Standing on top of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I fought to keep my eyes from brimming over. I had done it. Two years ago, I thought I would never be able to hike this many miles in a day. However, through all of my experiences in the outdoors I’ve learned that I can do so much more than I think I can. The limitations we set for ourselves are bullshit; we are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit.
In December of 2018, my friend invited me on a quick overnight trip to the Grand Canyon. The objective was Rim to Rim to Rim in two days. This trail goes from the southern end of the Grand Canyon to the north, and then back again. Our chosen route covered 47.5 miles and nearly 11,000 feet of elevation gain. The itinerary was aggressive and we were woefully underprepared.
Our goal was to hike 30.5 miles on day one, hiking from the south rim to the north, and then return to our backcountry campsite. Then, the next day, we would have “only” 17 miles to hike out. The forecast showed lows around 25 degrees Farhenheit, a temperature my San Diego brain couldn’t wrap its head around. So, I invested in a zero-degree sleeping bag and figured I could go without a sleeping pad, because they’re just for comfort, right?!?
We hit the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim around 3 am. I wore heavy, Nike athletic sweatpants over my leggings to keep warm as we descended into the canyon. In my hand was a gallon of Crystal Geyser water, because I was intimidated by the idea of a filter. Though I could only see as far as my cheap, dim headlamp could cast, I felt the power of the canyon walls … telling me I was in for it.
As the first light began to creep in, the towering cliffs took shape above me. We descended deeper and deeper, and I couldn’t yet comprehend how we would possibly hike back up. Who am I to think I can hike Rim to Rim to Rim in two days? This was my first backpacking trip in four years, and first ever without an organized group. My plucky, can-do attitude led me straight down to my coldest night ever, with only a can of beans and packet of ramen to ease my pain.
If you hadn’t already guessed, I didn’t make it to the North Rim. Only one woman in our six-person team attempted the summit that first day, and a nasty snowstorm turned her away.
After a night of shivering, we woke up, packed up camp, and trudged back to the South Rim. A 34 mile out-and-back in the Grand Canyon over two days is still pretty impressive, and I was proud of myself. I hobbled back to the car thinking, “I would never be able to do Rim to Rim to Rim in two days. It’s just too many miles. My body isn’t built for that.”
Two years later, when a backcountry ranger asked “Are you sure this is the permit you want?”, I paused and reflected on how different of a person I am now — the type of person who confidently plans a trip as ambitious as Rim to Rim to Rim in two days.
But I didn’t get to that point overnight. Those two years in between were full of failure, tears, and doubts.
That first trip to the Grand Canyon was in the middle of my final year of college. I had no long-term plans for my degree, and the concept of the real world filled me with dread. However, if you had talked to me then, you never would have known I had any doubts. I’ve always had this way of projecting a cool, collected confidence in myself and my decision making. When I’m kept up at night by my fears of failure, it helps having people who believe I have it all together.
The summer after graduation, I tried mountaineering and climbing for the first time. I was scared shitless on Mt. Shasta, and completely broke down when I finally made it to the summit. My first time ever outdoor climbing was on the Grand Teton, a day I will never forget.
I now look back on all of those experiences as “the middle.” I haven’t landed at the end, yet; but those moments of extreme discomfort eventually led me to a newfound deep and real confidence in myself. Climbing taught me to trust my feet, and mountaineering taught me to just keep moving. These lessons propel me into the unknown, both in the outdoors and in my career.
My mind snapped back to the present, and I remembered I had a question to answer. I wouldn't doubt myself this time. I knew I was ready for my Grand Canyon adventure, take two.
“Yes. This is the permit I want. Yes, I know how physically demanding this itinerary is,” I confidently asserted. “I am prepared and completely capable of handling it by myself.”
The next morning, I quickly descended into the Canyon. In the early morning hours, I skipped and sang to myself, enjoying the view as I approached the Colorado River. By the time I stopped for lunch, I already knew I would do it. I was 14 miles in, and the combination of coffee and ibuprofen at my midday meal gave my legs a full reboot.
I began the ascent to the North Rim. My heartbeat quickened; this was the section of trail that I had not yet seen. Was it going to be too steep for me to climb? Would I be turned back before I reach the North Rim? As the trail grew steeper, I quickened my pace. I blew past one gawking family, motoring at around 3.5 mph while whistling and smiling.
