Reflections, Takeaway, and Tips from the 24-hour R2R2R Challenge Trip
Note: After every R2R trip I (Dan) type up a debriefing for myself: what worked well, what didn’t, what I would change, etc. This document is sort of a hybrid between my usual debriefing for my benefit as well as a hike report for the other R2R alum, future R2R hikers, and anyone else who has any interest.
In 2015 our family set out on our first great road trip out west. A week at Glacier and a week at Yellowstone. 5,000+ miles in the van. As soon as we got past Kansas City and left the traffic behind us I loved every mile of it.
Nothing like being on an interstate crossing South Dakota, setting the cruise at 85 with the speed limit of 80, and not having to touch that baby for hours at a time. There would be plenty of stretches where you would get up on a plateau and could see for miles and miles in all directions and you have the road completely to yourself. That’s my kind of road trip. Bumper to bumper traffic to a busy beach – hard pass. But give me an open road and a mountain and the chance to look for wildlife and I’m content.
Somewhere along a Wyoming highway I heard a phrase that landed in my brain – more like my soul: “R2R.” Having no idea what all that entailed I was intrigued by the idea of leaving one rim of the Grand Canyon and hiking to the other rim. “That’s pretty neat – I should do that,” was about the extent of my research at that point.
I had been to the canyon a few times as a tourist – as a kid with my family and we had taken a side trip there for a day several years ago when I attended a conference in Vegas. When we got home and started planning our next year’s road trip – Colorado, Utah, and Arizona – I initially told Claire that she could drop me off at the North Rim, I would hike to the South Rim while they did the 6-hour drive around to the South Rim where we could spend the night, and at some point Id hike out and join them.
Boy did I have a lot to learn. As I started looking into exactly what an R2R hike is and what it entails I quickly realized my ignorance and dove right in. First off, this is not a hike you do by yourself. Too much risk. It is a hike that requires training – proper training that I learned from our first trip where most of our training was done on a flat track or a woefully small hill. It also requires a certain kind of gear that is beyond the scope of this recap. And, most importantly, the entire process – training, planning, and hiking is best done with a group.
Rim-to-Rim takes you from one rim of the Grand Canyon, down that rim across the most beautiful stretch of hiking you can imagine, and then back up the other rim. It’s roughly a 23-24 mile hike that at some point brings you across the Colorado River via a footbridge that extends more than the length of a football field. It is awesome!
Most people forget the Grand Canyon is in the Rocky Mountains. While the Colorado river at the bottom of the canyon sits at over 2,000 feet above sea level the South Rim sits at 7,200 feet. And there’s my favorite rim – the North. Sitting at 8,400 feet and, get this, its annual snowfall is twice the amount of my home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s a ton of snow. The road to the North Rim officially begins “Shoulder Season” on Oct 16th and closes at the first snowfall or Nov 15th whichever comes first.
There are 6.5M tourists a year who visit the canyon and the vast, vast majority of them head for the South Rim. A very small percentage goes to the North Rim, not as easy to get to, which makes it very, very quiet. 99% of all of those visitors peer into the canyon from the safety of the rim and are amazed at the beauty of one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. But if they only knew the view from inside the canyon…
So in 2017 I made my first R2R trip and have been back every year since with a team to hike the canyon. In 2019 we had a split team – part of the team hiked R2R South to North and part of the team hiked R2R2R over 2 days and we met and shared the 10 person cabin at Phantom Ranch before all hiking back to the North on day #2.
I think somewhere along the trail this concept of the 24-hour challenge – or “Death March” as it is known – started percolating. At first, the concept of doing R2R was impossible. Then the concept of doing R2R2R over 2 days was impossible. Finally, we arrived at the notion of taking on the 24-hour R2R2R challenge. And so the Death March journey began!
There were only 6 people crazy enough to make this attempt. Five of us had been through the canyon and had done the R2R2R over 2 days in 2019. Mike Littlefield, Pete Belcastro, Rob Jones & Crystal Cavanah, and myself. Between us, we had 19 R2Rs under our belt. And, first-timer to the canyon and R2R, Matt Idlett. As a general rule, I would have as a prerequisite that someone does R2R and even the 2 day R2R2R before thinking about attempting the craziness of the 24-hour R2R2R challenge but Matt does not fall into the general rule category.
