STOOKS, OLSON, BERTINELLI TRIUMPH IN RIM-TO-RIM ADVENTURE
By Stacy “Toes” Feducia Bertinelli
Team Limoncello Sporting News
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. – We came. We saw. We walked back to the car.
We walked back – from the North Rim to the South Rim, over 24 miles with a combined 10,230 feet of elevation-change, through 10 layers of rock, spanning 545 million years of geology.
In one day.
Participating in our second-annual adventure, our three-member Team Limoncello successfully completed the marathon-hike in less than 11 hours despite gimpy knees, sinister blisters and the heartbreak of “hitting the wall.”
“I’m glad that’s done,” said Kellee “Mountain Goat” Stooks, who led the intrepid trio with a blistering time of 10 hours exactly. “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Just give me my cigarettes,” said Kristi “Duct Tape” Olson, demonstrating her lung capacity with a strong 10 hours, 32 minutes. “Where are my matches?”
“I’m just so happy!” gushed Stacy “Toes” Bertinelli, conveniently using the third-person to describe her 10-hour, 37-minute ordeal when she greeted her compatriots at the Bright Angel overlook. “I feel great! Someone take our picture! We just came from the North Rim!”
After six months of training in withering Phoenix heat, dreaded night-marches through the Dreamy Draw wilderness and close encounters with the reptilian kind, we overcame personal and team obstacles to accomplish this year’s daunting quest.
The first challenge presented itself when we arrived just inside the park at the Mather Point screaming overlook.
“It’s huge!” Goat wailed. “Why did I let you talk me into this?”
“It’s so far down there!” Duct Tape screamed. “I don’t remember it being so far across! Kellee, get away from the edge!”
“We’re doomed!” I howled. “There’s no freakin’ way!”
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM TRAINING TIP, No. 1: Landmarks in real life are much larger than they appear in your memory. As such, it’s worthwhile to visit said landmark a few weeks before your hiking adventure – even if you’ve been there before as a child or Rim-hugging tourist.
After securing a coveted parking spot only 100 yards from our eventual terminus – the Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim – we boarded a shuttle for the 5½ hour ride to the North Rim, drop-off point for our epic walk back to the car.
According to the National Park Service, only 10 percent of all Grand Canyon National Park visitors ever see the North Rim. We didn’t see it either – arriving after dark and leaving before dawn. A giddy night of strange beds in a creaky Pioneer Cabin with a looming 4:30 wake-up call doomed all chances of a peaceful, pre-hike sleep.
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM TRAINING TIP, No. 2: Your imagination is a powerful tool for visualizing a successful hike. Inspirational readings can activate this critical resource. If you plan to sleep the night before your journey, don’t read books about hikers who amputate their own arms or news accounts about prison escapees.
Fortified with jalapeno beef jerky, two peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches, a toffee-and-chocolate-chip PowerBar Harvest Bar, a banana, a Hostess muffin, a quart of milk and two cups of coffee, we departed the North Kaibab Trailhead (elev. 8,250) at the official time of 5:35 AM (way-too-early) with an official temperature of 32 degrees (freakin’ freezing). Sunrise would not come for another hour.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise,” Mountain Goat said, her headlamp painting a small tunnel of light in the consuming darkness. “Who knew I’d be seeing it at the Grand Canyon?”
Thudding down the dusty path, adrenaline blocked the first sparks of pain: the hot rub of nascent blisters, the percussion bombs of hard-landing footfalls, the clumsy ballet of rolled ankles. We threaded through the thumbs and fingers of the North Transept working our way down to Bright Angel Creek, straining our eyes to find measures of progress.
Five miles to Roaring Springs, where a waterfall bursts from the middle of a cliff; another two miles to the leafy streamside of Cottonwood campground (halfway to Phantom Ranch – hooray!); plus two more miles to Ribbon Falls.
