Rim to Rim. The Grand Adventure.

It’s almost three months later.  I’m literally sitting here pep-talking myself into writing this story, it’s that exhausting. Oddly enough that just makes me want to go again, almost like I need a do-over. I’ll begin by telling you that hiking Rim to Rim in one day is never recommended by the people that work in and around the Grand Canyon. In fact it’s strongly discouraged.  It’s roughly 25 miles across with sever elevation changes. It is approximately 7000 feet down from the North Rim to the floor, and 6000 feet back up the other side. Many hikers who are ill-prepared attempt it with disastrous results. We were all pretty well prepared, though, and among the eight of us, there were only three first timers. My dad has done this same hike four times now since 2002, Jen three times, Nate and I and Jon Lewis now twice. We had been training for months and were very excited to go. We started at 6 am and planned on a 10-11 hour hike time. When we take people that have never been before, starting at 4 am like most Rim to Rim-ers kind of defeats the purpose of showing someone the canyon. They would miss the whole North Rim and then some. We chose June for the large amount of daylight we would have. Also, we hoped it wouldn’t be too hot yet in June. That kind of makes me laugh now. Our group was large, consisting of eight hikers: Jim Curtis (my dad), Jen Curtis (my sister), Derek Baker (Jen’s boyfriend), Nate and I, Bob and Brandon Allan (my uncle and cousin from California), and Jon Lewis (our friend).

The hikers at North Rim. 6am, ready to go.
(L-R Derek Baker, Jen Curtis, Nathan and Rachel Larsen, Bob Allan, Brandon Allan, Jon Lewis, and Jim Curtis)


We had a group of four people to shuttle the cars around and meet us at the South Rim. My mother, as well as my mother and father in law, Chuck and Cheryl Larsen, and my aunt Janet were taking that job. They hiked with us for the first mile and a quarter to a lookout point. We began very slowly, since we had the shuttlers with us. They were just on a nature stroll, and had no interest in hiking the thing in its entirety. They just wanted a taste of each rim. By the time we reached the lookout point my legs were shaking with the effort it took to hold myself back on the steep downgrade. I knew I’d be completely exhausted by the time we reached the bottom if we didn’t pick up the pace to give my quads a break. Jon Lewis, Nate and I decided to jog a little ahead. Well, Jon wasn’t jogging, he was hiking, but his long, quick strides soon left us in the dust.

At the lookout point not far from the top of North Rim


Nate and I at the look out point. You can see the canyon we’ll be hiking behind us.

One first stop was roaring springs, approximately 5 miles down. We all stopped for a quick refuel and water break. We met many hikers there, some coming, some going, and it was fun to chatter about each’s hike and destination. Jon took off ahead of us again.  Nate and I  again made the decision to jog to save our legs. We knew we’d be hiking with the rest of the group after Phantom Ranch, so we weren’t too concerned about staying together as a group at that point. Another two miles and we were at Cottonwood Campground. We were all still feeling fresh and exhilarated.  We then took a mile and half detour to Ribbon falls so anyone who’d never seen it before could behold it’s splendor…..

Ribbon Falls in all it’s glory.

I kind of wish we hadn’t taken that detour, though. Nate and I had both seen it, and we felt like it took the wind out of our sails hiking back to the trail from it. It was with that slight decrease in energy that we began the trek through “The Box”.   This is a 4 mile corridor with 1000′ rock walls on either side. It tends to trap heat in those walls. The trail heats up like a convection oven. It feels endless. We alternated jogging with walking through it, and drank as much as we could.  My muscles started to feel stiff, and I started wishing for the cool air of the little lodge at Phantom Ranch.

The Box

Still smiling (kind of) in The Box

 When we jogged into Phantom Ranch I was worried. We were roughly two-thirds through our hike, but my muscles were already screaming. We got into the little lodge/store thing and found Jon there guzzling ice cold lemonade and refueling. We ate. Our fuel was simple, and I think that really helped us. We chose peanut butter filled pretzel, nuts and freeze dried fruit. Jon said he’d been there for about a half hour. The first thing I noticed about Jon was that he was covered in dried salt. Seriously, white waving lines were all over his hat, his face, his arms and shirt. I’d never seen anyone visibly lose that much salt in their sweat. I asked about his fuel. He said he still had plenty of salt replacement, electrolyte replacement and the like. He was very chipper. He stayed with us while we waited for the others. When they arrived my sister’s boyfriend, Derek came in and laid down on a bench at a table. He just walked in, groaned and laid down. He didn’t rush up to the counter like the rest of us for some lemonade, he didn’t move. Uh-oh.

