The Brutal Beauty of Trekking Rim to Rim to Rim of The Grand Canyon in A Single Day
Written by Albie Masland, Valor Craft Performance President and #CANJAM participant.
Endurance. Friendship. Joy. Impact.
The first ever CANJAM was a brutally beautiful success. Let’s call it “Breautiful” for fun.
The team, consisting of Albie Masland, Nick Biase, Matt Peace and Sean Watson – all had 50 days to prepare for the physical and mental challenge running Rim to Rim to Rim (47 miles + 17000 ft of elevation gain) back and forth across the majestic Grand Canyon. Despite everyone having a strong base for an effort like this, it is extremely difficult to recreate the variables at play - elevation, terrain, time, darkness and more. As much as one can prepare, there will always be the unknown or the unseen.
The Beginning of The Journey
Finally, on 10/21 at 4:20 AM it was time to GO! We started at the South Kaibab Trailhead. Descending 7000+ ft, guided by a headlamp, trusting every step, we made our way approximately 7 miles down into the canyon. As we reached the bottom the lights of the world turned on and there WE were…there IT was. Everywhere you look in the Grand Canyon is epic. Not in the overused application of the word but in the true poetic sense. It feels like you’ve entered another planet for exploration.
Carry On! Over the roaring Colorado River, through Phantom Ranch, onward to Cottonwood. Meandering through the canyon while crystal clear water rushes alongside the trail. You see it coming, rising up in the distance and then BAM you find yourself at the base of the North Rim. If you are planning to attempt this effort, get ready to dig deep because you’re going to scale up 8000 ft of rocky trails and more exposed switch backs than you thought possible. If you appreciate the journey for what it is, taking in all the glory that surrounds you, you’re on the right path. And, if you dislike heights and beating yourself up, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Sean and Nick made the push up the mountain ahead of myself and Matt. In many ways, going two by two just made sense. Pace and space on the trails as you climb is unique and limited. Up, Up, Up! The legs are already burning and in the back of your mind you know you’ll be recreating this entire experience on the way back. The little tap tap tap of doubt has plenty of opportunities to spread through your brain. You know this intuitively but still, it persists.
The Mid Run Refuel
By noon, Nick and Sean had reached the top of the North Rim arriving at North Kaibab Trailhead. Absolute Beasts! Matt and I had a long 2 miles left and for me, things were “not working.” My left foot had been a problem during training. Plantar Fasciitis forced me to take two weeks off running in the lead up to the effort. Acupuncture and Dry Needling were done the week before in an effort to prep as best I could. Despite this, and with the help of a few missteps on the ascent, my left foot had gone numb. Not numb in the sense that there was zero feeling. Numb like a foot that had permanently fallen asleep. Every step introduced doubt and discomfort. I was furious. I was concerned. Thankfully, I was with my boy, Matt Peace. He could see I was struggling but he continued to reinforce the positive, make me laugh, play music and stay up beat. Just being his usual wonderful self.
Finally, we reached the top of the North Rim around 12:30 PM after 8 hours of effort. Nick and Sean were fueling and prepping for the way back and Matt and I moved to do the same.
I felt nauseous. I felt numb. I felt doubt. I felt anger. I felt shame. I had poured a lot of time and energy into this personally, professionally, emotionally and to feel this all at the halfway point was NOT where I wanted or needed to be. A tricky thing about Rim to Rim to Rim is, if you go back down into the canyon and you can’t go on, the options are limited and none are ideal. You can be carted up by a mule OR you can be airlifted by a helicopter. Additionally, you put anyone else you’re with in a tough spot. This weighed heavy on my mind. I tried to eat and couldn’t. Enter pickle juice and cramp shots. Whatever I can consume I will. I changed my shirt. I changed my socks. I changed my shorts. I changed my shoes. I could see the concern on my team's faces. It sucked. You can change all the gear you want. If you can’t change your attitude and remember your mantra, your “why”, none of it will matter. So you repeat it to yourself. I am tougher. I am always. I will never quit. I’m a tank! This is NOT about Me. This is about building a company by doers, for doers. This is about performance. This is about enduring. This effort is supporting the Travis Manion Foundation…IF NOT ME THEN WHO! To that, I say, LETS GROW!
