The very unofficial Grand Canyon Challenge: To hike from the rim down to the Colorado River, up the other rim, turn around and hike all the way back. 77 km (48 miles) and 3,170 meters (10,400 ft) in elevation gain. Sure, lots of people can do that. But can you do it in 24 hours or less? That’s the challenge! Anyhow, here’s the story of my hike…
When you arrive at trailheads along the Grand Canyon rim you will see posters saying “Do not attempt to hike from to the rim to the river and back in one day!”. The reasons of course are the long distances, the change in elevation, high canyon temperatures, low humidity, and the steepness of the trails. The posters then go on stating the the typical rescuees in Grand Canyon are males between 18 and 40 who have overexerted themselves. What they are basically saying is “Don’t be a douche! It will be really embarrassing for you when we have to carry you out on a mule train.”. OK, OK, message taken!
The first time I went hiking in the Grand Canyon, back in 2006, I really wanted to hike down to the river and back, but I decided to heed the warnings and settled for hiking halfway down the Bright Angel Trail (South Rim), down to the middle plateau and back. Still, the hike took me a good 6 hours, and I must admit that it was somewhat strenuous. All in all I was glad that I heeded the warnings.
A couple of years later, in 2009, I met a German backpacker, Christian, in Sequoia National Park in California. He told me that he had just completed this very unofficial challenge to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim in less than 24 hours. Remembering my own first hike in the Grand Canyon in 2006, my first thought was “That sounds kinda foolish. Why would anyone want to do that to themselves.”. But as my vacation came to an end and I returned back home I couldn’t stop but thinking about this hike. The more I thought about it my sentiment changed from “hey, that’s just stupid” to “hmm, wonder if I could do that…”. By the time I started planning my next vacation I had decided: I was going for a solo attempt on the 24 hour Grand Canyon Challenge!
Planning and preparations
I started by reading other peoples trail journals online. Their experiences, what gear they used, food, which route and how long did it take them etc. I decided to go for the Bright Angel/North Kaibab route. 77 km (48 miles) round-trip and 3,170 meters (10,400ft) in total elevation gain.
To attempt the rim-to-rim-to-rim in 24 hours you should be sure to be in decent shape. However, a ultra hike like this is kinda like a marathon in that it actually breaks your body down. You don’t practice by going the full distance. You practice on shorter distances to make sure that you can handle all aspects and conditions that you are likely to encounter, up to the point when you feel confident that you can handle it – all the way. Then go for it! I have been hiking and skiing in the mountains ever since i was a kid, and try to stay in shape by running 3 times a week, so I hoped that I would be in good shape for the hike…
Then there is equipment and food. Shelter and sleeping gear is not an issue of course, except for maybe an emergency shelter. After all, you will be hiking all the time. But, unless you are really, really fast (about 16 hours or less) parts of the hike will be during darkness. Depending on the time of the year, your gear has to handle the cool temperature on the rims, the scorching sun and the heat down in the canyon, as well as high winds. So what about rain or snow? You are only hiking for 24 hours. If rain or snow, or even worse – lightning, is expected I simply wouldn’t go hiking that day. And as always, go as light as you can, but no lighter than that (right…!). I decided to do the hike in early May and this is the key equipment is used:
- Nike ACG hiking shoes
- Hiking pants – not shorts!
- Wide brim hat – actually a Grand Canyon Stetson
- T-shirt – should have taken a long sleeve
- Lowe windbreaker jacket
- Petzl Tikka Plus LED headlamp
- 25 liter Haglöfs backpack
- Nokia 5800 – combined cell phone, camera and GPS
Remember to always try out, and break in your gear, especially shoes, before going on a hike like this.
When it came to food I ended up listening to the people saying that you should drink a lot of water, at least 1 liter per hour, and that you can easily burn 6,000 to 8,000 calories on a hike like this and that you should bring and eat as much as possible. As I will explain later I found this to be poor advice. Still, that’s the advice I followed and I ended up bringing some 5,500 calories in food:
- 3 bottles of Gatorade
- 3 cans of Coke
- 4 bananas
- 2 small bags of Lay’s Classic potato chips
- 1 pack of Jack Link’s jerky
- 1 box of Ritz crackers
- 10 energy bars
- 1 pack of soft baked chocolate chunk cookies
In addition I carried 2 x 1 liter plastic bottles for water (refills are available along the trail).
I arrived at Grand Canyon’s south rim on May 09th of 2010. As always during spring, summer and fall it’s very difficult to find lodging or camping in the National Park unless you make reservations weeks or months in advance. I therefore ended up camping in the National Forest, just about a mile down from the south entrance. Camping at large and always available.
I got up at 03:00 on the 10th. Packed up my stuff and drove to the Bright Angel trailhead. My goal was to do the hike in 20 hours. At 04:00 I put the backpack on, locked the car and headed over the rim. As I was hiking solo I also left a note on the dashboard saying that I was hiking north rim and back, and that I would be back by midnight. Just in case I should have an accident.
This was a moonless night, and when I started out it was pretty much pitch black and I had to use my headlamp. But already within an hour it was bright enough to put my headlamp back in the backpack. As I headed down the switchbacks I began to follow the advice I had picked up about hydration and nutrition: “Dehydration and fatigue is dangerous. Drink lots of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Eat all the time, even if you don’t feel hungry.” And so I did. After about 2 hours the results began to manifest themselves. A loose stomach. Fortunately there were restrooms along the trail which I visited to set things straight… I also quit drinking and eating for a period, and slowly, slowly my stomach settled. Lesson learned: Thirst and hunger are the results of millions of years of evolution. When your body needs water you get thirsty. When your body needs energy you get hungry. Don’t overdo it.