Always one of my favorite moments is arriving at the North Rim and returning to the canyon. That never gets old. Restaurants were closed which was a little sad. Many good memories from pre-hike dinners and post-hike breakfasts in the lodge. We enjoyed the views from the “porch” and soaked in the canyon. It’s always a bit intimidating looking across the canyon and the realization of how big that baby really is and that we’re about to walk through it.
This was Matt’s first time to the Grand Canyon and that is at the top of my list for R2R. Introducing people to the canyon and especially in such an intimate way of heading into the interior.
The saloon was open for carryout dinner. We ordered pizza, which is typically the post-hike meal but we figured most of us would still be in the canyon way past the time the restaurants closed the next night so we opted to go with the pizza. Probably not the best meal before a 50-ish mile hike through the canyon and back but it sure was good!
Gear laid out and everything plugged in we tried to get settled in early. The alarm was set for 2:15 AM with a target step in time of 3:00 AM. In preparation for the hike, we did our due diligence in going over what to pack: food, clothes, tech, first aid, etc. I’d say this was the leanest pack I’ve brought into the canyon. Knowing we would hit the South Rim and Phantom Ranch and would have the opportunity to resupply to some extent helped. I also went light on tech – no GoPro which meant no chest mount, no extra battery, and one less charger to deal with.
We met at 2:45 AM, got bladders filled, piled into the vans, and headed for N Kaibab trailhead. We knew the day we hiked was the new moon which meant as little moonlight as possible. Which made it very, very dark, and added a little difficulty to the hiking at night but boy did it bring out the stars!
3:00 AM – at the trailhead and I would say it was noticeably colder there than at the lodge for whatever reason. Probably 50-ish with a pretty good breeze. Went over any last-minute items, said our prayer, and at 3:05 AM the 24-hour challenge began.
Mike, Pete, and Matt led us in and set their steady pace right off the bat. I was in the middle and Rob and Crystal, aka the LoveBirds, were behind me. With it being so dark it was easy to see everyone’s light. North Kaibab is a tough trail with millions of rocks of all different sizes and cedar logs placed as erosion barriers along with the switchbacks. I used my Strava app on my watch and my time to Phantom Ranch averaged around 16+ minutes a mile including a brief stop at Manzanita for water. I also stopped on one of the footbridges just beyond Manzanita, turned off my lights, and just enjoyed all those stars. That was partly for me but also for my special friend Paul who has taught me – tried to teach me – to slow down and enjoy the canyon. Still learning PJ!
I got to PR around 6:45. Had some stomach issues and spent a little time trying to get that right. Met Mike and Pete at the picnic table in front of the canteen. Matt had already set out and they were just getting ready to go. They gave me the rest of their ice – always a good call to buy a bag of ice from PR – which I put in my 2 Gatorade bottles and the rest in my bladder (it was really nice to have a cold drink all the way to the S Rim). Eventually, I felt better and was able to grab a cup of coffee from the canteen. They closed at 7:00 but I took Mike’s advice and went to the window and asked for a cup of coffee which the nice lady working there took care of for me. Not much stirring at PR. Guessing the overnight guest had already set out.
I made radio contact with the LoveBirds who were just behind me as I walked by Bright Angel Creek and on to the Silver Footbridge.
As I was crossing the Silver Footbridge, rafters were coming right below me and I stopped in the middle of the bridge, exchanged waves, and watched them go through the rapids – I’m learning PJ! I noticed a mule team coming on the south side of the river from the east on the River Trail and I really didn’t want to get behind a mule team at this point. Mules usually go a little faster than hiker’s pace but they stop. Some team leaders don’t mind you passing but I’m always a little cautious of walking behind a dozen or so mules. I always prefer to avoid their fresh pools of pee and piles of crap 🙁 So I hustled ahead of them and kept a good pace through the sandy river trail and on my way up to Indian Gardens.
Plenty of radio contact to know where everyone was. Everyone had a radio and the plan was when you arrive/leave a stop you communicate that to the team. It was nice to know where everyone was but also just a nice mental break. Also met a friend on the trail!
The climb up S Rim was tough. Nothing at the canyon is given to you. I think mentally knowing when we got to the top we had to turn around and do it again was a factor. I took my time and averaged around 30 minutes a mile which included rest stops at 3 mile and 1 ½ mile resthouse.
