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Travel Stories

A Passion for the Grand Canyon


Sunrise over the Canyon

Crossing the Colorado River at Black Bridge

The evening before the rim-to-rim-to rim
[From Summer 2009]

Each year, nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon. But few experience its stark beauty– and solitude – like one extraordinary man. A native of Würzburg, Germany, Gerd Nunner may have logged more miles on foot in the Canyon than any man since its discovery by Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century. Beginning in 2001, Gerd has crossed the Colorado River (at the Canyon’s base) 164 times and completed 25 rim-to-rim-to rims (in a single day traveling from the top of one rim to the top of the other - and back - a distance of roughly 44 miles).

Gerd has been living and hiking in the U.S. since 1990, the last 14 years in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To better understand Gerd’s motives – and passion – I sat down to talk with him about where it all began, and his singular ambition.

Gerd, where did your love of hiking begin? In Germany?
I started hiking as a kid. Back then the families usually hiked on the weekends in the vineyards and rolling hills around our home. Würzburg, the capital of Franconia, is in the northern part of Bavaria, a beautiful region with quaint medieval villages. At the age of 14, I had a chance to hike the Alps in Austria and discovered my passion for the real mountains.

And then…?
I started hiking on trails but very soon I learned how to rock climb and enjoyed climbing in the Dolomites of northern Italy. I also discovered that glacier hiking and ice climbing in the Alps (Austria, Italy and Switzerland) is also a lot of fun. Before I turned 18, I climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and scaled a lot of mountains in all areas of the Alps. I learned how to use a compass, to camp out in harsh conditions, and to survive blizzards - seeking shelter in crevasses.

How did you decide to do the rim-to-rim-to rim (RRR)? And when was your first?
After I started hiking the Grand Canyon (mostly day trips on the South Rim, down and up) I learned that hikers go in the spring and fall from one rim to the other and a few extreme ones hike back the same day. This sounded pretty impressive to me and I was wondering if I could do that as well. My longest day hike by then was no more than 20 miles. I tested myself by hiking down and up the South Rim twice in one day (about 28 miles). It did not feel too bad – that’s when I decided to go for it.

On the South Rim there are two trails: the Bright Angel Trail (23 miles to the opposite rim, the North Rim) and the South Kaibab Trail (21 miles to the North Rim). At Phantom Ranch – on the Canyon floor - both trails merge into the North Kaibab Trail. Depending on which trails are used, the mileage on an RRR is between 42 and 46 miles.

Tell me a little about the route, your routine?
Well first of all, this is really a major hike. It is important to be not only in good shape and have the right gear (shoes, clothing), but to know the conditions. Depending on the season there might be snow and ice on the rims or temperatures of more than 100 degrees on the bottom of the Canyon. Only the right expectations and preparations make a hike like this possible. It is also important to know what food to bring (after 30 miles the stomach does not cooperate with everything). In the winter, I bring pasta salad and power bars. When it’s warmer, in addition to the power bars I bring trail mix, nuts and a fattening mayo sandwich.

I start at night on the South Rim and use the South Kaibab Trail – this is the fastest way down and on this downhill hike there is no need to fill up with water. The South Kaibab Trail is also more scenic if there is a half to full moon.

Two days before an RRR I don’t work out or hike, I just rest. Because I start the hike with my headlamp between 1 and 3am in the morning, I go to bed no later than 7pm the evening before to get more rest and good sleep. With an early start like this I can make sure that after about 15 hours, when I am back at the South Rim, I can enjoy the last few miles of the hike watching the sun setting.

What about water?
Well, water is available on the bottom at Phantom Ranch and at Roaring Springs, at the North Rim. Seasonally (in warmer months), water is also available at Cottonwood Campground on the bottom, and at the Supai Tunnel, two miles below the North Rim. I carry two 1-liter bottles with me and fill up when I can. In season, the Bright Angel Trail has several water stops.

