I’m working through grad school right now, and the covid-induced remote learning environment makes everything harder than it ought to be. After August through November of feeling like all I was doing was staring at a computer all day and fitting in short runs around town on the margins of my schedule, I felt tired and ready for a break by the end of the semester. I’ve got nothing to complain about compared to healthcare workers and other essential workers busting their asses on the front line of this pandemic. But still, there’s a lot going on. For everyone. My preferred method of coping just seems to be turning my brain off every once in a while and putting myself through something difficult in the outdoors. I fully recognize how lucky I am to have the opportunity to travel for an optional trip. I balance these feelings of privilege and guilt with how I believe I’m positively contributing to my community in my personal life and in my work. It’s not perfect, but it’s a purposeful work in progress.
At any rate, plans came together to meet my friends Emily Hawgood and Alexis Crellin in the Moab area in mid-December. I wanted to find some hard goal to tackle before meeting them for a couple days of exploring and pure type 1 fun. I’d had the rim-to-rim-to-rim alternative route in the back of my mind for a couple years, ever since seeing the Coconino Cowboys — Jim Walmsley, Tim Freriks, & Eric Senseman — complete the route in 2018. I started thinking about the idea seriously in mid-November, as a mental break from school work. The more I researched, the more it felt like a good fit for my interests and recent training. I’d been talking with Jason Hardrath off and on for months about meeting up for an adventure, and when I pitched the idea he was game and it seemed our schedules would align.
The R2R2Ralt is an interesting puzzle. It’s roughly the same length (42 miles) and elevation gain (10,500′) as the standard Kaibab route, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of the wide, well-traveled Kaibab trails, the North and South Bass trails the R2R2Ralt covers run the gamut of conditions: flowy and runnable at times, steep with jumbled boulders between rock layers, faint social trails of battered brush in sections of bushwhacking, and sections of no trail at all; just cairns marking the general path up a wash of boulders and sand. The R2R2Ralt also has no bridge across the river, requiring packrafts or swimming to make the crossing. I gravitate towards adventures that lean towards ruggedness and route-finding more than flowy singletrack, and I got hooked.
I think one of the ways I am most truly myself is moving fast through wild places. There’s something about the interplay of hard effort and awe-inspiring scenery that engages my mind and soul in a way I’ve never found elsewhere. I think it has something to do with the satisfaction and happiness that comes from feeling your body moving well and doing what it was made to do. Somehow, moving fast with purpose through these places doesn’t detract from my experience, but rather enhances it.
At their busiest, the Bass trails also see only a small fraction of the standard route’s traffic. For us in mid-December, the North rim had already been closed for the winter and the South rim was not fully accessible by vehicle due to the Havasupai reservation covid closure. Pretty unlikely we’d be seeing anyone else out there. I dug into Google Maps and emailed a ranger at the Grand Canyon backcountry office, though, and figured that we could drive roughly 20 miles before the road met the reservation boundary. From there, we’d need mountain/gravel bikes to cover the remaining 7ish miles to the S Bass trailhead. Got it. Pack the bikes then. I made the mistake of telling the backcountry office what we were planning (they ask for your route on the backcountry camping permit), and once they heard we were not taking packrafts for the river they wouldn’t issue the permit. I pleaded our case by outlining our adventure and swimming experience, and assured them we had PFDs (our drybags floated! …some). After 48 hours of radio silence, they finally issued the permit the day before we started. Kinda makes me think being a fly on the wall for that conversation would have been interesting.
To me, starting/finishing at the S rim makes the most sense for a speed attempt. The south side trails are significantly better than the north side, and it’s a shorter distance to the river. So if you’re taking wetsuits down to the river you get to carry them over a better, shorter trail than the north side. Starting early on the south side also sets you up to cover all of the north side in the daylight — crucial for moving fast between cairns, through the rocky canyons, bushwhacking, etc.
