Back on the run in Hells Canyon

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The Hells Canyon Adventure Run in March marked the start of my trail-running season this year and represented a return to form after a winter ankle injury.

The three-day weekend over the spring equinox was also the beginning of warm-weather recreation for us and our puppy Gus’ first camping trip.

With mostly sunny skies and wildflowers on the hillsides, we pitched our tent at Pittsburg Landing on the Idaho side of the Snake River on Friday, surrounded by several friends from Missoula.

In January, I had to stop running and see a physical therapist for several weeks after it became painful walking even a few blocks on my injured ankle. I started running again in February, going only 1.5 miles on a level, paved trail, but by the weekend before Hells Canyon was up 17 miles and back  in the hills.

The unofficial, self-supported Adventure Run along the Snake River National Recreation Trail has 15- and 25-mile options, so I was able to wait until that morning to decide on a distance.

When I woke before sunrise Saturday, I was feeling confident so boarded the boat for the longer ride upriver – and longer run back.

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After being dropped off below Granite Creek Rapids, several other Missoulians and I started running the rolling trail to the northeast, crossing creeks and passing historic homesteads in the first 15 miles.

As our group reached the bigger climbs of the day, we began to split into twos, threes and fours. At about 17.5 miles, Suicide Point offered the always-scenic view of the Snake winding upriver from 400 feet above the water.

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Up the steep switchbacks past the Kirkwood Historic Ranch at about mile 20, I met Jen, Josey and Gus as they descended to their turnaround spot and a stop for water. At the end of the day, Gus had about 11 miles on his paws – not bad for a 7-month-old.

After a high traverse across a steep hill and a couple of stretches on the edge of a cliff, we finished back at the trailhead with a total of about 25 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain.

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As has become tradition, the Missoulians staying a second night gathered for a potluck dinner and stories around a campfire before bed and the drive home Sunday.

Here are more photos from the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.

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Year on the run, from races to RATBOB to R2R2R

Last year was a fairly big running year for me – not in terms of total distance or race times, but simply in overall experience.

As in 2014, I raced at 11 Miles to Paradise between St. Regis and Quinn’s Hot Springs, finishing with a small PR, and at the 52-mile Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run at Dayton, Wyoming, and The Rut 50K at Big Sky Resort, coming in a little slower than previously at both.

I also ran the Missoula Marathon as a member of the Pacer Corps – and since I don’t race marathons very often, my finish just under 4 hours and 10 minutes ended up being my second fastest.

Aside from races, my training partners and I ran some local favorite landmarks – Blue Mountain, Stuart Peak and Point Six (all about 20 miles) and Sheep Mountain (about 26 miles).

I also joined local groups on a few destination runs – the Hells Canyon Adventure Run (about 25 miles), Run Across The Bob (aka RATBOB, about 50 miles), and Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon (R2R2R, about 46 miles).

In the end, I ran about 2,334 miles in 2015 – nearly 100 less than in 2014, but still plenty. And along the way, I was honored to be named Male Masters Runner of the Year by the local club, Run Wild Missoula.

What makes all of this possible is the great running community in Missoula, so thank you to my training partners, other road and trail friends, and RWM!

Snowshoeing up Bear Creek with new puppy Gus

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Meet Gus, our newest addition!

This Beagle-American Staffordshire cross joined our family as an 11-pound 3 1/2-month-old in late November. One month older and a few pounds heavier, Gus went on his first real adventure showshoeing up Bear Creek in the Bitterroot Mountains on Christmas Day.

The outing was a fitting tribute to our old dog Belle, a 12-year-old black Lab-hound that died last summer not long after her final hike at Bear Creek.

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While we snowshoed only the first 1 1/2 miles west to the small waterfall, keeping up with Josey – our 6-year-old, 85-pound Rottweiler-hound cross – was no easy task for Gus. He ended up wrapped in a fleece blanked in my backpack after getting chilled when we stopped at the overlook.

In the end, he made it out on his own four legs and slept in the back of our SUV the whole way home – proving he was up to the bigger adventures to come.

Here are a few more pictures from Bear Creek.

Distance: 3 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From Victor, the Bear Creek trailhead is 3.3 miles south on U.S. Highway 93, 2.3 miles west on Bear Creek Road, 0.8 miles north on Red Crow Road and 3.2 miles west on Red Crow and Bear Creek roads.

Dark start, dark finish on the Rim to Rim to Rim run

The view from the North Kaibab Trail on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

As we ran over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the dark early last November, I knew better than the rest of the group the risk presented by patches of packed snow and ice left from a storm earlier in the week.

The others arrived at the canyon by van the night before after flying from Missoula to Las Vegas, while Jen and I drove south and spent most of the week there hiking and sightseeing. Two days before the run – the morning after it snowed – it was clear that a slip or a step too far to the side of the South Kaibab Trail could result in a fall down a cliff.

I don’t think snow was on anybody’s mind back in Missoula months earlier, when we received the invitation to run the well-known double crossing of the canyon by email. Certainly, the distance (about 46 miles), the elevation gain (more than 10,000 feet), heat and water availability were.

Fortunately, the snow and ice lasted only a few switchbacks into the run, and the worse trail conditions higher on the North Rim were encountered at midday.

