Back in August, I shared a training journey embarked upon by a few students, staff and faculty from the Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University. The goal? Hike the Grand Canyon, rim to rim, in one day. October 1, 2022.
Spoiler alert: we did it! Everyone made it safely out of the canyon on October 1st and we are relatively unscathed as we return to work this Monday morning. It was quite the logistical undertaking for me and my partner in crime ILP Executive Director Kate Rosier. We remain bummed that a few folks who intended to do it with us couldn’t join in the big day and we appreciate all the ASU well-wishers along the way. This all started a year ago with a pie in the sky conversation with some law students during our program’s annual fall break class in Washington D.C. It ended Saturday night when we finally hobbled into Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim.
In the end, we were a party of 13, intentionally broken into 2 groups. The “olds” left the trailhead on the North Rim at 4:37 am and the younger ones began about 90 minutes later. They caught up to us around mile 5 of the descent.
A beautiful dance of lights kicked things off. Imagine hundreds of people scattered across the canyon as far as you can see at various elevations and distances – each wearing a headlamp. Looking for miles out and below into the canyon, a constellations of folks, each on their own unique journey. Flip the headlamp off for a moment, look up into the sky: still more constellations, but now from the brightest of stars. Simultaneously heavenly and eerie. For first timers who do adequate research, you kinda know what’s ahead in the context of both glory and gore, but you don’t really know what’s ahead.
The canyon trails and steps keep going down, down, down. So far that you think you are almost to the bottom and you aren’t even close. Depths that you cannot begin to see or contemplate from the top. Strange pains begin to creep in at different times. The ghosts of many basketball games past comes alive in your left knee occasionally, but not overwhelmingly so. And then something in your right ankle or hip. Just friendly reminders that you are in your 50s, not your 20s.
That brisk morning now converts into a communal striptease as the heat rises. Jackets and gloves off. Fleece smashed into the backpack crushing those crackers and grapes. The big hats come out to shield the sun. Your brow and shins start leaking. The landscape changes with every turn. Remarkable the biodiversity on display. And the indescribable sounds of the canyon. Water. Wind. Your own noises. First conversations with new people. New conversations with your old peeps.
There’s a “resort” at the bottom called Phantom Ranch and that’s the “midpoint” where this hike gets real. A change of socks. A cold lemonade. Fill the water. Have a snack. And then keep moving so you don’t get too stiff. Shortly thereafter, the suspension bridge over the Colorado River and from there on . . . it’s up, up, up. And then up some more. And still up.
One step at a time. Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. My devices showed 76,153 steps at the end of the day. It took a long time. Longer than I had planned or hoped for, as I brought up the rear.
Eventually, the headlamps came back out for the last several (hard) hours. Those twinkling lights that were so beautiful across the morning canyon proved so demoralizing that evening. Those damn headlamps. Up so high above you in the canyon to remind you how much further you still had to go. Same headlamps. Beauty to dread. But still somehow mesmerizing.
By the end, I was completely out of gas. Tank empty. Besides stubborn will and the mentality of old athletes that never quit, most of the credit goes to 2 remarkable people that inspire others everyday: Lori Enlow (our Cherokee wonder woman ultra-marathoner/nurse practioner/motivator) and one of my college roommates Laurie Schlueb (experienced naturalist, guide + wilderness first responder). Everyone should have the privilege of folks like these remarkable women in their corner. They were “in charge” of the olds and we love them so.
The “youngs” were in good hands with an experienced Grand Canyon hiker – one of our ASU alums Mac Stant. When the “youngs” caught up with us a second time later in the afternoon following one of their diversions to see a waterfall, it was the happiest of reunions. Mac was right when observed how rare (and awesome) it was to be with this many Natives together in the Grand Canyon. This hike consisted of folks from Hopi, Navajo, Cherokee, Hawaii, Comanche, Colville, Winnebago, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre. Add to that mix my badass husband from the Arkansas Delta and two WashU college roomies from Missoula (Laurie Schleub) and St. Louis (Jen Moeller) and it was a great group of some of the best humans I have ever known. Collectively this was us: Full hearts. Big smiles. Many laughs. Sore muscles. Blistered feet. Barking quads. Together. Grateful.
