Bang Bang Bang! There was a loud knock on the door of Libby’s mothers house. Who could that be we thought? When we opened the door it was the cops. “Excuse me miss but we got a call from a neighbor about a suspicious econoline van being parked outside this residence.” Ironically I had just crawled from my bed in the back of the van maybe two hours earlier. It is my home and even when offered a bed in a house I often choose the van. Libby consoled the officers letting them know it was fine and everyone went on there way. So what were Libby and I doing in Las Vegas a few days before Christmas? Let’s rewind.
The idea to run the Rim to Rim to Rim of Zion happened a little after the half way point of the Grand Canyon. It was Libby’s idea and in the moment it seemed like the best idea ever. We trotted along the trail scheming about how easy Zion would be. I distinctly remember us saying something along the lines of “At least we have the hardest one almost done. Zion will be easier than Yosemite!” The planning was immediate, laying in the back of the van legs paralyzed from the Grand Canyon and already looking at topos for Zion. You would have thought we might have, just maybe, learned something from the beating we just endured. Runners highs will do weird things to the brain. The initial idea was to run from the river to observation point back down to the river up to angels landing and back down. However this would be considered a River Rim River Rim River… and that just didn’t fit right with us.
A few weeks went by and Libby and I had planned out the epic three day adventure for the end of December. This time it involved a van, plane, and a Las Vegas rendezvous. I didn’t do much of any running between the Grand Canyon and Zion and I didn’t expect Libby to have either. Libby was in Ukraine being a bad ass nurse healing hearts, and I was in the Bay quitting my job. I picked Libby up on December 19th from the Las Vegas airport. I was already in the area because the previous few days I was climbing with my sister and friends in the St. George and Red Rocks area. That night we got an alright sleep and in the morning was when the cops showed up. We ran a few errands and then headed for our bivy spot outside of Zion.
The plan had changed from the original idea and we were now going to run the East Rim Trail to the West Rim Trail back to the East Rim Trail this would be a total of about 60 miles round trip and allow us to do a proper Rim River Rim River Rim. Our longest run yet. Since we both live in California winter isn’t really a season. And the past couple of years that was the truth. Climbing in tank tops in Yosemite in December and running in a snowless Tahoe in January. I for some reason had this idea that there wouldn’t be much if any snow in Zion. But we called up the backcountry office to get the details on the trails. They pretty much said I don’t know it might be snowy. I imagined a few hours of post holing in knee deep snow on the rims followed by lots of dry and fun trail running. I couldn’t have been farther from what we were about to endure.
We woke up at 4:50am and started towards the East entrance. We wanted to start moving close to dawn. The roads were icy and as we got closer to the East Rim the snow on the sides of the road became more and more apparent. We both packed our bags and stuffed a bagel and cream cheese down our throats. It was about to be a long day of goo, trail butter, and baby food. We were a few miles in when the sun finally rose. It was this brilliant red. Libby made a comment about a red sky being a bad sign. We were about to see a lot of bad signs. We charged through the snow for a few hours. We kept thinking the snow would lessen as we lost elevation but it seemed to just be getting thicker. The crunchy snow turned our ankles side to side and stressed our metatarsals. While the champagne powder felt like quick sand as it splashed up over our knees. The moving was slower than we had expected and we kept trying to make mental notes of the surroundings just incase if the storm hit early and covered our tracks.
As the sun rose it was hard to tell that it did. The ominous sky was gray and was foreshadowing for the storm forecasted for that night. The sun never graced our skin and I stayed tightly covered all morning. As we ran through the snow we could hear the woods come a live in the morning. The barking of the coyotes in the distances and the sound of snow crunching under our feet. It felt therapeutic almost like meditating. We barely talked mostly because it was hard to hear each other over the sound of snow crunch.
We came across a few trail junctions and ended up following a fainter trail that went out right. I was hesitant and shouted back to Libby about getting the map out. We never did and continued to trudge on. I was following the tracks of a single person which should have been the first warning but by the time we reached a trailhead half a mile from the junction it was clear we had made a wrong turn. A little extra mile detour to add to the mornings joy. We turned around and got back on the correct trail. We need to keep moving. It was after all the shortest day of the year.
