The Birthday Challenge

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I don’t know if it’s a thing among any other circles, but some rock climbers like to do what is called a birthday challenge–a personal physical test in honor of your age. The main goal, of course, is just to have fun outside with friends who help you along the way. Most commonly, the challenge is to complete one climb for every year you’ve been alive. Obviously, this gets harder as you get older, and not just because the numbers get bigger.

I’ve participated in friends’ challenges before, but for some reason never done one of my own. I just turned 24, a prime age for doing something challenging. Since I moved to Flagstaff 8 months ago, I’ve been staying in great shape by finding a new outdoor adventure almost every weekend–climbing, biking, skiing, hiking, kayaking, whatever–I’m fired up on Northern Arizona, so why not combine the best of it into one epic birthday challenge?

The landscape here is dramatic. Within a relatively small geographic area, an ancient volcano towers to 12,633 feet above sea level, and the Grand Canyon carves down to 2,200 feet. This would be my challenge–to conquer the two most iconic landmarks of Northern Arizona, all on my own power.

This would not be 24 rock routes, but something even better. For my 24th birthday, I was going to do 24,000 feet of total elevation change, spread over more than 100 miles, combining 3 sports, and give myself 24 hours to finish. Ski, bike, hike. From the San Francisco Peaks to the Grand Canyon. Bring it on.

People said it was a dumb idea. During the weeks I spent planning my route and thinking through logistics, I spread the word to friends, trying to get them psyched on doing parts of the trip with me and offer support. Some awesome people were stoked for me and offered to help out, but no one wanted to go the whole way. Maybe they are smarter than me. From some people, I got responses like “Sure, that’s probably possible, but…” and “You think you can do WHAT?” “Well,” I said, “only one way to find out.”

April 18 was the big day. Two and a half weeks late of my actual birthday, I know, but I had to wait for the Arizona Snowbowl resort to close so I could have free reign of the slopes during midday.

Start: 12:30pm – I was parked in the ski resort lot to begin the first stretch. I hopped on my bike and kicked off the challenge with screaming downhill to the bottom of Snowbowl Road– 6.5 miles and 2,025 feet down, with plenty of sharp turns. My legs didn’t have to pump yet, but my adrenaline sure did. While coasting out the bottom straightaway with my arms out like airplane wings, Nate hollered at me from the Astrovan, heading uphill to meet me for the ski.

-2,025 feet-

At 12:55 I turned around to pedal back up. the climb was steep and sustained, but I had done it times before and knew I could handle it. Shortly into the hill, Loreah and Julia caught up to me in the car. they were there just to cheer me on. At 1:55 I topped out the road and took time to swap high fives with everybody, hang out, and pound some calories.

-4,050 feet-

Warming up for the ski - Photo: Julia Collier
Warming up for the ski Photo: Julia Collier

Around 2:45, Nate and I started trekking up the slopes. All those early morning ski laps before class had done me good through the winter; our pace felt slow and easy, and we reached the top patrol shack just before 4 o’clock. I had reached the high point of my route, at 11,500′ elevation. More than 1,000 short of the summit, I know, but this was as far as the snow would take us. Everything above treeline was melted to bare rock under the Southwest sun.

You won’t believe what Arizona looks like until you see it from up there. Standing on a snowy peak, overlooking miles and miles of deep green pines that fade into beige plains beneath the blue horizon. I love this view every time.

-6,200 feet-

Imbued by this inspiration, we transitioned to downhill and the fun part was on. Ripping through the trees and firing down the black diamonds on soft spring snow, this was the most fun in-bounds run of the whole season! As usual, I trailed way behind Nate, but that was ok, I was having a blast. I wish it could have lasted longer than only 2,150 vertical feet. Soon we were back at the parking lot. These first two legs of the challenge had been a breeze for me, but next up was the most arduous stretch, and the only part that I had never done before–bike 80 miles to the Grand Canyon.