Wait, we weren’t supposed to go there, were we? The sign offered only two directions – right to Ribbon Falls or back to Cottonwood.
“STAY STRAIGHT ON THIS PATH TO PHANTOM RANCH, MORONS” was not a listed option.
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM TRAINING TIP No. 3: When in doubt, feel free to shout Sure, hollering across the Canyon to ask for directions is bad form, but it beats keening in agony two miles later when you realize your wrong turn has added four miles to your 24-mile adventure. Maps and signs can be misleading – so can other hikers – but if they’re coming from where you think you should be going, it doesn’t hurt to ask. (Just make sure to shout from your diaphragm, using your lungs instead of your vocal chords. Bending over helps marshal this powerful force.) And before you start carping because we skipped the waterfall, know this: You don’t do a Rim-to-Rim to sightsee. If that’s your goal, buy a 1.8-pound guidebook, stop reading this story and have a great time – we’ll see you back at the car.
Sunrise peeked over the towering horizon at 6:30 and followed us down the walls of the North Rim, but it would be four hours before we felt it warm our faces. By that time, we’d shed the windbreakers, gloves, headlamps, fleece jackets, stocking caps, long-sleeved jerseys and zip-off pants-legs, and we moved fast and light among shadow-casting skyscrapers built by trickles of water over millions of years.
Pounding downhill, Goat discovered she had the bladder of a hummingbird. Her relieving herself was a tremendous relief to me because at least it gave me the opportunity to catch up. Meanwhile, Duct Tape overcame her paralyzing fear of heights – sucking up into the canyon walls to skirt the yawning drop-offs from the trail’s edge.
“If I don’t look, I’ll be OK,” Kristi said. “The worst part will be the bridges – I’m just going to have to run across them and not look.”
With Kellee issuing frantic warnings about the sketchy construction of every bridge we approached, I began to worry that only two of us might return to the South Rim – Kristi having pitched Kellee over the rim in a fit of rage.
According to the National Park Service, 90 percent of the 5 million annual Grand Canyon National Park visitors never venture below the Rim. Those that do tend to cling to the well-trodden southern routes – Bright Angel and South Kaibab. Their loss: On the secluded North Kaibab Trail, we saw three deer poking along Bright Angel Creek and two wild turkey pecking for bugs near Phantom Ranch. Kristi even spotted a rare, shirtless hottie jogging among the reeds, as well as a fly-fishing firefighter loping back from an early-morning catch. She probably even considered crossing a bridge to get a closer look – which just goes to show that there’s wildlife for everyone at the North Rim.
Around 11 AM, we ended our 13.8-mile downhill trek at Phantom Ranch – the better-than-halfway-there point of our journey. Kristi had already swaddled her blistered feet in duct-tape only because we couldn’t fashion a moleskin sock for her. She’d also deftly taped my right knee to silence its ice-pick complaining about the relentless pounding of downhill hiking.
As a gentle breeze tickled the cottonwoods at Phantom Ranch, we enjoyed a flush-toilet potty stop, my first break and Kellee’s 10th – or was it 12th? – and we engaged in an intense debate over what to do with the four pounds of food we’d ordered for lunch (you don’t want to know).
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM TRAINING TIP No. 4: There are no Dumpsters on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Pack accordingly and light, because your legs aren’t the only things that carry you from Rim-to-Rim – your shoulders and back work just as hard. (Which is how team massage therapist, Ty Harris at Massage Envy–Scottsdale 101, makes his living). Some Team Limoncello members made fun of me for methodically weighing everything that went into my Camelbak pack – 2 mechanical pencils = .5 ounces; sudoku puzzle book for the ride to the North Rim = 5.5 ounces; 8 extra Double-A batteries = 8 ounces; car key = 2 ounces. Pack accordingly: Unless you can eat it or wear it, your shoulders will schlep it 24 miles.
Phantom Ranch, that shady idyll on the floor of the Grand Canyon, turned the corner to the second part of our journey: The 9.8-Mile-Long, 4,380-Foot-Tall, Uphill Part.