In the end, everybody made it out of the canyon safe – some completing the full R2R2R, some going Rim to River, some turning around early and one getting a ride back from the North Rim.

Sunrise crossing of the Colorado River on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

After being dropped off about 5 a.m. at the intersection of Desert View Drive and Yaki Point Road, where a gate keeps private vehicles from reaching the South Kaibab trailhead, we set out by headlamp.

About half a mile beyond the gate, we entered the canyon at 7,260 feet.

At Skeleton Point about 3 miles down to the north, another runner and I found ourselves out ahead of the main group with a faint glow backlighting the top of the canyon to the east. I had never met him before and was concerned about the pace the rest of the day, so slowed a bit in the hope of letting the others catch up.

The other runner pulled away as the bottom of the canyon grew lighter, and I was on my own when I stepped out of the tunnel onto the Black Bridge crossing the muddy Colorado River at 2,480 feet.

About a third of a mile west, I crossed Bright Angel Creek and and went through the lush green Bright Angel Campground at 7 miles before returning to the east side at Phantom Ranch. Taking a cue from people in the camp and at the ranch, I ate some food as I walked through the area.

Sunrise on the North Kaibab Trail, on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

Running northeast from the ranch, I crossed the creek several times as I followed it upstream through a narrow section of the North Kaibab Trail known as The Box. High above, I could see the first sunlight reaching rocky points.

Out of The Box, I passed Ribbon Falls off the west side of the creek and continued up the trail to Cottonwood Campground, about 7 miles from the ranch. Looking back, I still couldn’t see the rest of the Missoula group, and a handful of other runners I encountered along the way said it had been a while since the one person ahead of me passed.

The view from the North Kaibab Trail on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

Almost 1.5 miles beyond the campground and after a few small cascades, I crossed the creek at the Pumphouse Ranger Station and the trail began to climb steeply northwest into the Roaring Springs drainage. As the trail rose along sunny cliffs, I passed a group running Rim to Rim from north to south.

Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail, on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

After crossing a bridge and ascending several switchbacks, I reached Supai Tunnel, about 1.7 miles below the North Kaibab trailhead. Above the tunnel, the trail left the cliffs and entered the shade of the forest, where the final switchbacks were covered by a thick layer of snow and ice.

As I reached the trailhead at 8,241 feet and 21 miles from the start, I caught up to a couple of other runners and we chatted as we ate and refilled our hydration packs from an icy spigot.

Just as I was getting ready to follow the other runners back down the trail, three friends from Missoula reached the top, so I waited – it would be nice not being alone on the way back across.

Turnaround at the North Kaibab trailhead on the R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

As the four of us started back down the North Kaibab Trail, we passed all the other runners from Missoula who would reach the rim above Supai Tunnel. At the bridge below the tunnel, we passed a few more who turned around based on the time of day.

After that, we descended quickly, one person dropping off as we backtracked through the canyon.

The three of us who remained followed a short side trail across Bright Angel Creek to Ribbon Falls, and as we bushwhacked back we found two other Missoula runners who were extending their Rim to River route.

Across the creek on the main trail again, our group of five continued down through The Box to Phantom Ranch, where we met other Rim to River runners from Missoula and stopped to eat – and drink one of the best cups of lemonade in memory.

Phantom Ranch, on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

After departing the ranch and campground, one Rim to River runner stayed with the three of us making the double crossing as the others outpaced us up the Bright Angel Trail.

A short distance downriver, we crossed the Silver Bridge to the south side of the Colorado and continued to River Resthouse, 1.5 miles from the campground. There, the trail began to climb.

Sunset crossing of the Colorado River on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

As the daylight faded, we moved steadily up the trail for the next 3.2 miles, through the cottonwoods and cliffs of the Garden Creek drainage to Indian Garden Campground. Noticing I had a signal on my cellphone, I sent Jen a text message updating her on our progress.

Above the campground, we began the arduous ascent of the final steep switchbacks up the cliffs to the South Rim.

After passing the Three Mile and Mile and a Half resthouses, we stopped to put on our headlamps as darkness set in. Looking over the edge of the cliff, a line of lights along the trail below turned our way – we had inadvertently shown other hikers and runners how far up they still had to go.

The final mile was slow, but we still passed numerous hikers on the popular trail. And I pulled ahead slightly at the end, officially becoming the second R2R2R runner from the Missoula group to reach the Bright Angel trailhead, about 46 miles and 13 hours 12 minutes after starting.

Sunset on the Bright Angel Trail on the 46-mile R2R2R run in the Grand Canyon

Jen greeted me with news that she made it to the river and back on a toe she broke before our trip, then gathered the four of us who made the final climb out together for a photo.

To our surprise, one friend who we thought would be the final person from Missoula to complete the double crossing was there, too. He had done the run before, and realizing his slow progress this time, got a ride back from the North Rim on one of the last shuttles of the season – which conveniently arrived there about the same time he did.

The next few hours were spent greeting other runners at the trailhead, getting cleaned up in our nearby cabins, and celebrating the day with dinner and drinks at the Bright Angel Lodge.

After breakfast the next morning, Jen and I started driving back north while the others returned to Vegas and celebrated another night before flying home. Talk of making a destination run an annual tradition started soon after we arrived back in Missoula.

Here are more photos from the Rim to Rim to Rim run.