I soldiered on past Indian Gardens and by 07:45 I reached the bridge over the Colorado River. I stopped by the Ranger station at Phantom Ranch to fill water and then headed up to Cottonwood campground. Lots of overnight hikers down in the canyon. I didn’t expect to see a lot of people after leaving Cottonwood because the facilities and road to the north rim were still closed. I turned out however that there were several trail and maintenance crews working along the trail, as well as the occasional off duty Ranger hiking down the north rim. Significantly less crowded than the south rim, but I would pass someone every hour or so. The trail up the north rim was an airy experience. Several stretches of the trail is carved into vertical cliff walls. High drop offs and no rails means that this may not be a trail for people with vertigo.
I reached the north rim just before 14:00 and knew that I didn’t have the time to hang around if I should make it back to the south rim by midnight. I took my shoes off to let my feet get some air, ate and drank a bit, and enjoyed the scenery. 15 minutes later I was all packed up and heading back down the switchbacks.
I quickly started to feel the mileage in my feet. Up until the north rim everything had been swell, but now a burning sensation was felt under my feet – blisters. The blisters got more painful and numerous as I descended down the switchbacks. By the time I reached Cottonwood my feet were so sore that that it didn’t matter if I tried to avoid putting pressure on them or not. It actually made everything a bit easier! Just take the pain and soldier on!
Down the Bright Angel Canyon I was faced with another challenge as strong and hot afternoon winds were blowing through the canyon. I almost lost my hat a couple of times and seem to remember that I also swallowed quite a bit of sand. Fortunately the wind subsided as I approached Phantom Ranch.
I crossed the suspension bridge over the Columbia River at about 20:00 and by that time the sun had already set. A short while later my headlamp had to come back on. Now I also began feeling the shear duration of the hike in my body. Muscles stiffening and joints aching. And then the fatigue. Coming up past Indian Garden I was re-energized by spotting other hikers with flashlights making their way up the switchbacks. My morale slowly started to fade again when the lights disappeared and I realized that they were way ahead of me and that I still had a couple of hours to go to reach the rim.
Going up the switchbacks my body was aching all over. At one point I even started wondering “Can this actually be dangerous? What if I have undiagnosed heart condition? What and if suddenly just drop to the ground?”. Obviously I didn’t have a heart condition. At least I didn’t drop to the ground 🙂
Then I started thinking about the poster up at the rim warning people about exhaustion and the picture of this guy. I said to myself: “Damn it! I’m not going to be their next poster boy! I’m going up to the rim!” I began hiking again and soon I found my rhythm: Hike one switchback, take sip of water, rest for 2 minutes, then the next switchback. It worked!
30 minutes past midnight I finally toppled over the south rim onto the plateau and the cool air blew towards me. And, it was like flicking a switch! Suddenly I was wide awake and re-energized.
I wasn’t sure if anyone had paid attention to the note I had put on the dashboard saying that I would be back by midnight, but just in case someone did I wanted to get back as soon as possible. I limped over to my car and just as I opened the door I noticed a Ranger pick-up truck coming down the road. It slowed down just as it passed me, just as if they wanted to check my car in particular, then accelerated away. I guess someone actually had noticed the note on the dashboard, and that I returned just in the nick of time! I then threw my backpack in the trunk, carefully removed my shoes and put on some sandals. I slid into the driver’s seat, popped a can of coke and smiled.
48 miles in 20.5 hours. I MADE IT!
I spent the next few days limping around. Except for the blisters though my body was quite well already after a day or two. So, did I learn anything from this hike? Except for the obvious that I was able to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim in under 24 hours, I’ve learned not to overdo hydration and nutrition. The human body is an amazing piece of machinery. Always make sure to have enough water and food available, but don’t force it upon yourself. Thirst and hunger are the results of millions of years of evolution, and it works!
I brought more than 5,000 calories worth of food on my hike. At 82kg (180lb) it may well be that I burned off even more than that. But under no circumstances is it necessary nor realistic for normally healthy people to consume that much food on such a short trip. I carried half of the food back out with me! Bring calorie dense foods that you like. Banana, potato chips, chocolate chunks, jerky, Coke and Gatorade worked for me. Crackers and protein bars did not. 2,000-3,000 calories a day should be enough for most people. When I hiked the John Muir Trail the following year, 222 miles in two weeks, I ate less than 2,000 calories daily and lost only 2kg (4lb).
The gear worked out fine. If I ever were to do this hike again I would probably only make smaller adjustments, like wearing a long sleeve shirt instead of a T-shirt and so on. And I would bring a decent hiking camera, like the Canon S95 I have now. I only carried my Nokia cell phone camera, not the best camera in the world, and I wished that I had put some more effort into taking pictures. But most importantly: Travel light!
I also experienced firsthand that this hike is indeed a challenge! But mostly physically. Sure, the hike will also put a strain on you psyche, but look at it this way: Once you hike down there you have no way but to hike back up. As the north rim was closed I had no other option but to finish what I started. Under no circumstances was I going to end up as Grand Canyon’s next poster boy! That was all the motivation I ever needed.
So, would I ever do it again? Well, I don’t know about that… I think this is one of those “been there, done that” hikes. But never say never, right?! I sure am glad that I did it the first time around, though! The joy of achievement it makes it well worth it. At least for me it did.
Map of the Bright Angel/North Kaibab route
View Bright Angel/North Kaibab in a larger map