I met Jason and his girlfriend Ashly Winchester (who’s also an ultrarunning badass) in the parking lot of the general store in Tusayan the afternoon before our run. We did a quick gear check, and all agreed that if it was 45 degrees out, it was a cold 45. The wind gusted against our puffy jackets and the overcast skies weighed on our minds. Ashly wanted to see what the FR 328 dirt road looked like that we’d use to access the trailhead, so I drove the rental Silverado and she and Jason followed. I’ve been driving a Prius for the last four years, and you bet your ass I took every opportunity to rally that truck.
At twenty miles we hit the locked gate at the Havasupai reservation boundary. We said goodbyes to Ashly, and Jason climbed in. There was a two-track that Jeep-ers had created running due north on the forest service side of the reservation boundary, and we figured on driving it as far as we could get the truck before getting on the bikes. The track was cut for Jeeps or small trucks, though, not necessarily full-size pickups, and we miiight’ve scratched it a time or two on the overhanging brush. We made a couple miles, slowly navigating the tight clearance between brush and rocks while the sun turned the left side of our world crimson through the trees. We finally came to a short, steep downhill only about 50 yards before the two-track met back up with FR 328 outside of the reservation. I just didn’t feel good about getting the truck back up that hill, especially if it snowed or rained while we were in the canyon and the traction degraded. And the options for getting help to that point, especially while respecting the Havasupai covid closure, were zero bordering on less. So we parked and geared up for the bike ride in the dark, joking quietly about what we’d both inevitably forgotten. There’s always something.
The ride was about six miles, sloping gently uphill to the rim. I was sad we couldn’t navigate that final downhill and drive all the way to the trailhead, but also happy to be on the bike. I wanted adventure, and riding bikes for the final section felt like the appropriate lead-in for the adventure to come. We were surprised to find a vehicle at the campground, but the dust on it implied it hadn’t been touched for days. It was tough to tell if it belonged to hikers in the canyon or had just been abandoned for the winter. Either way, not a soul around besides us as we set up the tent, made up some food, and did a final gear check for the morning. Temps were in the low 30s, but the wind was low and stars shown through clear skies. I opted to sleep in the open rather the tent. Who knows the next time I’d be sleeping on the edge of the Grand Canyon; I wanted to look at the stars for a while before closing my eyes.
I get quite obsessed with these adventures in the weeks leading up to them. My mind latches on to the challenges to overcome, the feelings I’ll get during the effort, and the satisfaction of a trip well done. I used to build these things up so much in my head: once I accomplish this thing, then I’ll be the man I want to be. So much of my self-esteem got wrapped up in my physical ability to move. Of course, once you accomplish the thing you’ve been dreaming about, it’s never enough. You mentally poke holes in it after the fact, find reasons why it wasn’t that good, interesting, worthy to begin with. And you start casting about for the next thing. I’ve gotten better in the last couple years with not investing so much of my self-worth in these trips, but it’s still a work in progress. They’re a double-edged sword for me in some ways; the process of pursuing these endurance adventures has transformed my life for the better in so many ways, yet, they can magnify my feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem in these pernicious, destructive ways that echo across all aspects of my life.
5 a.m. alarm. Fully awake in an instant. It’s an Adventure Day, unlike an average work day there’s never any issue waking up on one of these days. My sleeping bag feels like a lumpy warming oven, with my shoes, layers to start the day with, phone, headlamp, and charging pack all sharing the space with me so as not to freeze overnight. Tape the toes that need it, put on some lube for blisters, eat a couple clif bars for breakfast, walk around and do some dynamic stretches for twenty minutes. Go time!
