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Cancer survivor rises to the Grand Canyon challenge of a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike

I'm having a moment. The Colorado River, flowing fast and brown after several days of rain, is 20 feet below. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, my destination, is nearly 5,000 feet above, nine miles away via the Bright Angel Trail. It's only 8 in the morning and already over 80 degrees. I find a smooth granite boulder in a patch of shade and sit and start crying.

Looking across the Grand Canyon to the North Rim, from the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, about 4,500 feet below.
Looking across the Grand Canyon to the North Rim, from the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, about 4,500 feet below.Read moreDina Mishev / Washington Post

I'm having a moment. The Colorado River, flowing fast and brown after several days of rain, is 20 feet below. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, my destination, is nearly 5,000 feet above, nine miles away via the Bright Angel Trail. It's only 8 in the morning and already over 80 degrees. I find a smooth granite boulder in a patch of shade and sit and start crying.

Hiking from the Grand Canyon's South Rim to its North Rim and back - rim-to-rim-to-rim, or R3 for short - is the most epic hike in this national park. (Not counting off-trail adventures.) The only thing that surpasses its beauty is its difficulty: It is 42 miles long and includes about 11,000 vertical feet of ascent and descent.

To do this hike at all, you have to be a certain type of adventurer. To do it in one push - no breaking it up by spending a night along the way - you have to be a certain type of crazy.

In July, living in Flagstaff, Ariz., 78 miles from the South Rim, I was a certain type of crazy, indeed. For the previous 18 months, I had been in treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer - chemo, a double mastectomy, and radiation. When that was all complete, I had reconstructive surgery.

My last week in Flagstaff was my eighth week after reconstructive surgery. That was the week the surgeon said I could resume my normal level of activity. It was the first time since Dec. 19, 2014, that something related to cancer or to the treatment of cancer wasn't hurting and/or weakening my physical being.

Anyone who has had cancer will tell you it's never over, but this week was a cancer graduation of sorts for me. Hiking an R3 would be my thesis.

Prior triumphs

This idea didn't come out of thin air. Precancer, I twice did an R3 without stopping. The first time was in 2007. I was 30, a modestly accomplished endurance athlete, and had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The hike left me in tears, with blisters the size of half-dollars, a torn meniscus, a smile, and feelings of pride, accomplishment, awe, and strength. The joyful tears lasted 10 minutes. The feelings lasted for weeks.

I returned to the hike several years later when my marriage was ending. Again, I finished with joyous tears and felt capable of conquering the world.

Doing the hike a third time would reconnect me with my precancer self.

But you can't just come off the couch and hike 42 miles. Two weeks before I was to do it, my boyfriend, Derek, did a warm-up with me: We hiked down the South Rim and back up in one day. This was 18 miles, 4,600 vertical feet, and totally not recommended by the park's Preventive Search and Rescue Squad. Annually, about three hikers die in the park from heat-related issues.

Making our way down the South Kaibab Trail - at 7.1 miles, the most direct route to the bottom of the canyon - the trail was steeper and the steps bigger than I remembered. I used the excuse that this was Derek's first trip to the Grand Canyon to frequently rest my quads. We took lots of breaks and exponentially more photos, none of which, when we looked at them later, captured the grandeur of the canyon.

Between the rim and the Colorado River are almost 40 layers of rock, ranging in color from white to red, pink, orange, gray, and black. As remarkable as their colors are, their history is even more so.

It took the Colorado River three million to six million years to carve this canyon. That sounds like a long time until you consider the age of the rocks carved through. The youngest unit, the Kaibab Limestone (cream color), is about 270 million years old. Halfway down, the Tapeats Sandstone (dark brown) and Muav Limestone (gray) are 505 million to 525 million years old. By the time you hit the level of the "basement rocks," the Zoroaster Granite (pink) and Vishnu Schist (black), you've gone back in time nearly 1.8 billion years.

When Derek and I reached the bottom, we were more interested in the river than in any rocks. It was only 9 in the morning, but the temperature had already reached 100 degrees. Signs here warn that the Colorado has dangerous currents and admonish that there is "no swimming." Though we disregarded the no-up-and-down-in-a-day warnings, here we abided. Mostly.

I fumbled taking my shoes off; the laces were so encrusted with dust and sand it was like untying Velcro. I walked into the river up to my thighs wearing my hiking clothing. Then I sat.

Because I'd never before been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon without being in a hurry - there is little time for dawdling during a nonstop R3 - after I dried off, Derek humored me with a stop at the Phantom Ranch, the lone spot of civilization down there.

Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and built in 1922, the Phantom Ranch has dorms and cabins for 92 overnight guests and a canteen that serves breakfast and dinner to those who've made advance reservations. The canteen also sells snacks and cold drinks. Three Snickers bars bought there helped me finish my first R3. Although I'd been in the canteen and past the ranch before, I had never taken the time to see it. Now that I wasn't in a rush, I wanted to see the lodge that is the toughest reservation to get, and physically the toughest to get to, of those covered by the National Park Service. Also, I had begun to rethink my plan to do an R3 without stopping.

My previous hikes had been in spring and autumn, when daytime temperatures at the bottom of the canyon average in the high 70s. The average temperature at the Colorado River in July is 106. Even had I not had cancer, I didn't know whether I could hike 42 miles in such heat.

A backup plan could have been a two-day R3 with a night spent at Phantom. Except that Phantom books up 13 months in advance. Because I have dreamed for more than a decade about spending a night in one of its Craftsman bungalow-style stone cabins, I had already called and checked availability. All cabins were booked for a year.

As we walked in the canteen front door, a blast of cool air and coziness greeted us. Long, Formica-topped dining tables dominated the room, with floors of worn Saltillo tiles. Books and board games haphazardly crowded several small bookshelves against walls and in corners. Yellowing photographs covered the walls between windows. Dusty, clear-plastic bins displayed the snacks and supplies for sale. A topographic map of the canyon was the single biggest piece of art.

And there were cold drinks and ice.

We would have paid $25 for a glass of lemonade, but it was only $3.25. Mine was gone in three swigs. Refills were $1.

Even better than the lemonade was learning that there are sometimes cabins and dorm beds available at the last minute. People with reservations can cancel without penalty up to 48 hours before check-in. Evidently, this happens regularly. That night, there were three empty cabins. "You want one?" asked Kate, the canteen's morning manager.

You don't need to bring much to stay at the Phantom Ranch, which is one of the benefits of staying there, but you can't have MS and have recently had cancer without being on at least a few prescription drugs. I'm not in the habit of taking my pill case on day hikes. Also, a toothbrush would have been nice. We reluctantly passed.

Taking the River Trail to the Bright Angel Trail to head back up, we crossed our fingers that there would be more canceled reservations before we left Flagstaff in 10 nights.

Compared with the South Kaibab Trail, the Bright Angel Trail is a rain forest. South Kaibab has neither running water near it nor spigots. Bright Angel has four spigots and two perennial, spring-fed creeks.

Two miles from the ranch, the trail hits Pipe Creek. I found a large, flat rock in the inches-deep creek and lay down. I didn't get my feet wet - nothing gives me blisters faster than walking in wet socks and shoes - but I soaked everything else. When it's over 100 degrees, shade isn't enough.

The first mile up Pipe Creek was easy enough - flattish and partially shaded - so I considered reviving my original R3 goal. But then we hit the Devil's Corkscrew and felt the full force of the sun. This section is only one mile. But in that mile, the trail climbs six times as much as it does in its first three miles combined. Steep, exposed switchbacks rise out of Pipe Creek and into the Garden Creek drainage.

The 1,200-foot climb wasn't as bad as we expected. Small springs occasionally seep out from the Vishnu Schist the trail is carved into. We'd be hiking in three inches of dust as heat throbbed off the rock and broiled us, but then the trail suddenly would become tacky, and the walls cool and neon green, covered with small plants and mosses. We took breaks in the spots with seepage.

At the top of the corkscrew, Garden Creek greeted us, along with the first views of the rim. At one step, the South Rim looked reasonably close. By the next, the rim was definitely very, very far away. Both assessments were correct: We were nearly halfway there, but we had done only about one-quarter of the climbing.

I wanted to break at Indian Garden, one of the lushest and shadiest spots in the canyon, an area once farmed by American Indians. (Archaeological evidence shows the canyon has been continuously used and/or occupied for at least 12,000 years. Sites around Indian Gardens date to A.D. 300.) With sweat dripping off the end of my nose from the Devil's Corkscrew, as soon as the trail brought me within 10 feet of Garden Creek, I took another lie-down.

When we arrived at Indian Garden three-quarters of a mile on, I was glad I had already rested. Six hikers were splayed out on six wooden benches in shade cast by giant cottonwoods. Some had covered their faces with wet bandannas. One snored gently. A man napped wearing only his boxers. Not one of them moved as we passed. Most of the rest areas in the canyon have thermometers prominently displayed. The one here read 103 degrees. It dangled in the shade.

One mile past Indian Garden, we met Jacob's Ladder. Rather than focusing on the four miles and 3,000 feet of climbing ahead of us, I wondered who this Jacob was that his section of the trail was worse than the devil's.

It is generally held that South Kaibab is the steeper of the two trails on the south side, but I disagree. South Kaibab's stats are 4,500 vertical feet over 7.1 miles. Bright Angel does 4,400 feet over almost 10 miles. But South Kaibab doesn't have any flat sections. About four miles of the Bright Angel are fairly flat. So really, there, you climb 4,000 feet in five-ish miles. South Kaibab's steepness is more sustained, but when Bright Angel climbs, it really climbs.