The scenery changed drastically as I approached the North Rim. Cacti became pine trees, and a few sparse aspen trees teased me with fall colors. I practically ran the last half mile, closing in on the chatter I could hear from the North Rim parking lot. Then I saw the trailhead sign and skidded to a complete stop.
The exhaustion from seven intense miles of climbing combined with a full-body wave of emotion brought me to my knees. I crawled to a rock and perched on top clutching my pack.
“Katie, you did it,” I softly told myself. “You just proved to yourself that you can do anything. And not only that, but you can feel strong and smile while doing hard things.”
I let myself soak in the moment. Then I cracked an IPA, which paired perfectly with my tears of joy.
I still had seven miles to descend back to my campsite, but I had already completed the bulk of the day’s work. I shared the moment with a few trail runners gearing up to do Rim to Rim to Rim in one day, and soaked in every word of their praise.
For the first time in a while, I agreed with them. I *am* a badass, and it *is* really impressive that I took on this challenge myself.
The next day, I returned to the South Rim with similar feelings of pride. I had cruised through the 17 miles back out of the canyon, anticipating the rush of cresting over the summit. I was back at the Bright Angel Trailhead.
Roughly two years earlier, I had started there, without a sleeping pad or any technical clothing, yet detrimentally optimistic. Now, with hundreds more backpacking miles under my belt, I crushed a barrier I had given myself.
On my drive back, I let my happy tears stream down my face. They came in waves, corresponding with different waves of reflection. I had explicitly told myself I would never be able to hike this many miles in a day, and look at where I am.
As a sixth grade runner, a coach told me I had “average legs” for running. I completed the LA marathon at age 19. My first backpacking trip was 100% organized and structured. I thought I would never be able to tackle the amount of preparation necessary to head into the backcountry without a guide, let alone by myself. When I first heard of the John Muir Trail, I waved it off as an athletic endeavor for the elite. At age 22, I finished it in 17 days.
Life has a way of leading me back to boundaries I have set for myself. I used to think that I needed to find the thing I was best at, and make that my passion. I spent years searching for my “talents,” instead of listening to the moments that move my soul.
With the same scrappy optimism I took into the Grand Canyon, I’ve plunged into an uncertain future. While my college roommates were landing full-time jobs and signing leases after graduation, I had plans to travel, interview, write, and live in a Kia Soul full-time with my best friend.
Then, I spent a year living in spare bedrooms — to avoid Southern California rent prices — while working at REI and writing. I can sense that I’m in the middle of my “how I got here” story, but I have no idea what the ending will be. Do I have enough grit to be a full-time freelancer? Am I a good enough writer for a magazine to want me full-time? Or, will I go back and get a master’s degree one day? Even though my head is constantly swirling with doubt, I know how important this middle part of my journey is.
I never would have hiked Rim to Rim to Rim in two days successfully if it weren’t for the two years in the middle. Two years filled with outdoor endeavors, where I cried on top of High Sierra passes, fell off many climbing routes, and packed the wrong gear. Time and time again, I failed.
I guess that’s what might define the middle for me: failure.
My empty inbox after sending a flurry of pitches to editors. A hike cut short because I didn’t bring the right gear. Falling off a climbing route I thought I could do. All of these failures eventually led me to success, at least how I define it. I know that five years from now, I will look back fondly on all of these failures I’m experiencing as the yucky middle, which only seems to have merit once we’ve gotten through it.
When I was on the North Rim, I chatted with two trail runners nervous for their adventure the next day. They planned to run Rim to Rim to Rim in one day, which is nearly 50 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain in 24 hours. The first words out of my mouth were, “Wow. There’s no way I’ll ever be a good enough trail runner to do that!”
Those words gave me a new middle to get through. My journey in the Grand Canyon is not over. I’m ready to prove to myself, once again, that the barriers I set for myself are bullshit. This next year is going to be full of blisters, sore quads, and many pairs of new shoes as I learn to run on steep, difficult trails. I have no idea how I’ll get there, but when I next stand on the South Rim, it will be to do another thing I once thought impossible.
Katie is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. When she's not behind her laptop, you can find her guzzling instant coffee in the backcountry or developing a new and expensive outdoor hobby. To see her adventures and occasional long rambles, follow her on Instagram @katelyn_ali