I’m not really sure where the idea of running the Big Ditch under a full moon had come from. But from the second that it appeared in my brain waves, I knew that it had to be done. Kait had agreed to it in May, once the temperatures dropped in the fall. We thought little of it until Summer started to come to an end and I brought up the subject of setting a date. Limited by full-moon-ness, Kait racing the Coconino 250 (which she absolutely smashed) and her leaving for Australia for Single Speed World Championships, our timeline was tight.
The logistics of Rim to Rim runs for dirtbags who don’t want to pay $80 for a shuttle can be difficult. But I’d figured it out for Kait and I’s run: She would meet Scott and I on the North Rim, we’d run the Canyon while Scott would drive Kait’s car back to the south rim, she’d drive home, Scott and I would camp at the campground, and walk the Canyon back the next day to our car, which would be waiting at the North Rim.
Brilliant, until we realized that Kait’s car was a stick shift, and while Scott may possess many skills, driving a stick shift isn’t one of them.
In my exploration of alternatives, I texted Kait, ‘R2R2R would be a really bad idea, right?’ Neither of us had really been doing all that much running, I figured she’d be smarter than to say yes.
So I upped the ante before she even had a chance to respond. ‘If we time it right, we could reserve a 5am breakfast of bacon and eggs and coffee at Phantom Ranch on the way back.’
Immediately, we had a plan.
She doesn’t look nervous, does she?
After drinking a little bit of Vihno Verde at the campground (why not? It’s going to hurt regardless of what we do) we boarded the 5:30 shuttle to the Kaibab Trailhead and watched the sun set behind the rim. We were headed down shortly after 6.
The beauty of Kait as an adventure partner is that I have complete trust in her ability to make sound and safe decisions, and to respect any decisions I would make in the name of safety. That’s a pretty powerful thing when headed into something as big as the Big Ditch.
But, I also had full faith in her to not quit for stupid. Which is also a very powerful thing. When you know your adventure partner will keep eating, keep drinking, and stop to address any issues before they balloon into something major, it takes a whole lot of stress out of big trips.
We were stopped to put headlamps on at the first bathrooms when an older gentleman came walking up the trail.
‘Where are we?’ he asked with some degree of desperation.
‘The Grand Canyon?’ I answered, mostly because I had no clue what our little plateau was named. I guess, in hindsight, I could have said, ‘At the first set of bathrooms’, but I could have also said, ‘Arizona’ or ‘Planet Earth.’
He looked at me with some level of frustration as he told us that there was a woman lower down the trail who was in distress and wouldn’t make it up. He wanted to know how far it was to the top, how long would it take him.
‘Depends on how fast you’re going,’ I replied. Again, frustration. ‘Between a mile and two,’ I tried again.
Eventually, we went down. We never saw a woman in distress, only several people still moving slowly upwards.
We made it to Phantom at 8pm and filled up on water. We had 9 hours to cover the 28 miles to the North Rim and back. No problem.
The Box Canyon was deathly dark, but warm. It was a welcoming place. A happy place. While the moon illuminated the tops of the cliffs around us, I doubted if the bottom of Bright Angel Creek ever saw moonlight. As the canyon opened up, we were able to turn headlamps off and walk under the illumination of the moon, only turning lights on for the shadows.
The exposed part of the North Kaibab trail was spectacular. Ghostly. Almost light enough to see colors in the rocks.
It was only after we crested the rim that we considered jackets and warm laters for the first time. And everything aside from short sleeves and shorts were ditched again long before we hit the Supai Tunnel on the way down. We had four hours until breakfast and 14 miles.
Cottonwood with two hours till breakfast. 7 more miles. The legs were getting tired. Feet an knees starting to complain. We knew we’d make it, but we also knew that it wouldn’t be with an excessive amount of time to spare. The Box Canyon simply refused to end, the final two bridges refused to come into view. I was comforted by the fact that even in the daylight, these miles seem to drag on forever.
At some point in time, when things really started to hurt, I pointed out that really, the worst thing that could happen to us would be to miss our 5am breakfast. Kait found this pretty funny, because there are a lot of things to go wrong in the Canyon. But in my head, missing breakfast was the worst of them.
Seeing two different sets of green eyes, which I’m 90% sure were mountain lions, definitely put a pep into our steps, even as we tried to convince ourselves that they were probably just deer.
And then bridges. Lights of the ranch. Sleepy campers and hikers lining up for grub, most walking on legs that looked as stiff as ours felt.
We made it with 15 minutes to spare. Considering that we’d been on the trail for nearly 11 hours, I’d call that pretty spot on timing.
We ate and went outside to sit on the benches to re-lube feet and prepare for the final push up. We endured some man-splaining about how there was enough moonlight to hike safely, and that it’s worth the extra weight to haul stainless steel water bottles down the Canyon because plastic bladders change the pH of your water. The second comment was in response to me mentioning to Kait that I found it interesting that thru-hikers rarely used bladders for water storage, instead choosing to use plastic bottles. (While I’m not disputing the fact that drinking out of stainless or glass has the potential to be better for you, I’m not going to haul anything but plastic when going light and fast.)
We dawdled long enough to be able to start without headlamps, and the long walk up commenced. We were definitely the last of the 5am breakfast crew to leave the Ranch.
By this point in time, there’s no question about completing the journey.
It was just a matter of one foot in front of the other. We just had to get through the Red Wall. We winced as we watched runners come down in the morning light, knowing that 13 hours prior, we looked just as fresh.
Scott came down to meet us and found me stoop sitting at the first set of outhouses. Kait had just dropped her pole from the deck, and we were contemplating the pain that would be involved to scamper down to pick it up. Scott got it for us without complaint.
He said we were moving well but had zero problem trotting in front of us to get the finish picture.
And done. A little bleary-eyed. A little tired. A little sore. A lot satisfied.
After food and a nap, Kait headed back towards Prescott. She had a plane to catch to Australia in 24 hours. I pitied her legs.
It’s rare to be able to line an adventure up so perfectly. Between setting the date and hitting breakfast dead on, there were a lot of things that had to align to make this double crossing happen as smoothly as it did. Neither of us were ready for it, in the traditional sense of you should probably have more than 50 miles of running in your legs over the course of the summer (ahem, Kait), but there was never really any doubt that amazing would happen if we committed to the trip.
One foot in front of the other. It’s always worth it.