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Hiking Across the Grand Canyon – One Conative Step at a Time

By James Trujillo

A few dozen yards ahead of me, I can hear several voices congregating in the darkness at the trailhead that marks the end of my journey to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  This is an achievement for which I have been preparing for three months; however, in truth, I had been preparing for this my whole life.  The muscles in my legs and arms are almost completely spent. My ankles are sore and throbbing; I swear I can feel the pins in my repaired ankle. I can’t see much.  The headlamp is working fine, but the layer of fine dust on my glasses makes the trail look like fog.  I’m dirty, cold, and exhausted; but I can’t stop smiling as the feeling of accomplishment becomes more tangible with each difficult step forward. Such a surreal moment. Everything I planned and prepared for is coming to fulfillment.

We started our journey at the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim, 24 miles and more than 15 hours earlier.  Before departing, we were interviewed by a group of National Park Service volunteers who were conducting a study on Rim-to-Rim hikers.  Imagine that, my first trip through the canyon and I got to participate in a study of R2R hikers. I was quite excited. They recorded our vital signs (pulse, weight, etc.), asked us to keep track of the food that we would eat and to report to the checkpoints along the trail during the day.

Now, as I cross the finish line, another NPS volunteer congratulates and begins leading me to a nearby table for my final evaluation.

The climb up the north side of the canyon is a steep trek of approximately seven miles that seems like it is never going to end.  I trained and planned extensively for this trip.  I thought I was prepared for every contingency.  And now, all that planning, training, preparation, and teamwork has paid off.  As I turn to follow her, I’m feeling good and I pause to take a deep breath. 

Suddenly, everything changes.

My lungs lock up as they fill with smoke from the cigar of another hiker who is celebrating his moment of glory. I didn’t plan for this!  My chest tightens.  I can’t breathe, I can’t speak clearly.  Panic sets in as the NPS volunteer helps me find a place to sit.

Preparation and Planning

Months earlier, my co-worker Mark first suggested that I join him on a one-day hike across the Grand Canyon in early October.  It took me about five seconds to decide that I wanted to go, but I also knew I had a lot of preparation ahead of me.  The Grand Canyon is a beautiful and welcoming place for millions of tourists.  But every year, dozens of those visitors get injured (some fatally) when they don’t properly prepare. 

Fortunately, Mark (an initiating Fact Finder) has completed this trip a handful of times, and he’s willing to share his experience with me.  Over the past several years, he has developed a training timeline to prepare for this trip in the fall.  We are both experienced hikers; however, I have been fairly dormant for the last two decades. I had to ramp up quickly to understand the training and the supplies I would need.

With Mark’s experience and his conative strengths, I felt quite comfortable using him as a valuable resource. He knew how to train and he knew what equipment had worked for him on previous journeys. Most importantly, he was familiar with the logistical challenges involved in crossing the Grand Canyon. Mark calculated expenses, collected data on parking, miles to be hiked, proper equipment, weather conditions, amounts of food and water to be consumed, and altitude changes.

It was as if I had my own tour guide. I’m a 6-7-4-3. I like tour guides. Mark answered every question I threw at him. I cross-referenced his notes with books and other hikers whom I know and trust. Before leaving, I had a complete understanding of the trail. I studied various maps and read about the terrain so that I would know what to expect. I read stories of other people’s misfortunes and of their victories. Mark shared his confidence while on the training hikes and compared those trails with the trails in the Canyon.

As a CounterActing Implementor, it was natural for me to hike across the Canyon in my mind many of times before I ever set foot in it. I visualized the trails, and thought about how I would respond to the many changes in climate and altitude.   Much of my training was dedicated to strengthening my ankles and my lungs.  (I am an asthma sufferer.)  I also decided to use hiking poles on the inclines.

We also planned to take a lot of “food and water breaks” along the trail, and one long break before ascending the North Rim in the afternoon. As you can tell, I am all about preparation. 

The most serious logistical challenge involved in crossing the Canyon is arranging for transportation up to the South Rim and then back home from the North Rim.  (The drive around from the south to the north is about 200 miles.) 