Uphill began at the Silver Suspension Bridge across the Colorado River, and Duct Tape almost fainted at the sight of it. We debated whether to lead her across blindfolded, but Kristi insisted on being witness to her potential plunge to perdition, so she gamely walked two paces behind Kellee, staring holes into the back of her skull to avoid looking down, through the flimsy metal grating and onto the torrential River of Doom about 40-to-400 feet below. As usual, I brought up the posterior, capturing the moment for posterity.
This worked well, until Goat asked how Kristi was doing. When Kristi meekly replied, “fine,” Kellee decided it was high time someone took a picture of me and left Duct Tape to fend for herself. Fortunately, the raging thrash of the mighty Colorado drowned out poor Kristi’s screams as she sprinted toward the end of the bridge and hugged the rock wall.
Bright Angel Trail climbs 9.8 miles from Phantom Ranch up to the South Rim. The first two miles are often called the “River Trail” because it skirts the sandy, silty edges of the Colorado River. I prefer to call it, the “I Hate This” Trail because, let’s face it, sand sucks.
It sucks the momentum from your steps, the thrust from your walking sticks and the joy from your thoughts. It sucks the hope of accomplishing this feat before sunset right out of your heart. It sucks the bonhomie of undertaking a grand adventure with your friends and deposits it along a shoreline of doubt and envy. Trudging through the sand, I smacked my big right toe into a rock and gave birth to a contraction of a four-letter word and “spectacular.”
“Shout it out,” Duct Tape encouraged. “Go ahead and scream! That looked like it hurt! Screaming takes the pain away. It really helps!”
Actually, it doesn’t. The pain didn’t go away until five days after we returned, when Team Limoncello podiatrist Dr. Brett Roeder shot it up with Novocaine and ripped out the offending toenail. Along with its companion-toenail on the left foot. By the time we reached the end of the trek, both had turned purple. By the time I got to Dr. Roeder’s office, I could barely walk. Yes, I kept them – and yes, we took pictures – and no, I did not share my new word with Dr. Roeder while he was sticking needles in my toes.
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM TRAINING TIP No. 5: Shoes and socks are the soul of your journey. The Grand Canyon is no place for flip-flops, no matter how many tourists you see traipsing around the upper reaches of Bright Angel Trail hoofed thusly. To understand the importance of good footwear, just ask Duct Tape how she got her nickname: Seven (7!) right-foot blisters, three (3!) left-foot blisters. Better yet, take a look at our “Gallery of Pain.” Just don’t eat anything first. Regardless of the good times you’ve had with your boots in the past, a Rim-to-Rim Adventure will school them like Friday afternoon detention with a chain-smoking assistant principal. Pack an extra pair of wool socks (2 ounces) in a water-tight baggie. Have a professional fit your boots, and wear them for long hikes BEFORE you get to the North Rim.
You hike the trail you’re given: Toe-jamming rocks, skittish shale, ashtray-sand swamped with burro urine and mule-chips, fall-away cliffs, slippery stream-crossings. Throughout the morning, I’d clacked along crab-like with my walking sticks, which Kellee and Kristi believed to be a drag on my progress. Truth of the matter is: I’m slow. I’ll take all the help I can get, including marshaling enough terror to sprint past snakes, taking advantage of a fellow hiker’s restroom break to gain some ground (thanks again, Goat) and using walking sticks as if they were crutches.
At the very least, the sticks helped arrest my speed and kept me from careening down a path to broken bones and dashed dreams at the bottom of the Canyon – and they came in handy when we encountered the mules.
More than 750 people have died inside Grand Canyon National Park since it achieved that status, according to the 2001 book, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon (see Important Rim-to-Rim Training Tip No. 2 – Not recommended pre-hike reading material). Though freak plane crashes grab more headlines, catastrophic falls are the leading portal to the hereafter in the Grand Canyon.
