R2R2R is a world-class route, staring on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, running 5,000′ down to the Colorado River, across a bridge, then 6,000” up to the North Rim. Then back again – “Rim to Rim to Rim”. I first ran it sometime in the 80’s, and it was quite the thing back then, but in the last few years this route has become extremely popular, particularly the R2R version, which has created conflict, controversy, and even caused the Park Service to institute Day-Use Permits for Groups of over 7 people.
We wanted nothing of that churn-fest, but did want to explore the millions of great things to do in the 1,900 square miles of the Grand Canyon besides getting in line, so we decided to run Rim to Rim to Rim – by a different route. It was a great plan. Super fun. No one had ever done it. That’s because there is no bridge – you have to swim across the River.
It’s not called the “PB Adventure Vest” for nothing!
Peter Bakwin, Charles Corfield and I flew to Flagstaff on Friday afternoon, rented a SUV, then drove out a 33 mi 4wd road to the South Bass TH, never even entering the Park. There were 5 other cars there, and except for the Havasupai Indian who we paid $25 to to drive across their land, we did not see a single person – a little different than the 5 million people (!) who visit the South Rim every year. The Big Ditch was right below us, and as always, took our breath away. You could come here once a month for the rest of your life, and the same thing would happen each time.
We started down the South Bass trail a little before dawn. Unlike the Kabab trails in the Main Corridor, these trails are small, scrappy, and thus slow. You have to watch each step, and for the location of the trail itself. But what’s interesting, is other than the very different aspect of technical difficulty, the South and North Bass Trail profile is remarkably similar to the South and North Kaibab Trail Profile. This is a really cool route.
Finally we see the River, which is running silty; must have been a rain somewhere upstream. It takes us another :45 to get down to it, including :15 backtracking on top of the Vishnu cliffs looking for passage down. Now the business begins – we had pondered this for months – are we going to freeze our butts off swimming across this River?
Here’s the deal: the River is less than 100m wide, so that’s OK. There’s plenty of big rapids you don’t want to get caught in, but they can be avoided. The real issue is the Colorado River is “dam-release” – it’s coming out from the bottom of Lake Powell – which is 46 degrees year-round, warming to about 52 by the time it gets to Bass. That’s cold, not at all fun, and can be dangerous.
We had contemplated numerous strategies for this situation. A packraft would be the safest and easiest, but we didn’t want to run down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon carrying one on our backs. Air mattresses and inner tubes have potential. If going my myself, I would have relied on my inestimable charm and good looks to hitch a ride across with a rafter. But I was with two scientists, which meant that wasn’t going to work, so we all decided to purchase shorty wetsuits (which fit perfectly in the Fastpack I was using) and just swim it. We’d drop some gear on the shore for the return, then put the rest in a dry bag which was tied to our waist and would float on it’s own. Peter added swim fins for speed, I used webbed gloves for the dork factor, and Charles used both.
We geared up, took some deep breaths, and waded in. It wasn’t bad; this was going to work fine. It’s possible the rains had warmed the water. It took us about 3 minutes to get across, swimming medium hard, and hit the beach we were aiming for about equal distance downstream from the width due to current. We did it! Oh, right; we’re also supposed to running back and forth across the Canyon; better get on that.
We picked our way up Shinumo Creek, then up White Creek; both had flowing water, which was terrific and rare in the GC; often water is the limiting factor in big GC routes. However, I also noticed Charles had been moving slowly all day, and became concerned; we were moving quite slowly, and had a long way to go. Charles wins his age group at ultra races by hours instead of minutes, and has climbed Everest, but the steep and loose footing was not his cup of tea on this particular day. As we started the passage through the Redwall, always steep and dramatic on any GC route, I called for a quick reality-check. We weren’t going to make the North Rim then go back again without a major epic, like swimming across the River at night. I’m too old to epic. So I suggested Charles and I flip it right then, while the prospects still provided for an enjoyable day, and turn Peter loose to go for the Rim.
So we did that. While Peter engaged in pointless feats of skill and endurance founded on decades of backcountry experience, Charles and I ambled back down with far more weighty issues on our mind, endeavoring to solve the world’s political, social, and cultural maladies. I’ll let you know how that turned out later, but Peter not only tagged the Rim with aplomb and descended w/o mishap, but caught up to us at the River. Right as it got completely dark we all came back together for the final slog back up to the South Rim, way, way up there somewhere.
It was a beautiful, warm, and utterly peaceful starlit night. Not a sound of any kind, and hardly a sight, except for the outline of the big cliffs illuminated by the stars. The switch on Charles’ flashlight broke, Peter’s didn’t last the night, so we didn’t worry about it and just casually hiked on up, enjoying the night, the companionship, and the Canyon. Got to the top at 10:22pm, just as I was thinking a nap beside the trail was sounding good.
YOUR THOUGHTS? Have you been to the Big Ditch? Ready for a swim?
R2R2R.alt – once you leave the beaten path, there are many paths!