Pete and I met up at Indian Gardens. He was just getting ready to leave as I was coming in. Lots of traffic at Indian Gardens – lots of rafters on their way down to the river. Matt was at the S Rim and Mike wasn’t far behind.
I met up with Matt on his way back down maybe 2 miles or so from the rim. He looked great and, based on training, it was no surprise to anyone that he was in full beast mode. I passed Mike right before the 1st tunnel from the Rim. Mike is notorious for not taking any pics so I made sure to get a pic for Leighanne.
Got out and walked to Bright Angel Gift shop. You could order food and Powerade from the window of the deli. I grabbed 4 Powerades and a fruit bowl and enjoyed sitting on a bench for about 35 minutes. Took off shoes and socks for a while and swapped socks. By that time we knew Rob was having some hydration issues. I was out of range for the lovebirds but they were in radio range with Matt and Mike. Since I was in range with them I was aware of about where they were. Pete came up shortly after me and we sat at the best darn bench in the world.
I felt really good after the break. It’s amazing what 30 minutes off your feet – and going down vs up – can do for you.
As I was walking to the trailhead to head back in, a young guy came out of the canyon and was proclaiming to everyone there that he just hiked R2R, “I did it! I just hiked R2R! I can’t believe I did it!” As much as I really wanted to say something like – “Hey, how about we head back??” I let him enjoy his moment and his lifetime achievement. I know what that’s like and there’s no reason to discount that in any way.
I felt great coming back down Bright Angel – what a great trail compared to S Kaibab! Lots and lots of day hikers all the way down to Indian Gardens. I had radio contact with the lovebirds and knew they were somewhere below the 3 mile resthouse. I let them know I had 2 Powerades for them and my location. When I reached them thankfully I still had a cell signal. They knew the South Rim was their destination and R2R2R was not in the cards today – sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
I’ve seen some impressive efforts during R2R and I have to say someone who is feeling bad – dehydrated, nauseous, just sick – and can climb out of that canyon is in a league of their own. Kudos to Rob for getting out and for Crystal being right there with him.
We were able to call Xanterra Resorts and got a really nice guy named Jake. The signal wasn’t great and it was a lot of dancing on rocks and trying to get a signal but after a 35 minutes phone call, we got a room at the S Rim and got details worked out. Pete had joined us at some point and stayed with us and when we got the room booked we encouraged him to go ahead which he did.
Shortly after leaving the lovebirds, I passed through Indian Gardens. Quick bathroom stop and a little water fill up and back on the trail. It was hot – north of 120 – but there was enough shade here and there to keep it from being a major issue.
From that point, I passed only a handful of other hikes. I did a really good job of stepping over the creeks and keeping my feet dry on that stretch. But at one point towards the end of the creek crossings, I just misstepped and had a really wet shoe and sock for the next couple of miles. The good thing was it was hot enough where it didn’t stay wet for long.
My pace was around 18-19 minutes a mile back to PR. Felt good and felt really great to get back to the Silver Footbridge. I knew when I left the South Rim that I was going down the rim and would be entering the box at the exact wrong time of day but there was no better way around it.
Side note – When I used my Strava app whatever pictures I took with my phone shows up when I go to the Strava website. So I can click on a mile – for example “Mile 35” and it will give me a google map of the actual mile with that mile in blue along with any pics that I took on that mile.
Caught up with Pete at PR. Both of our radio batteries had died at that point and it had been an hour or longer since I had any contact with Mike but I could pick up Matt which was odd because Matt was ahead of Mike. Maybe had to do with where we all were – sometimes you get tucked in behind a wall and there’s no signal.
Felt good to swap out socks. Tried to eat but had very little appetite. Did a couple of Nutter Butters dipped in peanut butter and tried best I could to eat a piece of beef jerky to get sodium. Filled up with water knowing we had 7+ miles to the next water stop. I was really looking forward to a lemonade. I kept one of my Powerade bottles with the sole intent to fill it with that ice-cold sugary PR lemonade. But I got to PR about 10 minutes after the canteen closed and they were in full swing for dinner prep. Bummer.
