Mind over matter: How to survive the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim Death March

Double Rainbow Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is truly of the national treasures of the United States. Nearly five million people see the 1 mile deep Grand Canyon each year. This photo was taken near the South Rim overlook. The double rainbow was an added bonus. This is the place most tourists visit. A much smaller number of people see the Canyon from the North Rim, which lies just 10 miles directly across the Canyon from the South Rim.

Why just look at it through a lens, right? Not good enough for us. We decided to take on the rim to rim to rim (aka Death March) challenge. We wanted to hike from the South Rim to the top of the North Rim and then back up the South Rim in less than 24-hours.

Don’t want to read all of the gory details? Skip to the Just the Facts. I’ll be bummed but not offended.

Preparation

At the beginning of the year I started doing the P90X2 workout program. I had done P90X (kind of at my own pace) and wanted to try out the new one. In my mind there was no correlation between preparing for the Death March and doing P90X2. But during the hike it became clear to me just how much that workout program helped me. First and foremost, it was the upper body strength I gain from it. Strange that this would be useful on a long hike, but when you are in those 4,000 feet stair climbing ascents, your hiking poles will become your best friend. Get good, light and sturdy hiking poles. I relied on them a lot, especially during the South Kaibab ascent.

Outside of P90X2, the main training regimen used by me and the guys I hiked with was stair climbing and taking long hikes on the weekend. We live in Florida, which doesn’t have terrain conducive to training for 4,000 foot elevation changes. So we took to the stairwells. Stair climbing as a training exercise is both grueling and boring. Trapped in a hot and humid stairwell with your closest friends for a couple of hours on the weekend is anything but glamorous. But its effective and although it didn’t fully replicate the ascents we were about to encounter in the canyon, it did help to build up leg strength and endurance. Long practice hikes are also useful. It gets you acclimated to being on your feet for a long period of time, carrying a pack and ensuring that you are drinking and eating adequately.

The Death March

We did the hike on Saturday, Oct 13th. Although we had up to six guys in our training routines, only four of us actually hiked the Death March. Two of the guys had done it before which by definition makes them more insane than me and the other first timer. The day before it had rained most of the day and was cold. That night it dropped into the low thirties on the south rim. This really concerned us since we were starting at 4am. We had a big pasta dinner at El Tovar the night before and we saw some spectacular views as sunset approached. The double rainbow in the canyon made me feel that things were going to be Ok the following day.

We started out at South Kaibab Trail – Elevation 7,260. There is no water on this trail so we had planned to drop some Gatorade and food at about the midpoint of South Kaibab. It was in the lower 30s when we started . I had four layers on top and windbreaker pants over my convertible hikers. Furthermore, I had gloves, a knitted cap and neck warmer. I was nice and cozy when we started, but once we were a mile or so down I started to heat up pretty fast. I was sweating to the point that I drenched my silk base liner. There was also a concern about ice on the trail, so we had mini cramp-ons as well. As all hikers know, whatever you carry in, you carry out. So we paid a high price in carrying the extra weight around.

After about an hour in we hit Skelton Point which is mile marker 3.0 on our hike. Here we dropped food, our warm clothing and cramp-ons. We put our food in Tupperware and marked them with our names, the date and reflective tape. We wanted to make sure that anyone else who happened upon the stuff knew we were coming back to fetch it. We also dropped Gatoraid here, since we knew on the way back up that South Kaibab had no running water. In hindsight we took too much food. We made three food drops. Lots of hikers do this trip without dropping any food. Even though you can burn up to 10,000 calories on this hike, your body can only absorb about 3,000 calories per day.

We got to the bottom of South Kaibab in two and half hours. The views of 6.3 Black Bridge and the Colorado River are spectacular. We crossed the bridge over to Bright Angel Campground where we made another food drop. This is also a good place to change clothes if you need to. A fresh pair of socks always feels great. This is where I had the first of peanut butter and jelly meals.

At 7.7 miles into the trip is Phantom Ranch where we replenished water our water. The elevation there is 2,460 feet. Since I live in Florida, I am not accustomed to these types of elevation changes. The elevation at my house is 40 feet.

The next 14 miles of the hike is the so called flat part. There is one area about halfway between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood that some people call “Silly Hill”. WE decided to avoid this by taking the Ribbon Falls trail. You have to cross Bright Angel creek to do this. If the creek is running high you aren’t getting across unless you plan to swim. Fortunately for us we were able to hop across a couple of rocks in the creek to get over it.

Cottonwood Campground is 14.7 miles into the hike. This was our third and last food drop. There is water here, so I made a quart of electrolytes to last me until the next stop.

REST AREA with new bathrooms. The next stop which we felt was optional is , where we ate some more, refiled water and went to the bathroom. The bathrooms here are brand new and the best on the trail.

