Derrick Lytle is a Utah-based filmmaker and photographer who is more than likely shooting his next project in the vast landscapes of the American southwest. He can also be found at many of our community’s events, both behind and in front of the camera.
Derrick recently returned from an intense journey along the Arizona Trail, a legendary 800-mile trail that unravels from the Utah-Arizona border down South to Mexico. Derrick’s hike was an FKT record attempt that took months of planning. But this year, it was not meant to be; his plans were cut short when Hurricane Rosa brought unseasonal, torrential rains to the trail, swamping the panorama and ending Derrick’s excursion.
Derrick sat down with us to discuss his experience, both in its challenge and its splendor.
What inspired you to attempt the Arizona Trail?
I grew up in Southern Nevada, but I’ve lived in Utah for like ten years now.
I love the desert, and growing up in the desert. I spend most of my time in the desert, I just really like it. But at the same time, the Arizona Trail is very complex as far as thru-hiking goes. Whereas a lot of longer trails have a lot of towns along the way and places to re-supply, the Arizona Trail is pretty remote. And plus it changes terrain a lot — it goes from high desert up on the north side, to low desert where it’s burning hot, and all of a sudden you’re back up high again. So there’s a lot of variables, and that sounded very challenging. But it’s also very pretty and unique. And I wanted to go for it, as far as a record goes. Self-supported, solo.
It was a couple of years ago when Heather Anderson set the FKT on the trail, and she took the men’s record so she has the over-all self-supported time on the trail. I’ve been really curious about it for a few years, but really going after it is fairly new.
How familiar are you with the trail?
I’ve been on a lot of sections of it. Every time I go to Phoenix, I always jump on and either run or hike portions of it. And I’ve been down the border section, and all through the middle. Basically all these random parts. I’ve run the Zane Grey 50, which is fairly similar to some of the trail in that same area. I’m pretty familiar with the trail and the logistical side too.
Speaking of, could you tell us how long you spent planning your journey?
I guess you could say a long time (laughs). I attempted last year but I had a random emergency happen where I broke a tooth and had to get off the trail. So I planned that for months, and as far as training for it, that’s always been the goal focus for the year. I ran other ultras and plenty of hiking, but that’s all been preparation for this one goal for the year. So I guess you could say passively a year or two, but then also very seriously about a year of planning for it.
In the planning phase I went through and I had five resupply boxes mailed out. A few of them to post offices, one of them to a brewery in Pine, which is I think is mile 340 of the trail. They’re just boxes to resupply food, and then halfway through I had one with a new pair of shoes, so I could swap mine. So it takes quite a bit of planning to do that well. You have to think ahead and determine: so I’m going to be at this section in this many days, I’m going to need this much food to get there. And then there are a couple of small towns on the way, and a couple hundred miles in is Flagstaff too and that’s a big re-supply area as well.
I was hiking 40+ miles a day, going after the record, but self-supported so I had tent, sleeping bag, food, water, filter, gear, anything I could possibly need, on my back.
Can you tell us about the conditions around this time?
Generally in the fall, people will start on the Northern side because that way you don’t get the crappy weather in the winter of the north rim, and then the further you get South, it’s not going to be as hot; down near Phoenix and that area it gets really warm really fast. So it’s kind of the best window on average. And generally people in the spring will go South to North to try and get the better weather that way.
How long have you been training for these long distance hikes?
I guess I’m fairly new. I’ve done a lot of backpacking and hiking growing up. And trail running as well. I always get really busy with work. I know it’s just an excuse, but I don’t train as much as I should for a lot of things. But it’s always been kind of good just grueling things out, even if it’s uncomfortable.
I would say most of my training is just running. But doing so much filmmaking, especially in the ultra running world, I do a lot of backpacking and hiking to get to locations, and I do a lot of time-lapse photography as well. I’m up in the mountains all the time, hiking with gear, so that’s this weird kind of cross-training where yeah I’m working, but I’m also getting 10 to 15 miles with camera gear on my back throughout a day, which translates to backpacking more generally; not going out and setting records, but just going out and seeing places. I think that hiking and running are both awesome, but I think you see things differently when you’re packing as opposed to when you’re simply running. Both are great ways to see new terrain.
So tell us a bit more about the trip!
I was in Kannabe, which is pretty close to the start, ten days before I started. I was down there on a film shoot at the Grand to Grand, which is a stage-running race. And it was crazy because we had perfect weather; generally it cools off quite a bit at night, and we usually get a rain storm or two throughout the week, but this year was really warm.
We barely used our sleeping bags. I only put my down jacket on like once.
Just crazy warm, good weather. just dry and perfect. So I didn’t really think much about the weather starting the day after that shoot was over.
