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.

The Trans-Zion Traverse Winter Adventure

I had this urge to do something crazy, so here I am driving to Springdale, Utah, home of Zion National Park, as a massive storm passes through the Western States. My rental car’s windshield wipers can barely keep up with the downpour, and I’m about ready to hit the hazards and pull over.

diredct

Until now, the plan had been to arrive into Springdale, put some sunglasses on, go for a relaxed lunch, and then to start the adventure at 4pm, where I would attempt a double crossing of the Trans Zion traverse into the night sky. My plan had been to travel along the west-east traverse alone through the [beautiful, starry] night, and then pick up my friend Meghan for the return ~49 mile traverse. It was about 3:00 right now and it didn’t look like weather wanted me outside in Zion. We heard reports of huge amounts of rain, thunder, and possibly snow up high, and we didn’t know how that would affect the ridgelines and plateaus. But what else would we do? We were here as pilgrims to Zion!

So we head to an outdoors store to fish for ideas on how to salvage our trip. We find one called The Desert Rat in St. George, it just so happens we can see it off the highway. With pure luck, we get to meet Zion trail hero, the man who pioneered the Trans-Zion route– Bo Beck! It just so happens he owns this store, and we walked in at the right moment. Bo is an incredible help, calling up park ranger friends to check conditions, showing us maps and recent photographs, and giving us facts about which parts will be slower-going and swampy. He gives us the encouragement that parts will be slower, but that we will love it regardless, and it’s exactly the information and ammunition we need to give the traverse a go. Meghan and I decide to wait until the next morning after the evening thunderstorms, and just take it step by step. We take off to Springdale and arrive in the dark, wondering what mysterious beauty surrounds us.

At 4am, the Zion Scenic Drive is still a mystery in the dark. After what seems like 3 hours of shuttling cars to the west and east trailheads, (sadly, it is) we arrive at the park’s western frontier, the Lee Pass trailhead, as hail nails the windshield. Due to self-love, we decide to wait five minutes to see if the hail will give us a break. I enter Bo’s number into my inReach, and try to get comfortable with all the tech gizmos I’m trying out… Craig’s app called RunGo, (which is supposed to give offline GPS-based turn by turn directions) Craig’s Garmin watch, a GoPro… Woah. Not used to this much stuff!

Meghan's green gear jumps out against the rich mud!

Meghan’s green gear jumps out against the rich mud!

The hail takes a pause at 7:30 and we’re finally taking our first steps on the La Verkin Creek trail. Rugged red spires welcome us to the park as we run through and it’s muddy, twisty singletrack underfoot, but that makes it extra exhilarating, taking every bit of balance and coordination. Streams devour our ankles, and we start embracing them, running right through to our calves. Being from BC, this is right up our alley, and we’re pleasantly surprised by the conditions. Intermittent hail comes and goes and Meghan proclaims, “at least hail doesn’t get you wet!”

a nice fast stretch, where are we again? Hop Valley?

a nice fast stretch, where are we again? Hop Valley?

I’m finding myself feeling very optimistic– conditions are similar to our home turf, and Craig’s RunGo app is actually working, announcing all the key turnoffs along the way, (all without data!) and even corrects us as we make a wrong turn. I am so shocked, and pretty excited for how cool his app is!

snow

The morning is filled with rain, hail, clouds, and some sun, and we even get to meet one other human out there, a Colorado runner who is out running to Kolob Arch. I’m having a blast zigzagging through the muddy, open riverbed in Hop Valley, and then encountering runnable snow along the Connector Trail and into Wildcat Canyon, running through pine forests, golden ferns, never-ending terrain that’s constantly morphing before us. Everything is great, and I start to revive the idea of coming back on my own at night. I start to make note of turnoffs and remember “landmarks”, and I get excited that the full plan seems back on track!

holy smokes...

It’s turning out to be a great day!

winter wonderland in Zion

winter wonderland in Zion

We’re making pretty good time until we hit Telephone Canyon, and decide to take that instead of staying on West Rim, which was recommended by a friend. It’s our first ugly postholing of the day, with deep, hard snow up to our calves, on an angled slope, with the trail now invisible except to Meghan’s fine trail eye. She and I take turns leading through the mess, but Meghan takes major leadership, following an invisible trail and emerging looking like a cat attacked her bare shins.

telephone canyon! :@

telephone canyon! :@

I decide I will not take that way back!

Back to running, the West Rim Trail welcomes us into snow-free heaven, opening up to reveal a beautiful red, white, rocky canyon unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Being here on this beautiful ridge, running with such a supportive partner in crime, and given all the storms and the uncertainty about the conditions that tested our dream, all I can feel is a huge sense of gratitude to be here.

... trail porn ...

… trail porn …

As we descend to the canyon floor at the Grotto, I’m feeling more and more excited about my return trip through the Canyons on the way back, wondering what it must feel like to run alone through here at night. Would it be eerie? Beautiful? Exhilerating? Peaceful? I couldn’t wait to find out. It takes us a while to find our next water, but there’s a great campsite spot that offers us forgiveness in the form of tap water.

TP1

Finally we get to do the big climb back out of the canyon, which we’ve been anticipating for quite a while. And it’s on this stretch of the East Rim, just after sunset, where my gut feeling takes a turn. Here the trail becomes rock slabs with guidance from small cairns, and I see that this section could be very tricky at night. Suddenly I get a really bad vibe from my gut, and I start to question my plan. It’s so open, and we’re finding it difficult even with the two of us. Suddenly, the feelings of wonder and excitement about the solo return switch to worry, seriousness, even fear. My gut tells me that the situation– the increased risks I’m sensing, the more complex navigation– crosses the line. I start to feel irresponsible, thinking of my mom worrying about me, of Meghan staying up all night, and that I can’t guarantee every part of the journey anymore. I can’t authentically tell my mom not to worry anymore, because I’m not so sure she shouldn’t. And as soon as I admit this to myself, it’s easy for me to detach and to leave part two behind. I tell Meghan, and we have a hug to celebrate smart decisions.

... trail porn ...

looked like this a bit, but at night.

We complete the west-east traverse, running, postholing and hiking over 50 miles that day, and learning an incredible amount about ourselves, each other, and finding that balance between pushing the envelope and trusting our instincts. On the plane ride home, I’m able to interpret what my gut feeling was telling me: without a crew and in the winter, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was for the increasing risks around me. The risk of getting lost was getting more real, and my original plan of “being visible / chilling in the beautiful canyon / waiting for help” was not viable with the supplies I had. A sweater and gloves is better than nothing, but it wouldn’t have kept me warm enough. A bivvy sack/sleeping bag is my new advice to really enable a great safety plan in a winter night traverse, especially an unsupported one, in a new area, during storms, with more mileage than you’ve ever done before. Oh, retrospect!

I’m so excited to continue to seek this balance in future adventures! And definitely, looking forward to another Zion trip soon…

can't wait to go back here...

until next time Zion!…

Some useful links!