-8,350 feet-

I had a special ride for this, borrowed from certified hardman Pete, who used it in his days as a sponsored triathlete. I started downhill on the carbon fiber flyer–weighing in at about 3 pounds but worth way more than any car I’ve ever had. Nate followed me down the windy road and clocked me at 42 mph at one point. Not bad for taking it at a nervous speed. I was worried about smashing that bike, maybe even more worried than about smashing my skull (But yes, Mom I was wearing a helmet!).

-10,375 feet-

At the bottom of the hill, Nate took a left turn to Flagstaff and I took a right, off across the hilly plateau. The first part of the ride is mostly climbing, from 7,350′ elevation to 8,050′ with rolling terrain in between. After that high point, it’s mostly descent through the transition zone of mid-elevation forests–from proud ponderosa pine to squat pinyon and juniper. I couldn’t keep a straight line, because I kept craning over my shoulder to stare at the Peaks. Amazing. I was north of them now, looking back at the blanketed slopes, blue and white pyramids crowning a kingdom of green.

-11,100 feet-

I didn’t do a very good job of tracking my time or my mileage through this part. I was having too much fun to worry about details. But I know I had left Snowbowl after 5pm, and the sun was setting fast. Just before dark, I stopped at a pull off to eat food and put on my lights. That’s when I realized my mistake.

I had forgotten to grab the blinking red light from my other bike, and Nate had given me two headlamps, but I couldn’t get either of them to work. I was in the middle of nowhere with spotty cell service. I had no choice but to push on to the hwy 180/64 junction in Valle, where there would be light and hopefully a phone signal. I didn’t know how far it was, but could see some lights in the distance–way in the distance. I picked up the pace and charged on ahead, in the dark. Paying for such a stupid error made me mad, and that me ride hard, and that made me tired, and that made me more mad. This was the first time that the birthday challenge had felt truly challenging, and a bit dangerous. Luckily, there weren’t many cars on the road and everything turned out fine. I made it to Valle after about 12 miles of furious pedaling along the black road.

-13,150 feet-

I arrived at 8:15 and sat in a parking lot for a bit, trying unsuccessfully to make some phone calls. I then went into a hotel, where the receptionist was super nice. She let me use the phone and relax on the couch. I got ahold of Ben, who had been wanting to hike the canyon with me and said he would gladly come out early to bring me lights. Ben is the man.

I snoozed on the couch for about an hour. After 10pm Ben and Ashley came to the rescue. They delivered working lights and chatted for a while. Being as late as it was already, they decided not to join for the canyon hike. Can’t blame them. They had already helped so much by driving an hour out of town to come meet me. Around 10:45 we parted ways, and I continued on into the cold night, with 30 miles to go.

That stretch went by slowly. I remember riding, and riding, legs turning, shaking out my arms, blinking hard, keep going…

I think the mile markers just made it seem longer. How long ago was the last one? What was that noise? Woah, an elk. It’s cold out here… Finally a mile marker. 14 miles to go. My arms hurt. Was that a fox? I love this place, but I hate this ride. I forget what mile I’m on. My knee hurts. That’s a big elk. My fingers are freezing. Woah, that one has huge antlers. Would an elk charge me on my bike? That would suck. Another mile marker… This is taking forever. Can I be done yet?

For the first time, the thought of failure crossed my mind. I was more mentally exhausted than anything, but that made me feel physically wiped. I just didn’t want to be on that bike anymore. But I was yet again in the middle of nowhere, and now the temperature was around freezing, so I had no choice but to keep pedaling.

-13,950 feet-

I reached Tusayan at 12:15am and took a breather. I had been traveling mostly uphill since Valle and still had quite a climb to go before the trailhead. I was able to call Julia and Loreah, who said they were only 20 minutes away. Awesome. They caught up to me right at the entrance to the national park. I was so relieved to hear familiar voices and climb inside a warm car. And to eat donuts. The respite was brief, however, before I was back out in the bitter to bike a final 6 miles to the trailhead. They drove on ahead to wait for me there.

