Running the canyon.alt

Far away from the corridor trails and over-populated tourist area of the Grand Canyon is the wild and remote Bass Trails. You get here by a 30 mile and 2 hour drive on roads passable only via 4x4 high clearance vehicles. The trail is rugged single track at best and river bed drainage at worst. Roughly 42 miles and 11,000’ of elevation gain await. There is no bridge, to run from the south rim to north rim and back, you swim the 46 degree Colorado River twice. The trailhead and trail it’s self is simply remote, rugged and wild.

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I wanted to pull this off as a quick 2 day trip to avoid being away from the family for too long. Morning flight to Vegas, rent a truck, drive to trailhead, sleep, run the trail, head back for a red-eye flight. The speed record is 12 hours, 20 minutes. I had two GPS units to help keep me on the rustic and wild trail but I kept finding myself slightly off the route. The canyon can bounce GPS locations off the walls during steep descents and while I was never “lost” I did lose 15-20 minutes of backtracking and second guessing the route. In the light of a headlamp, with some of the spots so thick with vegetation around the trail, it was just slow going.

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I arrived at the Colorado River right at dawn and an unfortunate 30 minutes behind my planned time. I quickly downclimbed the first access to a very small beach just west of the Bass Rapids. I quickly pulled out my emergency floatation and dry bags and filled them with air. My plan was to get my safety set up and then just go. The water was moving at swift pace just past half way but was surprisingly calm the first half of the swim and the last 10-15 meters. I hit the beach I was aiming for at the early possible spot as I didn’t drift as far as I thought I would. Maybe it was adrenaline but the water wasn’t as cold as I imagined, I just attacked it. I tore off the wetsuit upper and quickly got into my hydration vest and started running.

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I ran across the river plateau and then 500’ up a ridge and back down to gain access to the Shinumo Creek. The views of the river at sunrise were spectacular. This section is some faint trails and some just running up the creek drainage. My GPS didn’t update my location until I had already passed the turn off to climb the canyon walls and I found myself running down the white creek drainage. This is a variation of the route that I took because of obvious cairns but longer, harder and mostly off trail. I exited back to the main route via a tough 4th class climb. It was really fun but I had to have lost 30 minutes of time taking this route and that exit point. Taking the correct route on the way back was 10x easier and more runnable. Live and learn.

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I took at least 4 wrong turns which I would quickly realize but lose maybe 5 minutes each time. Those add up and the trouble with mile 2 and the White Creek variation made the speed record unlikely. I couldn’t have another route finding issue. The trail was great for a while and I was able to cruise before it became a creek bed again. I got less than 100 yards off trail but in my attempt to just go straight up I encountered some rough vegetation and cactus. It ended up being 100 yards of Barkley if you had to go over thick and razor sharp vegetation. I probably lost 15 minutes and ended up cut up pretty badly. This was definitely the epic adventure I wanted but as I finally reached the trail again it was clear I had lost too much time. The views of these little side canyons and giant cliffs were just unreal. Special.

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My goal was a 6 hour Rim-to-Rim time with 6:30 as a hard cut off if I was falling behind. At 6 hours and 22 minutes, I still had a mile to go. While this part of the trail was perhaps the best maintained part of the entire route, I wasn’t going to get the record and this was now just a fun run. I decided to turn around and just try to make my flight vs. finishing the whole route.

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I filled my 1.5 liter hydration pack and took off. It ended up being much warmer than forecasted, so I took off my long sleeve shirt and opted for some more vegetation cuts vs. overheating. My arms and legs look like I lost a fight to a dozen baby mountain lions. Scratches literally everywhere. It was so hot I ran out of water before reaching the river. The Cottonwood trees turning yellow around the creeks were stunning.

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The return trip across the river was the most fun of the day. I swam about 200 yards down river along the southern banks/rocks to find a better exit climb and because it was fun. The initial shock of the cold wore off fast for me and the wetsuit upper kept me good to go. I did go a little too far down and my route back the the true South Bass Trail involved some pretty rad climbing on the cliffs above the river which was also super fun but very slow going.

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Between the White Creek variation, 5-6 small wrong turns and the long river exit climb, I was simply so late it didn’t matter, I decided to just have a leisurely stroll up the south rim at sunset. It was incredibly disapointing to loose hours due to routefinding. My body felt descent and I was never wildly off route other than White Creek, so just frustrating in the sense of a speed attempt. That said, there is no bad day in the Grand Canyon.

