A Winter Grand Canyon Pilgrimage

Standing at the top of the Canyon and peering down, it’s easy to realize that what you’re about to do is actually pretty stupid– descending a vertical mile into an unknown world, a hostile environment full of cliffs, soaring temperatures, and unknowns. It’ll be freezing at night, potentially snowing. And you’ll have to get yourself back out and up that vertical mile, whatever happens. This is not “just another ultra”.
So on Friday night as Tara and I stared into the massive canyon on the eve of our run, yeah, we were a little bit anxious.

The Canyon

Despite all of this, The “Rim to Rim to Rim” run is a fairly popular 50 mile-ish ultra adventure, which almost lets us forget how insane it is. Each year, lots of people head out, down the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, over to Phantom Ranch, up to the top of the North Rim and then all the way back in a day. And we were one of those groups, in 2013, when we completed it for the first time, not really realizing the full extent of what we were doing.
This time, the extra excitement that came with attempting the run in winter helped us face the reality of the slight level of insanity of this mission. We tried to get detailed beta on the North Rim conditions through the park, but no one could say what it would bring. All we knew, was that the road to the North Rim was closed, and there were no rangers there, so we had no options to exit. To fend off the mild anxiety, we pulled out all the safety stops. We rented a satellite phone and tested it the night before, we had an emergency contact and an expected “you should hear from us” time, we packed a full hiking-style setup of winter clothing, first aid kit, and the most intense lightweight running crampons. And, we had done the run before… But even still, staring into that canyon, and speaking with tourists who raved about how hard it is to make it to Phantom Ranch, kept our perspective of the risk in check.

Not at all anxious here

At 6:17 am we stepped foot over the caution tape, and onto the icy Bright Angel trail, with a sky full of bright stars and the most beautiful moon illuminating the South Rim walls around us. And within minutes, we were just running, and our steps overcame any of those existing fears.

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The sun came up within what seemed like 15 minutes, and with it, the ice faded from below our feet. The South Rim welcomed us with its beautiful deep greens and oranges, something everyone has to see in their lifetime. We made it all the way to Phantom Ranch before 8am, and were treated to the most amazing, quiet Bright Angel trail given the time of year. We met a few hikers, and stopped to fully change. The canyon was hot already!
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By the time we entered The Box, the Canyon had already heated up to what felt like Vancouver peak summer temperatures. We were 10 miles from the North Rim, and for the next 20 miles, we saw only two other souls. We kept on running, toward a side of the Canyon with zero idea of what to expect…
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We had heard that water may be an issue, with all of the taps turned off on both South and North Rims, but we were treated to several icy-cold waterfalls on our way up the North Rim. This side of the Canyon was a whole new world. Canyon walls became a lush dark green, pine trees appeared, and we were suddenly immersed in snow, post-holing our way up. The sun was beating down as we climbed our way up in a pristine silence, about 5800 feet. Upon finally reaching the top, we saw no one to help us celebrate, just a sign, and an abandoned cabin.

Snowy North Rim

Heading back down the snowy switchbacks was a mixture of fun and painful post-holing, and we were out of the North Rim’s desolate, snowy slopes within an hour. Back in The Box, the challenge of the North Rim in the past, we felt like we had dodged a major obstacle in the day. Soon, the relative ease of running down the final snow-free switchbacks was quickly replaced with an unexpected factor– a most menacing heat as we dropped back into the Canyon, on our start back to the South Rim.

Crazy spires

The rest of the adventure was fairly routine– Tara puked at the usual spot, Phantom Ranch, she carried on like a champion, we met a few hikers who thought we were nuts, and then we enjoyed the most beautiful of sunsets and starry nights as we climbed the final switchbacks out of the Canyon, back under the caution tape, and into a final hug. Another successful voyage permitted.

Beautiful South Rim sunset

Grand Canyon, we’ll be back some time again. There is simply nothing quite like you.

3 thoughts on “A Winter Grand Canyon Pilgrimage

    • There’s nothing like it Rick! That feeling of going down into its depths…

      You will have so much fun!

      PS– Will you have a beer at the Bright Angel Lodge for us? We wanted to shower first, understandably, so we didn’t give it a go…

      • I will definitely have a beer or two for you … Either at Bright Angel or El Tovar which also has a nice lounge and patio which I have “frequented” before! At the start … Going down to Phantom, were you mainly running, and if so, roughly how fast?

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