“The English novelist J.B. Priestley once said that if he were an American, he would make the final test of whatever men chose to do in art, business, or politics a comparison with the Grand Canyon. He believed that whatever was false and ephemeral would be exposed for what it was when set against that mass of geology and light.” -Kevin Fedarko in The Emerald Mile
The Bass Trail, which includes a south and north section, is a roughly 21-mile point-to-point trail in the Grand Canyon. It’s designated as a primitive trail, which means that it’s not regularly maintained, it receives little visitation, and the use of cairns is permitted to keep people on trail. At the southern trailhead on the canyon’s south rim at about 6,700’ above sea level, there’s a miniature parking lot at the end of a deserted dirt road that takes a long time to drive to. Swamp Point trailhead, on the north rim at about 7,500’ elevation, can be accessed by car when the road is open, but the road is not open in the winter and I’m not entirely sure how long it would take to drive there from any city with a sizable population. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere. Between the two rims, and far below at about 2,100’, is the Colorado River. It’s a very big river and its current is as strong as you’d expect a river’s current to be when that river has carved a canyon a mile deep over millions of years. If you run the trail from one point to the other, you have to cross the river somehow. There isn’t a bridge. You can haul a packraft down, or you can bring flippers to swim, or you can try to walk on water. But you’ve got to find some way to cross the river in order to run the whole trail. And if you want to run the trail from one point to the other and back, then you’ve got to cross the river twice (and run about 42 miles). This is about the extent of what me and my friends knew when we discussed the possibility of running rim-to-rim-to-rim on the Bass Trail. We also knew that the route had been covered before.
On October 18, 2014, Peter Bakwin, Buzz Burrell and Charles Corfield attempted a first-known double-crossing of the Bass Trail. Only Bakwin made it all the way from the south rim to the north rim and back (Burrell and Corfield turned around short of the north rim), but the trio did manage to successfully swim across the mighty Colorado River twice. Bakwin completed the feat in 16 hour and 15 minutes and Burrell dubbed the route “R2R2R-alt”. The name seems appropriate because the only other trail that traverses the entire Grand Canyon from south to north is the Kaibab Trail. The Kaibab Trail is designated as a corridor trail because it’s well maintained, it’s frequented by many visitors, it has running water on the north side, and ranger stations and emergency phones dot the trail throughout. The traditional R2R2R route is run on the Kaibab Trail. There’s been increasing interest in recent years, and perhaps even decades, in running across the Grand Canyon via the Kaibab Trail. Similarly, there’s been increasing interest in recent years, and perhaps even decades, in covering terrain faster than anyone has before. When executed successfully, such achievements of speed are called Fastest Known Times (FKTs). So, it’s no surprise that the traditional R2R2R route on the Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon has been a very popular FKT route.
One of my friends, Jim Walmsley, is very probably one reason why the R2R2R FKT has gained popularity recently, for he both runs the Kaibab Trail often and has done it faster than anyone has ever before. In October 2016 he set a new R2R2R FKT in a frankly ridiculous time of 5:55:20, while simultaneously setting a new R2R record of 2:46:08 during the first crossing of the Canyon from south to north. The accomplishment received a lot of media coverage. People were interested, including another one of my friends, Tim Freriks. Freriks was so inspired by Walmsley’s effort that a year later, in October 2017, he established a new R2R FKT, running from the north rim to the south rim in 2:39:38. Also last fall, Cat Bradley reset the women’s R2R2R FKT, bettering a mark that had stood since 2011, and Alicia Vargo established a new R2R FKT, similarly improving a 2011 mark. Then, just this fall, the women’s R2R2R FKT was reset twice and at least two ladies unsuccessfully attempted to reset the record. Like I said, runners have lately shown an increasing interest in dipping below the rim to navigate the canyon walls.
Me and my friends run in the Grand Canyon a lot. We live in Flagstaff, just a 75-minute drive from the canyon’s south rim, and you're likely to see someone from our group in the canyon almost any week of the year. Collectively, we’ve spent weeks of our lives descending its depths and scaling its walls. We’ve each walked out in defeat on a bad day; we’ve each marveled at the colorful layers of rock at sunset. We’ve all felt we might never escape the canyon alive; we’ve all triumphed after a fast ascent to the rim. From running in the canyon, we’ve each learned a great deal about ourselves and about life, and we’ve developed a healthy respect for the unwavering challenge that awaits every time we reach the deep depth of the canyon’s bottom. The Grand Canyon has left its mark on us. And, in turn, and out of respect, we'd like to try to leave our mark on the canyon.