You start to experience the ascent when you leave REST AREA. Supai Tunnel is about halfway up North Kaibab and 19.8 miles into the trip. This was our third and final food drop. There is water and restrooms here too. We decided to leave our packs for the summit up to North Kaibab. It sure felt great to have a break from the packs, but we did run the risk of something happening to them. We each brought a water bottle, gloves and an outtershell in case it was cold.

The North Kaibab Trailhead is 21.5 miles and it put us halfway. The push up to the top was challenging. One of our guys was looking a little piqued according to the ranger up there. The elevation at North Kaibab is 8,250.

We only took a 15-minute break at the top of North Kaibab. Due to the elevation and open exposure, it was a bit colder. However we had to get some photos at the top before we get to do this all over again. So from there we made good progress back down North Kaibab. We retrieved our packs at Supai Tunnel, eat the food we stored there and then made the trek down to Cottonwood, with a quick stop at REST AREA.

One of our hikers started to feel poorly on the way down from North Kaibab. He was eating and drinking but he felt hot and then chilled. By the time we got to Phantom Ranch he was in pretty bad shape. We had some friends staying at Phantom Ranch and tried to convince our buddy to stay with them. He refused. So when we got about 30 minutes up South Kaibab he said “Guys – I am going to turn around”. We had a “we are all in this thing together” attitude. So when our buddy wanted to bail, we felt we had to go back down with him. Ask lots of convincing, he talked us into letting him go back on his own. He is an experienced hiker and he convinced us that he could make it.

And then there were three…so we started back up the very difficult slog to the top of the South Rim. I broke down the North and South Kaibab ascents into Hell 1 and Hell 2. I got through Hell 1, so now it was time slog through Hell 2. Your mind does strange things when your buddy is under so much stress combined with mind numbing monotony. For me tunes stream through my mind. The same tune over and over again. For me its was The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind”. Very appropriate for a trip like this.

When we got about 1.5 miles up South Kaibab we started to loser another buddy. He asked us to stop and after drinking some water he got sick to his stomach. I looked at the remaining healthy hiker with a look of “we lost one, now we are losing another one, what do we do now?” After he got sick we asked him if he felt better and he said “Yes” he just wanted to go slow and take breaks when we turn the corner on the switchbacks. So after 2-3 switchbacks we would stop, allow our buddy to drink some water and then start walking again.

About 2 miles up we saw this light coming up from behind us. The voice said “Move over”. We thought it was someone jogging up, but it was in fact our friend that we thought was going back down. What he did instead was simply lie down for 10 minutes, collect himself and then he started back up. He made good time and caught up with us since we were going slow to keep our other buddy engaged.

Back as a four member team we got reinvigorated to hammer out the remaining 4 miles. South Kaibab is switchback hell. You don’t appreciate this when you are going downhill because you are moving fast and feeling great. When we got to base of the South Kaibab we had been at this for 16-hours. Now it was time to make that final uphill push which took us over 5-hours.

When I saw the mule sign I knew we had made it. My buddies were like “big deal – its the mule sign”. But I remember that it was right near the top of the trailhead. We were at the South Rim by 4am and returned to the South rim at 1:21am. We hiked 43 miles in 21 hours and 21 minutes. Here are major waypoints.

Just the Facts:

We did NOT do the traditional 44.9 mile Death March that begins at the Bright Angel trail. We did the 43 mile South Kaibab Death March. South Kaibab is 1.9 miles shorter than Bright Angel (a good thing) but its a bit steeper and there is no water on the South Kaibab trail. Tip: Drop a container of water or electrolyte infused beverage at Skelton Point or some other landmark on the way down South Kaibab, so you will have something to get you home on your way back up.

We were at the South Rim by 4am and returned to the South rim at 1:21am. We hiked 43 miles in 21 hours and 21 minutes. Here are the major waypoints.

0.0 South Rim – South Kaibab Trail – Elevation 7260

3.0 Skelton Point (dropped food and clothes here)

6.3 Black Bridge / Colorado River (2:30 in) Lapped here on stopwatch. Second food drop at Bright Angel Campground)

7.7 Phantom Ranch (replenished water) Elevation 2460

(Tip: Want to avoid going up a hill and back down again? If so take the Ribbon Falls trail to avoid what some people call “Silly Hill”. Note: You must cross Bright Angel Creek. If the water is too higher you either have to turn around and go back or swim.)

14.7 Cottonwood Campground

19.8  Supai Tunnel (Third food drop – we actually left our packs here to for the ascent to the North Rim)

21.5 North Kaibab Trailhead (parking lot) Elevation 8250

Turn around and repeat. We finished the Death March in 21 hours and 21 minutes.

About Cam Collins

@camcollins - dad, husband, entrepreneur, knowledge seeker, lover of the outdoors, fond of new ideas and how to spread good ones that add value to our world.

2 thoughts on “Mind over matter: How to survive the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim Death March

  1. great story to be told. ive hiked from rim-river-rim twice within the last 3 weeks and i am excited to try out this death march. thanks for sharing your experiences.

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