As we ascended the appropriately named “Devil’s Corkscrew” – masochistic climb, brain-tingling drop-offs – we encountered a mule-train coming down. The GCNP Official Guide instructs you to step to the safe side of the trail and wait for all of the mules to pass. Except that there was no safe side of the trail: There was a ledge the size of a skateboard. Thinking it would somehow save us, I planted my sticks in the trail like Hillary scaling Everest, and Team Limoncello hung 30 over a 300-foot chasm with Duct Tape digging bruises into our arms.
I am a tortoise walking back to the car with a pair of hares.
Climbing the Corkscrew to Indian Garden goes something like this: Goat and Duct Tape skitter blithely ahead, their hats becoming ever-tinier specks bobbing up the trail. They pause to view a pretty scene or cheerfully ignore posted warnings to “KEEP WILDLIFE WILD” and share M&Ms with rabid squirrels. “Look, he’s holding the almond in his little paws; he’s so cute! Look at his sweet chubby cheeks. How cute, he’s following us! Hey, he just bit me!” I chuff, churn and chug to close the gap, arrive in a panting heap, snap a photo of Goat, Duct Tape and said squirrel. Rested, they head out again. I spew lung contents onto said trail, choke down half a Harvest Bar, cough up warm sports drink, pocket the camera. Repeat as necessary.
I figured this pas de trios had gone on long enough when I started seeing a Hansel-trail of M&Ms scattered on the rocks that served as the barrier protecting trail-goers from certain doom. Was Goat laying a path for my dawdling Gretel to follow – or was she providing hors d’oeuvres for the rabid squirrels that would feast on my festering body later that day?
Full disclosure: As a small child, I was terrified of being attacked by rabid squirrels, but therapy helped me overcome my fears. I kid you not.
By the time I arrived at Indian Garden, I’d already unsheathed my salvation – my husband’s 6.5-ounce iPod with the entire Led Zeppelin catalog interred therein. When I finally caught up with them, I had decided to release my fellow travelers of any guilt or obligation to the team, and I would bravely urge them forward without me, since I had John Bonham to pace my footfalls and Robert Plant to shout me onward.
“We’re going to go on ahead,” Goat said, as I staggered like a wounded crab, gasping to issue my prepared statement. “My leg’s starting to lock up when I stand still, so Kristi and I are going to keep moving.”
Her mouth moved, but Robert howled Goin’ down, Goin’ down down. Goin’ down. I pulled the buds from my throbbing ears. The ringing rushed back to my skull.
“No – gasp, pant, pant, pant – I think… pant, pant… you should… gasp, hack, hack, hack… Go on… Wheeze… Wheeze… Wheeze… Me iPod.” I nodded and pointed forward with my stick.
“You’re doing great!” Goat said, and bounded up the trail with Duct Tape.
“Bye, bye, sausages,” I thought, uttering my favorite fond farewell and patting the 2-ounce car-key in my right pocket. I plugged in my ear buds and plunged back into “When the Levee Breaks” for the third time. All last night, I sat on the levee and moaned…
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM TRAINING TIP No. 6: Though they’re not included in the iPod, you can take a page from Fleetwood Mac and go your own way. In fact, I highly recommend it – but only on the Bright Angel Trail where you’re likely to run into people who can help if you’re in distress. Trying to keep up with hares when you’re a tortoise sets you up for heartbreak, frustration and resentment. Even though “serious hikers” scoffed at me for listening to the iPod, Robert, Jimmy, John Paul and John kept me company and sustained my pace. Plus, The Immigrant’s Song is good for screaming until the pain of yet another stubbed toe burns away. Hammer of the gods, indeed.
