With my mantra firmly planted in my mind, I WAS able to start and finish with a smile and some sense of accomplishment. During the meat of the journey? Well, let's just say "it tested this mantra of mine to the frayed ends."
Unlike any other adventure I have been on, our attempt of a full Tonto Trail Traverse in the Grand Canyon demanded the "next level" in my ability to push myself and execute. Some of the largest difficulties included no support, a seriously light and committing pack and tight window of time (we gave ourselves a widow of about 37-38 hours of travel time and about 35 hours of food max with about 200 calorie per hour average), all emergency exits and the final exit out of the canyon involving 3,500+ feet of vertical to reach the rim and safety, a freak scorcher of a day, limited water sources and 96 miles of extremely rough travel in the Grand Canyon to then, hopefully, reach our final goal of the full traverse and the rim at the New Hance Trailhead.
While looking back at this list of difficulties it makes one wonder why we didn't just say "hey, why don't we just bring a bit more food in a heavier pack, bring some lightweight sleeping stuff and give ourselves a bit more of a window to do this thing in 2 to 3 days. Well, that would have been a lot more comfortable and safe, as we would have been able to "fast pack" the whole thing and virtually ensure a finish of the full Tonto Trail Traverse. But, we had the notion as runners that pushing the thing to the fastest or near fastest that we could would be a lot more exciting and potentially rewarding. There was a lot more risk of not being able to complete the whole traverse due to any number of things going wrong but if we WERE able to complete the traverse it would be either the fastest known time (FKT) or withing hours of it and we would have the satisfaction of knowing we didn't hold back. That, instead of holding back, we stepped into the unknown "all in" and without any reservations.
So... after a fun ride through roughly 30 miles of dirt road (thanks Chris and Jess for the ride!) and a night of somewhat good sleep on the edge of the world at the S. Bass Trailhead in the far left reaches of Grand Canyon National Park (I literally slept about 30 feet from the edge of the canyon with one of the best views from my sleeping bag in a long time), we started the run at exactly 6 am in the early morning light.
|(Just before our 6 am start at S. Bass Trail...psych was high!)|
|(Jeff running along a bench on the S. Bass Trail.)|
Once on the Tonto Trail, we started noting how it already felt plenty warm and started discussions of how we needed to stay up on keeping ourselves cool, hydrated and getting plenty of electrolytes. We also communicated how we needed to just take our time through this first 30 or so miles of Tonto as the water sources would be few and far between, it was going to be super hot and there would be almost zero shade. We, basically, knew that we were going to be in for a scorcher and there was nothing we could do about the heat if we were going to try and do this run. We needed to keep moving forward while doing our best to monitor ourselves to make adjustments along the way.
|(Great morning light at S. Bass/Tonto Junction)|
We reached some flowing water at Serpentine Canyon (not recommended for a water source as it is high in minerals) and we doused ourselves to cool off knowing that our first good water source was only a few more miles away.
|(Jeff after dousing himself at Serpentine.)|
It's worth noting at this point, for those interested in the quality of this "most remote" section of the Tonto Trail, that the trail, although extremely faint in many places, was quite easy to follow by "faint trail" standards. We only got off trail 3 or 4 times in the entire section between S. Bass and Boucher and only once did we stay off trail for more than 100 yards. I had heard tails of "tricky to maneuver" cactus fields if you get off trail but I experienced nothing of the sort. Besides, if you go to far to the left off trail you run into a 1,000+ foot tall cliff below you and if you go to far to the right you run into skyscraper cliffs leading up to the rim. Basically, the hard parts to follow are out in the flat open areas and the easier parts are near and in side canyons that you have to cross where people have marked the trail well and beaten down a common path. I think the only thing that would make it really hard would be if you were on the trail in the late spring (mid April on) and the grass had grown high enough to fully disguise the faint trail. But, by then it is usually too hot to want to run this section of the Tonto anyway.
So, by the time we hit our first water source, Ruby Canyon (mile 14.7), we were excited to pick up some water as we were pretty much out and the morning temps were starting to get quite hot. When we reached it, however, what we thought was going to be flowing water (from recent reports) ended up being a few, quickly drying, potholes.
|(Small pools of water at Ruby Canyon.)|
|(Filling up at Ruby.)|
In the end, we decided that we should continue as, worse case scenario, we would limp our way to Boucher Creek if Slate was dry and reassess our situation there.
So, after filling up all our hand helds and bladders and dousing ourselves in water, we were off walking and jogging toward Slate. Somewhere along this section I started having some real trouble with the heat. I couldn't seem to pee or even feel the need to and I was drinking a ton of water and eating plenty of food and snacks with electrolytes. Mostly I just felt weak, irritated, like I didn't want to drink or eat and when I ran I started cramping up and felt dizzy. I realized that I needed to slow down and do some damage control. I went into walk, drink and eat mode. I was determined to get back on track.
