Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Late Nights and Helicopters: A Day (and Night) in the Grand Canyon

The first rays of the morning sun painted a gentle orange on intermittent walls and spires, while the rest of the landscape remained shadowed, still sleeping. I followed five dauntless women down the precipitous trail, steeped in beauty and giddy with the day’s planned adventure.

“This must be ladies’ day for the rim to rim to rim!” The hiker called out as I passed.

“Why, yes! It is!” I replied with enthusiasm.

Clearly springtime in the Grand Canyon sees many an ultrarunner make the double crossing. This was my first time to the park though, and only two miles in I was already blown away by my surroundings, falling off the back end of the group because I couldn’t put my camera away.

Jamie and I had been planning this trip for nearly a year. After two incredible experiences running in Zion, we decided it was time for a new canyon. In many ways, I think we did the progression right. While the red walls of Zion are quite dramatic, the Grand Canyon boasts much of that same drama, and the overall scale is just more, well … grand. A gash in the Earth’s crust so enormous, it’s difficult to comprehend.

We parked the van at the top of the Bright Angel Trailhead and hopped on the shuttle to the South Kaibab where we would begin our run. Betsy ran around the shuttle painting glitter on all our faces while Caren promised not to run too far ahead on the trail. Jenelle, the sandbagger of the group, confessed her fears that she might not make it. Clare, Jamie and I just laughed and wiped the glitter out of our eyes. It was the perfect group of women for a new adventure.

Our awesome group at the top of South Kaibab, minus Jenelle who took the photo.

We got a late start (6:20 A.M.) due to the need for the shuttle, but the weather was glorious. We negotiated the passing of two mule trains (The mule drivers were quite considerate and helpful in allowing us to pass.), and soon had the trail all to ourselves. I had to alternate between staring around, awestruck, and keeping an eye on my footing, as we plummeted through multi-colored layers of rock toward the Colorado River below.

I love the South Kaibab Trail! (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Of course we would never attempt that!

Still loving the South Kaibab (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Jenelle passes the mules.

By 8:00 we’d crossed the bridge and found our way to Phantom Ranch to refill water, taking a little time to use the bathrooms and stash extra gear for the return trip. Although our approach to the run was fairly relaxed, we also knew we couldn’t do too much dawdling. In spite of our 3:00 A.M. wake up call, we would probably be finishing in the dark.

Colorado River

The North Kaibab trail leaves Phantom Ranch along the Bright Angel Creek, bound for the North Rim of the canyon. The first several miles feature steep canyon walls, and a pitch that is quite runnable. The desert was just beginning to assert its warmth while we crisscrossed the creek on several footbridges. The canyon, as the day, lay before us filled with promise and adventure.

(Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Shortly after 9:30, I’d caught up to most of the group when our promising day turned into a very challenging one. I looked up from the trail to see Betsy on the ground, clearly in pain. She’d fallen, and it only took us a few moments to realize that her run was over.

The first plan was for her to limp back to Phantom Ranch with Jenelle’s assistance to seek help at the Ranger Station. After a few attempted steps, it became immediately clear this would not work; she could put absolutely no weight on the leg, injured just below the knee.

We discussed our options: A) One person run back to get help, one person stay with Betsy, and the rest continue? No one felt good about continuing. B) Two people run to get help and everyone else stay? That seemed like the best option. Meanwhile though, Jenelle discovered she had cell service (Miracle! It was the only place in the entire canyon with service!) and was in touch with a ranger named Adam at Phantom Ranch.

Much to Betsy’s dismay, it was decided that a helicopter was probably the only option to get her out of the canyon. Adam needed to assess the situation before making the final call and would walk to our location. The waiting game ensued. Did you know that ultrarunners are not very good at sitting around waiting for help? We called back and offered to run to the ranger station and pick up a litter with which to carry Betsy out. There were five of us, after all, and we’re tough. Apparently that was not an option. (Adam later told us it was the first time he’d ever had such an offer.)

So, we waited.