We start at a relaxed pace, jogging comfortably down the rocky trail in the dark. There’s nearly 5,000 feet of descent to the river and we figured blowing out our quads or turning an ankle in the rocks wasn’t worth the extra seconds gained if we pushed faster. In my mind I’d labeled the north side trail as primitive and slow-going, while the south side trail was supposed to be significantly better. It is, but it’s also impressively rocky in the sections descending between rock layers. There’s a trail, but in the beginning miles it’s much more about hopping from rock to rock than it is flowing smoothly down an open trail. When the trail leaves the canyon bottom to sidehill down the canyon or go up onto a plateau paralleling the canyon the trail improves a ton and becomes open and runnable. This is a theme throughout the route, on both sides of the river.
We caught sight of the river in about an hour and a half, a few minutes behind both the Cowboys’ time and Josh Sanders’s. After watching Jamil Coury’s video of the Cowboys’ — Jim Walmsley, Eric Senseman, & Tim Freriks — 2018 trip, I thought that their 12h 20m time could be beat with a focused effort. They’re obviously world-class athletes, but they just didn’t seem to be in race mode or trying as hard as they’re capable of in the video. I guessed that they went into the day just hoping for a big, fun day in a beautiful place, rather than hoping to do it absolutely as fast as they could. Josh Sanders’s unsupported record of 14h 56s was also in the back of our minds. Josh is a beast of an athlete, but he had significant setbacks on the way to setting that time: he badly rolled an ankle in the first few miles, fell and broke a couple ribs just after crossing the river the first time (oww!), and battled through nausea / puking and a frigid snowstorm on the final climb up to the finish. Freaking burly. Even with the messed up ankle and broken ribs he still set the rim-to-rim single crossing record of 5h 51m. Without those hindrances, he’s obviously capable of a much faster total time. Our goal was to keep the pace focused but comfortable for the first half, see how we stacked up when we hit the north rim, and then see if we could compete for the fastest time on the second half.
We hit the river and made the swim with no problems except I’d not fully tested my drybag and it was too small to fit everything I needed for the north side. Jason threw a couple layers of mine in his bag and we were good to go. From the north side of the river there’s a 700 foot or so ascent to a saddle that leads to Shinumo creek. The descent to the creek is technical and rocky; it’s easy to see how Josh could misstep and break his ribs in a fall. I can’t imagine finishing out the remaining thirty-something miles and like 10k of climbing from there with broken ribs. Josh must be one tough dude.
Over the next few hours we worked our way up the on-again, off-again social trails in Shinumo creek, up rocky switchbacks to flowy, open trail along the Tonto plateau, and followed cairns along the sand-and-rock wash of White creek. Shortly before we climbed out of White creek up to the Redwall plateau grauple started coming down. The weather had been perfect to that point, but the clouds obscuring all terrain a thousand feet above us meant that that wasn’t going to last. Climbing out of White creek to the Redwall plateau was my favorite section of the route, the sense of remoteness and mystery intensified as the trail snaked between cliff bands and the side canyons on the other side of White creek showed partially hidden amphitheaters.
After the Redwall plateau section (again, good runnable trail on the plateau), the route descends into bushwhacking up the bottom of White creek. Enough people have done the route so that there are always faint trails beaten into the brush to follow, but they’re circuitous, occasionally easy to miss, and make for slow goings. We climbed higher and higher to find a few inches of snow on the ground, and the grauple from earlier turned into lightly falling snow. After some seemingly endless switchbacks we hit the trailhead sign at Swamp point, our turnaround spot at the north rim. Though it was snowing, I felt oddly warm on the climb and made it to Swamp point in just a t-shirt and arm sleeves. We took all of 30 seconds at the top for a picture, then hightailed it back down.
As we jogged down we had an honest conversation about how we’d approach the second half. After only the first hour of the day it had become apparent that Jason had too much lingering fatigue from other recent difficult efforts to go as fast as we wanted to. That’s just the nature of team efforts — sometimes you’re the hare, sometimes you’re the anchor. I’ve been an anchor more times than I can count! And if you put us head-to-head on our best days, I’d like to think I could hang…but I’m not totally sure. He’s done some pretty impressive stuff (like the Rainier Infinity Loop).
