chasing silence: running the grand canyon’s rim-to-rim route with mick

I turned my headlamp on and looked down at my watch. 5:17am. Pitch black and freezing cold. In the darkness, you could feel it in front of you: a deep, silencing abyss. All noise vanished as if it were being sucked into a vacuum.
I felt a quick, stiff breeze from below hit me in the face. My eyes started watering.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Yep…let’s rock,” Mick replied.
I drew in a long breath, smiled, and we dropped into the darkness.
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I had never been to the Grand Canyon. Though I know how erosion works, it was hard to imagine one river making such a deep cut into the Earth. When standing on the North Rim looking down at the vastness, it seemed even more unbelievable. I always thought you could see the mighty Colorado from the rim, but you can’t–the Canyon’s too damn deep! I  still didn’t actually believe in the power of the River until we passed through Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon, took a right hand turn, and were suddenly running along side It. My god what a powerful river.
Ok, ok, I understand now.
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two months ago…

Mick: “You wanna run Rim-to-Rim?”
[lots of dialogue, 67 questions from me, then…]
Muck: “Yep.”
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I’d been recovering from Leadville for about a month when planning began for running R2R. My energy was still a bit low and my feet were only then feeling healed. I needed a new adventure to motivate me back into the swing. R2R was in Mick’s “bucket”.
Many services, the visitor center, and even the road closes sometimes (due to snow) to the North Rim in mid-October. But there was enough of a window to make it work. We booked tickets to Phoenix, picked-up a car when we got there, then Mick and Morgan, crashed with some great in-laws, then headed north. It was 88 degrees when we left Phoenix. When we arrived at the North Rim it was 45 and dropping. Great camping weather (see Airplane Camping post)!
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At some point around 630am we turned our headlamps off as we zig-zagged through switchbacks and descended toward The River. The lighting and color of the walls above us is tough to describe (see mediocre pictures below) and impossible to capture with an iPhone camera. Or any camera. The only noise came from the shuffle of feet over sand and stone, and it quickly was silenced by the Canyon. The first hour was slow going–primarily because I stopped every three minutes to stare, mouth gaped at the layers of Earth that now towered above me. While in many parts the trail was wide and smooth, other portions were sheer wall above, 3 foot wide trail, and 500′ sheer wall down. I kept my eyes ahead during those parts.
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The airport was full of so much NOISE. CNN-Ebola-Election-Celebrity-Blah-Blah-Blah-Angry Passengers-Football Game-noise Noise NOISE. I closed my eyes, held Kelsea’s hand, and remembered the Canyon: all noise, sucked into It’s abyss-vacuum. All noise comes from, and returns to, the Silence. I noticed the miniscule moments of quiet in between the piercing noise (Noise NOISE) of the “news”. More like the “same olds”. Breathe in, notice the silence, Breathe out.
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We descended 5,000 feet toward the River over the course of 14 miles, enjoying the easy flow that comes from a gradual descent. We took some photos, stopped to eat, kept the pace easy, and enjoyed the sunrise. It was during one particular “easy/flow” period while cruising down the trail, when I reached for my water, took my eye off the trail for 1/2 a second, and WHEWHHH I was airborne. I never did find the (probably tiny) rock I tripped on, but I quite unsmoothly found the rocky ground in front of me, rolling a few feet before coming to a stop near the edge of the trail. Luckily it was one of those wide, smooth sections, so I didn’t continue right on down the Canyon to the river 300 feet below. That coulda been messier. Instead, I had blood all over my hands, knees and hips (the cuts were tiny, but gushed more than expected). Quite a jarring episode, really. After coming to, shaking off the dust and dirt, and wiping my bloody hand on my shirt, I sprinted ahead to catch Mick because he had the only clean water between the two of us (the remnants of my water had Skratch mix in it). After shouting for a few moments when he came in sight, one echo caught him and he held up. I won’t soon forget the look on his face when I came running toward him with a nice bloody hand. I rinsed off, then reminded myself of our situation: we were at the bottom of one the world’s biggest ditches, and there was only one way out–Up.** We kept moving.

**you could call for a helicopter, but that’s no fun! And a bit cost-prohibitive.
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As I mentioned above, Kelsea and Morgan (spouses of the year award nominees) joined us in this adventure. The most difficult part of the 24-mile jaunt down, then up the Grand Canyon, was having to experience it without Kelsea. I kept hoping throughout the run that she enjoyed the sunrise as much as I did (judging from her pictures, she did). The K&M train left us on the North Rim, then drove 5 hours around the Big Ditch to meet us on the other side. Sounded like their adventure was as much fun as ours. #BigPinkJeeps #SouthRimInsanity #GuestWriterBlogPostFromDifferentPerspective?
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We crossed the metal suspension bridge over the Mighty Colorado after 4 hours and 14 miles of running downhill. One of the difficulties of this route lay in the fact that after 4 hours of descending, the legs need to change into climbing mode in a hurry. We had about 3 minutes during the flat bridge crossing to recover. Then, we started back up.
When the South Rim wall came into view about a mile after we crossed the River, I stopped in my tracks: “Oh Fuck! Oh…Fuck!” Mick burst into laughter (both because we were already hurting, and, I assume, because my comment was stating the obvious). 4000 feet above was our destination. 4000 feet in about 4 miles. “As the crow flies” it was only about 1/4 mile, but us pedestrian, non-winged folk were going up the side of the Canyon wall.
We refilled our bottles at Indian Gardens and started the long, slow ascent of the South Rim (via the Bright Angel Trail). We were able to ascend the Wall due to something like 45 switchbacks (see photos below). Craziness. Every few minutes we’d stop to catch our breath, say hi to a few foreign tourists (the South Rim is open all year round and is by far the more popular Rim, with hotels, restaurants and a small city), and stare above at the Wall. Despite the increasing noise of people, the Canyon silenced everything.

After three hours…
“I think we only have like three more switchbacks–see up there, where those people are? I think that’s the end.”

One hour later…
“Ok, I swear, I think there’s only like a couple more switchbacks.”
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With a 1/4 mile or so remaining, the crowded trail grew noisier from the sound of fire trucks and an ambulance. Looking back north, then down below, it was easy to understand why it was a familiar noise on the more popular South side (lots of people + steep drop-offs = ambulance noise). A great welcoming siren after 7 hours of silence. Ahhhh society. Even the sirens return to the Silence. Just wait and see. We sprinted the last 100 yards or so and slapped hands. “That was awesome!” “That was exhausting…but yes, awesome!” We looked back at the Canyon and briefly discussed (jokingly?) how it would feel to head back the way we came (R2R2R), then laughed and called it a day.
Well done, sir. Well done.
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I stood in silence facing the Canyon the next morning, and felt grateful. Sometimes, when I try so hard to chase down the Silence, seeking calm and peace, I am often rewarded when I simply stand still and let it find me.
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Thank you, Kelsea. Thank you, Morgan. Thank you, Phoenix Family. Thank you, Mick.
See y’all next time. 🙂

sunset the night before R2Rsun comin' up~70 switchbacks total on R2Rheadin' toward the Riverswitch it back!finishing on the South Rim