsy, numb fingers but plenty of photos of the fantastic costumes and gorgeous city. During my first few days, the Carnevale had not officially started, and although the city was getting its act together for the influx of tourists, the streets were pleasantly empty. After finishing my work for the day, I headed out those nights to wander and discover.

Bridge reflection in a canalTo me, this was the best part of Venice. You might walk through San Marco square or over the Rialto bridge, then minutes later find yourself on an abandoned street lit dimly but for the glow of some charming cafe or pizzeria. Several nights, Chris and I frequented Campo Santa Margherita, where we found a self-styled speakeasy serving classic American cocktails, many with an Italian twist. Despite being the only known place to have a drink after 9:30 PM, Campo Santa Margherita was predominantly Italians, and we found it welcoming and relaxing. Venice is definitely not known for its nightlife.

Per San MarcoThe Carnevale in Venice is less about the till-dawn parties a la Rio de Janeiro as it is about upholding a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Scores of dedicated participants don elaborate costumes and custom-made masks to roam the streets and pose for photographers and tourists throughout the week and especially on the weekends. I became captivated by the duality of the costume and the person wearing it - with most of the top-notch costumes, the only exposed area to define the creature as human were the eyes. After the streets of London, where passerby do not make eye contact with one another, this was a startling phenomenon.

Carnevale costumesCarnevale costumesCarnevale costumesThe week passed mostly on the inside of cafes or our rented apartment on the far west end of the city. I was working remotely, and Chris was completing work for his master's program and startup. We ventured out some late afternoons or evenings to eat, drink, or take photos, but mostly the weekdays were a chance for immersion in the Venetian culture. The city has a great pride in its history, and just walking around the city, you sense the gravitas of a place that was once the center of the developed world. This sentiment must steel the Venetians and their city against the onslaught of tourists and the accompanying pressures to convert every ground-floor door into a gift shop. For this, I commend the Venetians mightily.

Mosaic on Basilica San MarcoDuring the second weekend, the streets swarmed with a crush of tourists those narrow alleys were clearly were not designed to handle. Moving feet could take minutes at critical choke-points, and if the weather hadn't been pleasantly north of freezing with a crisp, blue sky overhead, I might have abandoned them entirely. I will, however, cop to spending half of Saturday in the original location of Cafe del Dodge, which also happened to be my favorite cafe in downtown Palo Alto while I was at Stanford. A TV in the corner was even showing a homemade documentary about the opening of their shop in Palo Alto.Crowds at Rialto BridgeOn Sunday, Chris left to catch an early flight and I packed my things and found a cheap hotel with a rock-hard bed near the bus station for my last night in town. I then loaded up my small backpack and allowed myself to be swept away with the crowds - there wasn't another option, actually - and drifted from place to place throughout the day snapping photos.

Bridge frames two gondolasOn this final day, I finally bought a mask after making sure that it was made locally, not in China. This is a big deal to Venetians, and rightfully so - the plastic knockoffs have encroached on the craftsmanship of a genuine Venetian Carnevale mask, and they are a cheap imitation at best.

Gondolier at sunsetThe sunset that evening glowed orange and red, and I found a long water taxi dock and photographed a miraculous sunset. It was the perfect way to cap off my first-ever trip to Italy - but you can bet I'll be back just as soon as I can.

For the whole album of photos, click here.