And I started, and it was kinda windy, and then a few hours in I was stuck in a rainstorm, huddled under a tarp and a tree. And then it was just crazy weather the whole time.
It was beautiful, like the north rim was crazy. But it was just kind of nonstop rainstorms. And I think that was related to hurricane Rosa, is what some people were saying. And so, it was just day after day of rain, which just put me behind. When I got to mile 100 I was on pace, but I was at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and everything was just soaked. Like all my gear was soaked, I was soaked to the bone just shivering. And it was crazy — the year before when I was out there it was hot and dry, and that’s generally how it is, maybe a minor storm at most. But this time it was just dumping rain the whole time. And the day I quit, I woke up and all my gear was soaking wet again and I didn’t sleep all night. So it was just a constant thing of just “Okay I’m kind of on pace, maybe just a little bit off, but I’m slowly falling off pace just because of the rain and the weather.”
And it was just something I wasn’t expecting. And having to go through that and knowing I still had 650 miles left — it all just accumulated to the point where it wasn’t really do-able.
There was another guy too, an Austrian guy, that started the day after me, also going after the FKT. He was having the same issues. He was stuck in the rain, having to find shelter and dry everything out again. Soak and dry off again, and this made it less than ideal in terms of setting the record. After I got picked up and was officially done, I was in Flagstaff and a couple of friends were telling me that it was going to start snowing and raining. And then I saw the pictures of the snow and was shocked. This totally dry year had turned into the wettest week ever for the Arizona trail. Up on the North Rim you are at 8-9000 feet. Even the South Rim you are at 7000, so you’re up where it gets cold. Even though you’re in the desert it’s not enjoyable rain.
With all that rain, were you able to get any sleep?
Generally when you’re doing long backpacking trips like this, there’s no trouble sleeping because you’re so worked and you just want to eat and then go to bed, and it’s easy to sleep. But when you’re exhausted after 45 miles and you lay down and you’re soaking wet and the rain is falling all night and you’re really not sleeping well. And a few days of that and you’re just totally just being drained more and more and more, and it just accumulates real fast. Being cold and damp, and then not sleeping. It all just compounds, and it’s the perfect storm to fall apart.
I only made it four days in.
What was your original goal?
I had kind of a crazy goal. It was all planned but kind of last minute as well. I was juggling photo shoots and I had this two and a half week span where I could leave one shoot, hike the whole thing in 17 days, and then plow out to my next shoot basically the same day. And so it was a really small window of error that I had. I wanted to do it in 17 days, which would have been two days ahead of Heather’s record. But if I were to go back I’d probably just shoot for 18 days because that’s do-able. But I didn’t have enough time to cut it that close to her record.
It was sort of either destroy the record by at least a day or… not at all, since my window of opportunity was so small since I have photo shoots and film shoots to go to, just like any other normal job.
Besides the adverse conditions, what was the main challenge?
I barely saw anybody for like four days. Like physically, yeah it’s hard, but you’re trained for it, and you know what you’re getting yourself into. And I wasn’t sore at all. My feet hurt a little bit, and they still do. But leg-wise I felt great, and I didn’t have any blisters or anything. The real challenge is “hey I’m out here by myself and I’m freezing and miserable” and then you wake up and you say the same thing again. And you’re freezing and miserable all day, and you don’t have anybody to talk to about it. You’re kind of just stuck in your head.
So you kind of just have to play mind games with yourself because if you start being negative about it, that’s a hug energy suck; it’s mentally draining and it’s also physically draining. So being able to stay positive is very important, not just in ultrarunning, but also in long distance anything. Just smiling when you’re not having a great time can really switch things around. It sounds stupid, but it makes a big difference. You’re just like “okay, I’m in this situation — think of the positive things, and smile. Just smile through it. My feet hurt, but smile.” I always try and think about that.
Do you enjoy the alone time?
I do enjoy the solitude. I love talking to people and it’s a big part of my career, but I also really enjoy my alone time. I’m okay being alone for a few days, but at the same time I come back and I can share those experiences, or show them to people.
What was your favorite part?
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s always so fun to go out there running and hiking. It’s just a magical place. It’s one of those places that’s accessible and you can see it from a viewpoint and its kind of cool, but you really don’t understand how amazing it is until you’re inside the canyon or running across it. You can really feel the vastness and the depth, and you can’t really get that sitting still. The southern portion is also beautiful, too. More low desert and the cactus out there is crazy. The Saguaro are huge and beautiful.
Will there be an attempt in 2019?
Yeah, hopefully next fall there isn’t such hurricane weather (laughs). But yeah — for now I’m just processing things out; how can I prepare better for next year? There were obviously issues other than the weather that affected me. So how do I fine tune my training to do better? But definitely I’m still thinking about setting an FKT on that trail.
Thanks and good luck, Derrick.
Download Our Podcast On iTunes