Running Grand Canyon

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Dante Alighieri says “Nature is the art of God”.

Doug and Eugene, two running friends from Ontario, my support team made up of my wife Edna, Brother Bill and his wife Grace, my cameraman Mel and I found our way to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.   Purpose of our event was Athletes in Action filming of runners in the Grand Canyon as a backdrop for a running documentary.  

To begin the filming Mel and I first got on board a EC 130 helicopter to film the Grand Canyon from above.   It was an exhilarating, but somewhat fearful experience as the Chopper flew over the edge of the Canyon South Kaibab Forest. In an instant we found ourselves hanging over the huge and deep Gorge over a mile down.  

The next task was to run the famous and most beautiful South Kaibab trail for filming. The major assignment was to hike down into the Canyon, where we would camp for 2 nights, via the Grandview Trail. We had originally planned to hike and film on the Bright Angel (Corridor Category) trail, which is fairly wide and safe.  However due unsuccessful attempts at getting the campsite permits, we chose the Grandview Trail which is a much more difficult trail, (a Threshold Category) with only self rescue status.  

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6,000 feet / 1,800 metres). The mighty Colorado River runs deep below in the Canyon from the Lake Powell dam to Lake Mead – Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. The Canyon is the 7th wonder of the world – a fantastic, awesome and inspiring place on this earth.  It is one exciting and overwhelming spectacle – with breathtaking views – it literally does take your breath away as you hike up or down the Grandview Trail.  Hiking down, you leave the plateau, entering a totally different world – no distinct landmarks to help you orient yourself.  You enter a separate realm of the Grand Canyon – leaving you awestruck and fascinated.  The Canyon presents fantastic vistas as we hike down the Coconino Sandstone walls. The Horseshoe Mesa is visible at times as we manoeuvre down the narrow, steep cobblestone trail.  Pete Berry constructed a juniper log cribbing along the cliff walls to support the Coconino trail. The Canyon envelops you – seemingly the whole world becomes a Canyon – a little unnerving.

We got down in 3 ¼ hours with some difficulty – namely Mel’s backpack was too heavy – thus a painful and sore knee.  We spent 2 nights on the Horseshoe Mesa.  Mel was kept busy filming the three runners at various locations and backdrops.  The Horseshoe Mesa has historic significance – a fascinating era of Pete Berry’s cabin ruins, mining implements and even rusted tin cans and rusted metal bed frames – and items of the past that tell stories of the bygone mining days of this rugged Canyon Mesa.    We found some cosy corner with some big rocks to set up a filming setting. for interviews about our personal running experiences.  Views from the Mesa are excellent, stretching southeast to the bold tower of Coronado Butte, east up the Canyon to the Palisades of the Desert, and northeast to the mountain-like buttes of the Vishnu Temple.   Mel featured various backdrops and angles, and all kinds of running questions and answers were discussed.  Great photos and footage were realized as we spotted a Tarantula on the rocks, a big black raven stealing our food, and the various Agave plants with the long dried out seed poles sticking way up into the blue skies.  The junipers and pinions, onion cactus and the rocky towering castle-like Buttes were super settings for the filming.  

The nights were cool, in fact cold – around the freezing point, or even lower. The wind behaved like a typical desert wind – at one time it was totally quiet and then 3 minutes later it was a gusting strong turbulent wind, flapping the tent canvas and making sleeping almost impossible.  I slept about 3 hours each night. My desert sleeping bag was way too thin.  I wore 5 layers of sweaters, tights and long johns, borrowed Mel’s jacket, and a sweatshirt, and I still “froze”.  He just lay in his bag all toasty warm.  

I admit I was physically fit for the Grand Canyon adventure, however mentally I was on the edge of my limits. This was mainly because of the narrow trails.  They were very narrow at places and I was getting strength and encouragement from the other runners/hikers.  Where one is weak the other is strong.  I think I banked off the other runner’s positive-ness, courage, humour and strength.

Eugene got up to the “Saddle” to drop his bag – then went back down to fetch Mel’s pack to make it easier for him to get up.   We carried one another’s burden, literally, in spirit, in our humour, in our prayers, making it lighter to get to the top.  Encouragement and positive attitudes are so important at times like these. We made it up in 3 hours and 50 minutes.  As we slowly made our way up, stepping very cautiously, the resting stops to catch our breath were getting to be more frequent.  For ever 20 steps we had to stop and breathe deeply for a few minutes. The air got thinner as we approached the near 7000 feet above sea level on the South Rim. I was reminded of Henry Thoreau’s statement – “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads”.

I realized that to hike the Grandview Grand Canyon Trail, you need to be armed with a positive attitude, an awareness of your limitations, adequate physical and mental conditioning, and the best possible light back packing equipment.  Like someone said – “Once you set your foot on this trail, the magic of the Grand Canyon begins to cast its spell on you”.

Albert Martens                                                                                             November 11, 2011
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