We dipped our shirts in the creek to keep cool. We wondered about the rest of the day. We worried about Betsy. We spent a good amount of conversation discussing the potential hotness of our impending rescuer. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say our maturity levels regressed several decades. Hysterical giggles are good therapy for sun-drenched brains and worried hearts.

Eventually, finally, after possibly forever, Adam arrived. And guess what?

He was totally hot.

He was also extremely kind, very professional, and made us all feel much better about the eventual outcome of Betsy’s day. He confirmed the need for a helicopter, and reassured us that she would be in safe hands.

Betsy and Hot Adam

It was a strange and difficult thing leaving our friend on the trail at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, (even though she was with probably the hottest ranger in a 1,000 mile radius). We did not yet know the extent of her injury (fractures at the top of the tibia and fibula, it turns out), but we knew she had a rough road ahead.

After losing four hours to the rescue efforts, it seemed that our double crossing was not going to happen. It was 2:00 P.M. and we had only gone 12 miles. We decided to continue up the North Kaibab Trail a few miles to visit Ribbon Falls before turning around to head back to the South Rim.We were just glad Betsy was safe.

We bid farewell to Betsy and Adam, and continued up the trail with heavy hearts. Our day of promise had turned out to be challenging in ways I hadn’t expected. I felt horrible about Betsy, and I also felt disappointed that we wouldn’t complete our goal of the full double crossing. Betsy had tried to get at least some of us to keep running and not wait for Adam, but we just couldn’t do it. I understood how she felt, but we were a team, and it didn’t seem right.

In the weeks since this trip, the rest of us have given much thought and discussion to our running practices - all the times we run alone in the wilderness. There were a few hikers on the trail that day, so had Betsy been alone, she could have still gotten help, but it would have been much more difficult. Not to mention scary. I can't say I'm contemplating giving up running solo in the wilderness, but I've certainly become better already about making sure others know my plans.

Up the North Kaibab, the day was incredible and we had the trail mostly to ourselves. We came quickly to the junction for Ribbon Falls and made the short side trip. I love seeing lushness in the desert, and Ribbon Falls provided just that. Water cascaded over red sandstone landing on a large rock below.  The rock was slick with green moss, surrounded by a pool flanked with trees and shrubs and grass. The day’s heat made splashing in the water the perfect antidote for our stress.

Ribbon Falls

Cooling off with Jamie at Ribbon Falls. (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Back on the trail, and my brain began to churn. Why can’t we do the full crossing? What time might we finish if we just keep going? We’re almost all 100-mile veterans; we know what it’s like to run in the dark. We have headlamps. As we ran up the trail, I quietly voiced these thoughts to Clare to gauge her reaction, and she gave me an encouraging smile and nod of the head. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one thinking these things?

While we’d been waiting for Adam, Jamie and I had promised each other we would return to complete the rim to rim to rim in the fall. There would be other days, we’d said. But now, other thoughts spoke in my head. I took two days off work to be here. We drove 13 hours, and will have to do it again to get home. Just getting here had been a challenge, and the idea of running a few hours in the dark was starting to seem like less of a big deal the more thought I gave it.

Still, I wanted to be sure we were making smart decisions. My husband works in search and rescue, and I am well aware that the two thoughts I’d just had (time taken off work, and time to get to the destination) were often factors in justifying stupid decisions. I did not want to be one of the stupid people, so I thought carefully about how things might play out if we continued all the way to the top of the North Rim.

When we finally discussed it as a group, there actually wasn’t a whole lot of discussion. We were a little uncertain that we had as many calories with us as we would like, but that was the only major concern. We all wanted more miles, and we all had experience with running in the dark. We would absolutely stick together, and that was that. We were going for it!

I can’t explain how incredible I felt after that decision was made. We’d lost the canyon through circumstances no one could control, but now we had it back. Our vanished goal again became attainable. Just knowing that filled me with such energy; I knew we would make it.