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The route is 42 miles. I turned around a mile before the north rim, my watch died a mile before the south rim and my total mileage still said 42. So I went at minimum 3 extra miles, all of which were not easy trail miles but cactus laiden drainages, sidehills and straight up climbing. I had filled up my 1.5 liter pack at the Colorado River but still ran out before the rim. My water and nutrition had been off all day due to the route issues and wamer than expected temps. I reached the rim and the real adventure began.

I had left my key fob on the wheel. I wanted to take no chance it got ruined in the Colorado crossings and this trailhead can go weeks without humans. My key was gone. I’ve heard of animals eating wires and disabling cars at trailheads, it’s even happened to me this year, but I’ve never heard of one deciding to make a chew toy out of a key fob. I spent an hour trying to find it. No dice. I was low on food, water and warm clothes and it was already near freezing. No one would be coming for days. Time to figure this out on my own.

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First, I made the decision to try and break in my car. $100 insurance deductible for the window as was worth food, water and warm clothes. I could survive just fine in the truck and try and find my keys in the light of morning. No dice. I had only rocks and the log above with a spike through it. Neither did anthing other than scrape the shatter proof windows no matter how hard I hit that window. I am against hitting my SPOT tracker SOS (a helicopter will come pick me up) at all costs unless it is truly the last option. So I decided to walk/hike/jog the 5 miles to the ruins of the old park ranger station to see if water and blankets were there.

The building is empty. Can’t stay here. It’s another 6 miles to the small shack where the Havasupai Indians have a gate across the land for the entrance fee. At 12:45am I knocked on the door. I could hear snoring through the door but no one stirred no matter how hard I knocked or spoke. The door was slightly ajar, so I went in. Even when my headlamp shone on them, they stayed sleeping soundly. I recognized them from when I passed through the gate the previous night. I didn’t want to startle them, so I sat down on the floor of the cabin, heated by a wood stove and chilled out until someone woke up.

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An hour later, Fletch woke up to put wood in the fire. I told him my situation and he said I could sleep there and gave me some blankets. He turned on a generator and put on a Ziggy Marley tribute video. We sang along to music, ate frozen bananas and drank whiskey until 5am. The three guys in that cabin were simply amazing and I view them as friends now. They offered to drive me back to the trailhead in the morning and see if we could find the keys.

Rap, who is by trade a tracker and guide who leads hunts, speculated the animal who took my key fob may have moved it further inside the under carriage of the vehicle. Sure enough, on top of a harness, 6 inches above the wheel well was my key fob. Little teeth marks in the rubber. I was overjoyed to not have to figure out a rescue for this vehicle at a trailhead so remote only a few specialized services could have retrived it. I got everyone’s address and asked what they could use (everything from a pre-paid phone to McDonalds gift cards) so I could repay them with a care package for their kindness when I returned home.

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I got all the adventure I could handle on this trip and more. Swimming rivers, cactus attacks, climbing walls, dancing to Ziggy at 4am and spending the morning with the Havasupai in their canyon. 54 total miles. I’m bummed I didn’t make it all the way to the north rim as this would have been only the 2nd known solo run across this route in one day (backpackers have done this solo but taking shelter, food and taking days is a different sport). I’m bummed route finding was poor and I fell completely short of my goal. I’ve added up the time I feel I lost at each major backtrack and definitely think I would’ve gone sub 13 with a very legit shot at 12:20.

I try and learn from failure. One thing I have realized is that while I am not elite, I am kind. And if arrogance is the price of elite, I’m good with my badass adventurous life being regionally good. The one person I am not kind to is myself. For me, the only way to have a successful day was to break the record. A record on one of the most remote and difficult trails in the country, held by 3 of the most elite professional ultra trail runners alive. I have to learn to be more kind to myself and my expectations.

I’m also proud of how I handled adversity all day. Nothing went right. Not a single thing and I just rolled with the punches. I didn’t lose hope with losing time, I just kept grinding. When I was faced with having to get physically hurt (cactus and desert shrubs while off trail) I took it like a man and did what I needed to do. When things got dire, I figured out plan after plan until it worked out without having to hit the nuclear option of using my SPOT rescue. I am not elite, not a drop of elite blood runs in my viens, but I am tough as f*&^% and the one thing I will never lack is guts.