And so, with 4½ miles to go, I started going up – going up, up – in earnest. I discovered that even in the slowest Toes, there’s a little Mountain Goat: Suddenly I wanted to pass the tourists. Chica wearing jeans and a doo-rag? Check. Asian stereotypes snapping photos of mule-poop. Check. Newlyweds straining their marriage on the switchbacks. Check. Too-cute-for-you Scottsdale hiker-babe with preternaturally perky breasts and fabulous Juicy Couture hiking/leisure apparel… OK, so she’s got a few spin classes on me. I caught her when she stopped at the 3-mile Resthouse, and yes, she passed me back.
But she didn’t start at the North Rim. At 5:35 that morning. Bitch.
Going up… going up, up meant that my knee quit whining. I learned that the mule-trains pounded down a certain cadence, building up moguls on the trail. If I stepped from mogul to mogul, I covered good distance and never had to descend into the perils of mule-urine or the screaming heartbreak of a wounded knee.
Still careful, I choked down my prescribed, hourly half of a Harvest Bar and gulped my swig of sports drink, chasing it with warm water. Team physician and orthopedic trauma surgeon, Jeff “Thank God, we didn’t need you” Martin, has run Rim-To-Rim in a sick seven hours. He made me promise to eat before I got hungry and drink before I got thirsty and use my walking sticks religiously. These fueling interludes allowed me to take photos of where I’d been and where I was headed, to chat up unsuspecting hikers, and in a bittersweet moment, to change the playlist on the iPod.
Though Led Zeppelin had served me well, the trek from the 3-mile Resthouse to South Rim called for a peppier step as delivered by our friend, Moby (The PLAY album – Here we are now, going to the South Side).
Seeing the “bathtub ring” or the white, upper-most level of Kaibab Limestone, euphoria seized my heart and I bounded up the trail, a gate-mouthed smile strung from cheek to cheek. OK, in reality, I probably moved like a snail on Quaaludes and might well have looked like my gaping lips would spew forth the contents of my training table, but I felt good, dammit. I felt strong.
A decade ago, I completed the London Marathon. I don’t say “I ran the London Marathon” because that is inaccurate. I ran until mile-16 when something popped in my left arch. Then I jogged. Then I lurched. Then I walked. Then I counted down the miles to the finish as I watched my goal of a 4-hour marathon turn to a 4½ hour marathon to a maybe-I-can-do-better-than-a-5-hour marathon to a 5½-hour-marathon-isn’t-so-bad to I-hope-I-can-at-least-do-better-than-6-hours-&$^#@!-that-really-hurts to 6:08:42. Then I came back to the states and went to a podiatrist who couldn’t believe what I had done.
I finished it, but with an asterisk. Rim-To-Rim was a make-good for me. I wanted a good walk back to the car.
With my joyous grin and my bounding step (again, I was delusional), I passed a group of middle-aged women, heavily laden with external-frame packs and knee braces. They sat on a string of trailside rocks popping ibuprofen and resting their feet.
“You’re almost there!” one called to me as I walked past.
“I know! I can’t wait!” I shouted. “Only two miles to go! I can’t believe it!”
“When did you start?”
“So did we. We started at Phantom Ranch. Camped there this week. Where did you come from?”
“The North Rim!”
They stood to salute me.
“You go girl! We’re so proud of you! You’re almost there! You just keep on going – don’t let us get in your way!”
“I’ll see you at the top!”
Tears carved canyons into the dried sweat on my cheeks. I moved through another switchback and caught sight of Duct Tape around the bend. I hollered at her to wave for a photo. She waited for me to catch up – and I’d like to think I surprised her with my fleet feet.
“How’re your feet?” I asked.
“I had to slow down – Kellee went on ahead. She was moving really well and just didn’t want to stop. Her leg’s hurt and she needs to keep going,” Kristi said. “My feet aren’t so good. I ran out of duct tape.”
“That sucks – I’m sorry about your feet.”
“I’ve learned that if I just put my head down and walk like a big girl, my feet don’t hurt, but when I baby them, they really hurt. So I’ve just got to keep going.”
