My older brother Dave imbued in me a solid taste for adventure that, thankfully, has not waned as I've grown older. Boyhood adventures included exploring local woods and ponds around Mount Kisco, New York, hard workouts and appropriate homages to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, when I was not much older than 11, a bicycle trip to Sherwood Island some 35 miles away that seemed like a trip across the country. Little did I know at the time that these adventures would provide the impetus for later exploits on a grander scale.
Spontaneity is sometimes a subset of adventure. My wife was kind enough to share with me about mid-week that I was free to fly if I wanted to go the "the Canyon" and do some trail running. My friends and I call the Grand Canyon simply "the Canyon" because it is a fixture in our sporting lives. After pondering whether to go for a couple of days, I made a game day call at 0230 yesterday to head north. Am I ever glad I did. Moral to the story: When in doubt, let it roll.
Given my sketchy fitness and the fact that I was going solo, I decided to do the Hermit-Tonto-Boucher loop on the west side of the south rim that I have done many times. The route is particularly intriguing to me because my good friend John Pearce and I almost met our final fate there about 15 years ago, only to be saved in the middle of the night by a miraculous spring dripping from the rocks above that literally saved us (we would later come to find it is aptly named Dripping Springs).
The loop starts and ends at the Hermit trailhead, which is accessed via the west rim drive, usually by taking a free eight mile shuttle from Grand Canyon Village to the trail head. A good description of the initial part of the run is at http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Hermit_Trail.pdf
It is 8.2 miles from the trailhead to the Tonto trail junction, with 3430' of elevation loss. Going easy, and not wanting to eat trail in the snow and ice conditions for the first 3 miles, I reached the junction in 1:30. From the junction I took a left and headed 1.2 miles on the Tonto trail to Hermit Creek for water. From there it is about 5.5 miles to Boucher Creek on the winding Tonto trail, including spectacular and sheer views of the Colorado River and Hermit and Boucher rapids. I hit Boucher Creek in 3:03 and watered up, feeling pretty good from a measured effort.
It is 9.3 miles from Boucher Creek to the Hermit trailhead, most of which is on the challenging Boucher trail. http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Boucher_Trail.pdf After topping off my water bottles with water from the creek, the only decision remaining was how hard to hit the climb out. The answer: start conservatively, build on it, go to an all out effort, find a proverbial pain cave, and try and hit a sub-3 hour ascent.
The way I see it, there are four challenging pitches that comprise the Boucher trail. The first is described (in reverse) thusly by the National Park Service: "The descent to the Tonto Trail is nothing less than brutal, a physical beating in classic Grand Canyon style." In short, you go straight up out of Boucher Creek without a break for what feels like about 2000 feet. Notwithstanding this, I felt pretty darn good as I reached the top of this pitch at 3:48 running time with a moderate effort (remembering distinctly that last fall I had blown-up and moped along for several hours after pushing this initial section too hard).
After a relatively brief "flat" section comes the second pitch -- the trail heads up the Supai formation, at times requiring hand work. Ultimately, one turns left at the top of the supai and heads to the esplanade formation. Here again, I felt relatively good -- even better than the first pitch. A 3 hour ascent was becoming a feasibility.
The third pitch comprises a series of "sweeps" on the esplanade sandstone. At 4:37 running time I reached the portion of the esplanade where one takes a right turn and heads up the west side of Hermit basin; it takes around about 12-14 sweeps on the esplanade sandstone to reach the upper head of the basin. These sweeps can get tedious if one is bonking -- which I was for about 10-15 minutes until I pounded about 500 calories. At the same time, it is pretty cool to look down and across the gigantic basin and see, in the distance, the Hermit trail you descended hours ago with fresh legs.
At the top of the esplanade I took a left hand turn and crossed over the top of Hermit basin which, after about 20 minutes of up and down running, rejoins the Hermit trail. This section has beautiful and exposed views all the way into the Canyon. I hit the Hermit trail junction at 5:32 and started the fourth and final pitch up to the Hermit trailhead; this took me 37 minutes working HARD for a total time of 6:09 for the Hermit-Tonto-Boucher loop. Although I was pretty knackered and "missed" a 3 hour ascent by a tad, I felt good on this last section and was happily trashed upon finishing.
In all, the day was great -- thanks to my wife, my brother Dave, and the host of other adventurers that touch and inspire us all.