A few miles from the trail junction the trail was covered in blood… fresh blood. It was scary seeing the white snow so bright red. It looked like a bunny had been eaten for breakfast and we took that as another bad sign for the day. We continued down hill in a couple of areas that were definitely no fall zones. We were loosing elevation quickly and I joked that running was my favorite snow activity as we sneaker skied down pillows of powder. Soon the view of the valley came into sight. It was breath taking and we were both relieved to finally be making some sort of progress after what felt like forever of snow slogging. Libby wasn’t doing well. She was already setting the ground work for an early turn around. She said just letting you know that we may just do Angels Landing and then turn around. My knees are hurting really bad and it’s early to be having this much pain she reiterated. I reassured her that I would do whatever she felt was right. Though an early turn around at Angels Landing was feeling very enticing. The thought of being out here in the dark for 7 or 8 hours in a potential snow storm was making me nervous as well.
We hit the trail junction for Observation Point and finally found a place to slip on our spikes. Now it was just the quick run down to the Weeping Rock. We made quick progress of this with the extra sure footing that the spikes on our feet had to offer, and I snapped a few pictures of the views to distract myself from the extremely urgent need to poo. It was quickly becoming an emergency. As I stood a thousand feet above the trailhead toilet I peered down at what seemed like my freedom. I looked back at Libby and said I’ll see you at the bottom as I launched myself into a full out sprint. The trail was packed with early morning hikers and I wasn’t about to ruin there morning with an explosion of trail side diarrhea. Though for a few minutes I thought it was inevitable. My gait opened wide and I let gravity take me down the trail, across the parking lot, and into the bathroom. Without even time to lock the door, backpack still on my back, I pulled my pants down just enough and lost control. I can most definitely say that was the closest I have ever been to shitting my pants.
Pants up and spikes off, Libby and I made our way on the mile long section of road between the Weeping Rock trailhead and the Grotto. The Grotto was the only place we would be able to fill up water that we knew of so we made sure to drink a lot and fill up as much as possible. We never stopped for very long because it was so cold. The longer we stopped the more cold we got so our stops were often quick and to the point. It was surprisingly cold even down in the valley which was not a good sign for the weather on the rims. When we headed up the Angels Landing trail we decided we weren’t going to make a decision until we got to the split between Angels Landing and the West Rim trail. I knew Libby was leaning more towards the Angels Landing option but I still had some fight left in me. We charged up the trail in a extremely fast pace. We were finally hitting our second wind. By the time we reached the junction I knew we should keep going and Libby did too. It was very apparent at this point how low Angels Landing actually is from the true rim. It does not even get close to the West Rim height. Loosing a little elevation and then gain some again we finally reached the West Rim.
We sat down and looked at the map. We had planned to take the Telephone Canyon trail which would save us about 2 miles of distance getting to the West Rim trailhead. Unfortunately since the recent snow fall nobody had taken that trail and it was completely untracked. Our lack of a GPS left us in a tricky situation. Do the longer option adding another 20 miles on to our trip and risk getting stuck in a snow storm, in the dark, in an unfamiliar park. To me we had already finished half of our goal. We had run Rim to River to Rim now all we had to do was get all the way back to the van. Tagging the trailhead of the West Rim would be nice but it was where it was located so far away because of where the road ran not because of where the true rim was. Running from trailhead to trailhead in the Grand Canyon made sense because the trailheads were actually at the rims but for Zion the trailheads were 10+ miles from the rims just because of the nature of the valley. Here was the dilemma Libby was jet lagged, in pain, afraid of the dark, and nervous about the weather. I was nervous about the weather, in pain, and afraid of the dark. We made the call. We turned around at the rim and we both kicked ourselves at first. Trying to justify our decisions. We played it safe and I think we made the right call for us as a team, on this day, with these conditions. But because we are both motivated people it was hard to turn around. But the faster and faster we lost elevation and the darker and darker the sky got the better I felt about our decision.
