We were excited, yet scared, to start this grand hike – the Grand Canyon hike from the South Rim to North Rim to South Rim again in less than 24 hours – The Death March. I had done the rim-river-rim (16 miles) hike last year and that was extremely tough — R2R2R was thrice that distance.
We started walking down the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim at 6:15 PM. The plan was to hike 2 miles an hour so that we could finish 48 miles in 24 hours. According to our initial plan, we were to start at 5 PM, but we ended up spending a lot of time packing and repacking to make sure that we did not miss anything. It was going to be a long hike and we did not want to risk anything.
As we were heading down, we stopped a lot for various reasons – fixing the headlights, adjusting the hiking poles, checking the straps on the backpack. We spent time taking pictures too since we would run out of daylight soon. We got to a tunnel and stopped there to take some more pictures. We kept walking and came across another one, but did not give it too much attention since it was a shorter one.
Every other hiker we saw was coming back up from their hike and almost everyone who talked to us asked why we were going in so late. The answer, about doing the Death March, gave us a medley of responses, but it was mostly shock and disbelief. I had been pretty sure that people would have heard of this just by the number of articles I had seen online about ultra-runners running the R2R2R in 5-10 hours and at least a couple of posts about doing it as a hike without breaks.
We covered less than a mile in the first hour, but the hike went well – we did not have to stop a lot after the initial hiccups. At one point, one from the group had too many caffeine pills and started hopping down the trail. Her boyfriend shouted out to her ‘This Pokémon has evolved’, and she did not look too pleased with that. The route was almost straightforward – we still had to check if it was still the path or a rivulet’s dry bed a couple of times – and we reached the Colorado River by 12:45 AM. We sat there eating the burgers we got from Jack-in-the-box knowing that that would be the last real food we would get to eat till we reach back to the south rim.
In another half an hour, it was time to split from the group – two of us were doing the rim-rim-rim hike and the other three were doing the rim-river-rim hike – and it would be another 2 miles to Phantom Ranch, and then a 14-mile hike to the North Rim’s Kaibab trailhead.
We did not feel the distance until this point since we had a bigger group and we kept interacting all through the hike. But as we started walking again, I did start to feel that the backpack was a bit too heavy and that the straps were cutting into my shoulders. Venky said, “So, do you want to do the hike again next year?”
I said, “What? Why?”
“I don’t think we will finish this in 24 hours. So it’s not going to be a death march at this pace.”
“Can’t we just go a bit faster? Maybe three miles an hour.”
“I doubt that will be possible with the uphill we have left. Let’s see.”
In 5-minutes after leaving the bridge, we saw a sign that said that we were at Phantom Ranch. We had read the map wrong and assumed that we would have to walk 2 more miles to get there. We felt excited at shaving off the miles without even realizing it – we just had 14 more miles to get to the north rim, now. Excited, we picked up our pace; the next 7-miles would be a straight walk with no uphill or downhill until we got to Cottonwood.
The hiking poles hadn’t started to make a difference for me yet, but Venky said that it was helping him save energy and I should start using it, too. We had gotten a pair of Sendero collapsible hiking poles and they were pretty sturdy for the way they looked. But I felt that moving my arms was tiring me out more than saving me energy, so I decided not to until the uphill hike started. We took a 2-3 minute break every half an hour – to sip some water or eat a Cliff bar or an endurance gel.
We had to take a short detour from the path as a pipe, in the middle of the path, had leaked and water was gushing out, drowning the path ahead. We saw the first fellow-hiker at 6 AM. We had already done a bit of uphill and we had another 6-miles to get to the top and we had just taken a break to eat some peanut butter and have some Gatorade. On the way up, I started using the hiking poles and it was perfect. Me being new to extreme hikes, I felt amazed at how helpful they were. I could walk faster and the strain on my lower back and knees lessened by an immense amount when the poles were set at the right height.
As daylight started to break in, we started to see more hikers, starting their hike from the north side. We saw one guy who wore an R2R2R t-shirt; he asked us if we were going back to the south rim after this, then wished us luck and went on his way. Getting to the North rim was a struggle. This trail was steeper than the bright angel trail and coupled with the weight of the backpacks, it slashed our ascent rate by a lot.
At least we had luck with good weather. It remained a pleasant 60 deg. Fahrenheit till that point. We reached the summit at 9:50 AM and decided to rest there till 10:30 AM. We had a few cans of tuna and chicken breast — which would have made us retch in a normal circumstance, but tasted amazing then — and emptied all of them in that short time.
We started as planned and it felt good walking down. It was going to be an easy walk till Phantom Ranch – either downhill or no slope. But the sun was coming up and I hadn’t accounted for the heat.
Seeing more people gave us a lot more confidence and the hike felt a bit more interesting. That was a couple who were doing the R2R2R hike over 3 days and when we told them that we were doing the R2R2R hike, too, they asked where we were staying. We told them that we were trying to do it in one day without stopping. He was shocked and said that he thought they were the crazy ones until he heard that. We met another couple on the way – they had come to stay at the Phantom Ranch and were doing a short hike till cottonwood and back. When we told them about our hike, the woman looked at us like we were doing something wrong and she disapproved of it. But the guy said that it was awesome. We saw the R2R2R couple again on the way doing when they were taking a break and they shouted to the other hikers: “Make way. Ultra-athletes coming through.” They offered us their tent for us to rest in when they heard that Venky had a bad knee, but we refused since we had to keep going.