There are more than 20 trails below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Some, like the Kaibab Trail, the Bass Trail, and the Tonto Trail, have established FKTs. Others do not. But me and my friends feel a compulsion, if not a duty, to bring attention to this magnificent place, to make times on these established FKT routes more competitive, and to establish FKT routes on Grand Canyon trails that don’t yet have one. We think this is one way for us to leave a small but lasting impact on a place that has left its mark on us. We think it’s one way for us to help grow the sport of trail- and ultra-running, and it’s one way to help push the FKT movement to heightened competitiveness. We think it's our way to expand boundaries in our sport. We think it's a way to challenge ourselves against a mass of geology and light, and to inspire others to do the same. That’s what a Bass Trail FKT means to me and my friends. That’s why we did it. Here’s how it happened.
We departed from the South Bass trailhead in the dark at exactly 6:15am. The South Bass Trail hugs the canyon walls tightly except when it darts, in a series of switchbacks, quickly downward. So, there’s a lot of traversing followed by rapid descending, along with some bushwacking and, for the uninitiated, occasional route finding. Having scouted the trail the week prior, we moved quickly and had the river in sight after 78 minutes and 7 miles of running. The Colorado River is steadily around 47-48 degrees since the water is released from the bottom of Lake Powell. For this reason, it is imperative to wear a wet suit when crossing the river. We changed into those. We put the gear we would need for the north side into dry bags, which doubled as personal flotation devices (PFDs - also and unequivocally an imperative) after they’re blown up with air. The dry bag/PFDs attached to our waists during the swim. With the help of Chris Thornley who hiked down early to scout our crossing, and with Jamil Coury who joined us for the descent to the river, we picked our way down a wash until we arrived at the water’s edge. Thornley recommended that we start our swim toward the bottom of a rapid so that we’d shoot straight into a beach on the north side. This did work. I won’t go so far as to advise others to cross in this same place. On the second river crossing, we chose calmer water farther downstream and I, personally, felt much more at ease crossing there since the water was less tumultuous and didn’t thrash us around as much. In any case, we made it, dropped the wetsuits and drybags next to the North Bass Trail after climbing up a wash from the beach, and we were off.
The North Bass Trail covers some of the most truly eclectic, visually stunning, and remote landscape that I have ever seen. Early portions of the trail crisscross a flowing Shinumo Creek that’s flanked with thick vegetation. The trail leaves the sandy shores of the creek for higher ground after a mile or so, and pitches steeply up to the Tonto layer, where the smooth trail flows in and out of drainages and around sundry cacti. Soon the trail picks up another creek bed, this one dry initially but with flowing water after some miles, until the trail disappears into a tight canyon with thick brush just below the Esplanade Sandstone. The canyon opens up during a massive, switchbacking climb up the Esplanade, and we were suddenly greeted with 180 degrees of 2,000-foot walls around us. The sheer cliffs we were navigating, and the surrounding views, gave me goosebumps.
Once on the Esplanade Sandstone, the trail rolled up and down until we hit yet another creek bed, which we followed until we were just two miles from the north rim. At this point, the trail again pitched upward and as we hit a ridge with one mile to go, the trail turned snowy. We reached the top at approximately 12:26pm, took a few minutes to regroup, then made the return trip, stopping for water using small water filters throughout our journey on the north side of the Colorado River.
We arrived back at the river at approximately 3:30pm, again changed and bagged our stuff, and got back across. We were happily greeted by Jamil who had stayed at the river for more than 6 hours waiting for us.
Together, the four of us ascended the last 7 miles to the south rim, hiking steadily on the steep climbs and shuffling along the flat traverses. However, we failed to achieve our stated goal of avoiding headlamps for a second time as darkness enveloped the canyon with just 2 miles to go.
Nevertheless, we emerged at the South Bass trailhead at 6:35pm and thereby established a new Bass Trail FKT of 12:20:54.
A big thanks to Chris Thornley and Jamil Coury, without whom the trip would have been less memorable, more stressful, and altogether not as enjoyable. Photos by Jamil Coury.