Thankfully, a friend of mine, Ken, has hiked the Grand Canyon many times. I asked him about various options we had for transportation at the North Rim. Ken quickly said he would be willing to park a vehicle at the North Rim trailhead and hike down as we were coming up from the South Rim.  Then we could swap car keys as we passed each other on the canyon floor.

Ken's an initiating Quick Start. I asked many questions and tried to figure out all of the details, and he simply said, “James, you shouldn’t worry so much.”

What?! Thank goodness I understand conation. I decided not to worry, and simply prepared a few contingencies in case "Plan A" didn’t work out.

A few weeks before the hike, I started training with a “full” pack loaded down with water and a few items that I might take to the Canyon.

In the final days of preparation, I repacked several times trying to eliminate items that were not absolutely necessary.  I thought I had done a good job until the night before the hike when I learned that Mark’s pack (and the packs that other hikers would be taking) weighed less than 20 pounds. My pack weighed 38 pounds. So, I left my rope and some food, dropping close to eight pounds.

The Hike

As we descended along the trail that morning, I studied the layers of the sediment and rock along the Canyon walls. It was as if I were traveling through a natural history museum, full of smells and textures that I’d only been able to imagine in the past. I touched the rocks and soil, examined the effects of millions of years of erosion.  (I’m a geek of many things, one of which is geology.)  And of course, I thought about my schedule. I had to eat something every 30 minutes and drink a liter of water before the first watering hole. I had to pay close attention to my footing – descents are the most difficult for my ankles. Mark’s stride is longer than mine, so he had to stop and wait for me a few times. Good thing he’s patient.

At about midday, we arrived at Phantom Ranch Campground where we grabbed a bite and replenished our water. Fortunately, Ken arrived at the campground at about the same time. We exchanged car keys, and proceeded on our respective journeys.  Now, everybody had a ride home.  Problem solved.

As we left the campground, the trail gradually ascended for about six miles over to Cottonwood Camp, before the great climb out of the Canyon. Mark recommended taking a long break before starting the climb and suggested that I put on a clean pair of socks. Wow, who knew that a pair of socks would feel so good?!

A few minutes later, I replenished my water and had my hiking poles ready for the big climb.  I took a blast off my inhaler, reviewed the map in my mind and started up.  It took us more than five hours to complete those final seven miles of the trip.  The experience was a mixture of incredible exhaustion, spectacular views, and an ongoing battle between my mind pushing me to keep going and my legs begging me to stop.

And now, as I arrive at the trailhead, I know I have done it.


Within a few minutes, the cigar smoke has left my lungs and I begin to breathe more easily.

The NPS volunteer checks my vitals and asks us a variety of questions. “How much water did you drink?  Was it normal water or supplemented?  Did you eat? How often? Did you have to force yourself?  Did you get sick?”

She tells me that my weight has not changed from this morning and she congratulates us on keeping well-nourished and staying properly hydrated during the hike.

When I tell her that this was my first time doing the Rim-to-Rim hike, she smiles and says, “Well, you didn’t just do a great job, you did it right.” For me, a 6-7-4-3, it feels wonderful to hear her say that.

I planned, I prepared, I let others do what they needed to do, and together we had accomplished our goal.

My way of hiking across the Canyon might not be “the right way” for everyone, but it was the right way for me.

Let’s see how next year goes.  (I’ll prepare for the cigar smoke.)


What I packed

  • Three liters of water
  • Enough food and snacks for two days
  • One iced towel
  • Ankle and knee braces
  • Athletic tape
  • A change of warm clothes
  • Gloves
  • Two headlamps
  • Batteries
  • Emergency bivvy
  • Therapeutic muscle relaxing gel
  • Coconut water
  • Electrolyte tabs
  • iPhone
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Two bandanas
  • Poncho
  • Pack rope
  • Survival kit
  • Medical pack
  • Topo map
  • $500 cash (in case I had to bribe someone for their mule).

I used everything except for the cash, medical equipment and the iced towel (which never thawed). 

James Trujillo is vice president of Technology and Development at Kolbe Corp.

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