The Last Rim Trek
It was time to head back to the South Rim, with Bright Angel Trailhead as the final destination. Sean and Nick took off first. Matt and I followed at a slower pace behind. The use of hiking poles helped with foot plants and were definitely a crucial piece of gear. The mental boost of climbing down to start the second leg was also a mental bonus. It’s amazing how the shift in muscle group use going up vs going back down provides “relief.” As we checked off miles and movement we got into a really nice groove and pace. By the time we reached the bottom we were on auto pilot. Everything was burning so nothing was burning. To distinguish my foot from my quads or lower back was not possible. It’s a weird leveling out of pain that allows you to find balance. The lower part of the canyon is a roller coaster type trail that never gets too high or too low. It’s ideal for picking up the pace, mileage, time you lose on the climbing.
By 7:30, 6 hours after we left the top of the North Rim, we had winded our way to Phantom Ranch. After a quick lemonade and a snickers bar from the canteen it was time to pull out the headlights. It was dark, dark. I’ll call myself out right here. I bought everyone really nice headlamps before the start. They had multiple settings, fit like a glove, and they were rechargeable. Mine was dead 5 minutes into the climb and I had no way to recharge. NOT GOOD. Luckily, Matt’s was still firing so we guided on. We were told that if we came down the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail that we should definitely go up the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. Sounds great! But, we were immediately greeted with thick sand (1 of 10 different types of terrain we dealt with) which is nice and soft on the feet but not what you want to move through for any length of time.
Next up on our list of challenges, we came across a couple. They had no headlamps and were stranded in the dark. They assured us they were at a campground halfway up the South Rim and so we said, IF NOT ME THEN WHO and absorbed them into our 1 headlamp hiking party. At this point I had broken out my GoPro and started using the camera light fixture to support the greater number of us on the trail. I had no idea how long that light would last and we needed it. It’s a crazy thing to know all that surrounds you but have no visual ability to register any of it. Next up, enter water. At first we crossed over a few little babbling brooks but eventually the brook and the trail became one in the same. Great!!! Let’s get our feet wet to make this more interesting. On top of all of this, the man we were supporting was making really unnecessary tactical decisions, going off trail and continually telling us how crazy steep it was from their campsite to the top. Thanks but no thanks, buddy! I don’t need any of that swirling around in my brain and we DEFINITELY don’t need you getting hurt with your trail escapades.
By 9:30 we reached the campsite the couple said they were staying at. They did not have a campsite. So, with legs burning, frustration building, lights on, limited supply, we carried on. Despite total darkness all around, you can see lights higher up in the distance. Other humans out ahead nearing the end? Lights at the top? It’s hard to say. Then you see the moon cast a shadow that outlines the actual top and the reality hits hard, it’s further than you hoped. To make it more fun, we were down to the light on my GOPRO. Every “STEP” was called out and narrated to ensure anyone behind me had the best next step. The repetition of the word “STEP” offered focus and a shitty reminder of how many steps we were taking. With less than 1.5 miles to go we came to find that our hiking couple did have a light source in their pack (I WAS NOT AMUSED) and at that point Matt and I knew they would be able to make the remaining stretch on their own. We charged forward ready to get this all over with and just for fun the temperature drops and the wind picks up for added effect. The last few switchbacks seemed like forever. Eventually we could see the light, the actual light at the top. LETS GROW!!! Before we knew it we were taking our final steps. We were at the top. All done. All dark. All beat up. All smiles.
After 18 hours, 47 miles, and 17K feet of elevation gain, we were physically, emotionally, and mentally finished. We caught up with Nick and Sean who had finished an hour earlier. They made power moves and hit up a Mexican place for quesadillas before we finished. Hot food, warm bed, here we come!
The main takeaway(s) rolling around in my brain are simple:
Just because you're depleted does NOT mean you are defeated - I live life the way I do to ensure I'm regularly engaging in efforts that provide this reminder.
Bring more light! Headlamps and Hope are critical when the lights go out.
Thinking back on it, with a few days to process, I can say for sure this was the most physically grueling effort I’ve tackled in a single day. At the same time, it was one of the most beautiful experiences I've been able to collect in my lifetime. To share it with great friends is a massive bonus check on top.