Even with all the walking, eating and drinking I still felt quite crappy all mid day. The heat was literally crushing me. By the time we reached Slate Canyon (mile 31.1) I was pretty beat down. Luckily, there was flowing water at Slate and we were able to douse ourselves drink a bunch of water and hang out in the shade of an outcrop of rock for about a half hour. It went a long way to making me feel better. I didn't feel great but most certainly better than a couple hours before.
|(Water at Slate Canyon.)|
When we were on our way again to Boucher I had regained some of my higher spirits from earlier in the day. The heat of the day was going to diminish in a couple hours and I thought I might get stronger and recover well enough to really get going again by the time dark and it's cooler temperatures came.
During the 4.9 miles from Slate to Boucher I had a good effort of, albeit slow, running mixed in with my walking. Jeff was doing a bit better than I and was always able to keep a bit of a gap that I used to keep me motivated to move forward quickly. I just kept thinking... I've got to try and catch him (I'm sure he would laugh at reading this as he seemed to be holding himself back to keep me in view behind him).
We noted that, even though the heat was crushing us, we were still on track for a run at the fastest known time even with our slowed pace. This thought, along with the coming nightfall and cooler temps, kept my spirits somewhat high through my suffering in the heat.
The last 1/2 mile or so downhill scramble to the heavenly Boucher Creek broke me a little. After doing so well again on the last 4 miles from Slate I was a bit surprised to be feeling so beat again. On the slow hike down to Boucher Creek I kept thinking about how the hell I could drink such an amazing amount of water and continue to consume food and electrolytes and still not be able to pee and still feel so crappy. To be honest, I did pee once or twice, late in the day, but it was barely a trickle (almost not worth noting) and was dark brown. Bad, bad bad.
By the time I plopped myself in the shade by Boucher Creek (mile 36) I felt finished. I didn't fully disclose this to Jeff as he seemed to be in better spirits and energy. He told me that he was a bit wrecked from the heat and had felt dizzy a few times but he was clearly, as shown by his ability to stay a head of me so easily for the last 15 miles, in better shape than I was.
|(Jeff at Boucher Creek.)|
Instead, after about 15 minutes or so, we got up and I forced myself to continue on. The cool of evening was coming in the next hour and I felt I could at least walk so at least we would be moving forward until more energy came later.
Instead, from the first steep steps up the climb out of Boucher Creek to get back on the Tonto, everything went downhill fast. I felt like lead. I just had no energy to go up the hill. With every step it got more and more difficult and by the time I got half way up the hill I was fighting dizzy feelings and then by the time I reached the top of the hill and the Tonto Trail I had felt like passing out a couple times. I bent over with my hands on my knees and tried to steady myself. I got a bit scared and realized that I was on the path to becoming "one of those people" that they rescue in the canyon. I did not want to be rescued! It was not an option! I needed to take care of myself and stop what was happening before it even got close to out of control.
It became clear to me that I was not continuing until I sat down in the shade for as long as it took to start feeling better. Be that 30 minutes or a day, I didn't care. I just wanted to be able to continue forward and get myself out of the canyon under my own power and not someone else's.
I told Jeff about my situation and he agreed that the heat had beat us pretty good. He was having some of the same feelings but, again, not quite as bad as me. I felt a bit bad for him as I felt that I was holding him up from continuing on and trying to finish but I didn't have a choice at this point. I needed to sit down and recover.
The next hour was a bit surreal for me. Never had I had such an issue with heat. It was weird... I didn't feel sore from running (we had only gone 36 miles for heaven sake and I had walked a fair bit of it), I just couldn't get moving without feeling extremely drained, sleepy and dizzy. So, I sat there, spaced out, drank water, ate some food, thought, over and over, how I could have kept this from happening and just tried to collect myself and give my body some time to get some back.
After an hour or so of sitting in a little outcrop of rock, I let Jeff know that I was ready to continue. I felt a bit better again and felt like continuing at least to Hermit Creek (6.5 miles from Boucher) to reassess would be the right thing to do. I still had hopes in the corner of my mind that I would be able to continue if I could just start feeling better after dark. Jeff had this same feeling that night time could get us moving again. We had pretty much let go of a FKT but that was fine, we just wanted to either slowly make our way to the finish or exit early and lick our wounds.
Boucher to Hermit went surprisingly smooth after my breakdown at Boucher and I was able to walk pretty quickly into the low light of dusk, to Hermit Creek (mile 42.5), where we got more water and continued on our way.
|(Amazing evening light as we looked back over the Colorado River near Hermit Creek.)|
When I said above that Hermit creek was a weird spot, it was because at Hermit Creek I had a clear and obvious trail to the rim and safety but because of mileage and logistics it was actually better to stay in the canyon to go to the much more heavily traveled and less rugged Bright Angel Trail even though that seemed on a primitive level to be crazy. Logically it was sound, but with my primitive side firing it's survival instincts at me, I just wanted to go up and out, now not later.
As we moved along the Tonto toward Indian Gardens in the darkness I had hours to think about how excited I was when I started this dream of an adventure, how the heat had crushed me, how I now just wanted to survive, how I was able to shuffle along at a decent walking pace but couldn't bring myself to run as I was afraid of cramping or becoming dizzy, how bright the stars were, how loud the frogs croaked, how the Colorado roared below us, how burly the Grand Canyon is, how intense this experience was and the fragility of life. I was stripped raw and just wandering along in the intensity of the Grand Canyon and the effort that I was exerting. I was just surviving. Any thoughts of FKT's, finishing the Tonto, or even going past Indian Gardens and the Bright Angel Trail seemed to wash away. I didn't care. I just was in the moment of the Tonto wandering in and out of canyons and over open flats knowing that soon enough I would be out of this canyon and the adventure would be over.
