New Zealand adventure athlete ANNA KEELING, 43, last month trekked nearly 70 kilometres across and back – and down and up – in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, mostly in one night.
It's 3.20am, May 5, and I'm standing in the cold at the top of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at 2511 metres. Alone, nauseous and scared (of cougars) in the desolate car park, I hightail it out of there, but I've made halfway.
With the North Rim northern approach closed until May 15, when danger of snow has passed, I'm committed to returning the way I've come and completing my journey across the Grand Canyon and back in one day: a distance of 67.6 kilometres and up to 3230m of both ascent and of descent.
The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim as an ultra run/hike has been a long-standing personal goal for myself and three friends from Salt Lake City, Utah: Nancy Feagin, Nancy Russell and Mindy Campbell (the only non-mother in the group). They run a lot more than me, but I was not about to pass up their invitation because of a lack of specific fitness.
Strategically, I was clear: I would take the same steep South Kaibab route both ways from the South Rim. "I'm special needs, ladies. Drop me off at 7pm and I'll go on my own. We'll meet up somewhere below the North Rim when you catch me."
My fitness, honed only by backcountry skiing, was hardly sufficient for running 1 1/2-plus marathons. Although I had tried to train the previous month, bronchitis had prevented a fuller fitness regimen. I resolved my endurance background (adventure racing, multisport and mountaineering) would keep me moving, even when in the pain cave. I know the importance of calorie intake and hydration in a desert climate, and I had spent all my training days getting my quads used to descending. As long as I paced myself, I'd be fine.
At 6.15pm on the Friday night (May 4), I hop off the National Park shuttle bus, feeling a tad self-conscious in my running shorts and runner's pack. Five minutes later, I amble down the trail. A few hours earlier, I'd had my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon: red buttes and buttresses plunging down to a shadowy and unseen Colorado River – a massive schism in the Earth's crust.
A full moon rises as the sun sets. Alpenglow envelops the buttes and walls, gold then magenta. The Colorado River becomes visible far below, fading into dusk. After 11.25 kilometres and 1460m below the South Rim, I trot into Phantom Ranch, dazzled by torch light and swarms of people who have hiked down to stay overnight. Stopping only for water, I cruise on.
The 22.5km North Kaibab trail to the North Rim follows Bright Angel River up a tight box canyon. The creek roars as the canyon twists and turns. Occasional moonlight gives tantalising peeps at soaring walls. I stash food and an energy drink under a rock for my return. A scorpion holds it's tail haughtily above it's back as it zips across the trail.
The box canyon eventually opens into a meadow of moonlight. Relieved at being able to see, I plan to stop at Cottonwood campground at 22.5km. Figuring I've started too early – I'm going faster than anticipated. I'll wait and let the others catch up.
The water tap hisses and nearby campers snore as I don extra layers (a light jacket, buff and long johns). I settle in on a park bench for a quick bivouac.
Irritated by a mouse snuffling around my pack, I rest uneasily. Midnight passes, I'm shivering and have to move. At least Nancy F, Nancy R and Mindy will be on the trail. I've got 1770m of climbing and 11.25km to go on my lonely night trek to the North Rim.
Small clouds of dust swirl from my feet as I move quickly. I'm loving it, even if I'm slightly obsessed by cougars.
Three times I run into groups descending, who, like us, have chosen to trek in the cool of evening. I ask them to look out for my friends: "Tell them you saw me and to hurry because of the cats" (cougar attacks, while rare, do occur from time to time).
A thundering waterfall, and I pass the (apparently) spectacular Roaring Springs. The trail climbs in earnest now. Leaving the soothing moonlight, I feel rather than see, the abyss. Aiming my headlamp over the edge is nerve-racking. The trail is hewn from rock, zigging and zagging up impossible cliff faces.
Every now and then I see headlamp glimmers far, far above. I cross a bridge and peer over the side. Nasty. Hemmed in by cliffs, the familiar sound of crickets mollifies my night imaginings.
Nearing the North Rim sub-alpine forest, queasy and cold, I sip constantly from my water bladder and munch on electrolyte gummies. My teeth feel disgusting. I wish I'd cleaned them before I left. Supai tunnel is spooky and deserted. I know I am close, but it's prime cougar territory now. Grabbing a big stick, I forge on. I'm carrying my iPod, but I need my full senses. I'll save music for the hot hike out.
Almost in a trance, I reach the North Rim and stare at the sign describing the men who realised this route in the 1920s. With winter rapidly approaching, they had to find a route to the Colorado River and the easier trail to the South Rim. I stir to attention: it's not nice up here in the cold, deserted car park. Time to go.
Immediately feeling better, I jog down the trail. Within a few kilometres, I see headlamps way below – my friends! I ditch the stick. The uber ladies are moving well and don't want to stop.
Mindy is ahead, sunny and happy as usual. Nancy F is pleased to see me (in her "don't mess with me, I'm focused" style) and gives me a hug. I want to sit and chat, but they are not having it, so I press on.
Dawn breaks, pale and insipid, and my legs hurt from the pounding. The unlikely Roaring Springs surge from their source on a cliff face and spill, like a towel hung from a window.
I'm being chased now, and those girls will eventually leave me behind. Running is upsetting my stomach, so I walk quickly.
Cottonwood Camp comes and goes and suddenly there are swarms of runners heading up the trail. I had no idea this route was so popular with ultra-runners, but I guess the season is limited by the fact that temperatures in the lower canyon soar into the high 30s by June.
Near Phantom Ranch, glancing back, I spot Mindy, running smoothly elegant in her little black skirt. I feel like a lummox, but it's nice to see her. I share my can of energy drink with her and she races off in pursuit of a sub-12-hour time (her time on completion is 11 hours and 40 minutes).
I wander beside the river, photographing the bridge and wondering at the immensity of the walls and this mighty river – so beloved in the American psyche, yet ultimately restricted from running it's full course into the Pacific Ocean. The last big climb is ahead (I like climbs), and the initial trail is shady and comfortable.
Heaps of people traipse down the trail, their feet disturbing clouds of red dust. Trying to nose-breathe, I push down on my thighs and wind up the pace. Mules whinny up ahead, and it's not even 8am. People keep wishing me good morning. It feels bizarre when you've been up all night.
As I emerge from the shady cliffs, the sun beams down, yet a breeze stirs – and the heat is manageable. It's halfway and I realise I'm actually three-fifths of the way in elevation gain.
I sip water and chew the electrolyte lollies. The fingers of exhaustion materialise in my periphery but I don't stop.
Rounding the butte approaching Ooh Ah Point, I am definitely hurting, but it's good and I embrace it. Running my right hand across the sandstone wall, I draw a sharp breath, but believe I can make the top by 11am. Bigger people in jeans, carrying 350ml bottles of soft drink demonstrate the Rim's proximity. I finally jog the final few switchbacks and feel fantastic, arriving at the top to crowds of people I don't know and who don't care that I just hiked solo through the night: 67.6 kilometres with 3230 metres of both gain and loss.
It has taken 16 hours and 40 minutes, including my two-hour Cottonwood camp transit lounge, caused mainly by my fear of cougars. Hooray!
The intensity of experiencing this place by moonlight, on my own, is fantastic. I've lived in the western US for more than 10 years and the Grand Canyon has always held a special fascination. I never set out to break any records on the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. I only wished to use previous endurance to encounter this place, without the crowds, in all it's majesty. It's been a tremendous escapade.
- © Fairfax NZ News