Several takeaways. First and foremost, the people. Each and every one of the individuals we encountered were so nice, so encouraging, so present, so grateful to be alive and in this moment in nature. It was a truly infectious positive environment with unbelievably amazing views. Maybe it’s the kind of people that would take on such a challenge, maybe it’s the spirit of the canyon, but there are zero jerks on the Rim to Rim hike.
There are some truly amazing people out there and endlessly fascinating conversations. Want to have your faith restored in humanity? Train up and do this. One of many examples was this amazing fellow from British Columbia – just hiking across the canyon with his bike on his back. We got to observe him in just one of his many cool adventures this year.
Second, training. I didn’t do enough of it. Needed more altitude training and needed many many more steps and stairs. I had remarkably supportive people with me, and I always felt safe, and always knew I would finish, but . . . I almost caught my limit on this one. I need to step up my game considerably if I’m going to keep doing this kind of stuff. It was a great barometer and pulse check.
My watch says I need 97 hours of recovery time after this. 4-5 days sounds about right. And then I feel very motivated to train smarter and better. I don’t feel like this is a bucket list checked as an end game, I feel like this was a really good fire starter. Several of the people on our trip could have gone on for another 20 miles. I admire them. I want to be able to this or something like this again, but finish strong with that kind of pep in my step.
At one point when I looked all haggard in the final 3 mile ascent, a remarkably patient Lori Enlow asked me if I wanted to take a “dirt nap” for about 20 minutes to revive before moving on. I asked her what she meant by that, and apparently in the ultra-marathon world, it’s a thing. A power nap will restore a body and give new life. I shot her a look like she just ate my baby, and then I shook her off. Maybe I should have followed her sage advice. Grand Canyon miles are just different. When you hear someone say it’s only another mile or so, that’s just fake news. Canyon miles are different than regular miles. All hilarious in hindsight.
A few thoughts on gear and other assets for those considering making this journey.
- Socks. Buy really good ones. Smartwool or cotton and take 2-3 pair to change for when your feet get wet. Despite all the time on our feet and all the up and down, I never got a hot spot or a blister. Clip those toenails and take a clipper in your bag in case you missed a spot. I’m amazed with how well my feet held up.
- Shoes. Ditch the hiking boots and get trail runners. I went with Altra brand because I need a wide toe box and a zero-drop but there are many brands to choose from. Get a full size bigger than your normal shoes to take on the downhills. Buy shoe gaiters to keep the dirt and sand out.
- Hydration packs. I went with a lightweight running hydration vest and at one point I went through all 3 liters of water in a short amount of time and had to rely on my angels to give me more water before the next stop with a water station. I’ll probably take 4 liters minimum if I do this again.
- Salt tabs and electrolyte powders that dissolve in your drink. You need them. I could feel a cramp coming on and then go away when I got rebalanced. These are an absolute must. To be fair, I got to a point between these and various snacks and pure exhaustion that I wanted to throw up. But I’m not blaming the salt tabs. They saved me.
- Packing. I took too much food because I thought I’d run out and it weighed me down. It’s an art to take exactly what you need and not an ounce more. (Boy howdy, what a metaphor for life that last sentence was). With more training and more trips like this, this issue will work itself out. Took a jacket and pants that I never pulled out of my pack. Don’t be a hoarder.
- Did I mention the PEOPLE? Find your people. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people that I love who are also willing to do things to push their own limits and be in the moment outside. I know what a true gift this is. They uplift me up and at times, literally talk me up mountains. This is among the greatest gifts I have in this life. In a few contexts, I’m a leader. In so many other contexts like this one, I pull all of my energy from others who freely give of themselves.
Country crooner John Michael Montgomery sums it up perfectly – “Life’s a dance you learn as you go. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.”
And so the question remains . . . what shall we do next?