Even with 10 blisters on her feet, she still paced me well as we approached the steepest part of the last mile of the Bright Angel Trail. I looked up and could see the trees clearly on the rim.
“I have to stop and eat,” I said. “I don’t want to slow you down, but I need to stay with my little system.”
“That’s OK,” she said. “I’m going to keep going. You’re doing great.”
“No, you’re doing great!” I said. “See you at the top. Tell Kellee I said hi!”
I refueled, reset Moby back to “Honey,” took a deep breath and launched into the final climb.
IMPORTANT RIM-TO-RIM SAFETY TIPS No. 7-10: Do NOT attempt to hike from the Rim to the River in one day: This is a strenuous, two-day journey for most. Plan your hike so you are not hiking between 10AM and 4 PM. Almost all of the people who need assistance were on the trail during these hours. Over 250 people are rescued from the depths of the canyon each year according to the National Park Service. Do not exceed your normal level of physical activity and training. Avoid huffing and puffing: If you can talk while you are walking, you’re walking the perfect speed. The National Park Service posts these important safety tips so tourists, over-confident morons and well-meaning geeks with hiking poles won’t hurt themselves. If you plan to do a Rim-to-Rim hike, plan to throw these out the window, but plan accordingly. Don’t be afraid to scrap your trip if you have any doubts because once you’re in, you’re in. The only way out is up. But if you do decide to go…
I remember British tourists getting out of my way because I told them I was arriving from the North Rim and I needed to get to the trailhead. I remember a guy in a Florida Gators T-shirt and penny loafers asking me when and where I’d started from – and he, too, got out of my way. I remember seeing the sign at 6,860 feet: Bright Angel Trailhead. About 40 sightseers congregated on the stair-step stones of the overlook to watch the sunset. I rounded the final switchback and planted my poles in the crumbling limestone.
“I just came from the North Rim and I left this morning at 5:35! Somebody take my picture!”
They applauded (probably because they thought I was clinically insane), and a man in a tanktop jumped up and grabbed my camera.
I ran up the asphalt path to the plaza at the foot of Bright Angel Lodge. I hugged Kellee and Kristi, and checked the time on the iPod. 4:12 PM. Ten hours, 37 minutes.
A German tourist snapped our victory photo with the Grand Canyon spilling behind us and the North Rim Trailhead – a faint line of trees – shimmering 24 miles away in the haze. And then, key in hand, we walked back to the car.
Back at the car, Goat almost threw up. We bundled her into a blanket and urged her to drink water in spite of her nausea. She asked if we’d seen the mountain goats walking along the trail – they were right in front of her! Because she was afraid to stop, she had run out of water and hadn’t eaten since Indian Garden – about 2-1/2 hours ago. She hit what marathoners refer to as “the wall.” Duct Tape and I never saw the mountain goats – which is not to say they weren’t there.
Back at the car, Kristi smoked her first cigarette in a whole day – and it probably tasted as good as the cold Shiner Bock I had waiting for me. We compared foot injuries – my purplish toenails to her white blisters. At the time, her blisters looked – and felt – worse. Six days later, she’s wearing heels, and I have hot-pink bandages on my toes and a urine-specimen jar with extricated toenails on my countertop.
The next day, we all had trouble managing toilet skills. It goes something like this: Back up to the hotel-room receptacle (that strangely, in Tusayan, has a warning sign on the underside of the lid, which prohibits people from drinking the water because it is “reclaimed.”) Position self in a good drop zone. Begin to squat. Feel quadriceps revolt and plop down. Take care of business. Look for a handle to hoist self back up. If you’re not “Toes,” roll forward onto your knees and crawl away. If you are “Toes,” grab onto towel rack, pray that it holds and hoist yourself up because crawling would expose your toenails directly to the floor. Remind self to make appointment with podiatrist. Repeat as necessary.
Make plans to come back some time next year… Or maybe the year after that.