I vaguely remember thoughts and conversations, during this section of the Tonto, of continuing to S. Kaibab if we felt up to it or even going further but by the time we reached Indian Gardens (mile 55.5) but I knew the adventure was over. I never really got much back like I had hoped and just needed a good nights sleep and to pee (yes, I still hadn't pee'd yet!). I had taken myself past a point of recovering while moving forward. To stop forward motion and call it good was in order. Besides, the dream of continuing was squashed for good when we did a quick food check at Indian Gardens and realized that we didn't have enough food to reach the finish at our new slow pace even if we could do it pushing 37 or 38 hours. We weren't even sure if we would have enough to make it to an early exit at the Grandview Trail. This sealed the deal for me as I couldn't risk not having food at the end even if I did make it there in my present state.
At 3 am we ate most of what was left of our solid food and drank a bunch of water, FINALLY HAD A GOOD PEE! and laid down in the Indian Garden bathroom stalls to go to sleep for a couple hours.
I marveled at how well I slept on the floor with my legs wrapped around the toilet and the novelty of just standing up when I had to pee (just as morning came I had my first good pretty clear pee) and then laying back down right there. Around 6ish a.m., we worked our ways out of the johns, sent a Spot message for Susan so she would know we were exiting the canyon and where (found out later she never got the Spot message...whoops, but I was able to get a hold of her on the rim with my cell phone...thanks for picking us up Susan!) and headed for the rim.
|(My bedroom in the toilet stall at Indian Garden. Luxury!)|
After seeing our first people 42.5 miles into the adventure at Hermit Creek and then only seeing tents and sleeping backpackers at Monument at 46 miles it was a long day without seeing people. A true wilderness adventure.
While on the Bright Angel Trail we made up for it. People were everywhere as always on that trail. I was torn with my feelings while exiting on that trail... sad to be back in the real world, happy to be back in the safety of humans and the rim with all it's amenities and Susan and her parents who were going to pick us up. Funny, to have the feeling of sadness and happiness for the same thing. Weird, but so true, after coming back from experiences like this it's easy to not want to let go but also be excited for the comforts of home and to see family and friends.
After 60 miles and just over 24 hours of movement in the Grand Canyon, even though we didn't do the whole Tonto Trail, this was my most memorable adventure in the Grand Canyon by far. Nothing I have done or attempted to do in there even comes close and even though I remember telling Jeff that I thought this was the worse I had ever felt on a run and than it didn't make me want to do anything like this again if I felt this way again...IT WAS AWESOME!
Not only did I have a memorable adventure but I had a HUGE lesson with running in the heat to be learned from the experience. In the two weeks removed from the experience I have had some time to process the adventure, and although I think I made a lot of good choices in there to deal with the situation, I feel that I made one fatal decision to NOT chill out at Slate Canyon for the heat of the day and continue on later. Just a couple of hours of hanging out there re hydrating, hanging in the cooler shade, taking in electrolytes and generally chilling out would have carried us through to finish the Tonto Trail (baring any other issues later in the run). We probably wouldn't have put in a record time but we would have had a way better chance of finishing.
I know why we didn't hang there in the shade and it was because of the pull to continue forward and the lack of knowledge for how things would spiral so far downward later. It's tough to stop and sit down for a couple hours during an effort where it feels like you always need to be moving forward.
But, unless I can get substantial warm weather runs in to train for something like this (I didn't have any real runs in weather warmer than 45 degrees except one in the two months leading up to the Tonto Run), I need to be smarter in there and accept that I'm not prepared and just sit down in the shade 'till things get cooler.
I'm going to really need to burn this lesson into my brain as I never want to go through something like that again! Train heat or don't try to run a big effort in it. Seems obvious right now as I type this...but, wasn't at the time.
Oh yeah, also, I need to burn into my memory to bring another 1,500 calories of solid foods along (I brought 7,500 calories total). Solid foods are what I ran out of and I couldn't imaging trying to do the rest of the distance on just GU's and Shot Blocks (...all I had left) after what I had been through. Must remember...more calories and solid foods next time I try to do this even if I'm in better shape and don't think I need it.
As far as posting up what it take to run the Tonto (water sources, mileage distances, time of year and all that...), I think I'm going to pass on that for now... We had to do a ton of research and I feel that I might ruin the adventure of it for others if I totally dumb it down with a big beta spray down. I think that there is already enough info through the Grand Canyon National Park and Crockett's blog post to get people set up for success anyway.
If your interested in doing it, though, and want more beta than the web can give then let me know. I will be glad to give you the blow by blow with water, distances, tricky spots and all that if you like. For adventure runners out there this is a king sized adventure run! It is for real... and hopefully I'll get my chance to experience the whole thing some day!