I felt more than a little ambition to strike off on my own, to see if I could beat the Cowboys’ time. I was having a great day, feeling fully locked-in mentally and physically. But I’d wrestled with the thought for the last few hours and it just wasn’t the right move to split up. The route was too committing and remote. The north rim was closed for the river, and the south rim could only be currently accessed by walking or biking in. Any help would be a long, long ways away, or a very expensive helicopter flight. So ultimately it was a fairly easy decision to stay together.
One aspect about FKTs I like the most is the shift in mindset versus a trail race situation. You’re still moving as fast as possible, but sometimes the tendencies that serve you well in a race where you have a marked course and a safety net work against you on an FKT that requires teamwork and self-sufficiency.
It becomes a question of how well you can push aside ego and work as a team. If you’re the stronger person that day, what sacrifices can you make to help your teammates move faster? And if you’re the slower person — especially if you’re not used to being in that position — can you swallow pride and let your teammates help you? For the team to be as strong as it can be, each person may need to make decisions that go against their ambition or pride. That’s not easy sitting on a warm couch at home. It’s especially difficult when you’re working hard, the weather is bad, and there’s a long way to go.
I felt stupid and unprepared when I realized my drybag was too small to fit all my gear for swimming the river. I hadn’t fully tested the bag, and had to ask Jason to fit stuff in his drybag. In turn, he felt inadequate when we decided I would carry extra weight up the final climb so he could move faster. If we wanted to succeed as a team, we had to be open and honest with each other.
This bond is explicit in rock climbing and mountaineering; a rope symbolizes the trust between partners. For team efforts on more committing or objectively hazardous FKTs, the same mindset applies. Do you want the strongest partner? Or the one you can trust the most? The best partners have both, but given the choice I’d take trust any day. Communicating fears and ambitions alike, working through problems, and accomplishing difficult things together makes for a special bond.
On the descent we quickly realized the way back down White creek would be markedly different than the ascent. Every bush we brushed against was soaking wet or covered in snow, the wind picked up, and we were no longer generating as much body heat as on the climb. We put on our rain shells and extra gloves, but both didn’t have enough layers to be truly comfortable. There was about an hour and a half of heads-down suffering through the cold, shivering, hands frozen, just moving as fast as possible to get to lower terrain out of the snow and wind. I have a vivid memory of passing through what was my favorite section of trail on the ascent just absolutely miserable on the descent, with my hands frozen in sopping wet gloves and the wind tossing grauple against my face. What a difference a couple hours can make.
By the time we got near the turnoff for the Tonto plateau the rain had stopped, and the squall had actually passed through the canyon behind us. The blue skies peeking through holes in the clouds behind us felt so incongruous with what we’d experienced the last couple hours all we could do was laugh at ourselves and keep picking our way down the rocks.
Back at the river, we messed up and didn’t start far enough upriver of the beach where we’d left our gear earlier in the day. There are scattered cliffs on both sides of the river in this section below Bass rapids, and you can only access the river’s edge by dropping a hundred vertical feet or so down one of the narrow gullies that break up the cliffs. We just messed up and didn’t check the map thoroughly enough before committing to the gully. I started the swim first and got about halfway across before it became abundantly clear I wasn’t going to be even close to hitting the small beach where our gear was stashed. Problem is, there’s a solid section of cliff after that beach that leaves no hope for safely getting out of the river. I drifted another hundred yards or so down the river before reaching a point where I thought I could scale the rocks. Jason used to race Ironman triathlons and is a stronger swimmer than I. He said he swam for all he was worth once he saw I was missing the beach, and just barely made the eddy at our beach. He tried to yell down to me, and I tried to yell upstream at him that I was alright as I drifted downstream, but we were out of sight and couldn’t really hear each other.