Refilling water, checking and bandaging blisters at Phantom Ranch. (L-R: Rachel Larsen, Derek Baker, Jen Curtis, Jim Curtis)

We waited for everyone to feel refreshed for another 45 minutes. We discovered you could buy ice there. ICE! Oh man, we bought three big bags to split among our eight packs. As we sat filling our packs with it, a worker came by to check the AC wall unit that was by our table. He said it was 99 degrees inside the building. It took me a second to think that through. If it was 99 degrees inside and it felt heavenly, what is it outside?  Hell. That’s what it was.

Nate and I by the Thermometer outside Phantom Ranch.  it reads 124 degrees. In that bulletin board there is a sign referring to the thermometer that says, “That can’t be right, can it? Yes it is.”

After everyone felt sufficiently fueled and treated we got back on the trail. Jon once again went on ahead. Just outside of Phantom Ranch there is a thermometer, and it was then our hopes for a cooler day in June were dashed. It read 124 degrees. We still had a long way to go. Derek started having some real dehydration issues. His muscles were cramping, and so it was to the music of his grunting and agonized gasping that we continued on.


The trail heading out of Phantom Ranch

Our next landmark was the bridge across the Colorado river. I dreaded that bridge because I remembered what came after it. The hardest part of the hike, that’s what.

On the bridge over the Colorado.

From this point on there are not many pictures. You’ll soon read why. We continued on through what is known as the Devil’s corkscrew. 200′ of winding switchbacks heading steeply up in red hot sand. Sand. Oddly enough, I felt pretty good. We had to stop frequently as poor Derek’s entire back would seize and we’d hear his strained Arrrrrrgh!  To this day whenever we mention the Grand Canyon, he looks at me and makes that crazy grunting, gasping yell. I love it. It was just after the corkscrew that I felt the first symptom of heat exhaustion. Nausea. I  tried not to worry. With each step I felt my vision get more and more unfocused and my mind feel more and more panicked. I quickly assessed my situation. I had plenty of ice water, that wouldn’t be a problem. I needed to rest but stopping so frequently in the hot sun in the corkscrew was not helping. I told Nate I couldn’t stop anymore, and that I felt sick. He told me to go on ahead and find my uncle and cousin. I said, “you’d let your wife wander on alone knowing I’m feeling sick???” He gave me the ‘quit-whining-you’re-fine’ look, and I knew he was right. He could not come with me, he needed to carry Derek’s pack and make sure he was OK. I went on alone for maybe 5 minutes before I heard someone calling my name. Bob and Brandon were resting on a rock on the far side of a creek in the shade. Shade. I was so grateful. Bob was cheerful and chatty. Brandon confided that he was worried about altitude sickness. Altitude,  I thought, didn’t you train? Oh yeah, they’re from California and he trained at sea level. It was around 5 miles from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens campground, and a further 4 miles from there to the top. If he was going to get altitude sickness, his symptoms would be about the same as heat exhaustion and there was really no going back at this point. He shrugged it off. We waited for Jen, Derek, Nate and my dad and continued on to Indian Gardens all together. We frequently soaked shirts and chilly pads (Best. Invention. Ever.) in the creek that was near the path and stopped so often I thought we’d never get out.

Trail on the South Rim side looking back toward the green patch of trees in the distance that is Indian Gardens campground

When we finally reached Indian Gardens it was 5 pm. We were at 11 hours and still 4 miles from the top. Groan. We were very surprised there to see a Polish couple on a bench, crying. The woman seemed to be angry at the man. Then there was Jon. Jon? We thought he would have been out of the canyon by now. He was sitting on a bench in the shade with a very weary look on his face.  He said that he got hit with heat exhaustion in the corkscrew and decided to take a nap on the trail for a half hour in the shade. What? Jon, a nap on the trail? Those are the kind of naps you don’t always wake up from! The Polish couple, it turns out, had hiked from the South Rim to the River and back that day, roughly 18 miles round trip. Jon found them on the trail and followed them because they didn’t seem like they were doing too well, and he wanted to be with them just in case. They were totally unprepared. She was completely sunburned in shorty shorts and a tank top, and they had very little food. We gave them some of ours. They declined. We told them in no uncertain terms that they had to. They accepted. We assessed our situation. I still felt pretty good, and Nate was doing amazing considering he had been carrying two packs since the corkscrew. Jen was in tears, she had some very painful blister issues. My dad was great, Bob and Brandon were ok, and Jon was fading. We split up the troops. Bob and Brandon took off with Jon and the Polish couple, and they went a few minutes ahead of us. I hiked with Jen,  and my dad and Nate traded off carrying Derek’s pack. There would be a water station every mile and a half from there on out, and it would be switch backs the whole way.