Starting out in the middle of the night, you must spend a good deal of time alone in the Canyon. Can you describe your mood, the feelings you have when you’re hiking?
This is hard to describe. Once I start the hike, the adrenalin kicks in. After the first mile down the South Rim when I realize my shoes are fine - and I have also wondered a hundred times if I have forgotten anything - I settle down into my rhythm. I enjoy watching and avoiding the lone bat, which is there almost every hike, circling around my headlamp. I am now starting to get in my zone and look over to the North Rim where I can see a single light from the North Rim Lodge. If the moon is shining on the Canyon it gives me the feeling of how small I am, though I can only see the silhouettes of the Canyon. I realize over and over again that I am, or we humans are a part of nature and not the other way around. It feels good to listen to the wind, the birds, and other wildlife. When the sun rises it is almost overwhelming to look at the different colors and see how the Canyon wakes up. It is a contented, peaceful feeling going down the Rim, crossing the Canyon and hiking up the North Rim and working my way back. There is no disruption, just hiking and moving along in the most magic and majestic place in the world. Even though it is strenuous it feels good to be a part of this environment.

Have you had any encounters or experiences – human, animal or otherwise – that have made you think twice about going back?
On my hikes I see a lot of animals - deer, bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes, bats, ringtail foxes, California condors, and mountain lions. The most tense moment for me was a few years ago when I hiked the RRR in January. On the bottom of the Canyon it was dusk. Close to Ribbon Falls I saw two yellow dots on the right-hand side in front of me (bluish or whitish dots are deer or sheep eyes reflecting the light of my headlamp). I knew it had to be some other animal. As I came closer I saw a mountain lion majestically sitting there and looking at me. This guy was about 10 yards to the right of the trail. I decided I was on a mission to the North Rim and kept walking with my hunting knife in hand (guess that would not have helped a lot).

When I reached the same level with the lion I turned carefully around and walked backwards on the trail, making sure I did not trip. The whole time we kept eye contact. The only thing that moved was his head – just a stunning picture. After 50 yards I continued my hike, but for the next half hour I was turning my head every other second to make sure he did not stalk me. After a while I relaxed and thought that there was nothing to worry about – there is enough food for the lion in the Canyon. I smiled when I thought that it was a good thing not to talk to the cat. Who knows what would have happened if the lion realized I have an accent? Afterwards I thought a lot about this encounter, but it would not discourage me from hiking. On a later hike I saw a lion in the same area with two cubs.

What motivates you? Will there come a time when you’ll say, enough, I don’t need to do this anymore?
I love challenges. Each hike is a real challenge, it does not happen by itself, you still have to do it and make it happen. Despite weather, regardless of conditions, and independent of physical shape, it does not get boring. The Canyon has so many faces. Sometimes I want to beat my own record, sometimes I just want to blend in with nature and simply be a part of it. However, it feels so good each time I have accomplished it, even if it hurts.

Not every hike goes smoothly. If you asked me the same evening I finish a hike, would you do it again? - the answer might be a maybe. However, if you asked the same question the next day the answer would be yes for sure - I just have to check my schedule.

Any new challenges planned?
Hiking the Canyon in the summer can be very dangerous because of the heat; it’s also a little bit too busy for me on the trails. I’ve decided to start this summer off by scaling a good number of 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado. It would also be fun to get all the 14,000 footers in the U.S. under my belt in the next few years.

But my passion is and always will be the Canyon. I’ve never heard about anybody doing a triple crossing (RRRR). This is my goal. This fall I am going to try to cross the Canyon three times – I think it should be possible in about 26 to 28 hours.

To those readers who'd like to learn more about Gerd’s travels, please contact him at gerd@ad-electronics.com. He would enjoy hearing from like-minded explorers.

Photographs by Gerd Nunner. Interview conducted by Melissa Cicci, editor of Beyond Doorways Travel.

Gerd Nunner is an avid hiker and skier. His love of the outdoors began on weekend hikes in the vineyards and rolling hills around his home in Würzburg, Germany. He quickly graduated to the real mountains of the nearby Alps - Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. More recently, Gerd has fueled his passion for hiking in the Grand Canyon. Gerd and his family live in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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