We had committed to our decision and there was no turning back now. Libby kept commenting the faster we move the faster we get back. It kept us moving. Nothing seemed more exciting then laying in my bed in the back of the van. I wanted to make it up the East Rim climbs before it got dark. The route finding was a bit cryptic and I wanted to avoid getting lost at all costs. We ran down the paved Angels Landing trail wincing with every move. Filled back up at the Grotto and made our way along the road for the final mile before heading back up the East Rim. At this point we still head 11 miles to go and a ton of elevation to climb. It was around 3 pm and the sun was already setting.
When we put our spikes on at the bottom of the Weeping Rock we knew we wouldn’t be taking them off until we got to the van. I struggle to run in the spikes because they tweaked my previously broken first metatarsal just right that by this point the pain was not just ultra pains but broken bone pains. Something I was not unfamiliar with when it comes to running. Up we went hardly talking at all. We were on a mission to get the hell out of this canyon before we had lost all of the light. We made it up both major climbs before we needed to strap on our head lamps. We were 5 miles from the van and in complete darkness. There was no moon or stars because of the storm clouds. The worst part of this all was that we were now in the woods. My headlamp illuminated the snow in front of me which showed tracks of animals coming in and out of the woods. Nothing feels more eerie then being in the snowy woods at night. I kept my creeped out feelings to myself and agreed with Libby to stay close. Heads down we studied the tracks on the trail, bunnies, deer, coyotes, maybe cats, human foot prints, big human feet, little human feet. It wasn’t fun but we kept moving and in the silence I would think of the worst case scenarios and then quickly forget and daydream about laying in my bed getting a back and calf massage. Every time I lifted my headlamp I half expected to catch the glow of an animals eyes but never did. I was happy about that.
We had done really well about fueling and kept a good strategy all the way up to the end. About 2 miles from the van we both popped a goo and congratulated ourselves on never having to eat another goo for a really long time. I was feeling very sick and barely kept down the last 3 goos I had taken. All I wanted was real food. Anything of substance anything to stay down. When we made it back to the van everything went away. All of the fears of getting lost everything. It was all over we could rest now. Eating a little here and there and changing a few layers we both examined our bodies. Our feet didn’t fare well… blisters, bruises, and sores. I know it would be a long few days of compression, stretching, and icing. But our ultra was far from over as always. We still had to drive back to Las Vegas.
I hoped behind the drivers wheel and started to make our way slowly towards the interstate… very slowly. My night vision is terrible and so are my headlights on the van. Poking along at 20 to 30 miles under the speed limit we made progress. This isn’t anything new. Libby laughed remembering how slowly I drove away from the Grand Canyon. It almost felt like deja vu… until the flashing lights showed up in my mirror. O boy I was getting pulled over. The officer came up to the window and was surprised to see two emaciated females behind the wheel. I half expected him to be pulling me over for going way under the speed limit but instead he told me my license plate light was out and gave me a warning. If there is one thing I know, driving a creeper van sure does draw the attention of the cops.
We headed on our way and I stopped at a Mavericks to get gas. I put the pump in the van and hobbled to the bathroom. I was surprised though I felt much better then after the Grand Canyon. When I returned to the van I opened the drivers door to find Libby hanging out the passenger side and like any good friend ran to take a picture. The first vomit of the day which was then followed by several other vomits at different Mavericks along the way back to Vegas. By the time we got home Libby limped into the house, and I crawled into the back of the van. I could finally relax it was finally all over for a bit. I crawled into my sleeping back and tried to fall asleep. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be so lucky. The pain in my broken foot was excruciating and I tossed and turned all night unable to sleep. When I woke I was worked. Libby gave me some pain medicine but it didn’t seem to take the edge off. It had been 6 months since I broke it but I guess I never really rested it. RICEing real hard right now. Libby headed off to the airport to go back to her job in the bay and I loaded up Lopi and my sister and headed back to do some climbing in Red Rocks. Like always life returns back to normal faster than you’d expect.