A snake that crossed our path on the switch backs of the South Rim.

We were within sight of the first water station when I noticed something was really wrong. Bob was standing at Jon’s side watching for us. He caught my eye, then took off up the trail leaving Jon sitting on a rock. His eyes were open, but he was not quite lucid. I cautiously said, “Jon, are you ok?” Without blinking or turning his head he said, “I threw up.”  His boots and poles were splashed with vomit. He wasn’t near the water. I asked if he’d put water in his pack, he said no. We gave him hard candy to suck on, filled his pack and did some shifting. His pack was so heavy! Nate took it. My dad took Derek’s.  The trail was still relatively light, but we were going painfully slow. I wondered about Bob, Brandon and the Polish couple. The next mile and a half were agony. Jon was vomiting intermittently,  and at one point Nate had to grab the back of his shirt to keep him from going over the side while puking. Jen was in so much pain it took her breath away. Derek was still cramping and our light was fading. We kept thinking we’d be fine when we got to the water station because they have emergency flash lights there. When we got there, they’d all already been taken. Chuck was there though. What? Chuck what are you doing here? “OH, I just got worried and thought you guys might like some snacks or water. I’ve been down here once already….” He’d hiked quite a bit that day, and that didn’t bode well for his hike out. OH man. At that point my sister and I looked at each other and she made a decision. “I’ll go back with the slow pokes,” she said, ” you run ahead and get flash lights.” I started to run. I ran and walked and ran and walked and ran and walked. The sky darkened. Bats swooped my head. I ran and walked. I caught up with Bob and Brandon. They had a light. Would they come on ahead with me? In answer, Brandon vomited. Altitude sickness. Spectacular. I ran on. I emerged to the sound of clapping and congratulations, I was the first one out. I cut them off with my news: We are in trouble. I need lights, like now. I got them, a few juice boxes, and stood at the trail head. I didn’t want to go back in there. I called Nate and told him to download a flashlight app, and get Jon’s phone out because he already had one. They asked how far from the top they were. I asked for a landmark, and he told me they’d just passed the arch. I asked which one. He groaned. I went back down.

At that point, a man joined me. His name was Eric. He said he was on a flashlight rescue mission as well, and should we go together? I gratefully accepted. About a half a mile down I saw Jon. Alone. Nate had to attend to his father, and Jon couldn’t be stopped. He wanted out. I called his name. As he got closer he whispered my name and collapsed on top of me. He’s not a small guy. Eric grabbed him and set him on a rock. I gave him juice. I knew he’d puke it up, but he needed it. Then Jen walked up, crying. I gave her some juice and she sobbed, “you read my mind.” and kept going. She’s so cute. Derek and my dad came next, followed by Nate and his dad, who was also battling altitude sickness. Oh we are a sight, I thought. I took Jon’s arm and talked his ear off to get him to put one foot in front of the other.

We made it out. It was 10 pm. The south rim was all but closed. Jon’s muscles were seizing and he was still puking. Chuck was too. We drove the Polish couple to their car, listening to them argue and her tell him, “We are not hikers!”  We tried to find the clinic. We even split up on foot to find it. Jon was getting worse by the minute. He kept saying, “Please hurry. Please hurry.” I called 911. I told the operator we couldn’t find the clinic. She told me the clinic was closed. Then would you mind sending an AMBULANCE, lady? The rangers arrived, chewed us out for going Rim to Rim, did we have any idea how hot it was today? Uh, yeah, I think we have an idea, thanks. Derek was still grunting. “Is he OK?” The rangers asked. “Yeah, he’s just cramping.”

We split up again. Nate and I followed Jon in the ambulance, and the others headed two hours away to our nice resort hotel in Paige. It was an hour and a half drive for us. We had to wait an hour at the ER, to see if Jon needed to stay over night. He did. He had all the necessary nutrients in his blood, just not water to carry them. We went in search for food. There was only one food place open that we could find, McDonalds. Sick. Those were the best tasting cheeseburgers I have ever had though. We had been up 22 hours, we were sore, and we stank. The last available hotel room in that whole sleepy town was in a disgusting motel 6. We didn’t even care. Jon received 3 1/2 liters of fluid and was a whole new man in the morning. Jen said Derek woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed the next morning, he wasn’t even sore. Brandon and Chuck likewise. All’s well that ends well, I guess. I had nightmares about the trail for a few days. I still feel a little traumatized.

My dusty, dirty legs and feet while waiting in the ER

If you want the mileage rundown of the Rim to Rim trek, check out this link:
http://www.zionnational-park.com/rim-to-rim-grand.htm

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