I scrambled up the rocks as quickly as I could, buoyed by adrenaline and the magical power of having no other choice. I’d unclipped my drybag from my waist where it’d been for the swim, and climbed with it in one hand as long as possible. The rock quickly turned to crumbly class 4 territory though, and I switched the drybag to my teeth so I could use both hands. Not exactly my proudest moment.
I safely gained the trail at the top of the rocks and jogged back upstream to where I could drop into the gully our gear was stashed at the bottom of. Jason was at the river’s edge with our gear, yelling softly to himself as he tried to stretch out cramps in both calves. He’d been dealing with leg cramps since the coldest part of our descent, and the cold river water had sent them into overdrive. Between me shivering and being slightly manic from the botched swim and rock scrambling and Jason suffering through cramps, we were a bit of a junk show for a few minutes. But after five minutes or so Jason pulled through and got his stuff packed. We decided that I would carry the extra weight of his wetsuit in addition to my regular pack up to the finish so he could move as fast as possible. I’d stripped down to get dry clothes on and was a couple minutes behind him in packing. I told him to get going and I would catch up. We’d hit the river at 10h 10m, and were leaving the south side at 10h 40m; in all, the crossing had taken much too long. In my mind, I wanted to leave the river no later than 11 hours elapsed in order to leave three hours to ascend the 7 miles and 4500 feet to the south rim. We were a bit under that worst-case scenario, but the margin was still too tight to feel comfortable.
I caught up to Jason after twenty minutes, as the sunset faded from the river canyon behind me and the terrain settled into darkness. I jumped into the point position in front of Jason, trying my best to keep us on the trail as it wound its way in and out of the wash at the canyon bottom. These twists and turns had seemed so innocuous and easy to navigate in the daylight, but at night the terrain all looks the same and it much easier to lose the trail in the lower miles near the river. We settled into a good rhythm, chatting occasionally but mostly just moving quietly up through the darkness. At 13h 40m elapsed time, 20 minutes before Josh’s 14h record, I finally felt confident that we were close enough to the finish that we were going to come in under that time. Jason gets a lot of credit in my book for fighting through fatigue and several hours of intermittent cramping, never complaining. For my part, the extra weight probably brought my pack to 15 pounds or so for that final climb, more than enough to be noticeable, and by the finish I was thoroughly happy to be done moving. We tagged the trailhead sign at 13h 44m elapsed, hugged it out, and immediately dove into the tent.
Jason and Ashly wanted to drive most or all of the way back to Oregon the next day so Jason could be at work on Monday, so we still needed to ride the bikes back to the truck, retrace the two-track drive, then drive the twenty miles on good dirt road back to town. But for over an hour we just laid in our sleeping bags, mentally and physically recovering from the day. Personally, when we stopped I couldn’t fathom getting on the bikes. That recovery in the tent was absolutely crucial. We laid in the tent, passing salami back and forth and recounting the day. I’d put on my big puffy jacket and hopped in my sleeping bag, but after thirty minutes I was still shivering and couldn’t figure out way. In my frazzled state, I didn’t realize I’d put the puffy on without taking my wind shell off, and it just trapped all the sweat and moisture from the climb against my body. No wonder I couldn’t warm up.
We finally got our heads back on straight enough to contemplate putting on all our layers and going back out into the cold for the bike ride. Like many things in life, thinking about it was worse than the actual action. There was now a couple inches of snow on the ground, and we mostly coasted through the quiet snow for the 40 minutes back to the truck. We carefully retraced the path of the two-track through the trees with the truck, made it back to the FR 328 road without incident, and drove back to Tusayan. Back on the relatively nice dirt road and past the major dangers and obstacles of the day I started to fall asleep at the wheel. But we kept the conversation going to keep us both alert and awake. By the time we got back to town we’d been 21 hours on the move. I dropped Jason off with Ashly, and drove back on FR 328 a couple miles to a wide pull-out where I could park. I laid out a pad and sleeping bag on the back seat, and that, as they say, was all she wrote.