But, once we got to cottonwood, we started seeing lesser and lesser number of people until there were none. I had just 3 songs on my phone and I listen to all three of them nine times before I started getting tired of them. I ended up listening to an audio version of Anna Karenina for the next 2 hours after that. Venky, being a marathoner, would walk fast and he would always be ahead of me. When he got to a point where he would lose sight of me, he would wait till I gave him a thumbs up to continue walking. For almost all of the rest of the hike – when we were not resting – this was the only form of communication we had – it was tiring to talk, especially when we were laboring the heavy backpack on our shoulder.
We noticed that we had gotten to the area around the broken pipe – the water was still gushing out into the air and more of the path was under it. We covered as much as possible through the detour but had to finally step on the branches in the water, balancing ourselves, to get to the other side. Venky slipped and in a few seconds, one of his shoes was dripping muddy water. Luckily we had carried an extra pair of shoes – just one pair since both of us had the same shoe size, and the chance of both of us needing felt unlikely – and he switched to that, letting his wet pair hang from his backpack to dry.
The path after that, which ran along a stream had never-ending turns and after each turn, we would think that Phantom Ranch would be right after the next turn – we were wrong every time. At around 6 PM, we finally reached there. Since I had started using the poles, my arms had started to move under the weight of the shoulder straps of the backpack and had started chafing my shoulders.
But this was bearable compared to what was going on down below. It was a bad day to wear boxers instead of sports briefs and my thighs had started to rub against my privates – it felt like a colony of ants were dropped down there and were biting everything in sight with each step I took. Since it would not be decorous of me to add those pictures here, I will refrain from doing that.
We saw the two couples again at Phantom Ranch. When we crossed by the store/restaurant, we started hearing claps and shouts: “24-hours! Way to go! Congrats.”
They offered us some food too, but we politely declined the offer and said our goodbyes. We still had 9-miles to go. This would be the homestretch. This was also time to start using the 6-pack of 5-hour energy bottles that we got. We poured one each into our Gatorade bottles so that we could use the insulin spike over a longer distance. The next destination would be Indian garden.
I told Venky that we would have to go slow since it had started to burn between my legs.
Venky said, “Do you want to use my underwear?”
“Yeah just reverse it and use it. It’ll help.”
“No that’s fine. It’s just a little bit more.”
“Are you sure?”
I walked kept my legs apart and walked like a penguin for a while, but it was really tiring. I finally decided to wear my thermals since that would be tight and hold everything in place, and protect my thighs from each other. As an additional measure, I rolled up my boxers and placed them between my thighs. This greatly reduced the pain while walking and we were on our way again. I felt like I could walk faster, so I had another 5-hour energy bottle and started walking up faster. In a few minutes, started feeling a bit dizzy. Venky thought that I was trying to pick something from the ground and he stopped, but I slowly lowered myself and lied down in the middle of the path. I heard Venky saying that I wouldn’t be able to wake up if I sleep now, but I just wanted 5 more minutes. My heart was beating fast and I needed the break. I felt fresh again in a few more minutes. I got back up, and we started walking again.
Another half an hour, dizziness again, and a few more minutes of sleep. Finally, we decided to take a bigger break at Indian gardens since it wasn’t safe to sleep on the trail. The bag was feeling heavier on our shoulders too over time. Venky got so bugged with it that he dropped it and kicked it a couple of times. I had gotten the skyline 8.0 30-liter backpack and it was good for short, 10-20 mile, hikes but the shoulder straps did not have enough padding for a longer hike like this.
When we got to Indian gardens, we saw 2 green eyes staring at us from the dark. There weren’t anyone else around. We stopped there for 5-minutes watching. The eyes moved left and right. Then down like a cat crouching before pouncing, but a bigger cat. We got a bit closer and found out that it was just a deer. We walked a bit more and saw some benches. I lied down when Venky started refilling his water bottles.
I am not sure if he tried to wake me up, but he finally said that we’d sleep for an hour and then continue. He was a bit worried that the people who had returned after reaching the river would start getting tensed – it had been 28 hours already.
It felt like only a few seconds had passed when Venky started waking me up.
Venky: “Let’s go. We’ve been sleeping for an hour.”
Me (still half-asleep): “Do you remember the deer we saw? We need to wait till the second one shows up.”
Me: “It’s totally safe here. There are other hikers sleeping here. See?”
Me: “Just go ahead. Tell the others that we are okay. I’ll sleep for another 4-hours and meet you up there in the morning.”
Me: “Aah okay, let’s go.”
I re-adjusted my rolled up boxers, picked up my heavy backpack, and we were on our way. Just another four miles more to go. It was a Sunday night and we did not see anyone else on the trail. I wanted to go slow since I was tired and did not want to take a wrong step somewhere and break my ankle or knee. Luckily I remembered to hydrate and avoided getting any cramps throughout the hike. The sleep helped a lot and I was able to go without needing any more stops – slow and steady with the aid of the poles.
At 2 AM I switched on my phone to see if I can get any coverage. I did get 2 bars and was able to talk to the others. I told them that I’d be there in another half an hour. In another 10 minutes, we saw the tunnel. We had seen it on the way down after hiking for 10 minutes and we were thrilled. Ten more minutes and we would be at the top. We had forgotten all about the second tunnel and it took us another 40 minutes to get to there.
I felt awesome to be back in the car. I found a slice of pizza and 2 burgers in the backseat, and gobbled them up within seconds, and was asleep within a few more.
Stats: 50 miles – 33 hours – 20k+ feet of elevation change.
It would take just a couple of days to heal my body, but a lot more to get rid of my new found dislike for cliff bars and endurance gels.