-14,400 feet-

Rejuvinated by Loreah and Julia’s moral support, getting to South Kaibab Trailhead was no big deal. The miles went by faster with an end in sight. Also, thermal updrafts from the canyon kept the air much warmer here, even at a higher elevation. I was going to make it! Make it to where? Oh right, to the rim of the Grand Canyon, where the single greatest elevation push still awaited me.

Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about that just yet. The girls had cleared room in the car for all of us to lay down. I reached them a little before 2am and caught a three hour nap, which was just enough to do me good. Loreah and I awoke with the sun, ate some more donuts, and started the hike at 6 o’clock. All that was left of the challenge was 14 miles, 9,600 feet, and 6.5 hours to do it in. I was confident.

I led Loreah along the first curve of the path approaching the rim. As we rounded the last thick juniper tree, she looked ahead and gasped in amazement. She had never been to the Grand Canyon before. This would be one heck of a first time visit. I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was getting herself into, but she’s a champ.

Within the first switchbacks, there’s a sign that reads “Warning: DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day.” Ha.

We took a brisk, but comfortable pace, passing group after group on the way down, and apologizing as we weaved among people, bounding around their hefty packs and walking sticks. I thought 6am was early, but who knows what time these people had started. We made it to Bright Angel Camp, in the bottom of the canyon, in roughly 2 hours. That much downhill can really wear on you, but I still felt pretty good. My knee that had hurt during the bike ride only hurt a little bit now, and my foot that I injured while rock climbing the week before actually felt ok.

-19,200 feet-

We took about 45 minutes to enjoy lunch next to Bright Angel Creek, while I nerded out to Loreah about the surrounding geology. She pretended to be interested, but really was stoked to be chilling in the bottom of the Grand Canyon–an experience that a truly small fraction of park visitors ever get. When our canned fish and poptarts where finished, we paused only a little longer under the shade of the cottonwoods before mustering for the final charge. We refilled water bottles and jogged back across the river bridge. It was almost 9am; the sun was hot now, and we were about to punch straight up towards it.

I wasn’t sure how the ascent would go. I didn’t feel close to bonking yet, but that’s the thing about bonking, it happens all of a sudden. One minute you’re feeling decent and the next, you can’t take another step. Luckily the bonk never came. I actually felt great for the whole 7 miles and 4,800′ of vertical, and dealt out goofy howdys and hellos to all the groups coming down the now crowded trail. Loreah, following a little ways behind me, got all the, “Is that boy in the jorts with you? I’m sorry…” They’re just jealous.

-24,000 feet-

Cheers to the Birthday Challenge! - Photo: Julia Collier
Cheers to the Birthday Challenge! – Photo: Julia Collier

On the final switchbacks, I took a few extra minutes to chat with some Chinese tourists in Mandarin and take pictures for them. They loved it. Then Loreah and I topped out the trail at 11:45am, for a return trip time of about 3 hours. We had conquered the canyon in a total of 5 hours and 45 minutes! And, oh yeah, I finished the birthday challenge!!!

24,000 feet! All right here in Northern Arizona. From Mt. Everest base camp to the summit and back down is 22,658 feet.

We found Julia in the parking lot for a brief celebration with more donuts. But we all needed real food and Loreah had to get to work, so we booked it back to Flagstaff. After sitting down in the car, the fatigue finally hit me. I slept most of the drive, but perked right back up when we arrived at Mama Burger in town, in the company of Ryan, Evan, Nate, Cory, and Kevin who had all come out for victory burgers. My friends are awesome.

So, the birthday challenge was done, and had actually gone really well, thanks to everyone’s support. I suppose I could tell you that the physical challenge also challenged my will to endure, my mental fortitude, and the outer limits of my abilities, or that the long bike ride alone in the dark was a time of intense soul searching, or something like that. But really, the whole thing was just a fun way to get exercise and accomplish a goal, just like I do when I climb a rock route or go for a run. It just happened to be a bit bigger this time. Ok fine, it was the biggest I’ve ever done. I’m proud of it, but now I know that there’s no excuse to not keep pushing for bigger and better.

After all, I’m only 24. What will next year’s birthday challenge have to be?

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