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!
Awesome! Sounds like a really cool adventure that I hope to be able to do someday. Was that a 40 mile run then? There are so many new adventures for people that go against the grain. Doing the usual stuff is fine, and fun, yeah. Doing new stuff where you don’t really know how it’s going to play out, sounds so much more fun to me.
Do you have more photos somewhere? Flickr or somewhere?
Great post — I love the encouragement to explore less popular parts of the majestic Grand Canyon. Hope you don’t mind, I’d like to plug two things. One, a book came out last year that anyone who cares about the Grand Canyon and Colorado River should read. It’s called The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko. It’s an incredible story–sort of like Born To Run for the river-running set–because the narrative is hooked on the story of a speed record attempt through the canyon on the Colorado. It’s a fascinating, captivating read about the GC’s geology, politics, and more. Also, the best way to see the whole canyon (if you have the time and money) is to take a river rafting trip. I did an 8-day trip along all 277 miles of the river, which allowed for many stops along side canyons to hike/run/explore. The Grand Canyon is threatened by a couple of awful, shortsighted development projects, so the more people who see the canyon up close and become advocates for it, the better. There are many options for rafting the Colorado thru the canyon, and I spell them out and offer some tips here if you’re interested: http://www.therunnerstrip.com/2013/08/grand-canyon-rafting-and-camping/
I am also one of the lucky ones that has been on one of Charles’ awesome adventures. Beyond the amazing views and spectacular landscape of the GC I learned so much from Charles. He is so knowledgable and so willing to share. Since my advature with him I make all my own gels, salt tabs, and drink. #grandcanyondreaming #lovethosenightskyes
S-N Bass is 42 miles total, nominally. I didn’t carry a gps and Charles didn’t go to the top with his. It breaks down like this:
S Bass TH to the River = 7.5 miles with 4400′ descent (S Kaibab is 7.1 miles, and 4800′)
River to N Rim (Swamp Pt) = 13.5 miles with 5800′ total ascent (including an extra 500′ to get into Shinumo Creek, N Kaibab is 14.0 miles, 5700′)
Bass = 42.0 miles, 10700′ (with that extra 500′ on the way back)
Kaibab = 42.2 miles, 10500′
Going up and back the north side we saw exactly 3 people!
The numbers aside, it’s great to go with such competent, experienced and amiable partners!
“Too old to epic” … I’ll remember that one next time I need it!
Great concept and what a wonderful adventure. I’m glad you pulled it off.
Beautiful and inspiring write-up, Buzz… Sounds like a great adventure among friends, the best sort! 🙂
After running 7 traditional R2R2Rs over the years, I will say your outing sounds pretty much amazing! Great writeup, and I hope I can do this or something similar one day. #goodstuff.
Wow. Great read.
I was once at the GC, but only at the tourist spots. Being from Austria I just did not kn ow it any better. Still, went down and up again (R2R so to speak) and was amazed. I can’t even imagine how cool it must be to use trails no one else uses.
Buzz, Cindy and I did our R2R last week. Totally awesome. We are looking for more adventure runs. Hope all is well.
I wanted to clarify one thing from Buzz’s report. Where he says that we drove to South Bass TH without entering the Park, he means that we didn’t go through the regular GCNP entrance station. The road from Tusayan to S Bass does not pass the entrance station. Nevertheless, S Bass TH is in the Park, and you are required to have a backcountry permit to camp there. We did get a permit (by mail). There’s basic camping at the TH – flat spots and a couple of picnic tables. Of course you need a permit to camp anywhere in the canyon itself. I understand that Swamp Point (the N Bass TH) is actually in National Forest, so I guess you could do a R2R2R starting there w/o a backcountry permit.
What a great post- went to the GC last November with a couple of my best friends and, as expected, we had a wonderful time. I have been wanting to do another R2R2R- that of Hells Canyon! Seems like your swimming strategy worked well and could be just what we need for Hells.
I want to do the Death Valley R2R2R!
Thanks for posting this utterly-inspiring approach and route! Super report as well – i.e. now I HAVE to do this!
In March late 80’s, I swam across the GC (and back of course:-), near the end of a 4-day backpacking trip. Just above Hance Rapids, the water flowed very steadily, and on the sunny afternoon, I talked a friend into doing it. We’re both good swimmers and estimated our drift with the current to cross the ~100m Colorado River. Then multiplied that estimate by 3X for our start point, as we did NOT want to be caught in the rapids! No swim gear, and no point in getting shorts wet, so skinny-dipped it. Turned out our estimate was right on, and we came nowhere near the rapids. Hiked upstream to recover 3X margin, and returned without incident.
Did you use any floatation for your gear, e.g. bubble wrap? Swimming is more fun when the air is warm, and I’m slow, so contemplating a leisurely descent, afternoon swim, moonlight NRim ascent/descent, and daytime return swim…
Thanks for the inspiration!!!
Good job Jack! While the Canyon is noted for its rapids, cold water is the real factor, which is why we wore the shorty wetsuits you see in the photo. That provides plenty of floatation, and the dry bags we towed float themselves.
I have rafted the Grand 3 times in the last 3 years and each time we have camped at Bass since it is such a great campsite. I have fantasized about a r2r2r but knew that I might not be up for the crowds. It is great to know I have another option. Thanks and congratulations.
I lived at GC in the 70’s and still get back for hikes. R2R2R is so extremely popular now yet there is almost no info on alternative runs in GC which I find amazing as John Annerino wrote Running Wild decades ago. In 1984, I was inspired to take up mountain running when I passed a runner below the North Rim while I was day hiking to the river and back from the north. I knew about Allen Cureton(?) because of Harvey Butchart but had never run into a runner below the Rim. Perhaps someone other than Annerino has done very long runs below the rim and has kept quiet. It would not be very hard to run from the Little Colorado River to Bass (or Royal Arch which I have ascended before), especially with support (which Annerino had on his south side run). Any thoughts?
Finally got around to reading the whole story, nice job! Have wanted to do the S. and N. Bass trails for some time so might try to do this in the spring, glad to know a packraft isn’t required! Awesome adventure.