We got talking to a guy who was from St. Louis and was hiking with a group up the next day. He said he was going up S. Kaibab to which I told him I would strongly recommend Bright Angel. But his buddy had done it before so that was the plan. Ok – good luck:) As the rest of his group came out for dinner we got chatting some more and they ended up helping us with Pete’s radio. Thanks to Mike’s prep we had extra batteries but couldn’t figure out how to get the clip off to get access to the screws – and then unscrew them – to replace. One of the guys finally figured it out and that ended up being a huge blessing. Having radio contact coming up the rim in the dark was really, really nice.
I would tell your average person that hiking the box is the most beautiful hike of your life. Right alongside the rushing creek for most of the trip with the canyon walls running up beside you in all directions. A very slight elevation drop/gain pending which way you were going. But I got to say, doing those 9 miles between PR and Manzanita was no fun. We were going up which didn’t help. It was hot and the wind was blowing a constant amount of dust so my mouth had a pretty bad case of cottonmouth. The warm water from my pack just wasn’t hitting the spot. But I think the hardest part more than anything was knowing that the hardest part of the day was waiting for us when we hit Manzanita.
Just prior to getting there Pete and I arrived at Cottonwood just as the sun set and a very dark night was setting in. We didn’t stop to put our lights knowing we were close. It was pretty dark by the time we entered cottonwood. Took us a little bit to find the water pump – which shouldn’t be hard because it is right off the path. But it was dark by then and the cumulative effects of the day were beginning to pile up. After a little bit of poking around, we found the pump.
There was a professional guide there filling up. We chatted a bit and when he asked us what we were doing and we got a little more than the usual day’s response, “Holy shit! You’re kidding me?? You’re doing R2R2R North to North?!? In 24 hours?!?” From the day hiker who you happen upon that conversation, they want to get their picture with you and keep saying, “Really? You came all the way from the North Rim and you’re going back!?” From the average canyon hiker, there’s almost a sense of pride when they wish you well and tell you how awesome that is. But when a guy who makes his living hiking the Grand Canyon reacts in disbelief you start wondering if this was really such a good idea.
As he was filling up his last bottle he said “60 degrees here tonight. Picnic tables can make for a nice resting spot if you need it for the night.”
That was the only time I gave any consideration or thought about shutting it down. I knew #1 if I laid down it was all over for the night and that tomorrow I’d have to hike out anyways, and #2 when we left for Manzanita that the rim was the only option. No way I wanted to get stuck on the rim as temps dropped – low of 50 at the rim that night. And I was really fatigued but overall felt good enough to grind it out.
Plus, it was what we came here to do. One of the things we discussed over and over again in preparing was when we hit Manzanita on the way back, that was when the real work would begin. We knew we would be 40+ miles and probably 15+ hours into it, getting cold, very dark, possible alone – glad to have Pete with me and we had radio contact at that point – and just plugging the final 5+ miles up a very, very difficult trail.
We left Manzanita around 7:45ish. Very dark. Lights on. My belt lamp was great when it worked. But it would often turn off/on. Then I would fumble in the dark trying to either get a charged plugged while I used my headlamp – not great but ok. It was always a bit unsettling especially when I was behind Pete for any kind of distance when it would suddenly go black.
At one point I just walked ahead of Pete and used his light. I eventually figured out, close to the rim unfortunately, that the belt light would stay on as long as I had both sides of the head screwed in tight.
And so for the next 5+ hours, it was heel to toe, heel to toe. One switchback at a time. The occasional relief especially between Manzanita and Redwall bridge was a very welcome change from the constant uphill moving.
It was nice to hear Mike and eventually Matt at the rim over the radio. As we got closer and closer it got colder and colder. The wind had really picked up and every now and then the wind would bring with it a rush of warm canyon air which was nice. It’s hard to get up that North Rim on rested or moderately tired legs. But that last 5 hours may have been the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done. I compare it to doing the 112 miles bike ride of an ironman in 45-degree weather and pouring down rain. But at least with that, there was support and help and other people all around you if you needed it. In the canyon, especially on the rim after midnight you are on your own.
We got word that Mike was out – another impressive effort by a guy who is just a machine in the canyon. And at one point we could start to see a little dim of lights which I thought/hoped was the parking lot. I radioed ahead that I thought we were close and after confirming Matt honked the horn and we knew it was right there.
Of course, the 3 largest steps of the entire hike are those huge steps right at North Kaibab trailhead. Matt and Mike were waiting for us with warm vans and cold Powerades. It took 22 hours but the R2R2R 24-hour challenge was successfully checked off!