Five minutes up Jacob's Ladder, I definitively decided there would be no R3 this month. The appeal of the goal was to test myself, not engage in a battle with Mother Nature.

I know we passed Three Mile Resthouse and Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, the two water stops between Indian Gardens and the top, but my mind had melted by that point, so I have little memory of either.

When we reached the top, a celebration was in order. But I was too spent even to wander the extra several hundred feet to Bright Angel Fountain for a scoop or three of hand-dipped ice cream.

Kodak moments

Over the next four days, I began to edit the 327 photos I'd taken during the hike. The photos did not do the canyon justice, yet they still blew my mind. Why did we have to be there in July?

The fifth day after our South Kaibab-Bright Angel hike, the memories of its difficult parts had finally faded enough for Derek and me to start thinking about repeating it. I called hoping for a Phantom Ranch cancellation the following night, a Friday. There weren't any.

Friday morning, I called the desk again, looking for a cabin for Saturday night. There wasn't one. But there was one for Friday night. Two hours later, Derek and I were in the car, heading to the South Rim. Seven hours later, we checked in at the ranch.

The site of Phantom Ranch, where Bright Angel Creek comes into the Colorado, is as lush with history as vegetation. From the years 1050 to 1140, about 40 Hopi families lived here. There are remains of their settlement a five-minute walk from the ranch. In 1869, John Wesley Powell, the first white man to travel the Colorado River through the canyon, named the water there Silver Creek. His later amended its name to Bright Angel Creek, though, to contrast it with the Dirty Devil River that his expedition explored and named higher in the canyon.

At this spot starting in 1903, entrepreneur David Rust ran a primitive settlement, Rust's Camp, for prospectors and intrepid travelers. (Intrepid because there was no way to cross the Colorado River until a cableway was installed in 1907. In 1921, it was upgraded to a wooden suspension bridge that was equally precarious. The Black Bridge that South Kaibab hikers cross today was built in 1928. Because there were no roads to the bottom of the canyon, 42 Havasupai men carried, walking in sync, the 550-ton suspension cables on their shoulders down the nine miles from the canyon rim.)

A careful look around Phantom reveals remains of the orchard Rust planted in peach, olive, pomegranate, and fig trees. (In Phantom Ranch's early days, guests ate fruits and vegetables from his orchard and gardens.)

After President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at Rust's Camp in 1913, the name was changed to Roosevelt's Camp. Initially, the ranch was going to take that name, too, but Colter, its designer, forcefully suggested naming it after nearby Phantom Creek.

In the early 1900s, there were few female architects, much less those designing major projects. Before Phantom Ranch, Colter had designed the Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Hermits Rest, all on the canyon's South Rim. After Phantom, she did the park's Desert View Watchtower, Bright Angel Lodge, and several dormitories for workers.

Four of the 11 cabins at Phantom date to 1922. The Civilian Conservation Corps built seven, in the same style, in the 1930s. Mules hauled down everything used to build them but the stones.

Had I made our reservation a year in advance and been able to pick a cabin, I would have chosen the one we got, No. 5. Inside, it was nothing special: There were four bunk beds (private cabins have four or 10 bunks), a sink, and a toilet. But it was the last in the row of cabins against Bright Angel Creek.

Before dinner - there're two seatings every night, at 5 p.m. (steak) and 6:30 p.m. (hiker's stew) - Derek and I walked down to and into the creek. It was thigh-deep, with rocks just under the surface of the water. I sat on one.

Dinner was family-style and filling. Afterward, at an outdoor amphitheater, a park ranger gave a presentation on Colter. We left the canteen planning to attend, but we walked out into magical light. While we ate our hiker's stew - potatoes, beef, and carrots in a thick gravy that needed salt - the world turned peach. At night, an impending thunderstorm created the most spectacular sunset I had ever seen.

Colter's history would always be around; this light wouldn't. To a sound track of rolling thunder and burbling Bright Angel Creek, and with bats - more than 20 species live in the canyon - darting beneath a canopy of cottonwoods, Derek and I walked toward the Colorado, snapping photos like crazy. I gave up quickly, though. This was a moment to experience, not capture.

The rain started just as we reached the south end of Bright Angel Campground. There was a covered notice board with a stone base wide enough to sit on, the perfect size to protect us from the rain.

In 10 minutes, it was all over - the rain, the peach light, the bats, the thunder. That experience alone was worth the effort to get there.

Waiting for the sunrise

Because the sunset was so spectacular, we were up the next morning to catch the sunrise.