The final miles to the top of the North Rim get steeper and more spectacular as you climb. Now that we were on a tight time schedule, I knew we couldn’t mess around too much. I also knew I wanted to breathe in every moment of this run, every view, every hill, every rock formation. Now that we were here, that we’d committed ourselves, I wanted to make sure it was all worth it. 

Jamie and Clare nearing the top of the North Rim.

We made it! Jenelle celebrates the snowy North Rim.

Clare and Jamie: "Uh, we're only halfway?"

We took a few minutes at the top to eat food and let the reality sink in that we were only halfway. It was 4:00 P.M., and time to turn around. We knew it was going to be a long, long day.

Clare, heading back down the North Kaibab Trail.

Clare and Jenelle pause on the descent.

The run back down to Phantom seemed to go by in a flash. The downhill felt easy, and we all tried to make as many miles as possible before darkness set in. We turned on headlamps just a couple miles before the river crossing.

Timing was perfect to grab a few snacks at the Phantom Ranch, as the store re-opened at 8:00 P.M. – exactly when we arrived. Snickers bars and lemonade put everyone in positive spirits as we headed out for the final climb up the Bright Angel Trail.

We’d taken a shuttle in the morning so we could return via this trail, rather than the South Kaibab which we’d taken down. We’d been hoping for different scenery, which made us laugh now. Still, I reveled in the darkness. This was our adventure. This was where we were. At the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the pitch darkness, surrounded by unseen walls, and stars peeking in overhead. I was thrilled!

At the back of the group, which is apparently my comfort zone for some reason, I turned my light off in the middle of the bridge. The river rushed past beneath me, and even though I couldn’t see the canyon walls, I could feel them there. The absence of stars spoke their outlines with the half moon about to rise over the rim. I knew it was going to be a slog up Bright Angel. We’d been awake for 18 hours, I was already exhausted, and we hadn’t even begun climbing. I knew all this, and I simply didn’t care. I still felt triumphant that we’d completed our entire journey. Every tired, sleep-deprived step, was now merely part of the experience.

The climb in darkness was more magical than I could have imagined, although perhaps it was simply part of that same late-night exhaustion that eventually induces hallucinations. 

We saw wildlife everywhere. Frogs sang in these incredible, deep choruses. When we finally spotted our baritone culprits at a creek crossing, they were far too tiny to be making such noise, surely! We saw docile deer, miniature scorpions, furry tarantulas, and one curious ringtail. I kept seeing spiders with glittery eyes, but every time I pointed one out to Jamie or Jenelle, they thought I was joking. I swear they had glitter in their eyes!  (I’m certain daytime hikers all miss the glittery spiders.)

Near midnight, the final miles were completed in a steady power hike. Although I was overwhelmingly happy, I was also far more tired than expected for a 45 mile run.

“I keep thinking,” I confessed to Jamie as I walked behind her, “that if this were Hardrock, I wouldn’t even be halfway.” The desperation in my voice conveyed the thoughts behind that statement: I can’t even imagine running another 55 miles right now, and this isn’t nearly the elevation gain or loss experienced at Hardrock, nor the altitude.  

“I know,” she said. “I’m starting to wonder if I’m cut out for some of the tings on my agenda this year.”

I knew exactly what agenda items she meant, and the glow from my headlamp simply rose and fell in solidarity behind her.

“I love how we have no false words of comfort for each other,” I laughed a moment later.

“There’s really no way to sugar-coat it,” she agreed.

We do have big adventures ahead in our year, but I think the Grand Canyon set the tone. It was training in adversity, as well as perspective. It was tragedy and triumph. It was glorious in so many ways, and an experience with dear friends that I’ll never forget.

And I can hope, in another three months, that 45 miles won’t seem nearly as long.

No one really felt inclined to pose for a group photo in the dark at the end, but this kind of captures how we felt, minus the sheer exhaustion.


  1. That's an incredible story, and so well written. I'm so impressed by the tenacity and spirit you all showed. You should pitch this to a magazine. Nice work!

  2. I loved it. Not the fact that poor Betsy broke her lower leg in two spots, or that with the hot (and single seems to be) ranger she wasn't available (JK), but how y'all stopped, how then y'all continues as well...with same thought raising in your minds. Dealing with adversity is what we learn through our lives - and through our ultrarunning. I don't know which one leads to which as they seem to so intertwine. Way to finish up what you started! What's another few hours after all? The memories and experience you gained are by far worth every minute. Not to mention the grandness of Grand canyon:)

    1. Totally agree about dealing with adversity. Somehow it's part of the beauty of ultrarunning, along with being one of its biggest challenges. I just like that it's the source of learning and growth I guess. Grand memories, indeed.

  3. I agree with Sarah! Completely.

  4. Ditto on Sarah and Olga's words! Really enjoyed this post.

  5. You're on the right track to Hardrock - you can do it! :)

    1. Much appreciated words from a real Hardrocker, Marcy. :) Thanks.

  6. Great post! What a riveting read & the picture are awesome! The only thing I didn't like, of course, was Betsy's injury. Loved how you stuck together and were able to complete the journey in the end. Thanks for sharing! :D

    1. And the pictures can't even do it justice, of course. Trips like these make me wish I had some real photography skills!

  7. Fricking cool. I hope Betsy is doing okay now; what a lucky gal she was to have you all there (and to get such a handsome ranger!)!

    Don't worry, you'll be ready for Hardrock; you were born for that kind of race :)

    1. Betsy is doing well (see my response to Olga's comment below). We were glad we had a decent sized group of level-headed folks. If there hadn't been cell phone reception, the bigger group size (as opposed to just two of us - my original plan with Jamie) would have felt even more important.

  8. p.s. how is Betsy doing these days? Is she in HR or was she set up to pace you? What's the prognosis?

    1. Olga - Betsy is doing really well. She had to cancel all her races which was really hard, but her spirits are good. She is on crutches for six weeks and can't drive because it's her right leg - those things I think are maybe harder to deal with than not running. She is super tough though and has a great perspective on it all.

      She was not in Hardrock this year and wasn't going to pace me so it didn't really affect that race.

  9. I did the rim to rim to rim in May 2010 and we also ended up climbing out Bright Angel at night and the spiders with glittery eyes part reminded me of an interesting part of my experience. Awesome post with awesome pictures! When I was there, we were told that helicopter rescues almost never happen unless it is life or death, so I am glad to hear Betsy was treated well. Did any of you leave a camera with Betsy for some arial shots of the Grand Canyon? That would be awesome! Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Ah HA! So there ARE glittery-eyed spiders! Glad you saw them too. :)Pretty cool, huh? No aerial shots, unfortunately.

  10. Great stuff, and awesome pics! Nice work, all. I hope Betsy is recovering well.

  11. This is fantastic, Chica - I'm envious of your experience and awestruck about your writing. What a wonderful experience, aside from Betsy's situation of course.

    Re: the ranger. You said you were glad to see him, but I'm sure he was just as thrilled to see you. It's probably not every day he gets called to the scene with a group of lovely, fit, talented, adventurous women waiting for him. I'm sure he's probably blogging about you somewhere.

    1. Well, he did say he was glad to get out of the office. I somehow suspect though, that he didn't go back to his ranger buddies and gush about our hotness. Just a guess.

  12. What a great story and photos! Single women may now start feigning injury in order to meet Adam.

  13. What a cool experience with a group of studettes! Beautiful pictures too! You just put the R2R2R on my bucket list. And I have no doubt that you are going to rock Hardrock.

  14. Nice story, and my Mom really appreciates your flattery.

    1. Adam - I was kind of wondering when someone you knew was going to run across this post and point you in our direction. Thanks for all your help out there - it was so nice to feel we were leaving Betsy in trustworthy hands. Also, we've been discussing a care package as a thank you, but haven't yet figured out if we can mail beer to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. (We'll let you know how that works out.)
      And any mother should be proud to have her son described as "extremely kind and very professional." :)