As it turns out, the bottom of a 4,500-foot-deep canyon is not the best place to do that. The cliffs around us gradually lightened, but the sun wouldn't hit them for a couple of hours.

Memories of the sunset the night before keep us from being too disappointed, but the meh-ness of the morning light made it easier to pack up.

When we had set off from Flagstaff the day before, I had already abandoned my backup plan of using the ranch to break up the R3 into two days. Although easier than the original plan, it still required hiking 28 miles on a day when the temperature at the bottom was expected to reach 113. There was briefly a backup to the backup that involved spending the night at Phantom and the next morning exploring part of the nearby Clear Creek trail before hiking up to the rim. But even that would be too much, given the heat.

My cancer graduation thesis has become a book report. Precancer, I would have cared about this. Now, I am proud of myself for being smart instead of stubborn.

After breakfast, we left the ranch at 7:30 a.m. It's about one mile to the Colorado River. I walked across a bridge and over the water that carved this immense landscape, and felt the moment coming on.

I sat down on that smooth granite boulder in the shade and started crying.

I wasn't crying because the South Rim was still 5,000 feet above me. Or because I'd given up on doing the R3 in one push. I was crying because I have a future in which I can try again, and because right then, I was on the bank of the Colorado at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Life is awesome.

Although it would have been awesomer if it had been spring or fall and my sweat weren't as profuse as my tears.

If You Go

Where to stay

(Bright Angel Transportation Desk)

Grand Canyon National Park, North Kaibab Trail, North Rim. 928-638-3283,


The only lodgings at the bottom of the Grand Canyon are rustic, historic stone cabins and dormitories near the confluence of the Bright Angel and Phantom Creeks. Rooms are $49 a person for a dorm to $142 a night, based on double occupancy, for a cabin. Book up to 13 months in advance.

Grand Canyon Squire Inn

74 State Route 64, Grand Canyon Village. 800-622-6966,

The hotel offers 318 rooms, a six-lane bowling alley, an arcade, and a pool, just outside the park's main entrance. Rooms from around $310.

2515 E. Butler Ave., Flagstaff. 800-352-4386,

Downtown Flagstaff is a five-minute drive, and a 500-acre ponderosa pine forest is out the front door of this hotel. Rooms from $219.

Where to eat

52 S. San Francisco St., Flagstaff. 928-779-2811,


This former boardinghouse for Basque shepherds in downtown Flagstaff now serves breakfast, coffee, lunch, and baked goods, including more than a dozen kinds of pie. Specials from $10, sandwiches from $8.

Old Town Shops, 120 N. Leroux St., No.112. 928-774-3274,

Gourmet burgers made from locally raised, hormone-free beef served on English muffins and delivered in a basket lined with Belgian-style frites. Entrees from $11.75.

112 Route 66, Flagstaff. 928-773-4701

Huge portions of Mexican breakfast classics - and Mexicanized American classics, including huevos Benedicto - available all-day in a colorful space with Dia de los Muertos flair. Entrees from $7.50.

1800 Ft. Valley Rd., Flagstaff. 928-773-0308,

Grab coffee drinks, pastries, and breakfast burritos on your way to the park at this former gas station that has been repurposed as a coffee roastery and cafe. Items from $3.

What to do

South of Yaki Point, Yaki Point Rd., South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park. (Access is available only via shuttle.) 928-638-7875,

A 7.1-mile hike descending 4,860 feet to the Colorado River offers what are arguably the best views of any trail of the Grand Canyon, but it's short on shade and completely lacking water. The $30 park entrance fee for one vehicle is good for week.

Just west of Bright Angel Lodge, Grand Canyon Village, South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park. 928-638-7875,

This trail takes longer - 9.5 miles - to get to the bottom of the canyon, but offers shade and four (seasonal) water resupplies. The $30 park entrance fee for one vehicle is good for a week.

7.4 miles up Arizona Snowbowl Road, which is seven miles north of Flagstaff on Route 89. 928-526-0866,

The tallest mountain in Arizona is around seven miles north of Flagstaff. A 5.5-mile (one-way) trail to the often-windy 12,643-foot summit starts near the base of Arizona Snowbowl, one of several ski resorts in the state. Free.

1400 W. Mars Hill Rd., Flagstaff. 928-774-3358,

A Boston mathematician and astronomer established this observatory outside downtown Flagstaff in 1894, and it was there in 1930 that astronomers discovered Pluto. Open daily for tours, telescope viewing, and multimedia shows. Adult admission is $12, $6 for kids ages 5 to 17.

The ranger station is at 5075 N. Route 89. 928-526-0866,

Test your legs on this 5.4-mile hike, which climbs 2,200 feet up Mount Elden near downtown Flagstaff. Free.


Grand Canyon Chamber and Visitors Bureau:

Grand Canyon National Park: